Trauma as Plot Device

The use of rape as a plot device in romance books has been on my mind for a while. While I feel very strongly about it, I hesitated to write about it for fear of coming across as getting on my soap box.

If you look back over the history of romance books both authors and publishers have been at least somewhat responsive to changing societal mores and attitudes. I am sure that one reason is economics because if readers are turned off by plot devices, then they don’t buy the books, but I also believe that authors are interested in readers’ opinions. As we are being educated and our attitudes change, so do those of authors. Not all readers here have read the bodice ripper books of the 80’s where it was not uncommon for the hero to rape the heroine because he “knew” that her no really meant yes, but with readers’ feedback and public awareness about date rape, this plot device has for the most part fallen into disfavor.

I have another area that I would like to offer up to authors as an area that needs reconsideration and that is the use of rape for character development in romance novels. I’m not suggesting that certain plots should be completely forbidden or anything like that. However, I would like to see rape treated more seriously.

A couple of years ago, some Hollywood stars were robbed, and one of these individuals testified at a hearing saying she felt violated, and could no longer stay in her home after the robbery. If a person feels this after having their possessions stolen just imagine how women must feel after someone assaults their body.

When I was attending school, I checked out a local hospital’s volunteer program helping rape victims. As a non professional my job was to be there for support, if the indvidual wanted me there, until family or friends could arrive. This was in the early 90’s and I am sure that a much better system is in place now with specially trained personnel. While it has been over twenty years, I still remember the horror and anguish I felt for the young woman I sat with in the E.D. She had been kidnapped by her boyfriend who then held her hostage, beating and raping her for three days.

So while some authors do treat these assaults seriously, demonstrating the steps needed for recovery, many books gloss over this part of things and just use it as an incident in a character’s past to bring out discovery of unknown magical powers or new career opportunities. Soon after, the heroine meets the hero and without hesitation she requests him to make love to her, resulting in wonderful, fulfilling, trauma-free sex. I wonder when I am reading these books why the author felt the need to include rape, if there are no effects or repercussions. Surely there are other ways to tap into one’s superpowers without being casual about something that has been deeply traumatic to so many.

Dealing with personal issues is more women’s fiction then romance, so I do understand why rape is not fully explored in a romance book. On the other hand, not mentioning anything about the aftermath or minimizing it doesn’t feel right for me either. In an inexplicable way, by making recovery seem so easy it diminishes how extraordinarily strong women are who have survived this and have gone on to have successful relationships.

Rather then use rape as shorthand for saying the heroine is a survivor or a strong woman, there should be another plot device that can illustrate this or maybe the impact of the trauma should be explored a little bit more rather than merely glossed over. What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree? Or is there another plot device that you don’t feel is treated seriously enough, like illness, PTSD, death of a child?

– Leigh Davis

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22 Responses to Trauma as Plot Device

  1. I agree. A lot. Rape is something to be carefully researched. I also like to see it in the warnings, so readers who have suffered from the crime, and who are expecting a pleasant hour or two aren’t further traumatised.
    I’ve done two books with rape in them, neither currently available. One male, one female rape. In both cases I did a lot of research, some of which was so painful to read that I wondered if I were doing the right thing, putting them in a romance novel. In neither case did I describe the rape, but I did go into the aftermath.
    I think the author should consider very carefully what the results are of rape, and not to insult victims by making light of it. But it shouldn’t be out of the picture completely, because in some cases, it’s the right thing to write about.

  2. AAR Sandy says:

    And in terms of making light of it, Lynne, a euphemism I’d like to see retired: Forced seduction. It’s a rape.

    That “her body betrayed her” stuff is insulting and should have been retired in the 80s.

    I agree that if an author includes a rape in a book, there should be some kind of warning.

    • Tee says:

      AAR Sandy: …to see retired: Forced seduction.It’s a rape.That “her body betrayed her” stuff is insulting and should have been retired in the 80s.

      Could not agree more. Hate it when I encounter that kind of stuff, especially “the body betrayed her.” What? Women have so little control of themselves that they acquiesce so easily? They mean either yes or no. If they’re on drugs or inebriated, I can see an illogical response. Otherwise, no excuse.

  3. Virginia C says:

    I have a very strong opinion about rape. A close family member of mine was raped at knife-point when she in her early twenties. She had gone to a club with friends to listen to music. When her friends left her alone at the table, a man slid into the booth and pressed a knife into her ribs. He told her not to make a sound because if she did, he would cut her open and no one would notice right away in the dark, crowded, noisy nightclub. He forced her to leave the club with him and later raped her repeatedly, holding the knife to her throat. He told her that he would find her and kill her if she reported him to the police. This crime occurred in the mid-fifties, and out of shame, and fear that her family would find out, the lady did not report the crime.

    I was almost raped by a family friend who made numerous advances toward me, but he was always careful not to be seen by anyone. To the public, and to my own family and friends, he was a “good guy”. One day when I was about twenty and home alone while my mom was at work, our “friend” paid a visit. Mom and I had just bought a house together, and the friend said he just stopped by to see the house. It was the middle of the day, in a very populated neighborhood, and I was grubby from unpacking and working on the house. I never thought about him attacking me, but that’s what he did! I am a big, tall woman, but he was taller and so much stronger than I was. He pinned my arms behind me, and my clothes tore, and he laughed at me. We struggled and struggled, and I started crying. I kept asking him why he was hurting me, and he said that he had always wanted me, that I was on his mind. I was terrified and I was so sick inside that I thought I was going to black out. Finally, he let me go and ran out of the house. I told my mom what happened, and the first thing she said was: “Why did you let him in when you were there by yourself?”. I never told anyone else what happened, and I never let the man back in the house. He came back many, many times when I was there alone, but I never answered the door. All these years later, he is still a creep. Not long ago, he saw me in the grocery store and before I could get away, he came up and hugged me and pushed himself against me. God–I felt like I was twenty years old again!

    Rape is not romance.

  4. Jane AAR says:

    I do like reading books that have a woman (or man) overcoming some sort of trauma — rape, abuse, torture, etc. But, as you said, not if it’s just used as a shorthand for “survivor.”

    One story I think that does this well is Elizabeth Hoyt’s To Seduce a Sinner. In this case, the hero is the traumatized one, in that he witnessed severe torture of his friends, and sleeps every night with his back to the wall on a small pallet. What I liked was that by the end of the novel, he hadn’t totally recovered — he still slept on his pallet, but the heroine had joined him so now it was the two of them, in a slightly larger and more comfortable pallet. It wasn’t an automatic, “Cured by love,” but a sign of the support she gives him in overcoming his psychological scars.

    I’m not one to believe that “love cures all” (nor does some hot sex overcome the trauma of rape), but I do think that when the hero/heroine is supportive, it can be a wonderful (if sometimes difficult) reading experience.

  5. Amelia James says:

    I used the death of a parent to show the strength of my female characters. Grief is a powerful emotion. I lost my father to cancer 10 years ago and I still mourn him.

  6. alicet says:

    I just read two romance novels by Judith Duncan where the hero (in Beyond all Reason) and the heroine (Into the Light) suffered rape. I thought the author did a good job in using this as plot device for explaining how these characters had emotional problems getting close to people. While these two characters had their HEA, their recovery took a while and felt believable. I highly recommend these two books.

  7. bungluna says:

    This is one of my hot button issues. If treated to lightly, it can turn me off an otherwise good story. I don’t want to delve into the horror of rape, so I avoid it if at all posible.

    As for forced seduction, it burns my retinas! If the heroine means no, then stick to it. If there’s a conflict, develop it, don’t just have her meanig yes; owning up to being were a willing participant makes a h/h stronger, imo. More than one book has sailed accross a room and into a wall when I lost patience with the “I’ll never surrender to you, just let me fall back and get on with it” scenario that passes for foreplay in some novels.

  8. Leigh AAR says:

    Virginia C, Thanks for sharing. As your post illustrates any type of assault stays in our memory for a long long time. When I was young, I was pretty fearless, going out at all times of the night. One night after a date, I decided to run on the local High School’s track. I felt safe even though it was 1:30 in the morning, because it was right behind the police station. Luckily I did notice a car that pulled on the interstate right after me, pull off on the same exit (which wasn’t a popular one) and continued to follow me. I pulled over at a convenience store, and the individual almost pulled in, but he saw me on the telephone and backed out so his licence plates couldn’t be seen. My point is until something happens to convince us otherwise, most women are very trusting. But once that trust is shattered it takes a while for us to regain it.

    Amelia, grief is an emotion that does create empathy.

    alicet, I read all of Judith Duncan’s books too. While they are too angsty for me now, I agree that she not afraid to tackle the difficult subjects.

    Lynne Connolly I agree with you too. I can’t imagine how a reader much feel, reading a novel, and then stumbling across a rape scene when she has been a victim of the same crime, especially when it is just used as a plot device.

  9. pop tart says:

    I agree that rape or trauma has to have more of a purpose then just there to cause momentary drama but there have been books that I’ve enjoyed, in part, because of the trauma. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t get off on pain or torture, but I do like to be able to explore the process of survival through a fictional character. I think most women have the thought: “what would I do”? Not just what would I do if attacked but how would I respond after the fact. Could I be a survivor?

    Charlaine Harris (before her Sookie Stackhouse days) wrote a great mystery series featuring Lily Bard. The first book in the series is SHAKESPEARE’S LANDLORD and in it we discover that Lily suffered a horrific attack which involved being kidnapped and raped for days leaving her near dead and physically scarred. Now Lily cleans houses for a living and does everything in her power to make it through her day to day. She works out every day and has become an expert at physical self-defense. What I liked an appreciated about the series was the careful way in which Harris depicted Lily’s very slow recovery – it takes place over the course of about five books and yet she will never be completely done. More then any other of Ms. Harris’s heroines, Lily works for me because of her determined efforts to be a survivor and not a victim.

  10. farmwifetwo says:

    I’m tired of feeling like authors are trying to force sympathy on readers. Not just rape but everyone’s parents have died when they are children or their spouse is dead… It gets old fast. Then there’s my fav of being dumped as a teenager and at 30 you still haven’t had another relationship…

    I have little use for any of these “tricks” that are used as a “see she/he’s damaged you should feel sorry for them” since it is rare – especially in a catagory romance since there aren’t enough pages/words – that they are well done. I’ve learned to read it, sigh, and read on. If it isn’t believable or reasonable after that…. DNF.

    Currently reading Johansen’s Fire Storm…. how many more people have to die that are close to our heroine???? Instead of being sympathetic, I’m getting annoyed with the lack of original ideas. It feels like the author is trying to force emotion on us, instead of letting the reader decide how much or little emotion to feel. Going to read the end of it and DNF it soon too.

  11. dick says:

    I agree that rape is horrific; that “forced seduction” is oxymoronic. I’m certain, too, that it’s painful for a victim of rape to read about it or about its being treated lightly. But, on the other hand, romance is fiction, in this trope as in all the others. Nearly every trope in romance fiction either has or will undoubtedly be one of those “hot button” things for some reader somewhere. To insist that this one is out of bounds seems to me as wrong as making any other aspect of romance out of bounds and would, I think, had it been always in place have kept us from some really good reads.

    As with all the other tropes, it’s the handling which makes the difference.

  12. Carrie says:

    I don’t necessarily avoid books that use rape as a trauma source as long as it’s handled well. Patricia Briggs has used it for two characters and showed the aftermath and healing as something that takes a long time and a lot of work. No quick fixes. I don’t like the old-school “forced-seduction” (rape) scenario, either. In fact, I’m real iffy on the commonly-used scene where the hero manipulates, coaxes, and seduces a heroine into saying yes after she already said no–wearing her down with a twist on Chinese water torture. To me it’s just another case of the hero rationalizing date rape because “he knows in his heart she wants it.”

    I wasn’t raped in the traditional sense, but was flattered and seduced at 14 by my 28 year old swim coach. I lived in a stable home with an active, involved father, and it took therapy when I was in my 20′s to finally realize that situation with my swim coach had me acting out in my teens like a victim of abuse. No one could figure out my self-esteem issues when you looked at my close family relationships. However, since i felt I was responsible for what happened since I finally gave in and gave “permission,” I never told my family about my coach (who was a good family friend). I’m saying all this because sexual predation doesn’t have to be forceful or violent to leave lasting scars.

    Lastly, I don’t like abuse of any kind, which is why I avoid books where the hero is verbally abusive and/or has anger control issues as well. I’ve personally helped several friends who were ending marriages fraught with controlling, verbally abusive husbands, and it’s just about as demeaning and ugly as physical violence. That eliminates a lot of popular books, but I find there are still plenty of other books, and plenty of non-abusive alpha males to swoon over.

  13. Carrie – I’d say you were raped. In UK law, it certainly counts as rape. And sympathies and hugs for you, especially if it helps any.

    Dick – yes, it’s a trope, but does it have a place in romance? Would an experience like that add to the relationship, other than forcing the other party into a protective mode? Is it a shortcut for something else that could be done more effectively? Rape is not just another trope, any more than pedophilia is, and how often do we see that in romance? Very rarely, and then it’s carefully considered and never described in detail, at least not in any romance I’ve ever read.

    Farmwifetwo – Category romance is about the characters, not the situation, but I do so agree with you. Overusing anything leads to a heavy sigh and a “not again” from the reader. Only when it’s treated properly is it at all exciting and new. I particularly dislike the “I married someone once and she cheated on me therefore all women cheat” one. Shortcuts rarely work. The Freudian approach isn’t always the right one.

  14. JMM says:

    I hate forced seduction. Hate, hate, hate. Of course, I don’t like the man “wearing down” the heroine who should be spraying him with Mace, either. :)

    My problem with rape (or any other kind of trauma) in romance is that – as so many have said – it’s not handled well. Too often, the author’s “cure” for trauma is sex. Hero’s mighty penis or heroine’s pure hymen as cure. Heroine is back to her old, naive, sweet, pure self. Hero turns into Mr. Sensitive.


    In “A Dark Love” by Margaret Carroll, for instance. I did like the book for the most part, but I found it hard to get past the fact that the heroine escapes from her psychotic, abusive husband and is falling for another guy in only a few days/weeks. With all the horror her husband put her through, she should have been a lot more wary.

    The Lily Bard books, OTOH, were much better. Lily is a strong, admirable, intelligent woman – but we can clearly see that she will NEVER be what she was before her rape.

  15. farmwifetwo says:

    JMM – let me add Rachel Lee’s Her Hero in Hiding to the list of “running from abusive partner and falls in love with rescuer the next day”…. not exaggerating, the book was about a week in duration.

  16. Leigh AAR says:

    Poptart and April, I agree the Lily Bard books are excellent. In these books the issue is addressed, the author doesn’t use a heavy hand on angst, but like you said, the reader understands that this changed her. She is not a victim but a survivor

    Dick, I understand what you are saying. I not advocating any type of censorship. But if the author elects to use this type of scenario, then have it be for a reason. Lynne’s example makes perfect sense for me. As you said it is the way that it is handled that makes a difference.

    Farmwifetwo, I agree with you about scenarios having the teenager not over the heartbreak by 30. I think most of us would be eaten up with grief, if one person died because of just being a friend. It just seems like the catastrophes are supersized in books.

    Carrie, thanks for sharing. Definitely an adult in an authority position took advantage of you, crossing a legal, and moral boundary. I don’t know the in’s and out’s of the law, but it sure sounds like statutory rape to me.

  17. Anne says:

    Date rape is horrific. To be violated by a stranger is even more horrific. And violent marital rape is also horrific. I know and had the black eye, sore head (grabbed by the hair and tossed across the room) and bruises to show for it. Marital rape is quite common and even nowadays is underreported. That night when my husband dropped off into a drunken sleep, I picked up my three-year-old son, some baskets of freshly laundered clothes, snuck out of the house and drove to my parents’ house in a neghboring state. Knowing I had to be strong for my son got me through the trauma of the next few years of his stalking, threats and the ensuiing divorce. Even with all that, I can read about victims of rape in a novel as long as the heroine shows some ongoing emotional growth. Oh, and this all happened in 1966 when rape was really not a blip on the police radar, especially if the rapist was your husband.

  18. Leigh AAR says:

    I want to thank everyone for your thoughts and opinions, especially those of you that have shared personal stories. By sharing you make this issue seem more real, rather then just a statistic.

  19. dick says:

    @Lynn Connolly: Rape, however, unlike pedophilia, occurs between a male and a female in the greater number of cases, as does the relationship in most romance fiction. Further, it “fits” the theme underlying all romance fiction that love brings redemption, whether that redemption arises from the heroine for the rapist or for the hero’s love for the heroine raped by another. If handled well, it is a powerful exemplification of the redemptive power of love. At the risk of offending some, the immaculate conception was rape of a kind; when Dante describes Christ’s harrowing of hell, he evokes images of rapine in doing so; the descent of the Holy Spirit into the soul is often described as a kind of “forced seduction.”

  20. Mrs. K. says:

    I agree with the others- forced seduction is indeed rape. We should leave this horrible plot device behind as surely as we have left behind the notion of a man as sole decision maker in our relationships.

    I would easily consider historical romance where the hero accepts and assists the heroine who has been ‘ruined’ by a previous attack. That, if well-written, could be a book a reader can embrace. But a book where the heroine says no and the hero persists? That’s just stalking and rape. The best way for an author to avoid this is to CLARIFY through character development that the

  21. Mrs. K. says:

    I agree with the others- forced seduction is indeed rape. We should leave this horrible plot device behind as surely as we have left behind the notion of a man as sole decision maker in our relationships (because he always knows what’s best for us.)

    I would easily consider historical romance where the hero accepts and assists the heroine who has been ‘ruined’ by a previous attack. That, if well-written, could be a book a reader can embrace. But a book where the heroine says no and the hero persists? That’s just stalking and rape. That book would be OVER and I’d ask for my money back.

    The best way for an author to avoid this pitfall is to CLARIFY through character development just what it is the heroine DOES want. Saying, “not tonight” is a lot different than saying, “no.” She wants him; she just doesn’t want him today! That leaves plenty of room for creating proper sexual tension without any crimes being committed.

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