As a genre, romances have largely moved beyond the “bodice ripper” forced seduction-style stories (despite lingering stereotypes). They still pop up from time to time, but generally now the “she said no, but I know she really means yes” and “her body betrayed her” are ridiculous, sexist, and indicative of rape, not romance.
Gender norms have long dictated that men are insatiable and always willing, while women are more hesitant and require an emotional attachment. There was a double standard: men were allowed to sow their wild oats (whatever that means) and women who behaved similarly were sluts. It’s been this way for centuries, until the past few decades in which society has recognized that, yes, respectable women are allowed to have sex before they get married as men have been doing for centuries, and they can enjoy it, too.
As such, women are allowed to be sexually forward. They can pursue men, not just sit meekly hoping for that cute guy down the bar to approach her. Women can ask men out on dates and that famous question “voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” can be asked by more than just prostitutes– but respectable women. They can be the seducer.
And at the same time, there’s greater awareness and sensitivity towards sexual assault and rape. No is no, even if you think she means yes. There is still a fine line between seduction and rape, but that line is not as fine as it once was. We see this in romance novels all the time; we still see heroes persuading somewhat hesitant women into bed, but hesitancy is not the same as reluctance or straight-up unwillingness.
But what about when the genders are switched? In Mary Jo Putney’s new release, Nowhere Near Respectable, an unusually precocious heroine is more eager to have sex than her hero, and the following conversation ensues:
“’No! Imagine that our genders were reversed. If you were male and I was female and you were pressuring me to lie with you even though it was against my conscience and honor–what would you call that?’” She jerked as if he’d slapped her. After a long, shaky moment, she admitted, “’I would say… that my behavior is not that of a gentleman.’”
When I read this, I wanted to stand up and applaud. The double standard of seduction is one that has always bothered me. As much as so many people love Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ This Heart of Mine, I still can’t get over the fact that the heroine rapes the hero. There really isn’t a question. Would we permit a hero to have sex with a woman while she is asleep? No. That is totally unacceptable. (Playfully waking up a lover with foreplay is not the same thing.) In Susan Johnson’s Sweet As the Devil, I had a hard time with the heroine’s aggressive pursuit of the hero. He was quite clear that yes, he desired her, but no, he couldn’t sleep with her, but she was ruthless. Biology makes it easy to excuse sexually aggressive women from taking advantage of men by saying that “she can tell he wants it.” But biological responses are not consent.
I think that the media — including romance novels — has done men a disservice by painting them as all hot to trot all the time. While I am not a man and thus cannot speak from personal experience, I also know many men who place greater importance on sex than simply seeing it as pleasure for pleasure’s sake (an attitude that may be more “feminine” by stereotype). The assumption that they are always ready, willing, and able, makes it easier to dismiss inappropriate forwardness, pressure, or even rape, just as romance readers of the 1980s could dismiss the forced seductions. “Well, they’re in love with each other, or will be in another hundred pages, so I guess it’s okay.”) It’s not.
As readers, we need to be more aware of the double standards that exist, and call them out. Far too many times I’ve seen otherwise wonderful authors write the hero kissing the woman, even after she says no or pushes him away. This may not be rape, but it is still assault. It’s rarer that we see the heroine act this way towards the hero, but when it does happen no one says anything. I charge you all to ask yourself if what you’re reading is okay. Even if it’s the hero refusing, and even if it’s “True Love,” no always means no.
– Jane Granville