The Seducer and the Seduced

doublestandard 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

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24 Responses to “The Seducer and the Seduced”

  1. Neeley says:

    Thanks! I’ve DNF’d way too many books before page 50 because the hero wont take “No” for an answer. Even when it’s to a date or a walk in the park, it infuriates me and no amount of “it was meant to be” gets me over that.

  2. Sandy C. says:

    Jane, while I understand what you’re saying and the stance you’re taking, I must disagree a little. If I wanted a book that always reflected correct values and morals, I’d be reading inspirational romances. I read in order to escape reality, and just as the sex scenes have no basis in reality most of the time, I don’t require political correctness in this arena. Some of my favorite books are still the Harlequin Presents from the 80s written by Charlotte Lamb etc., and the heroes in those books were cruel, misogynistic, and probably needed therapy! Marry a guy like that in real life? Heck no! Enjoy reading about how the heroine brings him to heel? Definitely.

    This reminds me of the two different versions of “The Parent Trap”. In the first version, Vicky slaps one of the twins. In the second version, nope. I found the first version more compelling, although again, in real life I’d be appalled at someone actually doing that. I’m probably in the minority, but I’ve never seen fiction as a model of proper behavior. It’s about drama, about angst, about conflict – all the things that we tend to avoid in our lives.

  3. Jane AAR says:

    Sandy C- I do see where you’re coming from, but I suppose I just see romances as something that should be an ideal. Not perfect, necessarily, or even realistic at times, but something at the heart of which is real love — something I do not believe ever exists, even in fiction, in a situation in which there is abuse of any kind.

  4. xina says:

    Of course in real life I am totally behind the idea that no…means no. If I were advising my 22 yr. old daughter or her friends there would be no question. However, in fiction the situations are not supposed to be perfect or a forum on how a man or woman should behave in a relationship. I’m not fan of the so-called bodice rippers of old, but they do have their place in the romance novel genre. I don’t have to like it, just as in any other genre, but it’s fiction and not reality.

  5. Corinna says:

    I’ve gotta stand behind Sandy on this one. In real life, yes, of course I feel that double standards are neither right nor fair, regardless of which gender they are slanted toward. And as far as a seducer/seductress being relentless in his/her quest to get what they want, yes, that is wrong, too. Although in a world where a first-grader can get expelled from school for kissing a little girl on the cheek, I’m sorry, but we’ve fallen off the edge of common sense. I think the same sort of excessive political correctness is perhaps at work when we begin to question everything the heroine or hero does because “it isn’t right.” We don’t always do what is right. Why should we expect fictional characters to?

    Part of the reason I read romance is to lead someone else’s life for the time that my nose is buried in that book. I get to do things I’d never dare in real life, and a lot of things I would certainly hope I’d never have to personally confront. And certainly I’d most likely steer clear of some the very heroes that I drool over in fiction.

    Remember the Brangelina movie ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith?’ Remember that very rough dance scene in the restaurant, and then the even rougher love scene which came after the point when they tried to kill each other? How many of us would honestly want to experience that? Not many. (I hope.) But, oh, wasn’t it a fun movie to watch? Now, think of how it would look if the characters behaved in a model fashion. Nothing but a big fat YAWN, that’s what it would be.

    I don’t expect fiction to always mirror what I believe would be an ideal world. Heck, I don’t even want it to.

  6. Susan says:

    I also loved that scene in Nowhere Near Respectable! I was also pretty surprised at it, since it goes against stereotype.

    That book and The Bargain put Mary Jo Putney up to the top of my favorite historical romance writers list.

    I’d like to see more books where the hero is more reserved and needs to be coaxed (not seduced or badgered) into an intimate relationship. Mary Balogh did this wonderfully in Slighly Dangerous.

  7. AARPatH says:

    Susan, I agree about Slightly Dangerous. I absolutely loved seeing Wolfric transform from a lord to a man. But how many writers do you think could pull this off? Not many, I think!

    About SEP and the forced sex to get a baby plot: That’s when I stopped reading SEP. Any plot where woman tricks a man into having sex so she can get pregnant and then dump him is the plot that makes me want to throw the book at the wall. If they both want to have sex, great. If the guy doesn’t want to have a child, then I think his wishes should be paramount. There are enough guys out there who don’t care. And if the woman’s sights are set on motherhood at all costs, then find one of the “I don’t cares.”

  8. Jane AAR says:

    Corinna, Sandy, xina– I understand your points regarding fiction vs. “real life” and characters doing things that “aren’t right” — but I’m not talking about general behavior. There is a wide range of things that characters do that I don’t think is “right” or that I personally don’t like, but I accept. If I condemned every hero or heroine for doing something I personally don’t approve of, I wouldn’t have many romance novels to read, would I?

    But the nature of romance novels is that they are about a relationship that has a happy ending. There is *nothing* romantic, happy, or loving about one character inappropriately pressuring their partner. If I wanted to read about this sort of thing, I’d turn to a general fiction book, not a romance novel. I do hold them on a slightly different standard than other books because they are unique in this regard. There is no Happily Ever After in a relationship based on unequal power and an inherent disregard for the other person’s wishes. I don’t think it’s a good idea to allow this sort of relationship to exist within the romance genre, given that there is a basic understanding that these books feature relationships that are, to a certain extent, idealized.

    • MarySkl says:

      Jane AAR: Corinna, Sandy, xina– I understand your points regarding fiction vs. “real life” and characters doing things that “aren’t right” — but I’m not talking about general behavior.There is a wide range of things that characters do that I don’t think is “right” or that I personally don’t like, but I accept.If I condemned every hero or heroine for doing something I personally don’t approve of, I wouldn’t have many romance novels to read, would I?But the nature of romance novels is that they are about a relationship that has a happy ending.There is *nothing* romantic, happy, or loving about one character inappropriately pressuring their partner.If I wanted to read about this sort of thing, I’d turn to a general fiction book, not a romance novel.I do hold them on a slightly different standard than other books because they are unique in this regard.There is no Happily Ever After in a relationship based on unequal power and an inherent disregard for the other person’s wishes.I don’t think it’s a good idea to allow this sort of relationship to exist within the romance genre, given that there is a basic understanding that these books feature relationships that are, to a certain extent, idealized.

      I think the key word in HEA is “After.” The journey to get to that HEA is not always happy and if it was I think I would be bored to tears in the first 50 pages. The romance genre does have the HEA, but it also has conflict. I think MOST marriages at the beginning go through power struggles. My husband was from a very conventional family in which gender roles were delineated. When I went to family get-togethers at his family’s house, the men would sit and talk after dinner while the women did the dishes. His sister even brought him coffee. That did NOT happen in my house growing up. I finally told him that he should help with the cleaning up and not expect the women to do all of the cooking beforehand and the cleaning up afterwards. The next time we got together, he just started cleaning with the rest and pretty soon SOME of the other guys did too. Now after 27 years of marriage, we just fall into helping each other without any discussion. However, we did not start out that way.

      I think it is generally a bad idea to ever say something should not exist in a certain genre. It is a slippery slope from saying something within a genre should not exist to declaring that the entire genre should be done away with. I would never dictate to an author what they should write about or how to tell their story. It is THEIR story, not mine. There are enough choices out there in the literature market that people do not have to read what they dislike or are not interested in.

  9. JMM says:

    But in “Mr. And Mrs. Smith, MRS. Smith gave as soon as she got.

    What bothers me is the long used trope of men = predators and females = prey. I want to see less of that.

    I want to see the HEROINE be an equal in some way, instead of weeping and wringing her hands until the hero realizes (in the last 10 pages) that gee whiz, he loves her!

  10. Jane AAR says:

    JMM- agree, that often is the stereotype. Of course, the point of this piece was to call attention to the opposite– that any relationship in which there could be considered a “predator” or “prey” isn’t okay, even if it’s the woman that’s the aggressor.

    Eloisa James wrote a piece in CNN a month or so ago that made note of the transition from men being the bodice rippers to women being equally participatory and eager in novels.
    http://www.cnn.com/2011/LIVING/04/25/bring.past.sex.to.present/index.html?iref=allsearch

  11. JMM says:

    I love it when heros are outwitted and just plain confuzzled by the heroine.

    “Seduce me, will you? Not if I get to you first, you cad!” *Heroine cackles*

  12. Dani says:

    I’m with Sandy on this one. And Jane, I disagree that there is “nothing” romantic about the pressure – I like it. It’s so bad, it’s good. I’d never want to live it but I love to read it. It’s a fantasy, it’s not an ideal. I take objection to this statement:

    “I don’t think it’s a good idea to allow this sort of relationship to exist within the romance genre, given that there is a basic understanding that these books feature relationships that are, to a certain extent, idealized.”

    Um, shouldn’t we be “allowed” to read whatever we like? And whose understanding is it that these relationships are idealized? It’s certainly not mine. I don’t think anyone reads romance as a blueprint for their own relationships. That would be odd and unproductive. That’s what self-help books are for.

    I have a big job, I make big decisions every day, I make my own money and I can take care of myself. When my husband and I travel, I do all the negotiation and organizing. I’m capable and confident. But, oh, it’s so much fun to read historicals where women are helpless and need to be rescued. Where the power is unbalanced and the hero is oh so manly. It’s a trip. It’s an escape. That’s why I read romance. I’m also an adult whose been in a committed relationship with the same partner for almost 20 years. I know what love and a relationship can and should be and that’s not what I’m looking for when I pick up a romance novel. Seduce away I say.

  13. GrowlyCub says:

    We just discussed Jo Beverley’s Forbidden on Twitter yesterday. It’s my favorite book by her, but the hero is clearly not consenting to the first sex act with the heroine. I’ve always felt vaguely guilty for liking this book and thereby clearly showing my double standard in this matter. I agree with the commenters who say that rom reading allows us to experience situations vicariously which we would not want to deal with in real life (how many of us would really want to live with an alpha?), although I do wonder at how much rom novels are reflective of society/how much they codify/reinforce current (US) social norms and whether or not we need to worry about outliers in either direction. Some part of me says, that’s taking the PC police too far, another says we need to be at least aware of it.

    I feel a re-read coming on… :)

  14. Jane AAR says:

    Dani- you are right, “allow” was too strong a word. Censorship is never my goal. I think, as I say to GrowlyCub below, that it is awareness that is most important. Regarding the “idealization” of romance- Perhaps that wasn’t the best word either. I suppose what I meant was that in romance novels, I expect the love to be true; not in the typical sense of True Love/Soul Mates etc., but that it is as pure as humanly possible, and my personal opinion is that that cannot exist when there is (as I said) unequal power relations or any sort of abuse. Keep in mind I’m *not* talking about pursuit and seduction in a consensual sense. But when one character definitively says “no” and the other does not respect that, I just don’t think that’s okay behavior for someone we refer to as a “hero” or “heroine.”

    Of course, it’s clear we have different tastes in books, and what we look for when we read to escape — so what I think is most important in romance novels is not necessarily what others look for. :)

    GrowlyCub- I think awareness is most important. If you enjoy the “bodice ripper” (or the male equivalent), the awareness of fiction vs. reality and the double standards that exist is essential. I think romance novels are, to a certain extent, representative of society and social norms, and as my blog points out, it is very hard for our American mainstream culture to accept male victimhood– other cultures, even more so — and it isn’t seen as a “big deal,” when male rape/sexual assault is every bit as important as female rape and assault.

  15. cead says:

    _Forbidden_ worked for me, but I think it worked for two reasons: Beverley did a good job of showing just how damaged the heroine was; and it felt to me as though the author didn’t condone her behaviour. Those two things made a big difference. I *did* have problems with it, especially because I didn’t feel Serena grovelled enough, but I was able to buy it.

    On the other hand, I’ve never forgiven Julia Quinn for what Daphne did to Simon in _The Duke and I_, and I’ve DNFed a lot of historicals featuring young heroines obsessed with their brother’s best friend. I like that plotline in principle, but the execution (at least in historicals, not so much in contemporaries) tends to creep me out, because it feels stalkerish. Man or woman doing it, doesn’t make a difference.

    When I read erotica, I don’t mind if there is dubious consent; I think for me “I am a character in erotica” counts as consent. But I have stricter standards in romance. I enjoy reading about sexual scenarios that play with control and power dynamics, I enjoy reading about kink; but I draw the line when an asymmetrical power dynamic extends to outside the bedroom, which to me includes choosing to participate in the relationship in the first place. I can’t find it romantic when one partner has been dragged kicking and screaming into the relationship. Reluctance, sure; I get that, I’ve been there, but there’s a difference between having reservations about a relationship due to your personal issues and really feeling like you don’t want it in the first place. If the author can’t convince me that the reluctant party does want it on some level – beyond the knee-jerk physical – then the romance will never work for me. I don’t need an idealisation, but I do need to be able to believe that both parties truly want the relationship. That’s basic.

    Other people might find this romantic, and that’s fine. But I can’t.

  16. MarySkl says:

    I like the idea of turning the tables (and walking in someone else’s shoes), but I think many times it is hard to execute without becoming moralistic or saccharine. I really do not look for the ideal in my books. I look for a more human depiction with all the related quirks and shortcomings. When looking at our own lives or the lives of our spouses/mates, we are not perfect, nor are they. “True love” in my opinion means you accept each other warts and all. That does not mean that one should stay in an abusive relationship or tolerate infidelity, but every relationship has its trials and if we demand perfection, we are doomed to disappointment. We are not perfect, so why would we demand our spouses be perfect?

    Men and women ARE different. I would have NEVER admitted that before I had a son, but it was obvious to me that he was different from his older sister right after he was born. I think sometimes we try to reinvent men in the image of women and that is not fair to them. I will never completely understand the humor involved with my husband and son “farting” in the car and then pushing the locks on the windows so we cannot let the smell out without dire threats from me. However, they will never get my daughters’ and my need to talk everything to death in terms of relationships.

  17. Anne says:

    Frankly, I don’t read romance for morality, lessons learnt etc. Considering other genres cover philosophy and self-help books I don’t want to read romance in order to gain insight into my strengths and weaknesses. Mind you I have seen myself in some of the stupid decisions the characters have made but aside from that I wouldn’t want to look too deeply.

    I admit romance is form of relaxation to me and I don’t want to edit or critique what I’ve read. Darn it I’ve spent too many years at University critiquing, dissecting and analysing everything so I hate to do it in my spare time.

    I certainly be disappointed to see the bodice ripping or shirt ripping completely disappear for the sake of political correctness. Mind you, I get plenty of the shirt ripping during Eurovision so it’s not a complete loss but I’m digressing here. It’s such a sensitive topic because I see both points of view. Reading like most hobbies is a personal experience and I can’t tell anyone that it’s wrong to read some hot alpha male wanting his ‘way’ with the heroine. So I think it’s wonderful that we have such a wide variety of genres to satisfy every reader, even the critic.

    Now all this talk of seduction reminds me I have some reading to do… :)

  18. Susan/DC says:

    @cread: Ditto what you said

  19. GrowlyCub says:

    Jane, I don’t think anybody has accused Jo Beverley of writing ‘bodice rippers’ before. Wow!

  20. Susan/DC says:

    Hit enter too soon.

    The issue for me is that I often don’t believe that the heroine has brought the hero to heel. Sometimes it’s because I can’t understand what he sees in her so don’t believe in the HEA (for example, Anne Stuart has a number of heroines who are too generic for me to understand why anyone would love them, much less have an alpha hero put his life on the line for her). Or I can’t quite buy into the hero’s epiphany and change of character in the last 10 pages of the book when he has spent the first 350 pages ordering the heroine around, telling her what to do and how to feel. I don’t think this has anything to do with PC, just whether I believe in the HEA for these two specific people. Some authors carry it off in some books, but (to me at least) many do not.

  21. Jane AAR says:

    GrowlyCub- If I referred to Jo Beverly in that way, I didn’t mean to. I have not read Forever (indeed, I have read very few of her books, but am reading one right now), so if I made a comment that seemed to accuse her of being a bodice ripper-writer, it was not intentional.

  22. Catherine says:

    For me, the issue isn’t so much about whether or not something happens at all, but more about whether or not the issue is ever addressed. “What you did is not ok” is something that has to come up. Romance can include some bad things happening, but it’s no good if it’s underplayed. “The Duke and I” was an otherwise great book that included that scene that fairly well ruined the rest for me.

  23. obbergton says:

    hi Jan, where did you get the PCMCIA adaptor from. I have an IZZI PCMCIA card, but a newer laptop which does not have a PCMCIA slot. Is there something like USB to PCMCIA adaptor so that I can use the IZZI PCMCIA card in my new laptop. I am based in Kuala Lumpur.

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