Romance and Cultural Expectations

saamribbon Recently I have started volunteering as an advocate for Sexual Assault Crisis Response group in my community. Since I believe the more information and training I have the more effective I can be, I dragged myself out of bed this week on my day off to attend police training on sexual violence – The Dynamics and Cultural Myths, and Improving Sexual Assault Investigations. Thanks to Jen Carson of the Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Mike Hammons of the Fayetteville Police Department for allowing me to use their material in writing this article.

Let me just say upfront that back in the 80’s I was right there with most of the romance reader population in reading and enjoying the so-called “bodice ripper” novels written by authors such as Shirlee Busbee, Rosemary Rogers,and Kathleen Woodiwiss. And I am not knocking these authors now. That was the culture and the fantasy of that time. Just read the joke that John McCain told in 1986:
“Did you hear the one about the woman who is attacked on the street by a gorilla, beaten senseless, raped repeatedly and left to die? When she finally regains consciousness and tries to speak, her doctor leans over to hear her sigh contently and to feebly ask, “Where is that marvelous ape?”

Rather offensive now, isn’t it? As is the thought of a hero raping a heroine. The media did help by bringing the subject of rape out of the closet and of course they coined the phrase date rape. Publishers’ and authors’ awareness has also changed over time. The obvious rape scenes have largely changed. We now have stories where the hero is overcome with need for the heroine. Sometimes he has to fight his animal instincts or his overpowering need for this one woman.

Read this excerpt from a very popular novel:
“His lips crushed mine, stopping my protest. He kissed me angrily, roughly, his other hand gripping right around the back of my neck, making escape impossible. I shoved against his chest with all my strength, but he didn’t even seem to notice. His mouth was soft, despite the anger, his lips molding to mine in a warm, unfamiliar way.
I grabbed at his face, trying to push it away, failing again. He seemed to notice this time, though and it aggravated him. His lips forced mine open and I could feel his hot breath in my mouth.
Acting on instinct, I let my hand drop to my side, and shut down. I opened my eyes and didn’t fight and didn’t feel . . . just waited for him to stop.”

One message to us is that this man is so filled with a craving for the heroine that his control is now non-existent. Plus only the heroine creates this need and desire. In a way, this is pretty heady stuff. Who doesn’t want to feel that our attractiveness and uniqueness has the ability to drive a man wild with lust? Talk about a woman having power – she can bring this man to his knees. But wait, read it again and this time imagine you are a juror at a rape trial and the survivor is on the stand, telling what happened the night of her rape. The words are there. Just check out the words in bold, reading them with a different mindset. Who has the power now?

I would never minimize any type of rape because all are horrifying and traumatic. However, with date or acquaintance rape, the woman often blames herself more. She let this person into her life, and may even have had feelings for him. Now she questions her judgment in men. Plus, those who have been through this type of assault have to deal with societal beliefs that they played a part in what happened to them by using poor judgment, being victimized all over again. Here is what Bill O’Reilly said in 2004 when talking about the rape and murder of 18 year-old Jennifer Moore during his nationally syndicated radio show on August 2, 2004:
“She was 5-foot-2, 105 pounds, wearing a miniskirt and a halter top with a bare midriff. Now, again, there you go. So every predator in the world is gonna pick that up at two in the morning.”

Instead of focusing on the horror of the crime, O’Reilly hints that the victim somehow brought it on herself by the way she dressed. By the way, predators are only approximately six percent of the population. And clothing and alcohol don’t create a rapist. The most statically significant thing that increases your chance of being raped is being born a woman. But these ideas are all part of our cultural climate and however much we hate to admit it, romance books do play a part in that because sometimes they can perpetuate the myth that women don’t mean no when they refuse someone.

It’s not only novels, though. Here are some other examples that Jen Carson used to illustrate our cultural climate – many of these actually appear on t-shirts:
Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker
Can’t rape the willing
It is not rape if she blinks twice for yes
You know she is playing hard to get, when you’re chasing her down an alleyway.

The popular book excerpt I discussed above, which by the way is from Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer, and the other examples listed show a willingness to ignore women’s basic right to consent- some by blaming the victim, others by making a joke of consent and still others by perpetuating the myth that a woman says one thing but deep down she wants to have sex. What hit home the most to me, though, is when Jen Carson gave an example of a party scenario. Before the advent of M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), bystanders didn’t think anything about letting an inebriated friend drive home after a party. Now most of us would have no problem taking her car keys way, explaining that she is too drunk to drive. And it is because of our current cultural mindset. With regard to sexual assault, ACASA has listed twenty things that all of us can do to end sexual assault and number two on the list is ” Speak out against attitudes and behaviors that contribute to a culture where violence against women is condoned and often encouraged.”

I am not talking here about censorship or badmouthing rough sex, sexual domination or sexually submissive behavior because those can be(and are) played out as fantasies which are consensual by nature because the woman is participating and nothing is happening against her will. I am talking about coercion. In our romance books, you don’t generally see the hero take advantage of the heroine by getting her drunk, or giving her drugs to relax in order to get sex. He acts the perfect gentleman, usually saying, “I can’t take advantage of you when you are in this condition”. So why are strong-arming, treating the heroine with a “no means yes” attitude, or other forms of pressure acceptable? Maybe the better choice would be the couple playing out these fantasies with clear cut consent in place. Personally I think there needs to be a change.

So what are your thoughts? Do you think romances play a part in our cultural mindset about what is acceptable in a relationship? How have you seen male/female relationships changed over time? If you don’t think books play any part, then what is your explanation of changes in story arcs – such as no longer having the hero rape the heroine?

– Leigh Davis

118 thoughts on “Romance and Cultural Expectations

  1. Yet another issue is that video gaming became one of the all-time largest forms of excitement for people of every age group. Kids have fun with video games, plus adults do, too. Your XBox 360 is probably the favorite video games systems for many who love to have hundreds of activities available to them, in addition to who like to play live with others all over the world. Many thanks for sharing your notions.

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  3. Ugh. If only there were an edit key! I know this thread has died a slow death and everyone has picked up their toys and gone home, but I meant to type *necessary* instead of *unnecessary*.
    That is all..

  4. So true, bavarian. Unfortunately, there are some related topics that, when discussed here (and elsewhere I’m sure), the posts inevitably turn in this direction. No matter whether one agrees or disagrees with dick (and a few others) on their statements, it never calls for the type of name-calling they receive. There will never be true consensus on such a heated topic, but getting down and dirty doesn’t work either.

    Leigh, right on. Continue to do the wonderful work you’re doing and attempting to learn more about how to educate girls.

    • So revictimizing women who have been raped by implying that decisions they have made – clothing choice, taste in romance novels – led a rapist to assault them is okay, but pointing out someone’s argument as blatant rape apology isn’t.

      Interesting.

  5. Wow,
    I never thought to read such a heated and hateful discussion, with so strong believes and so full of self-righteousness on this board. So much thinking totally in black and white.

    It’s like a pendulum: First we had the excuses for rapists dominating “culture”, now we have the other extreme: Zero tolerance of even the slightest shade of grey.
    Some reactions to dick’s (rather slight) provocations are so over the top I find it disturbing. Ridley even brings her hostility against dick to another board and a totally different topic calling him even there a rape apologist.

    • bavarian: Wow,
      I never thought to read such a heated and hateful discussion, with so strong believes and so full of self-righteousness on this board. So much thinking totally in black and white.It’s like a pendulum: First we had the excuses for rapists dominating “culture”, now we have the other extreme: Zero tolerance of even the slightest shade of grey.
      Some reactions to dick’s (rather slight) provocations are so over the top I find it disturbing. Ridley even brings her hostility against dick to another board and a totally different topic calling him even there a rape apologist.

      That is why I find it unnecessary to contribute nothing. I just discovered this last night and it’s the same old, same old from posters who love the fray. It could be interesting, but turns hateful. Nobody learns anything that way.

  6. @Sunita: Not only ad hominem but presumptuous…unless, of course, you’ve been elected the new Emily Post of the internet?

    • dick: @Sunita:Not only ad hominem but presumptuous…unless, of course, you’ve been elected the new Emily Post of the internet?

      Emily Post is a rape apologist? Wow. The more you know.

      • Meoskop:
        Emily Post is a rape apologist? Wow. The more you know.

        Clarifying – obviously I don’t think Post or Sunita are the rape apologists. Nor do I think either are presumptuous. I do feel dick is advocating a pro rape position that either stems from advanced trollery or a deep seated belief that women are to blame for the criminal actions of men.

        “She deserved it” never gets old, does it?

        Rapists rape for their own reasons, from their own choices, on their own accord. If you are raped, it is not your fault. If you are abused, it is not your fault. If you choose, as a community, to accept someone one telling you otherwise then you need to examine your own internalized misogyny & that’s your own problem.

        I respect anyone willing to look a rape apologist in the face and call them out on it, but I also respect a person’s right to choose. Your internet relationships sre your own. Let me ask you this – If someone, anyone, tells you that rape is something you can cause to happen, can deserve, can bring on – why is that person in your life?

        And thus the flounce. See you in another decade, AAR.

  7. This program aired on CBC Radio’s Under the Influence, which is a program about marketing and advertising, today. If we want to know why rape culture and the objectification of women persists, this pretty much sums it up.

    http://www.cbc.ca/undertheinfluence/season-1/2012/04/21/sex-in-advertising-1/

    @dick – I think that your comments are not only offensive to women, but also to a vast majority of men (at least the men I know and associate with) who would find them as repugnant as I do.

  8. @Ridley: You’re right. Males are usually the rapists. They’re bigger, stronger, more aggressive. That’s exactly why all women of good sense should take precautions.

    • dick: @Ridley:You’re right.Males are usually the rapists.They’re bigger, stronger, more aggressive.That’s exactly why all women of good sense should take precautions.

      Your unchecked male privilege is as blinding as your ignorance. Your attitude is why Slut Walk is needed.

      Educate yourself before you dig yourself any deeper.

    • dick: @Ridley:You’re right.Males are usually the rapists.They’re bigger, stronger, more aggressive.That’s exactly why all women of good sense should take precautions.

      No one is disagreeing that reasonable precautions are sensible, we’re disagreeing on what those precautions should be and what qualifies as good sense. I have absolutely no expectation, based on a decade of watching your behavior online, that you will pay any attention to this, but for the sake of the women reading, I’ll say it anyway:

      Men rape women wearing miniskirts. Men rape women wearing hijabs. Men rape women wearing cargo pants. Men rape pre-pubescent girls. Men rape women on streets. Men rape women in locked houses.

      Men rape. It’s not about the women, it’s about the men, as Ridley so eloquently put it.

      That’s why the Edmonton police force’s slogan is not “Don’t be that woman.”

      It’s “Don’t Be That Guy.”

    • dick: @Ridley:You’re right.Males are usually the rapists.They’re bigger, stronger, more aggressive.That’s exactly why all women of good sense should take precautions.

      Translation: “Boys will be boys.”

  9. Bravo Ridley! You said exactly what I have been thinking throughout this whole debate. Thank you.

  10. As much as I’m enjoying Laura and Sunita fencing each other with rolled up Ph.D paper tubes, whether or not fiction influences real life wasn’t really the part of the post that caught my attention. You guys can argue that one back and forth ad infinitum. It’s a chicken-or-the-egg issue, and the debate over violence in video games has shown us that nobody can produce any real data to prove that argument one way or the other.

    What caught my eye and made me break out the finger-snaps and the “oh no you did not just say that” was the leap from arguing that life imitates art to arguing that women are responsible for being raped and/or abused. Just typing that sentence makes me stabby. You guys (excepting dick) are women, for heaven’s sake. How can you blame women for the acts of men?

    You see, men don’t read romance novels. Even if they did, forced seduction and/or alphole behavior isn’t a common or universal theme in romance. If they’re not reading romance and forced seduction isn’t even a universal theme, then men and boys aren’t learning their dismissive attitude towards rape from romance. So when you muse about how rape themes in romance contribute to rape culture, I wonder what you could possibly mean by that other than to say women accept abuse and rape into their lives after reading romance novels. That women’s attitudes invite violation.

    Then when dick could make that ignorant, slut shaming comment without you taking him to task, it only became clearer to me that you’re engaging in victim-blaming. You pay lip service to not blaming a woman for dressing a certain way, but you either don’t really understand what that means or you don’t believe that women are never at fault for their own rapes. This quote of yours further feeds my point:

    I challenge each of you, if you have daughters, sisters, nieces, to just sit down with them and discuss the subject of date rape and if they have ever been in a situation where someone didn’t want to accept their no’s and possessive, jealous boyfriends.

    Why sit down with girls? They’re not the ones doing the violating. Why is it a girl’s/woman’s burden to act to avoid getting raped? Shouldn’t we sit down with boys and tell them not to rape? That only yes means yes? Tell boys that women aren’t conquests to be pressured until they explicitly say no. Tell men that nothing mitigates or excuses rape. Not what she’s wearing, not what she’s had to drink and not where she was walking. There’s no mixed signals. If she doesn’t say yes, back the f off.

    And stop blaming women. Women are not responsible for their rapists’ transgressions.

  11. I spent way to much time on this yesterday so I only going to post once. I didn’t go back and read everything that I posted. However, in the piece I clearly stated that FSF, domination, submissiveness don’t have to be eliminated. I would never call for censorship – which is how I think many people took this piece. From the view articles that I read- which I admit hasn’t been that many, some woman fantasize about having the power to break a man’s control, where he must have her. They don’t dream of violent, beat me up, put me in the hospital rape. And as far as the fantasy, the woman controls it. In our books, let this happen. My suggestion is that the FSF be part of roleplaying during sex or a fantasy became in it we are not making light of women being forced. She still has control because she is part of it. Not an unwilling victim.

    There is some insinuation that I was trying to shame people for having fantasies of rape or dark secrets. If that came across I apologize. I thought my article was clear on that.

    Attitudes are shaped by our society and that is influenced by media- books, television, experts, peers. Just think of the change in car seats. Think of the outroar when Britany Spears drove her two sons without using carseats. A dramatic change from 25 years ago. Hero raping the heroine was very common in the 80′s. Now it is not. That has to do with the public’s perception of how a hero should act. There is not censorship – no law says that someone can’t write this type of book unless it is the publishers saying it doesn’t sell. Fantasy of rape and the actual thing are two completely different things.

    • Leigh AAR: In our books, let this happen. My suggestion is that the FSF be part of roleplaying during sex or a fantasy became in it we are not making light of women being forced.

      But books are already fantasy. They’re not morality tales reflecting how people should act, at least most aren’t. You’re saying that FSF should be twice removed – the fantasy people fantasizing. That’s too complicated for me.

  12. some people on this thread expressed the opinion that romance readers are intelligent women who can separate fact and fiction. It seems to me that could be taken to imply that intelligent women will not be powerfully (negatively) affected by books.

    You clearly took that implication, but it never would have occurred to me. The emotional effect something has on you is distinct from your perception of what it is, what role it fills in your life, etc. etc. One of the points of defending the FS fantasy is precisely that it has an effect, in this case a positive effect. If you admit positive effects, you have to allow for the possibility of negative effects as well. But those effects, I would argue (and your examples bear this out) are personal to each individual and a product of the interaction of the individual with the text (or whatever is causing the effect).

    And therefore it is not necessarily something to be regulated as a danger, unless you can demonstrate it has a consistent and widespread negative effect across lots and lots of readers (and thus gives cover to the men who date-rape them). No one has demonstrated that here, and the results of the larger scholarly research are, to put it charitably, mixed.

    And yes, I was referring to the OP and other commenters in my reference to woman-shaming, not to your comment specifically.

    Dick, wrong verb. You’re not buying into rape culture (no quotes needed, it’s a legitimate area of study), you’re giving to it. Your argument, in the aggregate, is precisely what keeps rape culture flourishing.

  13. Does that make me a “delikit” woman?

    Oh, I’m sorry. Did I call you delikit? No. The original post did that. I am saying you and most other women are able to deal with the texts you either choose to read or (unfortunately) get ambushed by.

    I object to the call to eradicate such texts on the basis that it’s BAD. If that’s what you’re arguing for on whatever basis, personal or academic or philosophical, then okay. I disagree with you.

    • I object to the call to eradicate such texts on the basis that it’s BAD.

      I’ve not made any such call.

      If you admit positive effects, you have to allow for the possibility of negative effects as well.

      Right. And that’s what I was trying to argue.

      But those effects, I would argue (and your examples bear this out) are personal to each individual and a product of the interaction of the individual with the text (or whatever is causing the effect).

      Again, I agree, because it’s obvious that the same book can evoke very different responses in different readers. Both the positive and the negative effects are personal to each individual.

      • Laura Vivanco:
        I’ve not made any such call.

        It appeared (at least to me) that you were posting in support of the original piece, which calls for FSF to be removed from romance fiction. While positioning it as not being a call for censorship, Leigh also says there needs to be a change because romance upholds the myth of women not meaning no. I disagree with that position.

  14. I see dick is giving up on the what she wore myth when we pry it from his cold dead hands, may I suggest you read Persepolis 2 for an example of the what she wore myth taken to it’s logical conclusion?

  15. There’s some serious stretching here to paint romance (sorry, the romance with tropes some people don’t like) as harmful to us delikit wimminz.

    I can’t speak for others but what I’ve said, repeatedly, is that (a) I’ve been harmed by some of the (non-romance) fiction I’ve read and (b) some of the romances I’ve read have harmed me by making me feel shamed (not due to forced seduction scenes). Rape scenes, in romance, have on occasion made me feel really miserable for days. I do my best to avoid them, but it’s not always possible to know in advance when a book contains one. Does that make me a “delikit” woman? Maybe.

    • Laura Vivanco:
      Rape scenes, in romance, have on occasion made me feel really miserable for days. I do my best to avoid them, but it’s not always possible to know in advance when a book contains one.

      But do you feel that those books shouldn’t exist or shouldn’t be allowed because of the way they affected you?

  16. some people on this thread expressed the opinion that romance readers are intelligent women who can separate fact and fiction. It seems to me that could be taken to imply that intelligent women will not be powerfully (negatively) affected by books.

    Intelligent women can also differentiate nuances between the fact-fiction divide and the “implication” that fiction is affecting and emotionally manipulative.

    There’s some serious stretching here to paint romance (sorry, the romance with tropes some people don’t like) as harmful to us delikit wimminz. And the sad part is it’s coming from people who are a) women and b) claim to like romance.

    Of course fiction is affective and manipulative. That’s why people like it.

  17. I think using good sense is always good, whether that good sense violates some idea that to do so violates one’s freedom to dress as one pleases.
    That does not mean that I condone rape regardless of why or where it occurs, nor that I buy into the “rape culture.”

  18. Laura, I agree completely with your general point about the power of fiction. I doubt there is a person reading this post and thread who hasn’t been powerfully affected by a book she’s read.

    But you used Wood’s study to provide evidence for the power of “romantic stories,” which is never defined by Wood, so to assume that you and she mean the same thing is a leap.

    mention of the possibility that they could have got some support/reinforcement of these ideas from “paperback books”

    does not constitute evidence that the subjects read romance, let alone that they were influenced in the way you are talking about. Is that influence possible? Of course. Does Wood’s study show it? Not that we can tell without inferring more than I as a social scientist am comfortable with, given what she tells us about how the study was theorized and carried out.

    Considering how freighted this conversation is with the responsibilities that women are supposed to assume for their own safety and the role cultural expectations and cultural products play, I think the supporting evidence that academics provide in this conversation should be direct and compelling.

    Here’s an example of how in one major city, the people responsible for arresting and prosecuting the men who commit sexual assaults on women allocate responsibility in a far more productive and less woman-blaming way:

    http://www.sexualassaultvoices.com/our-campaign.html

    • Sunita: you used Wood’s study to provide evidence for the power of “romantic stories,” which is never defined by Wood, so to assume that you and she mean the same thing is a leap.does not constitute evidence that the subjects read romance, let alone that they were influenced in the way you are talking about. Is that influence possible? Of course. Does Wood’s study show it? Not that we can tell without inferring more than I as a social scientist am comfortable with

      As you know, I’m not a social scientist. I quoted from the report about Wood’s study because it seemed to me to provide some evidence that people do not always remain uninfluenced by the narratives (of various kinds) with which we come into contact. It also resonates with Modleski’s account of how romance novels reinforced attitudes expressed in her home and with Sternberg’s theory that each individual’s ideas about relationship are formed in the context of existing narratives (in many different media) about relationships.

      Does Wood’s study provide proof that there’s a causal relationship between reading romance and staying in an abusive relationship? Of course not. Sternberg doesn’t provide any either. But it resonates with my own experience that I have been negatively influenced by fiction.

      Here’s an example of how in one major city, the people responsible for arresting and prosecuting the men who commit sexual assaults on women allocate responsibility in a far more productive and less woman-blaming way:a far more productive and less woman-blaming way:

      I’m not sure what you mean by “less woman-blaming,” since I wasn’t blaming any women, and neither, as far as I can tell, were Modleski or Wood. Perhaps you were directing your comments at the OP, who has been discussing fiction and also non-fictional responses to rape? As for me, though, I’ve only been discussing fiction because, although you

      agree completely with your general point about the power of fiction. I doubt there is a person reading this post and thread who hasn’t been powerfully affected by a book she’s read

      some people on this thread expressed the opinion that romance readers are intelligent women who can separate fact and fiction. It seems to me that could be taken to imply that intelligent women will not be powerfully (negatively) affected by books. I’m willing to believe that many people have been very positively affected by reading romance; having acknowledged the power of fiction, though, it seems logical to admit the possibility that sometimes fiction could also have negative effects. Overall, my experience of reading romances is positive, which is why I keep reading them, but (with regards to issues not directly relevant to the topic of this post) I’ve sometimes been left feeling shamed by romances too.

  19. Just to throw another cat in the bag.

    I think it is also important to recognize the white aspect of this conversation. When we talk about Romance we largely discuss works dealing with a white hero and a white female. If you are going to argue (incorrectly IMO) that exposure to FSF normalizes date rape, contributes to rape culture or desensitizes women to rape in a domestic setting. You must acknowledge that you are referencing an ethnically narrow subset of women.

    The prevelance of FSF and the work from the 1970′s forward are dominated by white and hetero centric views and culture. Yet date rape is not confined to white culture. For the FSF to be a contributory factor in the societal acceptance / prevelance of date rape you would expect a correlation in sexual assault data.

    Further, when we discuss the appeal of FSF it would be disingenuous to ignore that American society places very different messages about sexuality on women depending on their skin color. Does FSF maintain it’s popularity with non hetero readers? Or non white readers? Does the judgement that FSF is an unsafe narrative lie in the same societal underpinnings that make FSF an enduring standard of the white hetero female Romance?

    When we say “women” in this context we should be clear what we mean.

  20. Dabney, Sarah Franzen, Moriah Jovan, Meoksop and some others: hear, hear!

    And Remittances Girl: I am so thrilled to see you here. Your novella Gaijin was one of the the greatest reading treasures of the last year. To me you prove the point that it’s all in the writing (to everybody else here: I very strongly recommend only this is not romance). If a forced seduction or rape is written by a talented writer, then I am there for that book.

    I read Gaijin three times in a row and even after a year it is still haunting me.

  21. I haven’t been to AAR in about 12 years but this thread has enough buzz I had to look. First of all, what Sarah Frantz said. Secondly, what Ridley said. Thirdly, I’ve had this discussion in various forms for over 20 years. The authors intentions are good but like many before her she is working from a place of feelings, not facts. Since those feelings are deeply held, facts won’t matter. If facts mattered, the ‘dressing to invite rape’ baloney would’ve been binned ages ago.

    I have been raped.
    I have been a victim of domestic violence.
    I did not consent to either and built a life free of both.

    Romance helped me understand relationships and gain a healthy one for myself. I did not want a Beatrice Small life, I wanted an Edith Layton one. Romance has never and would never make me amenable to date rape. Suggesting it does infantalizes women and excuses rapists.

    The vast majority of women I know in abusive or damaging relationships do not read romance.

    Forced Seduction Fiction doesn’t rape or abuse. Low self esteem does, on both sides. I’m exhausted to think this conversation will endure another twenty years.

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