Romance is in my veins. I started devouring Harlequin novels in Brazil when I was thirteen, and at the age of eighteen I was translating them. Then, years later, I parted my ways with romance to dedicate my reading time exclusively to “serious” literature.
When I decided to write my first novel, though, there was no question it would be romance. While working on RED: A Love Story, I reconnected with the genre and read a number of erotic novels for reference. I was surprised at how things had changed since I last held a steamy book in my hands: now things were bold, kinky, edgy. Hot hot hot!
But underneath all collars and whips, the scenario hasn’t changed much. In a way, it worsened. If you strip off the romance of all steam, you end up with traditional male and female roles based on a patriarchal model. In addition, we have amplified male dominance through BDSM practices to the extent of reintroducing the notion that a woman is a man’s property. In that sense, our mentality has gone backwards a few hundred years.
Those books are defined as ladies’ porn and that’s exactly what they are. However, they do not translate as female porn: they’re rather male porn sugarcoated with romance—that doesn’t come as a surprise when online porn is the major reference for sex education nowadays and most of it reproduces a male fantasy of domination and female submission.
The romance heroine, blinded by lust and madly in love with the hero, endures verbal and physical abuse and—just like in porn—even likes it. It’s your typical porn scenario where the male imposes his sexual power trip upon a reluctant female and she can’t help but experience wild pleasure in that. The day things go too far and she finally walks away, a crawling hero begs for her forgiveness. She gives in a few pages later, and we get our happy ending.
In an archetypical romance relationship with an alpha male, the heroine endures abuse from the hero while he resists his love for her. She quietly gets under his skin and her endurance wins his heart. The moment she finally breaks up with the hero, readers praise her for having a backbone. I’m not so sure about that. A strong heroine would not tolerate abuse in the first place because she would tackle the situation rationally, and her self-esteem would speak louder than a toxic relationship.
There are about half a dozen heroine archetypes, but in general they fall into the categories of assertive or shy. The assertive ones are stereotyped as “sassy” or sexually liberated, whereas the shy ones are your typical virgins. That adult virgins still belong to romance novels rather than to a museum in the 21st century has come as a shock to me. As for the sassy girls, deep down they still fall victims of “love” and lust blindness.
After reading a handful of mainstream erotic stories, I’ve seen it all. In the best case scenario, the hero would verbally humiliate or mistreat the heroine. In the worst, he would rape her or even offer her to his pals as a sex toy.
I’m not saying all romance novels are like that, but there is definitely a mainstream trend that promotes this kind of behavior for shock value as well as for adding conflict to the story. Just like in online porn, the sexual abuse becomes more extreme in order to deliver excitement to an increasingly desensitized audience. Abuse is also a handy device for creating conflict because it offers tension and titillation as the plot builds up.
The great difficulty in writing romance is how to keep the main characters apart: if they get along well and have a wonderful relationship until the end, there’s simply no story. Conflict and change are crucial for the plot to move on, and what could be a better gimmick than sexual abuse to achieve that? It crosses boundaries and spells out transgression. It is the forbidden fruit, which holds irresistible allure.
The problem is when you sexualize violence, you render it invisible, as sociologist and author Gail Dines explains. Moreover, sexualized violence is everywhere, not only in books but also in ads, music, film and TV. We are so used to it we regard it as normal, and romance authors are not immune to that.
In the fifties women were portrayed on their knees waxing floors. Today they wax their pubic hair and get down on their knees to fulfill male fantasies.
Are we really that advanced in terms of women’s rights and sexual freedom?
Nicole Collet is a Brazilian-born writer and translator with degrees in journalism and cultural management. She has edited and translated works from authors as diverse as Ken Follett, Nora Roberts and Machiavelli. Nicole’s writing explores why people fall in love and what it takes for them to stay in love. Her plots invite readers to reflect on love in different ways, merging story with psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, music, and literature. Her debut novel RED: A Love Story received over two million hits on Wattpad and was released by Something Or Other Publishing on March 2016. It was endorsed by Debra Pickett, former columnist of The Chicago Sun-Times and contributor to CNN, as “an intriguing first novel—a thinking woman’s Fifty Shades of Grey.”