The question that I thought was a genuine search for understanding.
A few years ago — too many to be able to provide screenshots, unfortunately — someone posited an interesting question in one of my writing forums: Why do some women enjoy rape scenes in romance novels?
It’s a question that’s probably as old as the modern romance genre itself. I can remember it being a topic of discussion when I was a child in the 80s. It’s also one of the most common complaints I hear about romance, that it’s filled with rape, which isn’t true. I’ve even seen arguments that the consensual sex in romance is actually rape, which is insane and possibly a topic for another post if I start thinking too hard about it.
But I digress.
I won’t respond to people online if they ask why there’s so much rape in romance, because it’s clear that they don’t read romance and didn’t bother to research before asking. For the most part, romance doesn’t have a ton of rape in it. Yes, you’re going to see it more often if you read historical romance, but that’s because, you know, authenticity. We don’t have to go back all that far to a hit a time where consent wasn’t taken into consideration. And yes, one of the defining characteristics of dark romance is rape, typically leading to a romance between the victim and the perpetrator, but that’s not the majority of the romance genre any more than vampires or secret babies or law firms are the majority of the genre.
I responded to this particular post because it was a little different. It was in a general writing forum, but in either the romance or erotica subforum and posted by a frequent contributor. The question was not why it was prevalent, but why it was preferred by some people. I thought it was a reasonable question asked for academic reasons.
I’m pretty sure you’re okay if you like dark romance.
I am not a psychologist. We live in a world of people claiming to be things that they’re not or claiming they’re experts in areas without the credentials to support it. I’m not going to do that, but I will say that, due to my own neurodivergence, I spend a lot of time researching psychology and making connections to things. I’m also the child of a psychology professor — who is batshit crazy, don’t get me wrong — and I’ve definitely absorbed some of that. I think I have a fair, thought-out argument here, and if you approach either in agreement that there’s nothing inherently wrong with rape fantasy or open-minded on the topic, the logic is sound.
I have a few arguments, in fact. The first one is the simplest but perhaps too limiting: Neurodivergent brains do neurodivergent things, and sometimes the best thing to do is give in to the call of neurodivergence. As I just mentioned, I’m in this category. I have OCD. There’s this media/pop culture idea that OCD is washing hands and color-coding and counting the flips of light switches, and yeah, all of these can be components of OCD. But that O, that obsession, also commonly manifests in aberrant sexual obsessions. It absolutely does not manifest in acting out on those obsessions. By definition, those with OCD are repulsed by them (as opposed to fetishizing them) while simultaneously being consumed by them.
You know when you’re injured but can’t stop acting in a way that produces pain? Things like poking at a toothache and fiddling with a hangnail? It’s like that, but with sexual stuff that you’re repulsed by. Rape isn’t one of my obsessions — the closest I think I’ve ever gotten to it was the scenario bordering on rape by deception in First Time Hotwife, and it wasn’t deception so much as prior staging — but have you ever read any of my pseudo-incest and wondered why it pushes genuine incest so hard? Yep. That shit lives in my brain, and sometimes, I just need to crap it out.
OCD isn’t the only disorder that causes aberrant sexual obsessions, and if you’re not a writer or willing to write it, reading it can help ease the thoughts. I’m sure that there are plenty of dark romance readers who seek rape scenes for that reason. Probably a lot more than we think, because there are a lot more neurodivergent people than those who have diagnoses, particularly among women.
I’m not saying everyone is neurodivergent, and I don’t think this is the only reason there’s a market for rape fantasies. I don’t even think it’s the primary reason for the market. For that, we need to delve into the subconscious and the functions of romance and fiction in general.
Rape is, unfortunately, a part of life for women. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 5 women are the victims of rape. 4 in 5 women are the victims of sexual harassment. Honestly, I’m pretty sure 5 in 5 women are the victims of sexual harassment. It’s an inevitability. And while the lengths we go to vary, all women are forced to consider the possibility of rape in decisions we make. Where we go, who we go with, how we get there, what we wear, and what we take with us. It may not be something we’re conscious of, but it’s something that molds our lives.
One of the strongest elements of romance is fantasy fulfillment. It’s that happily-ever-after. In a typical romance, the happily-ever-after comes from the main character finding a partner who is loving and respectful and protective and doesn’t push boundaries except when those boundaries need to be pushed. They might be terrible to the MC in the beginning — we do love our bad boys — but privately, they’d do anything to keep the MC safe and unharmed.
But consider this: terrible things happen in romance all the time. Abusive exes. Lost jobs. Estranged families. The easiest way to show how protective a partner can be is to put the MC in danger so the partner can rescue them. Kidnapping and assault happen all the time in some of the mainstream subgenres. None of these are turn-offs to the readers because that happily-ever-after is guaranteed. These are things that happen in our own lives, and seeing an HEA come out of them is certainly fantasy fulfillment.
With that in mind, is it really so strange that some women would also see a rape that becomes an HEA as a form of fantasy fulfillment? As awful as it sounds, doesn’t it make the threat of rape — not actual rape, but the threat of it that molds us — the slightest bit more manageable if there’s the possibility of a happy ending from it? Isn’t a good thing to be exposed to our fears in a controlled environment?
This last point is going to sound a bit outlandish, but hear me out: we also can’t have a full discussion on human psychology without addressing instincts and evolution. So before I say anything else, let me make it clear that I, in no fucking way whatsoever, condone or excuse rape. But a species can only thrive if they reproduce. The more they reproduce, the more they thrive, and all else held equal, the genes that lead to the greatest drive to reproduce are the genes that conquer. While rape is rarely about reproduction, it certainly is a product of it, and evolution doesn’t care what anyone is thinking about during the act as long as there is offspring from it.
I know this is a hot take, I know a lot of people are going to hate this, but every one of us has in our ancestry men who were super all about rape and women who were mentally fortified enough to raise the offspring of rape. In fact, we all have in our ancestry generations of women who entered into rape contracts, because that was what marriage was in just about every culture at some point. None of them had a choice, but certainly some women handled it better than others, and their genetics would have been passed down more prolifically for that reason. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if generations of rape led to a rewiring of women’s brains leading some to now have these rape fantasies as a coping mechanism.
We have panic attacks because there was once a time when we needed adrenaline rushes to outrun lions, and our brains don’t understand that we no longer need to outrun threats when those threats are more likely to be final exams and meetings with HR. Brains are wired to handle bad shit, and that wiring is not always optimal.
I could be wrong on all of this, but the important thing here is I think they’re all good theories that should be considered before anyone assumes that a woman — or anyone else, don’t think that because I’ve gendered this so heavily I don’t think this applies to everyone — is simply ‘wrong’ for seeking rape in romance novels and being aroused by it.
The writing community shows its toxicity.
Going back to that original post that prompted this thought exercise, the responses to it were mostly negative. This wasn’t surprising to me because of a problem that plagues writing communities: toxic social justice. The SJWs, if that term still exists. I’m old and not always hips with the lingo.
I don’t actually like the term ‘cancel culture’. I believe that the majority of those who have been ‘cancelled’ deserve it — I’m not denying that people have been destroyed unjustifiably, but that’s nothing new and I think the recent targets have been more accurate than in the past. I also spent all day yesterday bingeing shows about murderers and pedophiles getting away with it because of how awful our criminal justice system is, leaving only public outcry to give those people what they deserve. So in general, yeah, let’s cancel people who get away with literal crimes.
The problem in the writing community — the problem in many communities — is that there are enough vocal people who take it too far that you can no longer acknowledge fundamental psychology and the human condition if doesn’t fully fit the narrative of what makes a person good vs evil. I’ve been blocked from a thread about ableist phrases because I said that I, as a person with a stutter, am not offended by the phrase ‘did I stutter?’ but I understand and respect those who do. Simply not being offended made me an ableist. We also recently had an outcry among leadership in the group because a rule was added that we had to watch an hour-long sensitivity seminar of our choice. Presumably this rule was made in response to the aggressive activism in the group, and that’s great. Some of the outcry was from people who are against sensitivity training, and eff off with that. But the majority of it was over how offensive it was that 1) there was not enough representation in the video, 2) they were being ableist toward deaf people because only one video had closed captions, 3) they were being ableist toward neurodivergent people who react poorly to changes such as having to a watch a video that didn’t need to be watched before, and 4) they were being ableist toward people who don’t have reliable internet.
Listen, I’m not arguing against any of these points. These problems did need to be addressed and probably should have before they went live with a deadline. But the high-ups fairly quickly responded with some apologies and a list of actions they were doing to address these concerns, including allowing anyone who did have trouble viewing the videos to contact them directly for an exemption Almost 100 comments later, there’s still a lot of YOU ARE THE WORST PEOPLE ON THE PLANET HOW DARE YOU FORCE ME TO DO THIS.
So anyway, I notice that everyone responding to this question about rape in romance novels is deriding it fairly aggressively. There’s also this wall of text explaining how psychologically unwell people who enjoy this sort of thing are. Not neurodivergent but unacceptably deviant. The argument was extremely convoluted and jargoned up to make it almost impossible to follow if you weren’t 100% on board with it. For those of us who prefer to skim and then look into the finer details once we get the gist of it, it looked very much like they’d taken a clinical study of the psychological make-up of actual rapists and cleaned it up to shoehorn it into a ‘viable’ response.
As I’ve already stated, I am firmly of the opinion that there is nothing inherently deviant about a person reading rape/dark romance. I mean, yes, I’m sure some actual rapists read it, and that’s obviously bad, but you’re not a rapist for reading it. We all like pizza, including rapists. We are not all rapists. So to this purely academic question of why someone might enjoy this sort of thing, I suggested a more positive rationale that simplified my theory with an analog: the interest in rape fantasies in novels comes from the same place psychologically that an interest in BDSM comes from.
This is where I went terribly wrong, because I had misunderstood the purpose of the question.
It was phrased in a way to make it look academic, but it was a bait-and-switch. They couldn’t explicitly say something like, “Why are there so many disgusting rape-lovers that there’s a whole genre of novels devoted to getting off on rape?” Instead, they phrased it benignly so it wouldn’t get flagged automatically. And because of how vocal this toxic social justice community is, everyone got to tell rape fantasy readers that they’re disgusting and need to put themselves in jail now before they go on rape sprees.
This is also where one of those weird glitches of toxic social justice come into play, because while this community considers rape fantasy to be actually for-real rape, BDSM is sacred. It is their darling. It is everything good and wholesome in the world and if you talk poorly on BDSM, you are a monster.
I’m all for bondage. It is no more my cup of tea in real life than rape fantasy is, but I support the community and have many friends in it who have been wonderful about educating me. I wish it was my cup of tea, because it looks great. I’ve been to munches — some BDSM clubs have these meet-ups to welcome new people into the community or just let non-members get an idea of what’s going on — and they’ve totally confirmed that it’s not my tea. But then, I’m demisexual. It would be far more unusual (but not unheard of) if it was my tea. And I enjoy writing it. If you’ve read any of my BDSM content, you know I’m not always completely accurate to the culture, but I do generally make it a point to state when what my characters are doing isn’t ‘appropriate’ by most practitioners’ standards so no one gets the wrong idea of what BDSM truly is. Nothing but love for the community.
The problem that happened was, in the minds of these people I made this comparison to, rape fantasy must be bad. Therefore, if I say that it is comparable to BDSM, I must also be saying that BDSM is bad. I have just committed a hate crime toward BDSM and must be burned in effigy. I tried to avoid the thread once I realized my faux pas (that I assumed this was an academic conversation), but then a couple people went to bat for me, supporting my argument, and, well, disaster ensued.
I don’t remember it word-for-word anymore, but I distinctly remember someone removing the word ‘playacting’ when they quoted me. It would have been along the lines of, “BDSM is playacting abuse,” that they manipulated to, “BDSM is abuse.” Yeah, that was how hard they tried to villainize me.
There were also wild claims that no one is hurt in BDSM. That as long as it is practiced correctly, no one is injured. And yes, BDSM in general does preach safety. But also, sometimes people are literally suspended from the ceiling by hooks pierced through their skin. They choose this, and many BDSM clubs don’t allow practices like this within their premises, but that doesn’t change the fact that yes, some people are hurt in BDSM. They enjoy it. That’s their fetish. And if you pretend they don’t exist in order to change the narrative of the BDSM community, you are the intolerant one.
And that’s why I rarely get involved in that community anymore.
It’s really important to me that you know the difference between romance and erotica, even if it’s for purely academic purposes.