Rape Culture and Romance Novels

Okay, so this is obviously a topic that gets people all up in arms but it’s been niggling at me for a while, so I figured I’d take a shot at discussing it.

Rape Culture: societal expectations that normalize rape and sexual assault by setting boys up as animals unable to say no to their primal desires, and girls as lying temptresses who put themselves in bad situations and complain when something bad happens. Basically, anyway.

There’s a reason that people say not to joke about rape and sexual assault and it’s true: if someone who is willing to rape or sexually assault another human being hears it get normalized by those around them, they are more willing to act on those desires. When I was in 8th grade I wrote a speech for class on serial killers, which required quite a bit of research. I came across a statistic that said 3% of all white males are sociopaths (since then, that has been folded into the umbrella of anti-social personality disorder). That’s a lot of people, yet very few of those people become murderers or serial killers, in fact, there are typically less than 50 active serial killers in the US at any given time. An article I read laid out the reason there aren’t more: societal expectations actually keep some sociopaths for giving into their impulses. The disdain for serial killers ingrained in society actually keeps people from killing. However, where society is more permissive, hate and sex crimes, there are far more perpetrators.

It’s not always something overt or malicious that sends the message that sexual assault isn’t a big deal or that’s it’s a girl’s fault: I’ve found countless casual, and subtle, references to it in romance novels. For example, how many times do our protagonists start getting hot and heavy when they’re trying to “take it slow” and the guys says something like, “If you want to stop, say so now or I won’t be able to,” or “There’s only so much I can take before I lose control,”? It’s small, but there is the clear message that there is a point of no return – if at some point a girl says no, a guy can be so worked up that he will be unable to keep himself from raping her. It’s a romance novel, so the love interest is not going to rape our protagonist, but she usually apologizes for getting him worked up doesn’t she? Like it wasn’t a mutual thing, like she’s doing something wrong by not taking care of his needs completely.

Obviously there’s another side to this. How often do our our plucky lady protagonists get asked if they’re sure when they’re about to throw the plan to go slow on get frisky out the window? All the goddamn freaking time. On one hand it’s annoying because it’s a little patronizing, on the other it’s problematic because our lady protagonist, never asks the guy if he is also sure. There’s this expectation that guys are just so hungry for it, all the time, that woman don’t need to ask if they’re up for it, because they have dicks right? It’s like whack-a-mole, once one erection goes down, another one pops up! It’s especially awful when the woman comes to a man who has the reputation for being a playboy and asks for sex, just expecting him to comply.

Rape culture does a lot of damage, to both genders, and I think that books that claim to be celebrating love and connection, should do so by creating healthy, respectful, relationships.


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