Hold Me Close
Off the bat, I’d better warn readers that my topic for today is a topical, controversial and emotive one, very close to my heart. TW: Sexual harassment and related crimes. I’m talking about sex in romance books and our approach towards them. To be even clearer, I’m not talking about real life. That’s a whole different ball of wax, although the two aren’t entirely unrelated.
I’d like to think that, as a human race, we’ve evolved beyond the need for women’s liberation and the need for rampant feminism to battle misogynistic attitudes. I’d like to believe that we live in an era where social mores represent equality, liberty and respect for every race, colour, caste, creed, sexual orientation and gender. And sadly, while we have advanced, we have light years to traverse before we get there. Where it comes to literature, and in particular the romance genre, I believe that we’ve advanced too. I remember reading the romance novels that were steeped in male dominance, where a woman readily accepting a man’s advances were unfairly deemed ‘easy’ and of lower moral values, representing a set of double standards encouraged by female authors. Even more ironically, a woman even remotely interested in the acquisition of wealth was considered a gold-digger, while the males happily went about acquiring wealth by fair means or foul. The male protagonist was often scathing of the female protagonists who were required to prove their virtue beyond a shadow of reasonable doubt, often having to provide irrefutable evidence before they were believed.
Now, I firmly believe that these authors who propagated these attitudes were accurately reflecting the mores of the time. I’m even inclined to accept that many readers believed in these attitudes, substantiated by the theory that writers give the audience that which they seek and accept.
Have we changed? Yes, I truly believe that we have. Take one small example. Today, no means no. Of course, to sustain romance, the continued dominance of the alpha male in romances, there may be rare situations depicted where the male is self-assured and confidently overcomes a woman’s initial objections, often epitomized by the so-called traitorous body syndrome. These, outside of pure BDSM, are few and far between, but even in that avatar is but a pale shadow of the past. Now, women when they say no, men back off, sometimes in an angry huff, issuing dire warnings that there are other, less worthy males who may not have accepted rejection mildly, or perhaps more romantically, tender and gentle acknowledging that the women may need more time. Or situations where the women are the aggressors and the male say no. Let’s not forget that in order for a book to be a romance, one needs two protagonists, a conflict of some sort that ultimate gets resolved, resulting in happiness, either for now or ever after.
"And yet, we aren’t quite there"
The conflict doesn’t have to be the sexual relationship or even built around it, but sometimes, it does. Even in the romance of yore, sex was very much considered as part and parcel of the genre, albeit more often than not off page. Consequently, it wasn’t core to the conflict. Tropes included other woman, so-called materialism of the heroine, other men, revenge, and a whole host of misunderstandings generated by deliberate or accidental disseminations. One of my favourites of regency romance is Faro’s Daughter by Georgette Heyer. Not considered her best work, it’s an entertaining endeavour filled with sassy humour, a robust and aggressive female lead, who in fact kidnaps and holds captive the hero. And yes, he’s an alpha male who initially is filled with disdain for the heroine who runs a gambling den and falls madly in love with her because of her attitude, rather than despite it. In many ways, the book was ahead of its time. Having said that, the initial misunderstanding stems from the situation where the hero believes that she is a gold-digger out to marry for money.
As time progressed, and sex became more and more explicit in romances, they slowly became another reason for the conflict. Quite often, female leads refused to give in to the males, resulting in many off-page cold showers. Sigh. Poor hero. Eventually, he claims that he’s in love with her, offers marriage and hey presto. HEA. And then, there were those tropes where the leads got married without love due to inventive artifice including wills, mergers, debts and even blackmail, albeit with generous dollops of sex, both on and off page, before discovering love resulting in the HEA. Interestingly, in these situations, the sex was sometimes a bit forced, where women say no initially but are overcome from the ever increasing in popularity traitorous body syndrome. The male’s point of view was simply that we’re married, hence you’re obliged. Oh, and by the way, you’re going to enjoy it my sweet. It’s important to remember that these are not really male viewpoints. Don’t forget that the authors were almost universally female.
More time passed. Premarital sex became acceptable. There may have been a brief hiatus when intercourse required the presence of an engagement ring, even if the actual engagement was fake. Consent to coitus continued to be tenuous with no still not exactly meaning no. It meant maybe, if you’re able to arouse me. I’m going to let you do your best to tantalise me because … well, because the story needs to progress and the author needs to a sex scene, not always essential to the plot. Please, oh, please. I’m not exactly saying yes. I’m protesting, but not because I don’t wish to have sex or I’m not in the mood. I’m waiting for you to prove that you can get my juices flowing. Which, because you’re the hero and I’m already in love with you, you’re very likely to get an ardent response. Interestingly, the women almost always had to be in love with the male before said coitus. The male, on the other hand, may well discover the depth of his feelings sometimes during the course of book, perhaps halfway or perhaps towards the end after there is a fear of losing his significant other.
Let’s rapidly get to the present. We live in an age where ‘no’ most definitely means NO. We have rules about it. Anything untoward is considered harassment or worse. And yes, there is still room for ambiguity or for the woman to change her mind, but the male subtly asks for permission. Or perhaps openly does so. Some heroes query – are you sure about this? Then again, let’s not forget that this is fiction, and some women still want the males to initiate physical contact. Not all, though. Thankfully, we’re enlightened enough to where female protagonists do initiate sex without being considered sluts. Hurrah.
Let’s come to reality and my beliefs, just so that we’re absolutely clear. Physical intimacy between sexual partners is a black-and-white matter with no shades of grey – no pun intended. I’ve always struggled to understand why people allow themselves to be pursued by overbearing and abusive partners who are physically assertive or to put it even more bluntly, aggressive to the point where the act can be deemed as harassment. I’m one of those who believe that a spouse forcing themself on their partner is committing a crime. I believe that no means no – it doesn’t mean maybe. I believe that a person has to be sensitive to their partner’s feelings, especially not taking silence as acceptance. I believe that a person who is highly intoxicated cannot consent to coitus. I believe that respect begins and ends at arm’s length. I believe that it’s possible in real life to have respect and romance. In reality, there may be people out there who sadly attract and are attracted to abusive partners. I believe that spontaneous physical contact can be romantic, need not be harassment, but needs to have a certain ambience, a setting where it can but not always be a prelude to lovemaking. I dream of a future where abuse didn’t exist.
And yet, we aren’t quite there. The Me-Too movement is ample evidence of this, including the recent scandals involving MJ, HW and a plethora of other celebrities, some of whom have acknowledged their behaviour, apologising for it. But these are celebrities, folks. Imagine the horror of women who are in no position to complain and be believed, let alone get justice. There are others who don’t survive the assault to make lodge a complaint. Take the recent case of Sarah Everard who was walking down a street in South London when a vicious predator assaulted and killed her. Then again, human trafficking is the most horrific crime imaginable, in my opinion.
While there are concerted efforts to prevent and curb the terror, it still prevails. Likewise, domestic abuse and other crimes of a sexual nature are equally prevalent.
What’s changed? The outcries are louder. The outrage palpable. Governments and LEAs are sitting up and taking notice. What’s left to be done? Laws need further changing, allowing for more prevention rather than mere punishment after the fact. It’s possible to have those without curtailing civil liberties, nor hampering romance. For romance is an expression of love, sometimes lust, but is always tempered with respect for one’s potential sexual partner.
Having said that, between the pages of a romance book, there are shades of grey. Fiction always has and always will skirt the edges, challenging boundaries, trying more and more to reflect reality, achieve plausibility, depict flawed characters rather than oh-so-virtuous women chased by alpha males.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my musings. Please let me know what you think.