Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Bait and the Trap

Erotic romance seems to be a big seller these days. And romantic comedy never went away, as far as I could see, since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Why would an erotic writer stay in the margins of erotica when she could, presumably, acquire a Name for herself by writing heterosexual “love stories” that end “happily,” with a binding commitment? Note the quotation marks.

I’m not comfortable in the realm of traditional Romance for the same reasons I wasn’t comfortable in a number of dating relationships (e.g. with my high school boyfriend who dumped me after I won a writing award, with the biker who raped me the first time I said “no,” with the man who snorted every time I mentioned my plan to become a teacher, with several men who turned out to be married after we had sex). Marriage made me even more uncomfortable, especially since my husband believed that marriage vows simply erased his private promise to treat me like an equal, which was my condition for accepting his proposal in the first place. As he pointed out, he wasn’t willing to be “henpecked” by a proponent of “women’s lib.” What would the other men of his community think of him if it was obvious that he couldn’t even control his own wife?

Calling all these relationships “abusive” would suggest that what happened in them was outside the heterosexual norm in which men love, respect and protect women from harm while willingly providing luxurious material support.

Let’s look at some romantic plots.

Consider the story of Cinderella as a kind of archetypal model for most Harlequin or Mills and Boon romances. A poor girl, exploited and despised by her stepmother and stepsisters, is privileged to go to a ball in disguise. The prince falls in love with her and is determined to find her again. When he does, her rags and low social status don’t faze him. He offers to marry her.

On what planet does this actually happen?

I know it’s a fantasy, but how many young women have been encouraged to look for this outcome in real life instead of pursuing opportunities to have real-life adventures, acquire some measure of real-life power for themselves, or look for a soul-mate who shares their interests? I think it’s entirely possible for a young, attractive woman to meet a “prince” (rock star, celebrity athlete, performer or politician) if she makes a great effort to do this, AND if she’s only looking for a brief hook-up. That’s the best she’s likely to get.

In real life, it gets worse. When a “prince” proposes to a “peasant girl," it's likely because he needs a wife and children as a cover to hide his real sexual/romantic life with numerous other women – or men. And because he’s a “prince,” he doesn’t have to acknowledge the needs of his Significant Others. When one leaves or gets thrown out, s/he can easily be replaced.

Let’s consider the plot of the Shakespeare “comedy,” The Taming of the Shrew. A man is looking for a wife. He meets a girl who has a mind of her own and who resists marriage. He sets out to change her mind. By the end of the play, she obeys him like a well-trained dog. Happy ever after.

As a BDSM scenario, this plot is undeniably sexy. If a man and a woman who each have enough money for rent agree to act out this plot, or even pledge their troth in a relationship that really involves willing submission on one side and freely-accepted responsibility on the other, they’ll get no argument from me.

However, consider the context of the original play. For centuries in Western culture, the limited legal rights of an adult single woman disappeared when she married. If she stood to inherit a fortune or an estate from her wealthy father, her husband could simply take it over. A man could legally “correct” his wife by beating her, and he had a right to sex with her at any time: just after the birth of her eighth child or while she was incapacitated by accident or illness.

If a wife tried to escape from her husband, she was likely to find the doors of all her friends and relatives closed to her. Marriage was supposed to last for a lifetime, and women who wanted out were equated with adulteresses, whores, criminals, lunatics. Being an ex-wife usually meant having no family, no friends, no property and no access to a job that paid a living wage. Marriage as a woman’s “natural state” was enforced by a lack of bearable alternatives.

Historical romances about a “spitfire” who is tamed by an Alpha Male, or a rake who becomes enchanted by the one woman he can’t just use and throw away are either complete fantasies, or they are grounded in the real legal, social and economic inequality of men and women at the time. If the story is historically accurate, the eventual resolution of mutual hostility is likely to be completely on the man’s terms. Even if he agrees to make concessions, no one can hold him to his promise. He can always change his mind once she is “his.”

Could there be a different “romance” plot, even for heterosexual couples? Yes, but it requires imagination. It requires going so far beyond the well-worn paths that the result might not even be recognized as “romance.”

I try to stretch myself as a writer, so I’ve approached “romance” a few times – cautiously, like an animal who has seen the leg-hold traps. In “The Way to a Man’s Heart” (in Like a Sword from Circlet Press, a collection of four “high fantasy” stories), my heroine sets out to defend the family castle from the siege of a usurping lord – only to learn that neither he nor his claim to the land are what they seem. In the end, she can rely on more than a verbal promise. Even my more realistic “romance” stories require some device to protect the woman from bottomless oppression: a trap-door in the marital home, a clause in the will, her power in the modern world, his real vulnerability aside from being "in love."

I’m not saying that going down that path isn’t worthwhile. I’m just saying it’s not a comfortable jog. At least for me.


  1. Jean - maybe the real fantasy in romance is that the promise is kept.

  2. I love everything about this post. <3

  3. Hi Jean

    MAny of the points you bring up have puzzled me about romance too. It used to be that rape or non consensual sex was a standard part too. But the thing that is intriguing to me is that these romances were written by women. erotica and romance are basically a woman's pleasure since men are more visual, pornography for a man is usually visual pornography and for women is usually verbal - like stories.

    What you say about past norms is true too. I was thinking of a remarkable exception though, a small society in rural china which is matriarchal and all the power is in the hands of the women. What is interesting is in that tribe the women spurn marriage and switch through multiple lovers as they wish. I wonder if that could be the natural state of women when they;re not held down? Did ancient societies sense this and thus hold them down? Interesting to think about.



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