Saturday, August 15, 2015

RNFF Hiatus

RNFF will be on summer break for the rest of August, recharging analytical batteries, mulling over the romance controversies of the year, and of course, reading more romances.

See you in September!

Jackie, RNFF

Photo credits:

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


In the 1932 film adaptation of the 1922 British play A Bill of Divorcement, Katharine Hepburn (in her film debut) plays a woman on the verge of marriage. That is, until her father, who has been incarcerated in a mental institution for the past twenty years, shows up on her doorstep. Hepburn's character, Sydney Fairfield, had been told by her family that her father's mental illness was the result of shell shock he suffered during his military service in World War I. But her father's escape from the asylum brings the truth to light: Mr. Fairfield suffers from an inherited mental illness, an illness to which previous generations of Fairfields have also succumbed. And which Sydney—and Sydney's future children—may also someday face.

Katharine Hepburn and John Barrymore as daughter
and father
In good 1930s melodrama form, the selfless Sydney gives up her fiancĂ© and offers to live with and care for her mentally ill father. There is no romantic ending here—unless one considers refusing to give birth to potentially "abnormal" children, and self-sacrificing one's own romantic future to care for a parent, a satisfying happily ever after (as, apparently, did the reviewer for the New York Times, which deemed the "closing scene" "splendid"). Even though there is no way to know for certain that she will inherit her father's illness, Sydney refuses to gamble, refuses take a chance on love.

Today, with the advent of genetic testing for many inherited health issues, it's possible (at least for those with insurance that will cover it) to be tested and find out far more precisely just what the odds are that one will suffer from, or be a genetic carrier of, certain diseases. How has such technology, and the scientific advances that have accompanied it, affected the world of romance?

Sonali Dev's A Bollywood Bride and Kelly Hunter's Pursued by the Rogue both are built upon fear-of-inheriting-a-parent's-illness plotlines. For the heroine of Hunter's contemporary romance novella, Dawn Turner, genetic testing would reveal a definite "yes or no." With a father who suffers from Huntington disease, Dawn has either inherited the faulty HTT gene that causes the progressive brain disorder or hasn't. Dawn has spent her professional life researching technology related to gene mapping, but has not wanted to find out her own HTT status. Dawn has told herself that when she turns thirty, she'll get tested; since the onset of Huntington disease in adults typically does not occur until one's thirties or forties, knowing that she's a positive before then will only place a too-heavy emotional burden on her already difficult life.

For Dev's heroine, Ria Parkar, the situation is more complicated. Her mother's mental illness is never named beyond the general label "psychosis" ("a break from reality, often involving seeing hearing and believing things that aren't real," NAMI), but most mental illnesses that manifest psychotic behavior are not caused by a mutation in one single gene. As a study published last year in Nature revealed, scientists have "identified 128 gene variants associated with schizophrenia, in 108 distinct locations in the human genome." Genetic counselors and doctors can guesstimate Ria's inheritance risk ("Genetically the doctors had pinned Ria's chances at thirty-five percent" [Loc 872]), but Ria, unlike Dawn, cannot be tested and know for certain. And since Ria is a major Bollywood film star, she's kept the secret of her mother's illness—and her own potential genetic carrier status—deeply hidden.

To know or not to know; or to know but to not be certain—these are the "numbers games" that both Ria and Dawn are forced to play as they confront not only their own futures, but the futures of the men they love. Both heroines, intriguingly, have more in common than just a parent with an inheritable illness. Both have suffered early traumas, some as a result of their parent's illness, others unrelated, traumas that influence how they view relationships. Both fear that they are starting to show symptoms of inheriting their parent's illness. Both fell early and deeply for young men during their adolescences, young men who, for various reasons, they were forced to leave behind. And now, both are forced to confront those first loves again, as they struggle to come to terms with their relationships with their parents, their potential future health problems, and the scars and pain that their past and present traumas have dealt them.

The one major difference between the two books is in their choice of point of view. Both use third person, but Rogue uses a dual POV, while Bride focalizes the story entirely through Ria's eyes. Both choices work beautifully to highlight each book's larger themes. The dual viewpoint in Rogue shows how not knowing her HTT status has served not to free Dawn from pain, but to isolate her from emotional connection, the kind of connection that we see and value in the viewpoint of Dawn's first love and current friends-with-benefits guy Finn, the youngest boy in a large, close-knit Irish family. And using third person single POV allows Dev to create an at times almost detached, even dream-like narrative, one which if it were in the first person we might fear was the result of pending psychosis or mental illness in Ria. Instead, third person creates just enough of a sense of distance to make us unsure, wondering whether we are reading about a woman still haunted by past trauma, or one on the verge of mental breakdown in the present.

Since these are both romance novels, you'll probably have guessed that neither ends with the melancholy but noble self-sacrifice required of Katharine Hepburn's Sydney. In fact, both insist that self-sacrifice is in many ways the coward's way out, a way of running away from confronting and accepting the fears that genetic illnesses force us to confront, whether we are romantically partnered or no.

Can you think of other romances in which the possibility of negative genetic inheritance plays a role in a romantic relationship?

Photo credits:
Hepburn and Barrymore: Film Ka Ilm
Huntington inheritance chart: Genetics and IVF Institute
Psychosis perception: The Mental Elf

The Bollywood Bride
Kensington, 2015

Pursued by the Rogue
Tule Publishing 2015

Friday, August 7, 2015

Negotiating the Gender Politics of Military Life: Lauren Gallagher's RAZOR WIRE

It seems almost impossible to imagine that fewer than four years lie between the repeal of the American military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and the U. S. Supreme Court's decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Until September 20th of 2011, gays and lesbians who disclosed their sexual orientations could be discharged from service for creating "an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order, and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability" (10 U. S. C.  654(b)). But by June 26, 2015, gay personnel were not only free to talk about their sexual partners, they were also guaranteed the right to marry them.

Given the short span of time the American military has had to adjust to such a head-spinning change, it should be no surprise that military culture does not often provide support to or even tolerance of its homosexual members. Particularly if those members are women. Just by being women, lesbians challenge the traditionally male-centric culture of the military. And by refusing to desire the men who embrace that male-centric culture, lesbians in the services are doubly "tainted." As naval police officer Kim Lockhoff explains to her partner about her former posting:

"I was . . . I didn't party with the guys, that's for sure. I pretty much kept my head down. When a guy came on to me, I tried to be polite about not being interested, but somehow that got turned into me being a cold fish . . . . One of the guys spent half the Naval Ball hitting on me. When I turned him down for the hundredth time that night, he went and told the others he couldn't get through the razor wire in Lockhoff's pants." She laughed bitterly. "And the [nick]name stuck" (58).

To Kim, "Razor Wire" is more than just a disrespectful moniker. It's a potential threat: "A few times, I overheard guys in my command saying I just needed a dick to pound some sense into me so I'd stop being such a bitch" (59). And so when she is posted to Okinawa, Kim decides to present herself entirely differently, a friendly, hard-drinking party girl. But this self-presentation doesn't mitigate the problem:

"I tried to be what I thought they wanted girls in the Navy to be, and . . . It's like, now that they think I'm a slut, they're offended as hell if I reject them. All the guys at my last command thought I was a bitch for shutting them all out. All the guys here think I'm a bitch because they think I'm sleeping with everyone but them" (61).

Given Kim's reputation as a "whore," it's little wonder that she's more than a little reluctant to report a sexual assault she experienced. Add the fact that her attacker is a respected superior officer, and reluctance turns to outright rejection.

Readers might expect that a fellow woman serving in the naval police might have more sympathy. But when Kim turns to Reese Marion for advice, she's hurt, but not all that surprised, to find that culture trumps gender. Reese has already formed an opinion about Kim Lockhoff, and it's not a flattering one:

Alejandro always thought it was entertaining as hell, watching me straighten out girls who had no business in the Navy, never mind as cops. Especially when the girl in question was a vapid twit like MA3 Lockhoff. The kind who used her pretty little smile and her petty not-so-little tits to bend every man on the island to her cute little will. MA3 Lockhoff was one of the reasons we got emails before every formal event reminding the female service members to please not dress like whores this time. Women like her drove me insane, and Alejandro lived to watch them do it. (10)

As Reese has learned over her years in the navy, "fitting in with these guys was the safest approach. If they're being crass, be crasser. If they're drunk, get drunker. If they think a girl's a slut, declare her a whore with a pussy like a wizard's sleeve" (45). Even if you're nauseated by the sexist motto espoused by many of those same guys, that "you can't rape the willing," it's almost impossible not to let the assumptions behind it infiltrate into your own unconsciousness, to automatically assume that any woman who makes an accusation of rape must be lying.

Even, horrifyingly, when you've experienced sexual assault yourself.

Only when Reece forces herself to step back from her own preconceived judgments, and truly listen to what Kim has to say, can the two women take the first tentative steps toward friendship. And then toward something even stronger. . .

A former high school teacher of mine often argued that you "can't legislate morality," a contention I frequently challenged with no little vehemence. As the Supreme Court's decision this June shows, you can legislate morality. Culture, though, may take a little more time to catch up.

Photo credits:
Master-at-Arms t-shirt: Cafe Press
Navvies kissing: The Virginia Pilot online

Razor Wire

Riptide, 2014

Friday, July 31, 2015

Reflections on RWA Nationals

Quite a few romance writers and bloggers have already weighed in with their own insightful posts about last week's Romance Writers of America's annual national conference, with posts that range from the enthusiastic—Jenn Northington's "The 11 Best Things I Heard at the RWA"; All About Romance's day-by-day posts, the first one here—to the analytical—Suleikha Snyder's "RWA 2015: A Tale of Two Conferences"; Jessica Tripler's "Socioeconomic Class at RWA" to name just a few. Lots of food for thought, and for future action on many fronts.

I was wearing three different hats during this conference—a local Chapter Leader (as Treasurer of the NECRWA); a romance reviewer and blogger (RNFF); and a writer of a soon-to-be-self-published historical romance. This made for a rather disjointed conference at times, rushing from a workshop entitled "Not So Fast: Finding Success while writing in the Slow Lane" to a Chapter Leadership Networking Event, then on to "50 Shades of Love: Writing the Multicultural Romance"; from a retreat for not-yet-published writers to a General RWA Membership meeting to a workshop filled with advice about writing queer romance in a "post-gay" environment. Now that I've had a few days to reflect on the hectic experience of conferencing in the midst of the bizarreness of Times Square (did you know that its legal in NYC for women to go topless? and that people will pay to get their pictures taken with one who has painted her chest like an American flag??), these are the moments/events/ideas that are sticking with me:

• Learning about servants, music, fabric, interior decorating, and dancing with my fellow Regency romance writers at the Beau Monde mini-conference. I was really looking forward to getting dressed up in my newly made Regency ball gown and dance those Regency dances at the Beau Monde's evening soiree, and, despite my embarrassment at the fact that the majority of my fellow attendees were not in period garb when I waltzed into the Marriott Astor Ballroom that evening, I did manage to screw up my courage and trip the light fantastic for a few sets. Thanks so much to Susan De Guardiola (of Capering and Kickery) and her dance student ringers for stepping out with me and with my fellow Beau Monders.

• The continuing split in knowledge/understanding between those who have been traditionally published and those who self-publish. There are a lot of writers who are doing both, but for those who "grew up" publishing via one method and not the other, there can often be a big disconnect about what can and will lead to success in the other. Perhaps not surprisingly, the above-mentioned workshop on being successful while writing in the "slow lane" included panelists who had all been traditionally published (with only one who was a hybrid author), while the panelists on "The Midlist Guide to Making Six Figures in Indie Publishing" all spoke about working 50 (or 80, or 100)-hour workweeks to keep their readers interested and their businesses going. I didn't attend any workshops on hybrid publishing, though; perhaps the disconnects were less obvious among those who have followed both paths.

• But the national organization continues to adapt (if slowly) to the burgeoning shift in the romance market toward self-publishing. Self-published authors were once barred completely from the "PAN" (Published Authors Network) listserv and group; more recently, self-publishers were allowed in, but had to earn $5,000 on a single book title, in comparison to the $1,000 a traditionally published author had to earn, to qualify. But now, even that disparity has been erased; now, any author who has earned at least $1000 on a published book, whether published by a traditional house, a small publisher, or by him or herself, can join this elite subgroup within the national organization.

• Many bloggers have written about the high profile diversity in romance played at the conference. There was not just one, but four different panels on the whys and hows (and how-nots) to increase the diversity of romance characters, and the number of authors of color, in the field. Four authors of color (Alyssa Cole, Lena Hart, K. M. Jackson, and Falguni Kothari) put together a slick brochure, one that looked like a supplement to a Romance Times magazine, to distribute to attendees, which included "Do's, Don'ts, and Why nots!" as well as a good dollop of humor ("Celebrating the MOST used stock couple in any one genre!"), to jumpstart people's thinking about this important issue. What most bloggers have not mentioned is that the RWA Board announced at the General Member meeting that it had just approved the creation of an ad hoc committee on Diversity in the organization. No mandate or goals for said committee were mentioned, however. It will be fascinating to watch both activists on the individual and small group level, as well as this ad hoc committee on the national level, to see if their goals and end results converge or diverge over the next few years.

• The panelists in the workshop on "Writing Queer Romance" focused on our "post-gay cultural moment," arguing that in the wake of the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, and the more widespread acceptance of LGBTQ identities in wide swaths of American culture, romances featuring queer characters no longer have to be just about issues of coming out, or about problems of acceptance. How about a story about a lesbian couple, with one partner who wants to have a baby, but the other doesn't? Or have major philosophical or moral differences about adopting vs. giving birth? Even if the conflict is about being queer, it can be less about major homophobia, and more about the micro-aggressions LGBTQ people experience in their day-to-day lives.

After sitting in on this panel, and the one panel on diversity I was able to attend, it felt to me as if LGBTQ romance is farther along, acceptance-wise amongst readers and writers of romance, than is racially and ethnically diverse romance. Queer Romance panelists Sarah Frantz Lyons and Radclyffe both spoke about moving beyond the need to justify queer romance's mere existence, something that romance about and by people of color is having to work hard to do.

• The Chapter Leadership Networking Event on Saturday afternoon consisted primarily of a bunch of topic tables, the subjects of which reflected the current problems and issues facing local chapters today. "How to attract and keep members"; "How to get published authors involved"; "Chapter Finances"; "How to recruit chapter board members"; "Dealing with Difficult Personalities." Thanks to my fellow chapter officers for sharing complaints, and solutions, to the many difficulties chapters are currently facing, particularly in the wake of the recent changes in RWA bylaws.

• The most difficult panel I attended was also in many ways the most encouraging: "Writing Through Depression." Five well-known romance authors sat in the front of a hotel conference room and shared their experiences of what is often a shame-ridden, hidden illness. The panelists asked for no tweeting of particulars during the session, which means no blogging after the fact, either. But I did want to give a big "thank you" to both the panelists and to RWA for challenging the stigmatization around this important issue. Those of us who grapple with mental health issues really appreciate knowing that we are not alone.

Other RWA attendees, what did you take away from this year's conference? And for those who didn't attend, what are you curious to know about what did (and didn't) happen?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Romance Panels: Is Romance Feminist?

Last week, eight romance authors, invited by the, gathered in a New York City work cooperative space to speak to an enthusiastic audience about romance, feminism, and sex. I was thrilled to be a part of the audience, and planned to write up a report for RNFF readers on the evening. Of course, now that I'm back home, unpacking after the RWA annual conference, which took place in the days following the panel, I can't for the life of me find the extensive notes I took as the authors talked and debated. Insert your favorite curse words here...

Luckily for me, fellow romance scholar Jayashree Kamble live-tweeted during the panels, and put her tweets together on Storify; you can find her tweets here.

"Feminism and Romance" panel: Alisha Rai, Sarah MacLean
Maya Rodale, and Carla Neggers. Photo from Alisha Rai's tweet
There are a few things that I'd like to add to Jayashree's thoughts. Maya Rodale, moderator of the first panel, "Romance Novels as a Feminist Trope Throughout the Centuries," opened the discussion by asking her fellow panelists "Are romance novels feminist?" Kamble suggests in her tweet that the response was "hell, yes" (or perhaps that was Kamble's answer?), but panelists' actual comments were more nuanced. There was a bit of silence at first, that funny pause that sometimes happens at the start of a panel talk when no one is quite sure who is meant to speak first, and Rodale interjected a few more questions "Are romances bad?" "Romances are written by women for women, about women, no?" MacLean and Rai then jumped in to note the difficulty of answering any of these questions with a simple "yes" or "no," especially given the breadth of the romance field at present. Carla Neggers, who has been publishing longer than any of the other panelists, added historical context, talking about many of the limits placed on romance authors when she was just beginning her career, and how many of those limits are no longer in place.

"How has the romance genre evolved over the past few decades?" was the next topic Rodale asked panelists to consider. The greater diversity of the genre, particularly in regards to the inclusion of romances featuring LGBTQ protagonists and protagonists of color. Rai had perhaps the best line of the night, though, when she noted that diversity still has a looooong way to go in the largely still-white world of romanceland: "We say evolution, but evolution is too slow. We need revolution." #weneeddiverseromance, indeed.

Sarah MacLean, who is white, did not disagree, but framed the issue somewhat differently, suggesting that the genre is on the edge of a huge shift, moving inexorably towards a more inclusive stance. Other panelists noted that diversity took hold first in the ranks of the self-published, and is only gradually (if at all) effecting the look of the pub lists of the big 5 romance publishers. It would be a cool research project, my academic self thinks, comparing the numbers of POC and LGBTQ characters in books by those publishers over the past 5, or perhaps 10, years...

Readers' often judgmental stance towards romance heroines formed another topic of discussion, but soon segued into thoughts about the prevalence of the billionaire hero in contemporary romance published in the past few years. MacLean put forth a theory that I've heard in other venues: that romance is a fantasy, and today, given the tough economic times and the dual role of worker and homemaker that the majority of American women have to play today, the fantasy of being swept away by a man who has so much money that you'll never need to worry about paying the bills again is vastly appealing.  Rodale concurred, focusing on the alpha male in billionaire romance not only being able to meet the heroine/reader's economic needs/worries, but also being able to address her other desires (sexual, emotional), desires that in everyday life often have to be pushed to the side. I get this argument, but I'm wondering why books in which the women are billionaires themselves, and fall in love with appreciative guys, aren't nearly as popular? Is there some gendered sense that a rich woman will be exploited? That a rich woman is somehow bad? That she must have had to do something not quite feminine in order to achieve wealth? That being a billionaire is hard work, but loving one is not? I'd love to hear readers' thoughts about this...

The question of happy endings—does romance require them, or can the genre take them or leave them?—concluded the first panel. Most audience members seemed to be in the former camp, despite Rodale's citing of many romance-writing and -reading friends who are happy to live without the HEA, or even the HFN. I wondered if there is anything inherently feminist, or anti-feminist, about the restrictiveness, of the HEA—what do you think?

"Erotic Writing and the Role of Women" panel. Photo from Alyssa Cole's tweet

The second panel, "Erotic Writing and the Role of the Woman," featured an entire panel of romance writers of color, a rarity at RWA or other meetings, unless the workshop/panel topic is about diversity (more about this in Friday's post). Feminista Jones, a sex-positive social worker, activist, blogger, and now BDSM romance novelist, moderated the discussion with fellow erotic romance writers Suleikha Snyder, Rebekkah Weatherspoon, and Jordan Silver.

I thought it was fascinating that all of the writers except for Jones began their writing careers penning fan fiction, then discovering through traditional or, more often, through self-publishing, that what they were giving away for free could be earning them money. Does the slash tradition of fan fiction make writers more comfortable with erotic romance publishing? Does the independence of fan fiction (no editors, no publishing houses) lead fan fiction writers more easily to self-publishing?

This panel, like the earlier one, talked about the changes in the romance genre over the past 20 years. The rise of self-publishing; the shift from heroines with no sexual agency to heroines whose sexual desires are affirmed; the rise of queer romance, and sex-positive romance—just a few of the changes the panelists noted.

A fascinating exchange occurred between Jordan Silver, who declared that she wasn't a feminist, that she liked alpha males and wanted to be taken care of, and Feminista Jones, who spoke about the often fraught relationship between black women and feminism (many black women feeling that feminism is a white girl thing, without any real relevance to their lives). Jones argued for a broader understanding of feminism and its focus on equality for women, no matter their race or ethnicity. The discussion highlighted a point made earlier in the evening, that there is no one black voice, no one black identity; the three women of African descent on the panel were all coming from different backgrounds and different cultures, and one's experience did not mirror that of the others'. Only when we have enough books with people of color will we be able to move beyond the assumption of a monolithic black identity.

Jones also spoke about the feminism she tried to portray in her BDSM romance, Push The Button, which she wrote partly in reaction against the misconceptions about the BDSM lifestyle she saw in the popular 50 Shades of Gray novels. A member of the BDSM community herself, Jones wrote Push to present the everyday life aspects of a s/D relationship. When I read Push, I didn't find it that feminist, to be honest. After hearing Jones speak, though, it's clear that she herself has a strong grounding in feminist ideas, and I'm curious to know more about how she sees those ideas playing out in her novel. I've emailed her to see if she might like to guest post here at RNFF; will keep you posted...

The panelists also discussed the difficulties in finding homes for their work with traditional publishers, in large part because of the paucity of agents and editors of color in the industry. I've seen far more younger editors in the business than there were when I worked in publishing (in the late 80s and the 90s), but until people of color hold positions of power within what are often very hierarchical publishing houses, the lack of real investment in the stories of writers of color is all too likely to continue.

Two other great comments from this portion of the evening: Feminista Jones took major issue with the idea that black women are not deserving of love; her goal in writing romance, she says, is to "show black women being adored." Suleikha Snyder mentioned that in one of her Bollywood novels, she had great fun writing one white character in her otherwise all Indian cast, ironically turning the tables on all of the token (insert minority identity here) portrayals found in the majority of American-published romance.

During the Q & A period, two questions white readers often ask of authors of color came to the fore: how do I find more books by writers of color, and how do I, as a white writer, include characters of color in my work without stereotyping/being offensive? The panel turned the first question back on the audience—rather than giving them places to find POC romance, the panelists challenged audience members to help create a publishing and consumer environment in which such romances will not be hard to find. Buy books by writers of color; use social media to promote writers of color; tell publishers that you want romances by writers of color. Don't let publishers off the hook by letting them continue to say that such romances do not sell.

The panelists were gracious in offering advice in response to the second question. Ask questions with thoughtfulness and respect, do research, run your stories by beta readers of color, even just make friends with people from cultures and ethnicities to which you yourself do not belong. What they did not say, but what I would like to add, is that it is not the responsibility of writers of color to make us white writers feel safe when writing about people outside our own cultures. We have to take a risk, be willing to make mistakes, be willing to be called out on them, learn from them, and keep going.

Just as writers of color have been doing all along.

More on Friday about the RWA National conference, and topics of interest there to feminist romance readers.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Talking Feminism and Romance in NYC

The annual meeting of the Romance Writers of America is being held next week in New York City, and I'm looking forward to attending. And I'm especially looking forward to attending a pre-conference discussion on the evening of July 21 about romance and feminism, put together by a group called Two panels are scheduled: "Romance Novels as a Feminist Trope Throughout the Centuries," moderated by Maya Rodale and featuring Sarah MacLean, Carla Neggers, and Ashley Antoinette; and "Erotic Writing and the Role of the Woman," moderated by Feminista Jones and featuring Alisha Rai, Jordan Silver, and Rebekah Weatherspoon. For more information, check out the web announcement here.

If any RNFF readers are going to be at RWA, or at the panel discussion, I'd love to chat with you face to face. I'll be the short redhead looking shy and ill-at-ease (confirmed introvert, here) over in the corner of the room, unless of course someone brings up something to do with feminism...

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Rape Culture and Rape Fantasy: Lilah Pace's ASKING FOR IT

Do we live in a culture that normalizes rape? Tacitly encourages it?

If so, do romance novels play a role in perpetuating such a culture?

Do women who have sexual fantasies about being raped feel ashamed of such fantasies? Feel like bad feminists?

Would a woman who lived in a non-rape culture never fantasize about being raped?

These and other questions have been swirling around in my head after reading Liz McCausland's June 13, 2015 "Unpopular Opinion" post on her blog, Something More: my extensive reading, which discusses the questions we are not asking about our romance novels when it comes to the issue of rape. And after reading an article in the July/August 2015 edition of the Yale Alumni Magazine, in which four women, including two current Yale students, hold a conversation about issues of sexual misconduct on campus. And especially after reading Lilah Pace's controversial erotic romance, Asking For It, which explores the issue of rape fantasy while simultaneously presenting eroticized scenes of consensual rape for its readers' pleasure.

Pace's novel, told from the point of view of Vivienne, a white New Orleans girl of privilege who has moved to Austin, Texas, to attend the University of Texas and earn a Ph.D. in art. Vivienne is in therapy, in part because of the guilt and shame she feels about her sexual fantasies: "I don't get off unless I'm imagining being raped.... I hate this about myself" (page 2). She hates it, but even so, she wishes she could move from fantasy to reality, not by being attacked (been there, done that), but by sharing her fantasy with a willing partner in a sexual role-play. Unfortunately, her last boyfriend, nice-guy lawyer Geordie, was not at all comfortable playing such a sexual role, even in play, and because of this, as well as other incompatibilities, the two broke up.

One part of Vivienne is sickened by her obsession with rape fantasy. Another takes deep pleasure in indulging in it, even when the lines between reality and fantasy get blurry. A flat tire on a dark, lonely road; a cell phone with no charge; a large, overpowering male stepping out of his sleek car to help—when Vivienne finds herself in the midst of this real-life scenario at the start of Asking For It, her mind soon fills

...with visions I didn't want to want. Visions of him bending me over the back of my car, pushing up the skirt of my sundress. Of him pulling me into the backseat, putting my hand on his cock, whispering, Time to thank me. His hands fisting in my hair as he towed me down on my knees—
     Stop it. (8)

Good Samaritan does not turn into actual rapist, and the two part without even exchanging names. But only a few days later, at a friend's party, Vivienne finds herself being introduced to unsmiling Jonah Marks, UT Earth Sciences professor, and the sexy object of her latest guilty fantasies. Even worse, former boyfriend Geordie is also in attendance, and is headed toward sloppy, confessional drunk territory. When Geordie attempts to apologize for his role in their breakup in excruciatingly embarrassing detail—"I mean, kink yay, right? Everybody should love kinks. And you get to have yours! You do. But it's not my kink. At all. Playing rapist freaks me out. But I shouldn't have been such a dumb cunt about it" (25)—Vivenne can't bring herself to just laugh and forget it. And neither can Jonah, who overhears Geordie's confession. And who makes Vivienne a proposal that tells her that he, too, was as far from envisioning himself as a Good Samaritan as it was possible to be:

     "I don't even know you."
     "That's going to make it better for you," Jonah says. "With a boyfriend, you can pretend—but it's a joke, really. A game. Not the fantasy you really want. Me? I'm nearly a stranger. I can do more than fuck you. I can scare you a little. Just a little. Enough to make it what you really want.
     "It's your fantasy, and mine. Chances like this don't come along often—two people twisted in the exact same way." Jonah smiles; it's a fierce expression, rather than a friendly one. "If we don't make something out of this, I think you'll regret it. I know I will." (29)

Unsurprisingly, the rational, thinking part of Vivienne is appalled by Jonah's proposal:

My fantasy is something I'm trying to escape from, not sink down into. If I try this and hate it, that would be beyond horrible. It might be as traumatic as a real rape, and I would have walked right into it. That's not what scares me, though. What scares me is that I'll try it and love it. Maybe I really am that fucked up. (30)

Yet her own obsession calls to her, and only a few days later, she finds herself emailing Jonah, asking him to meet. And then asking him for more.

Several consensual forced sexual encounters later, and Vivienne and Jonah know they're explosive together as lovers. And so do readers; these scenes are detailed, explicit, and meant to be a turn-on, not a sign of Vivienne's "fucked up" mind. And they were so, at least to this reader, even though rape fantasy isn't really something that pops to the front of my brain when I'm imagining sexy times. I've never been sexually assaulted myself, but I have friends, acquaintances, and relatives who have, and I find the idea of eroticizing sexual violence against women in the face of that knowledge pretty distasteful. But Pace's story turned me on. Why?

I think that it's because that, despite all the pre-publication talk about the blurring of the boundaries between fantasy and reality, there is a clear line between rape and role-play, both for Vivienne and for the reader. Vivienne and Jonah discussed their hard and soft boundaries, as occurs in many BDSM romance novels, before their first encounter, and all of the sites of their trysts, as well as the general outlines of the fantasy each one will involve, are agreed upon by both parties before each occurence. Vivienne is sickened by her actual rapist, who is still involved in her life to a small degree, but she is turned on by the pretense of being forced. Reading Vivienne's story felt far different to me than reading Old Skool rape-tastic romance, in which rape occurs but is rarely named such in the texts. In Old Skool romances, a reader has to turn a narrative of actual rape into a fantasy inside her own head. In contrast, what Vivienne and Jonah are doing is meant to simulate rape, rather than rape pretending to be something more benign as in Old Skool romances. The fantasy takes place on the pages of the book, in the head of the protagonist, rather than in my own. I'm not pretending that rape is a pleasure; Vivienne is, and it turns her on. That difference may not seem to be a major one, but for me, it was the difference between a book that makes me want to throw up and a book that I find both intellectually intriguing and sexually pleasurable.

And it's also because Vivienne has the advice of a kindly, intelligent, and insightful therapist to guide her through her unusual sexual journey. Doreen, said therapist, reassures Vivienne that experiencing rape fantasies in the wake of being sexually assaulted, while uncommon, is not unheard of. After her first encounter with Jonah, Vivienne fears that Doreen will judge her negatively for turning her fantasies into reality/play (projecting much?), and will advise Vivienne for her own mental health against doing it again. But Doreen, like the best of therapists, refuses to judge; instead, she assures Vivienne that "there's a world of difference between your fantasies and what [X] did, because he raped you.... You choose your partner in the fantasy—whether that's a figment of your imagination or a willing lover like Jonah. You didn't choose [X]. He took that choice away from you" (192). Doreen tries to help Vivienne redirect her focus to what she thinks is Vivienne's real problem:

"One of the reasons you came to me was that you wanted to stop having this fantasy. I understand your reasons. But I don't think the fantasy itself is your most significant problem. I think your main problem is the way you beat yourself up about it.... That, and the reason you're fixated on the fantasy in the first place." (11)

Initially, Vivienne is able to keep her guilt and shame out of her trysts with Jonah. In large part because she and Jonah agree to keep their personal lives out of their sexual play, feeling that this will make the play all the more sexually charged. But such compartmentalization becomes more and more difficult as they encounter each other casually on campus and find themselves feeling empathy for the other's emotions, and when real life, in the form of family problems, interrupts their consensual play. Can a relationship founded on rape fantasy transform into a romantic relationship? How much can Jonah and Vivienne keep hidden from one another (Vivienne's rape and her dysfunctional family; the reasons why Jonah's so drawn to rapist role-play, and his own family troubles) and still hope to build mutual trust?

The most memorable scene in the novel for me was a confrontation of sorts between Vivienne and Doreen, when, after months of building up trust between them, Doreen thinks Vivienne is strong enough to listen to this bombshell: "You might have had this fantasy even if [X] had never raped you" (251). Though Vivienne disagrees—"No." I shake my head. "He did this to me. You know he did," Doreen asks Vivienne to consider thinking about her history in a different way:

     "[X] raped you.... The fantasy comes from that, and from a culture that eroticizes violence against women, and leftover puritanical guilt about sex that tells us we're not allowed to choose it and want it for ourselves, and from God only knows where else."
     I'm furious with her. I want to cry. My cheeks are flushed with shame. Every emotion I've ever felt about this is bubbling up at once. "But it's the only thing that gets me off. I can't come any other way! Does that sound normal to you?"
     Doreen looks at me steadily. "Exactly. The fantasy isn't your problem; it's the extremity of your fixation on it. Who  is it who won't let you find sexual satisfaction any other way?"
     Me. She means me.  (251-52)

Asking For It doesn't provide any easy answers to the questions that opened this post; in fact, with its "To be Continued" ending, it leaves far too many of them frustratingly open. But at least it is asking us to give voice to the questions, to start thinking about the intersections of rape culture and rape fantasy, in romance novels and in real life. A truly feminist move, in my book.

Asking for It
Berkley, 2015