Friday, November 30, 2012

Rape in Romance, part 2: Rape in 1980s Harlequin romances

In speaking recently to a friend who had had an abortion as a teen in the early 1980s, I heard for the first time that her pregnancy had been the result not of unprotected sex, but of rape by her boyfriend.  "Call the police? And tell them what?" my friend exclaimed when I asked her why she hadn't prosecuted her rapist-boyfriend. "No one had ever heard of date rape back then," she reminded me. "I didn't even think of it as rape myself."

With "Take Back the Night" vigils on college campuses, documentaries about date rape on cable and network news programs, and widespread media outrage whenever a (usually male) public figure makes a sexist remark about rape victims, it's sometimes hard to remember that until quite recently talk about rape could rarely be heard in public.  Reading the first Mills & Boon/Harlequin romances to feature rape not as "aggressive seduction" but as criminal violation gave me a much-needed reminder of just how new our culture's acknowledgement of date/acquaintance rape truly is.

Charlotte Lamb and Daphne Clair were both popular Mills & Boon/Harlequin authors in 1980—Clair had published ten novels, and Lamb more than thirty— when each chose to use the romance form to explore the then-seldom confronted topic of rape and its effect on a woman's subsequent sexual and romantic life. Lamb chose to open Stranger in the Night with a scene depicting the rape her heroine, Clare experiences as "a young eighteen, straight up from the country" (5). Taken by her flatmate to a New Year's party, Clare drinks a bit too much, leaving her susceptible to an attractive man who flatters her and kisses her. Believing herself in love, Clare allows the man to draw her away from the party, where he violently takes her virginity, despite her physical and verbal protests (an act the back cover copy euphemistically terms "sudden and rough lovemaking"). In the aftermath, Clare vows never to allow herself to be "trapped by her own heart" again (23).

Fast forward nine years, and Clare has become a sophisticated, famous actress, not by sleeping her way to the top but by sublimating her entire emotional life into her performances. Between shows, she's vacationing in Nice with her best friend, playwright Macey, reading through his latest script. Though Macey initially hoped for a romantic relationship with Clare, he accepted a platonic one as the price of remaining her friend. Yet as he tries to convince her to take a role in his new play, its clear he still carries a torch for her.

Macey becomes far less willing to restrain his sexual feelings after he witnesses Clare's unprecedented emotional reaction to the nephew of another actress Macey is courting for his play. Readers realize that Luke Murray is the man who raped her, but Clare has never told anyone else about her violation, including her best friend. "I'd care like hell. I don't want people knowing, staring, smiling," Clare thinks when the perceptive Macey asks her what's wrong (70). In particular, she doesn't want Macey to know: "He would look at her quite differently; she knew that. Macey had an image of her, and she didn't want that image shattered" (71).

Clare can't tell Macey of her rape because she, like society, doesn't know any better than to blame herself for it: "He was bound to despise her when he knew how she had let Luke Murry take her that night. Clare knew Macey well enough to know how he looked at the sort of girl who got drunk at parties and went to bed with strangers" (77-78). Later, when Macey asks her why she never told anyone about what had happened to her, she responds, "Rape? How many people would believe me? I went with him of my own accord. And to do him justice, I suppose he thought I was willing, too. He thought I knew what he wanted. How was he to guess I was as thick as a plank?" (112-13). Women are raped, the novel seems to suggest, because of their own stupid behavior, not because rape is wrong.

In his jealousy, Macey becomes almost as physically and verbally abusive to Clare as her rapist was. A reader might expect that telling Macey her secret will mitigate this problem. But Clare tells Macey in the middle of the novel, not at its end, and his obnoxious behavior only continues. The real difficulty comes when Clare's revelation reawakens her long-repressed sexuality, and she begins to reciprocate Macey's attraction. But even though he desires her, Macey doesn't want Clare to use him just to satisfy a passing sexual urge, and his sexual frustration only increases.

Unfortunately, he doesn't tell her this until after he's already in the midst of a sexual encounter he initiates (although he, like her rapist, attributes his loss of sexual control to her, not himself). He blames her for his own frustrations,  calling her "a stupid little bitch," and a "tease," the same words Luke Murry uttered when she resisted his sexual advances nine years earlier. At the novel's climax, when Macey threatens yet again to "do something we'll both regret," i.e., force her into sex, her reaction is not "stop acting like a rapist," but instead "I love you" (183). With the traditional Harlequin construct that insists the hero prove his love by losing sexual control, it becomes distressingly difficult to differentiate lover from rapist.

Structurally, Daphne Clair's The Loving Trap takes the opposite approach. The novel begins in the present, not the past; both the hero and the reader are kept in the dark about just what happened to heroine Kyla to make her so skittish about sex. The back cover copy makes no mention of rape, either, framing the problem between Kyla and new husband as the "reluctance to commit herself that she still felt, despite her love for Marc." Clair drops myriad hints about Kyla's past, hints that a 21st-century reader would surely pick up on: Kyla dislikes  "big, aggressive men" like Marc, who, like most Harlequin heroes, is a wealthy, self-assured professional (11); she dates Chris, whose "very lack of masculine attraction was the chief quality that had attracted her to him" (25); she feels "panic shot through with sudden pleasure" when Marc kisses her (65). Would it take the 1980 reader far longer? Perhaps when she grows angry at the way Marc takes his own power for granted: "It must be lovely for you to shift us all of us little pawns around the way you do. And it's all done with kindness, too. Everyone benefits, don't they? We're all much better off than before" (65)? Or when Kyla faints when Marc's kiss becomes blatantly sexual? When she refuses to have sex with him on their honeymoon? Or when she admits to herself that "quite simply, she resented him and his male power" (124)?

Though Marc, unlike Macey, doesn't get to hear Kyla's story until near the novel's end, he realizes early that he needs to be gentle, that any abrupt, aggressive move will send her flying away. Before their marriage, he approaches her "with infinite slowness, as though afraid of frightening her with a sudden lunge" (43).  In order to win Kyla, Marc must become the opposite of a traditional Harlequin hero; he must restrain his violence, and his passion.

As a result of Marc's go-slow approach, Kyla begins to feel sexual passion for the first time: "She hadn't thought she could ever feel like that about a man. In a way, she felt an odd, detached relief, that it was possible, after all, that her body was capable of reacting in that way, because the men she had been fond of in the past had never been able to touch any core of pleasure or passion" (70). She even startles herself by thinking "It was high time she stopped being afraid of life and began to reach for what it had to offer" (105). Reach she does, for when Marc offers marriage, she agrees.

Kyla, like Clare, fears telling the man she loves about what happened to her. Not, thankfully, because she thinks she's at fault for her rape; Clair's novel is remarkable for the lack of self-shame it inflicts on its heroine. Kyla was even brave enough to tell the authorities, and to testify against her attackers. Kyla is reluctant to tell Marc because in the past, she told two other men she dated, with disastrous results: one pulled away, the other took a prurient interest.

Yet despite her love for Marc, Kyla cannot control her body's rejection whenever their physical contact moves beyond kissing. Marc becomes increasingly impatient, veering between restraint and force, lover and rapist: "I'm not going to apologize.... You asked for what you got," he tells her after one such aborted encounter (137). After they return from their unconsummated honeymoon, the alpha Harlequin hero/rapist who must force sex upon the woman he loves comes to the fore. Kyla resists, stopping him only by angrily revealing that he won't be the first, that he won't be able to inflict the pain of deflowering on her.

Marc finally realizes what has happened to Kyla, and listens while she tells her story of being raped by a drunken acquaintance and his two friends. Though Marc is disgusted by his behavior toward Kyla, we still have a few more pages to fill out, and so Kyla misinterprets his self-disgust, mistaking it for disgust with her. The two must dance a bit more around their own insecurities before Marc can finally admit that "I should have guessed, of course. The signs were there, if I hadn't been such a blind, arrogant fool.... I'd just damned near raped you myself, and that made me about on a level with them" (184).

In Stranger in the Night, Macey, too, had been dismayed by his own near-rape of Clare after he discovered what had happened to her in the past. Yet he continued to insult her and impose himself sexually on her. In contrast, in The Loving Trap, Marc recognizes the distressing similarities between his actions and those of Kyla's rapists, and quickly changes his behavior.  Only then can Kyla accept Marc as a sexual partner, demonstrating her readiness for sexual intimacy with him by initiating it, rather than simply responding to his advances.

Both novels demonstrate the limited discourses about rape available to women in the early 1980s, even to novelists wishing to portray rape victims with sympathy and understanding. That The Loving Trap proves a far more satisfying read for the feminist reader than Stranger in the Night also shows that significant differences can and do exist between category romances, especially those depicting social issues in the midst of a paradigm shift.

Next time on RNFF: 
The girl as romantic stalker in Sharon G. Flake's Pinned


  1. The Loving Trap proves a far more satisfying read for the feminist reader

    I very definitely agree with this! I had to skim-read most of Stranger in the Night and even so I was absolutely furious with Macey.

    Clair drops myriad hints about Kyla's past, hints that a 21st-century reader would surely pick up on: Kyla dislikes "big, aggressive men" like Marc, who, like most Harlequin heroes, is a wealthy, self-assured professional (11); she dates Chris, whose "very lack of masculine attraction was the chief quality that had attracted her to him" (25); she feels "panic shot through with sudden pleasure" when Marc kisses her (65). Would it take the 1980 reader far longer?

    I'm not sure why the first two quotes should/would be understood by the 21st-century reader as clues that Kyla had been raped. Despite the prevalence in romance of muscular heroes who are over 6 feet tall, many women prefer men with a different type of physique. And to my mind it just seems sensible to avoid men who seem "aggressive," because I'd read that as saying that she normally steers clear of men who give the impression they'd be abusive.

    The "lack of masculine attraction" thing, nowadays, might be taken as an indication that Kyla is attracted to men who are gender-queer/androgynous in appearance.

    1. Laura:

      For today's reader, the first two quotes wouldn't necessarily indicate Kyla had been raped. I, too, think avoiding overly aggressive men is sensible. But most heroines in the Harlequins I remember from my 1980s reading seem to have the opposite reaction. That detail seemed striking to me in the context of early 1980s category romance, where the heroines almost always are drawn to the "big, aggressive" rich professional men, even against their wills. For a heroine to be described as AFRAID of such men, and preferring a man like Chris, whose sexuality is not at all compelling, seems a clear sign if not of having been raped, at the least of sexuality gone wrong in the Harlequin/Mills & Boon realm.

    2. I take your point, but at the same time I have the impression that virgin heroines from this period (or maybe a the 1970s?) quite often found a big, rich hero's sexuality both frightening and attractive. That's how you end up with the "I hate you, I hate you, I love you" plots. I think, too, there might be quite a few who're not described as being afraid of men like the hero, but who do start the novel engaged/involved with a smaller/weaker/less powerful man, with whom they're comfortable, prior to ending up with the bigger/stronger/richer/more assertive hero.

      With the traditional Harlequin construct that insists the hero prove his love by losing sexual control, it becomes distressingly difficult to differentiate lover from rapist.

      I wonder if, in a way, this could be interpreted via a feminist lens as a statement about the way masculinity is constructed as dangerous to women, so that heterosexual women always end up "sleeping with the enemy" and heterosexual relationships are therefore mostly a case of finding a compromise solution. Charlotte Lamb's oevure is really quite complex and fascinating because she wrote quite a lot of novels in which the hero's behaviour is acknowledged to be unacceptable/destructive (e.g. extreme jealousy, lack of communication, obsessiveness, vindictiveness) and then shows him gradually managing to overcome those flaws to a degree. I get the impression that she meant the reader to feel both fascinated and somewhat repelled by these heroes. They're perhaps a bit like some of the 20th-century vampires in horror, who're attractive and seductive, yet horrifying. Or perhaps it might be better to say that part of their seductiveness/attraction actually stems from the fact that they're horrifying.

      Maybe that's just me "reading against the grain" from a 21st-century perspective, though.

    3. I'm intrigued by your phrase "the way masculinity is constructed as dangerous to women." Who is doing the constructing? Society at the time? And thus Lamb and other writers mirror that construction in their books, even while working to contain it? Or by category romance in particular?

      I've been wondering if in some ways such books can be read a reflection of historically specific male anxiety? A worry that women might, after being exposed to the insights of second-wave feminism, prefer the "weaker" man, the one that men have grown up being told they shouldn't be? Teaching women through romance that the aggressive guy is, underneath it all, ok, might be reassuring to men trained to believe in the rightness/naturalness of traditional masculinity.

    4. Who is doing the constructing? Society at the time?

      Yes, society, which probably mostly means men in this context but as you suggest, women writers can mirror it "even while working to contain it." I was thinking about category romance in particular, but that's because I've read so many of them, and because this post was about two category romances.

      Since category romances have mostly been written by women, it might seem a bit tricky to think of them as reflecting male anxieties. On the other hand, one of the Boon brothers was convinced that what women wanted were alpha males, and presumably that belief will have affected his choices when it came to deciding which novels to publish. Jay Dixon mentions that there was a period before his time, in the aftermath of the First World War, when many Mills & Boon heroes were very boyish, perhaps reflecting many women's recollections of a lost generation of young men. Of course, E. M. Hull's rapist hero, The Sheik also dates from that period, so no doubt then, as now, different women had different preferences.

      the rightness/naturalness of traditional masculinity

      It seems to me that ideals about masculinity have changed quite a lot over the years. The Victorian ideal of the muscular Christian male, who is chivalrous in his attitude towards women, for example, is very different from the James Bond style of masculinity.

    5. I'm not that familiar with the M&B/Harlequins that predate my own adolescent reading. How fascinating to think of post WWI books with boyish heroes! Will have to try and get a hold of a few of these.

      You're right to remind me to be more specific when I write about masculinity. Perhaps the "rightness/naturalness" of an aggressive, dominant, post WWII masculinity, rather than simply "traditional masculinity"?

      And thanks for sharing the note about one of the Boon brothers and his ideas about what women wanted in their heroes. Makes the idea of the books reflecting not only female, but also male anxieties probable...

  2. Your closing comment reminded me of a conversation a friend and I had. We realised we both assumed romance novels in some way promote and further if no a feminist cause then at least a woman-positive one (er, can they be separate?). Certainly when I write I'm writing women who are heroes to me, and challenging what het sex looks like, and what roles and man and woman can play in a relationship. But as we were talking it dawned on us that a huge percentage of romance novels simply reflect the current paradigm rather than challenging it. Your two books seem like a good showcase of this. One reflect the contemporary views of rape, the other progresses them.

  3. Anna:

    Yes, I agree that the majority of most popular works, including romances, reflect, rather than challenge, the current ideologies of the times in which they are published. And since we live in times when both feminist and reactionary discourses are both very much in play, it's not surprising that many romances embrace one and not the other, or contain aspects of both.

    That's part of the reason why I started this blog -- to try to move the critical conversation beyond assuming ALL romances are complicit with patriarchal discourses, or ALL inherently feminist because they take on issues important to women.

  4. In the 70s, 80s, and 90s I was politically active in getting stronger rape laws and organizing "Take Back the Night" rallies. Though the early books did not handle the heroes and their reactions well, they did handle many of the "victims" reactions well.

    Even in the most horrendous of cases, rape victims did tend to blame themselves. That is what women of that generation had been taught from early childhood. For heaven's sake, don't let a bra strap show, don't let your slip show, sit with your feet and knees together.

    Hopefully, we are sending better messages to our daughters, but when I read the news and the outrageous statements of politicians, defense attorneys, and friends of the rapists, I am afraid that the public still doesn't understand . . . "Whatever we wear, where ever we go, yes means yes and no means NO!"

  5. Liberty:

    Yes, I do think that these authors capture the victims' reactions well. I would have been happier, though, if the narratives around them suggested that such self-blaming actions were not simply natural, but a result of the social discourses around them (as you point out so well). Or in other words, that while the characters could be depicted reacting this way, it would be great if the story constructed around them around could call the "rightness" of such a reaction into question. Perhaps a bit too much to ask from such early examples...

  6. I remember being dismayed at fourteen (that was even before a boyfriend threatened to rape me on the grounds I didn't really mean no) when reading Georgette Heyer's 'Devil's Cub' where the so called hero threatens to rape the heroine, and it's treated as OK, because she tries to shoot him (sadly the gun misfires) and he falls in love with her spirit, apparently. She soon forgives him, even though he tries to throttle her at another time. This book is still receiving uncritical five star reviews on amazon and blogs of Heyer fans (some of whom excuse him on the grounds that 'he thought she was a woman of easy virtue'), and seems to be part of this regressive rape fantasy resurgence.

  7. ..I'm intrigued at your concept of challenging both extreme concepts about romance; but
    while I may be being obtuse, I do find it hard to relate to the idea that women having a need for romance isn't part of the patriarchal ideology, where men have adventures and
    women live vicariously. If romance novels challenge this, well and good; but unless I've been unlucky in the ones I've seen, they don't seem to, and the romantic themes in YA
    still seem to depict girls basing their whole lives round a man - ie, 'Twilight' and 'The Mortal Instruments'. Sorry to comment as 'anonymous', by the way; my wordpress log in has a glitch in it, my pen name is Lucinda Elliot.

  8. Hi Jackie,

    Love the blog! I was wondering if I could have permission to use the Things that Cause Rape photo for my online media school project


    1. Adam:


      I found the image here:

      Not sure if they are the original source...

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