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.
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).
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.
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.
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