"Mom, that boy is hitting me!"
"Oh, honey, that's only because he likes you..."
Female readers: when you were a girl, did you ever have an exchange like the one above with your mother, or another older authority figure? I know I did. The words were meant to make me feel better, and they did, to a certain extent. Though I certainly didn't like getting pushed, or hit, or having my hair pulled, thinking that such behavior was less about how much a boy hated me and more about how much he liked me bolstered my wilting self-confidence. But at the same time, the words also unconsciously taught me that it was okay for boys to hit me. Though boys could be violent, said violence was simply a stand-in for caring feelings boys were did not know how to, or were not allowed to, express, and so I should not protest, at least not too much.
I couldn't help thinking of such exchanges as I read Charlotte Stein's latest erotic romance, Never Sweeter, book 2 in her Dark Obsession series. In the novel's prologue, Letty, a senior in high school, is walking home after her car has broken down and comes across her long-time tormentors, fellow students Jason, Patrick, and Tate. She knows once they see her, they "were going to pull some stunt," but even she could not believe that they would force her off the road: "They weren't going to actually do it for real. Bullies like them never really did anything. It was all just safe things that made their target feel like shit" (Kindle Loc 89).
Yet Letty spends the next two years in rehab, recovering from the injuries she sustained after Jason's truck shoved her off a bluff. And none of the boys was prosecuted for the act—"just an accident," Jason tells the police, who believe him because he's popular, and a sports star.
When Letty makes her first female friend at college, she cannot help but think of how different it is to have someone who believes her side of the story: "Clearly, Lydia would never tell her that she had to stop doing whatever she was doing that goaded Tate. There would be no calls to the college's office to talk about the transfer she should get, instead of the one he should" (Loc 480). And she's thrilled to find someone who can help her keep in mind the old Tate, the one that Letty is certain is waiting just around the corner, ready to spring a new humiliating trap on her as soon as she lets her guard down.
When Letty and Tate are assigned to partner on a project about the depiction of sex in film, though, their relationship takes an unexpectedly sensual turn. Watching White Palace, Dirty Dancing, Nine and a Half Weeks and others turns them both on, something that Tate is not at all shy about noticing. Or talking about. Or acting on, at least when it comes to himself. And Tate's sexual self-display, combined with his ever-increasing displays of emotional vulnerability, lead Letty to do just what she could never have imagined doing: enjoying hot sexy times, and touchingly emotional times, with her one-time enemy. Yes, despite their harasser/harassee history, Letty and Tate fall for one another. And such is Stein's skill as a writer that she has the reader cheering for (and turned on by) this unlikely outcome.
And it seems a far better word to describe what occurs in Stein's novel. Neither Tate nor Letty can go back and fix the past, the past in which Tate made Letty lock herself in the janitor's closet, or called her "fatty" and "thunder thighs," or put up flyers at school with her picture "telling everyone to watch out for the whale that had gotten loose from Sea World" (Loc 3576). In fact, the entire idea that your tormentor is actually tormenting you because he secretly loves you is deeply compensatory. Presented as reality within the novel—Tate, it turns out, was secretly in love with Letty all the time he tormented her—outside the novel, it serves as a fantasy, a fantasy that can make a reader who has been bullied feel better about the experience, even if, as is far more likely in real life, her own tormenter acted out of cruelty and privilege than out of frustrated caring.
But Stein does not allow Letty to accept the guilt that such a plot turn initially seems to dump on her plate. And she uses Tate as her mouthpiece to explain why none of this is Letty's fault:
"But you're not fucking responsible for shit that I chose to do. You didn't owe me your love. You didn't owe me a polite yes. It was not on you to let me down gently and somehow ward off punishment I was fucking stupid enough to think you deserved." (4030)
Yes, the very zenith of compensatory fantasy: not only does the hot, sexy bully turn out to be in love with you; he also turns out to be a closet feminist.
Is reading Stein's compensatory fantasy a first, positive step toward restoring a bullied girl's stolen self-esteem? Or, more problematically, does it encourage the reader to side with the purportedly "loving" bully?
I guess the answer lies in whether said reader will tell her own daughter that she's "not fucking responsible" for a bullying boy's actions, or feelings, and should not stand for being teased, tormented, or hit by a boy just because he likes her.
Or whether instead she just ends up repeating the old line, "Oh, honey, he's only hitting you because he likes you..."
A Dark Obsession Novel