Sunday, December 27, 2009

Virtual Conversation with Moriah Jovan

In a recent post, I organized my thinking about defending romance novels.  As so often happens (often delightfully so), the comments thread led someplace very interesting, but slightly tangential to the original subject of the post.


In this instance, it led to an exchange with Moriah Jovan on the subject of forced seduction.  Her last comment was rejected by my crappy comments facility (honest, it's first on my New Year's Resolution list:  get blog onto WordPress!), and so she emailed me her thoughts about my comment on her comment.  Confused?  Never mind.  Read it for yourself:

Moriah Jovan said...

I don't bother to defend romance reading, but one thing I find myself defending one particular romance device, which is under fire by a lot of ROMANCE READERS (forced seduction, in case anybody cares).

It's like they forgot (or want to forget) romance's roots AND they don't want to acknowledge that this is a common female sexual fantasy.

I'm going to write a paper on that for Dr. Frantz's panel the year-after-next.

Magdalen said...

Hmmm. This is always a difficult topic, and can be viewed and approached from different perspectives. I completely agree with you that it can be a powerful sexual fantasy, but (and this is just me) I need the heroine's POV and her reaction to be favorable (continually throughout the forced seduction, or at the end) for me not to be grossed out.

But if the book is somehow promoting forced seduction, that's more problematic.

Rape is different, but "rape" in romance novels is often some hybrid act that has elements of anger, control, contempt and sexual attraction in it. And I didn't put it in quotation marks to defend it, merely to signify that the act of rape in a romance novel has some significant differences from rape in real life. It's also no defense of, or justification for, rape in real life.

I would argue there's a continuum from BDSM (where the act is fully consensual and either it, or the underlying relationship, has been fully negotiated in advance) through to "romance novel rape" (which I define as hero rapes heroine at a point in the story in which they are not in love, or even in lust, although they do end up together). Forced seduction -- say, like the "tied to the chair" scene in Untie My Heart -- is somewhere in the middle: there is sufficient subconscious sexual attraction between the characters that it's not rape, but it wasn't consented to in advance.

But hey -- that just my thinking. And I surely know that others can, and will, disagree.

Moriah Jovan said...

I like this definition:
"romance novel rape" (which I define as hero rapes heroine at a point in the story in which they are not in love, or even in lust, although they do end up together)

BUT
"rape" in romance novels is often some hybrid act that has elements of anger, control, contempt and sexual attraction in it. And I didn't put it in quotation marks to defend it, merely to signify that the act of rape in a romance novel has some significant differences from rape in real life.

what it really boils down to is "I want you so much I can't control myself around you." This is the appeal.

This has been around forEVER, but there was research going on in the field of female sexuality during the time when the "bodice-ripper" "rape" romance really hit it big, and the commonality was the rape fantasy.

(That's what I'm going to do my paper on.)

I haven't read Untie My Heart, so I don't know, but I agree that:
there is sufficient subconscious sexual attraction between the characters that it's not rape, but it wasn't consented to in advance.

Right. That's how it's evolved and it's the way I did it; the heroine had a crush on the hero and he was so discombobulated by her (and so afraid of her rejection because he thought she'd hate him when she found out that the rumors about him were, in fact, true) that he didn't know how to act around her and...voila.

Anyway, the whole topic is one I've taken a lot of heat for, and it seems like the baby (the fantasy) has been thrown out with the bathwater (rape is BAD, and nobody--least of all I--is disputing that).



That's what we think, at least.  Anyone want to join the discussion?

8 comments:

  1. So, my contribution to this convo is that romance actually used to be more about adventure and female power than about the romantic relationship.

    That's why forced seduction, or what we are now, thanks to this post, calling "romance novel rape" did not make a book an automatic wallbanger.

    I also think it would be interesting to look at the way POV was told in those earlier romances. It's been a while, but I have a hunch it's a bit more distant than the deep POV authors tend to use these days.

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  2. Lovely way of describing a tough situation [forced seduction] ... and true in many more instances too (altho interestingly, Billionaires and Babes*secret often get a pass from having to pass some modern PC standard).

    It's fantasy, it's romance and it's fiction: if it t'were like real life, I doubt a lot of us would be reading it OR we'd be calling it Women's Fiction which RomLand books are not. Or don't have to be :)

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  3. I asked Sabrina to comment because I think her point about the 70s bodice rippers being about adventure and female power is right on. I don't see that much in current romance, except as urban fantasy and you know, couching it all in paranormal terms makes me uneasy.

    Even though the Daily Kos piece referenced at Smart Bitches (sorry, it won't let me paste the URL) makes a good stride toward understanding, it still bashes the bodice ripper as "rape romance," which really plays into the politically correct versus the VERY common female fantasy as documented by contemporary nonfiction scholarly types.

    In a Twitter discussion some time ago, some of us collectively agreed (and can't remember who "some" was, sorry about that, too) that the 70s bodice rippers would be called women's fiction and/or historical fiction today. Romance have evolved or devolved (as I see it) because female empowerment seems less than it was then.

    They took greater risks, they weren't couching the more brutal aspects in urban fantasy or paranormal, and they were tales of derring-do and female sexuality.

    I don't know why I find myself feeling the need to defend it--but heaven knows, I do. Perhaps it's the feeling of (to quote some stranger-of-the-self-styled-feminist type who took exception to my taste), "IT'S WRONG AND YOU SHOULDN'T LIKE IT!!!"

    I'm sorry. I thought part of feminism was about owning your sexuality (and, um, your kinks) and being unapologetic. By defending it, I feel like an apologist, but on the other hand, I cannot STAND it when others seek to dictate one's preferences. *ahem* IMO, the words YOU SHOULDN'T LIKE THAT doesn't belong in a discussion, and the topic of forced seduction always has an underlayment of YOU SHOULDN'T LIKE THAT.

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  4. @Moriah -- And here's the essential conundrum: If women want to read "romance novel rape" scenes as a fantasy, they should be allowed to because, damnit, no one can dictate any longer what is "right" and "proper" for women to read or think or feel.

    But if women are so liberated that they are allowed to enjoy any fantasy they want, why wouldn't they want a fantasy that reinforces that freedom (e.g., the BDSM-model, which is fully negotiated in advance) and not one that negates that freedom (e.g., the forced seduction)?

    One reason -- and I suspect it's a minority perspective and thus not the answer to the larger riddle -- is that some women are working out the psychological ramifications of childhood abuse. I believe all adults are responsible for their own recovery from whatever was done to them; I don't endorse the "poor me, I am a victim" mentality. But recovering from abuse can often take uncomfortable forms.

    I recall hearing an NPR interview with a black woman writer from the South. (I have no recollection of the writer's name. Sorry.) She had been the victim of father-daughter incest. In her memoir, she explained that books with rapes in them (and I think she mean rape closer to what happens in real life, not "romance novel rape") were sexually arousing to her -- not because she approved (!) but because it metabolized her own experiences from her childhood. She'd been a child, and incapable of consent. But there can be elements of sexuality in childhood abuse. Reading about rape -- rape as a destructive act, an act of violence and control -- perhaps helped her deal with her past.

    Whatever the reason, it's okay to have a favorable reaction to "romance novel rape." I think we (readers) would know when a rape scene in a romance is endorsing the notion that men can take what they want without penalty or consequence, and when it isn't. Anyone who's uncomfortable with a rape scene is entitled to their disapproval. But not even the oldest of old skool romances ever said, "Rape is okay." And not disapproving of a "romance novel rape" isn't the same as approving of rape. Nor is it the same as denying women's right to choose their sexuality, or even their fantasies.

    Here's my thought for the day: How is it pro-feminism to disapprove of another woman's fantasy when you (the feminist) don't share that fantasy? How do you even know what you're disapproving of?

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  5. @Sabrina -- I love your point about the depth of POV, and I agree. (I'd even go back and read a bodice-ripper to see if you're right, but I think you are and that will have to do.)

    @Janet -- It troubles me that we've moved from the forced seduction fantasy (as Moriah points out, it's powerful: The hero is so attracted to heroine he can't help himself) to what -- some notion that a billionaire will like us and take all our financial worries away?

    I wrote about a Bronwyn James novel as an amuse-bouche, and it's true I enjoyed it. But an HEA in that book has to include the heroine giving up her "career" in order to live the luxurious life style of the hero. (Tellingly, she was a housekeeper for hire; I love "Sabrina" with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn as much as the next person, but 50 years later, is that really the dream job for a smart modern woman?)

    I can understand this as a backlash from feminism: women are now entitled, and even encouraged, to be as accomplished as men in almost all the careers open to men. But it's a lot of work, and wouldn't it be nice if I didn't have to? Reading a book in which the heroine is whisked away from a life of relatively hard work, however satisfying her career, doesn't have to be a condemnation of the right of women to professional equality.

    But if "romance novel rape" is despicable, why isn't "romance novel luxury," meaning luxury the heroine ends up with because the right hero fell in love with her, similarly despicable?

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  6. Oh, Magdalen, awesome questions. I can't answer them without resorting to explaining what I did in my books because I wanted to turn all that on its head--and this isn't about my book.

    >>>Anyone who's uncomfortable with a rape scene is entitled to their disapproval.<<<

    Absolutely!!! I would not want to be dismissive of anyone's opinion/feelings. I just want not to have mine dismissed or myself actively derided.

    I think what I've come down to is this: Not all 70s romances had this anyway (SHANNA by Kathleen Woodiwiss certainly did not) and it simply isn't a common feature in current romance novels (that I've seen anyway), so I'm not sure why there's this lingering hatred.

    >>>But if "romance novel rape" is despicable, why isn't "romance novel luxury," meaning luxury the heroine ends up with because the right hero fell in love with her, similarly despicable?<<<

    BRILLIANT!!! I never thought about it that way. NEVER. And it's so right on target.

    I like them both...the "I want you so badly I can't help myself" AND the "let me shower you in diamonds and shoes."

    Okay, hell, I'll say it anyway. Two of the three heroes of The Proviso end up stay-at-home dads, because they're tired and that's what they want to do. They've made their marks in the world. They want to have fun with their kids. Hero #2's wife is a CEO. Hero #3's wife becomes the county prosecutor and keeps that position for years. In Stay, the heroine makes a helluva lot more money than the hero.

    I just couldn't let my heroines fade into the obscurity of marriage to rich men when they were whole people, fully actualized, professional, mostly with money, BEFORE those men came along.

    /plug with major apologies

    But it was kind of to demonstrate I do feel like I have feminist leanings, even if they're not the approved-of kind of feminist leanings.

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  7. Moriah -- And of course, the concept of "approved-of kind of feminist leanings" offends my feminist heart.

    (Brief pause while I mentally tally the number of people who would object to my saying I'm a feminist and the number who would object to my saying I have a heart. With a Venn diagram, we'd know which ones think I'm both heartless and a non-feminist...)

    This notion that there's a right way to be a feminist is as bizarre to me as the notion that there's a right way to be sexual. Yes, there are some positions that I would say are contrary to feminism (such as arguing that it's okay to pay women less for the same work), but not any position that says it's okay for women to want different things, both at various stages of their own lives, but also different from what other women want.

    I have this tiny conflict with my aunt, who at 80+ still works as a lawyer and is dismayed that I haven't found the legal profession as satisfying as she has. But I have to believe, when push comes to shove, that my aunt would agree it's not feminism if I feel *forced* to practice law.

    And of course you can plug your books!

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  8. >>>And of course, the concept of "approved-of kind of feminist leanings" offends my feminist heart.<<<

    *chuckle* I've been smacked upside the head by too many of them lately not to feel a bit defensive. ;)

    >>>...such as arguing that it's okay to pay women less for the same work...<<<

    Indeed. In my ideal world, meritocracy would rule without regard to gender, race, age, orientation, etc etc etc, but of course, nothing is ideal.

    >>>...it's not feminism if I feel *forced* to practice law.<<<

    Exactly!

    On one hand, I regret the issue may actually boil down to the correct type of feminism and political correctness, but on the other hand, I *do* think it has to do with years of being more aware of domestic abuse and rape, which absolutely need to be fought--and awareness raised. I want women to feel empowered in their lives and obviously those types of stories aren't going to do it for most of them.

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