R is for Rape–or Romance?

Those of you who follow my posts here know I rarely (translation: never) write true blogs posts. What I do is more of a slang-ridden Awesome Dood newsy kind of deal. There’s nothing I could say craft-wise that others aren’t saying more eloquently. I suppose I could post more reviews, but not like you can’t read mine on goodreads.

Still, every once in a great while, I have something to say and I believe what I have to say might add to the discussion. This is one of those times.

Violence. In romance.

There has been a veritable Armageddon-esque storm of controversy surrounding violence/rape tropes in the m/m niche in the past weeks (or has it been months?) among m/m blogs and review sites. Since some of my books can be said to fall into the works in question, I’ve followed the discussions quite doggedly. If you posted or commented on this issue? I probably read it. I just didn’t speak up because I genuinely wanted to hear what readers and reviewers had to say. I also had some pondering to do. I wasn’t going to remark until I’d processed and given the issue the attention I feel it deserves. From everybody’s perspective, not just my own.

Well, I’ve processed.

My turn.

First a caveat. I write het, mΓ©nage and m/m with darker threads woven into my stories that have included violence and rape, although a good bit happens off-screen. But I wouldn’t say the stuff that happens on-screen is gratuitous. (Feel free to disagree.) Also bear in mind that I’m not speaking from a purely m/m perspective. I write girl cooties as well as the m/m and see no reason to limit the discussion to m/m alone.

That said…

What is a romance? A story in which the developing love relationship is the central focus. (Feel free to disagree with that too.) The fact that some of these characters haven’t led rosy lives doesn’t insta-remove the focus from the developing relationship. It just means that character probably has bigger hurdles on the way to love and commitment. These characters are hurting. They may be functional, but that doesn’t always mean healthy. They have trust issues. They make mistakes that characters who don’t share their histories/experiences maybe wouldn’t make. They have a lot of work to do before they can have their HEA. None of that requires that these obstacles must be the central focus, though.

Generally speaking, romances take us away to a different world. As a reader, I want to be taken away at least. When I pick up a book, I want to breathe in someone else’s skin and move in a world not my own. Sometimes, those worlds are soft and sweet, with rounded corners and cabinet safety-locks. Sometimes, as a reader, I need that. Our world isn’t perfect. Far from it. Just turn on the news, compadres. Our world doesn’t come equipped with those padded edges and safety-locks. A couple of times, one of my clients (I’m in charge of a food pantry) has cornered me in the parking lot and scared ten years off my life. You think I don’t want a world where I don’t have to worry about that drug-addicted client beating the hell out of me? Wrong. Sometimes, I want to visit a world where drug addicts don’t terrorize the people who try to help them.

But…Sometimes, I do. Sometimes, I want to visit a world just like my own. Or even worse than my own. Where people hurt. Where people make horrible mistakes, just like I make mistakes. Where senseless shitty things happen and you sometimes wonder how in the hell things ever got so bad. I want to see those characters deal with that world of horrors because I too deal with a world of horrors. I want to see those characters work through the Ginormous Mountain of Crap that weighs them down because sometimes it weighs me down too. I want to feel hope. I want that character to give me a reason to hope. Love blooms in spite of the ugliness of what can happen in our world today. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. And when that love emerges in the ugly, craptastic world of horrors? That love is all the more fine and precious. It’s beautiful. All the more beautiful because those characters had to work for it. They had to fight for it. They have to nurture and protect it. Just like each of us do every single day. Maybe we aren’t fighting a brutal vampyr war. Maybe we were never enslaved by a rival kingdom or molested/abused as children (lucky you). But the world can still eat away at us. Bit by bit.

That’s why I write stories with darker threads and that’s why I read them. These stories are in many ways a catharsis for me. I’m one of those people who didn’t have the rosy life; count yourself blessed if you are. But for me, these stories aren’t about the less-than-rosy. They’re about hope. They give me a reason to hope because if love can shine bright for those characters and in those worlds? It can shine brightly for me too. Even if my drug addicted client beats the hell out of me. Even when I’m scared to death because a guy on the sex offender registry has started to attend scouts meetings with his son. Even though I was raped. (Yeah, try having a thrice-convicted rapist at your scout meetings when you’ve been raped–NOT. FUN.) But love happened for me. It’s still happening for me. I had to work for it and I still do. I had to fight for it and I still do. But plowing through shit to come through the other side doesn’t make mine any less of a love story. It just makes my love story–and the stories with darker themes that I love to write–that much more extraordinary. In the very best sense.

Those of you who insist violence in romances means they aren’t legitimate romances? I don’t blame you for your preferences. I wish to God you’d stop blaming me and pointing accusing, condemning fingers at me for mine. I’m not a freak, thanks. There are a lot of other writers and readers just like me and we all aren’t the pervy deviants you suggest (or insist) we must be.

If you don’t like books with these darker threads? Fine. Don’t read them. But please step off your pedestal. Stop preaching to the masses that stories with violent/darker themes aren’t real romances. If love is the focus, they are romances, no matter what the characters have to work through to snatch the prize. They’re just a different kind of romance than you like. Different tastes doesn’t automatically equate to lacking in all merit and only scary perverts read this–or words to that affect.

Also a final word about labeling…I’ve seen that banner carried far and wide these past weeks: Darker themed books must be properly labeled for rape and violence!

Are you telling me that you couldn’t read the blurb of my Spoils of War (which includes: “Enslaved during the invasion of the rival King of Herra…” and “…the Herran King, abuses his captive…”) and not know that this is a darker book? Or that readers couldn’t tell from Lovely Wicked‘s blurb (“…When they meet there again while visiting their dysfunctional families as adults, Mitch and Liv escape the ghosts of their past…”) that it has darker threads too? Heck, my latest, What Rough Beast, has an explicit alert for violence as a special content warning. (The vampyr are at war and curiously enough, war can be violent–go figure.)

While I agree that better labeling may be the answer in some cases, I’d also argue that writers and publishers in many, many instances have alerted the reader to darker themed stories through special content warnings, blurb contents, and/or both. I respectfully submit that, a great many times, readers and reviewers have simply ignored those warnings or have paid little heed to them. Bloggers and reviewers have waxed long and long and long (and long) about darker themed stories that include violence and/or rape. The demands for better labeling has been…ironic, given the inaccuracies of these protests. (For example, people have inaccurately claimed a book was labeled as “romance” or “BDSM” when that particular book clearly was not and already included the labels those same people demanded.) Maybe better labeling is the answer, but I think perhaps readers (and reviewers) paying more attention to EXISTING labels and reading the blurbs would help. A lot.

The belittling and sweeping condemnations of stories with darker themes that include violence and rape have also been, at times, incredibly hurtful to me as both a writer and a reader. Yes, I know. Writer. Thick skin, hello? But this has been going on for weeks and weeks (and weeks, ad nauseum). Maybe I’m naive and stupid. No wait. I’m a newbie. Of course I’m naive and stupid, LOL, but it genuinely floored me that such judgmental, insulting and hurtful remarks would spring from the oft-ridiculed and oft-condemned m/m community, of all people. People I know. People I respect. The folks I thought would be open about those of us who are different…weren’t. That still stuns and saddens me.

Do you think the outrage over violence/rape in m/m (or het & menage) has gone too far? Or should the tarring and feathering of us deviants immediately commence? Comment below.

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17 Responses to R is for Rape–or Romance?

  1. Barbara says:

    Hi, thanks for the interesting post.

    I personally don’t mind violence in the romance books as long as it’s not one of those “rape victim has fallen in love with the rapist” storylines. Those I find not only frustrating but also sometimes insulting to the real rape victims and my intelligence as well. Actually some of the “victim falling in love with rapist/abuser” stories are very good if it’s some kind of Stockholm Syndrom case. As long as the book is not advertised as a story about true romantic love between soul mates destined to be together, forever etc.

    Which leads me to the blurbs, labeling etc. I must admit that usually I don’t pay much attention to the book labeling, tags etc. I read blurbs very carefully. The problem is that sometimes they can be very misleading. But I guess that if a book has a misleading blurb, then it’s also possible that the label will be totally wrong.


    • Kari says:

      Hi, Barbara!

      Yeah, I can’t say I’m a fan of victim-falls-for-rapist stories, either. Given my history…Just never going to happen. But I do think, if the writer plays with the trope, it can work. Look at Gaven and Gaven 2: Bonding by JC Owens. Gaven is captured. He is unwilling. He fights his captors at nearly every turn and fights with himself too. But then he reaches a turning point. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but that turning point pushes Gaven and that story world beyond non-con to dubious-con and finally to reluctant/frightened con and THAT is when the sex happens. The heat builds as the story moves along, sure, but the emotional connection when the sex happens makes the sex possible. The Gaven story world is so beautifully done. Both of those books rank among my favorites. It’s so easy to identify with Gaven’s confusion, his fear and as his way becomes clearer for him and to him, he drags us along with him.

      As a reader, I don’t really pay much attention to labels, either. I read reviews, posted at review sites and from other readers. With my history…I have to be careful. I look to reviews to steer me away from things that could be potentially triggering and if I inadvertently stumble upon one of those triggers? I quit reading. Immediately. No harm, no foul. Principally because I don’t have normal responses to certain very specific things, though. It would be silly and unrealistic for me to expect the world to revolve around my neuroses.

      • Barbara says:

        Gaven series is one of my favorites as well. But I disagree that it is a story about non-con or dubious-con. For me the relationship was more similar to the arranged marriage (at the beginning, before they fallen in love). I didn’t get the impression that if Gaven refused to follow the tradition he would be forced or abandoned. Yes, he would be probably in some trouble, maybe he would be taunted, the society would not trust him and his father for sure would be very angry with him, but I don’t think he would get severe punishment or that he would be forced.

        I’ve read other books, in which one of the characters is captured/enslaved and definitely forced into non-con sex and still is able to fall in love with the abuser. It’s not even the victim falling in love with the abuser that is frustrating (I can always imagine that it is some kind of Stockholm Syndrome case), what’s really annoying is the portraying of the bad guy, rapist and abuser as some kind of romantic hero. I have no problem with bad characters, I love to hate them :), I just don’t like to be manipulated into believing that they are good guys whom I should worship together with their poor victims.

        • Kari says:

          I consider it non-con because at the very start, Gaven was forcibly taken from his homeland. Yes, his homeland was abusive to him and more or less punished him for being who he was, but nonetheless. Gaven wouldn’t have left it if he hadn’t been forced to leave it. That part was non-con, which melted into dub-con later on until he eventually truly wanted to be where he was.

          The sexual content…He didn’t want to want it. He was fighting himself more than he was fighting his (for lack of a better word) captor. But yeah, I think he could have said no when it came to the point and I do believe that would’ve stood. He would’ve suffered consequences, but still.

          • Barbara says:

            OK, I understand now. When I was talking about a non-con part of the book I meant only the sex, not the capture from the homeland part, which was definitely non-con at the beginning. Toward the end Gaven started accepting both his new home, people and their tradition. As for the sex and relationship with Vlar, although he was reluctant and a little bit afraid, I don’t think that he felt forced.

  2. Lilli says:

    Hi Kari, great, thought-provoking post! I liked reading the perspective of another deviant as I’ve gotten a bit tired lately of all the rants on this topic. Mainly because there always seemed to be the sentiment that those who enjoy reading the “rape trope” must be slightly sick and have to explain themselves.
    I’m not very coherent at the moment (tired) and I kinda exhausted myself on this topic at another blog just this weekend (lisonbooks) so I don’t feel up to the task to put my thoughts down again in detail. (also, I ranted quite a bit about how I thought the warnings and labellings aren’t done well and made suggestions)

    Personally, I differentiate between “romances with rape” and the darker stuff that is more ambigous on the romance part. Both I enjoy reading once in a while but for different reasons. The former more or less for reasons you mentioned, the latter because I like authors to mess with my mind and make me take on a perspective that’s shaped by the universe the story happens in. If that makes sense.

    Anyway, too tired now to go on. But I’m looking forward to read what others think.

    • Kari says:

      Hey Lilli! You and me both are tired of the ranting and the insulting sick-twist proclamations. What gets me most is the stubborn and vehement insistence by some parties that a darker themed book that has violence or rape in it can’t be romance. I think it is. Not a traditional romance, no, but the relationship can be the central focus of the story and very, very romantic. The way Micah falls for Eli (not his abuser, I should add) in Spoils is just so…sweet. LOL

      And yeah, there’s differentiation. My Spoils is a romance and was specifically labeled as m/m erotic romance. Rachel Haimowitz’s Anchored (which I think is excellent and will definitely make you think outside the box fo sho) is not a romance. It has romantic elements. The scenes at the end where the two heroes finally begin to trust one another? Oh be still my heart. But that doesn’t make it a romance, not in the traditional sense, which I’m sure Rachel would be the first to tell you. (Hers was simply labeled as M/M and is listed as gay erotica at amazon, FWIW.) Our books, though each involves rape and abuse to varying degrees, couldn’t possibly be more different.

      • Barbara says:

        I think that sometimes it’s difficult to give a book only one label. One book can be e.g. a romance, historical fiction and a psychological drama and sometimes it’s hard to decide, which genre is the most principal. I think that both mentioned books (Spoils and Anchored) are more than just one genre, although I agree that while Spoils definitely can be labeled as a romance, Anchored isn’t a romance. BTW I read both books and loved them. I can’t wait for sequels πŸ™‚

        • Kari says:

          LOL, Barbara, I bogged down in I, Omega, but the Spoils sequel has been started and will be next, I promise. πŸ˜‰

          • Lilli says:

            I read and enjoyed both books, your Spoils and Rachel’s Anchored, and you’re preaching to the choir here. πŸ˜‰ I haven’t yet read Gaven or Wings but will soon and know what to expect. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers so I won’t read or chime in on those comments. ;))

            There’s two things that can potentially bother me when reading about rape in romance: healing by sex and sex after a short amount of time that doesn’t feel believable. Those are rather common “standards”, I think, and stories who defy these have a hard time making me believe it and like them. So when authors decide to include rape in whichever form into their romance they accept a challenge, imo. Eventually it’s all about how it’s handled. But that’s just me. I can understand why people don’t want to read about rape in their romances, but I disagree that stories including rape can’t be romances.

            Then again, those “standards” I mentioned above I don’t expect to apply to stories on the darker side. I’m prepared to be shown something different that pushes boundaries and still makes me believe what happens – if it’s a good story. That’s the case with Rachel’s Anchored, imo. There’s just romantic elements and although I too thought the end was beautiful I could only believe in it because it was, at the same time, highly ambigous in terms of Daniel’s condition and feelings. Otherwise it would have most probably bugged the hell out of me. But given the circumstances it worked well for me and I thought it was an exellent read in general.

            In my comment at the other blog I said that I see Spoils as a book that potentially blurs the line between “romance” and “darker side” because when you take a closer look you might notice that it defies the “standards” I named above but in spite of that the story isn’t seen as controversial. Imo, that’s because of how you handled the rape/abuse plot element and how it fit with Micah’s feelings and self-perception. The developing love story was absolutely believable and I loved it. But it is, after all, rooted in his conditioning by abuse. Yeah, ugly choice of words relating to a sweet romance, but true in my opinion. [Please, feel free to kick my ass if you disagree with me! :)]

            I could go on here but I stop now to wait if any sanctions are coming my way. πŸ˜‰

            Just a short note regarding labelling and warnings: I could swear NRP labelled Anchored bsdm on their homepage but obviously I erred. Anyway, what really bugs me is that warnings are forced on readers and in that aimed at those who might decide not to buy the book based on the warning. Whereas potential buyers/the core target audience are spoiled. Doesn’t make sense to me.

  3. Kari says:

    Hm. Won’t let me nest my comment under yours, Lilli. Stupid WordPress. LOL.

    Anyhoo…I highly recommend both Gaven books. Wings? No. Others have liked it, but not me. I hated it. Gaven’s story is similar to my Spoils in that we see both story worlds through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. Both Gaven and Micah don’t see their worlds accurately. They both feel they are being taken captive, when in actuality they are being freed. Not so with Wings. The hero in that book was taken prisoner and his abuser was his love interest. Uber Stockholm issues. Did. Not. Like. But hey, that’s just me.

    Anyoo #2 re sex occurring very soon after rape…I’m not saying I handled it that way (in fact, I didn’t), but my best friend from college was raped by the abusive asshole boyfriend she’d broken up with, right? Sounds weird but one of the many things that made us besties because she and I could shore each other up since we both knew where we were coming from and could support each other when we each got flaky. Anyway, after her rape, my friend went wild. Before then, no, she wasn’t an angel, but for several months, she was boffing guy after guy after guy, most of whom treated her like The Owner of the Pussy and that’s it. Guys who refused to kiss her, crap like that. Treated her like a nameless, faceless non-person so no, this wasn’t just a sex for sex’s sake just-for-fun sort of deal at all. It was horrible and I didn’t know how to help her. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around why she would do that, allow that, especially since I reacted to my rape differently (the don’t-effing-touch-me-you-bastard response to everybody). Well, I eventually figured out (and my friend figured out) that she let guys treat her that way because her rape had made her feel that way. Like a nobody. Like someone who didn’t deserve rudimentary courtesy or respect. Once she began working through that, she started to heal, but for a while…She was in a bad, bad place.

    My point being…Sex quickly following a rape, even a violent rape, isn’t a deal-breaker for me. Healing by sex? No. But sex soon following rape, I can buy.

    • Kari says:

      Oops, forgot to mention…No sanctions re your take on Spoils. I never fault readers for their honest opinions. May not like or agree with them, LOL, but not going to flip out, either. πŸ˜‰

      Yeah, what happened to Micah very much shaped who he is and how he looks at his world. Traumatic events change us. Permanently. Who we are when we come out the other side isn’t the same person we were before the traumatic event. We process things differently and no matter how functional or healthy we become, there’s no changing that.

      In Spoils, Micah deals with his world in terms of his slavery and sex and in those terms alone. His journey toward freedom isn’t just physical. It’s also emotional and psychological. Deep down, he knows what Eli’s arrival means for him. He simply can’t process it so in his head, he keeps reverting to his old familiar territory of slavery and sex. Just in a different way. Eli is the first master and lover he genuinely wanted and chose. His reasons for wanting a master and lover may not have sprung from the Well of Functional & Healthy, which is why Eli initially hesitated, but…Micah needed it. Which is why Eli ultimately caved. At story’s end, Micah has begun adopting a healthier perspective on his freedom, emotionally, but sex is still his crutch. When he feels threatened, emotionally, by his brother’s arrival? Feels insecure that his Eli may leave him or choose another? He falls back to his familiar standard of sex. Only when Eli more or less forces Micah to acknowledge him as a slave rather than master, then…Micah doesn’t turn to sex then. Sex won’t make this better. Only giving Eli his heart will. That’s when his approach to sex becomes healthier. Not that he doesn’t love Eli before then. He does. He just doesn’t know how to love Eli, how to express that love and trust it. He is learning how to deal with his world and Eli in terms that aren’t wrapped up in slavery and sex, but that’s something that isn’t going to be fixed in the blink of an eye, KWIM? But by book’s end, that healing has at least begun.

      • Lilli says:

        Well great, now I had the same prob with WordPress. *lol*

        Thanks for giving this detailed interpretation of Spoils. It’s been a time and it made me remember scenes. πŸ™‚ I don’t think we are apart much in our viewpoints, but you’re definitely more eloquent. πŸ˜‰

        You got me curious on Plunder and I also noticed your werewolf story on your homepage. That one sounds like there’ll be some lines blurred in that.

        • Kari says:

          If eloquent = lack of shut up, yeppers, that’s me. πŸ˜‰

          The shifter story, I, Omega, is kinky as hell (OMG, I loved writing that book, LOL), but no violence outside a consensual BDSM context. I could on and on about blurring lines, though. I just do it in different ways in IO. Beware of subtext. Bwa ha ha.

          Plunder‘s next. I already started it, but was sidetracked by IO. (Which was done except now it’s not. He he.) The first book was narrowly focused on Micah and Eli. In the second, you see much more of their world, how each of them finds his place in it, and how they make their relationship work. πŸ˜€

    • Lilli says:

      Yeah, I know what to expect from Wings, and I can remember your very short and spot-on review on that book. πŸ˜‰ Still, I’ve already skimmed through the first half of the book some time ago and actually I expect to enjoy the story. If I really do I’m looking forward to analyzing myself about the whys. πŸ˜‰

      re sex after rape. Thank you for these insights. I have to say I never took this szenario into consideration. Obviously, a lot of readers – me included – seem to have a rather idealized view of what to expect when it comes to how rape should be dealt with (in a romance book). No black and white there. I can understand the reaction you described, and if this were part of a romance novel I could totally accept it given that it’s handled by the author in a way that rang true.
      So it seems I’m an easy reader: if the author manages to pull things off in a believable fashion I won’t be bothered by almost anything. πŸ˜‰

  4. Mickie says:

    I came to Squeeeee like a fan girl over your stories and i know I am Late to this post but wanted to comment.

    I think that action of rape in stories has been misused and even mislabeled in the past. After all woman in my generation spent there teens reading bodice rippers and watch Luke and Laura on general hospital. Back then the victim falling for her rapist was considered standard. Thank God those days are over. When rape is used to be erotic or as a part of something that is supposed to be romantic then it needs a strong label. If people want to read that fine but I don’t so let me know up front.

    Rape has a place in stories if it is used Like you did in your Story “Spoils of War” (which I adore) where it is something that has molded the victim. It is a part of who Micah is good or bad and is part of what he over comes. When you see the breaks pain has left behind in someone and watch them piece back together its a wonderful story. In that story and ones like it rape is used a a weapon to hurt and break someone.

    I don’t think that kind of story needs the same kind of warning. To me a fic that would be Noncon would be like Spoilers of war where the act or acts were not written to be romantic. If its gonna have rape and try to tell me its romantic label it as something else.

  5. Jenre says:

    Late to the party here, but just wanted to say I completely agree with you. I’ve run the gamut of emotions recently from outright shock at the condemnation of readers who I considered part of my beloved m/m genre, to anger and sadness that I’ve been labelled a freak for my reading tastes and expected to explain why I like these darker books. I don’t ask readers to explain why they like, in my opinion, the overly sweet and mushy romances that I don’t like reading – which BTW don’t have a label saying ‘Warning: This book may make you feel nauseous from sugar overload’, lol . I have certain authors whose books I don’t read because their writing is often too sentimental and sweet for me but I would never insult another reader who loves sort sort of romance books and authors. Those who condemn my reading tastes should take a leaf out of my book and just stay away from books with extreme violence if they don’t like that sort of thing. My motto has always been each to their own. I just wish some of these, frankly quite scary people, would take that motto for themselves too.

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