What Romance Novels Taught me About Sex
Updated: Dec 6, 2021
**Originally published on www.ournewseeds.com**
“…he pinned her slender hips with bruising force, holding her still for his invasion…the more Savannah fought, the more brutal he became…Guilt washed over her…and she forced her own pain from her mind…Savannah moved her body to meet his, matching his furious rhythm…until they were in perfect synchronization.” -Christine Feehan, Dark Magic
“What do you mean, drop the blanket? I had four aces, you half-wit. You can’t beat four aces.” “A Smith and Wesson beats four aces.” –Elaine Coffman, My Enemy, My Love
The above quotes are from books that I read when I was just 13 years old. This was my introduction into the world of sex and adult relationships.
If we look at just the first quote, the author is writing a scene in which the ‘hero’ is raping the ‘love interest’. Somehow, throughout the course of the scene, the ‘love interest’ internalizes guilt and shame that she led the ‘hero’ to behave in such a violent manner. She then decides that since she is to blame for his behavior, she is also responsible for ‘taming’ him. She decides to stay with him and in the same chapter, she chooses to have sex with him despite the physical trauma her body is still recovering from.
In the second quote, a man in his late 20s coerces his 17 year old step sister, Mourning, into having sex with him. He challenges her to a hand of poker for her virginity, and when she wins he pulls a gun on her instead. Mourning never once consents to sex with the ‘hero’ throughout the entire book, but he continues to have his way with her, because we see that he is so passionate about her. As an adult, it’s easy to analyze the type of language used, the way the author compares Mourning to a “skittish” horse that wants to “bolt,” something that needs to be controlled, or to a young girl “innocent, with childlike wonder and adoration”. It’s easy to see the ways in which the “hero” manipulates her, blackmails her physically and emotionally. It’s easy to look back and see the ways in which my young girl’s mind warped to think these types of interactions were normal.
Like most young women I knew, I learned everything there was to know about sex from romance novels. These books romanticized abuse, disguising it as passion. They glorified men using force, sometimes with fists or even with a gun, to override the woman’s protests and have his way with her. They forgive him because it was done out of passion, he wasn’t able to control his desire for her. Women are expected to read this and swoon, hoping for a man to want us this much. This was what I perceived as a desirable partnership and many of my relationships following were built upon the foundation these books gave me.
I started my first relationship around the same time I read these, and the dynamics mirrored those portrayed in the books I read. Max was 18 when we met, 5 years older than I was. It started as most sweetheart relationships do, he was funny and romantic; he made me feel special. The first time we had sex, I didn’t know what was happening until it was too late. I didn’t even have the opportunity to say no, or ask him to wait. I had just turned 14, was still a virgin, and I thought, “Well, he can’t help himself. After all, he’s just a guy.” The first time Max hit me was during my freshman year of high school. We had a small disagreement over an assignment and he lost his temper. He immediately apologized, he looked horrified by his own reaction and promised it would never happen again. I held and comforted him while he cried at his own deficiencies. The next morning I found my paper ripped up in the trash. The first time I told him no, the first time he ignored my voice and raped me, I thought, “This is normal, this is how it’s supposed to be. I’m the one that’s supposed to adjust.”
As our relationship developed, I was more and more conditioned to believe that I was at fault for his behavior, that I was supposed to save him. I believed my voice didn’t matter, because that’s what I learned from the books I read. I learned that I was supposed to keep saying “No” and the guy was supposed to keep taking what he wanted. I learned that he was persistent and violent because he was so passionate about me, about us.
Fast forward to my junior year of high school. After numerous attempts over the course of a year, I finally broke up with Max. Ron, a senior, expressed interest in me that year. He convinced me to ditch with him (not that it was very difficult) so he could take me out to eat. Once we were in his car, he told me we had to stop by his house first because he “forgot something”. He led me inside his house and started undressing me. I felt like a doll. I felt like I didn’t have a say in what was happening to me. I didn’t have control over my own limbs. I didn’t fight back or say anything, because nothing I could say would make a difference. I just went through the motions and let him do what he wanted. I’d already said no plenty of times and it clearly didn’t matter to him. I had played my part in rejecting him over and over throughout the year, and he played his part in wearing down my defenses by not taking ‘no’ for an answer. My belief was that I got myself into the situation by going with him, I should have known better, going along with it is easier/faster/safer than the alternative. Anyway, my role as the woman is to protest, and his role as the man is to take what he wants despite what I say. Afterwards he loaded me back into his truck and drove me back to school.
It has taken me over a decade to realize my broken thought patterns, and to acknowledge the truth of those situations. What is this truth? That violence and rape are not the same as sex? I am not responsible for someone else’s choices. I am not at fault because someone chose to ignore my voice. That is not my shame.
So who is at fault? Is it the authors’ responsibility to portray healthy relationships for their readers? Although authors are not solely responsible, they should be aware of the messages they are sending and what they are teaching young women. Women of every age have unhealthy ideas of what it means to be in a sexual relationship, and those ideas are reinforced by these books, along with other forms of media.
A 2015 study looked into why women stay in abusive relationships and identified eight common reasons. Two of the most pressing reasons were distorted thoughts, “I was ashamed because I thought I triggered him,” and wanting to be a savior, “I thought I could fix him and teach him how to love.” These are two false ideas that are constantly reinforced throughout this genre.
I talked to my mom the other day; I asked her if she would have done anything differently, and what she wishes she had known about intimate partner violence. My mom and I have a fantastic relationship now, but that wasn’t always the case. When I would ask about sex as a young girl, my parents would answer me in a truthful, albeit academic, manner. However, if I ever wanted to talk about sex as it pertained to me specifically, the response was always the same- sex is something that happens between two adults, after marriage, and anything else is immoral. Because of her mindset, I felt like I couldn’t talk to my mom about what was happening to me. The shame of doing something immoral exacerbated the shame of leading these men to such despicable acts, and I was afraid to confess to her what a bad and perverted daughter I had been.
Now, she wishes she had been able to have that conversation with me. That she had had the opportunity to tell me that type of relationship wasn’t normal, or healthy. That it wasn’t my fault. And that I was still clean and good. She also wishes she had known what signs to look for. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of identifying signs of abuse and potential next steps for other parents to take.
Signs of Abuse:
*child is anxious or depressed
*child stops spending time with friends and family
*child loses interest in extracurricular activities
*child has unexplained bruises or dresses differently to hide or over expose their body
*be supportive, listen, believe your child
*have a calm conversation, show support without getting overly emotional
*talk about the unhealthy behaviors, not about the abuser
*discuss what makes a relationship healthy and decide on a plan of action to help your child get there
Sex is normal and healthy, and it is perfectly acceptable to enjoy the occasional romance novel. What is not acceptable is non-consensual sex, and we need to stop creating content that normalizes and glorifies sexual violence.
“We forget that our children are not our possessions, but a gift entrusted to us. We try so hard to make them into what we think is a perfect child as a testament to our greatness that we fail to listen to them or really see them. It’s not about us. It’s about nourishing the emotional and psychological needs of a child along with their physical needs.” -My wonderful mother