Guest Post with Jill Sorenson

***Trigger warning potential disturbing content: Jill Sorenson is here with a guest post on sexual fantasies and taboos.***

Dangerous Fantasies

Jill Sorenson

Romance is often dismissed and ridiculed because of its strong sexual content. It’s called fluff, escape fantasy, porn for women, housewife smut. The naked covers are suggestive of shallow, skin-deep pleasures. Within the pages, hot-to-trot heroines find ecstasy in the arms of handsome, well-endowed men.

Not only is romance written off as trashy and unrealistic, it’s sometimes seen as dangerous. Women who read it will be expecting things. Like better sex. An attentive partner. Multiple orgasms. Sensual abandon!

I don’t think romance is setting the bar too high in the bedroom. Love and sexual satisfaction aren’t unattainable ideals, they’re basic human desires. That said, living in a fantasy world has its drawbacks. Not all orgasms are effortless, even with your soul mate, and real relationships require work. I used to think something was wrong with me because I didn’t experience sex like a typical romance heroine.

Romance, especially erotic romance, taps into female sexual fantasies. These fantasies are shaped by society to some extent. Outside forces reflect and influence our desires. Beauty standards aren’t static, for example; they change over the years. Trends like breast enhancement and waxing/shaving have been attributed to the porn industry. An argument can be made that both romance and adult films create problematic sexual ideals.

I’m not saying that romance is porn, or that romance (or porn) is harmful. But if there is a connection between fantasy and reality, maybe we should take a critical look at the way romance novels reflect and influence women.

Are some fantasies dangerous

1.  Sexuality and relationships

I’ve already shared my tawdry confession about vaginal orgasms. There have been some interesting discussions about the value of virginity and the misplaced hymen in romance. Many readers (myself included) feel that romance has had a positive effect on their sex lives and relationships. Others (myself included) have felt abnormal and underrepresented.

2.  Forceful heroes

It’s a common misconception that all romance novels feature ripped bodices and men who won’t take no for an answer. Rape fantasy and “forced seduction” books are less popular these days, but they continue to be written. I can’t speak to the appeal of this fantasy, but I’ve heard that it’s really about female power. Too often, women in abusive relationships never gain control, happiness, or escape. In these controversial stories, the abusive hero is transformed by love and the heroine “wins.”

The majority of readers seem to oppose this setup and I don’t blame them. “Stalker” heroes like Edward of Twilight and Christian Grey have been criticized for their abusive and controlling behavior. Do women and teens who enjoy this relationship dynamic in fiction find it romantic in real life? If a hero can’t control his temper, emotions, and sexual desires, do female readers internalize the idea that rape is their fault?

3.  Sexual taboos

Here’s a touchy subject. About a year ago, I read a Dear-Abby sort of letter written by a man engaged to be married. His fiancé liked to play Daddy-daughter games in bed. She confessed to being sexually abused, and her fiancé felt as if he’d been revictimizing her. He refused to continue the role-play even though it was the only way she could achieve orgasm.

The letter reminded me of a movie I saw called Things Behind the Sun. It’s about a troubled young woman who was gang-raped as a teen. The only way she can enjoy sex is to replay her rape. She says that her sexual fantasies have been “colonized” by her rapists.

Dirty by Megan Hart is well-written and emotionally moving novel that deals with the devastating effects of sexual abuse. The author gives us excellent characterizations and plenty of hot, edgy sex, but the melancholy realism of the story disturbed me. I wasn’t sure about the happy ending.

Selena Kitt’s Falling Down has a similar theme, played for titillation. The main character is a high school senior who’s been molested by her stepfather. She sleeps with a series of strangers and creeps before falling in love with a nice guy who saves her from herself.

Incest taboos are rare in romance, but I can think of several examples. In Ali’s Art by JT Harding, the main characters have a brother-sister vibe. I’ve heard that some of Kristen Ashley’s heroes like to be called Daddy. Squick factor aside, are incest fantasies dangerous? Do they continue the cycle of abuse?

I used to think that all fantasies were harmless, but now I’m not sure. Maybe certain fantasies are bad for us. The “danger” isn’t in portraying the reality of abuse and its negative effects, as Megan Hart has done. It’s in eroticizing the behavior or portraying it as a loving act.

What do you think? I feel like I’ve tried to cover too many complicated, possibly unrelated topics here. I need your help to sort out my thoughts.

Are some sexual fantasies harmful? Do romance authors have any responsibility to include realistic, consensual, or non-abusive sex? Should we read and write about healthy relationships only, or is fiction a safe place to explore sexual taboos?



10 thoughts on “Guest Post with Jill Sorenson”

  1. Jill, I ask myself these questions all the time, and I worry when I am writing something sexually dark, that it’s just for shock or titillation. I really appreciate that you ask them too, and are open to hearing different opinions in the answers.

    For me, the question is, do stories help us understand ourselves better in a way that is empowering? I hear a lot of women asking themselves what they love about Doms right now. I don’t hear a lot of clear answers. But maybe one thing the current BDSM trend gives us is that very important focus on consent.

    And (maybe it’s because I live in San Francisco–kinky capital that it is) but I know people stuck in sexual behaviors that seem to hurt them, and I know people who practice all kinds of transgressive things that really do liberate them. The difference between those realities is the story, right?

  2. Hi Amber,

    Great comment. First, I don’t know if there’s anything wrong with including something for shock or titillation. I think I do this in my writing. I want my sex scenes to be titillating, for sure. Including non-sexual shocks, like an explosion or a sneaky twist, seems fair. The sexual part shouldn’t devalue anything. Should it?

    I agree about consent being part of bdsm’s appeal. I discussed the negotiation aspects of 50 Shades (which I haven’t read) on twitter. I find it interesting that Ana didn’t like the spanking. Not only do the characters have a dialogue, their explorations aren’t always successful and they make adjustments.

    The difference is the story and what it means to each specific reader, I think.

  3. Jill, Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I confess I haven’t read 50 either, but that part of the story as I undertand it intrigues me the most too 🙂

    About shock and titillation–yes, they do make for a great story, and just as much in a sex scene as any other. I guess what I am asking myself, when I read and write, is whether that titillating thing has integrity within in the story–does it make sense for the character, and in the parameters world, or is it gratuitous, ONLY for shock. Do you think that matters?

    I have a particularly nasty bad guy, and I’ve had to ask myself these questions about the things he gets up to–do they contribute to the theme of the book or are they just me letting the darkest parts of imagination out to play. And is that a bad thing?

  4. Yes–I do think it matters. An example that springs to mind is a book called Heat by R. Lee Smith. I thought it was full of gratuitous sexual violence. The villain/hero is an alien who harvests brain material from humans. He also must rape/mate constantly or die of “heat.” At first we see the devastating effects of his actions. As he becomes increasingly sadistic, raping and killing for fun, the story loses sensitivity and meaning. Most readers don’t seem to agree with me on this one but I really hated it!

    I’ve looked at my own writing and think I’m guilty of the same crime, to a lesser extent. In one of my books the heroine tangles with a serial killer/rapist who ties her up and cuts her blouse off before she’s rescued. Why did I include that, if not to mix sexual images with violence? In my current project, I had an attempted rape scene planned. After reading the slut-shaming thread at Dear Author and some review comments, I changed my mind. I decided she would be proactive and escape the villain by using her sexual wiles. Finally I was like why does this need to be sexualized at all? And the answer was it didn’t.

  5. I can only speak for myself here. I am a reader, not an author. I have very mixed feelings about this topic. On one hand, I feel as if my own experiences reading romance and erotic romance have actually improved my sex life with my hubby simply by giving me mental pictures that are arousing and ideas for things to try/ask for. But I am getting a lot pickier as I get older about the types of sex scenes/fantasies that work. The wholly unrealistic scene in which everything works perfectly, no one has to talk or ask for anything, and the earth moves/fireworks go off with no effort by anyone is getting less and less appealing, unless the scene is so bound up with strong emotions in the book that I can get past the unreality of it all. The overly purple prose that used to be arousing to me when I was younger usually now falls flat. Similarly, scenes that are not connected with any emotional arc for the characters, or that are used as a replacement for the emotional development of the characters often don’t work.

    I am also of mixed views about the fantasies that seem to be all the rage at the moment as a result of the 50 shades phenomenon. I haven’t read it and refuse to read it, so maybe I am not qualified to speak about it. On one hand, I think the 50 shades phenomenon has made a lot more women be more open about their fantasies and about their love for this genre of writing. That is a good thing, on the whole. On the other hand, the parts about 50 shades (and various derivative works that have followed similar themes) that creep me out are the “stalker-ish” aspects, the “virginal heroine + alpha jerk” combo, etc. It seems kind of regressive, from a feminist perspective. But maybe it is patronizing of me to think that this type of fantasy is “bad” for women. Maybe I should just be saying that it doesn’t turn me on, but as long as other women can distinguish fantasy from reality (and I must assume that they can, or risk being patronizing about that), they are free to fantasize about whatever turns them on.

    I am not sure how much people question the subject of male fantasies (short of fantasies that result in actual criminal behaviour), and whether this is subject to the same degree of scrutiny as the subject of female fantasies, especially in the wake of 50 shades.

    Anyway, I am eternally grateful to have discovered all the women, authors and readers, on the internet who discuss these issues so freely. I wish this had existed when I was an adolescent and young adult. Thanks for a great post, even though I am sure my response has not cleared up any of the questions you posed!

  6. @JacquiC: Hi Jacqui. Thanks for the comment. So many thoughts! Let me try to break them down in parts.

    1. I remember a review of Twilight at Smart Bitches that really ripped into Edward as a creepy stalker. I haven’t read that book either, but I don’t think it’s weird for him to follow Bella or watch her sleep. The discussion IIRC was about how teen girls feel invisible to boys, so this fantasy of being obsessed over is particularly powerful.

    2. The virgin + alpha doesn’t interest me much. I’m on the fence about whether it’s regressive, but the inequality bothers me. I’ve heard about Domestic Discipline erotica becoming all the rage, which takes this dynamic to another level. Maybe I can relate it to rape fantasy where the heroine transforms a bad experience into good & wins love. In my real life, I might have conflicts with my husband that end in me resenting inequality (especially of child care and housework). In this kind of romance, the heroine has conflicts and power struggles that end in multiple orgasms. Yay.

    Something bothers me about the motorcycle club or blue collar alphas also. Maybe because this is my class but doesn’t reflect my reality. I feel like it’s classist or maybe fetishizing lower class? I’m not sure.

    3. I agree that women can distinguish fantasy from reality, but there is still a connection between the two and I don’t know how much one influences the other.

    4. Good point about male fantasies.

    5. Thanks–great discussion points here. 🙂

  7. Thanks for such a thoughtful response!

    In response to your point about Edward watching Bella sleep, it is pretty stalker-ish. I haven’t read Twilight either, and don’t intend to. But I agree with you. As a teenager, I probably would have found it pretty sigh-worthy to have someone so “into” me that he would want to do this.

    I never know how much the “myth” of seamless (a.k.a. unrealistic) sex is harmful to women. It can be a lovely fantasy to think about meeting a man who can figure out how to make things happen for his woman without any difficulties, awkward conversations or disconnects when both partners aren’t on the same page. Part of this fantasy seems to involve the woman handing over responsibility for this process to her partner, which some women (including me, sometimes) find attractive.

    A lot of recent romance detractors in the media have said that this myth makes women unhappy with their real-life partners. Maybe it does, but maybe also that is not always a bad thing, if it leads to the woman taking a more active role in seeking what she needs from her partner. Maybe it is harmful when it doesn’t lead to this, but just leads to dissatisfaction and obsession with the fantasy rather than the reality. I am very resistant to going along with the views of the romance detractors on this point. But I would also say that an obsession with porn could have a similarly detrimental effect on a man’s real-life relationships (assuming men are the primary consumers of porn, which I think is true, although I recognize that an increasing number of women are too), so should I be open to the possibility that too much unrealistic sex from romances also has the potential to be harmful to women? I am not sure.

    Just musing here, or perhaps rambling pointlessly! No real need to respond again (unless you want to, of course).

  8. @JacquiC: Just nodding along with this entire comment. If someone isn’t satisfied with their sex life and chooses to retreat into fantasy instead of working on it, that can be a problem. But the root of the problem is lack of communication, not too much fantasy. Romance novels could do a better job with realistic sex and communication. It’s appealing to not have to work hard at it or even be responsible, like you said, but there are other ways of getting to the same place.

    I had another thought about the motorcycle alpha trend. I don’t know if it’s fair to use the word fetish, maybe stereotype is better. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that poor, uneducated men are more dominant, rough, borderline abusive, etc., which is how I see this crop of characters. The portrayal of this behavior as romantic is another problem. That said, I remember a Regency by Kat Martin in which the hero strikes the heroine across the face in front of a group of men. He’s a spy and trying to fool the bad guys into believing he has no feelings for her. I don’t know why I found this titillating, but I did. I can’t recall another abusive-hero scene I’ve responded to, but I’ve always enjoyed it when the heroine hits or slaps the hero. Why? I don’t know.

    I’ve also never understood the anger over the spanking scene in Outlander. Another book I haven’t read, granted. It doesn’t seem any different to me than light bdsm. DA Robin has made a good argument that the reader consents in certain situations. I believe this to be true.

    Good discussion–Thanks!

    So, anyway.

  9. Sorry I’m late to the party – I haven’t had a lot of time lately but I’m catching up a little bit today.

    I have read (and loved) Outlander and I didn’t have a problem with the spanking scene either – it wasn’t particularly erotic – he was punishing her (although he got a bit of a sexual charge out of it). It fit the historical setting where women were property I guess. I can’t say I *loved* it but I didn’t hate it either.

    It’s interesting the comments re the motorcylcle club books. I have a couple on my TBR to try but I’m not sure when I’ll get to them or what I’ll think of them when I do. Here in Australia we’ve had a few years of a successful TV miniseries called Underbelly. I watched the first one (even bought it on DVD) and was fascinated by it. It was a dramatisation of real life mafia/drug barons and the various cliques and multiple murders and the police who caught them (eventually). As much as I was fascinated by it (and one of the bad characters was super hot) I think it worked for me because at it’s heart it was a story about the police catching the bad guys. Subsequent miniseries have focused on different stories with the same theme – last year’s was about a massacre where two rival bikie gangs had a turf war. I don’t think there were any “good guys” in it and that disturbed me. I’m off on a tangent a bit I guess, but I’m wondering if I will have the same problem with the MC books – will I think the hero is “good”? Or at least, “good enough”? We shall see.

    Getting back on topic, as to sex in romance, I guess I do prefer a bit more realism these days. As a young teen I was fooled into thinking that a lot of it was instinctive and I do prefer books where there is good bedroom communication about what they want and what works for them.

  10. Hi Kaetrin,

    I’m with you on the “good guys” thing. About a year ago I saw a movie called Savages. Everyone was a villain, even the one good guy turned bad. I really enjoyed it but not as a romance. In most fiction, I need good characters to root for. In romance I want the good guys to win and live HEA. That was part of my problem with Heat, which I mentioned in an earlier comment. The hero started out as unfeeling, which I could handle because I “felt” for the victim. When he became actively sadistic, enjoying rape/murder/torture, no. Big no.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.