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