When Romance Perturbs

By Holly Bargo

I remember the 1970s, the latter part of which I moved from reading Laura Ingalls’ autobiographical series to Barbara Cartland’s historical romances and Harlequin romances in which nothing more explicit than some passionate kisses occurred. Romance novels at the time fell under the derogatory category of“bodice rippers.” Many books deserved such disparagement. By the early 1980s, I’d plunged deeply into fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and hardcore romance with explicit sexual content.

Establishing Expectations

What I remember most about those many, many books is that the heroines overwhelmingly fell into two categories: wealthy, pampered, and innocent or indigent, desperate, and innocent. They relied upon wealthy, powerful men to guide them and/or rescue them. They had no marketable skills other than “housewife,” “governess,” or “nanny.” Occasionally, an adventurous author cast her heroine as a nurse, secretary (relabeled in the 1980s as an administrative assistant), or grade school teacher.

That is not to say that many housewives, governesses, and nannies aren’t skilled, intelligent individuals. It simply seemed an expectation that a woman’s industry belonged in the home. A professional woman always—always—took a lesser position than a man.

By the time I reached high school, attitudes began to change. Women could do more than clean and take care of the kiddies. They could—gasp!—hold professional positions as accountants, doctors, scientists, and professors. I have yet to see a romance in which the heroine makes her living as a plumber or paperhanger or rodeo clown. Being somewhat liberated myself and quietly rebelling against an extremely traditional upbringing (My father’s words: “No, you don’t need to learn to change the oil in your car. Your husband, brothers, or I will always do it for you.”), I reveled in that development of woman as intelligent, competent individual.

In those romances I continued reading, men did not grow gentler, although they were less likely to take their heroines by force. Heroines grew bolder, stronger, kickass. Heroines acquired skills, education, and respected professions. Authors gave heroines permission to feel sexual attraction and act on it. Non-consensual sex, rampant in romance then and (unfortunately) now, receded as an expected and romantic part of the male-female relationship, because society finally began to acknowledge that women didn’t want to be raped and certainly didn’t enjoy it.

Well, that didn’t last long.

A Devolving Legacy

Over the past decade or so I have seen an upswell of romances featuring heroines backsliding into the old domestic tropes: woman as a receptacle for male passion. Then Fifty Shades of Grey burst upon the scene and the BDSM subculture went mainstream. Not only was a woman’s purpose to receive male passion, but to obey said male’s every command, too.

And I thought the Women’s Liberation Movement had succeeded. Stupid me.

Now, book advertisements flood my social media, promoting stories that disguise brutal rape as passion, torture and beating as sexual stimulation, and unquestioning obedience as natural and desirable. I cringe at stories glamorizing Stockholm Syndrome and oppression as wonderful, delightful fantasies which excuse the antihero’s selfishness and cruelty justify the heroine as deserving of such horrors as would drive any real woman to suicide just to escape. Stories of sexual slavery have ascended as the new height of romantic literature as romance authors attempt to build upon and exceed the debauchery and degradation glamorized by E. L. James.

Egad, have we really come to this?

Is this the message we want to send to the adolescent girls and young women who read our work? (Don’t’ delude yourself: teenage girls are reading these books.)

When did alpha heroes who want their heroines to be happy become passé?

I missed that memo.

Rachel’s brother uses her as collateral to settle a debt with an outlaw motorcycle gang. She flees to a local bar and pleads with a darkly handsome stranger to help her. His help results in homicide. When eagle shifter Diego’s vacation is interrupted by the innocent young woman he recognizes as his mate, he flees with her across national borders because she’s his and he’s not letting her go. 
Having essentially swapped one captor for another, Rachel knows the dashing, sexy Spaniard is keeping secrets from her. He showers her with kindness and generosity in exchange for her obedience. Diego’s control over her and his secrets elicit her distrust and resentment. 
When freedom beckons, Rachel answers its call; however, freedom brings hardship and indignity. Will she return to the controlling alpha male who stirs her blood or cling stubbornly to her freedom?

Storytelling and Genre Expectations

The premise of good fiction is to take an ordinary person and plop him or her into extraordinary circumstances. Think of the ingenue who discovers she has powers and must learn to control them, the woman who dies and arises a vampire, or the administrative assistant or waitress who finds herself the target of an elite assassin or mob boss.

Good storytelling begins there.

Considering how much romance has regressed, one might wonder why I continue to read it and write it.

I believe in love.

Furthermore, I believe in love in which the parties involved want to make each other happy. Genuine, powerful romance involves both give and take by all parties involved in the relationship.

My novel Rowan, published in 2014, features our “ordinary” heroine—actually not so ordinary, but an immortal sidhe—who finds herself the romantic target of a vampire and a shapeshifter. One’s immortal, the other isn’t. The heroes, who are friends and business partners, work out an arrangement so that each gets what he wants, but … wait for it … our heroine consents. She initially consents for practical reasons, but practicality soon gives way to romantic love. In no way does this woman wallow in victimhood or accept herself as a victim, even when circumstances exceed her ability to overcome them by herself.

This year I dipped my toes into science fiction with a reverse harem romance titled Triple Burn. The heroes resemble such antiheroes as written by other authors (whom I won’t mention) in that they endure a mating instinct that drives their actions. Yet, the heroes in this book—warriors all—can and do exert some self-control because they want a happy mate. Although they dominate her, they don’t oppress her. Their patriarchal attitudes run toward protection and coddling rather than domineering exploitation and forced obedience. Sure, they expect their fragile (compared to them) mate to obey their commands, but their goal is to protect her from harm. Of course, the heroine doesn’t understand that at first, which introduces the relationship conflict needed to propel the story along.

Even the practically-a-caveman hero of my novella The Barbary Lion who most closely resembles those antiheroes so prevalent in today’s so-called “dark” romances learns that the presence of a uterus does not nullify mental capacity or free will. The resourceful heroine teaches him a hard lesson, and he realizes that he must give in order to get. He negotiates with her and she holds him to his word. In other words, he finds redemption because he finally understands that his mate—the love of his life—is not his sex slave. He makes concessions to secure her consent to come back to him—and then he keeps his word. His rigid code of honour—keeping his word no matter what—strongly characterizes him.

Perhaps the difference between heroes who imbue the romantic alpha characteristics that romance readers love between the antiheroes who also exhibit that same dominance lies in two simple concepts: honour and compassion. Even when sexual attraction blazes hot between a hero and his heroine, he holds to honour and exercises compassion. Those two concepts lead to redemption of an otherwise irredeemable character.

Is there honour in harming or terrorizing someone weaker?

These antiheroes whose authors wallow in such cruelty and oppression are nothing more than mature bullies who add rape and violence to their repertoire. I don’t understand why some readers and authors find that romantic, especially when I’m sure they would collapse in puddles of pain, terror, and tears if they experienced even a smidgen of what those poor heroines endure with orgasmic smiles and open legs.

If romance is a genre primarily for women and focusing on supporting women, women’s ambitions, and women’s happiness, then why are romance authors writing about the subjugation and exploitation of women? And why do readers like it so much?

I wish I could answer those questions.

Love and Expectations

Romance, ultimately, is about love. I believe in love and I believe that romantic love exists, grows, and endures beyond the chemistry of gonads. It requires an emotional connection that authors and readers of sex slave stories apparently forget. The trappings of a sub-genre—science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, billionaire, etc.—serve as window dressing because they don’t change the essence of the umbrella genre. The hero is always physically powerful and handsome, even in the occasional happenstance of not being wealthy. The heroine gives up damned near everything to cleave unto him and adapt to his life. (For what it’s worth, the hero gives up his criminal life to live with the heroine in my book, Russian Gold. Many readers let me know they disliked that violation of expectations.)

That expectation that a woman leaves her family and everything else when inserting herself into her husband’s life has ancient roots in most cultures. It goes back thousands of years. So do the erroneous ideas that rape is romantic and that women like being chattel. Perhaps anticipation or actuality of reader backlash against violation of expectations prevents romance authors from writing otherwise.

Another expectation of romance is the “HEA” (happily ever after) or “HFN” (happy for now) ending. Romance readers find satisfaction in those endings, especially the HEA. Defying that convention also invites reader backlash. I learned that with Triple Burn which does not have a traditional (i.e., expected) ending.

If violating expectations garners negative feedback, then perhaps the hundreds or thousands of positive reviews authors of dark romance receive from writing sex slave stories redolent of rape and brutality feed readers’ expectations of what romance should be. Such violent treatment of women satisfies them somehow. Somewhere in the depths of their minds, they approve of it. They think it right and good.

I shudder at the thought.

About the Author

Holly Bargo is a pseudonym but really did exist as a temperamental Appaloosa mare fondly remembered for protecting toddler children and crushing a pager. The author and her husband live on a southwest Ohio hobby farm with a menagerie of four-legged beasties that, yes, includes horses. They have two grown children, neither residing in Ohio. Holly works full-time as a freelance writer and editor.

Holly writes primarily in the genres of romance and fantasy and often combines the two. Her latest book, The Eagle at Dawn, was released on July 1, 2019. She plans on publishing another short story collection of westerns with co-author Russ Towne this autumn, following their original collaborative project titled Six Shots Each Gun: 12 Tales of the Old West, which was released in February 2019.

Readers who enjoy Holly Bargo’s work can visit with her at the upcoming events listed on her website. She welcomes interaction with readers who may contact her through the Hen House Publishing website.


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