Contemporary romance — it’s time to do better, writes our guest blogger Ainslie Paton. In 2016, misogyny shouldn’t stand unexamined in romance fiction. We have enough of that in our real lives.
Ainslie Paton writes hyper-real contemporary romance, so it’s not surprising she has an opinion on this. She’s the author of twenty-one and counting stories with heartbreak and happy endings, including a drug-fueled captivity serial where the hero is a villain who makes good. Her latest, Offensive Behavior, features an alpha, virgin geek and a pole dancer. ainsliepaton.com.au @AinsliePaton
It’s the lunch hour crush on main street, and rushing back to his office, a businessman accidentally knocks into a woman. She’s carrying a briefcase and her lunch: a sandwich and a strawberry smoothie, and when he bumps her, she jolts and drops her lunch; the sandwich bag spills, the smoothie splashes her legs. She’s annoyed and exclaims, loudly. He says sorry, just the one word, and notices she’s pretty. Then he puts his hands on her shoulders, turns her fully to face him. She sees he’s handsome. She’s unbalanced and her hand goes to his chest, presses there. He lifts her chin, lowers his head and kisses her lips. He tells her she’s lovely and walks away. She’s left staring after him, wondering if that really happened.
And so was I, but not for the reasons you might think.
This scene is how a book* opens, it’s the first 500 words, paraphrased. It’s written to be atmospheric and engaging.
Dramatic start to a novel?
No, actually, it’s sexual assault.
What? You’re not serious?
In case you need a refresher on the definition, here’s the basic, easily accessible Wikipedia one:
Sexual assault is any involuntary sexual act in which a person is coerced or physically forced to engage against their will, or any non-consensual sexual touching of a person.
But wait, it was an accident and he apologised.
Still assault. Not the part where he bumped into her — accidents happen — but the part where he deliberately held her still, moved her head and kissed her. She didn’t ask to be handled and touched intimately by a complete stranger on the street, let alone one who just barreled into her.
But she didn’t push him away, or shout, or make a fuss. She thought he was handsome and she touched him.
Still assault. Sexual assault. Let’s be very clear about that. Her lack of protest doesn’t validate his choice of behavior. He does not ask in any sense of the act and she does not give permission. He takes because he’s physically superior and believes he’s entitled.
Hang on, he told her she was attractive and when he walked away, she wasn’t angry. She was dazed, maybe a little confused, but she wasn’t unhappy about it.
Yeah, it’s still assault.
She didn’t ask to be held and kissed by a stranger. Not protesting it, isn’t the same as permission, and in fact a moment before the kiss she was cursing, not generally the kind of encouragement a kiss might get, and still, beside the point.
Settle petal. He’s an alpha male, it’s a thing, they do this stuff.
True. The alpha male is a trope character and a good one. He’s everywhere and he’s great fun to write.
This alpha male is a doucheturnip. He comes from a long line of alpha doucheturnips who would stalk a woman, break into her apartment, read her mail, frighten off her friends, stop her behaving in a way he didn’t approve, demean, belittle and gaslight her because he alone knows what’s best for her.
This is the kind of doucheturnip who would have sex with a heroine without worrying if she wanted it too, because once again, he knows all her secret thoughts and fantasies better than she does, so the consent is implied. When that happens by the way, it’s called rape.
The other word for a doucheturnip like this is villain.
A true alpha male would buy the woman a fresh lunch, offer to pay for dry cleaning and make sure she was okay. He might steal a kiss, but he’d wait for an overture, or at least until he was halfway sure the object of his affection expected that contact. He can be gruff and taciturn, he can be patronizing and intimidating, but he’s not going to sexually assault a woman, in the first five minutes of meeting her, no matter how attractive she is or how turned on he is.
This guy is a Neanderthal in a suit and our heroine is too stupid to live if she has anything further to do with him.
Go read any of Kristen Ashley’s Chaos MC novels if you don’t get it.
Because that’s the other thing: the heroine does appear to think it’s acceptable, and I can’t think of one good reason for that other than a notion that it’s romantic. This man is a stranger. He’s bumped into her, ruined her lunch. He’s put his hands on her and kissed her. We assume, because this is romance, he’s not going to be Jabba The Hut, so attractive men get a pass on sexual assault?
Yeah, I don’t think so. Would Jabba? Hell, no.
Heroines should have agency over situations like this. They stopped being passive, dazed creatures a long time ago. Narratives like this are the reason we hear the expression strong female character. It’s used as an attempt at separation from doormat heroines with dubious understanding of their own capabilities and rights.
You’ve clearly never heard of the Forced Seduction trope.
The Forced Seduction trope has been around a long time and it’s still as valid a narrative choice as the alpha hero. I’d posit BDSM reads where consent is explicit and safe words are a go, are the inherent contemporary version of it. This is not an argument against Forced Seduction in any context but modern day set contemporary romances where it remains an unexamined plot point.
Cake and eat it too, much?
No, better, more amazing cake that has neutral calories.
As authors we recognised it was smart to get contraception, however annoyingly awkward, with its crinkling foil, into our stories. It’s become a convention, shorthand for the fact we care about sexual health and signaling the risk of pregnancy, but for some reason, aggressive behavior, unexamined misogyny gets a free pass to roam around unmolested.
It’s just a kiss. You’re making too much of it.
This is romance, no kiss is just a kiss. Imagine that happening in real life. You’ve got no lunch, you’re covered in sticky smoothie and a man you’ve never seen in your life before has just put his lips all over yours in a public place. You’re either so shocked you don’t react or maybe you knee him somewhere you know is going to hurt for days.
If you kneed him it would be self-defence, because he just assaulted you.
But it’s fiction, not real life.
See above for contraception.
And so we’re clear, this isn’t a dark romance, it’s not a captivity trope where you expect all those boundaries to be pushed deliberately hard. It’s your standard workplace contemporary and it’s time sexual assault and unexamined misogyny wasn’t considered a plot device to make a scene dramatically romantic.
Let’s go back to our example. It’s set in 2015. Turns out the hero and the heroine are both executives working for rival companies in the same building. When one company buys out the other they become colleagues, competitors who have to work together. You know the framework, tried and true, he’s an arrogant billionaire slumming it and she’s, I hate to say it, feisty. It’s a reverse Taming of the Shrew. She’s going to pull him down a few pegs so he’s worthy of being in love with. And that love, well, it started that day, with that kiss, it just takes them a whole 60,000 words to realise it. A happy ending that began with sexual assault.
Okay, so it’s a bit over the top, there’s no harm in it.
OTT can be heaps of fun, the hero can be dominant and dangerous, and the heroine a mouse who’s not yet learned to roar. It’s a fantasy, a journey towards rebalance, and clearly in this example, it’s a set-up. The hero is going to get his comeuppance. He’ll become a better guy and get the girl.
This is not an argument against OTT. It’s an argument against sexual assault and misogyny in contemporary romance.
Romance is a lot of things. It’s a place to explore fantasies and live vicariously, a place to find comfort, be thrilled, chilled or soothed. It’s also a genre where social constraints between people are explored in historical, modern and future contexts.
In 2016, inside contemporary romance, it shouldn’t be a place where misogyny stands unexamined. We have enough of that in our real lives.
It shouldn’t be a place where we let our heroines be inadvertent victims of superior men. (Or our male lead characters for that matter). Where we write heroes who would trample on a woman’s will, because they can, and heroines who accept that behavior too easily as if they deserve it and it’s a thing of wonder.
That’s not loving our heroines or creating the kinds of heroes worth reading about.
Here’s Wikipedia on misogyny:
Misogyny (/mɪˈsɒdʒɪni/) is the hatred or dislike of women or girls. Misogyny can be manifested in numerous ways, including sexual discrimination, hostility, male supremacist ideas, belittling of women, violence against women, and sexual objectification of women.
When romance has traditionally brought readers stories to excite, inspire and encourage, why is it still okay for unexamined misogyny to be a scene dynamic or plot point?
Not that it was ever okay, but we tended not to notice it. It was our cultural norm. What’s our excuse now?
We can avoid the contraception, sexual health issue by closing the door and fading to black, are we going to do the same here?
Apparently, because some publishers ask for it, some readers don’t reject it and some authors keep writing it.
I want a hero in the making whose first contact with the heroine isn’t sexual assault.
I want a heroine who is able to take action on her own behalf. I don’t mean she has to take offenders down a la Jessica Jones, it’s perfectly reasonable that’s she shocked and dazed and doesn’t react. It’s cool that she’s submissive, or a mouse who only ever squeaks, but that she has no choice other than to accept what’s doled out and like it, with no competing thought is just too bad.
As long as we write heroes outside the constraints of fantasy or fetish reads and inside the HEA space of contemporary genre romance, who get away with sexual assault with no consequence, as authors we’re saying we’re okay with our heroines being abused, because secretly that’s what they want in a man.
Authors create culture. Is that the message we want to stand behind?
I’m not buying it in any context, let alone a contemporary romance. And I’m not insensitive to the OTT tropes. I’ve written a captivity serial. It was a lot of fun. The hero took more than a kiss, but he paid for it dearly and the heroine was never unaware of what was happening to her even when she had limited options.
And there are so many other ways to write a dominant hero, even one who is disrespectful of boundaries, without it being at the expense of a heroine who doesn’t understand what he’s done and why she should run a country mile from him.
We don’t need unexamined misogyny as a plot point. It’s a creative hack. It’s a piss poor show, and we can do better.
We can write heroes with the potential to be genuinely heroic, not simply endured, corrected, or alternatively brought to heel. We can write heroines who aren’t hapless victims without support networks.
I don’t mean, never write the gaspy, tricky, screwed up human relationships stuff, where people do dumb, crazy, desperate things. I love that stuff. Write all of that, but do it knowingly and with a sense of control over the narrative.
Don’t write assault and call it by another name and have it stand in for romance. Don’t let it slip through because you didn’t think it mattered. Don’t be a publisher and ask for it.
Don’t do that and then wonder why it happens in real life.
Romance books aren’t real life but contemporary stories aim to echo it. Readers are smart enough to know the difference, but it’s confusing when we consistently throw writerly tricks at them, word smoke screens to convince them otherwise. We write assault, but we tell the reader it’s fine because the heroine liked it.
It’s not fine. It’s really not.
So well is the concept of misogyny internalised, and in this instance, romanticised, I’m worried some writers and publishers aren’t aware they’re promoting it, because why would we knowingly choose to?
Time to become aware. Time to do better. As an author: to write nuanced contemporary heroes and heroines and continue to enrich the genre without resorting to misogyny as a plot point. As a reader: to call it out, return the book, because it’s not contemporary genre romance, even if it does end happily; you’ve been sold a sad imitation.
Until we collectively as publishers, writers and readers say enough of the unexamined misogyny plot point, publishing will use it as an excuse to keep villainous heroes, hapless heroines, and abuse disguised as magical moments alive.
And we’re all better than that.
* No, I’m not telling you the book title. The book itself isn’t important, it was simply the needle under my nail. It’s a bigger issue than one book, and I have no intention of singling out one publisher or author. This is not a witch hunt, it’s a call to action.