Trigger warning for disturbing subjects, including rape and abuse.
Motorcycle club heroes are known for being extreme alphas. They might be the most aggressive heroes in the romance genre. “Dark romance” heroes seem to be increasing in popularity also. Dark romance is a subgenre that features dark themes like rape, captivity and abuse. The “heroes” in dark romance are twisted individuals who do terrible things. I use quotation marks because in my world, romance heroes don’t rape, kill or abuse women. They can kill men, but not women or children. That’s my rule, anyway. The romance genre is defined by happy endings, and I just can’t buy into a happy ending for an abusive relationship. My mother always said, “If he hits you once, he’ll do it again.” I took that to heart.
Despite my personal philosophy about abusive men and abusive heroes in romance, I can think of several books I’ve enjoyed in this vein. I was a huge fan of historical romance when I was younger. I loved Catherine Coulter and Kat Martin. Coulter’s Rosehaven is one of my favorite medieval romances. It features a hero who needs to consummate his marriage before he goes back into battle. Marauders are right outside the gates, threatening to take the property by force. The heroine is reluctant and afraid. She just met him that day. He doesn’t have time for gentle wooing, so he rapes her. It’s not presented as sexy or pleasurable for either of them. It’s a mistake. He sees this as his duty, and she hates him for a good portion of the book. After he becomes gentler, the romance flourishes.
Another historical romance by Kat Martin features a double secret agent hero. At one point he has to prove his loyalty to the bad guys and pretend he has no feelings for the heroine. He catches her spying on them and strikes her across the face. I found this very titillating, and I don’t know why. I’ve always been a fan of the heroine slapping the hero, too.
In both of these examples, I understood the hero’s motivations and believed that he wouldn’t abuse the heroine again. I bought into the romance and the happy ending because I felt the heroine was safe.
There’s a difference between a satisfying romantic fantasy and a down-and-dirty sex fantasy, however. Safety isn’t required in erotica, and a sexy fantasy doesn’t always make for a touching romance. It’s normal for women to fantasize about things that aren’t safe, or nice, or good for us. Fantasy isn’t about eating your vegetables and making healthy choices. Sometimes it’s about having no choice at all.
In real life, smart women are expected to make smart choices. We’re supposed to avoid dangerous men and risky situations. We’re blamed for dressing too sexy, drinking too much or walking home alone. In fiction we can be free of those rules. The sky’s the limit as far as fantasy and imagination.
As a young woman I read plenty of books with overbearing or abusive heroes. I don’t think they did me any harm. I wasn’t confused about how men should treat women in real life. But as an adult, I have felt harmed by my reading. The last time I tried to read a romance with a rapist hero, I felt mentally violated. Maybe I’m able to process the trauma of sexual assault on a deeper level now, or maybe it’s just that the content was in this particular book was more extreme. Either way, I don’t want to repeat that experience. I sympathize very strongly with those who’ve had this reaction, but I’m also more understanding about the wide range of female fantasies. I don’t want to shame any women who enjoy dark romance.
The bottom line is that different readers like different things. We can have wildly opposing, equally valid reactions. Women have dark fantasies, including rape fantasies and captivity fantasies. It’s normal. If you find darker themes exciting, there’s nothing wrong with you, and you’re certainly not alone. BDSM romance is mainstream now also. Plenty of erotic romance features bondage, spanking, D/s (domination/submission) and more. With BDSM the heroine can consent to being dominated by the hero. She can choose to submit and find pleasure in a rougher touch.
Riding Dirty, the first in my Dirty Eleven MC series, features some light bondage and spanking. Shooting Dirty, the next release, goes a step further. The hero takes the heroine captive in a previous book (Badlands, from the Aftershock series). He ties her up but he doesn’t hurt her, and they connect on a personal level. When they meet again, both have been fantasizing about bondage play. She’s attracted to his dark side, and eventually they give in to their desires.
Shooting Dirty isn’t a dark romance because there is clear consent before any sexual activity. I wanted to explore bondage and submission without taking away the heroine’s right to choose. Some readers prefer stories without consent, or dubious consent. Forced seduction is a common romance trope from the “bodice ripper” days. It means that the hero overpowers the heroine physically until she submits. Like it or not, this element is part of the romance genre’s history and it’s coming back into vogue. I don’t think the fantasy of being dominated, either by choice or through force, will ever go completely away.
I tend to avoid dark romance, so I can’t make any personal recs. I’ve heard great things about Skye Warren and Annika Martin’s Prisoner. I loved Black Ice, a well-known romantic suspense novel in the fantastic Ice series by Anne Stuart. It features a dubious consent scene and a ruthless assassin hero.
What do you think about dark romance, MC romance or abusive heroes?
Jill Sorenson is the RITA-nominated author of more than a dozen romantic suspense novels, including the Aftershock series by HQN. She lives in the San Diego area with her family. She’s a soccer mom who loves nature, coffee, reading, twitter and reality TV.
Shooting Dirty is her second erotic suspense novel.