Recently I have started volunteering as an advocate for Sexual Assault Crisis Response group in my community. Since I believe the more information and training I have the more effective I can be, I dragged myself out of bed this week on my day off to attend police training on sexual violence – The Dynamics and Cultural Myths, and Improving Sexual Assault Investigations. Thanks to Jen Carson of the Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Mike Hammons of the Fayetteville Police Department for allowing me to use their material in writing this article.

Let me just say upfront that back in the 80’s I was right there with most of the romance reader population in reading and enjoying the so-called “bodice ripper” novels written by authors such as Shirlee Busbee, Rosemary Rogers,and Kathleen Woodiwiss. And I am not knocking these authors now. That was the culture and the fantasy of that time. Just read the joke that John McCain told in 1986:

“Did you hear the one about the woman who is attacked on the street by a gorilla, beaten senseless, raped repeatedly and left to die? When she finally regains consciousness and tries to speak, her doctor leans over to hear her sigh contently and to feebly ask, “Where is that marvelous ape?”

Rather offensive now, isn’t it? As is the thought of a hero raping a heroine. The media did help by bringing the subject of rape out of the closet and of course they coined the phrase date rape. Publishers’ and authors’ awareness has also changed over time. The obvious rape scenes have largely changed. We now have stories where the hero is overcome with need for the heroine. Sometimes he has to fight his animal instincts or his overpowering need for this one woman.

Read this excerpt from a very popular novel:

“His lips crushed mine, stopping my protest. He kissed me angrily, roughly, his other hand gripping right around the back of my neck, making escape impossible. I shoved against his chest with all my strength, but he didn’t even seem to notice. His mouth was soft, despite the anger, his lips molding to mine in a warm, unfamiliar way.

I grabbed at his face, trying to push it away, failing again. He seemed to notice this time, though and it aggravated him. His lips forced mine open and I could feel his hot breath in my mouth. Acting on instinct, I let my hand drop to my side, and shut down. I opened my eyes and didn’t fight and didn’t feel . . . just waited for him to stop.”

One message to us is that this man is so filled with a craving for the heroine that his control is now non-existent. Plus only the heroine creates this need and desire. In a way, this is pretty heady stuff. Who doesn’t want to feel that our attractiveness and uniqueness has the ability to drive a man wild with lust? Talk about a woman having power – she can bring this man to his knees. But wait, read it again and this time imagine you are a juror at a rape trial and the survivor is on the stand, telling what happened the night of her rape. The words are there. Just check out the words in bold, reading them with a different mindset. Who has the power now?

I would never minimize any type of rape because all are horrifying and traumatic. However, with date or acquaintance rape, the woman often blames herself more. She let this person into her life, and may even have had feelings for him. Now she questions her judgment in men. Plus, those who have been through this type of assault have to deal with societal beliefs that they played a part in what happened to them by using poor judgment, being victimized all over again. Here is what Bill O’Reilly said in 2004 when talking about the rape and murder of 18 year-old Jennifer Moore during his nationally syndicated radio show on August 2, 2004:
“She was 5-foot-2, 105 pounds, wearing a miniskirt and a halter top with a bare midriff. Now, again, there you go. So every predator in the world is gonna pick that up at two in the morning.”

Instead of focusing on the horror of the crime, O’Reilly hints that the victim somehow brought it on herself by the way she dressed. By the way, predators are only approximately six percent of the population. And clothing and alcohol don’t create a rapist. The most statically significant thing that increases your chance of being raped is being born a woman. But these ideas are all part of our cultural climate and however much we hate to admit it, romance books do play a part in that because sometimes they can perpetuate the myth that women don’t mean no when they refuse someone.

It’s not only novels, though. Here are some other examples that Jen Carson used to illustrate our cultural climate – many of these actually appear on t-shirts:

Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker
Can’t rape the willing
It is not rape if she blinks twice for yes
You know she is playing hard to get, when you’re chasing her down an alleyway.

The popular book excerpt I discussed above, which by the way is from Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer, and the other examples listed show a willingness to ignore women’s basic right to consent- some by blaming the victim, others by making a joke of consent and still others by perpetuating the myth that a woman says one thing but deep down she wants to have sex. What hit home the most to me, though, is when Jen Carson gave an example of a party scenario. Before the advent of M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), bystanders didn’t think anything about letting an inebriated friend drive home after a party. Now most of us would have no problem taking her car keys way, explaining that she is too drunk to drive. And it is because of our current cultural mindset. With regard to sexual assault, ACASA has listed twenty things that all of us can do to end sexual assault and number two on the list is ” Speak out against attitudes and behaviors that contribute to a culture where violence against women is condoned and often encouraged.”

I am not talking here about censorship or bad mouthing rough sex, sexual domination or sexually submissive behavior because those can be(and are) played out as fantasies which are consensual by nature because the woman is participating and nothing is happening against her will. I am talking about coercion. In our romance books, you don’t generally see the hero take advantage of the heroine by getting her drunk, or giving her drugs to relax in order to get sex. He acts the perfect gentleman, usually saying, “I can’t take advantage of you when you are in this condition”. So why are strong-arming, treating the heroine with a “no means yes” attitude, or other forms of pressure acceptable? Maybe the better choice would be the couple playing out these fantasies with clear cut consent in place. Personally I think there needs to be a change.

So what are your thoughts? Do you think romances play a part in our cultural mindset about what is acceptable in a relationship? How have you seen male/female relationships changed over time? If you don’t think books play any part, then what is your explanation of changes in story arcs – such as no longer having the hero rape the heroine?

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