The use of rape as a plot device in romance books has been on my mind for a while. While I feel very strongly about it, I hesitated to write about it for fear of coming across as getting on my soap box.

If you look back over the history of romance books both authors and publishers have been at least somewhat responsive to changing societal mores and attitudes. I am sure that one reason is economics because if readers are turned off by plot devices, then they don’t buy the books, but I also believe that authors are interested in readers’ opinions. As we are being educated and our attitudes change, so do those of authors. Not all readers here have read the bodice ripper books of the 80’s where it was not uncommon for the hero to rape the heroine because he “knew” that her no really meant yes, but with readers’ feedback and public awareness about date rape, this plot device has for the most part fallen into disfavor.

I have another area that I would like to offer up to authors as an area that needs reconsideration and that is the use of rape for character development in romance novels. I’m not suggesting that certain plots should be completely forbidden or anything like that. However, I would like to see rape treated more seriously.

A couple of years ago, some Hollywood stars were robbed, and one of these individuals testified at a hearing saying she felt violated, and could no longer stay in her home after the robbery. If a person feels this after having their possessions stolen just imagine how women must feel after someone assaults their body.

When I was attending school, I checked out a local hospital’s volunteer program helping rape victims. As a non professional my job was to be there for support, if the indvidual wanted me there, until family or friends could arrive. This was in the early 90’s and I am sure that a much better system is in place now with specially trained personnel. While it has been over twenty years, I still remember the horror and anguish I felt for the young woman I sat with in the E.D. She had been kidnapped by her boyfriend who then held her hostage, beating and raping her for three days.

So while some authors do treat these assaults seriously, demonstrating the steps needed for recovery, many books gloss over this part of things and just use it as an incident in a character’s past to bring out discovery of unknown magical powers or new career opportunities. Soon after, the heroine meets the hero and without hesitation she requests him to make love to her, resulting in wonderful, fulfilling, trauma-free sex. I wonder when I am reading these books why the author felt the need to include rape, if there are no effects or repercussions. Surely there are other ways to tap into one’s superpowers without being casual about something that has been deeply traumatic to so many.

Dealing with personal issues is more women’s fiction then romance, so I do understand why rape is not fully explored in a romance book. On the other hand, not mentioning anything about the aftermath or minimizing it doesn’t feel right for me either. In an inexplicable way, by making recovery seem so easy it diminishes how extraordinarily strong women are who have survived this and have gone on to have successful relationships.

Rather then use rape as shorthand for saying the heroine is a survivor or a strong woman, there should be another plot device that can illustrate this or maybe the impact of the trauma should be explored a little bit more rather than merely glossed over. What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree? Or is there another plot device that you don’t feel is treated seriously enough, like illness, PTSD, death of a child?

– Leigh Davis