One of the primary elements that’s kept me away from indulging in the wet and wistful pleasures of a good romance novel is that the sex was never rough enough and men were always drippy. They were either counts, billionaires, cowboys, or some other sort of amorphous type of “stud” that I’ve never encountered in Real Life, all of them talking like overly eager participants in a Renaissance Festival or dull vampires. BDSM novels provided no relief, either; with their protocols, safe-words, props, and theatrics—all feel as tedious to me as a Japanese tea ceremony. Or just like horny LARPing.
Call it a failure of imagination, but I need some verisimilitude in my romance reading to keep my attentions away from the kingdom of broadband pornography moaning my name.
Thankfully, mid-way through the RT Booklovers’ conference that Kelly Faircloth and I attended last week, she and a fellow romance lover suggested that I give Cara McKenna’s Willing Victim a spin. The book, they said, was a cult hit for women who like it rough—featuring deftly drawn, complicated men who do not have the ability to shapeshift or sparkle.
I devoured the novella in one night. Willing Victim centers around Flynn, a part-time-boxer, and Laurel, a wayward woman in her late twenties with an engineering degree who has put 0ff adulthood after her mother’s suicide. After being invited to one of Flynn’s fights, Laurel is introduced to one of Flynn’s current lovers, Pam, who asks Laurel to join her and Flynn back at his apartment for the main event.
“He gets off on being rough, domineering and cruel, but its not who he is,” Pam tells Laurel, “Just like me wanting to pretend a man is forcing me once in a while doesn’t mean I secretly think I deserve to get raped or that I’d ever in a million years want to be, it’s about control—having it or giving it up.”
Willing Victim came out a few years before Fifty Shades of Grey, and in many ways it’s is the exact inverse of E.L. James’s erotic phenomenon. Instead of a screwy billionaire who plays weirdo mind games, Flynn is a construction worker with a spartan apartment who is upfront about his desires and his romantic attraction to Laurel. There are no “walls” Laurel has to break through to reach Flynn’s vulnerable side; indeed, it’s Laurel who shrouds herself in emotional armor as Flynn attempts more intimacy. In place of Christian Grey’s red room filled with paddles, spurs, and various expensive harnesses, Flynn and Laurel’s sexual exploits involve a towel spread out on dusty apartment floor, a full-length mirror and a roll of duct tape. That’s all.
Most importantly, Flynn’s desire to command and overpower a woman through rape-play (with her enthusiastic consent) isn’t a symptom of a malformed personality, as it is with Christian Grey. Kink, here, is not evidence of a problem to be solved.
Early in Willing Victim, Pam invites Laurel to watch she and Flynn go at it to see if rape-play is something Laurel might be interested in. After some friendly banter, Pam and Flynn get down to business. Flynn grabs Pam’s jaw hard in show of “dominance and ownership”; he gives commands like “choke on my cock like a good girl” with a cool, easy confidence, and fucks Pam harder when she issues meek protests.
From the corner of the apartment, Laurel watches, transfixed:
He grunted in time with his hard thrusts, his free hand running up and down Pam’s thigh. He brought it down on her ass with harsh slap and she cried out just as Laurel gasped. Chemicals released into her bloodstream, the same confusing mix of adrenaline and shameful intoxication as when she watched a rape scene in a movie. In both cases, no one was really being violated, but she felt that same hot guilt she had her whole life, finding the visual powerful and horrifying but undeniably arousing.
I, too, find many “rape” scenes in movies arousing! Mostly because I regard sex as something primal, aggressive, and a little ugly, and watching two SAG-card-carrying actors groan, grab, and hump each other in a semi-transgressive manner is sexy to me. I’m also pretty compelled by men and women being at the height of their prescribed sex roles. Watching an aggressive male defile a supine female reminds me I essentially have the erotic psyche of a Victorian.
What’s strange is how the female rape fantasy has remained largely underground, even though it’s a fairly standard daydream. Forty years ago, Nancy Friday published a catalogue of sexual fantasies conjured up by real women called My Secret Garden. The dewy flower on the thick paperback’s cover gave way to fantasies about being fucked by strangers, dominated by a group of black men, some incest play, and—most radically—at least five different rape scenarios. Here’s a fun one by woman named “Jullietta” who identifies herself as a strong believer in “Women’s Lib’’:
I imagine that I’ve been brought to some warehouse, or place like that, against my will. I’m stripped naked and the only thing I’m allowed to wear is a black silk mask. This because whatever powerful person has brought me there does not want the men— yes always more than one in this fantasy— for whom he has procured me, to know who I am. In this way, though he’s brought me there against my will, he somehow wants to protect me too. I never know who he is, and he himself never fucks me... Meanwhile the guy who is really with me [in the dark], every time he time tries a different position, or a different idea, I pretend to myself that it’s the next man in line. So it’s always exciting this way because I have a seemingly endless supply of men fucking me...
In Friday’s time there were no popular romance novels that hinged entirely on the taboo fantasy, but romance writers found ways to work the rape fantasy in their storylines through a “forced seduction.” Forced seductions popped up fairly often in the historical romance novels published in the 1980s, wherein a lecherous duke or stable boy driven mad with wild lust would overpower a heroine and ignore her (ambivalent) protestations. Unadulterated rape fantasy, all but absent from romance paperbacks through the ‘90s, eventually came back to life through discreet self-publishing and has continued to gain momentum through online sales.
Currently, the taboo genre is thriving online under the banner of Dark Romance, which takes the rape fantasy even further by removing consent and kink. Books like Prisoner and Consequences are straightforward depictions of men taking women hostage and raping them; eventually falling in love with them, and then living happily ever after with their former victim. Because the cardinal rule of all romance novels is that hero and heroine end up in a relationship by the end, the Dark Romance novels are particularly advanced genre writing given that they are working inside the constraints of dubious or non-existent consent. (I’ve come to love the Dark Romance stuff for its apolitical and radical style. It’s bonkers and hot and forbidden. Worth checking out).
Now, a major publisher, Penguin, is set to release a full length romance novel based entirely around rape play, called Asking for It, by Lilah Pace. Unlike in Willing Victim, here, the rape fantasy is conceived by the heroine. Graduate student Vivienne Charles wants a guy who will take her completely by force; she finds him in a geology professor named Jonah, who also fantasizes about raping women. Though Vivienne is ashamed of her fantasy, Jonah—who is not a freak per se, but does have a “complicated” past—encourages her to explore it. The two decide they will keep their distance from each other, agree to a set of hard limits, and when Jonah wants to, he will take Vivienne by surprise and by force.
During their first meeting to discuss limits, Jonah lays out the appeal of their arrangement:
With a boyfriend, you can pretend— but it’s a joke, really. A game. Not the fantasy you really want. Me? I’m nearly a stranger. I can do more than fuck you. I can scare you a little. Just a little. Enough to make it what you really want.
I won’t give it away, but the Vivienne and Jonah affair gets darker and more complicated (they both, of course, have ugly incidents from their past intruding upon their present narrative). Throughout everything, the book is excellent, self-aware, and confident. Vivienne and Jonah’s disturbing family lives create an intense emotional and sexual baseline for the characters to work from. It could conceivably be the next Fifty Shades of Grey, which was, essentially, a clunky rape fantasy with more props.
Sources at Penguin told me, while we were at the RT Booklovers’ convention, that there was a lot of “pushback” inside the publishing house over the book’s title—which I find to be cheeky and wonderfully provocative—as well as the content. Some people, in fact, refused to have anything to do with the book. “They wouldn’t touch it,” a source told me. “But I think it’s terrific.”
It is terrific. Asking For It comes out June 2. A follow up book is in the works called, naturally, Begging For It.
Images via Ellora’s Cave/Pocket/Penguin
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