Stacy's Place on Earth
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Wednesday, March 10, 2010:
Disturbing romance: where is your line?
After I read Shadowfae last week and decided that though it was well-written and unique, it just wasn't for me. I found the story too disturbing and unsettling for me to really enjoy it. Then I began thinking back on the hundreds of thousands of romances I've read over the last 25 years and remembered some of the other romances I've read that bothered me...or perhaps should have bothered me.

One book in particular stands out as a story that should have bothered me, though for the life of me I cannot recall the name of it. Three things are especially memorable to me: one is the fact that I remember getting the book at the book mobile, so I had have been around 12. Another is a very specific scene in the story where one of the female characters is rather horny and decides to satisfy her lust with a cucumber. Took me a long time to not thing of that scene when I'd eat even the smallest piece of a cucumber. And the third scene involves a man trying up a woman to the bed and pleasuring her. None of these things is really all that disturbing until you take into consideration my age and understanding of such matters at the time. I probably wasn't really ready to read such mature subject matter, but at the time, I had no clue, and I certainly don't feel that it traumatized me in any way. In some ways, it might have even been healthy. Regardless of your thoughts on that, I still ended up reading the story, so it's really a moot point.

And back then, similar scenes in romance books were very common in the mid-80's. In fact a lot of explicit acts took place in the romances I read when I was a pre-teen. I had a conversation with a friend almost 2 years ago about Devil's Embrace by Catherine Coulter, which I had read but didn't remember until she did a detailed recap of the plot, one I could have done without, btw. There is a lot of rape, including a brutal and graphic gang rape, that happens to the heroine. I shudder to even think about such violence to this character. It turns my stomach to imagine it, which I'm trying hard not to do.

And there have been many others other the years that have involved rape, though most not quite as horrifying. Still, it's rather unsettling to remember that so many of the romances I read back then contained at least one rape scene, and that I rarely gave it much thought, though I knew it was wrong. I could say I was too young to know any better, but was I? Really? I recall one author (again, cannot remember the name) who always wrote a similar plotline: hero and heroine meet, hero rapes heroine, they fall in love. Every single one of her stories was like this. Was I conditioned to accept this behavior?

Now I've heard the arguments about rape being a common occurrence, especially during a certain time period. Rationally, I understand that, and how much worse women's lives worse compared to modern times. I certainly don't want to gloss over those horrors. But the general reason I read romance is for the HEA, not the brutality one person can do to another, which is made even worse when the violator claims to love the person they are abusing.

Now, fast-forward about 10 years, and you see a significant change in many of the romances out there. Rape is not so common, and definitely not welcome in romance. And as time passed and it happened less and less, I became un-desensitized to it. So when I did come across a story that involved rape, it was overwhelmingly difficult to read, regardless of the motivation of the author. I go back to my argument that I read these books for the romance, not necessarily the realism of the time period.

Now I know some allowances may be made to Urban Fantasy and some paranormal stories. Not exactly a fan of the extreme violence, but I am willing to agree that these are grittier, more realistic subgenres, and the events in the story tend to get ugly and graphic. So though I might not like it, I read these stories with my loins girded and reluctant acceptance that there may be some kind of brutal assault committed on someone.

And there may be other things about romances and all the subgenres that are attached to romances that are disturbing to you. It could be child abuse, or animal cruelty. Perhaps mental illness. It could be due to personal experience or just an aversion to something specific. I've discovered that the elements that bother me most are when the person to which the act is being committed against is humiliated in any way - even if it's not a physical act - it really, really bothers me. That is MY personal hot button. If someone is made to feel shame and degradation, then it's gone too far. I don't want to read it. That's when my line has been crossed, and I can't enjoy the story anymore. Even if there is comeuppance to the responsibility party, the experience has been ruined for me. Pain would be another hot button for me, but in some cases, the pain might not be unwelcome. Though it makes me cringe, I will grudgingly accept it if it's consensual and embraced by the person receiving the pain.

It's a bit of a dilemma to avoid hot buttons sometimes. How do I prepare myself without scoping reviews for every single book I read? I guess I take my chances, and not let myself obsess over it. In most of the stories I read, it's not even an issue. So I guess I should just let it go and focus on the good stuff. And try to learn something from the experience.

What about you: when has your line been crossed?

What's the most disturbing romance you've ever read?

Does it bother you when stories are too graphic?


  1. I love this post, and wow, I can't believe you read that book at 12! No wonder you wouldn't eat cukes. I remember at that age, the idea of sexual violence and S&M really scared me. There were various scenarios I had nightmares about.

    I think that's so sort of sweet that you hate seeing characters humiliated. I don't like seeing animals hurt or killed.

  2. 12? Wow, you were advanced? A cucumber? :D I read the DEVIL'S EMBRACE and don't recall the graphic nature. Weird, isn't it? I can't imagine reading that now. I certainly couldn't write it.

  3. Great post. Besides some rape in those 80's romance novels that I cut my teeth on as teen discovering historical romances, I haven't really read much with that sort of thing.
    For me its not the stuff found in romance so much, as the violence and killing found in thriller/horror books. I just can't stomach brutal violent murder scenes, yet I love a good thriller suspense story line, so I am often just scanning over the violent scene to get back to the story. Violence really bothers me and there is NO WAY I could read any sort of violence against children. No way. That's a deal breaker for me.
    It's interesting that you bring up this post today because I just reviewed "Wolf Tales" by Kate Douglas on my blog today and it had a violent sex/rape scene in it- though in paranormal form and it was certainly a squeamish/disturbing moment in the story line for me.

  4. Stacy, don't let them make you feel bad. I was a precocious 12 yo, too - reading Sydney Sheldon.

    This is such a great post. I don't care for men that treat their women like dirt. And then expect them to love them. The series that came immediately to my mind was Anne Stuart's Ice series. I gave up after the 2nd one - the heroes were plain assholes (whatever the underlying issues) and I hated that they got a HEA with the heroines. Even though she's known for those dark heroes and stories, and I love some of them, I thought this series crssed the line into "Why would she ever want to be with him?" territory.

  5. Ok I am getting rather pissed at blogger nwo for eating my posts!!!

    But ok romance, well there was this book I and a friend read. Young woman gets kidnapped by pirates, the captain rapes her, she falls in love with him and they live happily ever after.

    Ok, first I do not want to see rape in romances but I can live with it. If she hadn't fallen in love with him and he with her. That HEa they had made me throw the book at the wall and later we threw it in the trash.

  6. Carolyn, I don't remember being overly horrified by the cuke experience. Maybe I was a perv even back then. LOL. And any violence against animals or children is a huge taboo for me.

    Toni, until my friend recapped Devil's Embrace, I didn't remember any of it. But then I went and read some reviews and it triggered my memory of the book. Still makes me shudder in outrage.

    MsM, yes, anything done to children is TOTAL deal breaker. Can't stomach it and don't care what the reason behind it is.

    Lori, I agree. I mean back 20 years, sadly that was the expectation. But now? No, heroes who treat women so horribly are not heroes in my book. I've only read one of her books, and had a difficult time considering the hero a hero.

    Blodeuedd, sorry blogger has been so awful to you! And I don't understand how any woman could fall in love with their rapist. But if you ever watched the American soap opera General Hospital, back in the early 80's, Luke & Laura's relationship was based on this very thing.

  7. Yeah, I read a few romances when I was twelve that kind of icked me out. Most of them were by Susan Johnson. *shudder*

    Anywayyyy, I read one of those old-skool romances where the hero rapes the heroine when I was about twenty, and it pretty much disgusted me. I don't find that particularly romantic. That's probably the biggest thing in a romance novel that will make me put it down. Do. Not. Want.

    Everything else is fine, though. Ha! ;)

  8. @Blodeuodd - was it Johnana Lindsay's A Pirate's Love? I reckon I was 11 or 12 when I read that - I think the rape when straight over my head at the time but I don't think I could enjoy it now.

    I'm not interested in violence against children (off the page, as backstory, maybe, just maybe) and I don't like when the hero is also a rapist.

    I don't mind so much if there's violence against the heroine (it's not that I ENJOY is as such mind you) as long as it's not by the hero - it's the hero coming to the rescue that I like and, that being the case, it stands to reason that some bad things are going to at least threaten the heroine for the rescue to be worth it. (Although I don't like the heroine to be TSTL or helpless either).

  9. This is such a good day for this post! I was finishing up a review for a vampire romance that isn't what I usually read and I needed to talk a little bit about an uncomfortable scene. After reading what Stacy wrote and you all commenting I figured out what I should write.

    I haven't been reading romance since my teens BUT I was reading the Exorcist and horror at 14 and younger. Talk about some disturbing scenes. Whew. No cucumber that I recall. That's just wrong. Ick. Plus, did the author actually try that because it just seems unlikely to be fun. Just saying...

    Falling in love with ones rapist is something that's too much for me, or the abuse of children. There is enough of that in real life, in the news, I don't want it in my romances, you know?

  10. ::Cover face:: I had two experiences. Both happen to be erotic romance. First was some horrible rated x-treme (didn't know that at the time) where the man character was rapped in front of the female character - by a GOBLIN! Second was Kate Douglas Wolf Tales, lots of force m/m rape & bestiality and I wanted to throw the book across the room. My line is drawn with explicit forced rape. I honestly don't mind rape, if it arcs the story and a character is trying to overcome this. I do not like it in an erotic romance, where character is rapped, then 10 pages later suddenly we have HEA.

  11. I think when I started reading romances, the frequent obligatory rape scenes usually didn't feel quite like a violent rape (exceptions abound, of course) and tended to follow the "her lips say no but her body says YES YES YES" chestnut that mostly nobody buys into these days, but kind of did back then. And yeah, I was a bit desensitized.

    I think that as a pretty protected kid and adolescent, I also didn't really have a sense of the lasting damage that rape does to a woman.

    The first one that went over the line for me, possibly my first DNF, was a sheik-kidnap trope: the heroine falls in love with her kidnapper who is only her "trainer" and will be delivering her to her eventual owner.

    I cannot remember much of the scene leading up to it but there was a point where he pulled out a knife and threatened to slice off her nipple. I was abruptly educated as to the difference between sensual violence and NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO violence.

    These days, I enjoy most* anything that is portrayed as consensual and where the writing can convince me that the characters are into it.

    Violence and torture that are part of the character's baggage or the plot climax can get to be too much for me pretty quickly; I'm a wimp. I stopped reading Karen Robards (whom I loved) after one of her earlier rom-suspence offerings where the bad guys a) broke her little finger and b) slung a tire around her middle, pinning her arms, saturated it with gasoline, and put a lit cigarette in her mouth. I can't deal with that kind of thing.

    *no scat though. Yuck.

  12. Thanks Stacy,
    I remember to copy my comments now, cos it keeps on happening so gotta remember to copy

    I found the name! I was on Kristie's blog and saw a book she had read or was supposed to read, it was Karen Robards.And then I remembered that she was the author of my horrible book. Nicola mentioned her too, that didn't not happen in my book but I guess her themes are rather...yeah

    I googled her, it was Island Flame. It seems he raped her a lot, according to the Amazon reviews, I must have blocked it out.

    Ok I am getting rather sick of reading this reviews, I want find that book and burn it

  13. I throughly enjoyed your post as it got me remembering VC Andrews' Flowers in the Attic". Read it when I was around 16 and it and the whole series was the most disturbing romance I've ever read( not so disturbed that I didn't finish them but disturbed never the less)

    alterlisa AT yahoo DOT com

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