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Where Is the Love?

by guest blogger Maya Rodale, writer of historical tales of true love and adventure

Someone wrote to me recently with a really excellent question: What is the appeal of books like 50 Shades of Grey, and why do so many women want to be treated that way—with violence and domination instead of passion, tenderness, and freedom? With books like these being read by millions of readers, and far, far, far too many stories in the news about rape, violence, and abuse, it’s a serious question with real implications. Where is the love?

First of all, there are so many books like 50 Shades of Grey that feature an alpha male, a heroine, sex, and a love story. There is a range in quality of writing, kinkiness of sex scenes, types of heroines, setting, and so forth. But, having read many of these books, spoken with their authors, and surveyed readers for another article I’m writing, I stumbled upon an unlikely answer…

These books aren’t about domination at all.

In 50 Shades of Grey, Anastasia never signs the contract Christian gives her to confirm his right to dominate her. Defying the stereotype that women are timid negotiators, she negotiates the hell out of it until it’s an agreement she could be comfortable with, but she never signs it. That whole strict dom/sub relationship never actually happens—instead, there’s a messy, complicated romance between two people who explore each other’s boundaries together. If one reads the book—and doesn’t just skim to the kinky sex scenes (which I know a lot of us did)—one finds that most of the sex scenes didn’t feature whips and ties, but actually a lot of sweet and lovely “vanilla sex.”

Not to limit it to just 50 Shades. In all of these books, there is a range of sexual kink explored and no judgment. Every heroine has a choice about what she wants to do and how far it goes. The games can stop at any time. Sometimes they do. More often (in fact, always), these heroes realize that mutual love is much sexier than simply dominating.

But it’s all well and good for me to explain the nuances of a certain fiction genre in a blog post likely to be read by open-minded people. What worries me is the possible perception that it’s acceptable to treat women as “submissives” with violence and domination—and that they may like it because they read romance novels with some kinky sex scenes (I don’t think the reader who wrote to me believes that, but I worry other people do). I worry about it because the cultural conversation is often about the violence and not the love.

Perhaps it’s a misunderstanding.
Perhaps if more men read romance novels…
Perhaps if the nuances of these books were taught in English literature classes…
Perhaps if we talked about love more and violence less…

Question: Do you see the love or the violence in kinky romance novels?

Maya Rodale is the author of multiple historical romance novels, as well as the nonfiction book Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained. She has a master’s degree from New York University and lives in Manhattan with her darling dog and a rogue of her own. Her latest book is Seducing the Single Lady, a historical romance based on Beyoncé songs. Learn more at mayarodale.com.

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7 Responses to Where Is the Love?

  1. Nikki October 4, 2013 at 6:46 am #

    I read a lot of smut books; I’m even a member of a book club where that’s all we read. And you’re right – the good ones are really more about love and romance than actually violence.

    That being said though, I think a lot of the appeal is just the idea of having a man take control of that. So often we women are bogged down with working, taking care of the family and the housework, and then we’re equals in the bedroom too. And I’m fine with that, but it’s a nice fantasy to imagine that there are guys who are willing and able to shoulder that responsibility.

    One last thing: at least in my conservative little town, moms are supposed to look and act a certain way, and it’s not sexy – at least not in public. And we get busy and let ourselves go so we don’t even feel sexy very often. These books give us an escape into a world where we can have they opportunity again.

  2. Maya Rodale October 4, 2013 at 8:55 am #

    Yes, Nikki! What you said. I think so much of the appeal with these books is the hero who will, as you say, shoulder some responsibility. And the heroines in these books never have to worry about housework and other tedious life crap…that’s the fantasy and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    And I think your comments on women feeling sexy (or not) are worthy of a whole blog post 🙂

  3. Melissa Terry October 4, 2013 at 11:51 am #

    The books that I have read in this genre have leaned more to love than violence. I agree with the previous poster in that a lot of the appeal is the guy taking charge. I like to read about Alpha males but I don’t know that I would want it in real life. The fantasy part is the appeal of reading. 🙂

  4. Mandy October 4, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

    Most of the erotica and bdsm books have always said that the subs are the ones with the power. They always have the right to stop. The Doms only have power because the subs give it to them. As opposed to rape and other violent situations where the bad people have power because they take it from the other person. As I said the books I have read have always shown that the subs have the power. They also show how the doms have to earn or at least keep the trust that the subs give them.

  5. Maya Rodale October 4, 2013 at 2:19 pm #

    That’s a really fascinating distinction, Mandy, and it makes sense. There is a huge difference between giving and taking.

  6. Irma October 4, 2013 at 5:08 pm #

    You should see my library, it’s all romance novels. I think the attraction to said novels is not the sex scenes. Rather, it’s how the hero makes the heroine feel. Falling in love is the best feeling in the world, and to be able to feel it through the heroine every single time is what’s so beautiful. And like Nikki said, it’s so nice to have a sweet, sexy man come in and handle everything once in a while. And even in Dom/Sub relationships, usually the sub knows that the dom will take care of her. That’s what Anastasia loved about Christian so much, that no matter what he did, in the end, he’d do everything to protect her.

  7. Bailey November 20, 2015 at 12:07 pm #

    Love this! It is utterly anizamg how romance novels are STILL something to be ashamed of reading even today. IMHO, the main reason that e-readers have become so popular is so that people can read what the heck they want to without being condemned for it. Wish more people would take a stand for the Happily Ever After!

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