Responsible Storytelling in Romances

In the midst of a romance kick a few weeks ago, I started a Regency that sounded like it fit the formula to a T: a reticent, somewhat awkward lady encounters a society rake, they initially want nothing to do with each other, and then, of course, they end up together. This is what I look for in a romance because when I read a romance, I’m reading for the familiar experience of the formula. But before too long, I put down this particular romance.

To be technical, it followed the formula. The lady and the rake encountered each other; she shied away from him while he set his cap for her; the dance of pursuit began. Only in this case, it wasn’t the “dance” that you get in most romances: chance encounters, witty banter, some act of fortune that bonds the protagonists together. In this book, it was plain pursuit. The rake wanted to seduce the lady, and so he badgered her, he followed her, and–this is the point where I put it down–he kissed her after she said she didn’t want to be touched by him.

Like I said, romances thrive on their formulas, and part of those formulas is a mismatch between what the protagonists say they want and what they do. But not included in that formula is sexual assault. The way this book handled what was happening was basically an institutionalization of sexual assault; because the rake is just as much a protagonist as the lady, the reader is set up to root for him as much as we root for the lady. Worse, I’m convinced the author didn’t even realize she was writing a story of sexual coercion. The way the rake isolated the lady socially and physically, cornered her, badgered her, and then told her when she said “no” she meant “yes,” was not analyzed, castigated, or even really mentioned: it just happened, because it was the author’s way of filling in the pursuit formula.

My reaction was to stop reading. This wasn’t because I don’t think sexual assault should be written about; we live in a world where sexual assault is prevalent yet unaddressed, and that means we should be writing, reading, and talking about it. But this wasn’t an exploration of the topic or even an attempt to explore what might have been acceptable in the Regency period. This was an author’s attempt to raise the stakes and fill a formula without thinking. That is more than sloppy storytelling: it is irresponsible, and it is all too easy to find in romances.

Have you ever come across a romance that crosses the line without realizing it? Have you read a romance that addresses sexual assault while still fulfilling its formula?

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