Rape-romance is a rather old and established genre; for those not familiar with it, it’s a subset of romance that involves things like ‘forced seduction.’ The basic storyline involves the heroine repeatedly resisting the advances of the hero, who eventually ‘forces[1. What a nice word for rape.]’ her, making her realise that she really does love him and wants to be with him for ever and ever. Tense, fraught circumstances may be present; perhaps she is an FBI agent on a sting with her partner, who just ‘can’t control himself any longer’ and must ‘consummate his love.’
These books have been a part of the genre for years and they continue to sell like hotcakes. As an admitted romance reader, I don’t really like the rape-romance genre, because I don’t like rape, and that’s what these books are fundamentally about. I don’t like the messaging they send either, the implications to readers about ‘blurred lines’ and consent. Rape is rape, period, and forcing someone to have unwanted sexual contact is rape. Telling readers otherwise creates a dangerous precedent, and also sets people up for bad situations, where they may feel like they have been raped but think they can’t take action. Or they try to suppress the feeling, and describe their sexual assaults as something other than what they really were.
The recent vampire resurgence has an interesting connection with the rape-romance genre; to me, many vampire romances seem to be attempting to legitimise the genre, sneaking it in under the guise of something slightly different. The fact that these books and the sometimes rapey storylines are extremely popular is troubling, because it means rape-romance is sprawling even further over time, rather than dying the quiet death I so sorely wish it would, preferably in a corner far, far away.
Of course, rapey storylines have been a part of vampire literature for a long time. There’s a sexual connection with vampires and that could clearly be seen in Dracula, where the touch of the vampire serves as a sexual awakening, turning women into sexual monsters. There is also a sense, there, of corruption; the vampire’s touch would have been unwanted and soundly resisted until he bit, at which point everything changed and his victim was suddenly a willing partner. This reminds me of the rape-romance to a tee and I can’t be the only one.
This has been pushed even further with some of the new entries in the genre, where the vampires are supposed to be the good guys and they are still extremely rapey. They are stalking young women around and forcing their attentions on them, even when those attentions are rejected. They are telling young women they are there to protect them, positioning themselves as big and strong, and then taking advantage of them. Like the muscled heroes in rape-romances, they are built up for readers and the heroine, who eventually ‘succumbs to their charms’ in scenes that are sometimes deeply uncomfortable for readers who might have concerns about agency and consent.
It’s not just the stalking and creepiness of the Edwards of the world, but the active rapes committed in some vampire romances that are not acknowledged as such. After those scenes, the female characters are suddenly passionately in love, glad to have found The One, and there’s no discussion of the fact that they were raped, and that the basis of this supposed love is a violation. Just like in the rape-romance, the characters ride off into the sunset and readers sigh, longing for something that romantic to happen to them and wondering if it ever will.
Vampire novels and the rape-romance both actively set rape up as a romantic concept and encourage the reader to think of rape as an expression of romance. Encourage readers to think that it’s okay to experience rape and sexual assault, that these things may lead to love and a long-term romance, and promote the burying of feelings. Being steeped in these stories means that if you are raped, if someone does push over your boundaries, if you are not able to exercise agency and consent, you may not be able to adequately express what happened to you or you are afraid to say it, when it happens in a ‘romantic’ context. When the boy who has been leaving you sexually harassing notes is clearly just really, really into you, and is ready to sweep you away on a white horse.
The vampire rape-romance also sets other dangerous precedents about rape. Vampires are big and strong, and thus their victims cannot resist them. You can try fighting, and some people do, but in the end, you can’t prevail because you are only a puny human. There’s an implication there about rape, and fighting, and who is a ‘real’ rape victim—you can’t ‘really’ be raped or assaulted if your rapist was smaller and weaker than you, used words instead of actions to force you, was just another human being like you. You should have fought harder.
There’s a scene in one of the Sookie Stackhouse novels where Sookie is locked in a car trunk with Bill by a malicious character who knows that when Bill wakes up at sundown, he will be ravenous and he will reach for the first available thing to eat, which happens to be Sookie. The evil character hopes that he will drain Sookie or at least traumatise her, but what happens is that he starts drinking, and then starts raping her, and ‘can’t stop,’ as the novel informs us, setting up a scene where he realises what he is doing but cannot control himself.
This was a turning point in the series for me, because Sookie is reluctant to identify the scene as rape and makes excuses for it when it is brought up. She excuses Bill because he is a vampire and because of their long romantic history. And I keep wondering if this is going to turn into a commentary on how people identify rape, or if Sookie is never going to face up to what happened to her, thus telling readers that men are uncontrollable animals who should be excused when they ‘make mistakes.’ Mainstreaming rape in a popular book series; this is what rape culture looks like.