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Ethical Erotic Romance

When I was in my twenties, I developed a mild addiction to historical romance novels. It had nothing to do with my love of history but my love of being scandalized by the tawdry plots and descriptions of sex that were surprisingly graphic for the 1980’s. But it wasn’t just the sex that turned me on. Those books were known as “bodice rippers” for a reason; the sex scenes bordered on the non-consensual. There was always a rakish lord refusing to take no for an answer on the assumption – both his and the readers – that the lady wanted it. There was the handsome nobleman who appeared on a couple’s wedding night to claim prima nocta, taking the bride’s virginity – and her heart – while her helpless groom stood by. There was the trembling virgin trope of the innocent young woman awakened to sex that transformed her into an instant, albeit unrealistic, wanton.

And then there was the darker stuff. Women were spanked, whipped, tied down, and ravished by the men they would later come to love.

It’s hard not to wonder why these books were so incredibly popular until you realize they still are. It is an inconvenient truth that female fantasies don’t align with what we really want. The sexist, non-consensual treatment we would never, ever tolerate from our real-world partners is excused in our bad book boyfriends.

Today there’s more sex than ever in books, and it’s even more graphic than it was when I picked up Beloved, the Beatrice Small book that led to my being a voracious reader and writer of what is now unashamedly labeled erotic romance. In today’s books, a man doesn’t slide his member into her velvet sheath, his hard cock thrusts into her wet pussy. If the man ties the woman up and spanks her, her inner dialogue makes it clear that this turns her own. The difference between most of today’s erotic romance and those bodice rippers: consent.

If the horribly written but wildly popular Fifty Shades of Grey series proved one thing, it’s that sexual submission is a common fantasy among women. In an age where men and women are openly exploring their sexuality, what used to be taboo is now greeted with more acceptance. Just as we are discouraged from slut-shaming women who enjoy sex, we are discouraged from kink-shaming women who like BDSM or power exchange. By talking about our desires, we’re able to separate what we like sexually from what we like in everyday life; while there are lifestyle submissives, most women who enjoy surrendering in the bedroom are not at all submissive at work or at home.

This has created something of a dilemma for writers of modern erotic romance. Many writers – including me – were making a living writing erotic romance with power exchange themes long before E.L. James decided to turn her bad Twilight fanfiction into a blockbusting sex series. E.L. James was not the first to incorporate safe words or negotiated sex contracts into her books, nor was she the first to make it clear that consent itself was necessary. Online spaces for BDSM were loaded with discussions on safe, sane, and consensual sex and writers were already incorporating these themes into erotic romance.

Even erotic romance set in historical, or anything-goes fantasy worlds makes it clear that any woman engaging in sex where consent seemed dubious on the surface was absolutely turned on by their partner’s dominance.

You may have noted that earlier I said the difference between most of today’s books and the old bodice rippers is consent. That is because there is a category of erotic romance called dark romance that is just that – dark. These books contain darker elements and often focus on the villain finding the love that he wants, even when he isn’t very nice. He often pushes the physical and emotional boundaries of the woman he’s with the lines between consent and non-consent blurred with books featuring abduction themes or sexual blackmail. And yes, in some cases there are rape scenes.

Three years ago, I recorded an interview for my Erotic Reading Room podcast on the topic of dark romance with fellow author Alta Hensley, whose dark romance books are wildly popular with readers. We talked about how dark romance has been accused of being transgressive or glorifying rape themes and she said while dark romance does push boundaries in a way that may make some readers uncomfortable, the books should be seen as what they are – fantasy.

“We have to remember this is fantasy. This is fiction. I would never want to be locked in a cage and treated as a pet by a mafia boss, but it doesn’t mean I don’t want to read that story,” she said.

It’s sometimes hard to understand the criticism of edgier themes in romance when they can be an extension of fantasies acted out in bedrooms all over the United States. So far as I know, the BDSM community itself isn’t under fire for acting out scenes where the submissive partner is tied up and whipped or deliciously tortured by her partner. If this is a woman’s fantasy, then how is a book any different.  At the end of the day, she’s in control of the action, whether it’s between the sheets or between the covers of a book. What she reads or does is her choice.

How is that not a kind of empowerment?

Written by Ava Sinclair

About Ava

USA Today bestselling author Ava Sinclair cuts a literary swath through multiple subgenres of erotic romance, from historical to contemporary to dark romance to sci-fi to menage.

Her books cater to the intelligent reader who wants both heat and a well-developed plot.

In addition to writing fiction, Ava hosts the Erotic Reading Room podcast and is a regular contributor to Sssh.com. She lives in the foothill country of Virginia, where she enjoys hoarding books, hiking, and spending time with her animals.

You can find Ava’s full catalog on Amazon.

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