Romanticising Violence, Stockholm Syndrome, and Good-Looking Bad Guys

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Why has bad romance become a widely infatuating experience for readers of erotic novels and viewers of so-called erotic romance films?

So, this question has been on my mind for a while now… I have had conversations with different women who all view these poorly constructed romances from various perspectives. My aversion to Fifty Shades of Grey, alongside similar novels, has been no surprise. Nonetheless I consume romantic and erotic novels, to the point of hiding in my room and binging on them, for plenty of years now. They have a certain template. You have a willing man wanting an unwilling woman, through some pretty heavy and questionable persuasion (or rather coercion), the woman eventually falls in love with this alpha male. BDSM has been casually thrown into these novels and films, but it still negates any genuine aspect of that culture and it’s primarily through the woman’s initial total lack of trust and lack of consent. It’s time to unpack this ‘desire’ for ‘bad romance’.

Forced Sex Fantasies

Let’s delve into detail on these fantasies on their own. I just need to put a little disclaimer out there to remind everyone. In reality, if you force someone to have sex with you, you are in fact raping them. We can all agree on the fact that it’s a disgusting act that shouldn’t be committed by anyone. Again, the research conducted into sexual fantasies suggests that the concept of being forced to have sex is actually quite common, but that doesn’t mean the person wants to be raped in reality. I really have to stress for some readers that there is a fundamental difference between fantasy and reality. It is right to condemn rape and sexual assault but I want to assure you that fantasising about them doesn’t mean you agree with sexual violence. 

These fantasies of forced sex are different from the realties of forced sex since they are occurring inside your mind. You can direct the fantasy. You decide what is right for you in the fantasy. You are in control in of your own mind. Ultimately, you can want to act out these fantasies, but you will never have to do something you don’t want to do within the set of rules and limits and safewords you have laid out. 

It’s important to remember that if you want to explore such fantasies to do it safely, as in having a partner who genuinely respects and understands the rules that you have laid out, a person who understands your sexual boundaries. Therefore, every partner enacting the fantasy must have a form of sexual agency, where everyone’s boundaries are respected. 

There have been findings that those with forced sex fantasies have increased levels of confidence and self-actualisation. So, these fantasies do not make you any less well-adjusted, they are perfectly healthy. Still, the cultural depictions of sexual submission or sexual domination are criticised as being violent.

These films and books are feeding into a familiar sexual fantasy, but I must agree, in the sense that they are portrayed as the normal ways in which to approach a heterosexual relationship. I don’t agree with those who argue that they need to halt production on such books and movies. It’s not going to help the situation. These productions just need better writers, producers and directors. The porn industry needs better writers, producers, directors and serious readjustment of how they portray sex in general. The film industry needs to improve the way it shows forced sex fantasies, too, otherwise it will remain a poor extension of mainstream porn. 

You can still be a feminist if you are aroused by the fantasy of forced sex. It took a little time, but I figured it out when I had to explain that equality and feminism are not mutually exclusive from forced sex fantasies, because they are consensual as long as everyone in play agrees. The realities of forced sex should never be used to judge or attack other people’s sexual and consensual desires and fantasies.


Erotic Literature

In spite of these fantasies, mainstream media continues to romanticise violence, ensuring that it’s okay since those men are handsome, rich and/or are excellent at giving pleasure. Again, there’s nothing wrong with depicting fantasies, but mainstream culture requires major changes when approaching their visual depictions of forced sex fantasies. My primary critique is that rather than calling what most of these romantic and/or erotic films what they are, forced desire and forced sex, they’re labelled as romantic couplings were very questionable behaviour is considered okay since they end up living a happily ever after. 

Have you ever picked up an erotic novel that wasn’t necessarily a bestseller? That’s okay. Let me give you  some examples. The Commander’s Mate (2014) by Morganna Williams follows the relationship between Izzy and Grayson, a man who rescues her from a flat tyre, then selects her to be his mate which she repeatedly protests against throughout the book. In the blurb it is described that:

“Grayson tries to reason with his chosen mate, pointing out that she’ll be the wife of the high commander of the Ramelian fleet, but when discussion proves useless he pulls her over his knee, bares her bottom, and gives her the first spanking of her life. He will be a kind, fair, and loving husband, but he will be obeyed.

Despite her protests, once aboard Grayson’s ship Izzy receives a thorough, intimate, and deeply embarrassing medical examination as her new husband watches. It is only when Grayson takes her to his bed that Izzy begins to look forward to her future. He proves himself an attentive and skilled lover and she is almost instantly overcome with desire for him.”

I can tell you now that she does fall in love with him. Anastasia Steele fell in love with Christian Grey. Laura falls in love with Massimo.

This happens even in darkest of romance or erotic novels. Tender Mercies (2011) by Kitty Thomas even leads to Grace falling in love with Asher:

“Fed up with play kink, Grace Warner moves to an island that embraces erotic slavery to be with a man she met online. Within hours of her arrival, everything is ripped from her, and she quickly learns play is preferable to the realities of actual enslavement.Asher Collins has spent the past year mourning and blaming himself for the death of his slave, Darcy. When Grace catches his eye at a showing, obviously abused, he becomes obsessed with buying her and finding a way to atone for his own past sins”.

These books come with their own warnings. The publisher of The Commander’s Mate warns that there are “spankings, sexual scenes, anal play, elements of medical play and BDSM”. They leave it up to the reader to decide whether they want to partake in the story and the fantasies the author has created. The same goes for Tender Mercies: “This is a work of fiction, and the author does not endorse or condone any [behaviour] done to another human being without their consent. This work contains subject matter which is not appropriate for minors including depictions of abuse, slavery, dubious consent, and anal play”.

There have been studies into fantasies surrounding forced sex, in research they’ve found that 31% to 57% of women reported such fantasies, with 9% to 17% of them reporting that it was one of their most frequent sexual fantasies. These fantasies and stories sell when it comes to romance and/erotic novels. The concept of consent is questionable, at best, or not needed at all.

As a feminist how should I understand these novels? Does enjoying them mean I betray my advocacy for women’s rights and gender equality? These books are, after all, largely marketed towards and purchased by women in spite of themes of dubious consent, forced sex and the promotion of rape culture. I would say I am not betraying anything. I know the difference between fantasy and reality. Yes, I constantly read novels about roguish dukes having their way with a wanton lady then they eventually fall in. Nonetheless, nobody wants to be raped, as a journalist I am aware that is a generalisation, but I am certain that in reality no one wants that. You can call it instinct.

Why is it popular in women’s erotic literature and erotic stories that are targeted at women? There are many proposed theses: our own culture’s eroticisation of aggression, temporarily relinquishing dominance, being desired to the point you cannot be resisted, or an internalisation of gender stereotypes in our own society’s heterosexual romantic relationships. These are culturally and socially relevant reasonings as not all cultures and societies have the same gender dynamics. I pose the question about why these storylines are popular, but perhaps that is not the most important question, maybe we should be considering how these storylines are actually executed.

My biggest problem with these storylines is how they portray forced sexual fantasies and BDSM culture as a whole. There is nothing wrong with forced submission fantasies, or questionable consent fantasies, both are totally normal fantasies. You can execute them in literature, and on-screen, but the terminology on the topic also needs to change. It is not about ‘consenting’ to ‘rape’ because that is not what domination and/or submission entails.

There is space for consent in BDSM, it is a major part of the culture, and is even required in moments of ‘consenting to non-consent’. There must be safe-words in place which have been agreed upon by all parties, in turn a submissive can refuse whenever they want during play, without actually breaking it. So, when these fantasies come into contact with romanticised rape scenes, that means consensual and safe play is not in effect. The illusion of total control from the dominant is no longer illusory, it is a reality, in turn it is simply all about the romantic ‘hero’ pushing his love onto a ‘heroine’ until she returns that same love.

It is the prominence of this format in literature that is labelled romantic, when it is actually erotic, that is worrying. These stories are showing a way in which love can blossom under duress. A piece of erotic fiction that has the warnings included at least makes an attempt at separating the fiction from reality. It’s those books that don’t make it abundantly clear that these are simply fictional tales, that is where my problem lies, because it is normalising abusive relationships. 

You should never be ashamed of any forced sex fantasies. I am repeating myself because sexual fantasies are not the most open topic of conversation and some fantasies, such as forced submission fantasies, can be worrisome. I loathe many books alongside on-screen presentations of these scenarios because they can be viewed as more acceptable since they are so heavily romanticised.

You cannot stalk a woman, or expect to obey your every whim because of your social standing or wealth, nor can you keep on pressing your suit if she repeatedly says no or shows you discomfort. The viewers that are consuming these fantasies must be aware that dysfunction is not the same thing as love. My opinion on this is that there should be at least a disclaimer that there is a difference between reality and fantasy. 


The Response to 365 Days

Is there a particular reason people are so interested in 365 Days? Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t even get this much hype on the internet. There are posts on Tik Tok that gush over the scenes where Massimo exerts any type of force over Laura. It’s where I learned about the film back in February. I watched in intrigue as he just grabbed her neck in the shower… and people openly claimed they wanted to be treated like that as well. If you fast forward a few more months towards the end of our lockdown, it’s a viral hit, and has broken many records.

The plot follows an Italian mob boss, Massimo (Michele Morrone), who is fixated on a woman he sees after his father’s death. He encounters the Polish woman, Laura (Anna-Maria Sieklucka) five years later then kidnaps her and tells her she has a year to fall in love with him. Laura is against being kidnapped and being forced to fall in love with him, he eventually lets her go, and thanks to Stockholm Syndrome she ‘finally’ realises that she ‘loves’ him back. For those of you who haven’t seen this film, just save yourself the eyesore from the poorly constructed scenes, and the headache from the virtually non-existent story.

This film is… well… it’s not good. It’s one of the worst films I have ever watched and I’ve had to sit through the homemade videos on Prime Video for a different article. The entire book series is so awful and I am not surprised that all three are being made into movies. Any bad book series can get a film deal these days. I normally give a film one positive comment in any critique, but even Morrone’s good looks can’t pull one out of me, it was just so cringe-worthy I gagged throughout the entire film and outdid Laura in that area. I could point out how horrible this film is for days on end, yet it’s the hit of the summer, and it begs the question of why.

I would say it points out how poor our taste in films has become. I can say that because I will still watch the entirety of The Twilight Saga, knowing full well it’s bad, and still enjoy it and consider it the master piece of my early teen years. It seems Edward Cullen was the borderline abusive male hero who was tasked with training us for characters like Christian and Massimo. (Yes, I do know that Christian is based off of Edward).

The stale plot of 365 Days works for viewers because it is a familiar remake of Beauty and the Beast. The film acts more as a tourism commercial with its luxurious interiors and locations. I mean, at least we get a warning of what the guys are like, but we already knew that the creepy men in clubs who feel it’s their right to grab your ass exist everywhere. We are transported to different places in a time where we need to stay in our homes to stay safe, so I can understand why it’s popular right now, but what about the month prior to lockdown and other visual representations similar to 365 Days?

Ah yes, it’s the sex scenes, because nothing sells better than sex. It would be hard to say I am a prude, I am here for the sex, because the sex is what is concerning me. It watches like mainstream porn, no, it’s worse than porn. I compare it to mainstream porn because these characters have no motivations other than the shared desire to mash their genitals together. It’s just another heterosexual couple, who seem to exist in a different dimension due to our current circumstances, who we are intrigued to swap places with.

These stories romanticise violence and emphasise the attractive nature of these bad guys as being natural. The characters in such stories, especially in 365 Days, are poorly constructed and basically hollow. He is the assertive, wealthy and handsome man that we are directed to lust after. This is more than escapism. It is about how our notions of intimacy in literature, film and television remains totally warped.

You have these ground-breaking shows, like Normal People, Euphoria and I May Destroy You, all of which show that clear separation between reality and fantasy in sexuality and how the latter easily slips into the former. I’ll even throw Disobedience and Sex Education into the mix, both had intimacy coordinators directing the scenes, but they don’t compare to 365 Days. At the end of the day, the popularity got the film indicates that nothing can compare to a handsome, rich and tyrannical man, in fantasy and reality. If that is the reality you want, it’s not worth it, at least in my world it’s not.

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