Confessions of a Romance Writer: I Hate Rakes

Yes, I pulled this style from GOT Confessions.

This is a post that has been a long time coming.  As in, when I started blogging, I made a list of posts topics I wanted to cover sometime, and “Rakes: Why I Am Not Overly Fond of That Hero Trope” was on the original list. I believe it was in the first five, even.  I haven’t gotten around to writing about it because nothing has stirred me up about it, specifically, since then.

Until today.

I edited a quick review of the book pictured above from a friend before she posted it, and the way she described the book just…got my dander up about rakes, and how they are portrayed, and how difficult I find it to take them seriously or to think of them as sexy heroes.

In the first place, the grammarian in me dislikes the fact that “rake” in the romance context is almost always used to mean “has lots of sex with lots of eager women.”  To me that is a reduction of a term to one part of it that ignores the less savory parts of being a rake and a libertine–namely, that there is a moral degeneracy to it. Think of Dangerous Liaisons and how John Malkovich’s character is seducing a woman to her ruin, simply to amuse himself. That is a rake, not a man who says yes to any woman who offers herself to him.

But the semantics are a minor issue. The real problem I have is how disgusting the common description of such romance hero “rakes” are. The most common is along the lines of “he never goes a week without having a different woman.”  So, let’s say the hero is average for a romance novel–he’s 28, and he really only started this behavior when he got to London, so, let’s say, 2o.  Do the math.  I am supposed to be attracted to a man who has had roughly 400 sexual partners?  I am supposed to find that believable, and appealing? No. Not just no, but HELL, NO. I find that experience level disgusting and disturbing. The only things I can think when I read that kind of description are, What is wrong with him? And how does he not have every STD under the sun? 

I’m not saying I need my heroes to be virgins or to have only had sex with their first wife or something. I am not sure that’s any more realistic (for the average hero, though it can be a fun change). But what’s wrong with a more normal number for an adult male, like 10 or 20?  Or even 50 if he’s been around the block a bit more–that’s an average of five new partners a year for 10 years, fine, not that creepy.  But 50 a year? Yikes. 

Aside from thinking it’s just…gross, I wonder how much someone like that can actually change.  If all those women bored them (as is often the case), then why didn’t they just stop? I have seen friends–male and female–get to that point in the singles scene and find other things to do with their time and energy than chase sex. THAT”S WHAT NORMAL PEOPLE DO. If a man used to be like that and got bored with it and changed on his own before the heroine meets him, then I can believe in his future fidelity, unlike if he goes from 50 a year, never has the same girl twice, to…one person, over and over again. A man who has THAT MUCH sex with THAT MANY women without getting bored and backing off has something pyschologically wrong with him beyond simple ennui with life and access to that many women. And while maybe romance has “redeemed by the love of a good woman” coursing through the genre as part of its lifeblood, I just have trouble believing it in that case.

Also I find it kind of insulting as a woman that I am being asked to believe that kind of man is some prize I should aspire to have.  Please. How about a man of strong mind and strong character, not some self-indulgent playboy with no willpower and the lifestyle of a 17-year-old’s wet dream? There is a middle ground between someone being too saintly to be realistic and too degenerate to take seriously.

Also I hate the propagation of the myth that the only (or best) way a man can learn how to “please” a woman is by having that many sexual partners. In fact…in general the men who tend to have only one night stands tend to be worse lovers than men who have long-term relationships, because a one-time lover doesn’t bother to correct anything. So all those rake heroes who never have the same woman twice but yet are so “skilled” in bed? Ridiculous. The contrast to them, of course, is always the men who apparently don’t know about foreplay at all and have the basic “she’s my wife, I can rape her if I want” mentality, and while I’m sure both happened I’m not sold on the scope of those behaviors that romance novels present. There is a this thing called respect for women that makes a man want to please his partner–what matters in the equation is respect, not experience.

I think that a hero with a good healthy sexual appetite is fine. I just happen to find the ones who had steady mistresses of one stripe or another to be significantly more realistic and appealing. A rake (and I mean here one who actually is a rake, not just a Poseur Libertine because he has that reputation even though he’s actually Secretly Moral and Misunderstood) has to be pretty damned special as a person to get me on board with him, and I can count the ones who have on about one hand. Most of the time I see a book description that focuses on the hero’s sexual appetites, I will put it back down. There are better heroes to read about…heroes I can actually believe in.

But maybe this is just me being contrary? Obviously well-used men are popular in romance, so perhaps someone who does find them good fantasy fodder can explain to me their appeal?

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12 Comments

Filed under Confessions, Reflections on Romance

12 responses to “Confessions of a Romance Writer: I Hate Rakes

  1. “Also I find it kind of insulting as a woman that I am being asked to believe that kind of man is some prize I should aspire to have…”

    This happens to be a pet peeve of mine. “Man-sluts” aren’t sexy. I grew up in the 70’s – when there were men (and women) who behaved like that. By the time the 80’s and AIDS rolled around, they were shunned like the walking STD factories they were.

    I wonder if some of these writers understand that Syphlis and Gonorrhea weren’t curable in those days? That people went mad and died from these diseases?

    I suspect not.

    • Ha, I almost used the term “man-ho” in this post and decided to keep the street vernacular out. but yes! NOT HOT AT ALL!!! Especially when you see the actual effects of that lifestyle.

      As to the STD thing…some authors do pay lip service to it by having the hero reflect on how he uses sheepskin condoms or only visits “clean” brothels, but an awful lot of romances read like the authors think STDs didn’t exist in “ye goode olde days.” One of the more hilarious, and therefore inoffensive, rake heroes I’ve read (Duke of Castleford in Madeline Hunter’s Rarest Blooms series, for the curious) actually gets a note from his physician saying he’s clean…and all the women he can remember boinking in the past six months are clean, bc the heroine is smart enough to throw up a “I don’t want to catch what you have” defense at him.

      Thanks for the reassurance that I’m not the only romance reader who is tired of that hero type and doesn’t find it attractive!

      • I quit reading ‘he’s a rake’ books a long time ago. In fact, I don’t read many romance novels anymore because between rakes and ‘woman-hating alpha-males’ I don’t find many romances I want to read anymore.

        When I think about it – my hero’s aren’t that type either. One jokes to the heroine that ‘one night stands have lost all their appeal’ when he lost a leg in Iraq, so it’s a painful admission.

        Stereotypes belong on the cutting-room floor with all the lovely adverbs. LOL

  2. Oh, lady, you are highlighting the joy of self-publishing. The heroes you like don’t exist? Write them. Because somewhere out there are other readers looking for the same thing!

    I will still read either type if Those Heroes if one pops up from an author I like enough to buy no matter the subject (or a series I’ve invested myself in), but most of the time it serves as a bellwether for me taking that author of my auto-purchase list, lol. I think that some romance handles the male perspective really well, but an awful lot relies on stereotypes or superficial “pop psychology” that creates a parody of what real people, and real men, are. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how much of that is a fantasy, a boiling down to most extreme types for dramatic effect, and how much is a genuine insensitivity to/ignorance of the male psyche. I know this much: I’d much rather read about your marine who can crack one-leg jokes to cover a truth he finds hard to admit than another damn “I’ve checked every bedroom in London for the magic hoo-ha” alphahole…

  3. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell how much of that is a fantasy, a boiling down to most extreme types for dramatic effect, and how much is a genuine insensitivity to/ignorance of the male psyche.”

    I sometimes wonder if some writer’s have ever met a man – let alone sat down and talked to one. A reader once said my heroes are guys she could sit down and have a beer with. I’m VERY happy with that. It means all those nights I spent shooting pool and playing darts with the guys hasn’t been wasted time.

    The Alpha Male myth is an odd one. I know a lot of soldiers, great guys! They crack jokes, ‘bust on’ each other and tease women – they genuinely LIKE women – especially women who like men.

    So why do romance ‘Alphas’ seem to hate women and only like women who seem to hate men? It doesn’t make any sense to me.

    • I think that is a great compliment! I’d be stoked to get that, too. But, then, I am a woman who genuinely enjoys the company of men, and who married her best friend. Our first date was talking over beers. It works!

      My personal take on the alpha thing, especially in contemp/paranormal context (which is where I see it more than in historicals although it goes pop up there too) is that the books are written by women who don’t really like or at least understand men, who are writing out some self-empowerment fantasy. And they have taken the “men like confidence” to mean men like…grouchy prickly women, so that’s what they write. Um, no. All the guys I know wouldn’t pursue someone who was blatantly telling them to screw off…they’d go find someone interested. Confidence = being secure in yourself, in that context.

      I dunno, I find a lot of the alpha stuff really dishonest. If you want to get into dom/sub psychology because that’s what you think is hot (which a lot of the alpha stuff I’ve read seems to be, without realizing it and therefore contorting in its attempt to find some justification for that behavior), great…just do it honestly. The lack of self-awareness on the part of the characters involved AND the writers who created them is what bothers me most about alphas. That, and the men tend to be all brawn and no brain in action if not in description, and that just doesn’t do it for me… 🙂

  4. “If you want to get into dom/sub psychology because that’s what you think is hot…”

    Ohh, that’s a whole different can of worms. The Dom/Sub thing is so SQUICK to me. I’m leary of the BDSM tropes on all levels. That’s just not how I see humans behaving. There may be a sub-text of that gong on, but I don’t see it. I do see the whole ‘social status’ trope of the historicals. But Dom/Sub? No.

    “My personal take on the alpha thing, especially in contemp/paranormal context (which is where I see it more than in historicals although it goes pop up there too) is that the books are written by women who don’t really like or at least understand men, who are writing out some self-empowerment fantasy. ”

    I agree – 100%. I can see how shy, self-concious women writers could mistake ’empowered’ for ‘nut-crunching b!tch’ – if she, herself, is terrified of strong women she’ll never be able to write one. A lot of being able to write 3-D characters is to know a LOT of real people.

    • Well, I don’t mean extreme BDSM relationships, more the modern descendent of the 70s/80s rape fantasy, where the heroine is sort of forced to experience this mind-blowing sex that will, like, totally enlarge her mind even when she thinks she doesn’t want and tells the hero she doesn’t want to, but “her body” really does. Because of course what’s important is not someone’s moral code but their physical urges. Anyway, that kind of male dominating female does flirt with that dom/sub pattern, at least how I perceive it (but I’m certainly no expert nor have I read much erotica featuring it so I could be waaaaay off in its popular portrayal!), and I just think it would be more honest for the heroine to say “you know what, I like being ordered around in the bedroom” on her own rather than having the hero be such a domineering ass and then her forgive it because the sex is just SO GOOD. I think if she understands that about herself and chooses that role, it’s sexual empowerment. If he forces her into it (regardless of whether she enjoys it), he’s taking her agency as a sexual being away. That’s my take on it, anyway, and why those stories don’t appeal to me.

      RE the women trying to write women they don’t understand: what you said!

  5. There is a famous ‘Vampire Hunter’ series that degenerated into the world of BDSM sex. I read about the first one – heard it was a great series – and got my hands on one of the later ones…it was all about Doms and Subs.

    I don’t think that romance novels will ever live down the ‘bodice ripper’ image from the age of the rape scene. In fact, I read on a Harlequin website that they started to bring back the older issues from around the 1950’s and couldn’t believe the violence – where the hero ‘smacked her around for her own good because he loved her’ in nearly every book.

    There are other ways for a hero to be ‘manly’ and ‘heroic’ without having to resort to these extremes…IF the writer puts her mind to it.

    • I think I know the series you mean. I have never read it, but I’ve heard that the first 9 or 10 are good and it’s downhill fast and straight to Freaksville from there.

      I find the psychology behind romance fascinating. It’s hard to gauge how much of the rapey/abusive stuff is meant to be fantasy and how much is an accidental reflection of the social times in which it was written. It seems to be less obvious now–not rapey rape so much as “giving you orgasms whether you want them or not”–but the same sort of Man Knows What You Want Better Than You Do mentality still pervades a lot of novels. I don’t know if it goes back to some women only feel safe in experiencing sexual pleasure if they are “forced” to (regardless of violence in the forcing) or if some writers think a man can’t REALLY want a woman if he will take no for an answer?

      I mean, I’m with you, there are other and better manly and heroic, and the most basic is respect for the heroine as a person. but, you know, if the heroine doesn’t respect herself it might be hard to demand the hero does, so perhaps this goes back to the part of the discussion about too many writers not having actual self-confidence and security in themselves….

  6. so perhaps this goes back to the part of the discussion about too many writers not having actual self-confidence and security in themselves….”

    And who do these writers turn to? Editors and agents who are going to want the next book to be like the last book.

    Which brings us back to the advantages of being an independent writer…we can write what we choose. Or what we dare to write.

    It makes what we have a real win/win – writer’s win and readers win.

    • “Which brings us back to the advantages of being an independent writer…we can write what we choose. Or what we dare to write.

      It makes what we have a real win/win – writer’s win and readers win.”

      EXACTLY. Couldn’t have said it better.

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