Let us begin by defining the word at hand. I consider “seduction” a pejorative term, because I read it as being talked into doing something that is against one’s moral code. In essence my take on seduction is this: just because you physically want to have the sex with him, if you morally do not want to, and he talks you into something you could (or do) later regret, the seduction cannot be a positive thing.
That is probably more absolute than it should be for me, but there it is. Seduction is not a positive thing. And it bothers me when romance novels are focused on the seduction of the female as if it is.
Jillian and Madeline Hunter are two authors who come to mind as offending me on this point–basically the only discussion made about being the object of a seduction is “can he do the sex well? Then sit back and enjoy” rather than deciding if he can be trusted or if is he worth throwing away her future for. I feel like the books where the heroine and/or her friends look only at the existential enjoyment take too much for granted that “this is a romance, and there will be a happily ever after, and of course we the readers know he can be trusted, so we can ignore all the very salient fears and what-ifs in favor of the sexiness.” That attitude grates against the constraints of the story if it’s historical romance, because a huge consideration for non-modern stories is the consequences of seduction; removing them kind of removes the point, or the weight, or the drama, of the story.
On the flip side, Anne Stuart is really good about showing the ugliness of seduction. Many of her novels focus on the negative consequences (and not pregnancy most of the time, because plot babies are really not the worst of the problems).
I think what bothers me more than anything is simply that seduction takes away the woman’s moral agency. Romance as a genre has moved with the sexual mores of our culture into greater sexual freedom for women, and less misogyny and violence, but yet there still seems to be a stubborn streak of abjuring female responsibilty when it comes to sex. Many romance novels still have themes of sex being forced on the woman.
I guess seduction has become the new rape?
In old school romance the forcing was straight up rapey rape (even if he did do foreplay before penetration, sometimes), whereas now it seems to be more seduction against her will and/or better judgment….but it turns out she loves it, so it’s okay. Which sentiment is almost as problematic for me as the actual rapeyness of old romances.
What’s hilarious is that I think the closest thing I have to a fetish with erotica (certainly as far as what I write in that genre is concerned) is dominance and submission, specifically male dom/female sub, but I think the difference is the permission angle. A sub is sexually aroused by having their agency taken away. A woman (or a man) who is sophisticated enough to grasp that about herself and makes the conscious decision to engage in that kind of sexual play with someone they trust is different from a woman who refuses to take responsibility for her sexuality and falls back on the excuse (even if it is only ever used with herself) of “he seduced me until I was too swept up in it to think better of the idea.” That is weak, and it is insulting to women as thinking individuals and equal partners in relationships, and it perpetuates the status quo of female as something to be conquered or won rather than an individual coming to the same action with the same level of choice and responsibility.
God, I sound like a feminist theorist now, and, y’all, trust me when I say that is the furthest thing from what I am. But in terms of romance writing, even current writing, I see the trope of “woman who refuses to make a choice about her sexuality has that autonomy taken away by a man who forces her into sexual behavior” far too often for where I feel like modern sexuality is, or at least where it should be. The force may not be violent—it might be force of will or the force of passion, so let me be clear that I am NOT calling seduction rape; I am not one of those people who says that anything less than 100% consent is rape—but it is still a woman being denied a say in her own sexual experience because she refuses to take that responsibility for herself.
I think that’s what bothers me the most about it, not the behavior of the men, which (in the non-rapey variety) is basically whatever the women allow them to behave like, but the behavior of the women. Are we still so uptight that women can’t say “I want to have the sex with him” and make a moral calibration of whether acting on the desire is acceptable (or not) and then following through accordingly? If a woman decides she doesn’t wish to have sex with a man in a romance novel, why does she so rarely stick to that decision?
Honestly, the way women behave in these books—if it is an at all accurate portrayal of real life female behavior—makes me think no wonder men have had the conquer/seduce idea for so long, since all the women seem to be right on board with the actual sexy times, they just didn’t want to have to admit it to themselves. So if we have generations of women saying, “No, I don’t want that,” but secretly wanting it and secretly wanting the man to do it to them without their explicit permission…is it any wonder why we ended up with the fucked up view that a man should try to have sex with every woman he’s interested in, because she might want it and not want to say it? And then how many girls felt date-raped or pressured to have sex when they really didn’t want to because they were too insecure or timid to say no or to say no in forceful enough terms that he listened? See, unlike the feminists, I don’t think that all men are rapists who would take advantage of a woman given half an hour and half a chance. I think most men are pretty decent guys, and I bet plenty of them would be shocked to hear that women they thought were willing bed partners—thought this because the women kissed back, didn’t protest groping or undressing, didn’t say no at any point or give any indication that they did not want to be doing it—felt like they were not allowed to say no and cried about it later.
And the romance novels that perpetuate this kind of female indecision, this inability to reconcile physical desire with moral imperatives or perhaps just their own self-image as a “good girl” or whatever, make me sick. There have been authors with books I enjoyed who have other books I simply will not read because part of the description is her getting swept up in his sexuality and feeling helpless before it.
I have zero issues with novels that present female confusion about their sexuality, because I think it’s realistic for women, especially young women, to have questions and uncertainties. I have no issues with novels that depict seduction, as long as the seduction is contextualized as being a negative, or at least something the heroine must learn from.
What I can’t stand and could live the rest of my life happily without ever reading again, is a book that presents seduction as something to be enjoyed because the heroine can’t be bothered to live by the moral standards she sets for herself (in this case, denial of pleasure) or embrace a morality that allows her to do what she wants. I have one comment for the women who like that kind of story and behave that way in real life: Grow up.