Jeanne: The Thin Line Between Alpha and Predatory

Recently, I went back and read a make-out scene I’d written a couple of years earlier, where the guy basically shoves my heroine up against a lamppost, sticks his tongue down her throat and presses his erection against her belly. At the time I wrote it, it seemed sexy. It was also well justified because the male character was possessed by a demon. (Although the demon’s actually the good guy and the bad behavior is all on the part of his human host, but that’s a whole, quirky story–The Demon’s in the Details,Ā coming in October, 2017).

When I reread the scene in light of Harvey Weinstein/Kevin Spacey/Roy Moore/Louis C.K./Matt Taibbi/Al Franken/ad infinitum/ad nasuem, it didn’t work for me anymore. I didn’t like the hero for what he did, I didn’t like the heroine for not punching him in the face for doing it, and I didn’t like myself for perpetuating the myth that men who ignore a woman’s right to affirmative consent are sexy.

I went back and rewrote the scene. My hero still has to be a little off-the-chain because of the whole demon-possession thing, but he at least starts by asking to kiss her.

I’ve seen other writers on Facebook say they’re having the same experience–when they review scenes with alpha heroes making alpha sexual approaches to their heroines, they realize they’re no longer comfortable with what they’ve written.

Here’s the problem: alpha heroes tend to go from their gut. They trust their instincts, so when their instincts say the woman is interested and willing, they believe it. They’re not given to lsecond-guessing themselves, or long, chatty conversations. None of this is a great setup for politely requesting affirmative consent.

On the other hand, it is doable. After the rise of AIDS back in the eighties and nineties, romance authors began mentioning condoms in their love scenes. These days, I rarely read a detailed love scene that doesn’t specifically call out the use of a condom.

I suspect that, because of the Weinstein, et. al., we’ll start to see more explicit mention of affirmative consent in love scenes.

I think we may also see a rise in the number of beta and gamma heroes. Beta heroes are gentler than alphas, more sensitive to the heroine’s needs, less prone to jealousy and general bad behavior. Gamma heroes are a mix of alpha and beta–the strength and the “bad boy” traits of the alpha, but without the possessiveness and arrogance. These guys would have no problem asking for affirmative consent.

What do you see in the future for romance heroes in light of today’s headlines?

23 thoughts on “Jeanne: The Thin Line Between Alpha and Predatory

  1. This sort of reminds me of reading “rapemances” – a term I’ve seen for pre-90s romance novels where consent was dubious or the heroine resists at first but eventually gets into it. I remember being pretty horrified and thinking all romance novels were like this–thank goodness, they sure aren’t!

    But yeah, I’m always more interested in someone whose Alpha-ness is in his confidence and self-control, not his ability to shove people around and stick his tongue down their throats. šŸ˜¦

  2. Not about consent, but I just read a stat recently that the most-used trope at Harlequin is the cowboy, whereas the most-used trope among the self-published is the billionaire. I’m not sure who did the counting (tropes, not billionnaire’s money), but it made me wonder what comes next. I’m not into either cowboys or billionaires, although my current hero is rich (not a billionaire, though). And he works for it. šŸ˜€

    I dislike writing sex scenes and I’m not much into the alpha-male-tongue-down-the-throat thing, so I haven’t had to revisit these scenes in my books. But I just DNF a book in which the sex felt too aggressive. So the Harvey Weinstein news has definitely made an impact on what I’m willing to read.

  3. I was just thinking about this this morning, as a matter of fact (-:. I think you are right that we’re going to see a major change in the culture, not just in novels (which really just reflect what’s going on in culture for the most part).

    There is the fact that the fantasy of an alpha is pretty sexy. I don’t know if it is in real life; none of my partners have been that way, so I can’t really tell you if the push comes to shove.

    But as you mention with the condoms and stuff, it’s an accepted part of the culture and also the different media that portray culture. Bareback has gone underground and is somewhat viewed as a kink. One thing that I noticed is a younger friend here in Japan called me panicked one Sunday morning, asking where she could get a morning after pill. Their condom had failed, and she was sure, sure, sure she was pregnant. That represents a huge shift in the thinking amongst my circles when I was in my early twenties. One did do birth control, but there was also latitude for an oopsie or so. (And, yes, a couple of my friends got caught with their oopsies, so I think today’s young women have got their heads on straighter than my generation about procreation.)

    When I write forceful scenes, I think that both characters really want it, and both are fighting against their brains and losing; I don’t know if that’s any better (or any different) from what goes on in the head of a sexual harasser. I think this can be conveyed subtly with both partners actively seeking closeness — a hand here, a stroke there.

    And people do argue that consent can be absolutely sexy. Checking in with your words can tickle the brain in unusual ways, or so they say.

    (-: I suppose experiments will have to be conducted.

    But as far as trends go, we’re really not riding the front edge of this; consent culture has a vocabulary and some rituals already established. I think we need to seek them out and then push the envelope of what we find there. (BTW, Captain Awkward’s advice blog is big on consent and “using your words” — huge influence on me lately, although I’m not really seeing it turn up in my sex scenes. In fact, I don’t think I’ve written any sex scenes since I started reading the blog. Hmmmm. Must think about that.)

    • After the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, back in the early 90’s, I saw a substantial change in workplace attitudes about sexual harassment The Sports Illustrated swimsuit and Rigid Tool calendars disappeared as corporations worried about getting sued for promoting a hostile work environment.

      When the Bill Clinton’Monica Lewinski scandal broke, it didn’t get discussed at work because those kinds of conversations were off limits.

      Interestingly, though, when the supposed Trump Moscow hooker story surfaced a year ago, that was discussed with relish.

      Wondering if we’ve gone backwards, or if my examples are too anecdotal to be significant.

      In any event, we still have a long way to go.

      • I’m not sure if I’m agreeing with you, or being just tangential, but there is a danger in stifling discussions. I don’t think not-talking-about something necessarily prevents it; it does prevent dissenting voices from being raised, though.

        The Clinton/Lewinski affair may not have been discussed in workplaces with sympathies for the Democrats. “He’s doing a lot of good, so let’s not rock the boat.” And I don’t want to touch THAT issue yet — reconciling the good and bad in a single person is really hard under the best of conditions.

        But people with Democratic sympathies don’t seem to think Trump is doing a good job at all — and it’s funny that even though I think the Clinton/Lewiinski affair pushed our public morals in a straighter direction while not being publicly discussed, all of Trump’s scandals seem to be very well discussed, yet, there’s no impeachment in sight. Maybe the prosecutors have bigger things to go after than broken vows between a husband and wife, and so they are saving their energy for that.

        It’s very complicated, the whole thing. But one has to say, Trump has a very good sense of drama (melodrama), and it makes for entertaining TV. If this were a book, it’d be a bestseller. Not really MY cup of tea. But, it’s not a book, and it doesn’t feel like a book, unless I take several steps back and look at it from an analytical distance.

        • I’d say, “It’s easier to be calm about him when you live in Japan,” but I don’t think that’s true. Because the U.S. is such an economic and military heavy-weight, it’s like we elect a president and the rest of the world has to deal with him regardless of what they think.

        • Exactly! We’re the ones getting flyovers by North Korean missiles as a result of poor world leadership. I’m not sure what’s happening on that count — if tunnels collapsing have put a kibosh on the project for a little while, or if other forces have stepped in and put quiet pressure on the NK regime.

          I have to mute my reactions about it, or I’d be foaming at the mouth all over the internet.

          But you know, if Hilary had won, we’d never have had this comparison point. We would have been in for four years of partisan fighting and rancor, too. And if we thought people were naaaasty during the election, I can only imagine how they’d howl during a H. Clinton presidency. I just don’t see any way for 2016 to have segued into a 2017 version of Camelot.

          Meanwhile, back in real 2017, it looks like the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are stepping up to flex their muscles. Good thing? Bad thing? I don’t know.

    • “When I write forceful scenes, I think that both characters really want it”

      I agree that this was the understood paradigm for a few generations. See for example how Baby It’s Cold Outside was a step for sex positivity within its original context.
      The fantasy of the alpha man shoving the heroine against the wall and kissing her out of the blue can be that the alpha is so in tune with the heroine’s own desires that he instinctively acts on that unspoken desire.
      The alternative fantasy is that the heroine is so attractive that the alpha loses their prized control, with the reader therefore getting the experience of feeling that attractive. This comes from those “love is irrational, love makes logic fade away, love doesn’t care about your rationalizations, etc.” sentiments, with the extrapolation being this extends to social norms about boundaries.

      • It’s funny you’d mention “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” I saw a skit on Key and Peele a couple of years ago where they described it as “kind of rapey-y.” But you’re right–at the time it was written, it was a breakthrough.

      • See, AG, I think this is totally sexy — the whole “two minds in tune with each other” fantasy is very sexy. I don’t think it would be that cool in real life, and in real life, all too often, one person thinks they are “two minds that think as one” while the other person thinks, “wut?”

        I do love “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” if it’s sung with the understanding that the woman needs that extra support to overturn cultural expectations and do what she really wants. But the interpretation that it’s a woman trapped by a predatory man, and she is weighing which is worse: dying in the blizzard or staying and probably sleeping with him (or at least fending him off all night) — that interpretation is totally valid, and the song can be sung THAT way.

        I reluctantly agree that women who can’t draw and enforce their boundaries kind of ruin it for those of us who want to draw our boundaries and have them respected. Well, maybe I’m stating that case too strongly. In fact, I’ve got weak boundaries. I’m a more “well, let’s go with it and see what happens” kind of person, and it’s led me to some very interesting life experiences and directions.

        • I think that some of this is generational clash. You have a generation of people who understand that overtures for sex need to be dressed up as innuendo, and those people can therefore read the subtext in the romance novels that both parties are wildly in lust with each other, so the guy taking charge is consensual.

          But then you have a generation of kids who grow up watching that kind of media, and taking it at face value, so boys and girls alike learn about “no means yes” as the normal dynamic with no subtext.

          So then that new generation has to unlearn that perception via a stricter affirmative consent standard.

          But meanwhile, the real BDSM community away from the Fifty Shades distortion allows for those kinds of fantasies to be played out safely in scenes, where both parties have pre-negotiated the boundaries, and have the means to signal if they’re not in tune anymore.

        • AG, there is definitely a difference in how my generation and the next generation views sexual consent and other sexual matters. It’s really weird that there’s a huge gap now, I feel — Margaret Sanger’s work with making birth control widely available is about 100 years old if I remember right. It doesn’t feel like we’re wrestling with anything new, per se, though. It feels very much that we’re swinging back and forth — maybe making some gains with each pass in sexual progressiveness, but still there are huge pockets of ignorance left to pass on outdated ideas to the next generation.

          (-: It’s really interesting to think about, and I’m glad you are discussing this with me.

          I’m watching the Dick Van Dyke show right now, and there are jokes about men nicknamed “The Octopus”, so even in the 1950s (when the show was set) or 1960s, people were well aware of guys who didn’t recognize “no means no.” In fact, I’m pretty sure we can find shows from the beginning of the cinema era that featured rebuffs in clear terms.

          I’m also pretty sure that some viewers took things at face value, and some thought, “What a jerk.”

          There are so many, many instances and nuances to this whole problem that it’s very hard to discuss it in a short conversation.

          It’s very good that consent culture is out there and being discussed. It’s a great way for people who are less experienced to learn, and learn some scripts for handling situations they haven’t given much thought to yet.

          I’m pretty sure there was plenty of advice for girls who felt pressured in past generations. (Boys who felt pressured? I feel they sometimes didn’t get a lot of advice, but maybe that’s mostly in the media — I’m pretty sure I’ve read in stories about how to make “honorable” sexual choices.)

          I don’t think we can go back to the era when romance was supervised in the family parlor and on the front porch (and even then, what exactly were the pre-wedlock pregnancy statistics? I don’t know.). I don’t think we want to. But it seems to mean we have to struggle for 200 years to find a balance between sexual instincts and sexual manners under these new conditions. I don’t think we’re even close to there yet. Still swinging like a pendulum, trying to find some stable area where we can all agree.

          (I’m not even going to touch community-regulated BSDM. I think it’s a good thing that our internet culture provides more safety to this kink, but I think a lot of people are experimenting on their own, outside the New BSDM Orthodoxy. But if I were to write about it, I think . . . well, I don’t know. The characters themselves would decide if they wanted to follow the rules from some internet site, or if they wanted to make their own rules and bumble around. I don’t think I have the fortifude to research a “real” modern BSDM relationship in order to create characters who would have a formal BSDM agreement . . . I’m really even struggling to put the concepts I’ve picked up here and there into words.)

        • A lot of this extends further beyond sex, in a general “ask culture” vs. “guess culture.” I read an interesting thread recently where some women said that guys asking to give them a hug/hold their hand/if it was okay to kiss them was a turn-off. Others, of course, chimed in to say that they don’t find it a turn-off. But since we all tend to remember the negative over the positive, guys will remember the time a girl rejected them for defaulting to ask culture over the other times they did fine with it. And in the other direction, girls will wish that guys would just Get It, and take the asking as proof of a red flag.
          And then we end up with silly Mars/Venus stereotypes that discourage education and learning, and only the guys with the confidence to ignore boundaries bother to try in the first place, and so the dating marketplace is crappy for both genders. See for example.

          As for fiction, then, considering that different women have different preferences as per above, it seems fair that as long both types of fantasies (the guy who knows your preferences without asking vs. the guy who always takes the time to check in) are available, that would indicate that we aren’t in a truly dangerous place with regards to the influence of fiction on malleable minds.

      • For fantasy/fiction purposes, I’m totally in the “read me so well you don’t need to ask,” but in real life I don’t mind a verbal check-in. The fact is, there are a lot of things that go on in romance novels that wouldn’t play well in your own bedroom.

  4. I was thinking about this today, too. I write historicals, which are a whole different kettle of fish, of sorts, because I could take one of two (or probably many) directions.

    The first is to justify any brutish behavior on the part of the man as historically accurate for the time. Women were considered chattel back then. Property. They were pawns in the man’s game of marriage, family, name, money, and land. Hell, may as well throw religion in there, as well.

    The second direction is to portray 21st century heroes and heroines in a 19th century world. I think a lot of historicals do that these days. The women are smart, sensible, willing to buck convention, and they have a sense of purpose and worth (besides their dowry). The men are alpha-y, but they show respect for women and value their personal contributions.

    I’m not sure how I’ll write my characters in the future. I have to admit I do like a guy that will try to steal a kiss (if there is mutual attraction), but I’m not sure if he’ll ask the girl if he can kiss her. Perhaps what I’ll end up writing is that no means no. So if the heroine calls it quits, he respects her decision and leaves it at that…until the hero does something to redeem himself in her eyes.

    • With historicals, you’re always balancing historical accuracy with not being so out of touch with today’s cultural assumptions that you lose your audience. What you’ve described sounds like a good compromise, Justine.

  5. So happy to see this post. I know exactly what you mean about not noticing screwed up hero behavior until years later, and it’s not the kind of thing you can un-see.

    Alpha-holes have been driving me bananas for a while, but betas/gammas are such a niche, unfortunately. I really really hope we’ll see a change in the genre because it amazes me to see what currently gets those four- and five-star reviews (e.g., a heroine happily kept in a cage, a hero who mocks the heroine’s desire to use a condom). I have zero data to support this, but it seemed like in the late 90s/early 00s, the genre was making progress. Then Twilight and FSOG came along and heroes got darker and meaner while heroines had even less agency. Now those patterns are what drive the market. *whines* Emotionally intelligent men can be hot too.

    Anyway, I actually wrote a post about writing affirmative consent in romance a few months ago, if you’re interested. Available here: https://nadiadiament.wordpress.com/2017/08/08/how-to-write-affirmative-consent-in-romance/

      • I really liked your examples on your blog, Nadia! Yes, #consentissexy!!

        There are some ways those rapey guys in stories can help out readers, though. And I’m not totally convinced the rapey guys need to always cast as villains. Things can be so entirely complicated. I’m a fan of the “reformed rake” story. Does it matter if the rake has reformed BEFORE he meets the heroine? (This trope is also known as bad guy transformed by magical hoo-ha, and in a simplistic form, it deserves eye-rolling. But it’s also a huge wish to have — that somehow we can reform abusers and have them treat us right through the Power of Love. I think I’ve seen this happen in one case — the guy was still an asshole, but I think he learned to not be such an asshole to his beloved. Or maybe not; maybe she was building her own fantasy version of the relationship.)

        But as a survivor, a reader might find a lot of good in reading a “rapey” story.

        1) Reading it, realizing it’s complete nonsense and throwing it against the wall. Then, the reader rewrites the story in his/her own head. Not great for the writer, but it can be a tremendous breakthrough for the reader if it happens that way.

        2) The writer figures out some way for everyone to be redeemed. That’s a good story, at least when it’s working right. Tall order. And definitely not everyone’s cup of tea.

        3) The rapey guy is not the hero; he’s a stern warning, not a role model. Recognizing him in fiction may help readers recognize This Guy in real life.

        I’m only defending this type of story because sometimes this type of story is the story that needs to be written and told. Maybe it shouldn’t be categorized in the romance genre.

        And I definitely am not putting down the two people with enthusiastic consent story. The conflict can come from a lot of different areas. It doesn’t have to come from, “Should I commit to this person who treats me poorly?” where the conflict is between love and self-respect.

        BTW, consent should be mutual. I just read a fascinating thread on reddit this week about men who felt their partners didn’t seek consent. To put it rather bluntly, getting wet or getting an erection is NOT a sign of consent. It’s a sign of physiological processes. Consent must be verbal or visual, or possibly tactile, and it must not be too vague.

        • Thanks! I’m really glad you enjoyed it.

          I think there’s definitely room for seriously flawed heroes, but the issue is that in the genre’s current climate, many many heroes act like tools with zero consequences and yet are still seen as sexy. Most of the reformation stories I see use the reformed playboy trope, which is not at all the same as coming to terms with problematic rapey behavior and modifying it.

          In the above example, if the hero shoved the heroine up against the lamp post, and in response she said, “Back off right now. What the fuck is your problem?” that would be a totally different story because the heroine would be confronting the hero’s shitty (albeit demon-fueled) attitude. It would be a great opening for the hero to grapple with his own behavior and trying to understand what latent darkness the demon brought out in him. Consent is a great step in the right direction, though.

          The bigger problem beyond consent is that most trad pubbed and self-pubbed romances seem to celebrate the douchey hero. Many romance writers are told to be supportive of each other no matter what. Furthermore, we’re told not to shame what readers enjoy. This is a nice idea because supportive writing and reading communities are great, but it also means we can’t actually talk about this issue openly without risking offense.

          Unfortunately, I don’t really have any solutions to this, other than to keep writing what I want to read and supporting other writers who feel the same.

        • Nadia, I think you summed it up at the end. We have to write what we have to write. I think our attitudes toward love and sex can change as we mature, and that may change our writing. But setting out and saying, “OK, (responsible BSDM) is the flavor of the month; I’m going to write that even though I don’t really get it” is a problem. (And you can replace the thing in parentheses to whatever we are “supposed to write”. Even if it’s a really, really good idea, if we don’t feel it, I think it can come off as a false note in the fight. Unless one has a natural talent for lip service. Oooh, I don’t know where this tangent is going, so I better stop here.) Write what we have to write.

          I think it’s OK for our characters to “shame what readers enjoy” if it fits in the story, and isn’t a big ol’ moral bludgeon over the head. The Reader is not a monolith, and some will be shaking their head in agreement, and others will be upset. There’s a niche for everything. The trick is getting our books sent to the right niche.

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