Erotic fiction, Masochism and Women

“Feminists must baulk at any such conclusion which implies that the vast audience of romance readers are either masochistic or inherently stupid” Alison Light

With its scandalous sex scenes, promotion of BDSM, colossal marketing and notorious bad prose, the success of Fifty Shades of Grey books and films have been described as a shocking new phenomenon as well as an inexplicable event. But the tradition of successful erotic novels written by women is not new. In 1919 The Sheik written by female author E.M. Hull about the abduction and rape of a western woman who falls in love with her kidnaper, was a huge best seller. Between The Sheik and Fifty Shades of Grey lie decades of best sellers from Mills and Boon and Harlequin romance fiction.

So why do women so avidly enjoy romantic fiction? Over the decades, millions of books have been written, published, sold and bought; eagerly read by women from every walk of life throughout the world.  Some of whom in turn became writers themselves, perpetuating the long lasting success of the genre from one generation to the next. How can feminism explain such a phenomenon?

Feminist studies, based on the concept that “the personal is political” is the lens through which I will explore this issue because I cannot think of an area of women’s lives which is more personal and also highly political. As Mackinnon pointed out, “Sexuality is to feminism what work is to Marxism: that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away” (1991, p.3). This essay will investigate how this is the case. There is indeed “a need to explore woman’s actual sexual longings in order to understand how power and desire are inextricably linked” (Treacher, 1988, p.75). However the position taken here will depart from Freudian analyses and post-structuralism on the ground that these theories mainly serve to deny women’s oppression or to downplay the effect of cultural productions in shaping women’s lives. Discussions such as the nature of female romantic and sexual fantasies under patriarchy, the power of culture in influencing women’s behaviour and sexuality, the impact the text has on the reader will be informed from a radical feminist perspective as well as my reactions while reading erotic fictions. As a woman who had been successfully trained into heterosexuality and has rejected it, I will try to give a critical eye on an issue I have experienced from outside as well as from within.

The traditional romantic fiction plot is well known: a young inexperienced woman, usually a virgin, meets a man, the hero, wealthier, older and more experienced than her. He is hostile and sexually aggressive towards her. She does not like him but through diverse circumstances she will fall in love with him. His hostility towards her will reveal itself as proof that he has always loved and desired her. Her insistence at resisting his sexual advances will change him into a better, more civilised man. Once this happens, they will declare their love for each other in a passionate embrace. The heroine will then abandon all plans she ever had, if any, and marry the hero and live a life of domesticity.

In her thorough study of Mills and Boon fiction, Jay Dixon describes how this plot has not always been the template for romantic fiction (1999). Detailing numerous types of story lines and categories of heroes and heroines and how these have changed over the decades, she argues that romantic fiction are not always regressive and patriarchal as suggested by early feminist critiques (Brownmiller, 1975. Greer, 2012). Because the plots evolved with women’s real life experiences, the ideology promoted by Mills and Boon varied overtime to promote progressive and even feminist ideas. Dixon argues that in some novels, the heroine is richer, older or stronger than the hero; or that the heroine continues to work after her marriage to the hero, thus breaking tradition. I would suggest that these variations are in fact superficial ones, do not challenge the main patriarchal ideology and thus are not breaks from tradition at all. The ideology displayed in all romantic fiction is not only consistent whether the story line or characters are changed or not, but that ideology is actually strengthened by the existence of these variations:  The main ideology promoted by romantic fiction is heterosexuality. What romantic fiction does is to repeat over and over again that a woman needs a man and is nothing without one. For example, when at the beginning of the 20th century women gained access to employment in larger numbers, at a time when spinsterhood was a real threat to patriarchy (Jeffreys, 1987) romantic fiction then reasserted that even strong, employed, financially independent women needed a man.  While patriarchal ideology has evolved overtime, accommodating some of the demands made by feminists, the heterosexual imperative has remained constant. So far from showing the “multidinous possibilities of women in society” (Dixon , 1999, p.96) any book of romantic fiction asserts that whatever positions women may have gained in society is irrelevant if they are not with a man.

The first romantic fiction novel I have read is Love Trap by Barbara Andrews, I choose to discuss it here because it is the one which emotionally affected me the most (1982).

The cover is off-white with an gold coloured frame, a black and pink cursive circumvoluted font promises “A Candlelight Ecstasy Romancetm“, a dusty pink cameo in the centre displays a man and a woman in a traditional pose of heterosexual seduction: The man, towering over the woman is holding her towards him with a firm grip, he is fully dressed. The woman eyes are closed but her lips and legs are partly open, she is wearing a dress that reveals part of her legs and décolletage. She is leaning backward in a posture of complete abandon. She is waiting for him as he is about to make the first move. The kiss is imminent. The time is suspended in anticipation; this is the moment just before both protagonists engage in sexual activity they have both desired. The sexual passivity of the woman and dominance of the man are clearly displayed. He is standing, she is sitting; he is active, she is passive; he is dressed, she is partially undressed; he is powerful; she is vulnerable.


The illustration on the cover is a clear enunciation of the content of the book: 189 pages of pure romantic fiction and female sexual fantasies, promising the reader not only romance and sex but heterosexual romance and sex as they are constructed within patriarchy: the eroticising of power differences.

In patriarchal language, “man” and “woman” are defined by the very sex stereotypes feminists have been objecting to since at least Mary Wollstonecraft. These stereotypes prescribe that men should be strong, powerful, dominant, and sexually aggressive; and women should be submissive, nice, sexual objects for male’s sexual pleasure.  There is a very clear dichotomy here: dominant/submissive. The key words to understand the relationship between “man” and “woman” in this patriarchal context are “power” and “hierarchy”.

In romantic fiction, Coward explains that the “power of men is adored” without “any criticism of this power” (1984, p.192):

the quality which make these men so desirable are actually, the qualities which feminist have chosen to ridicule : power (the desire to dominate others), privilege (the exploitation of others); emotional distance (the inability to communicate); and singular love for the heroine (the inability to relate to anyone other than sexual partner)” (1984, p.192)

In Anticlimax, Jeffreys introduces the concept of “eroticising subordination”. She explains that

“Women may be born free but they are born into a system of subordination. We are not born into equality and do not have equality to eroticise. We are not born into power and do not have power to eroticise. We are born into subordination and it is in subordination that we learn our sexual and emotional responses”. (1999, p.302)

In other words, what is eroticised in heterosexuality (and on the cover of this book) is the man’s power in contrast to woman’s powerlessness. The Love trap is a perfect example of that.

While reading Love trap I considered two conflicting perspectives. Identifying with the hero and patriarchal mainstream values which states that heterosexuality is normal, natural and desirable therefore wanting the hero and the heroine to get together; at the same time as identifying with the female protagonist from a lesbian feminist perspective, one which is critical of heterosexuality and views it as system and practices oppressive to women, thus understanding the hero’s “seduction” of the heroin as an act of violence. The exercise was painful and has left me confused and angry, yet with the clear awareness that I was being emotionally manipulated.

From a feminist perspective, Love Trap reads like a classic story of male violence against women.  In consequence, the more violent the hero gets against the heroine, the most erotic the scene is. Dawn, the heroine, a young social worker, is driving a 3 years old boy to his father, Evan, the hero, after his mother has abandoned the child. Circumstances in her arrival force her to enter Evan’s property where they both wait for Evan to come home. Not expecting anyone and not knowing he had a child, Evan finds them both asleep on the sofa. Evan’s first move is to steal Dawn’s car keys while she is asleep. Dawn wakes up to meet a very angry and threatening Evan and from now on the climate of eroticised fear will be present throughout the novel. As well as kidnapping, Evan uses several ways to hold Dawn captive including emotional blackmail, manipulation, coercion, controlling behaviour, blaming, shifting responsibilities, physical threat, economical violence, physical coercion and sexual violence. While all these are classic patterns of abuse used by violent male partners against their victims (a point also noted by both Dines (2012) and Van Reenen (2014) on their work on Fifty Shades of Grey), they are normalised, romanticised and eroticised within the narrative. The whole plot is a claustrophobic chamber-drama in Evan’s luxurious property, where Dawn’s mood alternates between powerlessness, confusion, and anger. She fears Evan for herself and for the child she brought with her. Evan is dominant, hostile and sexually aggressive towards her, threatening her with rape on the second day of her imprisonment. He then proceeds to kiss her forcefully. The sexual assault is utterly confusing for Dawn who admits to herself she enjoys the kiss while she hates the man and she “hates herself for her weakness that kept her from fighting him”(Andrews, 1982, p.33).  This is a fairly realistically portrayed reaction to violence, as rape victims often describe being stunned and unable to move during an assault, blaming themselves for not fighting their aggressor.  The language used by the author is leaving no doubt about Dawn’s colonised state: “it was as if a stranger were inhabiting her body, responded to the undisguised desire of a man she barely knew”(Andrews, 1982, p.33).  After that violent episode of high erotic content, Dawn is described as being shaky. However instead of seeing this as alarming, all this is depicted as romantic, erotic and proof of her desire and love for him. Dawn starts to develop signs of Stockholm syndrome when on the phone, her friend offers to call the police and Dawn refuses. The friend notes that Dawn is “not making a lot of sense” (Andrews, 1982, p.35). Evan of course is listening to the conversation. As she is under constant surveillance Dawn is always on her guard, tense and agitated. He offers small acts of kindness, condition for Stockholm syndrome to develop, none of which are helping Dawn’s situation, but trapped, she still expresses gratitude for them. The acts of sexual aggression are relentless. She fights back physically. She is conflicted because she also desires him but the possibility of sex terrifies her: “she felt genuine, blind panic for the first time in her life” (1982, p.54). Evans calls her a tease, we are lead to believe that Dawn is in control and wants to have him on her terms, as theorised by Dixon (1999) but it is Evan who controls the games: he is on his territory, she is trapped and cannot escape, he initiate all sexual contacts, she is trying to appease him and please him: the power relationship is clearly in his favour. He does not only want to posses her physically by force, he wants her to submit to him entirely. He requires her full and complete submission, body and soul. He will break her boundaries in any possible ways until she consents to sex with him at which point the relieved reader can happily explain: “she consented! It is not rape!” Finally, the “happy ending” of a romantic fiction invariably sees the heroine submitting: the protagonist will be married.

So why do women not only fantasise about subordination but write about them? What does it mean for a woman to imagine and produce ideology going against her own liberation? Why are women imagining acts of sexual violence as being pleasurable? Why do women go back over and over again to read stories where their own sexual submission is glorified?

Treacher’s honest and personal work promises to “grapple with the beast”, (1988, p.86) as she names female sexual fantasies. But her work consistently disappoints. Her choice of words to describe sexual violence “sexual bullying” (1988, p.86) and her identification both with male and female protagonist demonstrate her own confusion. She hides behind psychoanalytic jargon to remain persistently vague : “the unconscious is unconscious” (1988, p.74) so bound to remain unknown; as well as apolitical. She never relates fantasies to the real world where they actually occur, never approaches the monster she claims to reveal.

Modelskin offers the beginning of an explanation: “In looking at romance fantasies, we have seen the desire to be taken by force conceals anxiety about rape” (1984, p.48). Radway’s study of romance fiction readers’ makes interesting point about their perception of rape. When asked about sexual violence in romance fiction, her sample made a “curious and artificial distinction between “forceful persuasion” (which is tolerated by the readers) and “true rapes”” (which are not tolerated) (Radway 1984, p.76). What this reveals is that women cannot recognise rape if it happens in certain contexts: if it has been romanticised or eroticised or if doesn’t exactly fit the patriarchally approved definition of rape: rape by a stranger, use of excessive force or weapon. Romantic fiction either creates or supports women in this illusion: indeed, “the novels perpetuate ideological confusion about male sexuality and male violence while insisting that there is no problem” (Modelskin, 1984 p.43).

Snitow makes a convincing point when she links romantic fiction to pornography, calling it, after Parisi “the pornography for people ashamed to read pornography”(Snitow, 1979 p.254). The evolution of romantic fiction into a much more explicit material as exemplified by Fifty Shades of Grey is evidence of it.  Unfortunately Snitow’s decision to stay neutral on pornography leaves her analyses incomplete. Like others (Illouz, 2014), Snitow’s understanding of pornography is empty of any feminist analyses. Pornography is merely filmed sex, a “universal human expression” (1979, p.255). But based on content analyses, statistics, survivors’ accounts and the reality of injuries inflicted on female “performers”, pornography reveals itself as a mass scale industry benefiting from the filmed and commodified sexual torture of women for men’s sexual entertainment. (Dworkin, 1981, Dines, 2010, Bray and Tankard Reist, 2011). Snitow’s opinion is in line with erotic fiction and patriarchal culture at large, a culture that purposely and continuously represents sex as rape and rape as sex (Dworkin, 1982).

Radway notices that romantic fiction is particularly read by women who are in depression (1984) (a point also made by Treacher and Dixon about their own reading of romantic fiction). It appears women read romantic fiction as a form of therapy, ”cheaper than tranquiliser, alcohol or TV serial” (Radway, 1984, p.52): none of which are known to facilitate political awareness or revolution. This statement suggests romantic fiction maybe a particularly interesting way to control and pacify a deeply discontented class of people: Women.

Both Walters and Light dispute the idea that romantic fiction is promoting an oppressive ideology. Light explains that denying women’s agency to interpret the text is insulting to women. Walters argues that the process of reading is not linear because the reader interacts with the text, the meaning is said to be “open to change” depending on the reader. (1995, p.8). She claims that “early feminist media researchers had an almost conspiratorial notion of the mass media” (1984, p.35).

But it is not conspiratorial to know that the media outlets including Mills and Boon are male-owned, or to notice that the ideology promoted by the media and mainstream culture has been consistently patriarchal and violently anti-woman. It is not conspiratorial to know that images created by the media are consumed by people of every sex, age, race and social background, and to notice that these images have an impact on people who view them. Some research on the impact of pornography showed that viewers are likely to eroticise violence, to not see the violence that is done to women in pornography because they learn to find it pleasurable (Bridges, Ana, Wosnitzer, Scharrer, Sun and Liberman, 2010). Another study established that women who are watching pornography are more likely to desire or to engage in sexual acts where they are submissive, mimicking the sexual acts done to women in pornography. (Feng Sun, Wright, Steffen,2017)

Therefore the shift from “images of women to women as image” as explained by Walters (1995, p.29) needs to be understood as a departure from a radical way of thinking of “woman as a class”, replacing it by individual women who all make different meanings of what they see.  This argument is an attempt to dismantle the genius of the second wave feminist movement and its use of consciousness-raising as a way to politicise experiences which had previously been thought of as personal and apolitical. This once useful tool is now rendered unsuitable by this “atomisation” of women (Mantilla, 1999). When post-structuralist feminist academics claim that there is no such thing as the category “woman” or scorn the naming of any structure of power as a “conspiratorial”, it needs to be recognised as a patriarchal backlash leading to the “depoliticisation of academic feminism” (Waters, 1996 p.296).  Feminists have exposed post-modernism as a tool of patriarchy, rendering truth revealed by oppressed groups meaningless, preventing oppressed groups from gathering under one banner because terms like “women” are suddenly emptied of their meaning, silencing oppressed groups from speaking politically; co-opting, diluting and reversing radical feminist theory thus preventing rather encouraging social change. (Christian, 1987, Spretnak, 1991 , Brodribb, 1992, Mikhailovich, 1996, Waters, 1996, Mantilla, 1999).

Some of the commentators of romantic fiction argue that a critique of romantic fiction from a feminist perspective is a form of censorship: shaming and patronising the women who indulge in it.  But one can be critical of an institution without being patronising. Saying that women are oppressed and colonised under patriarchy doesn’t mean that women are stupid, yet it is undeniable that a large proportion of women have masochistic or rape fantasies (Bivona, Critelli, 2015). We need to understand politically why this is the case without being accused of policing women’s desire. If the personal is indeed political then nothing is beyond feminist analysis. Women’s desires under patriarchy are political ground: our desires are shaped by the world that surrounds us, this world is male-centred and patriarchal, therefore our desires are also male-centred and patriarchal.

Dixon claims that romantic fiction are feminists because within their plots, women achieve what they want (1999). But Dixon does not analyse what it is precisely that women want. Stating that a woman’s choice is inherently feminist just because a woman makes that choice is no political analysis, it is evading the issue through liberal individualism.

Feminists have asserted long ago that marriage and heterosexuality are two of the most powerful and deathly institutions that have kept women oppressed. One can only understand romantic fiction as a “transfer of power from the man to the woman” as Coward does (1984, p.195) if one lives in the belief that marriage and heterosexuality are desirable for women. If women indeed acquire power, they do so from their caged situation, the way a slave holds some power over a master.


Romantic fiction are both a symptom and a cause of women’s colonised minds and false-consciousness under patriarchy. Women avidly consume them to escape the reality of their unfulfilled lives in heterosexuality (Light, 1984). Their compulsive reading reveals how unloved and emotionally neglected they are. (Modleskin, 1984) They not only believe the “utopian promise that male-female relations can be managed successfully”(Radway, 1987, p.80), but they also trust the promise of a paternalistic caring male who would provide love and attention. They have accepted that male sexual violence is not only unavoidable but desirable because it is a proof of men’s love and desire; they have accepted their sexuality as innately submissive thus making submission look like happiness.

If Radway is right that “a certain portion of (romantic fiction) is still written by sincere well meaning people who are themselves consumers of the form they work in and indeed proponent of the values it embodies” (1987, p.68) then the women who produce these plots have also internalised the same patriarchal values. Women are now not only embracing the ideology that ensures our submission, but women have become the producers of the patriarchal propaganda aimed at the next generation of women.


Reference list

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