Ever since the explosive popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey it seems as though you can't step foot in the romance section of a bookstore without coming across the dark and taboo. They're everywhere, their numbers increasing every day and their subjects varied. On Amazon alone there are over 6,000 age gap romances, over 10,000 incest romances, over 10,000 reverse harem romances, and over 100,000 BDSM-themed romances. Other subjects include: guardian/ward, daddy dom/little girl, priest/nun, forbidden romance, abduction to love, blackmail, revenge, virgin, love triangles, threesomes, foursomes, jealous lovers, and teacher/student (among many others). The ever-growing popularity of taboo romances--and the continued cracking down of Amazon on certain taboo topics--has some people wondering: is there a such thing as too taboo?
What makes one reader's stomach turn can make another reader's heart swoon, but regardless of your individual feelings on the existence of taboo romances it's impossible to ignore their overwhelming success in the romance market. So, what draws so many readers towards the darkest topics of taboo romance?
The Forbidden Fruit Syndrome dictates that people find things more irresistible when they're off limits, ala Eve and the apple. It's human nature. Taboo romance gives us the opportunity to get up close adn personal with some of the most scandalizing, dangerous scenarios without actually getting out hands dirty. Nikki Rae, author of dark romances, argues that "fiction gives us a vehicle to explore the dangerous things with our arms and legs safely inside. There is no 'real' risk, and if you find things are getting too dark, you can close the book and step away."
Brianna Hale, another author of dark romances, agrees with Rae. "It's a way to indulge in something that you probably wouldn't pursue in real life," she says. "Fiction is all about walking in someone else's shoes or experiencing something that you otherwise wouldn't. For instance, the fantasy--and it is pure fantasy--of a dangerous man who will protect you ruthlessly and hurt you in sexual ways is alluring." Of course, just because a reader wants to mentally dip their toes into dangerous what-ifs doesn't mean they want that fiction to become reality. Hale continues, "I would never want a dark alphahole* as my partner. I wouldn't even put up with a man raising his voice to me--unless it was a part of some kinkytimes that we've agreed upon. I also wouldn't like to suffer the pain and loneliness of giving everything up for a completely inappropriate man. I think most readers of taboo and dark books are like that. It's about exploring a wild side in a safe way."
But not everyone sees taboo romances as a safe way to explore their kinky sides without judgement. Many believe that taboo romances are a gateway to destructive and dangerous behavior, that reading about daddy dom/little girl romances will lead to pedophilia, that enjoying a book about a jealous and possessive lover will have young girls seeking out abusive relationships, and that reading about a man who kidnaps the woman he loves means condoning those actions in real life. But are we more likely to go out and behead someone because we watched it in an episode of Game of Thrones? Are we going to become a serial killer because we listened to fourteen podcasts on the subject of serial killers? No.
One of the biggest issues people have with taboo romances is the presence of rape, forced sexual activity, or dubious consent. But just because a man or woman reads, and enjoys, a romance novel that contains dubious consent or rape it does not mean that they would be open to a sexual assault in reality. EJ Dickson of The Daily Dot writes, "When we're talking about sexual fantasies it's both stupid and unnecessary to discuss their real-life implications. That's like telling someone you dream about owning a yacht and that person saying, 'but wait, what about the maintenance costs?' I will never own a yacht, so I don't feel guilty about not worrying about its maintenance costs. I feel the same way about having unorthodox or politically incorrect fantasies."
What happens in our fantasies and the content of the books we read does not necessarily equate to what we want to happen to us in real life. Rae believes that readers choose taboo topics because they're curious and it stirs something inside of them that a reader wants to explore, but points out that "most of us would not fall in love with our captor and leave our old lives to go on the run with them, just like most of us love to watch Bake Off and aren't jonesing to bake a three-tiered cake shaped like a dragon." Hale agrees with Rae, adding that she doesn't believe a book can make an every day person go out and sleep with their student or step-dad or priest.
But what about the type of woman who enjoys reading about heroines being kidnapped, held captive, and raped? Surely there must be something wrong with a woman who likes that sort of content? Happy, successful women with high self-esteem and self-worth wouldn't read those sorts of books. Right? Wrong. In reality, some of the most sexual and self-accepting women have both the most rape fantasies and the most fantasies of consensual sex.
In a 2012 study researchers had women listen to an erotic rape fantasy (as opposed to a recording of an outright sexual assault) and found that of the 355 women who participated in the study, 52% had fantasies about forced sex with a man, 32% had fantasies about being raped, and 28% had fantasies about forced oral sex. In that same study, 62% of women reported having at least one fantasy about a forced sex act. The study also found that women who reported being less sexually repressed about sex were more likely to have rape fantasies, more open to fantasy in general, and more likely to have consensual sexual fantasies. And, big surprise, they also had higher levels of self-esteem. Of course, to be extra clear, just because someone fantasizes about something happening doesn't mean they're open to living it.
With so many different taboo topics combined together in endless books, it's easy to see how people can be all over the board with their reactions to various books. But who's in charge of deciding what's too taboo? As Hale points out, "Taboos are funny things. They're policed by society, not by law, and some people take their role in policing other people very, very seriously. There are taboo subjects that don't float my boat," Hale says, "but what a hypocrite I'd be if I started denouncing books and authors. What appeals to me doesn't delineate what should and should not be written." It's hard to draw the line somewhere, but Amazon seems to be drawing one. Recently, the e-book publisher and online bookstore has been removing romances with underage sex and step-families from their virtual shelves. How do we decide what is acceptable and what's not? Who should be in charge of making that decision? Who wants that responsibility? And how far down the path of censorship are we willing to go?
With so many vocal opponents to taboo romances, Amazon removing books with what some deem to be questionable content from their website, and the difficulty or marketing said book to the masses, the question arises: why do authors write dark and taboo romances? Rae says she was drawn to taboo romance--reading and writing--for one reason, "I wanted to feel safe. Like I wasn't alone. Like there wasn't something wrong with me for being drawn to certain subject matters." Hale writes taboo romances because she loves the angst, claiming she's drawn to the idea of "two people who really, really shouldn't want each other but can't help but fall in love, because they're made for each other and they want to be with each other no matter what." Still, she does admit that as a taboo author "one unfortunately has to toe that (ever-shifting) line of what's acceptable."
Whatever your opinion on the various taboo romance topics, we have to be exceptionally careful with what we deem to be unacceptable? We are free to not like a taboo romance topic, but does that give us the right to argue for its removal from the book world all together? Isn't it enough to simply not read it? What gives us the power to make those decisions? There are many out there who argue that reading romance and erotica is as damaging to one's psyche as watching porn and can have detrimental effects on our brain functioning. That's obviously malarchy. But with our own delicate reputation in the book world, are we really the ones who should be passing judgement on what other readers enjoy?
What are your thoughts? Is there a such thing as too taboo? Or does the very name--taboo--excuse the genre from being too anything?
A special thanks to Brianna Hale and Nikki Rae for providing me with their thoughts and expertise on the taboo romance genre. If taboo gets your juices flowing, then definitely check out their books and follow them on Instagram by clicking their names above.
*Alphahole: a combination of asshole and alpha male.