The Great Smut Debate (with debate inked in cursive by a fountain pen)
The Great Smut Debate

What We Do in the Shadows: Crossing Lines and Pushing Boundaries in Romance

“It’s not a romance if the hero is mean to the heroine.”

“It’s not a romance if the relationship is toxic.”

“It’s not a romance if one protagonist rapes the other one.”

“It’s not a romance if someone is physically harmed.”

“It’s not a romance if the power differential between the characters is too extreme.”

There is nothing, in any definition of romance, that says that the characters have to have a good relationship. In fact, many great romances feature terrible people doing terrible things, but in a dramatically entertaining way. The broadest definition of the genre says that a romance includes a romantic relationship with a happy, optimistic ending—for the characters. Even if we go by Ingrid’s more narrow definition of what makes a satisfying romance—that the characters grow separately and together—we can see that negative interactions can be a catalyst for growth, as the characters move towards an HEA. 

When we first started on this journey into the question of “What Makes a Romance,” we were spurred on by the seemingly endless debates about whether something was *really* a romance novel—or whether it should be more properly classified as “women’s fiction” (or “chick lit” or just “fiction”). 

But as we started to outline all the intersections of “what counts as a romance,” we found that the conversation is much more expansive than simply “true romance” vs. “women’s fiction with romantic elements,” and today we’re shifting once again to a completely different nexus. These books are not dismissed as “not romance” because the relationship is underdeveloped or doesn’t end happily, but rather because the relationship includes stuff that makes the reader uncomfortable. Invariably, these books are blasted as “problematic,” which is ultimately a term without meaning—it literally means “unresolved” or “posing a problem.” We are pushing back on this discourse here by discussing a range of books deemed “problematic” and exploring what these books actually do.

Backstory: Healthy Relationships in Smut

In the last 50 years, the kinds of relationships readers expect to see in romance novels have shifted. When The Flame and the Flower was published in 1972, it became a huge bestseller and became a definitive text for the genre, spawning legions of imitators. And let’s just say that the protagonists do not have a healthy relationship: the MMC rapes the FMC in Chapter 1, and the FMC spends the first half of the book terrified of her rapist and eventual husband. Enter the bodice ripper. 

Bodice rippers are characterized by domineering heroes, demure heroines, sexual violence, and historical settings: these characteristics combine to give us the scene of the hero literally ripping the clothes off the heroine. These books dominated the romance market for decades, though as time passed the sexual violence decreased. In the last fifteen years or so, authors have portrayed characters with increasingly healthy relationships, featuring consent and communication. (This is obviously a very glossed-over history. For more detail, check out this history of consent in romance books over at BookRiot.)

Today, it’s not just that we’re avoiding rape and domineering, manly-men heroes. Authors are writing romances that aren’t just entertaining, but also model healthy relationship behaviors. A few exemplars in this niche subgenre include Chloe Liese’s Bergman Brothers series, Allie Winters’ Suncoast University series, and Zoe York’s Pine Harbour series. For example, in Liese’s With You Forever the protagonists manage to be present for each other as they work through their very responsibly thought-out marriage of convenience as well as several personal challenges, such that, in the end, the only problem left for them to overcome is their unwillingness to trust in and embrace the full intimacy of the relationship they spent the whole book building.

This is not to say that all romances written in the past five years that eschew sexual violence went all-in on portraying healthy relationships. Take Luna and the Lie by Mariana Zapata. Rip is a big grump, but he’s also (from one perspective anyway) gently caring and protective of Luna. That said, neither Rip nor Luna have healthy emotional maturity, and several of Rip’s behaviors (tracking all her dates with other men, rarely accepting “no” as an answer, boundary pushing) are straight up red flags. Rip and Luna are hot messes thanks to a lot of trauma in their pasts, but their romance is perfectly designed for their own personal emotional states and needs. 

It’s no surprise that most (popular) romance being published right now, both through traditional and indie sources, is primarily reflecting the kinds of healthy relationships that readers themselves seek to experience. Just consider the relationship study that made headlines earlier this month for evidence of today’s social expectations for successful romantic relationships.

And it’s probably not surprising that most (popular) romance being published right now features relatively vanilla sex, if it includes on-page sex at all. Fewer, less explicit, low-kink sex scenes are undoubtedly presumed to be more accessible to a wider audience because not everyone shares the same kinks or even comfort level with respect to on-page sex. 

And that’s what this conversation all boils down to: comfort levels. There’s so much that exists in the human experience, unhealthy or simply unconventional, that makes people uncomfortable, and sometimes seeing that content reflected in romance novels makes people recoil. In order to explore this boundary space of romances that make people uncomfortable, we’re going to dive into three subgenres that explicitly play with consent and non-consent as a feature of the central romantic relationship: dark romance, Nazi and slaveholder romance, and BDSM romance.

Dark Romance

As traditional publishers focused increasingly on consensual, non-violent, non-abusive romance relationships, romance readers who were looking for the more dominance-based dynamic from The Flame and the Flower started looking elsewhere. Enter dark romance.

Speaking in broad terms, dark romance are books that feature unhealthy relationships with abusive behaviors—but also feature a happy ending. We are by no means dark romance experts here at the Smut Report, so here’s a more detailed list of the characteristics of dark romance, according to the Fated Mates podcast:

  1. All dubious consent and non-consent romance is dark romance (although not all dark romance has dubcon or nonconsensual elements).
  2. It’s about what the HEA is made up of: If the non-aggressor or non-villian moves into the dark (rather than pulling the other into the light), then it would qualify as dark romance.
  3. Often the aggressor/villain is static, while the non-aggressor finds their light or strength in the new world they exist in. This person does all the work and learns how to navigate a life around the aggressor and their world. These are not stories of love redeeming, but rather of learning to find love and happiness with the person (people) in front of you.
  4. The characters are suffering from current or past psychological or physical trauma. The non-aggressor represents the last bits of humanity that the aggressor has to hold on to. Dark romance explores a relationship where only one person has strains of humanity and the impact it has on a person without it.
  5. The evil and violence of the aggressor must take place on the page.

We do want to be clear that we disagree about point #1: as evidenced by our discussion above, dubcon is a feature in a wide variety of romances (and not just in those old bodice rippers, who would be shocked to learn that they are actually dark romances). Furthermore, a single interaction between the characters—even a shocking one—does not define a story; rather, the darkness of dark romance is about the tone of the book as a whole. The emphasis of Fated Mates on the character development of the non-aggressor as a central defining characteristic of the genre makes this clear. 

We haven’t read a lot of dark romance here at the Smut Report, but here’s what we’ve found. 

  1. They can induce a lot of big feelings, which in turn results in a huge catharsis once the story is finished. 

Shortly after we started this blog, Erin went on a motorcycle romance binge, starting with Reaper’s Property by Joanna Wylde. Having never read such a book before, she began texting the group chat with horrified glee about almost every WTF moment in that book. Sometimes the dark romance is simply shocking and feels scandalous, which can be fun. But she kept reading, eventually finding Undeniable by Madeline Sheehan. There is almost nothing in Undeniable that does not touch on yikes (yiiiiiiiikes) topics in some way, from rape to abuse to racism to the significant age gap power dynamic between the protagonists. Erin’s reading was deeply uncomfortable and incredibly stressful, and she honestly couldn’t say she particularly enjoyed it. And yet, as the story reached its resolution, she still experienced the emotional release that comes from experiencing and working through intense feelings. Such a release does not always (or even often) occur with stories featuring exclusively healthy behaviors, because the emotional stressors are not as close to the surface. 

2. They tap into pleasure fantasies, especially fantasies featuring the “one woman who can make the unbending man bend” trope.

While the basic notion of having that special something that worms its way inside the love interest who needs to be cracked is not a foreign concept to the greater genre romance world—only consider those old school romances in which the hero is unable to cope with the fact that he’s having these equilibrium-disrupting feelings—it is reliably a feature in dark romances. On top of that, this component of the narrative and characterization is typically emphasized by the hero enacting toxic behaviors. Only consider The Master by Kresley Cole: Maksim imprisons Cat in his hotel room, in a chastity belt, and controls absolutely everything that goes into her mouth or on her body…because she’s the only woman he can stand to be touched by. 

(And also because he’s supposedly mad at her for lying to him, but we all know it’s an excuse.) He doesn’t even really love her at that point, but she’s still the one to throw his entire life out of whirl. It’s a powerful fantasy. 

3. They can help people process trauma or the possibility of trauma, in a safe, fictional space.

For this point, we’re drawing on the experiences of others. Specifically, here’s Twitter user @elle_pond talking about how she, as a survivor of domestic abuse, uses reading dark romance as a processing tool. If you’re still thinking that dark romance should be shunted into a corner and never heard from again, this thread is definitely worth a read.

See also:

4. They allow space for exploring fantasies of turning toward the dark.

Holly once read a dark romance remix of Peter Pan, starring Hook and Tinkerbell. While the text asserts that Hook is “dark,” there’s no evidence of him being so on the page (beyond secondary characters being afraid of him). However, the arc of the story hinges on Tinkerbell moving from a happy-go-lucky pixie of joy to a goth pixie who does a murder while engaging in a relationship with Hook. The pay-off here is not so much about Tinkerbell overcoming the trauma inflicted by Hook, but rather exploring a part of herself that she had previously repressed—and allows readers to imagine taking revenge or turning dark in a safe way.

Of course, there are plenty of books that play with dark romance conventions without being billed as dark romances. Take, for example, Born in Fire by KF Breene, the first of the 11-book Demon Days, Vampire Nights series. Born in Fire is marketed as a supernatural Stephanie Plum novel—so the reader should expect a sassy bounty hunter and lots of shenanigans. And that is certainly present. But at the same time, we have a vampire hero who is extremely sexually agressive, dubious consent, and a heroine who finds her place in a darker world as the series progresses. 

It’s probably true that these stories are romanticizing elements that, in a real-life relationship, would be jumbo-sized red flags of toxicity and abuse; however, that might not be the only thing they’re doing. At least these books aren’t pretending their heroes are stand-up guys, which is not the case in other romance featuring similar themes but not the sub-genre tag.

Which brings us to those books about nice Nazis.

Nazi and Slaveholder Romance

We have read precisely zero historical Nazi or slaveholder romances, but do want to talk about the space they hold in this discussion. As with dark romances, Nazi romances explore ideas of power, consent, and redemption. 

Unlike dark romance, Nazi romances are written with a particular political project in mind: the rehabilitation of (white) perpetrators of political violence as misunderstood and therefore palatable. If a slave can love her master, these books posit, who are we to say that he was a bad person? This particular SS officer wasn’t actually an evil Nazi, these books aver; after all, he fell in love with a Jewish woman. 

Do we find these books distasteful? Yes. Are they romances? Yes. And might they serve someone’s kink? Yes.

The appeal of these stories, we understand based on the flurries of arguments that occur whenever one is published, lies in the narrative of overcoming circumstances, in the power of love to overcome brutal mistreatment (either of the love interest or of their family/community), and in the rehabilitation of a protagonist who made bad choices and has seen the error of his ways thanks to the love of an understanding partner. For those who read romance to see forgiveness and love strong enough to conquer all obstacles, the redemptive potential of these stories could be hard to resist. 

There are two lines of critique of Nazi and slaveholder romances. First, that these books uphold a white supremacist political agenda, which some readers find distasteful, especially given the current upsurge in authoritarianism. We agree with this criticism, and do not support the rehabilitation of Nazis and slave owners, which is why we don’t read—or link to any examples of—these books. 

Second, people argue that these books are not true romances, because consent is not possible between the protagonists. To which we respond: is consent necessary for a story to be a genre romance? We agree with the premise that a woman experiencing chattel slavery in the antebellum South or a woman in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany cannot consent to a relationship with her owner/overseer/captor/warden. Yet how is this dynamic different from the character who is held captive and coerced into a sexual relationship by a biker/vampire/crime lord? For that matter, Erin the HR stickler notes that, from a legal liability standpoint, there can’t be consent between an employer and an employee, or between a teacher and a student (at least, not without very specific HR controls in place, and maybe not even then).

The difference here is a matter of degree. While it may be technically true that, thanks to inherent power dynamics, an employee cannot consent to a sexual relationship with their boss, the difference is that the boss, unlike the slaveowner, does not control all aspects of the employee’s life. The scope of retaliation is limited to the workplace, rather than broad enough to encompass everything up to and including the lives of the prisoner’s loved ones.

For those who are interested in the extreme power differential of Nazi and slaveholder romances, but without the white supremicist political overtones, a niche subgenre of fantasy sex-slave erotica exists—Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy is the most famous example. These books frankly hit all three of the subgenres we’re discussing today. Not only do they play with the erotic dynamics of slavery and ownership, but they also feature the dark fantasy of coming to accept a life of nonconsent (as Sleeping Beauty notes at the end of Beauty’s Release, she doesn’t want to have a slave, she wants to be one)—and also tend to feature sado-masochism and bondage.

Kinky Romance

If our framework is consent and discomfort, then we would be remiss to not also discuss BDSM romance. Depending on the type of romance reader you are—and the types of romance readers you talk to—you may be just as likely to see someone disparage a sexy, kink-forward romance as “not really romance” or “porn” as you are to see someone disparaging Nazi romances. 

To reiterate our position: of course a romance is still a romance even if someone gets spanked (spanked here being a placeholder term for any BDSM kink related to this discussion). Do the characters grow separately and together? Does the book end with a happy resolution for the protagonists? Sex scenes are one of many tools that writers can use to show intimacy and character growth—or to show the readers a good time. 

With that said, kinky romance can be loosely divided into three subcategories: pure fantasy, consent primers, and ones that fall somewhere in the middle. 

By pure fantasy, we mean books that are not meant to be taken literally, but are rather fun, sexy, spank-bank material. We’re thinking of Sleigh Bells Ring by Jodie Griffin, which is all about reindeer shifters getting tied up by Santa Claus. (Ingrid refused to read that one, but Holly and Erin delighted in its willingness to GO THERE.) We’re thinking about books by Jessa Kane; for example, Daddy’s Worst Nightmare is fifty pages of titillating, paternalistic control. We’re thinking of Katee Robert’s Your Dad Will Do, which involves all kinds of kinky play, none of which is discussed in advance. We’re thinking of Pretty Man by Ryan Field, in which the top/bottom relationship equals a D/s relationship and includes a surprise train (yes, that kind of train). We’re thinking of the Daughters of Ariadne and bondage aliens and the dystopian sex slaves we mentioned earlier. 

On the other end of the spectrum are what we’re calling consent primers, which are BDSM romances that are explicitly invested in portraying kink in a safe, healthy, realistic way; a reader could use these books as a resource in how to have discussions about kink with a partner. KB Alan’s Perfect Fit series exemplifies this trend. In her review of Perfect Temptation, Erin described the plot as “Nathalie had a bad Dom and decided BDSM wasn’t for her, but when she discusses her history with a good Dom, she realizes she might be able to safely explore her fantasies again.”

The books in the middle are the tricky ones: these are the books that can be read as realistic portrayals of BDSM relationships, but which do not explicitly address consent and boundaries. Think Fifty Shades of Grey, which presents a range of unhealthy relationship behaviors framed as romantic under a titillating veneer of BDSM. (Please note that most BDSM books that include spanking but not explicit discussions of consent are not chock full of unhealthy relationship behaviors.)

Readers may respond with discomfort to these books for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the explicit portrayal of sex (particularly kinky sex) makes them uncomfortable. Perhaps they don’t feel like authors successfully show the sexual pleasure of the submissive party. Perhaps the lack of explicit consent makes the spanking scenes veer too much into disciplinary proceedings—and not in a sexy way. Perhaps people who engage in those kinks are worried about the safety repercussions of not seeing necessary conversations happen on page (for the characters, but if readers are using these books as BDSM instruction manuals rather than doing proper research, that could be a concern as well).

When there’s space for readers to fill in the blanks, some authors make the leap easier for readers to take. Consider, for example, scenes that include marking with cum all over the partner’s body. Regardless of perspective, these interactions are frequently introduced as something that’s obviously sexy, which leaves the reader who does not find that particular kink sexy to wonder, “Um…what?” (See also: Holly’s post on finger jamming.) Now, there are plenty of people who find this type of interaction sexually arousing—but none of us are those people. In fact, the whole dominance through cum is a little off-putting to us. However, Erin once read a scene that included marking with cum in which the protagonist who was the recipient of the marking explained to his partner the gratification and sense of power he received from the experience, which not only allowed the partner to feel comfortable and happy with participating in that particular kink, but also gave Erin an understanding of why that kink would appeal. (The book was Goal Lines & First Times by Eden Finley and Saxon James.) Context and framework made a huge difference in how Erin experienced reading that particular scene. The same could be applied to two different paddling scenes, one of which presumes that the reader (and the participants) is already on board with the play, and the other that makes the reader understand how the pleasure is unfolding. The scenes are written for different readers.

Just as there are many reasons readers may dismiss BDSM books, there are also many reasons that readers seek them out: to explore fantasies in a safe space, to think about one’s own desires and how to communicate them to a partner or partners, to have fun. Let’s be real—to be titillated. We’ll say it: sometimes titillation is fun. 

Back to DubCon: An Author’s Narrative Choices

Since our framework for discussing these books that cause discomfort is consent and lack thereof, let’s return briefly to dubcon. Dubious consent exists in all three of these subgenres—but it also is a feature in romance more widely. And that’s because the use of consent is a tool in the romance writer toolbox to show the relationship between characters (for more on writing consent in romance, we recommend this blog post by romance author KJ Charles).

In order to dig into this idea of dubcon as a *feature* of *many* romances, let’s talk about first kisses. Sometimes, a first kiss features explicit verbal consent: “Can I kiss you?” Sometimes, characters’ mutual desire for a kiss is illustrated through nonverbal cues: prolonged eye contact, touching hands, touching hands to faces, etc. 

But kisses that are not strictly consensual can also be effective at moving the story forward. To illustrate this point, let’s talk about the grab and kiss. 

So. Hot.

The grab and kiss can illustrate a crisis point, a burst of pent-up emotion between two antagonists, or the grab and kiss can lead to a turning point in the relationship. Maybe the kissee likes it and is surprised to find themself reciprocating. Maybe the kissee pushes the kisser away—but feels confused about their own reaction. Maybe the kissee pushes the kisser away and is adamant that *that* can *never* happen again (but of course it does, for romance reasons). Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? They should, because they happen in “mainstream” romances all the time.

Some readers are seeking only explicit consent and do not feel comfortable with books that include these gray area moments or relationships that constitute dubcon. And, considering that dubcon is not only about actions but applies to situations in which consent may not be truly possible (think of employer/employee relationships again), there are a number of areas where this dynamic may exist, and readers will react. And yet, often these are very human situations in which messy people have messy feelings and must figure out how to navigate them, which is exactly what other readers are looking for.

“That’s Not My Kink!”

We wish people would say “that’s not my kink” instead of “that’s not a romance” when they come across content that makes them cringe. There’s a difference between “this isn’t a romance” and “this isn’t romantic to me.” Sometimes books and readers are simply a mismatch. (Please see Holly and Ingrid’s discussion of Priest.)

This is not to say that unhealthy or concerning behaviors or content in stories should never be discussed or acknowledged. We have often read books and said, “That really stroked my id, but also it was absolutely swimming with unhealthy relationship representation.” Or, you know, conversely, “My enjoyment of this story was ruined by these unhealthy behaviors.” And that conversation is another opportunity to explore specific elements of a narrative instead of simply arguing that it shouldn’t be considered a romance. 

Books mentioned in this discussion

3 thoughts on “What We Do in the Shadows: Crossing Lines and Pushing Boundaries in Romance”

  1. Love this entry! Nothing grinds my gears more than when people try to “cancel” a work of art just because they didn’t enjoy it. With all our options today ( especially in books, romance or otherwise) if one doesn’t like something they simply can avoid buying it and find something more to their taste. Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

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