Taboos in Romance.

The sticky issue of taboos in romance novels popped up in a facebook writers group that I am a member of this morning, and it got me thinking about romance novels, and issues that affect women, issues that are often shameful and private and secret (and I’m not talking about a secret desire to be ravaged by a dinosaur, or the fact that your significant other uses a penis beaker). It was suggested that some areas are a complete no-go. Readers might not like them, might find them upsetting, might abandon a book because those issues are in it.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t write about these things?

In Blue Eyed Devil (Lisa Kleypas) the heroine is raped by her abusive husband. In Rachel’s Holiday (Marian Keyes) Rachel has problems with drugs and alcohol. Once a Ferrara Wife by Sarah Morgan is about the aftermath of miscarriage, Nora Roberts’ Chesapeake Bay saga tells the tale of 3 men dealing with the fallout from childhood sexual abuse. All the books show the importance of love and it’s role in helping us journey past traumatic events. There are books about adoption, anorexia, physical abuse, poverty, bullying, incest.

When it is done well, with care and integrity, fiction can provide a wonderful, private place to explore difficult events. It can provide a place of solace, a sense that the hurt is shared, and a way to find understanding. Fictional characters can discuss feelings that we can’t discuss with our friends in real life, because shame and embarrassment and fear won’t let us. It is one of the reasons why fiction is so important, and why writers must not be afraid to tackle the dark secrets that we all try to hide. But it has to be done well.

Domestic violence is a difficult topic for me to read about, my biggest problem being that I often feel the writer hasn’t really understood it and has merely used it to create emotional tension in the book. Blue Eyed Devil is an exception, and if you haven’t read it, you should.

My book She Who Dares features a heroine who has self-harmed, and is scarred both inside and out as a result. The Holiday Survival Guide, which will be published in January, deals with abortion.

And this is before we even start on the topic of sexual taboos (though anyone wishing to see a whole load of sexual taboos blown out of the water should read Control by Charlotte Stein). Slut shaming, anyone? I shall blog more about that next week, as I have recently sold a novella in which the heroine breaks up with the hero and has sex with someone else, and nothing seems to have more boundaries around it than women’s sexual behaviour.

So what taboos do you shy away from, and which books do you think deal with them well?

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14 thoughts on “Taboos in Romance.

  1. Interesting topic but if the heroine breaks up with the hero – or vice versa – and has sex with someone else, then surely that’s just Real Life not a taboo. In three of my books, the hero is having sex with other partners during part of the book – in two of these circumstances, the hero is in a long term relationship (with the wrong person) at the start of the book (in my last book, they don’t break up until near the end) and in one book, the hero is sleeping with another woman through most of the book until the heroine finally says she doesn’t hate him – then she still rejects him after this, and he goes to work abroad for a year and confesses he *isn’t a monk*. A few readers – in the US largely may want the hero and/or heroine to be a saint but I couldn’t write one. I thinkthat heroes and heroines have other partners in boks by Katie Fforde, Veronica Henry and Jill Mansell, to name a few and it ahsn’t done them any harm. 🙂

    • Interesting that you’ve mentioned a cultural divide – I think there definitely is one, particularly in certain strands of the romance genre with the hero who has slept with everything that moves and the heroine who doesn’t even realise she’s got a vagina until the hero walks in the room (which makes me wonder who all these men are sleeping with)

      Jill Mansell’s book Solo pushes at a boundary for me – when Ross has a one night stand with Antonia while Tessa is in labour. I wonder, though, if there’s a difference depending on whether or not the sex is open or closed door.

  2. Great post, Jane. I once worked with an erotica publisher who had a rule that once the H/h had had sex with each other, they couldn’t with anyone else (they’ve since changed this, I think). I, of course, immediately came up with a gazillion reasons why this precise thing should happen (and I got away with it a few times, too!). I also had the heroine cheat on the hero in one of my books. I thought about it a lot, but eventually I realised that it was just what was right for those characters in that situation, and to change it would be soft-soaping it.

    As for taboos…I’m actually currently doing edits on a book which has a sexually abused heroine (prior to meeting the hero, that is). It was hard to get right, and I spent ages rewriting until I felt I’d struck the right note between realism and being too bloody depressing. I didn’t just want to slap it on there and go, “Look, poor abused girlie with her Tragic Backstory, how sad–but here comes the hero with his Magic Wang and she’s magically all better!”

    I’m not even sure I’d call domestic violence between H/h a taboo, so long as it’s done properly. The rapey heroes of old make me shudder (yeah, I’m sure she did really want it. Tell it to the judge) but once or twice I’ve read books where he’s done something terrible to her and then it becomes part of the conflict: can she forgive him? Should she? Or even, sometimes, the other way around. You get this, obliquely, in a lot of paranormals: the vampire hero who can’t help attacking the heroine, for instance. I think it was a Kelley Armstrong book, Bitten, which had the heroine struggling to come to terms with her feelings for the werewolf who’d bitten her.

    Personally, I love writing characters who do horrible things to each other. Now excuse me, I have to go back to a few fictional broken bones…

    • that’s the thing, isn’t it – the taboo, whatever it is, can’t just be carelessly thrown in there as something the hero can smote with his mighty wang sword. If a line is going to be crossed, it has to fit the book and the characters and it has to be handled with care.

      Susan Elizabeth Phillips handles the whole topic of the H/h having to deal with the consequences of their actions really well – Nobody’s Baby but Mine springs to mind, where Jane uses Cal Bonner as little more than a sperm donor, and both of them have to deal with the fallout.

  3. Thanks for your challenging post. I had to engage my brain…

    In my current SYTYCW entry, I’ve tackled a double whammy – Death/loss and miscarriage – both taboo subjects for me but probably not for others. Have I handled them right? Don’t know. Time will tell. And even if I feel I’ve handled the subjects with the required skill, I’m sure I still risk alienating someone. Both H/h’s lives are impacted by their loss. It’s used to bring them together, and reveal what lies beneath, culminating in a raw moment that made me question the lengths to which I was prepared to go to… I didn’t want to do a swift sweep under the carpet/dead’n’buried, what’s next plot. Unexpected loss is not pretty. Deciding to use it meant determining how it would affect my characters’ behaviour and responses. Yes, when bad news is delivered, some people shut down and contain their emotions. My heroine couldn’t be one of those people. Plot device? Probably – the hero does have an aversion to histrionics. Would I skate on thin ice if my heroine had an over the top reaction to the news of her platonic partner’s death? What the hell, go ahead and stomp on that ice, even at the risk of the heroine coming across as insensitive. The loss had to play a significant role in how the heroes perceive each other, what they discover about each other and how they use their knowledge to build their lives together.

    I never thought I’d tackle a miscarriage. Layer in the heroine’s feelings of resentment for a previous lover because she’d failed to ‘deliver’ the goods and I’m probably in over my head. At one point, she became such a complex character, I came close to euthanising her, only to realise she had to harbour her deep resentments and suspicions and even feel stripped bare when the people she’d placed all her trust in divulge her secret to the hero. Again, I hit a raw moment and had to question my intentions and wonder if my handling came anywhere near finding a balance between dark and light and indeed, displaying the required degree of finesse and sensitivity. Oh, that dreaded ‘it’s all in the execution’ expertise – such a slippery fish. I guess it’s all about drawing a fine line, after all, these are mostly romances crafted to offer some sort of entertainment value.

    I came close to not reading Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ It Had To Be You because the heroine, Phoebe Sommerville had been raped. However, her stories are all character driven. Phoebe has created a frothy, nose in the air, sex goddess facade, then SEP throws the proverbial spanner and matches her up with a sexist/indifferent/callous SOB who manages to bring the heroine to breaking point as she comes close to re-living her most dreadful moment. I doubt there’s a taboo subject SEP can’t handle.

    • Good for you Veronica – I think it’s important for us as writers to tackle things that are difficult and challenging – that we can benefit and learn from writing about them.

      I agree with you about SEP – It had to be you is such a great book, and she kicks at so many boundaries – not least of all because Dan Calebow is pursuing another woman as he’s falling for Phoebe. She really drives home the idea that appearances can be deceiving – with Phoebe, who dresses provocatively yet carries the horrible secret of being raped, Gracie Snow, who is uptight and virginal yet is sex mad and wears frilly underwear (the scene where Bobby Tom puts on the porn film is one of my favourites).

  4. I think that a taboo in the hands of a skillful writer can work even for the most conservative of readers. I remember never thinking that I’d like to read a book where the heroine fell in love with a married man – until I read Christina Jones’ Going the Distance, which is one of my all-time favourite women’s fiction titles.

  5. Great post – sorry to come to it so late! I personally think that tackling taboos should be done more. I write category romance, where a lot of things are a definite no-no and it’s v. easy to alienate readers. But in my next book, the hero cheated on the heroine while they were still married, and in the one after, the hero & heroine actually discuss abortion (and decide to go for it) after a one night stand ends in an unwanted pregnancy. My editor didn’t even bat an eye when I told her what I was writing so I’ll be very interested to see how readers react.

    • I agree, I think we’ve become almost frightened of certain topics. I am so glad you’re writing a book about abortion – the only one I can think of which involves the heroine having to make that choice is A Baby for Eve by Maggie Kingsley. It crops up too often as something that evil ex-girlfriends do. My January release has an abortion thread in it interestingly enough, and I have another book due out at some point next year in which the heroine breaks up with the hero and sleeps with someone else – have no idea how that’s going to be received.

      • My current release has an evil ex abortion! I should point that in my next book they don’t actually go through with it. They back out at the last minute. Mainly because the pregnancy is discovered about half way through and I didn’t feel there was the wordcount to have them do it and then get to their hea. (There’s quite a lot of other stuff going on!) I’ve read quite a lot of category romance recently where the heroine gets pregnant by mistake and majorly doesn’t want to be, but at no point does she even consider the possibility of terminating it. I find that unrealistic and therefore frustrating to read.

      • I agree, a heroine who didn’t want to be pregnant would at least have the thought at some point, whether she went through with it or not, and I think we need to stop assuming that readers will be turned off by it. And I’d like to see the morning after pill thrown in there some more too, that’s another thing that’s avoided.

      • Coincidentally, I’ve quite recently read a book where the heroine had an abortion as a teenager, following a brief affair with the boy who she will, many years later, fall back in love with. It was interesting, but somehow I didn’t feel it affected either of them very much; it seemed more like a plot device to break up the young lovers.

        I do sort of cover the topic in my next book; it’s something that has to be done for many complex reasons, and destroys both of the people involved. I remember sitting around for a while thinking about his I was going to tackle it, and if I should, and how my editor would react to it. She was fine with it, which I suppose means that I did it right.

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