By Alexa Day
I enjoy a fantasy with a bit of an edge. I don’t see how that can be harmful. It’s my fantasy, and I know I’ll be okay, so why not go for a bit of a ride first?
Two smoking hot men push, carry, or otherwise manhandle me into the trunk of a very expensive car? Let’s go.
Robosexytimes? Yes, please.
One and done, hon? As long as we’re on the same page.
But let’s understand something first, right up front. I am not being fantasy-abducted by harmless people. The stranger at the end of the bar really is a stranger. That glorious specimen pacing the ring at the MMA tourney? He has a very specific idea of what my place in his life is, and it is not to make sure his jeans are pressed. Unless that’s a clever euphemism. Which is unlikely because he doesn’t use clever euphemisms.
I love it when these fellows turn up in erotic romance. For one thing, I don’t know what they’re going to do next. Maybe he’s killed people. Maybe he’s ordered people to kill people. The heroine’s safety is not guaranteed at all, and that’s a good thing. It might be the best of things. We learn more about ourselves when we don’t know what will happen next. Risk teaches. Risk opens the world.
With apologies to Gordon Gekko (Remember him? Am I old?), risk, for lack of a better word, is good. Risk in romance — a genre whose only unbreakable rule is that everyone will be happy at the end — should be better than good.
And so I am dismayed by the sudden steep increase in what I’ve been calling toothless stories and declawed heroes. The hero who is genuinely dangerous at the beginning of the story is a big ol’ cuddly sweetiepie at the end. The stranger in the dark who knows what you want because you told him what you want — he’s really a boyfriend on role-play night. Getting it on with one stranger while another one watches? No problem. It’s your hubby. He likes to indulge your kinky side. Isn’t he a catch?
This is starting to annoy the hell out of me for a handful of reasons.
First and foremost: It’s the gotcha. Listen, I understand that loads of readers only feel comfortable if the random stranger at the end of the bar turns out to be the very familiar husband. I also understand that this sort of thing can be made clear right from the start without losing an iota of heat. My esteemed colleague Rachel Kramer Bussel does the job quite nicely with her short story, “Flying Solo,” in Best Women’s Erotica of the Year. Check it out for a glimpse of marriage at its committed but omnivorous best. The heroine’s marriage isn’t concealed at all; it’s part of the kink. Take heart, fellow commitmentphobes.
I’m not sure why other authors need the surprise twist at the end of the story to remove the high sexual voltage built up during the story, but it’s not a great feeling for some of us readers. If you’ve ever reached into a bowl of M&M’s and discovered the hard way that they were Skittles, then you know what I mean. Not a single thing wrong with Skittles — unless you expected them to be something else. The gotcha is not cool. The gotcha is a bait and switch.
Next, consider the message. The toothless story is quietly telling us that it’s not really okay to fantasize about that giant in the alley unless we do so under the auspices of an existing relationship. It’s just fine to daydream about being hauled up against that brick wall for some consensual, recreational brutality — if you’re being handled by your boyfriend or your husband. If not, well … maybe you should get a man first. Then if and only if he says it’s okay and agrees to participate, you can start maybe getting what you want. You can have whatever you like, as long as you have it exclusively through him.
I can’t nope that hard enough. Does this genre stand for the male-sanctioned fantasy, even in stories written primarily by and for women? I certainly hope not.
And another thing — isn’t romance its own safety net? No one questions the mighty HEA and HFN, right? No matter where the road goes, no matter what happens in between, the hero and heroine end up facing the same direction, together and happier for it.
So what are we afraid of? There is little meaningful danger of lasting harm to the heroine. Hell, there’s almost no meaningful danger. Why are we hell-bent on protecting her from dangerous men? If he is hers, and they are to be together in the end, shouldn’t they go all the way, as far as they dare, even if it’s beyond our own untested boundaries?
I will address that tragic figure, the tamed or declawed alpha, last.
My esteemed colleague, Madeline Iva, did her level best to talk me down from a bout of hysteria I endured after discovering that one of my very favorite dangerous men of romance had been transformed into someone almost family friendly. “We want to have our cake and eat it, too,” she told me. “The bad girl fantasy with the good girl happy ending.”
The good girl happy ending terrifies me. The good girl happy ending is the promise of a safety that stifles, a sameness that suffocates. The good girl happy ending is the motorcycle in the front yard with the For Sale sign on it. But then I’m no good girl. I tried it for as long as I could, and now I don’t see the upside.
Madeline also referred me to a post she wrote on the topic, in which she describes the allure of Laura Kaye’s paranormal heroes. “Her readers,” she said, “enjoy a vicarious sense of victory when the heroine triumphs in taming the alpha male.”
That terrifies me, too. I have no desire to tame the alpha male. If he was not tame when he entered the story and came after the heroine, then isn’t he diminished by the happy ending? If the heroine tames the alpha hero, I’m not sure she’s won anything at all. In fact, he is losing the core of his fiery being, and she’s losing the man who attracted her at the beginning of the story.
Consider one last thought.
Are toothless stories and declawed heroes a way to build a socially acceptable fence around the wilderness of feminine fantasy? Are we building a world where some fancies are to be indulged and others shunned?
Are we comfortable with that world?
I cannot wait to hear what you’re thinking, of course. Sound off in the comments.
And follow Lady Smut. We’re really comfortable on the edge.
Alexa Day is the USA Today bestselling author of erotica and erotic romance with heroines who are anything but innocent. In her fictional worlds, strong, smart women discover excitement, adventure, and exceptional sex. A former bartender, one-time newspaper reporter, and recovering attorney, she likes her stories with just a touch of the inappropriate, and her literary mission is to stimulate the intellect and libido of her readers.