Romance novels, good girls and mothers

To understand a woman, read what she reads

I was reading an article, the other day, about romance novels, specifically the Harlequin and Barbara Cartland variety. The article said that many of the novels written before the 1990s included a key scene where the hero rapes the heroine the first time they make love.

Apparently, readers envisioned themselves in the role of the heroine, being forced to have sex. The idea is that having sex wasn't the heroine's “fault”. The heroine—and by extension, the reader—could forgive herself and still be a “good girl” because she had no choice in the matter.

The hero-rapist was still a hero, because he took the moral failing upon himself, thus sparing her the shame. In fact, the heroine would often try to reform him afterward, making him into a good husband and lover.

The article seemed far-fetched, until I checked out some of my wife's stash of romance novels—books that she has had in boxes for decades and still takes out to read now and then.

It wasn't too difficult for me to find the rape scenes in several of them. The page was dog-eared.

Perhaps this notion wasn't so far-fetched after all.

To understand a woman, understand her relationship with her mother.

Like many women, Elle has the whole good girl/bad girl thing ingrained in her psyche. Despite having left her mother's house almost thirty years ago, my wife still has trouble making any kind of sound when we make love—for fear of her mother hearing her and punishing her.

Of course, it isn't her mother she fears, it's her mother's voice in her own head. It's the latent fear-memory that her mom is just outside the bedroom door, listening for a soft moan or a squeak from the bed—ready to burst in, hairbrush in hand.

To this day, Elle usually says, “I'm not really in the mood,” or “I don't need it, but I'll touch you,” if I casually try to get things started.

If I insist, if I seduce her, if I don't take “no” for an answer, she enjoys it. But if I force her to admit that she wants it, she resents it.

In calm moments, in the living-room, we've talked about this many times. She says that she likes it, that she knows it isn't wrong. But that's “knowing,” not “feeling”. In more heated moments—in the bedroom, the symbolic scene of most maternal punishments—her mother's voice rings in her ears, resonating with the guilt and shame seared into her heart, soul, and bottom.

She needs something to answer her mother's voice. She needs a fig-leaf. She needs it to be my fault.

“I couldn't help it! He knows me too well! I can't resist him!” or,

“He's my husband. Being a good wife is more important than being a good girl,” or,

“He forced me! He's stronger than I am! He made me do it!”

She can't say, “yes” willingly. She needs me to say it for her, or force it from her.

Lovemaking isn't the only thing to which she cannot consent. She can't be submissive to me—no matter how much she wants to, no matter the fact that it's her desire driving it rather than mine. I must take her in hand. She can't give herself.

The romance novels have solutions for this, too. The heroes dominate their heroines quite effectively, without the need for the heroine to actually want to be dominated. Spanking was one of several methods used to bring the heroine to surrender herself to her hero, to make her feel like she belonged to him.

It was a symbol of the dominance of men. Men are stronger. They get their way with women. The heroine can't help but be brought—kicking and screaming if necessary—under the influence and maybe even control of the hero.

So why was this an issue for Elle? Why couldn't she be submissive if she wanted to be?

To understand today's women, understand their relationship with feminism

Strangely—or perhaps not so strangely—Elle's mother was an early feminist (perhaps a pre-feminist) of the 1950s. She insisted that her daughters think of themselves as men's equals—that they couldn't just be wives and mothers. They had to have careers and had to be equal partners to their husbands—if they got married at all.

In fact, when Elle and I were first married, her mother seemed to be under the impression that her relationship with Elle was more important than Elle's relationship with me. She tried really hard to keep Elle independent of me—mostly so that Elle could stay dependent on her.

If anything, she should have been happy to have me as a son-in-law. I was a stronger believer in women's equality than either Elle or her mom, but the fact that I supported Elle when she stood up to her mother sort of nixed that possibility. I guess we were both supposed to be subservient to her or something.

With all of that in the mix, Elle still ended up feeling that she couldn't put herself in my hands.

To understand a woman, we must understand our role in her story

I had always known about Elle's love of romance novels. I even read a couple of them years ago (hoping to gain an understanding of the female psyche). I got the hero/rescuer thing. I knew that I was supposed to rescue Elle from her evil mother.

But I hadn't completely understood my role as the romantic hero. I wasn't just supposed to free her from the evil domineering female. I was supposed to replace her mother (parents) as her new lord and master—not set her free to be in charge of herself.

I guess I had written off the hero-rapist paradigm and the dominant-head-of-household-who-sometimes-spanks-the-heroine scenario. I figured that these themes were a holdover from a previous age and that Elle wasn't turned on by those features of the novels.

But I was wrong. Elle, like many women before and since, had a long-standing, deep-seated, hidden, secret desire to be wrangled, trussed up, thrown over the saddle and taken by her hero to his cabin—where she would be at his mercy.

She would have no choice but to surrender her virtue to him or have it forced from her. Likewise, he would bend her to his will—and if she was too defiant, she would be spanked—just like John Wayne spanked the occasional movie heroine.

Sometimes, one flower is enough

Elle dreamed of having all of it, but knew that I wanted her to be my equal. She was OK with that for a long time—even tickled by it and appreciative of it.

But, as she said to me a few days ago, she preferred the Barbara Cartland historical-period novels. Yes, women were subject to men in those days. Men were in charge. But the men in Barbara Cartland's novels “... let their women have a little more freedom than other women of the time.”

When she said that, the smile on her face and the way she snuggled up to me told me that the whole “husband in charge of me” thing, and the occasional spanking, were irresistible desires, not occasional fantasies.

I didn't ask her about the rape themes. Those are too close to the bone for her to discuss openly, and I already knew how she felt. There were too many dog-eared rape scenes for me to ignore the pattern.

It was usually rape the first time only. After that, the heroine surrendered more willingly. That fit with something else from our past.

It's hard at first, but after twenty years or so it gets easier

The first time I made love to Elle, I waited until she said yes. I thought it was the right thing to do. Years afterward, she told me that part of her wanted me to do it sooner—not that she actually wanted me to override her no—just that she would have forgiven me if I had.

It felt dirty, having to admit that she wanted it. That wasn't the way it was supposed to be. The man was supposed to know that “no” didn't mean “no”. She heard the inner voice of her mother that first time, telling her how much of a disappointment she was.

In the intervening years, she told me how difficult it was for her to open up to me in those early years. She felt the unconscious burn of her mom's hairbrush when she initiated sex or allowed herself to be expressive during sex, knowing I liked to hear her.

It's only been the past four years of working toward taken in hand that have allowed me to become comfortable with insisting, forcing, not giving her a choice, instructing her, and punishing her for defiance or disobedience.

She's a moving target

Some of the recent positive change has been her finally being able to talk about it and some has been my coming to terms with her need for male dominance. I have an inner-voice of my own, telling me that dominating women is wrong. It's certainly not my father's voice nor my mother's. Rather, it's a reaction against their view of feminists as uppity women.

But the past four years of exploring Taken in Hand, combined with a new understanding of my wife's enjoyment of classic romance novels, has helped me understand why it's so painful for her to say yes, and why she really does not want the equality that I so much wanted her to have.

Check the nightstand

For other men who want to understand women, who want to understand the desires of one woman in particular, her nightstand can be a treasure trove. Find the books she has hidden away where her mother can't find them (even if her mother isn't looking anymore). Look for the pages with the bent corners and the broken spines.

If this is what she reads when she wants to light her own fire, perhaps we can light her fire with the same match.

It's not enough to read what is there. We have to read in the light of everything we know about her. If we're lucky, we can ask her and she might tell us why that particular page has lipstick on it, why the spine is broken at the part where Tybalt stabs Mercutio. If not, read it over and think about her in that context.

Maybe she likes the rake—the bad boy—the dangerous guy with a sword. There might be a fantasy in her heart, waiting for you to fulfil it. (Elle got really turned-on one day when I threatened her with a butter knife. Cold steel against her throat made her tingle all over, despite it being less dangerous than a piece of paper).

More likely, though, perusing her erotic reading could lead to something unexpected, something we thought we knew but never really understood.

In recent years, Elle has been reading authors like Jacqueline Carey (A Kiss of Shadows) and Laurell K. Hamilton (Kushiel's Dart). Perhaps I should take a hint that she's moved beyond Barbara Cartland.

Humility is useful

Oh, speaking of those romance novels—it's a curious thing. Her mother bought her most of them when she was growing up. Her mom had her own huge box of them. She and Elle and her sister read them openly, borrowing them from each other.

I asked Elle why her mother gave her racy romance novels if she was so dead set against the obvious result of reading them. Elle answered, “They were just books...”

Which goes to show how little I still understand about women and their mothers.


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Very Insightful

CarlF, what a great article! I always thought if more men read romance novels, they might find the answers to the oft-asked question "What do women want?" Of course, sincerely trying to share one another's interests is generally a good way to understand and move closer to each other. If someone comes back to the same thing time and again, it touches them, and says something important about them that their spouse probably needs to know.

I always enjoy your posts; it's helpful and interesting to know how a man thinks about his relationship.

Desire versus fantasy

But we must always remember the crucial difference between desires and fantasies. Many women have fantasies about romantic abductions and rapes...very few really desire them.

It's the same way for men as well. Many of them seem to have fantasies about storming an enemy stronghold...but if they really desired to do it, the army would be flooded with recruits!

Fantasy vs. Reality

But we must always remember the crucial difference between desires and fantasies. Many women have fantasies about romantic abductions and rapes...very few really desire them.

That's true, and even those women who do want to "live the fantasy" usually want it watered down quite a bit.

For the woman who is willing to talk about her desires and fantasies, her husband can use her romance novels as a springboard—a way of knowing what kinds of things to ask about.

There are many women who will talk about things, but only if asked. They don't want to initiate the discussion but will follow along if he leads. That leaves the husband in a quandary of not knowing what to ask about, unless he has a window into her fantasies.

For women who don't want to talk—who just want their husbands to do—a gentle and melodramatic imitation of a scene from a romance novel can do wonders. It requires a sensitive touch. Some wives like to be playfully held down with no force—and released momentarily when they struggle.

If it's done with a sense of humor and playfulness, she can express her level of comfort and perhaps encourage him to go a bit further (e.g. "You don't have to be so gentle about it.")

There is an art to creating a superficial threat while maintaining a feeling of real safety. My use of a butter knife (which some would call a "case knife") was effective in that regard. I deliberately slid it across her skin, illustrating that she was in no danger of being hurt.

Once that was established, I could hold her at knife-point and order her to disrobe "or else". It allowed her to dip her toe in the fear—and even resist—without being drowned in it.

There isn't really a "line" between fantasy and reality. It's more a matter of degrees. How much of the fantasy does she want to realize?

The threat can be fantasy while the surrender is real, or some of the threat can even be realized (e.g. abducting her and carting her off to the bedroom or using a plastic weapon that hurts just a little, but not much).


Talk about hitting the nail on the head. What does it say about women's desires that almost all romance novels (until the point where we realised it was a no-no) involve the woman being taken? When you bear in mind that most romance novels are a) written by women, and b) read by women, and c) the entire romance novel industry is market-driven to produce what women enjoy... It's not evil men who have "forced" this image of a strong, virile man overpowering a woman on us!

I always think of myself (a Taken In Hand woman) as being in the minority of women, but I think I have to revise that opinion. I wonder how many of my friends would pursue a Taken In Hand-style relationship, if I only had the courage to tell them about this site.


I don't think so. Many woman do have rape fantasies, not from a stranger in a dark alley, but by the man they love and wish to submit to. The trust is there that he will not really hurt her but he will take what he wants (her).

Isn't that what submitting is all about? And isn't the idea that you will face the consequences of saying no...a spanking for breaking the rules and being raped for not giving youself freely for sex?


Your wife is a fortunate woman.

Goodness me...this is so powe

Goodness me...this is so powerful and really speaks to me 55...this says it all for me..

In fact, when Elle and I were first married, her mother seemed to be under the impression that her relationship with Elle was more important than Elle's relationship with me. She tried really hard to keep Elle independent of me—mostly so that Elle could stay dependent on her.

My mother was unhappily married to a bully and he bullied
me too and my older brother.She told me lurid details of her "private life" telling me my father was an many ways I was her listening ear and her mum..not her daughter.She disapproved of me and nothing was ever good enough.I have not one memory of her saying she loved me...
I now see so clearly how this influenced my own desires and feelings that I suppressed for so many years...I married a weak man because of it.It wasnt until I met a dominant man that I realised who the real me was and what my REAL needs and desires were...

Thank you for a thought provoking piece

This is very random and beside the point...

...But Laurell K. Hamilton writes the Anita Blake books, about vampires and werewolves and such. Kushiel's Dart comes from a different series. I read both of them. This is very true though, I think I am the same way, with feeling guilty. This helps me a lot, I think, in analyzing my own feelings. Thanks!

Laurell K. Hamilton and Jacqueline Carey

Laurell K. Hamilton writes the Anita Blake books, about vampires and werewolves and such. Kushiel's Dart comes from a different series.

Yes, in the original post, I mistakenly reversed the two authors. Jacqueline Carey wrote Kushiel's Dart whereas Laurell K. Hamilton wrote A Kiss of Shadows.

Both series have moments of intense submission, willing and forced, experienced by powerful female main characters. It surprised me that Elle is aroused by them.

Snidely Whiplash

Is far more sexy that Dudley Dooright, on any given day...

know what your husband reads, know his thoughts, dreams, beliefs

Share them!

Oh how I begged my ex to read a portion of one or two of my romance novels. He had no interest in my "smut."

Today, perhaps as a way to combat the difficulties of building a relationship long distance, the new love in my life not only shares what I read, he shares what he reads, sometimes we read to one another, often we send a passage or point out an article here and invite the other to not only read but comment. We are learning so much about one another.
I despise not being in his arms every night, but I am comforted by the conviction that when I'm finally home, I'll know it's the home my heart has longed for.


True Love And "Smut", Oh, What It COULD Have Been?

Oh how I begged my ex to read a portion of one or two of my romance
novels. He had no interest in my "smut."

Wow, I CAN **NOT** imagine that. Your "smut" involved him in the most
LOVING way, and your reward for that was a kick in the face. I can't
imagine how painful that must have been.

I am glad to see your NEW Love is ABLE to perceive the love you
offer him. And as for the past, well, as they say, "Good riddance to
bad rubbish". What you have in the PRESENT offers MUCH **BETTER**.

Someone with a VERY tongue-twisting name once said, "Yesterday is
History, Tomorrow is a Mystery, and TODAY is a GIFT, which is called
The Present".

Being rather lame with Poetry, I humbly offer this:

Question me not the source of this mystery.

Only with this know from such springs history.

thanks for writing this! :D

i find myself in your insightful
understanding of your wife & her mother!

i appreciate your sharing this!

Wow, Carl!

This is my first trip back to Taken In Hand, since I moved back here, to be with John B, and marry him. (Our first anniversary will be at the end of June) I've sent him this link, because even though we are generally VERY communicative, and I am typically very open—I also found things in both your original article and the subsequent comments. I dearly hope he will read it. You've said so much that I still have not been able to say, and far more eloquently than I (being so emotionally close to it) could ever hope to do.

~soft smiles~

His kitten


This is wickedly insightful. I agree, and I read some of the same books, and at least for me, every word you wrote was TRUE. Awesome Article.


Check your facts

I grew up reading Harlequin and Barbara Cartland romance novels. There was no sex in these books, that is why mothers gave them to their daughters to read. The main charaters were good, kind, intelligent and respectable women who found good, kind, intelligent and respectable men to fall in love with.

Very insightful!

Thank you so much for your article. I am truly moved with how in tune you are to your wife and her wants and needs. It's refreshing to see that men (other than my man) care enough about their wife to read between the lines and find out what makes her fulfilled. Like your wife, I too have a problem communicating these deepest desires due to my family's denial that women should feel that way. Although it was never exposed to me in words, the lack of talk about sex in my family, as though it were something never to be discussed, bad and dirty, makes it very difficult for me to talk about my sexual desires, even today as an adult. So I try to express my wishes in nonverbal ways, which must be terribly confusing for my T, who is wonderful in so many ways but who isn't a mind reader, lol. I hope that I can show him some things that I read that are very erotic to me so he can understand more of what I want from him, but even more I hope to one day be able to communicate fully and deeply, without fear, the things I desire most deeply. Thanks again for this wonderful article!

Re: Very insightful!

Jax H sez "I hope that I can show him some things that I read that are very erotic to me so he can understand more of what I want from him, but even more I hope to one day be able to communicate fully and deeply, without fear, the things I desire most deeply. Thanks again for this wonderful article!"

My dear Jax H, you are in a real dilemma. But if you really want the relationship you express a desire for, it seems you need to verbally express it to your husband, and forcefully so. But, reserve this paragraph as your last resort.

First, try the "silent" approach, namely, "Act As If" you were already in the relationship you vehemently desire and hope for the best. Pretend and hope for the best.

If that fails, then comes the most difficult. Present him with your difficulty and discuss it.

Mick McCleod