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.