This week there were several discussions about dark romance and erotica.
It’s also known as transgressive fiction.
Or rape fiction. Or more derisively “rape as romance” as it’s called in the romance community. Some of these discussions concerned the nature of trigger warnings, and how to make those warnings as potent as possible. This is for the protection of readers who want to avoid these stories, which I fully support. And though I do think the term and the warnings themselves have been abused somewhat, this isn’t about dismissing their usefulness.
No, this is about how for some people, no matter how much caution tape you put on a thing, it’s not enough. Outrage is intoxicating. People can, and will, stumble through that tape on purpose, as if they were moths on a collision course with a perfectly avoidable flame.
It doesn’t matter that readers looking for these dark stories are perfectly fine with the trigger warnings used. That they’ve done their research well enough to find them with ease, and know what they’re getting into. People against the existence of transgressive fiction aren’t convinced.
That’s not romance, they say, when what they mean is it’s not healthy romance. Doesn’t matter if it ends with a happily ever after. A rape as romance story on principle shouldn’t be written, and certainly shouldn’t end happily. It’s not afforded a reprieve because it’s fiction. Confirmed consent rests with the reader if not the characters in the story, but that won’t suffice.
That is the kink people signed up to read when looking for dark books, but that’s not okay. To these individuals fiction, they say, informs people’s actions rather than the other way around. And so a trigger warning is just a scarlet letter on a transgression that never should’ve happened. Turns out, its not the separate but equal branding naysayers claimed it would be.
Transgressive stories have been around much longer than the rules of modern publishing. Happily Ever Afters weren’t the required ending of the fairy tales that spawned the term. What we now call fairy tales and romance is the result of a public relations overhaul. Fairies, after all, were some vicious creatures who specialized in duping humans. They forced humans to make deals under duress. Fairies gave zero fucks about consent.
But then, that’s the beauty of this day and age. Want to read those original terrifying stories about the fair folk? You can. Want the sanitized versions? Check out a Disney flick. These are choices we’ve never had before with such abundance. So why are we trying harder than ever to limit our choices because of disagreement? Why have we cast fiction as more insidious than real life itself? Why are we telling artists to only paint with certain colors on the emotional color wheel? Why are we telling our readers – and make no mistake they are our readers due to the overlap in audiences looking for good art – that they should be ashamed for wanting to specifically read dark romance and erotica?
There are numerous trigger warnings — sometimes with a laundry list of topics and themes recorded. People who hate those themes still read the books, and still leave scathing reviews despite the warning. Which is is their right. But… People treat these stories almost like a dare.
“Read at your own risk! And oh boy, I hope you risk it!”
“Are you triggered by certain themes? Well let me tell you, this book is super triggering! Don’t believe me, huh? Huhhhh? Read and find out just how traumatized I want to make you!”
Dark romance, however, is not a dare. And the trigger warnings aren’t a dare either. They’re the truth afforded the consumer, and they are a courtesy. Indie publishing makes more concessions than just about any other artistic platform. Definitely more than traditional publishing makes considering how few trigger warnings they use. We live in a world where a woman’s sexual fantasies, written in her own words, for other women to read, is still a reason to be apologetic. If we’re not ashamed, it’s viewed as an affront to good-minded people. And even when we’re off in our own little corner, it’s still not enough.
That’s why trigger warnings, no matter how well done, explicit or creative, long or short, will never be enough for some readers. They treat it, and dark romance and erotica, like a dare. Like a perverted desire on the part of the artist to offend. Like a scam to take unearned dollars reaped from a reader’s pain. Like a shame that should remain secret for the reader. Like something to hide from outsiders — particularly men — looking for any excuse to finger wag at romance and erotica, and women by proxy.
But who are we protecting here with these safe spaces that ironically aren’t safe for dark romance and erotica writers and readers? What about safe spaces for the readers who are rape survivors and find catharsis in transgressive fiction? What about the safe spaces for rape survivors who write their way through the trauma? Who share for those specifically looking for their perspective in story form?
What about the women who will have rape fantasies, assaulted or not?
When are we going to place trigger warnings on all the discussions that paint them as bad people for not being ashamed of their sexual desires? When are we going to let women surmount this societal shame in peace, with a consensual experience they can control in book form? Why are these women not encouraged to use characters as surrogates, in the same way the HEA crowd uses romance to surmount the darkness and uncertainty of real life?
The trigger warning is an invitation to turn around if you don’t want to read a story. With reviews, samples, trigger warnings, and countless discussions about the meaning of “dark”, there’s no excuse for wandering into that creepy house on the hill. Everyone said it’s haunted. There are other houses that are more inviting. So blaming the architects and builders for the scare you received after ignoring the “BEWARE” sign makes no sense. Don’t go in the house. No one is forcing you to wander inside if you’re afraid of the dark.
They’ve always been here, these dark, taboo reads. Just like women writers have always been here. Just like PoC writers. Just like LGBTQ+ writers. Human beings use stories to traverse their own psyches. We stumble onto the same themes over and over because we share a collective unconsciousness. And yet we all have a unique perspective. If you would stand for a woman’s right to read the fluffiest, most conventional romance novel, then you can stand to give the dark stuff you despise a wide berth. And if you do stumble onto it without warning, you can close the book and leave a review. That’s the real power of fiction. We have power over it. Even when every other facet of our lives has power over us.
Dark romance and erotica is not a dare. It’s a genre. All that’s missing now is a damn category on Amazon. Considering how much money they make off the genre, and romance as a whole, they should get on that.