Updated: Jun 3
With the growing popularity of movie adaptations such as Fifty Shades of Grey and 365 Days, I think it's important to address a rising trend: dark romance books.
Browse through the genre of "dark romance" on Amazon or any other bookseller—or even on Wattpad, a site catering to an audience mainly comprised of teen girls 13+) and you'll find at least one if not a combination of the following themes:
• Kidnapping & Stockholm syndrome • Selling one's virginity to pay a debt/get money (aka prostitution) • Falling for "dangerous men" (i.e. Mafia, Bratva, gangsters, MC members, assassins, hitmen, etc.) • Being sexually assaulted • Being forced into an arranged marriage • A man tells you that he "owns" you, and treats you like an object, his possession, his property, etc. • Falling for one's boss/teacher/someone with power over you • Reverse harem/polyamorous/ménage à trois • Having one's father sell you to a gang because of his gambling debts • Loving/falling for one's abuser • Nonconsensual/dubious consent • Master/slave relationships • Romanticizing mental illness • "Curing" mental illness with a relationship • Enormous age differences • Glamourization and romanticization of abuse and toxic relationships
For example, browsing through the top stories in the tag "darkromance" on Wattpad:
In the first three stories, we have:
1. A man who is obsessed with a woman to the point of kidnapping her, treating her like property, and calling it love. There is a huge power difference between them, and he treats her like his "obedient doll" despite her protests that she does not belong to him.
2. A werewolf/fantasy story with mates. A human servant girl is mated to an enormously powerful and tyrannical "beast" king. Once again, the power difference between them is tremendous.
3. A copyright infringement because this story is published elsewhere, but also a story about a girl selling her virginity to a man who "owns this city" and also is incredibly powerful. He wants to "dominate her" and "bend her to his will."
My question is: why? What do all of these stories have in common?
I can identify one common thread:
• A weak/naïve/submissive female character, and; • A powerful/dominating/possessive/dangerous male love interest who has some level of leverage or control over the woman
In this post, I will pose and answer the following questions:
1. Why are these books so popular?
2. (Why) do women like dangerous and/or powerful men?
"A harmless man is not a good man. A good man is a very dangerous man who has that under voluntary control."
- Jordan Peterson
I theorize that over time, women have evolved to seek out higher-status and more powerful men, otherwise known as female hypergamy. Because women are more vulnerable than men during the processes of pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing, they require a man who can provide for them and their offspring while they are unable to work or find sustenance and protect them from predators or other dangers.
In order to protect someone from danger, one must be dangerous themselves, as they require equal, if not more, strength and tenacity than the danger that they wish to defeat. In "dark" romance books, this dangerous man is often represented as a male hero who carries a gun, knows hand-to-hand combat, or is capable of killing a man or paying guards to do it for him. This male hero may even be an anti-hero who turns his power onto the woman he is protecting (see: mafia men, Stockholm syndrome, sexual slavery).
However, often, the defining feature of these male "heroes" is that they are dangerous and powerful. Their main characteristics seem to be an icy personality, being ill-mannered, violent, possessive, jealous, and even violent towards women. Often, in the "excerpts" or "teasers" of such dark romance books, on Wattpad and otherwise, the scene will open with a man pushing a woman against a wall, "punishing" her physically for "misbehaviour", or using some other way of frightening her physically and/or verbally. These men often behave in abusive ways: controlling what their love interest does, telling them what to wear, telling them what to say, or even physically hurting them. So why are they—and the books they are in—so popular?
I have another theory. The problem is that in our current age, so many deeds performed by good men, whose traits such as bravery, chivalry, courage, integrity, stoicism, and honesty are too-often relegated to being 'toxic masculinity' or dismissed as 'benevolent sexism.' Aka, good men are now bad, because they want to protect and provide for women, because in our feminist age, the implication of a man wanting to care for a woman is that women cannot care for themselves. Women are encouraged not to rely on a man for anything.
However, when good men are denigrated, we are left with two types of men: "men without chests" (C.S. Lewis) and bad men. These bad men may be dangerous, powerful, and even abusive, but they possess a certain type of aggressive masculinity that women find attractive, when controlled. The problem with the bad boy or the dangerous man is not that he is dangerous, it is that he cannot control it. Sure, he will attack or yell at or destroy dangers that threaten the woman he is with, but he will also lash out at her just as easily.
The popularity of these books does not come from the fact that women do not want men who protect and provide for them. They are so popular because men who are "possessive" and "overprotective" are going to the extremes of protecting and providing for a woman, even to the point of eradicating her independence and autonomy. Because we live in a culture that has erased good men who are protective and generous in a moral, strong, and loving way, we are left with men who are controlling, dominating, and overly possessive.
In addition, these books often involve men who force women to do things against their will--whether that be nonconsensual sex, kissing, or other acts. Do women readers actually find this nonconsensual brutishness attractive? If so, why?
I propose yet another theory: the theory of seduction. Most women generally want to be seduced. Women read romance novels in order to feel desirable, to be carried away on an adventure, and to be pursued or courted by a man. Generally, women want to believe that if a man cared, he would call. They don't want to chase a man, or constantly initiate calls, texts, dates, etc. However, the abusive extreme of this paradigm of men who chases you is a man who chases you to the point of forcing you to do things that you may not want to, just to satisfy his own gratification.
These dark romance books take male-female interactions that are good and turn them into something twisted, abusive, and predatory. They warp women's natural desires to be loved, cherished, wooed, and protected, and represent them as a desire to be dominated, controlled, and even abused.
This post was originally posted on my Wattpad blog, Honestly, in February 2022.