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Negotiating Power Dynamics in Romance Novels

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I don’t read het romance anymore. Or, well, I should say I don’t read het romance by non-queer writers.

Why? I’ve been burned too, too many times. Every time I pick up a het romance novel by someone who isn’t writing queer works, who doesn’t identify as queer or at least an ally doing the work, I am almost inevitably uncomfortable.

What’s going on here? I was theorizing about it to a friend: the problem is power dynamics.

It’s Not Sex, It’s Power

Among humans, sex is far from just a biological imperative to reproduce. It’s a tool. It can create emotional closeness. Among bonobos—our other closest cousins—sex can be everything from an apology to a greeting. You tell me humans don’t sometimes use sex in a similar manner.

There’s good reason for this. It takes a lot to raise human children. When sexual relations reinforce emotional bonds and closeness, they then help reinforce bonds between potential parents. With a strong relationship, they’ll likely be ready to spend decades raising and supporting their children.

Cool!

But sex has a darker side too. People often use it as a tool of coercion and control. In short, sex becomes all about power.

A close-up of a woman's torso, shot in black and white, as she removes her clothing and showcases her lingerie.
People are often confused about the power dynamics of sexual relations. (Pixabay / Pexels.com)

This is why we inevitably see stories about the “powerful” preying upon the “powerless.” Young female actors, looking for their big break in Hollywood, agree to sleep with a producer or director—because he can give them what they want. He has the connections; he can pull the strings, and that is the price he demands.

You might recognize that as … coercive, for sure, if not straight up extortion.

Power Dynamics in Het Romances Promote Patriarchy

Even in portrayals of romantic heterosexual couples, we often see power dynamics at play. The woman is submissive; the man is dominant. He might be older, wiser, or have more money. Maybe he’s more educated, or maybe he provides access to something she wants (aside from love).

Patriarchy is a system of power in and of itself. It allocates power to “men,” and “women” are subject to their domination. The false theory that women are biologically more submissive while men are naturally aggressive supports this argument. By and large, women can be just as aggressive as men; men, by turn, can also be submissive.

Yet we almost always see submissive women—doting mothers, dutiful housekeepers, loving wives. Their needs are secondary to those around them—and, most importantly, to their husbands, boyfriends, or lovers.

This is no accident. Patriarchy wants control of female bodies, in order to keep control of reproductive capacity. The phrase “Mama’s baby, Papa’s maybe” comes to mind. Without proper “control” of a female body, a male cannot be sure of his paternity. Ergo, he jealously guards his female, and she submits herself to him.

That Shit Is for the Birds

In reality, power dynamics in relationships—particularly human relationships—is hard to reduce to stereotypes like this. There is almost always a push-pull dynamic between couples. They work together to compromise; they negotiate; and they fight. It happens.

The very stereotyped version in most heterosexual media tends to present dominant man-submissive woman without much commentary. This is natural, normal. It’s the “default” version of human relationships.

It’s interesting that these couples often fight—a fight is another way to gain control. Whenever the woman gets mad, fights back, it’s a way for her to try and exert some control in the relationship.

Almost inevitably, the man placates her or subdues her—a gift, an apology, maybe a good dicking, and she “happily” submits to him again, because Dickhead Knows Best, apparently.

A mallard drake, like the one pictured in this close-up, can be quite violent when it comes to mating.
He sure looks cute and innocent, doesn’t he? (Ellie Burgin / Pexels.com)

This kind of reductive thinking is best left within the animal kingdom. In fact, we can look at most other animals and see serious jockeying for control, particularly when it comes to sex. Ducks, for example, are notorious for being super rapey. Drakes will mate, violently, with a female duck and kill her. Hens will attempt to evade the drakes. Drakes will even have sex with predeceased females.

We can look at another species: lions. We know male lions can be aggressive toward females who have cubs that the male didn’t sire. But did you know that females are also aggressive toward the males during heat? If he doesn’t perform, she’ll get after him, biting his testicles until he satisfies her. Both male and female jockey for power here.

So, even looking at the animal kingdom, there’s no reason to assume a supremely social and cooperative species like human beings wouldn’t also jockey for power in their sexual and even emotional relationships.

Heterosexuality Never Questions Itself

Now, here’s where the problem arises. Since we are choked with the dominant male-submissive female stereotype from the time we are neonates, this situation appears natural. It’s just the way things are. This is how humans operate. It’s biology, baby.

Except that it’s not. Even if it were, biology is a touch more complex.

The problem here is that heterosexuality never bothers to question itself. It merely replicates itself again and again—movie after movie, TV show after TV show, book page after book page.

That’s how we end up with a bunch of 50 Shades of Grey clones. It’s how we can look across almost all genres and find the same “romantic” tropes about “alpha males” cropping up over and over.

And the power dynamics play out the same way again and again, often driving home the problematic message that abusive behavior is romantic.

Queerness Must Question Power Dynamic Norms

Now, this isn’t to say queer works are perfect. But the second you put two guys together or two women together, you call into question the “natural” positioning of not only heterosexuality but the power dynamics operating within it.

Again, this isn’t an automatic solution. Plenty of non-queer people and young queer people simply try to slot into into heterosexual roles. I know. I did it in my early works.

Why? Because that was how I had been told relationships worked. You have a man and a woman, a dominant and a submissive. You have to have this; one partner must take the role of “the man” and one will assume the role of “the woman.”

The thing is, once you start writing queerness, there’s a space to begin questioning that.

And thank goodness for older queer writers. They helped me put my heterosexist assumptions to bed quite early in my writing career. All it took was someone pointing out that not all queer relationships are butch/femme, bear/twink, seme/uke, D/s, or any other configuration. Some are, sure, but not all of them.

Ding! A light bulb went off for me. If not all queer relationships function within these narrowly defined terms, then what I write doesn’t have to conform either. Cue role reversals, switches, pan characters, polyamory, and more.

Suddenly, a whole world opened up, where relationships could be configured almost any way I want.

Negotiating Power within Non-Het Relationships

That comes back to the issue of power. Once you explode the heterosexist myth of domineering man-submissive woman, you have to examine the power relations between your characters.

And, even within the relationships that still cleave to dominant/submissive configurations, you’ll quickly find that two things are necessary:

  1. Characters who exist on somewhat equal footing; that is, they have some modicum of respect for each other
  2. A continual negotiation of the power dynamics between them.

I’ll point here to Nix in his relationships. Nix and Zo are different “sexes,” in that Nix is male and Zo is female.The two of them, when they engage sexually with each other, are continually negotiating both power and consent with each other. We get the sense they both want to engage with each other, and that requires them to negotiate how. When Zo seizes control, Nix voices appreciation of her doing so—it’s consent.

With Regulus, we enter into an alpha and omega arrangement. Regulus, as the “alpha male,” could and perhaps should dominate and control omega Nix. Yet when he engages with Nix, we’re left with the impression that Nix has at least some power.

And this is where so many heterosexual works fail: they don’t consider power relations and they do not allow the characters to negotiate those dynamics. Time and again, we see a woman say no, only for her “true love” to steamroll her.

That’s not love; that’s not romantic! It’s coercive and abusive. It’s fifty shades of rape culture.

Hetero-dominant Stereotypes Don’t Allow for Negotiation

Why do I say that? Because when one character is forced, over and over again, to submit, we have entered very dark territory. This is not a romance; it’s a horror story.

And I will say this: I read dub-con all the time. I read poorly negotiated BDSM relationships and characters who can’t communicate their feelings. But when these stories are pulled off successfully, it’s almost always because there is an implicit understanding that both characters are very much into what is happening, even if they don’t agree initially. We see hesitance, perhaps even reluctance, but there is always a modicum of power allocated to the character. They could say no; they just don’t—often because, despite their misgivings, they’re into it.

That’s how you can successfully write something like a character’s rape fantasy scenario coming true, or a character repeatedly pushing their “true love” past their boundaries. It’s trust, respect, consent, negotiation.

And that requires the characters to let go of the heterosexual norms of dominant man-submissive woman. They have to stand on equal(ish) footing in order to negotiate properly. And that means they have to respect each other as human beings, as equal within the relationship.

Otherwise, it doesn’t work. Christian Grey does not treat Ana Steele as an equal; he treats her as a possession, a thing he can play with. Whenever Ana exercises free will, he gets upset and exerts his control again. If she gets upset, he placates her with a meaningless gesture and she falls back in line.

Power Imbalances Create Danger and Abuse

This power imbalance is only magnified by his social position; we’re told he’s obsessed with her, that not having her will basically drive him mad or to the depths of despair, but this kind of thing is how women get killed. They’re either guilt-tripped into staying with an abusive partner so he doesn’t harm himself or they’re threatened into staying to avoid potentially worse harm. In many cases, these women end up dead—either as they try to escape their abusers or because their abuser finally kills them.

So let’s not pretend Christian’s all-consuming “passion” and “obsession” nullifies the danger he presents to Ana. He is a billionaire with money and social influence. He can destroy Ana Steele. She has zero power at all; his obsession with her does not change that. It only makes him more dangerous, because she has more reason to submit to him.

And it allows him to perpetrate the abuse without real fear of repercussions. What is Ana gonna do? Leave him? He manipulates her to come back. He could slander her, sue her, destroy her credit—anything, everything.

Do not underestimate the power of a jilted man, apparently. When men feel entitled to women—in any sense—and women try to exercise power, this is the result. If Ana Steele ever left Christian Grey, we can be almost certain this is the kind of thing that would result. Ana’s life would be ruined.

Always Question Power

Romance is rife with these sorts of depictions, because women are often drawn to power. In particular, powerful men are often considered attractive and desirable. (Again, we can see patriarchy at work here.) And thus the romance genre is full of dukes and billionaires—men of power and influence.

Power dynamics still favor heroes, even when we have "feisty" heroines like this female boxer.
She could knock the hero out, but he’ll still “save” her (Annushka Ahuja/ Pexels.com

These are often presented as wish-fulfillment for women; don’t we all imagine a handsome, rich duke whisking us off to live a life of leisure, never worrying about a thing?

But these romances also have that darker side, in that they ask women to submit to the power and influence of these men, versus questioning power dynamics. Even when books have “feisty” heroines, the power dynamics often run right over them. They become helpless dolls—physically, emotionally, financially, sexually.

That’s why we always have to examine the power dynamics inherent in any relationship, sexual, emotional, romantic, or otherwise. And, as I noted, queer writers and queer works tend to be in a better position to begin exploring those aspects—because they immediately pose a threat to the “natural balance” of power present in so many heterosexual narratives.

And we should ask that of our heterosexual works too. Who has power, why, and how are they negotiating power imbalances in this relationship? If we’re not asking those questions, then we’re failing to fully imagine the rich world of relationships and how we negotiate them in real life—with dire consequences for the marginalized and oppressed.

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By Cherry

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