I think a lot of women these days are feeling as if they are being tugged in two directions: on the one hand, we have news stories that clearly show the presence of rape culture in our society, and songs that try to blur the lines when it comes to consent. (By the way, I am SUPER PSYCHED about California's "yes means yes" law.) Women see these things in the news, and of course, we feel angry and upset and afraid; because we do not want these things to happen to us, our family, or our friends.
On the other hand, we have some very anti-feminist romance novels topping the best-sellers lists. And a lot of women who claim to be feminists also like these misogynistic rape-fests masquerading as romance novels. This is not a new thing, either. The "bodice rippers" that were so prominent in the 70s and 80s were incredibly violent towards women, often featuring numerous rapes committed by heroes and villains alike. Yikes! So what gives? Shouldn't there be some kind of cognitive dissonance going on here? How is it possible to enjoy a romance novel that propagates such unhealthy attitudes towards male-female relationships and interactions; sex; and romance, in general?
First, I think it's important to note that there is a difference between rape fantasy and actual rape. Rape fantasy is about control: the woman is in charge of the scenario because it is entirely in her head, and about her desires. In a way, a rape fantasy is a paradox because the fantasy in and of itself implies that consent is implicit (unless, of course, you have OCD, or other psychiatric disorder, and the thoughts are a part of an unwanted, and unpleasant obsession).
The definition of rape is often hazy, but I have always considered it to be any unwanted sexual act, whether it is oral sex, digital stimulation/penetration, or vaginal/anal penetration. The critical part of the definition is that no "yes" was involved. The woman either said "no", or was unable to say "no" (e.g. unconscious, or inhibited by alcohol or drugs), and had the sexual act forced upon her, regardless. In this scenario, the woman has no control because it has been taken from her.
Romance novels may add to rape culture, which is an environment that makes apologies for or enables rapists and also shames women for being sexually autonomous, but they are a symptom, not a cause. It is troubling to see romance novels where the female lead ends up having a happily-ever-after with a rapist hero...but on the other hand, if reading the book allows a woman to be autonomous in fulfilling her own fantasies, isn't that a good thing?
The biggest problem with romance novels occurs when people attempt to translate them into reality. Romance novels are sexual fantasy, and not examples of how people should behave in real life. When fandoms get carried away in their "shipping" and call these rapist, misogynistic men their "book boyfriends," and jokingly call themselves "Mrs. Rapist," they are also contributing to rape culture; they are taking a horrible act, normalizing it, and making it mainstream.
I am not saying that these women want to be raped. But the context of a romance novel puts rape, and other misogynistic acts, into a toxic context where violence against women and rape are shown to be acts of love and devotion by a man so swept away by his passions that he has lost all control. Just think of that pivotal scene in Gone with the Wind...
So is it possible to read bodice rippers and still be a feminist?
Yes. I think it is, as long as you read wisely, with the understanding that fantasy is just that...fantasy. It is when romance novels begin to warp society's expectations for men and women that they begin to grow harmful, especially when they occlude this simple truth: there is only one person who bears any culpability for rape--the rapist.