I’m not here to explain what happened. I have no sordid details to offer, accusations to voice, or higher powers to blame. The only thing you need to know is I’m a #MeToo, and I want to talk about what happens after—and what an excellent place the romance genre is to recover from sexual assault.
Assault obliterates people’s needs; it robs them of choice. To pick up a novel is an act of consent; to open the pages of a book is an act of consent; engaging in reading is an act of consent. The romance genre offers three guarantees vital to my trauma recovery: heroines with agency, a happily ever after, and sex positivity.
No two people survive trauma the same way. Story helped me. My psychiatric state, post-trauma, was at best erratic dysfunction, at worst suicidal ideation. The hypervigilance combined with the flashbacks left me with a brain I no longer recognized. I despaired of ever regaining my own mind, and fiction kept my flashbacks at bay better than any other escape.
There was only so much my husband, the doctors, the trauma programs, the psychiatric drugs, and the talk therapy could do. In the end, I had to reclaim my brain and my body for myself.
I wanted to read, but my attention span was shot, which made literary novels seem like grasping at swarming fireflies. Other genres had violence, grief, or unpredictable endings that were like quicksand to my emotional fragility. My everyday goal was to convince myself I still wanted to be alive. Reading tragedy or fearing it would occur on the next page wasn’t an option.
Enter happily-ever-afters and the pricelessness of predictability they can provide an unstable mind. I can read most romance novels without fear of a woman being assaulted, graphic violence killing off one of my favorite characters, or my mind wandering to suicidal ideation during musings on mortality. No matter how many obstacles the lovers meet in a romance, I know with the surety of the Earth’s orbit around the sun, it will end happily. Love will always win.
Enter heroines with agency. In romances that feature a female protagonist, her needs are placed at the forefront; whether her desires include a successful career or a rape fantasy, she will always get what she wants. Every time.
Page after page, romance novels say to the reader, “You are in control. You decide. You deserve what you want.” With my everyday hypervigilance degrading my needs and telling me that going after what I wanted would put my life in danger, to read romance heroines doing just that and thriving reinforced all the wisdom my therapist could supply.
Therein lies the reclaiming of the mind, but romance also helps in repossession of the body. Romance novels have become my safe space.
Most modern romances portray sex positivity with a hard-line emphasis on consent. Every book reiterates the same few keynotes: sex is not bad, sex does not have to be violent, sex can be exactly what I want and need it to be. Reinforcing those ideas through reading is an act of therapy. (Also, the reminder that not all men are violent, self-obsessed criminals helps.)
It was a natural step to go from reading them to writing them and to making friends with other romance writers and readers. What I found in these lovers of the genre was a sensitive community; many had experienced some form of personal trauma and were sympathetic to the treacherous ground I was walking each day.
Not every romance lover has a story of assault, and not every romance features a heroine. Not every person recovering from assault reads romance, and romance novels alone will not cure PTSD. But for me, they are an essential piece, and I’m not alone.
My story’s ending isn’t quite a happily ever after. I can pick up other genres now on occasion, but I’m coming to accept, five years after my assault, that my recovery is going to be lifelong. In the meantime, the romance community is here to stay, and the happy endings are limitless. I can read and write them for as long as I need the safety to go after what I want on the page—even when I’m unable to in life.
Robin Lovett writes novels for Entangled Publishing and SMP Swerve.