Jane L. from Dear Author commented yesterday on Twitter that it had been pointed out to her that JR Ward seems obsessed with sexual violence. I had always thought that Ward's books weren't for the faint of heart or those not into explicit sex that borders on violent, but I'd never really thought about the series in the context of how many characters had committed or been affected by sexual violence. When I started making a list, it was rather startling how long it was (spoilers!):
- Beth (heroine of Dark Lover) is attacked and very nearly raped
- Zsadist (hero of Lover Awakened) is held as a sex slave for years
- Bella (heroine of Lover Awakened) is held against her will by a lesser and forced to shower in front of him and he carves his name in her stomach, though she is not sexually assaulted
- John Matthew (hero of Lover Mine) was raped as a teenager
- Butch (hero of Lover Revealed) had a sister who was raped and murdered
- Lash (villain) almost rapes John Matthew, rapes another villain (The Princess) and its probable that he has been raping Xhex since he kidnapped her at the end of Lover Avenged
- Vishous (hero of Lover Unbound) rapes another warrior in the camp (hundreds of years ago), as was the tradition of the warriors in his camp
- Rehvenge (hero of Lover Avenged) is blackmailed into sex against his will for many years
- Cormia (heroine of Lover Enshrined) is tied down by her fellow Chosen to be given sexually to Phury, though he releases her and condemns the practice.
I don't know JR Ward's personal background, but one has to wonder if she or someone close to her was affected by sexual violence and part of the way she deals with it is to write characters who overcome their experiences to have healthy attitudes about relationships. Zsadist may always be partly broken due to his years of abuse (which is realistic, as someone would always be affected by that level of trauma), but he can still have a wife and child he loves and takes care of. John Matthew can still find a woman he loves and wants to have a life with. Butch will never forget about his sister, but he learns to move past the guilt he felt and live a relatively normal life. I think this might also be the reason readers tolerate such a level of sexual violence in these books. A lot of fans list Lover Awakened as their favorite book of the series and I've no doubt one of the biggest draws of the book is that Zsadist overcomes so much to be with Bella. His story is heartbreaking and inspiring.
The part I struggle with in all this is with Vishous. His book was controversial in the fandom and not just because of the scene where he rapes another warrior in the camp, but that's the part that bothered me the most. Ward, love her though I do, has this whole schtick of "the characters tell me the story and I just write it down." Most of the time, I find that entertaining, just because its funny to imagine these imaginary badass vampires telling these stories to her. However, in cases like this, I almost find it to be a cop out from taking responsibility for what you write. "I didn't make my hero a rapist, he told me that's what happened." Now I know that Ward explains that this was a cultural tradition of the camp Vishous lived in, but I still find this as uncomfortable as those romance novels in the 80s where women were raped and it was explained away as being a part of the time period. Just because something was culturally acceptable doesn't make it right.
To give Ward credit, she does depict Vishous as remorseful for what he'd done, and I don't necessarily believe that all book heroes and heroines have to be perfect. Still, I think being a fan of something, and I am a huge fan of Ward's, doesn't mean that you have to love absolutely everything that she does, and I didn't love that. More Qhuinn and Blay please, Ms. Ward, less rape.