Caught in a Bad Romance

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Published on April 3, 2015

Romance isn’t just running rampant throughout the ever popular young adult fiction novels. It’s often in line with what would be considered dating violence. According to an Association of American Publishers 2014 report, YA books are reaching wider audiences than ever before and with that, spreading the word about what it means to be in love and who the certified heartthrobs are. But this abuse? It’s anything but sexy.

Caragh O’Brien’s Prized follows a teenage midwife named Gaia in a dystopian society. It’s not the poisoned air and water keeping the citizens trapped in a slavery-run wasteland that is the scary part. The real nightmare is Gaia’s relationship with her ex-criminal boyfriend, Leon. He belittles her, threatens her, and attempts to isolate her from male friends. Yet Gaia justifies this as Leon being “mean” to her “sometimes” and concludes that he’s been kind inside all along and she loves him.

A far cry from any semblance of true love, O’Brien’s book instead markets abuse as romance. The US Department of Women’s Health breaks down dating violence into three main categories of abuse: physical, emotional, and sexual. Dating violence, they explain, often starts with emotional abuse. Being pressured to get serious quickly is a red flag, and one that’s a mainstay in Leon’s relationship towards Gaia, as excerpted below:

“I can’t make a commitment until I’m completely sure. . .” She’d been tricked by her own feelings before. . . how was she supposed to know if what she felt for him would last. . . “It’s such a big decision. All I need is a little more time . . .just to be sure. Is that too much to ask?”

“It’s a lot to ask actually. . .” [Leon said], “If I give you more time to decide promise me you won’t go sneaking off to be alone with Peter. Or anybody else. Take the time you need to think things over, but just about us, you and me, with nobody else dropping in to say, ‘Hey [miss] Gaia, let’s take a ride through the woods’ it would kill me to have you peeling off with them. I have to know you won’t do that to me . . . tell me now we don’t have to go any further.”      ”

A 2008 report from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency says 1 in 3 teenage girls in the US are victim to physical, emotional, or verbal dating violence. Many don’t even report it.

Leon’s guilt tripping, jealousy, and mind games match up with the “emotional abuse” category on the power and control wheel designed by the National Center of Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Michael Amico, professor of Psychology at HCC, says emotional abuse “doesn’t have to leave a bruise” to be damaging. It still negatively affects self-esteem and self-worth long term.

However instead of bringing to light this prevalent societal issue, these books often glamorize and justify these troubling relationships as normal, and even romantic.

Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, the vampire protagonist Edward is consistently controlling, isolating, and extremely possessive of Bella. Psychologist Wind Goodfriend explained in her article published in Psychology Today, “Bella. . . has characteristics common in victims of violent relationships. . . consistent[ly] low-self esteem. . . attracted to men who are forbidden. . . [and is] excited by violence, aggression and danger.”

Literary bad boys have been commonplace as far back as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

“We learn a lot about love from the things we read. . .” says Linda Wolfson, longtime counselor at HCC and coordinator of the Women’s Center. “Young women may quest after these dark, scary people. . .” Sometimes, women misconstrue men’s reactions to them as getting attention.

Wolfson says women are “nurturers”, “negotiators” and can often justify that they are either causing the behavior in their abuser, or are certain they can bring back the “kind” and real guy inside of him. Yet Wolfson says, “All of his behaviors are him. He is the composite of his behaviors.”

A 2006 US Bureau of Justice and Statistics report mentioned on the website says girls ages 16-24 in the US have the highest rates of dating violence. Could these unhealthy literary relationships have something to do with this?

Jennifer Lutris, a librarian at HCC, says, “Every generation has its own set of literature.” When Lutris was younger the book, Forever by Judy Bloom was the teen it book. Typically before that book was published if teens decided to have sex in YA books, the book didn’t end well. “Not a lot of books then represented sex for teens in a positive way,” Lutris says.  From what she’s read in current YA books, that trend is changing.

In Becca Fitzpatrick’s book Hush, Hush however, instead of representing a healthy exploration of sex between characters Nora and Patch, instead readers instead read passages like :

“ ‘We’re all alone down here,” Patch’s boots were flush with the toes of my shoes, “A guy like me could take advantage of a girl like you. Better show me what you’ve got.”

Even Nora herself admits two pages later: “Patch had cornered me in a dark tunnel and was possibly stalking me.”

This risky business culminates in a pseudo-rape scene:

“He slid onto my hips, straddling them, eliminating the use of my legs. . . I couldn’t do more than squirm under his weight. . . ‘Get–off–me–or–I’ll–scream!’

‘You’re already screaming, and it isn’t going to cause a stir in this place . . .’ He gave me a hard smile that was lethality around the edges.

I was fighting back tears . . . ‘You’ve been trying to kill me all along. Right from the start. Are you going to kill me now?’ . . . I twisted beneath him. . . [his eyes] were blacker than I’d ever seen them.

‘I bet you like this,’ I said.

‘That would be a smart bet.’

Yet, mere pages later Nora is locking lips with Patch. And by the end of the book? She feels right in his arms. He’s embracing her, and she feels loved and alive. Instead, it follows the cycle of abuse in which jealous, control and physical violence can be interspersed by moments of kindness.

“Maybe [the authors] are trying to put it as romantic,” Lutris says, “but they’re not quite there yet.”

Censorship isn’t a good option, especially in this case.  “The best way to get a teen to read something is ban it.” Lutris says. “The best way to help teens deal with things is to educate them. Banning doesn’t solve problems. It just puts things underground.”

If teenage girls idolize these relationships and truly do tumble into a romance with tall, dark, and damaged, there are some seriously negative consequences. The US Nonprofit organization Futures Without Violence shared a 2012 longitudinal report from peer[reviewed Pediatrics journal that suggests women who have experienced dating violence may be prone to mental health problems, drinking and drug use, and suicidal ideation.