Elizabeth Haynes is a police intelligence analyst. She started writing fiction in 2006 with the annual challenge of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and the encouragement of the creative writing courses at West Dean College. Into the Darkest Corner, a tour de force of suspense and one of our picks for the Best Books of June, is her first novel.
It’s a very fine line between love and hate, desire and control. Anastasia Steele, the feisty, sex-aware virgin heroine of the Fifty Shadesof Grey trilogy, knows that more than most. When presented with love, sex, and violence all at the same time she knows where her preferences lie and is brave enough to define them. For her growling lover Christian Grey, sex and violence are inextricably linked; the one feeds off the other, leaving love more or less out of the equation. Reassuringly, the submissive might well be identified as the powerful one in the relationship, deciding the ‘hard limits’ of the pain and so allowing fear to function as a kind of perverse aphrodisiac, but there are still moments of discomfort in Fifty Shades – for the reader as well as for Anastasia. It may be tempting to chalk up the massive commercial success of the trilogy to the frequent sex scenes, which are never fumbling, disappointing or unfulfilled; but what we really hope is that actually it is a result of Ana’s triumph in driving the violence out of the relationship by the sheer force of her love (even though she does quite like being flogged, sometimes.)
Fifty Shades is probably the start of an avalanche of what’s been termed ‘erotic lit,’ or more disturbingly ‘mommy porn.’ And while we can now share our darkest fantasies over a latte, it’s important to consider that those who do claim to have secret ‘rape’ fantasies are unlikely to have actually experienced it. The gulf between titillating fictional scenes and actual rape is a vast one, as far apart as crime fiction is from crime fact.
Leaving aside ‘consensual’ sexual dominance in fiction, what remains is often far worse. As well as rape, murder, kidnapping and torture are commonplace in the crime genre and, while the perpetrator may be brought to justice by the novel’s end, what message are we left with? Characters are often created for the sole purpose of being artfully arranged in a killer’s tableau, for setting up an unusual method, a tic that will provide the investigator forensic fodder. The twisted psychology of the killer and the flawed brilliance of the detective are typically the two sides of the scale in most crime fiction, leaving the victims as mere background color— disposable, with no real voice or substance. And while the crime itself may be described in graphic detail, it’s rare that the psychological effects of the crime on the survivor are considered or explored.
What’s uncomfortable about our fascination with sexual violence in fiction is not only the way its victims are faceless, characterless, silenced; it is also the way we are reading for entertainment: it’s like a gentleman’s sport, a game, the hunt for the clever, wily offender by the investigator who will invariably take one step too close and end up in mortal danger before it all turns out alright in the end.
Real crime isn’t like that. Real crime is dirty, painful, grim: where a motive exists at all, it tends not to be something as neat as a need to recreate a complex scenario from a psychopath’s childhood, but sadly more likely to be a combination of alcohol, drugs and a stupid disagreement or misunderstanding. In thrillers, the relationship between the offender and the victim is often coincidental; in reality the majority of sexual dominance crimes are committed within existing relationships – stranger violence is still by comparison thankfully rare.
Those of us whose experience of violent crime is limited to the pages of a novel may well be the same ones who might look with scorn at someone who stays in an abusive relationship and ask, ‘Why not just leave? Or fight back?’ We cannot underestimate the power of fear in such situations, and while police have the power to intervene and provide some measure of protection, there is never a guarantee of justice and no neat resolution; there are no ‘hard limits,’ no ‘safe’ words, and love does not always triumph over dominance. Where there is no reason for violence, there can be no easy solution to it.
Just as there is a gulf between fiction and fact, there is also a distance between crime and punishment – the well-documented difficulties in bringing sexual offenders to justice means that a survivor will have to relive their experience to support a prosecution, risking further psychological trauma. Again, no easy solution, and in all likelihood, no neatly resolved ending.
It’s precisely because crime fiction and real-life crime are so far apart that we can read about violence and enjoy the feeling of being scared – but the trick is in knowing the difference, and being aware of that fine line.