The Explorer

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When I was about 13, I read a book called The Explorer by Francis Parkinson Keyes. It does not appear to be available on Amazon or the librarything (or anywhere else I looked), so unfortunately I can’t link to it, but it was definitely an adult romance, and not at all a romance I would expect to be available at a church library.

The “explorer” is a man who makes a living as an heretical archeologist hunting down ruins and then incongruously selling artifacts to collectors…or maybe it was selling books about his adventures. In any case, he was a hedonist, a dashing, exciting, romantic figure, and gone for most of the book outside of the country, much less the state. The book, abnormally for a romance, opens with the man and his to-be love getting married a week after meeting at a (different) wedding. The beginning chapters are full of dialogue between them – actually, the majority of the book is between the man and woman, with very few exceptions – about his past sexual adventures and his opinions about marriage. He is a sexual libertine, of the opinion that a man and woman who are not otherwise attached have nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying each other sexually; but he wants to get married now so he can have a boy and have a good mother for him.

Cut for rape triggers.

The woman, meanwhile, is a repressed Virginian belle. She refuses to even consider sex before marriage, and finds herself incapable of even talking about sex, until she finally (you know, after a few days, given the speediness of the courtship) admits that her mother told her horror stories about abuse and that she is therefore petrified of sex. The man assures her that sex is much more fun than that and proceeds to tell her that he’ll never hold her down again after the first time – presumably because there’s no way to show her that sex doesn’t have to be scary or violent other than physically forcing her.

Life goes on, she does indeed enjoy sex, and the problems between them stem from his frequent absences and inability to settle down to life in Virginia along with his unwillingness to take her and their resulting children (she’s incredibly fertile) with him on his adventures. Eventually she comes very close to leaving him for a man who treats her with dignity and romance and love, but decides not to when the Explorer has a change of heart and comes home to invite her to live with him out in the fields of his adventures (you know, with two small children).

I loved the book as a child. I identified with the woman’s fear of sex, I liked the idea that it could be overcome – fairly easily it seemed; I had a bizarre love of loveless marriages or marriages of convenience turning into a romance after the wedding, and I had a rather close-minded delight in the fact that she “made the right choice” and stayed married to the Explorer.

Thinking back to the story now, I find myself horrified at the thought that, even in a romance novel, physical force was the only method a man could use to seduce a willing but frightened woman; that anyone could believe that physical force would allay any woman’s fears, rather than heighten them. There was even a chilling conversation that takes place later in the book, in which the woman asks the Explorer, “So, the reason you held me down so long, that first time, was because you enjoyed it?” The conversation is intended (as I remember it) to be a realization on her part that he has always loved and been attracted to her. But even this virgin (older now, as I am) knows more than that. A man who enjoys enacting sex through force, a man who thinks that the only way to convince a woman not to be afraid of him is to show the virgin what sex is about by force – that is most likely a man who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about her pleasure or well-being. That is a man who loves his own pleasure and likely enjoys preying on the fear of others.

Comments

  1. Izzy says

    Ooof.

    “Forced seduction,” and similar euphemistic rape-but-he-REALLY-CARES bullshit was an annoyingly common part of romance novels up until at least the nineties. (I started reading the damn things when I was 12, in 1995, and Johanna Lindsey was still doing it, for instance.) The genre has gotten a lot better since.

    That basic curing-sexual-fear-via-rape concept also appears in “Dragonquest,” which adds to the rampant Maddona/whore attitudes and the totally bizarro concept of homosexuality that make up my “shut the FUCK UP, Anne McCaffery,” pile.

  2. SunlessNick says

    I wish I could think of something more cogent to say than “What a good analysis” and “What a horrible book” but there you have it.

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