Update: For another perspective on this, using one YA book as an example, see Bookshop’s post Bad Romance (or YA and rape culture).

I’ve been noticing something disturbing with quite a few of the beautiful paranormal romances currently shimmering on bookstore shelves, and I’m not talking about the paranormal aspects. In too many of them, the controlling and violent behavior of the “bad boy” becomes fodder for a romantic fantasy where the sweet, innocent girl tames the dark and sexy beast.

By itself, instalove is a harmless dream pinned on the idea that destiny will send a girl her one true love. It becomes a problem, however, when the object of her affection—and often obsession— is dangerous, possibly evil, and wants to kill his paramour. The fantasy then becomes one of distorted reality, where bad behavior and actions don’t matter because everything ends up all happy sunshine with rainbows and kittens and true love raining down like magic sprinkles. When this message is repeated across shelves and tables of books strung through stores across the globe, it skews teen readers’ understanding of what really happens when a guy is violent and possessive. It’s not all sunshines and rainbows, that’s for sure. And it’s definitely not something to swoon over.

There are several (potentially damaging) message lurking within the pages:

  • I don’t mind that he was really mean to me at first, and mocked me in front of classmates at school, almost to the point of sexual assault. He was really into me but didn’t know how to express it, sort of like a boy pulling a girl’s pigtails. But he doesn’t do that anymore, so everything’s good now.
  • He wants to spend all his time with me. That’s why he keeps me from my friends and family. And I totally forgive him for messing with my car when he doesn’t want me going out with friends.
  • It’s okay if he follows me when I’m out with friends, and especially if other guys are there. If he’s jealous, it just means he loves me. And if he sends friends and relatives to shadow me, he’s making sure I stay safe.
  • It’s kinda cute that he breaks into my room at night to watch me sleep. He can’t stand to be apart from me.
  • Guys like to take the lead, so it’s fine that he sometimes ignores my wishes or interferes in my life without asking me. He’s just being a strong, supportive partner.
  • It’s sexy when he gets angry and pushes me up against the wall or bed and tells me how much he could hurt me if he wanted to.

The worst part? All of this is presented in a positive light and everything working out perfectly in the end. Everyone is happy. It doesn’t matter that these characters’ actions would never logically lead to these conclusions; the messages all but shout, this is what true love is like!

In real life, girls who fall in love with bad boys who want to kill them generally end up dead, not in love. A boyfriend who does stalkery stuff is a stalker, and starting down the path to becoming physically and/or emotionally abusive. No matter how much we wish

1 + 1 = forever 

there is nothing anyone can do to change reality. If a guy is violent, aggressive, and controlling with most people, but is loving, compassionate, romantic, and devoted to his girlfriend, it sends the incorrect and damaging message that

bad behavior + pretty words  = true love

As Emily at Feministing points out, “Instead of thinking that [the bad boy’s] actions are evil and abusive—which they are—teenage girls are being conditioned to think that [his] abusive behaviour is the ultimate way a boyfriend should treat his girlfriend.”

As adults, these stories might not seem that bad, but most aren’t targeted at grown women. While plenty of adults do read them (take that, Joel Stein!), we aren’t the intended audience. So what we have is a situation where grown women with a (relatively) firm grasp on what constitutes love and marriage (i.e. trying to maintain a semblance of romance while juggling carpool, toxic diapers, in-laws, and squabbling kids), are writing fanciful stories about exciting and dangerous romances with rough and dangerous men for teens who aren’t quite as savvy when it comes to the opposite sex.

So here’s the question: Do teen readers understand that these tumultuous relationships are pure fantasy? Don’t answer immediately with a defensive, “Yes! They’re/we’re not stupid.” Consider it for a moment. Do they have enough experience watching or participating in healthy relationships to know what constitutes an abusive one? Perhaps a more pointed question: If they do recognize when someone else is in an abusive relationship, how likely are they to apply that same set of reasoning to their own relationship? Will they know what to do about it?

The last thing I want to do is imply teen girls are too dumb or flighty or immature to understand. It’s not that at all. I still remember how completely naïve and idealistic I was as a teen. I wanted a boyfriend so bad, I could easily have fallen into a murky situation that would have been difficult to navigate out of on my own. I’m forever grateful that I never did. When I look back on my perceptions of love even just five years ago, I laugh nervously and try to forget about the various bullets I dodged. But that’s the thing. Those combined experiences help me see through the illusions that populate stories on love and dating.

Teens’ real-world experience with dating is so limited that idealized notions of romance can drown out the harsh realities they’d rather not face. So the conclusions about true love they draw from the actions of these literary “bad boys” can easily confuse their developing understanding of sex and love.

Think I’m overemphasizing how much of a problem this could be for teens? Take a look at the stats below from loveisrespect.org about the current state of violence in teen dating. It’s already a problem. Why make it worse?

The sad truth is that, if we aren’t careful, writers of young adult fiction can perpetuate unhealthy myths about romance and relationships for girls who don’t have the life experience necessary to sift reality from fiction. Is this really the message we want to send all the beautiful, smart, yet inexperienced teens who escape into our books?

Note: I focus on teen girls here, but sadly teen boys and those in same-sex relationships aren’t immune to abuse from a partner. However, the books I discuss are targeted at teen girls, so much of the above might not directly relate to them.