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The “Spicy” Side of BookTok: What is the Dark Romance Genre About?

Meet BookTok’s thirstier cousin. (Trigger Warning for discussion of rape and abuse).

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What do you call a hot man who hits you and threatens to skin anybody who dares to touch you? What about a billionaire who mistreats you but keeps running back? According to dark romance fans, he’d be your husband.

The dark romance genre has reached a new audience through the book side of TikTok, known as BookTok. Think along the lines of ’50 Shades of Grey’ or ‘365 Days’ but significantly more morally questionable. Slideshows detailing various scenarios of toxic male behavior framed in a sexy light are commonplace, and commenters swoon or fantasize about receiving this treatment. However, with its romanticization of dark subjects like abuse and rape, is this genre detrimental to women?

Dark Romance and its Fanbase

Dark romance, as the name suggests, is a romantic fiction genre characterized by its explorations of ‘dark’ themes. These can include murder, abuse, stalking, or sexual assault. Stories might involve an arranged marriage to a brooding mafia husband who refuses to take “no” for an answer or a bad-boy biker who is quick to violence.

Dark romance fans tend to be young women. Many see it as a way to explore taboo fantasies or escape their dull reality. As with many communities, TikTok has provided a place to share recommendations and preferences. A thriving “spicy” subsection of BookTok features scenarios of striking, muscular men claiming their territory, their territory being whichever poor woman finds herself at his mercy.

The extremity and darkness of the desired fiction can vary. Some prefer tamer situations and happy endings. Others go all out on the abuse and ‘non-con’ (a shortened version of ‘non-consensual,’ meaning rape).

Popular titles on BookTok include ‘Haunting Adeline’ by H.D Carlton, which follows a man who stalks the titular character. This is made even more reprehensible because the male main character runs an organization that frees women from sex trafficking, yet he rapes the main female character. Readers cannot seem to get enough of this “tortured,” mysterious stalker with a savior complex.

These books do not just exist in the dark corners of the internet. Some go on to become international best-sellers. Even popular author, Colleen Hoover’s books feature dark romance elements. Although not technically considered a dark romance, her hit novel ‘It Ends With Us,’ does fulfill specific criteria. Its treatment of abusive relationships has garnered criticism for being too romanticized and flippant, not genuinely delving into the implications of such a bond.

What are the real-life implications?

Divorcing fiction from reality is crucial if you wish to delve into the dark romance genre. Regardless, how long will it be until these seep into real views? Older readers may find it easier to separate fiction from reality. On the other hand, romanticized depictions of abuse in literature may begin to influence girls in their formative years, altering their views on what is acceptable in romantic relationships.

Seeing commenters openly ask for darker scenarios, or swooning over sexual assault at the hands of a conventionally attractive man, may give the impression that this behavior is romantic. Thinking critically about this behavior is important; the response may differ if readers expect a book more akin to a psychological thriller than a romance. However, the discussions around these books encourage and glorify abusive behavior, presenting it as desirable. Young women may believe they want this kind of relationship in real life.

This is not to say that darker themes are off-limits in literature. Taking a puritanical and moral stance on these topics effectively suppresses freedom of speech, which is not what I am advocating for. The issue lies within the framing and discussion of these topics. Instead of seeking books with the “spiciest” or darkest themes, taking a more psychological approach may help. Viewing these women as victims of abusive men may aid in removing the rose-tinted lens of romance.

It is not unreasonable to assume that dark romance will grow in popularity. Discussions around literature tend to take a moralistic approach, examining whether the themes are ‘just’ instead of artistically valuable. Embracing the taboo tends to occur in such circumstances. The key lies in critically examining the literature and condemning real-life abuse.

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English literature student! When I'm not online, I like reading, sewing, and making daisy chains.

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