A tattooed hand rests on a shapely thigh. An amber candle flickers. Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” kicks in. And a smoky voice purrs, “Hello, darling.”
Welcome to BookTok, the TikTok subculture devoted to reviewing and advertising books, where romance novels reign supreme. More specifically: This is the shadowy, horny corner of BookTok where users post thirst traps for a growing sub genre of books known as “dark romance.”
Dark romance is a little like pornography: You know it when you read it. Still, there are usually three signs that you’re reading a dark romance. First, the male protagonist is typically an antihero or outright villain, like a mafia boss, a biker, or a billionaire who refuses to listen to “no.” Second, there’s often violence. And finally, the book tends to take a dim view of the law and morality. Sometimes, the darkest part of the plot may involve a forced marriage to a hitman who turns out to be a fairly normal guy, murderous profession aside. In other books, though, characters end up in relationships with stalkers, serial killers, and human traffickers, with varying degrees of sexual coercion and free will.
And even though we’re in the post-#MeToo era, the women who read dark romance—because its readers are largely women—adore it.
The dark romance community particularly thrives on Reddit, where commenters ask for recommendations for books with dynamics so destructive that just reading the requests may lead you to choke (and not in a fun way). “Dark romance books that are more focused on the toxicity and cruelty than the happy relationship?” one reader asked. Another wanted a recommendation for “a dark romance that's so dark and toxic that it's mentally concerning,” while someone else was looking for “dark romance where the [female main character] is being abused/sexually assaulted or self-harms.” Someone else simply asked, “Dark romance with realistic non-con?”
In dark romance speak, “non-con” is short for “non-consensual sex.” Since romances are, by definition, supposed to conclude with the characters living happily ever after together, this poster wanted to read a love story between a rapist and his victim.
“I think it's something deeply therapeutic about reading a book where a woman is going through really messed up things—being buried underground with tarantulas, having her fingers cut off—and you know that her life will be okay, you know her life will work out,” said Imogen, a dark romance lover who lives in the United Kingdom. Like several other people interviewed for this story, Imogen asked that her last name not be published. Many told VICE News that they feared being stigmatized for their reading tastes.
Women who read dark romance told VICE News that they found the blood-soaked, sex-crazed genre to be a cathartic escape from their real lives. Dark romance recognizes that life is difficult and dangerous, especially for women, who face discrimination every day and are more likely to be killed by their intimate partner than by anybody else. But it also reassures readers that there is still a way to survive, fall in love, and, of course, have toe-curling sex. And it lets them fantasize about wielding so much twisted power over a man that they will be safe forever—and no longer have to worry about the shackles of propriety.
Fangirl Jeanne, the nom de plume of a culture critic who’s written online about dark romance, pointed to the fable of “Beauty and the Beast” as a dark romance archetype. “What if the guy who I was sold to in marriage—and essentially owns me and is actually, literally a monster—actually is really, really hot? I like him and he's super sweet and he buys me books,” Fangirl Jeanne said. “We take the aggressor or the powerful intimidating figure, and we to some extent de-power them through their desire for us and then make that a power of our own.”
At the same time, dark romance can perpetuate deeply retrograde, repellent notions about gender, race, and power. The books often suggest that women aspire to be nothing more than the zookeepers of the monstrous men in their lives. Reading dark romance may be romanticizing our own oppression.
But Imogen, and readers like her, don’t feel that way. “No matter how messed up things get, there will be happy endings,” Imogen said.
Those fingers that get cut off? They grow back.
Romance has always accounted for a massive share of the publishing industry, but sales of the genre have exploded since the pandemic and its endless afterlife. In 2021, romance accounted for almost one-fifth of all sales of adult fiction, one industry research group found. Another organization found that, between 2021 and 2022, sales of print romance books spiked by 40 percent, more than any other genre. The organization credited the growth to BookTok.
It’s difficult to quantify dark romance’s success or growth, in part because it flourishes within the seething jungle that is Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s bizarro version of a library, where self-published authors can upload their books. (Traditional publishers probably want to steer clear of books that suggest the line between Stockholm syndrome and true love is so fine as to be nonexistent.) Like the rest of romance, the configurations of love in dark romance vary wildly; queer and polyamorous relationships are easy to find. Still, even in books with polyamory, heterosexual romances are more common.
Dark romance also overwhelmingly features white characters. (Romances that feature characters of color, meanwhile, get tagged as “urban.”) If the book stars a hero who’s involved in organized crime, for example, they’re typically Russian, Italian, Irish. It all reinforces the sense that it’s okay for some types of people—white people—to break the law.
“A white man can literally go as far as murder and we still think of him as an appealing romantic partner, but a Black guy just existing in the world next to you is scary,” Fangirl Jeanne said. “There’s a truth being revealed about what we think is possibly romantic and safe and what we don’t.”
Some books’ darkness stems from the perilous settings that the main characters find themselves navigating; here, the hero is not the heroine’s tormentor, but her savior. And not all dark romance involves non-con or “dub-con,” which roughly translates to “sex where the consent is dubious.”
“I hate this term of ‘dubious consent,’ because that is not a real thing that exists in the world,” said dark romance reader Jackie, who is in her mid-30s. “You either consent or you don’t.”
Often, though, dark romances have zero interest in redeeming their heroes or bleaching the toxicity out of their relationships. Sure, the mafia don who kidnapped the heroine may come to regret it and grovel at her feet. (Mafia kidnappings are so common in Dark Romancelandia that someone really needs to declare a national emergency.) But he’s also just as likely to shrug it off, because he desires her so much he’d do anything to keep her.
“Some books that I've read that I've particularly enjoyed have involved the idea of a woman being something that can be owned by a group of men. That comes down to them being able to decide everything about how that person lives their life,” said Devon, who is in her 30s and lives in the United States. “Something that's always been appealing to me, that is a common thread in these books, is that insane obsession. It's not like I want that in an unhealthy way, but to think somebody's world revolves solely around you in such an extreme way that they'll do anything to protect you, take care of you, and keep you safe—that, I feel like, is appealing to everybody.”
“Everybody” may be a stretch, but more people than you may imagine are turned on by the thought of being treated like a possession that doesn’t or can’t consent. More than 60 percent of women harbor some form of rape fantasy, according to a 2012 study of more than 350 female undergraduates. (Romance is for everybody who wants to read it, but within the romance community, there is an understanding that the authors and the audience are generally women.)
To be clear: Having rape fantasies does not mean you want to be raped. Instead, reading a dark romance that eroticizes force can be a kind of literary “consensual non-consent,” where partners mutually agree to role-play a scene where one person forces another into some kind of activity (with guardrails such as safe words and clear limits). While the characters on the page may not consent, the reader consents in their stead—especially because the reader likely knows what’s coming, since it’s standard for dark romance writers to put detailed trigger warnings at the beginning of their books.
Unlike in other kinds of books, those trigger warnings can sound as much like an advertisement as a caution.
The romance genre writ large has long grasped the ubiquity of rape fantasies, and dabbled in the kind of dynamic that would now be shelved under “dark romance.” In 1972, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s bestselling The Flame and the Flower set the publishing world alight when it became the first so-called “bodice ripper.” Its central romance kicks off with a scene where the hero rapes the heroine.
“It’s called ‘rape’ on page,” said Andrea Martucci, host of the podcast Shelf Love, which discusses romance novels and their place in culture. “It’s not that people in 1972 didn’t know what rape was, but the cultural conditions of even the business of publishing were different, like what was considered kind of marketable, ways you could have sex on page that were considered like acceptable or proper.”
“They understood it to be rape,” Martucci continued. “But it was dealing with something that the readers were grappling with, and obviously it resonated with people, given its sales.”
By 1987, one study of romances set in the past found that more than half of the surveyed novels featured a scene where the female protagonist is raped.
Sometimes, after reading a dark romance, Szodyraa Smith finds herself unsure of whether a character consented to sex. “If it’s straight-up sexual assault, then I have an issue if the author is romanticizing it,” said Smith, who is in her early 20s. She worries about the message those scenes may send to male readers, in particular.
“Like, ‘Okay, if I sexually assault this girl, maybe she did want it, or maybe we still have the potential to be together, or maybe there’s something I can do to make the girl fall in love with me,’” Smith said. “It’s really important for the author to really understand the implications of writing scenes like this, and I think they have to do it very carefully.”
Take the Reddit commenter who wanted to read “realistic non-con.” They wanted such a book because, they wrote in their post, “I find that a lot of dark romance that features non-con sexualizes it too much and tries to make it kinky. They gloss over the consequences of non-con.”
“I want them to be traumatized and actually scared after what had happened to them,” they added.
Romance novels, Fangirl Jeanne said, don’t just bubble up from a vacuum. Instead, they’re in conversation with mainstream media and social attitudes.
“Those are the romantic heroes that we’re presented with—the men in mainstream media,” she said. “It’s hard to have a conversation about dark romance without talking about the rise in popularity of antiheroes or outright villainous characters as protagonists in stories, be it talking about Dexter. Before that, The Sopranos. Before that, Sons of Anarchy. Almost every subgenre of dark romance, you can go look at it, and go work backwards to figure out what piece of media probably inspired it.”
By virtue of even dubbing its romance “dark,” a book acknowledges that its central relationship might be less than healthy—unlike, say, in Twilight, when Edward Cullen’s obsession with Bella Swan (and his barely-contained thirst to rip her throat out) is enshrined as the pinnacle of love. The romance it inspired, 50 Shades of Grey, isn’t much better: It insists that Christian Grey’s total inability to respect Anastasia Steele’s boundaries is proof of his love. As the internet joke goes, if Christian Grey weren’t a billionaire, would he still be considered hot? Or would he just be abusive?
“Violence against women in media is so inescapable. It's just everywhere we look. It's completely normalized. And if we speak out against or in any way, it’s seen as, ‘Well, art is art, and also you’re an angry feminist,’” said Imogen, who is in her 20s.
As a teenager, Imogen walked into her living room and found her parents watching a TV show about a serial killer who murders women. “I go into the room, and there’s just a woman being brutally raped on the screen,” she recalled. Imogen was stunned. The fictional woman had been given next to no personality. Her entire purpose was to be raped and murdered.
“There’s something about deliberately reading books of darker things, that I’m consenting to reading, knowing what’s going to happen and knowing the woman’s life is going to work out, is 100 percent claiming back power, because I’m rewriting a narrative,” Imogen said. “I’m choosing to enter into that narrative and I’m knowing how it ends.”
There are some limits to what Amazon will tolerate in the fiction that gets published on its platform. It won’t sell content that “glorifies rape or pedophilia” or “other material we deem inappropriate or offensive,” according to its content guidelines for books. But you can still find dark romances like Comfort Food, which follows a woman who gets kidnapped by a man who conditions her into becoming his sex slave. He releases her, but she returns and agrees to become his sex slave for the rest of her life—however long that may be, since she recognizes their relationship is probably too malignant for her to survive it.
Comfort Food’s author, Kitty Thomas, has claimed that the book, published in 2010, may just be the very first dark romance. Thomas told VICE News that, in the years since Comfort Food’s publishing, women have reached out to share how the book impacted them.
“They found ways to reframe their experiences and to stop blaming themselves for things that happened to them that weren't their fault,” said Thomas, who declined to speak on the phone and instead talked to VICE News through direct messages on Twitter. Thomas added, “The more women see other women reading books like this, the more they feel permission to deal with their own fears and fantasies, which are sometimes next-door neighbors, even if they are very, very different things in reality.”
Thomas isn’t sure if the ending of Comfort Food is a happy one. “To me, the most important part is that they are ‘in this’ together,’” Thomas said. “The rest of society falls away and doesn't matter. It's a very intimate situation, for better or worse.” (It’s for worse. Again, the main character becomes a sex slave with a death wish.)
The endings of dark romances can challenge what it means to live “happily ever after”—but only to a certain extent. Because they always end with the two main characters getting together, regardless of whether there’s been any attempt at redemption, dark romances can regurgitate the extremely conventional and extremely damaging belief that even a deeply unequal relationship is better than ending up alone. Ladies, he may be an unhinged stalker who murdered all of your other potential suitors, but hey, at least you’re not single!
“That has been a coping mechanism of living under patriarchy, is finding the most powerful man—who’s usually white, rich, older and probably a terrible person—and stick with him, because ideally his privilege will trickle down upon you. That’s a lot of what these fantasies are,” Fangirl Jeanne said. “The power dynamics of these relationships are always going to be imbalanced. In some ways, I feel like these relationships and these stories are actually more honest about the insurmountable privilege of a man, especially if he’s rich, and the lack of power a woman has.”
This fantasy is found across all kinds of romance, although it tends to be less terrifying outside of dark romance. When the impoverished heroine marries the duke in a historical romance, she doesn’t devote herself to redistributing his wealth and dismantling the unfair societal structures that once deemed her “less” than her lover. Instead, she just becomes the duchess, complete with unlimited money and orgasms.
Dark romance, then, might be saying the quiet part out loud. And maybe, readers say, it’s refreshing to declare that you simply don’t care about being politically correct when you’re reading for fun.
“I consider myself very feminist, just for the record. Very much so,” said Lillian, who lives in the United States and is in her 20s. She paused. “I hate reading about feminist heroines.”
Dark romance readers like to stress that they have no interest in living out the kind of dynamics they like to read about. For Devon, dark romance is a safe way to explore her fantasies. In reality, she says, she’s a fairly dominant person, with a firm grasp of what she wants and how she wants it. “My partner in real life is the ultimate pacifist, sweet person, and I am always reading books about these aggressive, obsessive, antihero men,” Devon said. “It's like the complete dual opposite.”
She wants more people to explore the moral ambiguity of dark romance.
“Everyone has an opinion these days, and everybody wants to control the narrative of what people should be thinking about and should be enjoying. People love to draw the moral line,” Devon said. “I just think everybody should read a little dark romance and see where they find themselves on that spectrum.”
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