Abuse Isn’t Sexy: the Romanticisation of Domestic Violence in Literature

CW: The following piece makes mention of sexual assault, sexual harassment and domestic violence.

Art by Navita Wijeratne

Spoilers for After by Anna Todd and It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover.

As a young reader, I am constantly irked by the publication of novels promoting abuse. Especially when those novels are marketed as romances and published within the young adult genre. These books lead to a skewed and inaccurate representation of healthy relationships for impressionable young girls. Despite the devastating impact that this foreseeably has, publishers and authors disregard it for money; where it is more economically desirable to publish a trashy romance with sub-par sex scenes and dramatic conflict, than one that truly explores the innate complexities of young love. 

Anna Todd’s After is a prime depiction of the romanticisation of emotional abuse

Putting aside the fact that it’s horrible writing makes it a crime against literature, After is riddled with toxic, emotionally abusive characters. The male protagonist, Hardin Scott, is a typical ‘bad boy.’ Yet, the female protagonist, Tessa, convinces herself that she can be the one to change him. 

Hardin is emotionally absent. He has constant mood swings, lashes out, gets into fights, and throws temper tantrums. He has the emotional maturity of a five-year-old. The entirety of the novel is a never-ending cycle of Tessa and Hardin fighting and reconciling. It was exhausting to read.

Tessa isn’t some wonderful, doe-eyed, innocent girl either. Ignoring the fact that she is rude, judgemental, jealous, and constantly slut-shames other women, Tessa, multiple times throughout the novel, considers slapping Hardin when he annoys her. 

This is not acceptable behaviour. 

Their relationship reaches a new height of toxicity at the end of the novel when it is revealed that Hardin made a bet with his friends that he could take Tessa’s virginity. He even keeps the soiled bed sheets and the used condom as proof. This brings us into the murky realm of consent and coercion and just leaves you feeling disgusted.

And while some might argue that Tessa and Hardin actually break up at the end of After, or how Todd framed it in this Refinery 29 article, Hardin’s “not supposed to be a good example for a boyfriend”, Hardin and Tessa do end up together in subsequent books. Now, admittedly, I have not read the rest of the book series. In fact, I refuse to because frankly After is the worst book that I have ever read. But, from research that I have conducted and from the movies (yes, there are movies made of this garbage story), Hardin does not change.

Millions of young girls have read these books and watched the movies and a vast amount of them would genuinely want to be in a relationship with Hardin. Why? Because he’s hot. 

This is evidenced by reader reviews obtained from Goodreads:

“Hardin…is everything I look for in a guy. Tough exterior but a gentle side for the girl he loves. The way he cares about Tessa like she’s the centre of his universe had me weeping like a child. Add on the English accent just gets you swooning!”

“Hardin was a manipulative (but sexy) character…I loved him.”

The fact of the matter is that emotional abuse is easily excusable because the scars are not visible. Sadly, physical abuse within literature is often forgiven by readers as well, as proven by Colleen Hoover’s, It Ends with Us.

This novel is marketed as a romance. The blurb is misleading, as it alludes to a love triangle and promises “an unforgettable tale of love that comes at the ultimate price.” However, it is apparent once having read the novel that Hoover was attempting to demonstrate the intergenerational effect of domestic violence. This calls into question marketing tactics. Why must a story on domestic violence be advertised as a romance? Because romance sells, or do publishers truly believe this is a love story? 

And what I find even more concerning is that on TikTok, comments upon comments can be found of young girls hoping that the protagonist had ended up with her abuser. 

“i really wanted lily and ryle together I don’t know if I’m wrong but I felt so bad for ryle at the end” 

“he was never a bad person” 

“I’m sorry but I love Ryle”

As a user quite succinctly summed up on Goodreads: “This isn’t a romance but half of booktok are not ready for that conversation.”

In It Ends with Us, the male antagonist, Ryle (what is it with abusive men and shitty names?), physically assaults the female protagonist, Lily, on three distinct occasions.

He shoves her with such force that she gets a black eye. He then proceeds to lie about the cause of Lily’s injury to his sister, claiming that she slipped. The second time, he pushes Lily down the stairs. When confronted by that fact, he attempts to gaslight her and says, “you fell.” This time, Lily doesn’t immediately excuse his behaviour. Their relationship finally dismantles after a third occasion where Ryle attempts to rape her. I must add that there is some uncertainty in this “attempted rape” claim. Lily insists that he didn’t proceed with the rape and refuses to take a rape test when taken to the hospital, yet the novel is written from her perspective, and during the incident, the reader witnesses her losing consciousness (due to her injuries) whilst Ryle kisses her. When she awakens, she notes that “he’s no longer fully on top of me.” This opens the possibility that Ryle went through with the rape. 

Ryle also emotionally manipulates Lily. Immediately after the first incident, he declares his love for Lily for the first time. After the second incident, he reveals a traumatic tragedy from his childhood, where he accidentally killed his brother with a gun. This convinces Lily to stay in the relationship and they come up with an obviously flawed solution to his anger issues: “when you’re upset, just walk away. And I’ll walk away.” 

Ryle’s childhood trauma plays a big role in the justification that some readers have for his behaviour. This mindset is alarming. Trauma may explain why an individual behaves in a certain manner, but we can in no way use it to excuse the immeasurable pain and suffering of domestic violence victims.

Ryle says quite glaringly in the first chapter of the novel, “there is no such thing as bad people. We’re all just people who sometimes do bad things.” I don’t necessarily agree with this. We all have autonomy over our actions, and if someone consciously and constantly chooses to commit wrongs like Ryle’s, they are a bad person. 

Moreover, after leaving Ryle following the third incident, Lily asserts that “sometimes the reason women go back [to abusive partners] is simply because they’re in love”. I find that comment deranged. Domestic violence is so much more complicated. It comprises physical violence, emotional abuse, coercive control, financial abuse, isolation, manipulation, and more. Often, victims are left completely reliant on their abuser, making it impossible for them to leave. Of course, every victim’s experience is different, but to have such a flimsy explanation for returning to an abusive relationship is a damaging message. 

Overall, sympathy towards Ryle is unwarranted. The only consequence he suffers is the breakdown of his relationship with Lily. He is still able to see his daughter, as it is quite trivially insinuated that he would never hurt her. He also does not endure any legal ramifications or professional setbacks for his undoubtedly criminal behaviour. 

But as evidenced by the pity some had for him, if you are a handsome, charismatic male character in fiction, you can get away with anything. Though I must add, this only really applies to white men. The same flexibility is not provided to men of other races, who are more easily dismissed into the “toxic” category due to racially insensitive stereotypes. 

Therefore, through the publication of such “romances,” girls are taught that this behaviour is a demonstration of a healthy, happy relationship that should be sought out.

I believe that authors and publishing houses have the moral obligation to ensure that the content within published works is not harmful to young people, especially young girls, whose perceptions of reality and romance may be warped into something resembling abuse.

There is nothing wrong with writing a novel for the purpose of intentionally demonstrating an abusive relationship and the horrific effects that it can have, as Hoover has attempted to do. But writing a book and painting a relationship as romantic when it is in fact abusive, and then putting it up on a pedestal as a happily ever after, as something that men and women alike should aspire for – that is dangerous.

I can only hope that with the social change around women’s rights, rape culture, and domestic violence in recent years, the publishing industry will consider the lifelong impact of vituperative romances on young girls, and place that over the profit margins brought about by cringy sex scenes. 

My only advice to fellow readers is to always be wary. So, if you happen to meet a brooding British 19-year-old boy who throws tantrums like a toddler, run far, far away.