Bad boys and girls in pop culture tend to be portrayed as very sexy, that dangerous edge making them oh-so-appealing. But as anyone who's had to recover from a relationship with a bad boy/girl knows, being with someone who's physically abusive, manipulative, a pathological liar, or an emotional abuser--or any combination of these things--is no laughing matter. An unhealthy relationship can destroy a person's sense of self and have lasting effects on their mental and physical health. It can leave devastating scars that may require years of therapy to overcome. And the effects reach beyond the two people who form the couple. Dating violence can also destroy the victim's relationship with family and friends, leaving the victim isolated and loved ones to deal with the emotional impact of the loss of that relationship.
Now, I'm not saying that every fictional relationship has to be squeaky clean for me to approve. I also happen to be a very big fan of redemption stories, as I like to think it's possible for people to change and own up to the bad things they've done in the past, manifesting a sincere desire to do better and be better. However, if I'm reading a book or watching a movie or TV show, and the supposedly highly desirable love interest insults their dating partner, belittles them, or treats them horribly, it will turn me off instantly. And it goes without saying that if either partner is physically abusive toward the other, that's unacceptable. While I don't want to downplay the impact of physical abuse, I feel like emotional abuse is a much more hidden topic, one people often tend to dismiss as not being all that serious. Yes, we all do and say nasty things in the heat of the moment, but there's a difference between a few careless words and a long campaign of emotional abuse.
My most problematic love interest character is Lysander/Edward, the beast in The Eye of the Beholder. He's a redemption character, and I didn't want to soften his bad side. I wanted him to be a terrible person who slowly realizes how terrible he is and honestly repents of it. I'll come right out and admit I had trouble with writing him at times, particularly when I started to delve into the romantic side of his relationship with Mira. I was walking a tightrope, and I only hope I did it with at least some success.
Aside from him, my other love interest characters are of the nice guy variety, and one of the things that disturbs me most is when people think nice characters are unrealistic. I think that says a lot about our culture, that so many people honestly believe niceness is a rare and exotic quality. I personally reject this view because I happen to be married to a man who's a lot like some of the characters in my books. He respects me, he is my partner and treats me like one, and he's an active participant in my home life who does dishes, folds laundry, and spends time with the kids. Sure, we disagree and even fight sometimes, but we fight fair. He's been my biggest cheerleader almost since the day he came into my life, and it's really because of him that I took the leap and published my books, because he believes so strongly in me and wanted to see me follow my dreams. That is what a relationship should look like.
I feel strongly about this issue because of statistics like these, from loveisrespect.org:
- "One in three adolescents in the U.S. is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner, a figure that far exceeds rates of other types of youth violence."
- "One quarter of high school girls have been victims of physical or sexual abuse."
And this from the World Health Organization:
- "Recent global prevalence figures indicate that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime."
And this from LAMBDA:
- "The rates of domestic violence in same-gender relationships is roughly the same as domestic violence against heterosexual women (25%). As in opposite-gendered couples, the problem is likely underreported."
When popular culture portrays relationship violence as being sexy and desirable, it contributes to the noramlization of dating violence. No one should think that if their boyfriend is a habitual jerk, that's okay, as long as he pretends to be sorry. No one should believe that the woman of their dreams will walk all over them and treat them like an object, and that they should repress their hurt and their insecurities from her because she can't be bothered with them. That's not what real love looks like, and society does no one any service by pretending that it does look that way. Love is complicated and difficult, but at its heart a real, healthy, loving relationship means being in a partnership with someone who brings out the best in us, who listens to our hopes, fears, and dreams. Someone who offers an encouraging word and a shoulder to cry on, someone who doesn't hit below the belt because, at all times, he or she holds our feelings sacred.
So it probably goes without saying that there will be no sexy bad boys or girls in my books, unless I'm using them to illustrate a point, as I have in Starstruck. There will be flawed characters who do bad things and inflict pain on one another, but they will own up to that and grow as people--or they won't, which will clearly illustrate their villainy.
My hope is that more people will discuss topics like these until those statistics I quoted above shrink and shrink until they almost disappear.