Reverse Harems, love triangles and the forbidden glory of wish-fulfillment

In February 2017, popular YA authors Jaymin Eve and Jane Washington teamed up for Trickery, the first in their Curse of the Gods series. The story of rebellious peasant – “dweller” – Willa Knight and her attachment (and attraction) to five gloriously vicious-but-protective superpowered aristocrats – “sols” – the book is compulsively addictive, as are its sequels Persuasion and Seduction (with two remaining installments in the series expected later this year). Yes, there are FIVE heroes of these books, with one heroine, and they all love/hate/lust after/obsessively stalk/protect her.

Curse of the Gods is a Reverse Harem series.

The term “reverse harem” evokes misnomers like “reverse racism” and “reverse sexism” – it’s just racism and sexism, you guys. (Though often, it isn’t.) And so, too, are these just harems, sometimes literally, but mostly it’s more that the gentlemen in question – at least three of them, usually more – solely focus all their care on our heroine, and only on our heroine, at all times.

Many attribute the genre’s birth to Japanese manga and its resultant anime. 2000’s Wallflower gives us a Pygmalion-style jaunt, in which a coterie of stylish young gentlemen attempt to make a sophisticate out of a wealthy, awkward geek while separately coming to care for her; and perhaps the most prominent exponent of the genre, Ouran Highschool Host Club, gives us scholarship student Haruhi as the only girl allowed in the elite society run by six wealthy male students, who come to adore her madly. But while there are echoes of this booming subgenre (sub-subgenre?) to be found in these venerable examples, there is actually a far easier and closer-to-home explanation for it all.

Love triangles.

Reverse Harems give us a world in which Bella doesn’t have to choose between Edward and Jacob. She can have them both (and also Mike and Tyler and Eric and all the unattached werewolves) and they’re cool with it – well, mostly cool with it – and she remains the center of all her men’s worlds, never having to pick, or share. It’s the natural evolution of those whose team was unhonored by canon, and so longed for a different way, a better way.

A ménage-y way.

Now, ménage à trois in romantic fiction isn’t new, of course, but a reverse harem turns the volume up to eleven. It’s not two lovers – Jules et Jim, or Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal in Y tu mamá también, or the complicated head- and bed games of Josh Charles, Stephen Baldwin and Lara Flynn Boyle in 1994’s Threesome. It’s many lovers, devotees, and sometimes even slaves, all with one woman as their center and raison d’être.

Polyamory is hardly new either; not only is it slowly gaining a foothold in the mainstream, but it has been a mainstay of paranormal and science fictional universes for decades, from Stranger in a Strange Land to Anita Blake’s many orgiastic bedroom cross-species adventures to David Weber’s kickass Honor Harrington, who joins a marriage already in progress.

But Reverse Harems aren’t about group sex, Anita Blake-style—at least, not usually—nor is it about sharing, really, anything with another woman. These are stories with the sole focus being on a heroine who thinks of herself as perfectly ordinary, or even substandard, but who is brought to realize her own specialness in the eyes of this fearless, fabulous band of very different but fiercely attractive men who adore her to distraction. The men may be friends (or brothers), or at the very least develop a grudging mutual respect for one another through their shared interest in her. Honor among co-lovers is a big theme. They may be jealous, possessive, mad with passion, but they will always put their center’s desires and needs above their own.

It’s easy to see the appeal.

A & E Kirk’s 2012 YA novel Demons at Deadnight, the first in their Divinicus Nex Chronicles, gives us the Hex Boys, and their Aurora. It’s not technically a Reverse Harem series – there’s a love triangle that is quite familiar, but there are also six sturdy protectors of our heroine, and so far few females to divert their attention from their (eventual) queen. (The long-awaited Book 4 doesn’t currently have a release date – the last one came out in 2015 – so who know when we’ll see that story play out, if at all.; it may become a Reverse Harem yet.) But the Hex Boys certainly work as a template for what was to, er, come.

The last couple of years have seen a meteoric rise in the incidence of this genre’s entries, from the YA Fantasy delights of Academy of Assassins by Stacey Brutger, to the demon-infused supernatural anti-hero drama of Lexi Blake’s Thieves series, to C. L. Stone’s 9-book The Ghost Bird series. More than fifty titles identify as “Reverse Harem” releases in April, 2018 alone, most are self-published and many hasten to make it clear that this is what you’re in for. From Tempted by Demons: A Reverse Harem Paranormal by Lidiya Foxglove to Snow Cure: A Reverse Harem Contemporary Romance by L.A. Boruff to Ride Me, Cowboys: A Reverse Harem Forbidden Romance by Alexa B. James (there are quite a few Westerns – cowboys love to share, it seems) and so many more besides, the craze is in full swing, and shows no signs of slowing down.

Reverse Harems give us love triangles (or quadrangles, or pent- hex- hept- and even octagons), with the added zing of the forbidden and taboo.

Speaking with USA Today’s Happy Ever After blog, Curse of the Gods’ Jaymin Eve explains the genre’s appeal:

“I think readers enjoy this genre so much because we have one female surrounded by a group of men who adore, cherish, protect, support and love her. She is never alone or lonely. Each of the men offer her something different, fulfilling her. There is always someone there to step up and help. She also has emotional bonds to each of them, and they all need her in different ways. It’s pure fantasy, because none of the men kill each other for kissing their girl.”

Reverse Harem author C.M. Stunich (The Academy of Spirits and Shadows series) goes further:

“As both an author and a reader, I enjoy the reverse-harem genre because the complexity of the relationships between the characters is unparalleled. There are so many fun and interesting emotions to explore as a writer — jealousy, love, compassion, respect, lust — and in this genre, there are new and innovative ways to capture the human psyche and the intricacies of the heart that’ve never been done before. Not to mention all the sinful and steamy ways these characters can get together in the bedroom!

“Personally, I also enjoy seeing strong female characters who take control of their lives, their sexuality and their men! It’s a great platform for readers to dive into a fantasy that’s rarely seen in the real world, a place where they can be worshipped, protected, loved and cherished by more than one adoring and sexy soul mate.”

Reverse Harem author Nhys Glover (The Airluds Trilogy) goes even further:

“Men have had their harem fantasies forever. I think women have finally given themselves permission to entertain such fantasies, too. But unlike the male fantasy, a woman’s fantasy isn’t so much about sex as it is about romance. It’s the idea of being loved and cherished by more than one man, and protected and supported, too. The steamier end of the market covers the hot sex that’s possible, but it’s not necessary. There are a lot of YA reverse-harem books that contain no sex. In a way it’s like taking popularity to the next level.”

So Stephanie doesn’t need to decide between Morelli and Ranger. Katniss can settle down with Peeta and Gale (and also Haymitch). Hermione is married to all of the Weasleys, Buffy needn’t choose between Angel and Spike (Xander and Riley are in the mix here, too; also Oz, maybe) and Claire brings husband Frank into the past so they can shack up with Jamie and Black Jack. It’s the Mary Sue-est of fanfics (indeed, many of these stories began in the world of fanfic and saw serialization on Wattpad and similar authorial training grounds), these beautiful, perfect, manliest of men all utterly fixated on one, often otherwise unremarkable, woman. Wish-fulfillment doesn’t get more blatant—or more thoroughly understandable.

Oh, to be the cynosure of so many hypnotic eyes.

After all, as the hashtag most associated with this genre reads, in this brave new world in which gender roles are being turned on their heads, in which traditional relationships are constantly being re-examined, in which female empowerment is increasingly taken for granted, and in which each individual’s sexuality is acknowledged, awakened and often in flux: #whychoose?

– Rachel Hyland


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