Fleeting Frustrations #4: What’s the Deal With Reverse Harem Romances?

fleeting frustrations 4

There are only about three thousand books that come up when I search for “reverse harem” so let me start out by letting y’all know that I do get that it’s a small part of the overall genre and makes up a teeny tiny percentage of the books published.

But the point of my Fleeting Frustrations pieces is to air a grievance, and on this site: no grievance is too small, too petty, or too focused on a niche within a specific genre for me to air it like laundry on a line.

Let’s begin.

My first bone to pick with the reverse harem subgenre of romance lies in the name itself.

First things first, it’s not a “reverse harem” just because a cis woman has four dudes that only care about satisfying her. It’s unevenly balanced polyamory that focuses on a single female character and usually gets predictably weird about queer dudes.

The center of the relationship is always the cis female main character and while that’s fine, the dudes orbit her like a satellite and queerness is either quickly excised as a potential for their relationship or treated like an uncomfortable joke that reminds us all that in heteronormative societies, queerness is bad but funny at the same time.

It’s polyandry if you want to get technical about it, but just plain (imperfect) polyamory.

It’s not a “reverse” anything.

And if we’re going to be honest: the harem genre in romance pulls from the harem romance in Japanese manga but also, the idea of ~the harem~ comes from orientalist fantasies about the ~Middle East~ that were popularized around the Victorian Era that built eroticism atop the harem in a super exotifying and definitely racist way.

So a) this subgenre needs a name change, and b) this is all Queen Victoria’s fault.

Obviously.

Another bone that I have to pick with this genre?

A huge majority of the stories I’ve come across aren’t queer.

Not only that, the potential for queerness amongst the dudes in the group is sliced down to nothing because the men tend to either be related (biological, step-, or adopted brothers) or they’re friends close enough to be brothers and who could never (ever) see each other in a romantic or sexual light.

The polyandry romances are always super focused on the cis and straight female character and like, I get that the fantasy there involves being subject to three (or more) babely dudes’ attention in and out of the bedroom, but like –

So many of these books go out of their way to drop a big, stinking “no homo” on the reader, that it’s an immediate “Do Not Finish” for me.

It’s not just the relative romances that don’t shy away from stepbrothers falling in love with their stepsister, but need to make sure that every single dude that falls for her is related to each other specifically so that they don’t have the dreaded dudesex, but that these authors make sure that they know that this one taboo – which shouldn’t even be considered a taboo in general, much less when compared to the pseudo- and actual incest that I’ve found way too much of in the subgenre – isn’t happening.

Outside of the M/M side of the romance genre – which is so disconnected from a majority of M/F romance that some authors that write in both realms do have different pen names – it’s hard to find queer polyamory tucked under the umbrella of what the genre insists on calling “reverse harem” romances.

What would be great, would be work that keeps the “female focused” aspect of the so called “reverse harem” romances, but also lets the dudes surrounding her have romantic or sexual relationships with each other that aren’t infected with toxic masculinity and a need to distance themselves from queerness.

It just feels so unevenly weighted to read a book about four or more people in a what’s basically a closed polyamorous relationship and they don’t really… interact with each other. Again, I get that the goal of the subgenre is to center (cis) women’s sexuality and have them feeling desired as part of a fantasy where attentive (cis) male lovers dote on her and manage to fulfill her every need, but the fact of the subgenre is that it’s unfair and uneven.

Take the Anita Blake series.

At this point, I’m actually surprised that I haven’t seen it listed more when folks ask for recommendations for reverse harem romances because at this point in the series’ twenty-five-year long run… that’s what Hamilton is writing. The relatively complex police procedural plots of earlier books constantly winds up being pushed into the background to focus on Anita’s relationship dramas where she’s at the center of a web and all of these different vampires and shapeshifters orbit her and try to meet her needs.

In Danse Macabre (Anita Blake #14) a recurring comment as Jean Claude and the others try to find “food” for Anita to add to her bed to feed the ardeur is that she’s not Cinderella, but rather the very (un)charming prince that everyone is trying to get their hands on.

(“You cannot play Cinderella if all the princes will want you.”

“I’m not Cinderella,” I said, “I’m the prince.”)

It’s only relatively recently that the various members of Anita’s lopsided polycule have been able to be in relationships with one another or outsiders to the group and even then, that’s come with complications.

In an earlier book, one before the vampire Asher became an official member of the party and got to be with Anita, Anita literally espoused a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about Asher and Jean-Claude’s relationship, one that predated her by like three hundred years and was surprised at the fact that not only were the two vampires not sleeping together behind her back, but that part of why they haven’t fallen into bed with one another is because they’re afraid Anita will cut them both out of her life. (And Anita, when the subject is brought up, doesn’t assuage their fears that she, as the person with power in the relationship, would have punished them for intimacy without her/would allow intimacy without her now.)

There are characters in Anita’s polycule like Nathaniel Graison that prefer to be intimate with men or desire specific intimacies from their male lovers they’re not getting and characters like the black tiger shifter Jade who would prefer to only have intimacy with female characters.

These characters don’t dare to look outside of the polycule for what they want or need and, it’s implied, would be cut out of Anita’s life if they dared ask for or desire more. (Like Jade is literally dumped for not wanting the six-in-a-bed orgy lifestyle Anita prefers even though she’s a survivor of sexual assault and suffers from PTSD related to it that makes it impossible to be intimate with a dude without feeling triggered and having a panic attack.)

Other characters in the polycule that have been punished – primarily with the loss of their relationships outside of what they share with Anita – include the vampire Damian, one third of Anita’s other triumvirate. Damian’s long-term girlfriend and fellow vampire Cardinale goes off on him in Crimson Death (Anita Blake #25) and accuses him of a bunch of stuff – including cheating, despite the fact that his relationship with Anita predates theirs – and then leaves him.

Even other primary partners in the polycule – like Jean-Claude or Richard – have to negotiate for ages to find lovers that “work” with the relationship, but Anita literally can yank in any shifter or vampire that she (or the ardeur or any one of her multiple metaphysical beasts) needs into her bed and form a lifelong bond between them where she gets all of the power and they can’t complain.

The Anita Blake series constantly tries to present the polyamorous relationship that exists between Anita and her polycule as healthy, full of reasonable discussions, and whatnot. But it’s really not.

Sadly, the polyamory in that series is just like the worst offerings of the “harem” subgenre as a whole because at the end of the day, the romance is as uneven as a wobbly table, centers a single cis (and mostly hetero) female character – at the expense or potential existence of queer partners in the relationship – , winds up being super homophobic more often than not, and is often super problematic when it comes to desire, agency, and consent.

Look, I want to see more polyamorous relationships in romance.

Many more.

The “reverse harem” genre as we know it, though? Largely isn’t putting forward the kind of content that appeals to me. I’ve found some enjoyment in Kindle Unlimited “reverse harem” romances like L.L. Frost’s the (un) lucky succubus serial series (which also isn’t queer, but has interesting worldbuilding and fun characters) and Ophelia Bell’s various shifter-focused series, but way too many books in the subgenre are a hot mess and don’t provide us with even the mere promise of queer polyamory that we so deserve.

Meh.

If you’re into those kinds of romances and you know of any queer ones – especially a whole series – please hit me up and hook me up, okay? I have a mighty need and Amazon definitely is giving me more duds than diamonds.

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About Zeenah

Zina writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories and complaining about stuff. One day, she'll settle down and write that novel.
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