Romance will always be one of the central elements of Urban Fantasy - and is certainly the foundation for Paranormal Romance. Naturally, there are many many tropes that are dubious or troublesome when it comes to romance (and more than a few that are mockable), but in our society where rape culture is so entrenched, there are few things more damaging and more disturbing than the many issues around consent.
We have already spoken about magical romances that bind the couples together, removing their consent to leave - but now we look at the foundation of so many of those romances.
We have referred to this in the Lexicon as Love at First Woo-woo, but often it is far more pervasive and destructive. Whether it’s magical bonds, the whims of some deity, magically induced lust or some other convoluted reason, all too often we see the woo-woo swoop in and the characters squished together into a romance.
Whether they want it or not.
Whether they chose it or not.
Whether they would ever choose it. Even when it goes against everything they want or dream or stand for. The woo-woo has spoken. Choice, autonomy, sex is irrelevant.
Magical sexual attraction seems to be the mildest form of this - and we have no end of incubi/succubae/witches et al who simply must have sex or are overwhelmed by the woo-woo lust for each other. Anya Bast’s Witch Series, is a classic example, elemental witches are drawn to each other by the woo-woo. The sad thing is it’s completely unnecessary - there’s no reason why these characters couldn’t have just found each other attractive - but no, there had to be coercion. There has to be that external pressure that forces that sexual step
There has to be an excuse.
At the core a lot of these tropes stem from the enduring, sexist, trope that a sexual woman is evil. A woman who pursues sex is a slutwhorejezebel and terribad awful, to be shamed and condemned. Nice Girls don’t sully themselves with the dreadful, awful sex and reach shakily for the smelling salts and the fainting couch, pearls clutched in a death grip, at the very idea. The only way your pure shining womanhood can possibly use her sinful ladyparts is if it isn’t her choice - or, more accurately - her FAULT. It’s very closely linked to the trope where a woman says “no” and has to be “worn down” by a male love interest until her defences are finally breached.
This is epitomised by the Anita Blake Series where we see Anita having one of the most expansive sex lives of any protagonist ever - but had to be dragged kicking and screaming to every sexual encounter.
It’s a tragic trope and the prevalence of it - that women need to be able to blame magic for them actually having sex - is why I still repeatedly praise series like Yasmine Galenorn’s Otherworld series that show pro-active, sexual women who enjoy their sex lives without any magical nudge to justify them getting down. This shouldn’t be praiseworthy, this shouldn’t stand out - but sadly it does
Of course this trope goes beyond reinforcing the idea a “good” woman needs to have an excuse to have sex - we can’t stress enough how often this violates consent.
Twilight is an especially infamous example of this trope - where magical “imprinting” results in werewolves (nearly all male) bonding with their love interests after just looking at them - making the relationship pre-ordained. And consent? Well one of these “women” who is “imprinted” on is actually a small child. The other a baby in the womb - but we’re assured they’ll have an attentive, loving caring future-boyfriend to dote on them until they come of age.
That’s called grooming. It’s a crime. And even if they don’t touch that girl until she’s 18, honest, that’s still a lifetime of brainwashing to impose on her. No reasonable person can call this consent.
While Twilight is extreme because of it’s involvement of children - it’s not alone. Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling series has changelings begin the “mating dance” with their chosen mates - even when those mates are completely uninterested not just in love, but in emotion at all! But the woo-woo has spoken! Personal consent, lives, beliefs or inherent nature are irrelevant! Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Werehunters form magical bonds - again before any real acquaintance has even been established. Eileen Wilks World of the Lupi series has mating bonds so strong they can’t even move too far away from the other! They’re literally joined at the hip!
It’s not just shapeshifters (though they do seem to dominate for some reason) - the Black Dagger Brotherhood (which has never seen a terrible romance trope without claiming it) has vampires getting in on the bonding-at-first sight nonsense as well.
This is another element that has to be emphasised of this trope - nearly all of these bound-for-life-at-first-sight people are virtual strangers. It emphasises not just a lack of consent but also strikes us as lazy writing. You could build a relationship, you could write the things about the other that attracted and endeared your protagonist. You could write them falling in love as they come closer and see all the wonderful qualities. Or, woo-woo could strike within seconds of seeing each other and they could be happily skipping down the aisle before they even know each other’s surname.
And then there’s Lynsay Sands. Oh Lynsay Sands, bless her heart. The Argeneau series is about the descendants of Atlantis who are often confused as vampires because they need blood to survive and avoid daylight because it burns through the blood they consume. Each Atlantian is promised one lifemate. A lifemate is special because they are supposedly the one person you can let your guard down around because you cannot read their mind or control them. It also comes with orgasms so powerful that lifemates regularly pass out and have great difficulty abstaining from sex.
It is the woo woo that makes these couples perfect for each other. Apparently, the nanites are able to choose the perfect mate for each Atlantian and no matter what is going on in the chosen lifemate’s life, they will inevitably drop everything to be with the Atlantian. It’s a compulsion which they cannot avoid and of course because the woo woo makes them so happy, they are more than ready to end relationships with their family/friends, move across the ocean and even quit careers which took them decades to enter and cement. Sure, we’re told that these lifemates have a choice but the fact that whatever objections they may have are easily overcome or forgotten belies the very idea of choice. This is the formula that Sands has been using for more than twenty books now.
As consistent as Sands is, she’s far from the only one who is guilty of using woo woo to bring couples together and explain insta love. Paige Tyler’s SWAT series is about a SWAT team made up of alpha werewolves. Once again, we are introduced to the concept that each werewolf has a perfect partner out there for them. Once said couples meet, they are quickly overwhelmed and find themselves quickly declaring true love. Well, if you cannot resist the way someone tastes or smells, then it must be love right? The Woo Woo is so strong that all the mates of the SWAT team end up becoming friends. That’s some woo woo isn’t it? Yep, everybody into the pool.
There’s also Christine Warren’s Gargoyle series. Warren is a little misleading at first because all of her female love interests are called women of power. Unfortunately, they are all woefully ignorant of their power and the magical world they become enlisted into thanks to the woo woo. These professional women are just going about their lives when they see a statue of a gargoyle and BOOOM, whatever life they were leading before is forgotten because of woo woo. Their only doubt seems to be whether or not the gargoyle which woo woo has decided they belong with wants them as well. Because of the fact that the continuity of humanity is literally at stake, these women cannot simply choose to walk away. Sarah Connor in the Terminator series had more agency than these women.
So can this trope ever be done well? I think there are some definite subversions that we’ve seen. I mentioned Eileen Wilks, but in later books in her World of the Lupi series, we explore the horror of a bond gone wrong, a magically forced mating between people who weren’t compatible (not that it didn’t end with the same HEA). In D.L. McDermott’s Cold Iron we have a character who is overwhelmed with magical horniness - but who REFUSES to have sex until she is sure she is not being coerced by magical means. And in Keri Arthur’s Souls of Fire series this one-true-love per lifetime woo-woo is actually seen as a curse.
Sadly these interesting subversions are few and far between - and few books see the actual horror of this magical enslavement, The destruction of consent and agency is lost in the rush to the Happily Ever After.
The insidious nature of woo woo is that it covers over any difficulties and removes agency. If there is some magical force which has decided that you are destined to be in a romantic relationship and then employs several manners of compulsion to ensure that it happens, how can we then say that a person consented? It’s seems to me as though the love interest in question has no choice but to submit.
The key to all of this is the HEA. Because we (the reader) are offered a HEA the issue of actual consent becomes clouded. Simply because the supposed love interest is happy with his/her lack of choice, the fact that this is a relationship which they either didn’t choose or actively seek out is irrelevant. If attraction can be manufactured because of the way someone smells, how are we to be certain that said woo woo isn’t also informing whether or not someone is truly happy? If I were to take a hit of meth, while I was high I would certainly feel happy and whatever worries I felt would disappear but it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to keep using meth to achieve a feeling of bliss. At the end of the day, woo woo is meth and it’s not healthy. It removes real concerns and inserts a manufactured happiness to make up for the loss of personal agency.