The (Male) Psychology of Harem Fiction
Is it OK for fantasies and fantasy fiction to be politically incorrect?
Posted Aug 18, 2020
I was not fond of these women beating the hell out of one another for my affections, but that wasn’t all they were getting out of the deal. It was a chance for them to procreate and secure the future of their tribe, but at the end of the day, it was still my d*#$ they were fighting over. Which felt ridiculous…but a part of me reveled in it. —Monster Girl Islands, Logan Jacobs
The Man-Killer Virus is a lethal disease that has eradicated 99.9% of the world’s male population. Mizuhara Reito has been in cryogenic sleep for the past five years, and now awakens to an all-female world where he himself is the planet’s most precious resource. Reito is given one simple mission: repopulate the world by impregnating as many women as possible whether he wants to or not! —World’s End Harem 10, Kotarou Shouno
Western science fiction and fantasy fiction is no stranger to exploring frontiers of alternative sexuality and relationships. Since the 1970’s, polyamory and consensual non-monogamy have been staple elements in speculative fiction from a wide variety of authors. The Fifty Shades of Grey series started as an ebook, and Twilight fanfiction. Recently, complex legal battles have been fought between female authors over lucrative copyrights to plots derived from erotic wolf-kink stories. In general, females read far more than men, who account for only 20% of the fiction market.
So, I was interested and intrigued when I noticed a growing popularity of ebooks targeted toward males which mimicked many of these same themes: paranormal, supernatural adventures, often with lots of sex. This new genre appeared to be popular with, and focused on, the male audience and is referred to as “harem fiction” or “polygamy fiction,” in which the main character acquires a bevy of beautiful, highly sexual female partners across the narrative arc. It’s somewhat related to Japanese manga, where such themes are common. Amidst female romantic fiction, “reverse harem” describes extremely popular stories centered on a single female character with multiple male lovers, where the narrative often focuses predominantly on the romantic aspects of these relationships.
Harem fiction ebooks comprise a growing genre with hundreds of entries, most published within the past five years, though many classic books in the history of science fiction could easily be classified as early forms of harem fiction. Some of these books are extremely popular, with thousands of ratings. One extremely popular author suggested to me that the sudden rise had to do with other authors seeing early books in this genre rocket to significant financial success, which led to mimics and copycats jumping on the train. These books come from a range of authors with a variety of skill levels, though the majority are published by males, or at least authors with male pen names.
In general, the stories follow a somewhat predictable formula in which a male character is unexpectedly injected into a supernatural, alien, or paranormal setting, and they must learn how to navigate a new world. There, they encounter a female, often in a “damsel in distress” type dilemma, from which our hero bravely rescues them. The female character is typically supernatural or inhuman in some way, and now serves as a guide to the male character, introducing him to the “rules” of this world, and, coincidentally, falling in love with him along the way. But she’s not alone in falling for our hero: She is soon joined by a variety of other female characters. In some of these stories, the “world” has a shortage of males, and in others, the male gains some supernatural ability to attract females to him. Often, the character magically acquires hypermasculine characteristics and skills, from strength and speed to fighting and combat abilities. Luckily, these skills are usually accompanied by an increase in sexual stamina, as the male character now proceeds to hop from the bed of one female character to the next, often with these bevy of women including a range of body types and appearances, and not a few virgins. Luckily for our hero, the world he now inhabits has magically eradicated issues of jealousy and intrasexual competition (or, the ‘inhumanness" of the females means they don’t worry about these issues), and all he needs to worry about is fighting monsters and bedding his beauties. Some stories have explicit sex, and others “fade to black” and don’t describe sexual encounters in any detail, focusing more on the adventure.
(I’m told that to meet the “definition” of harem fiction, the females must be monogamous to the male character. Whether or not the female characters also interact with other females seems a bit of a grey area, as it has been through much of the history of polygyny.)
It would be quite easy to condemn these books as modern misogyny, fulfilling the juvenile sexual dreams of 13-year-old boys (“What if I REALLY WAS the last male on earth?”) and glorifying the patriarchy. (Surprisingly, authors with whom I corresponded shared that a surprising number of their readers are female.) In online discussions of harem fiction, it’s commonly dismissed as sexist, and the point is often made that female characters have no lives or interactions aside from interacting with “the man.”
In contrast, I found some interesting and surprising nuances. The male characters often treat their female lovers with kindness, love, and gentleness. In none of the books I read was there any celebration or glorification of rape. In those books that had explicit sex, much attention was given to the experience of female sexual pleasure, consistent with past research which has shown that men gain a sense of masculinity by giving orgasms to their female partners. Many authors took time to make each female a unique person, with the male characters often expressing that he loved each one, for different and individual reasons. There are plenty of stereotypical sexist tropes, and most feminists would sigh at the need for these females and their world to be rescued by the man with his masculine energy, but condemning this genre as inherently sexist seems overly simplistic, if not unfair, as parallel tropes in female romance fiction get no similar attention.
These stories are fantasy, in all senses of the word, and fantasy is a place where we get to explore the idea of being someone different. Who do men fantasize about being? They daydream about being comic-book heroes with powers, muscles, and the ability to fight and defend people. They dream about being valued and cherished as a man by beautiful women who enjoy sex, and they fantasize about the ability to openly celebrate sexual novelty. Many female readers also fantasize about the same thing—strong, dominant men, whether in Bigfoot fiction (yes, really) or Fifty Shades of Grey, and women may fantasize about rough sex and even rape fantasies more than men do. Fantasies are mental exploration and entertainment, in which we explore a world that could be, not the world that is.
As men are being held publicly and privately accountable for sexism, fantasy offers an escape, where they can celebrate being manly, sexually powerful, and so desirable that they can openly and successfully have many beautiful female partners. Yes, they know it’s make-believe and pretend. I doubt many, if any, of the readers, or authors, are out there trying to build themselves a real-world harem. Just as popular books of vampire, bigfoot, and werewolf erotica offer women the opportunity to fantasize about swooning into the hairy arms of a sexy male beast, these books offer a chance to escape from the pressures, demands, and restrictions of the real world. Sociologist Katherine Franks wrote about the ways that strip clubs provide a similar refuge for men— a place where they aren’t condemned for their sexual fantasies and interests. Harem fiction fantasies don’t fit neatly into today’s politico-social narratives, and that simple fact may be a reason for their surprising popularity.