Shelf Love

068. Happily Ever Existential Dread

Short Description

Guest: Dr. Danielle Knafo, a clinical psychologist who studies fantasy, perversion, sexuality, and gender. In this episode, we discuss questions like, is it harmful to start reading romance novels too young? Why might someone fantasize about things that are undesirable in real life? What's the deal with sadomasochism? Am I become a joyless hag who's sucking all the fun out of romance novels by trying to critically understand problematic faves? Is the Happily Ever After really just a way for us humans to deal with existential dread?


genre discussions, scholarly

Show Notes

Guest: Dr. Danielle Knafo, a clinical psychologist who studies fantasy, perversion, sexuality, and gender. In this episode, we discuss questions like, is it harmful to start reading romance novels too young? Why might someone fantasize about things that are undesirable in real life? What's the deal with sadomasochism? Am I become a joyless hag who's sucking all the fun out of romance novels by trying to critically understand problematic faves? Is the Happily Ever After really just a way for us humans to deal with existential dread?

Show Notes:

Shelf Love:

Guest: Dr. Danielle Knafo


Book Discussed:

The New Sexual Landscape and Contemporary Psychoanalysis* by Dr. Danielle Knafo and Rocco Lo Bosco

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Danielle Knafo

[00:00:00] Andrea Martucci: Hello and welcome to  episode 68 of Shelf Love, a podcast where we have thought provoking, critical discussions about literature's most polarizing genre: romance novels. I'm your host, Andrea Martucci and my guest today is Dr. Danielle Knafo. Danielle is a clinical psychologist who recently published The New Sexual Landscape and Contemporary Psychoanalysis with co-author Rocco Lo Bosco.

Some of the other books she's published cover topics like unconscious desires, fantasy, and perversion. I read The New Sexual Landscape and was struck by how many connections I saw to the act of reading romance novels, as well as the content of romance novels and I was thrilled that Danielle agreed to share her expertise, even though she's not a romance reader herself.

I tried to distill down the critical pieces of information necessary to have a discussion specific to romance novels, but let's remember that this is filtered through my experience with the genre.

In this episode, we discuss questions like, is it harmful to start reading romance novels too young? Why might someone fantasize about things that are undesirable in real life? What's the deal with sadomasochism? Am I becoming a joyless hag who's sucking all the fun out of romance novels by trying to critically understand problematic faves? And is the happily ever after really just a way for us humans to deal with existential dread?

Whew. Okay. But don't worry, just like a romance novel, this episode has an HEA guarantee.

Marker [00:01:30]  Can you introduce yourself in your own words and could you give listeners a little bit of a background of what your day to day looks like? So, do you see patients, are you mostly teaching and writing? What should people know about also what a psychoanalyst is and is not?

Danielle Knafo: My name is Danielle Knafo. I'm a clinical psychologist. I'm a psychoanalyst, I'm a professor. I'm an author. I wear a lot of hats. What does my day look like? Every day is different and I like it that way. It keeps things fresh and exciting. I have a private practice in Long Island. I have a private practice in New York and Manhattan. I am a full-time professor at Long Island University in a Clinical Psychology Doctoral program.

So I train students to become therapists and clinical psychologists. And I write, I enjoy writing. I write books, I write articles, some more [00:02:30] academic, some less academic. Those are my professional activities. I lecture here and there, you know, now with COVID and the lockdown everything is done online. But, usually I lecture quite a bit as well, to different audiences. So I'm glad to introduced to your audience.

What does a psychoanalyst do? Psychoanalysis is both a theory and it's a therapy. It's a form of therapy. So you have both of these things.

In theory, we think we reflect. How do people become the way they become? Why do they do what they do? Why do they get stuck in certain behaviors? Why do they choose partners that they choose? Why do they repeat certain problems? All of these questions, what attracts us, what repels us, what compels us, what makes us stuck? What makes us move?

So psychoanalytic theory is the broadest theory that exists. It began with Sigmund Freud, to help us understand the many layers of a person's psyche. Freud was the father of psychology. And, he completely changed the way we think about human beings and the main way he made us change the way we think about them is because he really expanded our notion of the unconscious, meaning that we aren't always aware of what we do and why we do it, or why we defend against it. When we say to somebody you're being defensive, they may not realize they're being defensive. Oh, you're choosing that person because, he's just like your father. Wow. They might not be aware that there's a repetition going on. So the psychoanalyst is very attuned to multiple layers of consciousness, including of course the unconscious.

And that's partly the most interesting of the layers of consciousness because people are not aware of a large part of what they do and why they do it.

So that's the theory. In practice, we work with people who are stuck, who are at an impasse in life who are overwhelmed or traumatized. So it can go all the way from, very, very extreme cases. People who have trouble just functioning in this world, to lighter cases of people who just want to know themselves better. And we use [00:05:00] psychoanalytic techniques to do that. And a lot of that takes place in the relationship with the therapist, right? Teaches us a lot about how a person came to be who they are and develop the desires and the needs and the fears that they have.

Andrea Martucci: And so the reason I asked you to come on and speak with me is I heard you on the New Books Network, you were speaking about your very recent book, The New Sexual Landscape and Contemporary Psychoanalysis, which you wrote with Rocco Lo Bosco . And as I was hearing you talk about this book and what is inside of it, I was so drawn to what you were speaking about, because I think that there is such a strong connection, that is perhaps not something that I hear in the discourse. I don't want to say unexamined or that hasn't been connected yet, but you know, not, Not really what I was hearing discussed in the discourse as much.

And, so you're not a romance reader. However, I promise that I would give you enough background on romance novels to make these connections. And the first thing to know about romance novels is they're incredibly varied. And, there are some romance novels that are very regressive and some that are really progressive and some that  more align with reality, or the contemporary moment. And, some romance, novels are paranormal romances, and some are, contemporary romance novels that take place in the world that we live in,

Danielle Knafo: Which are most popular?

Andrea Martucci: Which are the most popular? I think right now probably in terms of overall sales, contemporary romances. In the past, like in the seventies and eighties, I think maybe, historicals might've been, the most popular, but then there's these waves that happen right with, you know, after 50 Shades of Gray came out, erotic, BDSM romance was very popular.

And I think that actually the contemporary moment now is an extension of that.

Romance readers are not only women, or only cis women, although probably like 80% of romance readers are cis women. So you know, the conception of the genre is very like "for women by women." That's not entirely true, although it's like mostly true.

And I think that probably the most important thing to set up about romance novels is first of all, what ties all of those various strains of romance together is this central concept that what [00:07:30] defines a romance novel is this happily ever after. So this emotionally satisfying, optimistic ending, where you have spent your time focused on the romance and the relationship between two or more characters. And we see them ride off into the sunset.

And readers of romance novels often speak about the joy that the genre brings to their life. So the fact that romance novels celebrate love, they center the experiences and desires of marginalized people and, there's the promise of the genre. Every book doesn't necessarily fulfill the promise of the genre. But overall, that's what readers say they really find beautiful about the genre is this escape. The fact that they know what they're getting, it's going to end happily, even if they have moments of anxiety and stress within the novel, they know that it will resolve.

Danielle Knafo: And that's a formula that every romance novel adheres to?

Andrea Martucci: Yes, it is the central guiding principle. And do not mess with romance readers and say that you're going to write a romance novel that has an unhappy ending. They will murder you. that said, about romance novels? I think there's a couple of things going on to talk about. There's the, the relationships as portrayed on the page. So like you're reading about these relationships. There's the impact of reading about that on readers. And then also, why do readers and writers gravitate towards particular tropes, which are basically recursions of these themes.

One trope that, recurs quite often is the alpha male. And the alpha male, also known as the alphahole, AKA alpha asshole, is this recurring trope of basically a man who is toxically masculine.

He's this hyper-masculine, sees women as objects. And then he is tamed by the heroine who oftentimes isn't that special, but somehow is the only woman on earth who can make him grovel and ask for forgiveness and, brings him to his knees through the power of love.

And, this is one of these tropes in romance that is considered, when you really sit down and think about it, it's socially and politically taboo, a modern woman, like, why would we desire that? and yet [00:10:00] modern readers, their conscious minds know that they should not desire this archetype. And they can articulate that this is taboo by calling it a problematic favorite. But they acknowledge that they desire it anyways.

And so I think that this setup, I think, touches on a lot of things that you're talking about in your book. Desiring that which we know we shouldn't want and the topic of perversion and also desiring that which we fear and then repeating these harmful or traumatic dynamics in a way that we can control and make safe.

So I'm wondering if you could unpack that example a bit and, help me understand, help readers understand, if you're gravitating towards that, why are we finding pleasure in stories that we can articulate with our conscious mind is  undesirable?

Danielle Knafo: Obviously they, they are desirable because otherwise the mind wouldn't go there and enjoy it.

I think there are evolutionary reasons why women are attracted to alpha males. They were the ones who could take care of things. And, they exude a confidence and they're in control or at least they look that way. There's a certain element of power that is connected to them, and confidence.

So all of those things are attractive. And, I think in the old days, this was the ideal mate, the ideal man, one who could come in, who could take control, who could take care, you didn't have two partners with incomes with professions in the old days you had the man was the one who went to work and the woman raised the children and the aim was reproduction and survival.

And the man had to deal with survival and enemies and predators. And the woman was in charge of nurturing, cooking, and, feeding and taking care of the children. We still have some of that in us. These are our genetic makings and so we are attracted to that even though our times have changed.

On the one hand, there is this attraction for that,  if you read my book, I even give examples of some female patients of mine who, they choose partners who are feminists, who are believe in equality, are very respectful. but then they're not as attracted to them. They want the alpha male in their fantasies or they want the [00:12:30] man to act out that they're the alpha male, at least sexually. Often this plays out in the bedroom.

Men have the same fantasy. They have the same duality and this was recognized first with men, the Madonna / Whore. That they want to marry one kind of woman, but they want to have sex, they really desire a different kind of woman. So we have this with both genders and it doesn't surprise me that comes out in the romance novels. Cause this is one area, at least in fantasy in fiction, in literature. One can play out those fantasies, even though in real life, one might not accept it, not accept a partnership like that, even though a good number of women do accept partnerships like that.

Andrea Martucci: They sure do. I want to talk a little bit about that, one would not want to read a very uneventful courtship that one might actually desire in real life. It's not very sexy. It's not very fun. So  is it almost more fun because we know it is perverse to desire that according to what society has made a taboo, like you shouldn't want that? Do you think, is that part of the,


Danielle Knafo: for certain women, you shouldn't want that. For other women, that is what you should want. So I don't think we can generalize about all women, but yes, there is something about the forbidden that is always attractive.

We want to break down boundaries, break down limits. There's always something risky, something dangerous, something exciting about a person who you're not supposed to be attracted to. You're not supposed to be with.

And then there's the whole, what you mentioned this taming that kind of man, there's an excitement in being able to turn that around. I think that's what happens in, Shades of Gray,

Andrea Martucci: Yeah

Danielle Knafo: right? The man is in control, in power and little by little, the woman takes control and now the tables turn. So there's a pleasure and an excitement in being able to tame and to turn the tables.

So there's a lot of power play here. Who has the power, who's in control and might the person who looks like they're in control on the outside really be the more vulnerable one? [00:15:00] And that's one of the things that we've discovered about the very macho male is that a lot of that machoness is a facade to conceal a more vulnerable self, right?

And so the nice thing about that plot that you described is that one then gets to that vulnerable self, but not initially.

Andrea Martucci: So it's that journey. It's the arc that you then get to enjoy.

Danielle Knafo: Yeah. And the woman enjoys, not only the possession by this alpha male, but then turning it around and taking control and becoming the powerful one herself.

So there are a lot of aspects to that plot that can be pleasurable.

Andrea Martucci: And I think you made a great point. I am, obviously speaking from my cultural understanding of what I think should be desirable. I think that's a really excellent point to make

Danielle Knafo: I'm a different generation than you.

Andrea Martucci: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.

Marker [00:16:01]

And so I will say that as somebody who wants to know myself better and, talk to a lot of other people who also want to kind of interrogate their desires and understand them better, I struggle with, and this is something that is being explored on the podcast, this idea of problematic faves and, I think that I have almost gotten to the point where I have reduced the amount of pleasure I can take in things that I critically have convinced myself are bad, even though I might have enjoyed them before.

And I think that there's kind of two sides of this, because then there's also, people who read romances get a lot of crap for reading romances, for a variety of reasons. And because it is something that brings the reader so much joy. I think then there's this defensive reaction to defend the genre, no matter what, because we're like, don't, you dare say anything bad about this genre. It's amazing.

But then I think that means that people are being a little uncritical of what they're reading and I'm wondering, is there a way to critically engage in these questions of interrogating, like why do we find this desirable? Why is this fun? Why is this exciting? Does analyzing it in that way, strip away the fun?

Danielle Knafo: Yes.

Andrea Martucci: Yes. Okay. (we both laugh)

Danielle Knafo: Yeah. I would say yes that a lot of the pleasure and excitement that we get, can be reduced very quickly when we understand it on a deeper level.

[00:17:30] And so here I am being interviewed and I'll pick it apart and unpack it and analyze it. But I'm not a romance novel reader.

If I were, I probably wouldn't want to know too much about why I want what I want, because it spoils desire. But some people are able to compartmentalize and have an intellectual appreciation of what and why, and then let it go and just enjoy what they enjoy.

But sometimes that understanding can spoil the excitement.

Andrea Martucci: Woof. Okay. All right. This is getting deep, real fast. The next question I wanted to ask you about was, in your book you were in your Pornucopia chapter, talking about, young people who come to sex before they have formed their own sense of identity and their own understanding of what they desire.

And I don't want to draw too firm of a connection between romance novels, and pornography, because they are different. And there has been

Danielle Knafo: People often do though, people often say, pornography is to males what romance novels are to females? I don't think it's a one-to-one.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah, but like, I have to acknowledge that the most underlines in this book were in this chapter

Danielle Knafo: Oh really?

Andrea Martucci: Where I was seeing the connections. So there's obviously some overlap in some of these things. And I should also say that not all romance novels are sexually explicit. You could have a romance novel with say asexual characters. There's also closed door or, or let's say an inspirational romance with Christian characters who don't have sex before marriage. It runs the gamut. However, a lot of romances have explicit sex on the page and / or are playing with sexual dynamics on the page.

Danielle Knafo: I would think so.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Yeah. and let's be honest. That's why a lot of people like it, and no shame in that. But you were writing about how, sex has no parental mirroring, unlike other social dynamics. And we form our identity in either seeing ourselves or not seeing ourselves in that mirroring process. And so in a romance novel, you are riding along with characters' intimate thoughts and activities.

And I think romance novels are basically in some ways, presenting relationships, love, and sex in a way that we don't get access to socially. even, if you and your friends are like the gals on Sex in the City, like sharing every detail, there's certain things that you honestly are not going to share.

Either because they're too vulnerable or they're not funny or whatever, like you never ever get this level of insight, truly into other people's [00:20:00] intimate relationships.  I hate to like keep going into  the negative aspects of things, but I think that mature readers can usually articulate sort of unhealthy relationship dynamics, that they may read about. But also a lot of people start reading romances really early. I started reading romances when I was 12 years old.

Danielle Knafo: I think my sister started even earlier. Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Yeah. I want to talk about that and again, like not to say, nobody should read romance novels before the age of, X, Y, Z.

Danielle Knafo: I know what you're asking. The formative influence of romance novels on a young mind and anything has more influence on a young mind because the young mind is more malleable, it's less formed and it takes from the environment, it internalizes things that they see.

And that's why social media is so influential. But if somebody gets hooked on pornography, for example, very young, we find that can really affect the development of their sexuality. And it can arrest it in a certain way because they haven't yet developed what they want, what they like.  So the young mind who is faced with all of these images , they might say, Oh, that's what I want, before they've developed their own tastes.

And so how might that be influential on a young mind reading romance novels? They might start believing that this is how relationships should be, are, just like the person who watches porn a lot, they start thinking that's how sex should be. And then when it's not that way in real life, when you don't have erections every two seconds and climaxes every three seconds and, change partners and have that level of excitement, you think something's wrong here.

When you don't have these happy endings and these resolutions to interpersonal conflicts, you might think, this relationship isn't working, it's not resolved, things don't get resolved the way they do in romance novels. The, the man on the white horse doesn't come and take me away. And the happily ever after. So it can produce these expectations,  it can influence what we desire and what we expect out of interpersonal relationships and out of intimacy.

And so the younger a person is, and the more they need that, [00:22:30] because we can become addicted to anything you become addicted to porn, you can become addicted to romance novels. And that addiction quality, I would say it doesn't happen with everybody, but when somebody becomes addicted, then they need that fix again and again, and sometimes they need more, they up the ante.

With pornography, it might be light porn, soft porn, but then it doesn't get them as excited. So they up the ante and they got into sadomasochistic porn, they up the ante and it becomes more brutal, more violent, more, whatever. I don't know if there's a degree,

Andrea Martucci: I was just trying to think

Danielle Knafo: romance novels that would be analogous. But maybe there's just that need, I need another fantasy retreat. The only thing I could say is if somebody can't separate and know, this is fantasy, this is escape. This is pleasure, illusion but then be able to transition to real life relationships where, people go to the bathroom and make noise when they eat.

And, you know,

Andrea Martucci: don't do the dishes when we ask them to.

Danielle Knafo: Don't take out the garbage... all of these things that happen in everyday real life relationships that don't necessarily appear In a romance, fantasy novel, I would say. So I think that it would be more influential on a young mind that's more malleable and again, depending how much they would read of this and how malleable it is than somebody who's more developed and can make the separation between real life, relationships and fantasy relationships.

And it's okay to keep that - we all need fantasy. Fantasy keeps us going.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. and I think that is a common criticism of readers of romance novels, Is that, Oh, then, these people will start to expect this in real life.

And I think that readers often make the distinction, like, yeah, we can tell the difference between fantasy and reality, which is why I think  the only sort of demographic that I'm a little like, eh, I don't know if this is always great,

Danielle Knafo: Younger, yeah.

Andrea Martucci: The younger ones, yeah, because I think even in my own experience, and of course when I started reading romance novels, it was 20 years ago now. And so the romance novels that were written 20 years ago were, I would consider pretty regressive to what is being written today, and I think that it definitely impacted my understanding of gender dynamics, [00:25:00] of relationship dynamics and, what sex was going to be like.

And, if you have access to good sex education, like it's not a big deal, but if you don't, that could maybe impact things.

And you were, posing the question of, what might be a similar  escalation for romance novels. And I think one thing I see it in is the level of angst that is in romance novels.

So really angsty romance novels have become, I think, increasingly popular where

Danielle Knafo: What does that mean? Tell me what that means?

Andrea Martucci: Oh gosh, it's so hard to describe and everybody describes it a little bit differently. I would describe it as. There's low angst and high angst, and like a low angst romance would be a fairly peaceful, communicative relationship where they might have conflict, but they'll resolve it with minimal sort of misunderstanding, let's say. An angsty romance might veer towards, somebody sees somebody do something and interprets the worst possible connotation and punishes them and, and it cycles into a whole thing based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation or

Danielle Knafo: conflict and more conflict.

Andrea Martucci: Yes. Yeah.

Danielle Knafo: You also mentioned that there's this genre of sadomasochistic. So I would think that might be -

Andrea Martucci: yes. Yeah. cause I think that in terms of the historical progression, all the BDSM romances, I'm trying to remember when 50 shades of gray came out like 2007 ish, something like that.

I think prior to that romances had been getting sexier and, and it's not that BDSM romance didn't exist before 50 Shades of Gray, but it really exploded at that time. And so I think that was an escalation of the, I guess the sexual intensity. And I think then the angst is that escalation of emotional intensity

Danielle Knafo: intensity as well.

Marker [00:26:59]

Andrea Martucci: yeah. And so the function of the happily ever after, so this is fairytales, right? This idea of, and then they lived happily ever after.

Danielle Knafo: Yeah. And what, after that, right? My sister who's who is a novelist and who's the romance novel. You might want to interview her too. When we see movies and stuff, she can't stand an unfinished ending, (laughs) if a movie ends abruptly or there's not a good resolution, she [00:27:30] can't stand it. She feels angry that they didn't tie these knots. And I don't, I never thought of the connection, but maybe it's from all that romance novel reading, she needs that resolution.

Life doesn't give us that resolution.

Andrea Martucci: It doesn't.

Danielle Knafo: Everything is incomplete and unfinished and, not satisfactory, especially these days.

And so there's this one place where we can just make that up, that things end well, and there aren't even if there are conflicts, it's all going to be resolved. So it's a wonderful fantasy as long as we know that it is fantasy.

Andrea Martucci: There's also this concept of happily for now. It's maybe a little bit ambiguous. Like they're not engaged. Maybe they haven't settled into domestic bliss in a very literal way.

Danielle Knafo: Are there like episodes like series of the same couple or people that continue on?

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. A three book series are, you might have this, like they end on a high note and then Ooh, new conflict introduced and, But my argument is it's that up and to the right, like momentum, right? Like they, they end and we see them going off and sure. Yeah. They're going to have little arguments, but they are going to be happy forever, but we don't want to see the ending.

We don't want to see them laying in bed as 95 year old holding hands and dying, because that would ruin the fantasy that this goes on forever. Even if in our real lives, we might find that to be a sort of okay, that's like the best we can hope for.

So I I would love for you to speak a little bit about, the death drive. And, and I think this is like existential dread, basically. I, and I feel exactly the way you articulated, everything in life is undone. I've said before, like you, do laundry and then instantly the clothes are dirty again.

And, finish one thing at work and there's 10 more things, nothing is ever done. If everything was done, you'd be done.

Danielle Knafo: Yeah. It's not just that it's not done. It's that  the happily ever after, we don't have to know what comes after and what comes after, if we're honest with each other. I'm going to be such a downer for your readers.

What comes after is we get old, we get sick. We lose people. We lose our looks, we lose our functions and we die. And [00:30:00] people around us die. So who wants a story about that? That's the reality. That's the one thing we know for sure happens after  if we go on with the story, we know that what goes on is at least 50% of marriages end up in divorce. That doesn't come into the fantasy. This is the reality that most relationships end up breaking up, or at least half of them. there can be bitter custody battles over children, that people age, they get ill, they get sick , and they die.

So a lot of this fantasy, really the bottom line of it is not just an escape from the reality that we live in. It's an escape from the future that we're going towards, and that's why the happily ever after, the one ingredient that you're telling me is a must, an absolute must for every romance novel is the happily ever after. We do not know, we do not want to know what really happens ever after. We want the happily ever after, which is the fantasy ever after.

And so if we take that away, what do we have to face? We have to confront our own mortality and our own vulnerability as human beings. That's not fun. That's not exciting. And so we do need something to take our minds off of that. And what better than love and fantasy and illusion and happiness. A little conflict, but it gets resolved. So it's not the death drive per se. It's the denial of death. It's the denial of the fact, the one thing we know as human beings, we only know one thing: and that's that we're going to die, that we are mortal.

It's the only thing we know, we don't know when, necessarily, but we know that. We don't really want to know that because that's a spoiler in our every day. And so we have these diversions to help take that knowledge away or bury it at least for the time being.

Andrea Martucci: Right. And now I would argue that romance readers do that by reading romance [00:32:30] novels. What are some other ways that people cope with that?

Danielle Knafo: Many ways, so many ways. Religion. There's a, this life is nothing. The next life is gonna be (laughs) you know? The ways that we make death just a path to something better, something greater. And that's also fantasy. I would say your religious,

Andrea Martucci: I would agree...

Danielle Knafo: listeners may not like that, but, we construct all kinds of ways to avoid thinking about, about our own mortality. We have children, become our legacy. They're a way that we live on. Something of us. Yes, we die. But we live on through our children. We can live on through our art, through some creative product that outlives us.

So these are ways that help us cope with the fact that our lives are going to end, but something of us does continue and live on. So there are many ways that we deal with that. Sometimes just belonging to a group cohesion, is greater than the self.

Anything that goes beyond the self and is greater than the self helps us to deal with the vulnerability of the self and the fragility of the self.

Marker [00:33:47]

Andrea Martucci: To go back to BDSM. You did write about this in the book, and I'm wondering if you could explain it particularly for, let's say readers who are really interested in BDSM romances, because there are quite a few of them.   

Danielle Knafo: BDSM has gone mainstream, whereas before it was, hush hush and it was only in a dominatrix's dungeon or online. But now people are pretty open about having those kinds of desires. So it doesn't surprise me that it's entered the romance novel.

I think the interesting thing about sadomasochistic relationships is that people usually are not just divided that he's the sadist, she's the masochist or the other way around, but people usually go back and forth that there's an aspect of the sadist in the masochist and the masochist in the sadist. And they identify with that they're two sides of the same coin really. That's one of the reasons they work well together.

There's so much going on in those relationships and what is compelling about those relationships, going back to the vulnerability. I write about this, that, [00:35:00] there are many reasons why sadomasochism is very much ingrained in human desires and needs. And part of that is because we are the species who are dependent on our parents for the longest time.

You look at every other animal species and they're like kicked out pretty soon. It's okay, you're on your own now, go make a life. And we: 18 years, we're dependent on these people, and that dependency, that passivity, that inability to take care of oneself for so long, that's already a sadomasochistic relationship.

They have power over us. We depend on them to be fed, to survive. To live for the longest period of time. And then all of a sudden, you go off and you're on your own. That stuff was ingrained in you, those power dynamics. And you see how the kids try to change the power dynamics, the terrible twos, right?

The child who gets the parent to get on their knees and do what they want and do what they say. So it's not just a one-way thing, but those power dynamics are there, from the early parent/child relationship. And it's due to the fact that we are so reliant on our parents for years and years and years.

And that creates a certain blueprint for relationships and particularly for intimate relationships. And so that, the power - who's in power, who's, who needs, what's going to happen to me? What can I do to this person , you know? What can I get away with? What can't I get away-? There's a certain risk involved there. Who's going to get hurt. Who's going to be in charge. Who's going to be the vulnerable one? Who dares this? There's a lot of play in the sadomasochism.

And like you, you brought up the safety issue. The safe word, right? Can I trust this person? Not to hurt me beyond what I'm willing to bear? How much can I hurt this person without losing them? So we're dealing with loss, we're dealing with risk. We're dealing with trust. We're dealing with so many different issues in the sadomasochistic relationship.

Andrea Martucci: Yes. And consent is a topic that is very explicitly [00:37:30] discussed in romance and like everything in romance, there is a spectrum from non-consent to dubious consent, to, implied consent through, to enthusiastic consent.

Danielle Knafo: Oh, I'm very glad to hear. That's actually quite sophisticated because I would have thought, with my naive knowledge of, my non knowledge of romance novels, that there would be a prescription that you have to have consent in a romance novel, that it has to be that way.

And the idea that there are nuances and subtleties to consent. Because some people get excited by the non-consent. Other people need that absolute consent. And so that there would be those subtle differences I think is very evolved actually.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And I think that like with everything in romance, as long as readers know what they're getting into, they're fine with it. Nobody wants to go into a romance novel that is marketed and positioned a certain way and suddenly find that, Oh my God, he just did something against her consent. However, if the book is marketed in such a way where people are like, yeah, here's what you're getting into then. Okay. Fair. I'm warned. And if I keep going -

Danielle Knafo: choose your fantasy.

Andrea Martucci: Exactly. Yeah. This was so interesting. I need to reconsider my entire existence now. I think mostly because I am worried personally that, in my quest to understand romance novels more, I am, for myself and my readers stripping away the fun. And I'm not trying to be joyless. I want people to enjoy it, but ...

Danielle Knafo: okay, so let me leave your readers with one thing, because I don't want to strip them away from the fun either, and I can be quite the realist, as you've heard. One of the things I want to say is I endorse it. I endorse the pleasure. I'm not against it. I don't see anything bad about it. Except again, like we said, if you start confusing reality with the fantasy that can get you into trouble, but I think if it can be compartmentalized and that this is my time for fantasy. This is when I, I get enough reality at work with my family, with my friends, whatever, with life right now.

I need a place where things work out. Where there's love, where there's sex, where there's excitement, [00:40:00] where there's passion and where I can imagine that everything ends well. And nobody dies (laughs) 

Andrea Martucci: Unless they're bad, if they're bad, they can die.

Danielle Knafo: You can kill them off.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah, Cause that's justice.

Danielle Knafo: So I see nothing wrong with that. I think we all need our escapes. We all need our diversions. life is tough. Life is tough. The question is, how much of do we need? And do we live there more than here? That's when it becomes problematic, but if you keep it in the proper place and you don't need to understand too much, why you like it because it's not, if you choose a partner who  you have these fantasy expectations of, then it might behoove you to understand a little bit more what you're attracted to here and what you're getting into and become realistic about what you end up. People get married. And then they say, I didn't know who I was marrying. I thought it was going to be this.

And it was, and that's because of these unrealistic expectations that are based on fantasy. So there's nothing wrong with fantasy, but we have to keep it in its proper place. And when it, begins to influence our realistic expectations, then it can be tricky.

Andrea Martucci: That was the perfect ending. Thank you so much, Dr. Danielle Knafo for joining me today. Where can listeners find you online? They should obviously buy your book. It is very readable for a lay person.

Danielle Knafo: Very readable for a lay person. Yes.

Andrea Martucci: Yes, obviously, I didn't understand all of that. I'm going to have to reread it again. I'm going to have to check out your other book, but so what should people do if they want to learn more about you? Where should they go?

Danielle Knafo: I have a website. And on that website, there are little videos and things, that they can see. And I have a lot of books.

So if they're interested in reading me, just check out my name on Amazon, you know, nine books on there that I've written, and some of - I've written a book on fantasy. I've written a book on perversion, written a book on the new sexual landscape. So there are quite a few, of my books that could be relevant for your readership.

Andrea Martucci: Thank you

Danielle Knafo: It's been a pleasure for me too!

Andrea Martucci: Oh, good. I'm glad!

Marker [00:42:15]

   Thanks for listening to episode 68 and thanks to Dr. Danielle Knafo for joining me. A transcript and show notes for this episode can be found on I also want to say thank you to [00:42:30] Hannah Hearts Romance, who consulted on my episode preparations.

As you may remember from that time she joined me to discuss The Rakess, Hannah hearts romance novels, and is also a mental health professional. So her dual expertise was invaluable in helping me work out my questions.

Next episode, Scarlett Peckham joins me to discuss her problematic favorite trope: house parties. And yeah, you know, we're going to talk about wealth inequality and exploitative labor conditions, but we also have a lot of fun. I promise.

  Speaking of fun, have you heard of Romancing the Runoff yet? As of the moment that I'm reading this, they've already raised over $80,000 to help support the Georgia Senate runoffs by supporting Fair Fight, The New Georgia Project, and Black Voters Matter.

This effort is spearheaded by Courtney Milan, Alyssa Cole, and Kit Rocha, that is Bree and Donna, and it was inspired by fellow romance author and political powerhouse Stacey Abrams. If you don't live in Georgia, and I don't, you might be wondering, why is the Georgia Senate runoff so important? And when is it happening? High-level, this runoff election on January 5th, 2021 will determine control of the US Senate. If both of these seats go to Democratic candidates, the Senate will be evenly split between Democrat and Republican senators.

Also both of the Republican incumbents have a pretty clear track record of a. Being terrible people and B. Not doing shit for Georgia. So it's kind of a big deal and you should definitely head over to romancingtherunoff.Com to learn how to donate. And there's also an auction with like 600 plus romance-related items that will go live on November 18th, 2020.

One of those items is the right to dictate a topic for this very podcast. I will hand you the producer reins for Shelf Love, and you can choose a topic and we will work together to choose the perfect guest. This is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So get your metaphorical paddles and your literal credit card ready. Head to for all the details. And of course, that link is going to be in the show notes.

Thanks for joining me today. If you have any thoughts on the show, I would love for you to reach out to me. You can send an email to [email protected].

This episode is produced by me, Andrea Martucci. [00:45:00] Thank you to Shelf Love's editorial advisory board members, Katrina Jackson, and Tasha L. Harrison. After recording this episode, I immediately ran to tell them that I am in fact killing my joy in romance by being over-analytical. Tasha responded, "well, duh" and Kat responded, "obviously." So, you know, right again.

Black lives matter. Stay safe, stay mad, and keep reading romance.