Image: Screenshot / Goodreads.com
In late 2017, while looking for an angsty romance to read for a hike around Stewart Island, I stumbled upon Groupie, by CM Stunich. “Don't read it unless you like to ugly cry,” read the tagline. “This book has one girl and five bad boy rockstars. She owns them all--heart, body and soul.”
Welcome to the world of reverse harem.
In a reverse harem novel, the heroine kicks ass, saves the day, overcomes her trials, and falls in love with three or more men who love her unconditionally in return. The men (and sometimes women) in her ‘harem’ are happy to share her and be part of a big, happy family.
This isn’t just a sex thing – some kind of post-50 Shades of Grey reaction – although there is definitely a lot of sex. The readers want to see the relationship develop across a larger story. Some reverse harem books are young adult, and barely contain kissing. Others turn the bedroom acrobatics up to 11. Most are somewhere in between.
The reverse harem world is already vast, encompassing every imaginable type of story. If you want a gothic tale of secrets and betrayal, Eva Chase has the Witch’s Consorts series. What about a twisted Alice in Wonderland where you can forget everything you thought you knew about the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Cheshire Cat? CM Stunich has Allison's Adventures in Underland to sate your bloodlust.
If this sounds like the stuff of FanFiction.net, think again. Reverse harem is currently having its moment in the spotlight, fuelled by an underground movement of indie authors, poly-positive and LGBTQI+ readers, and Amazon’s search algorithms.
The genre actually started in anime, manga, and otome games. In reverse harem anime, the girl has a group of guys who exist around her (and may or may not be in love with her). In the end, she has to choose one of them. Popular reverse harem anime are Uta no Prince-sama!, Fruits Basket, and Ouran High School Host Club.
Female fans of reverse harem anime and manga got sick of the girl having to choose between all the guys. There’s a history of men in these fantasy worlds enjoying a harem of women who share his affections, so why couldn’t it work in reverse?
Some of those fans started writing their own stories where the female main character didn’t have to choose. These stories spread through the queer indie community and became reverse harem as a book genre, collected under the associated hashtag #whychoose.
I’ve been reading this genre since it started to rise in popularity, and I’m proud to count myself among its authors. I love reverse harem because it helps to normalise polyamory and different types of relationships. While reverse harem shows only one type of polyamorous relationship – polyandry – it’s helping to widen the conversation and create acceptance. Many reverse harem books involve elements of bisexuality and homosexuality, promote sex positivity, and often tackle difficult issues as characters struggle to come to terms with being who they are. The majority of books are written from within the community and many are #ownvoices. I love the diversity in the books and how they showcase something many people might consider kinky or creepy as truly beautiful and life-affirming.
If you’re still crying foul that romance novels are ‘unintelligent’, ‘anti-feminist’, or a ‘guilty pleasure’, it’s time to check yourself. In romance books, woman are front and centre, telling their own stories and getting what they want in life. They’re demanding a partner (or partners) who respects them and adores them and will stand up to their fierce intellect and wicked humour, and they’re not apologising.
The romance world – an industry run by women that produces content for women – has led the charge to reject gatekeepers and dismantle the establishment by taking their work directly to readers. Instead of waiting for traditional publishers to fill this niche, reverse harem authors are writing these books as fast as readers can devour them, and they’re frequently smashing through to the top of the Amazon charts.
Reverse harem readers are greedy – they want it all. All the guys (and girls), all the feels, all the sex, all the heartbreaks and heart-throbs and success and pain and dark and light. Next time you need to a novel that places female fantasy and female agency front and centre, try searching ‘reverse harem’ on Amazon and see what appeals.Support Villainesse