This post was born from the comments thread of a months-old post on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog, where a few other readers and I talked briefly about the reverse harem trope and its popularity. While I have coauthored several reverse harem (RH) romance books, I should say that I do not see myself as an absolute authority on the subject, and readers and authors alike will probably agree with some of my points and disagree with others.
What is reverse harem?
The most common definition for Western RH that I’ve seen floating around RH reader groups is that there’s one female main character and three or more male characters who fall in love with her, and she enjoys a relationship with each man. The largely held expectation is that the female main character never has to choose between the love interests, and she should end up with all of them. #WhyChoose is a popular hashtag denoting an RH story both on book retailer sales pages and on social media. As an author, if you break this “rule” of the heroine not needing to choose, you risk alienating a large and vocal group of readers.
The definition can get a little fuzzy, as there’s some debate whether books marketed as MFMM+ ménage or polyamory are the same thing as reverse harem romances. I am not going to attempt solving that puzzle in this post, but author T.B. Mann was generous enough to share with me how she once explained it at an author-reader event: RH books focus on relationships over sex. “It’s not group sex, dating around before picking one, or even open relationships,” she says, “but rather a closed group relationship where the men have a relationship as well, even if it isn’t sexual.”
There are variations within the definition, however. Some series marketed as RH will include polyamorous romances, with two or more of the harem members loving each other romantically and/or sexually just as much as they love the female main character. Some authors introduce female members into their protagonists’ harems. The possibilities abound, and that’s what makes it so much fun—there’s something for everyone!
RH romances can be written as standalones, but series are very popular. Readers might also enjoy new additions to the harem as a series continues. Joely Sue Burkhart did this in her Their Vampire Queen series to great effect.
Trope or genre?
Many people (myself included) have called RH a genre or subgenre, but I would argue that it is actually a trope. However, it’s a trope that, at least in the Western indie book world, seems to want a specific definition. Most other tropes seem broad in scope. “Friends to lovers” doesn’t specify how long the couple had to be friends before they were lovers, or how good of friends they were. “Secret baby” doesn’t say how old the baby has to be. “May/December” doesn’t tell us how many years’ difference is necessary to fit that particular trope. But RH requires three or more harem members loving one woman, and the woman not choosing between them.
Because RH is a trope and not a genre or subgenre, it can be found in any genre. Contemporary? You got it. Paranormal? They are everywhere. Sci-fi and dystopian and fantasy, too. I’m hard-pressed to come up with a historical RH book or series off the top of my head, but I’ve no doubt several exist.
The origin of RH and its rise in popularity
From my limited understanding of the origin of reverse harem, it began in Japanese manga and anime. This Wikipedia page supports that understanding. At the bottom of the page, we’re informed that the finales of manga and anime reverse harem series have the main character choosing one of their harem members, or choosing none of them. It also states, “American erotica does not follow this pattern.” I disagree with the use of the word “erotica,” which doesn’t fit with my views of RH.
Given my admittedly nonexistent experience with reverse harem in Japanese manga and anime, I will not be covering it in this post. This is not to discount RH’s origin, but to focus on what I know. However, a close friend of mine loves manga, and she recommends Ouran High School Host Club, Fruits Basket, Fushigi Yuugi, Yona of the Dawn, and Kamisama Kiss. (I asked for two, and she recommended five, and this is why we are BFFs.)
The first RH I read was not manga or anime—it was Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. The series wasn’t categorized as RH at the time (and I’ve seen fans of RH debate whether Anita Blake qualifies even now, saying it’s polyamorous romance instead), but hers are the books I would count as my first introduction.
RH in the indie book world is harder to pin down. In the mid-2000s, Samhain published Maya Banks’s Colters’ Legacy series. 2011 showed Amira Press publishing Eve Langlais’s Defying Pack Law. Laura Jo Phillips’s Soul-Linked Saga is now sometimes called reverse harem.
As far as I can tell, the words “reverse harem” were not used to describe the abovementioned books at the time of their publication; rather, “multiple ménage” was the term employed. A few early indie series that either used the words “reverse harem” in marketing from the outset or now use it include C.L. Stone’s Ghost Bird, Eve Newton’s Forever, AS Oren’s Spearwood Academy, and Amy Sumida’s Godhunter. In 2016, after RH became A Thing, early indies put together the first RH anthology, titled Falling for Them. It’s no longer available, but you can find the Goodreads link here if you’re interested in seeing which Western indie authors were among the first to embrace the RH term.
The first time I encountered the term “reverse harem,” I was working on a freelance editing project in 2017. My client’s manuscript came with the subtitle A Reverse Harem Fantasy Romance. I’d never heard of such a thing, but I could guess what it was about, and I was super enthusiastic to find out more.
Over the next few months, I saw much discussion of the trope in author groups on Facebook and I discussed it with my reader and author friends. RH had already been around—2017 was not early in the RH game by any stretch, but it suddenly seemed like RH was everywhere on Amazon. RH was exploding in multigenre fireworks, with fans posting picture collages of their celebrity harems, authors gleefully writing more and more books, and reader groups welcoming new members every day.
Can we please talk about all the dicks?
The concept itself sounds very steamy and even scandalous to some—one woman and multiple dudes! Oh my! But RH can have little to no steam, where nobody even kisses until several books into a series (for example, C.L. Stone’s Ghost Bird, mentioned above, and B.L. Brunnemer’s Veil Diaries). Readers describe those series as “slow burn.” “Fast burn” series can get crazy hot, crazy fast. As with any romance, the explicitness of the sexytimes varies, although we’ll see most fast burn RH getting rather descriptive.
Some might question the purpose of romance between one woman and multiple partners without the steam, and I think that question gets at the heart of reverse harem’s appeal: the fantasy is for the reader, who likely wants to imagine herself as the single object of multiple love interests. RH fulfills a desire of the reader’s psyche, just as any other trope does, and that desire doesn’t have to be sexual.
One challenge in writing or reading RH is similar to that of reading or writing any book with an ensemble cast—it’s difficult to get to know several characters in 250 pages. I’d argue that this is one reason why series are so popular in RH romance. Even then, in some of my favorite series, I don’t feel the harem members were as fleshed out as I wanted them to be.
Has RH run its course?
Reverse harem had a meteoric rise in 2017 and 2018, at least from my perspective as an indie author and publisher. The bulk of RH books were written and published by indie authors, many of whom placed their books in the Kindle Unlimited program to reach a voracious audience. These savvy authors utilized Amazon ads to build their reach. The downside of this popularity was that the trope soon became a target for scammers who abused weaknesses in the Kindle Unlimited system. In spring of 2018, several authors’ Amazon accounts were suspended and their projected royalties slashed in half. (To provide a fuller picture, I’d like to clarify that it was not only RH romance authors who were affected by the scamming and Amazon’s attempts to thwart it. However, there were enough of us affected to make a guess that RH had been a popular target for scammers.)
I believe the scamming dampened some authors’ enthusiasm for the trope; I know I felt crushed by it! However, my coauthor and I kept writing, and the audience was still there, and they remain. Readers still want RH, and I expect this to continue indefinitely.
My personal take is that RH is a long-lived trend that will remain super popular with its core fans. It may eventually return to being another trope that readers occasionally seek out as they would second-chance romances or billionaire romances, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
Whatever happens with RH, I’ve found much delight in not only penning novels, but in discovering new authors and stories, and in watching how the harems play out in very different and vivid imaginations, from sweet to steamy.
I hope this post satisfies the curiosity of readers who might’ve been questioning the appeal of reverse harem. Maybe it will encourage some to give it a try!