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October 11, 2016

When Fiction Is Better Behaved than Reality

Stick figures holding hands with text: Consent Matters: In Fiction & in Life

(Note: Some of my readers might want to disagree with this post because of politics. However,  consent—and lack of consent—should not be politicized, and consent is the topic of this post, not the politics or candidates of the U.S. election. Please try to keep that in mind while reading. Thanks!)

Over this past weekend, the insanity of the current U.S. presidential election increased. While I don’t delve into politics here on my blog, some of the statements excusing the latest escalation dragged in romance authors and readers. Uh, wait, what?

And yeah… That issue I feel like I need to address. *smile*

If you happened to be lucky enough to avoid the news since last Friday, a recording that captured Donald Trump’s words between official interview segments revealed him saying that he…:

  • attempted to have sex with a woman he knew was married, even though he didn’t indicate that she’d ever shown interest
  • kisses and gropes women’s genitals without their consent

I don’t want to get into the debate of whether he really sexually assaults women because Google exists, and those who want to know whether he’s been credibly accused of engaging in problematic behavior can conduct their own research.

What I do want to focus on are some of the Facebook memes and Twitter posts that tried to excuse and pass blame on the outcry over the recording. The gist of these posts is that women shouldn’t be mad about the words used in Trump’s bragging because…Fifty Shades of Grey.

*sigh* Where do I start?

“It’s Just Words”

Actually, before we start, I should make clear that I’m not a fan of Fifty Shades of Grey—at all. I’ve never read the book or seen the movie, and I have no plans to do so. My reasons for that dislike are many, but I’m definitely not jumping into this topic because I’m defending that specific book.

However, yes, sexy stories can use words like:

  • voluptuous
  • kiss
  • a**
  • P****
  • and many, many more.

It’s up to each romance author and reader to decide what words they’re comfortable with for descriptions of the development of the characters’ relationship. But there’s no sex-related word that could be used in a fiction book that should determine whether an author or reader deserves respect.

Words vs. Context

Depending on context, we might call someone a jerk out of anger or playfully. Context matters.

In this case, the memes are trying to conflate the use of words used in a fiction book and the use of words used to describe actions in a real-world, work-related setting, involving actual people. These are not the same context, and it’s disturbing that anyone would need to have this fact pointed out.

Would we ever say:

  • “Don’t be shocked by that gruesome real-life murder when you read murder mysteries”?
  • “Don’t treat real-world political scandals as a big deal because you read political thrillers”?
  • “Don’t get upset that your car was stolen when you play Grand Theft Auto“?

No and no and no.

So why do romance stories, their authors, and their readers receive this treatment? Why are the readers of Fifty Shades of Grey or any story of the romance genre subjected to the idea that if we read about something we must want it for real?

As Bree Bridges (one half of author Kit Rocha) said on Twitter, this idea claims:

“That a woman who choses to read fictional words on a page has abdicated her right to not like men who talk about sexully assaulting them.”

And spoiler alert: Even Christian Grey—as much of an a****** as many find him to be—never brags about grabbing a stranger’s genitals. So even if we ignore the fiction vs. real-world aspect, the context of how any words were used is not the same. Not even close.

As many have pointed out online, the word people most have issues with isn’t p**** but grab. It’s the description of a sexual assault—because there’s no consent.

Consent Matters

The stereotype of the romance genre is about 30 years out-of-date from the reality of most current stories. Long ago, many romances did fit the “bodice ripper” stereotype, where consent was fuzzy, but most of the genre has grown and matured along with modern culture.

Now, most authors and readers demand that consent exists in the story. The heroines in romances often inspire women in the real world to feel more comfortable with expressing their likes and dislikes, and sex-positive relationships are good for everyone.

One of my favorite parts of a romance story is seeing the characters banter and parry, as they exchange information, power, and vulnerability. That’s how they negotiate the aspects of their relationship, and that’s sexual tension in a nutshell. In other words, consent is sexy.

Romance writers usually try to make the characters’ power equal on some level, no matter their circumstances. Even with a billionaire hero, he might fall in love first or fall harder, his desperation to win her heart making him vulnerable. In my story Treasured Claim, the billionaire falls for a shapeshifting dragon who’s stronger—as she demonstrates on him. *smile*

And not that I’m calling Fifty Shades of Grey a paragon example of consent, but even there, he verbally expresses his intentions and she has opportunities to say no before anything happens.

Without an equality of power on some level, consent is much harder to prove to the reader. And if the reader doesn’t believe there’s consent, they’re less likely to support the more powerful character or the relationship.

Consent Matters in Fiction…
and It Shouldn’t Matter Less in the Real World

In other words, for all the insults that assume romance readers can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality, it seems like the accusers are the ones who don’t understand reality:

  • They’re the ones conflating the words in a fiction book with a real-world description of actions.
  • They’re the ones who don’t understand that the issue is the implication of potentially hundreds of real-world sexual assaults and not the individual words chosen to express that potential.
  • They’re the ones struggling to understand what consent means—or what the lack of consent means—legally and ethically.

I’m proud to write stories where consent matters. In my next novel, the hero has been asleep for a couple of hundred years (and is therefore behind the times) and kisses the heroine without her consent. So she punches him. *grin* (And he learns to be much better—and enjoys many consensual kisses later on. *wink*)

If anything, romance authors and readers are some of the biggest experts in consent. Or at least they should be. I know many authors and readers who are disheartened by other romance fans sharing this meme.

But as I said at the outset, the issue is sexual assault and consent, and that topic should never be politicized. If you’ve shared that meme, I encourage you to rethink that decision.

Too many women (and some men) have been victimized by sexual assault. Victims don’t need anyone—especially not fellow romance fans—turning what could be an important conversation about consent into a “gotcha” for political purposes. We all should be able to agree that fiction and reality aren’t equivalent and that non-consensual sexual contact is assault.

Those supporting the romance genre aren’t the ones creating a culture that demeans people in the real world. So people need to stop dragging us into their issues to make excuses for real-world problems and bad behavior, whether we’re talking about politics or not. *smile*

/end rant

Note: This post is not about the candidate himself but about the excuses for his words that somehow decided to focus on the romance genre. Therefore, please refrain from comments about any candidate. My blog is not a platform for anyone to make political arguments or recommendations, and I’m not endorsing any candidate here either. I also won’t tolerate any comments implying that sexual assault is unimportant compared to the stakes of this election. The reality and trauma of sexual assault don’t belong on a political scale of importance at all. Violators will be deleted or edited. Thank you!

Have you seen this meme on Facebook or Twitter? What did you think of it? Did this post change your mind? Do you disagree with my statement for non-political reasons, and if so, why? What are your thoughts on consent in the romance genre versus in real life?

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What do you think?

39 Comments on "When Fiction Is Better Behaved than Reality"

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Julie Glover

I have seen that meme, and it also bothered me. I don’t like 50 Shades for many reasons as well, but I think too many have focused on the crass terms, rather than understanding the consent issue you bring up here.

And I also object to stories that have a woman raped who ends up in love with her perpetrator (yes, Luke and Laura from General Hospital umpteen years ago, I’m looking at you). Because — and I can’t believe I’m having to say this in 2016 — sexual assault is never okay. Never.

Even now, while Sleeping Beauty remains one of my favorite Disney movies, I’m really bothered that the prince kisses her while she’s unconscious. That’s pretty creepy. Glad to know you’ve broken away from that in an upcoming novel. Can’t wait to read!

Deborah Makarios

The pre-Disney non-bowdlerized version of Sleeping Beauty is even worse. Much, much worse. Another on my list of ‘things I can die happily without reading,’ alongside Fifty Shades of Grey.

Sara L.

I haven’t seen the meme, nor do I write exclusively romance. But I have very strong opinions about consent in fiction and real-life… and not only do I agree with everything you said here, but I’m glad that you and other writers are taking the time to discuss this and related issues intelligently. Thank you, Jami.

On a related note: I’m thrilled to be part of the WHW Resident Writing Coach Program with you! 😀

Bill Krafft
Bill Krafft

My wife saw the meme and asked me what I think. Fictionalized and consensual doesn’t translate to real life without consent. I even used the crime novel murder example. I like that you have thought this out a lot more than I did.

This moral equivalency that is being applied to so many behaviors is appalling to me. We are not being given the choice of competing ideology or policy but to the personal destruction of each candidate. I fear for our republic when the discussion of issues is subverted by the cult of personalities. Disregard the candidates and consider, what will the next candidate of personality have in his/her past that may not have been caught on tape? What will be the policies? Which group(s)/population segments will he/she victimize?

Anne R. Allen

I agree with you 100%. One of the main attractions of FoG and other women-oriented erotica is that it’s about seduction. It’s a love story.

What we heard on that tape had nothing to do with love. In fact, the idea is absurd. The language had very little to do with why it was offensive. This was a man admitting to sexual assault.

S. Elizabeth Burnham
S. Elizabeth Burnham

I saw a social meme that involved a celebrity who was once considered a childhood heartthrob of many teens. This meme falls under the 50 Shades of Hypocrisy context. That is, if you liked the 50 Shades of Grey, then you shouldn’t be offended by hearing men speak vulgarities and objectifying women.
It’s fallacious reasoning. First, it lumps all women together. Not every woman saw or liked 50 Shades of Grey (I haven’t seen or read it). Second, just because a woman saw and liked 50 Shades of Grey doesn’t mean she wants to be sexually assaulted.
Rape culturists sidestep the issue of consent. Sometimes they need a real good in-your-face dialogue to understand that they’re missing the point.
It’s been my experience that men tend to empathize with other men quicker than they will with women. I have seen it when male rape survivors talk about consent and argue their point about how rape is not about sexual desire. That it’s about power.
They drive home their point to other men. A Facebook friend of mine stands firm, he puts his foot down. What happens? Most of his male friends offer him sympathy and say that they need to do better.
We need more of this.

Debra Johnson
Debra Johnson

You did a great job dissecting this issue. You provided sound examples of why romance stories changed. Many of the old old “bodice rippers” featured heroines who fell in love with & married men after imprisonment and often, brutal rapes. I recall reading that many of those early works were written by men. At any rate, romance readers rejected this scenario a long time ago. Glad to see authors coming out and clearly stating that consent matters.

Amy Blaze

Forget y’alls *smile* & *sigh* you need to add

*mic drop*

Bravo, well said and I completely concur! My own brand of horror is particularly nasty, however IRL I’m more of a female Walter Mitty. When folks read my tales, afterwards they tend to give me the suspicious side eye. lolz.

I did try to read Fifty Shades, the poor writing had me tear it up and trash it not fifteen pages in, what drivel! For well written S & M, Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy’s the way to go.

Laurie A Will
Laurie A Will

Hi Jamie,

I saw the meme and found it ludicrous and offensive. One really has nothing to do with the other. I didn’t read Fifty Shades of Gray, didn’t want to, but so what if I did. I have a counseling/psychology background. One of my areas of interest was antisocial personality disorder. So I read a lot about serial killers, does that make such things less shocking? Does that mean I am in favor or serial killings? Ludacris. I applaud you taking on this topic and risking political blow back even though as you said, it’s not political. It’s the principal.

Glynis Jolly

Whoa! Jami, are you sure you want to put this out there? Especially about Trump? Of course, look at me here agreeing with you on all accounts. But I’m a Trump hater through and through. And my abomination for him goes way back before he even considered politics. Keep yourself safe.

Faith Freewoman

Thanks, Jami, for a very tweet-worthy subject, beautifully treated. I’m not surprise romance novels (especially pre-2000’s) were dragged out as an excuse for Trump’s behavior, and I’m glad I can Tweet your thoughtful comments for an intelligent rebuttal.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Oh man, I honestly don’t understand why some people STILL don’t understand how important consent is! Even for gay romances, where the power might feel more equal because the two parties are the same gender, there is frequently explicit discussion of consent, where one of the protagonists asks their partner if they’re comfortable doing something before they do it. About kissing on the lips, though, what do you think? I don’t like it when a guy kisses a girl without her explicit and verbal consent, ESPECIALLY if they aren’t in a romantic relationship with each other yet! If they’re already partners, then sudden uninvited mouth-kissing might be okay. On the other hand, I feel fine if a girl kisses a guy, or if someone kisses someone of the same gender. I think this is my feeling about the power imbalance thing again. Honestly I believe this is one reason why I like reading gay romances more than heterosexual romances nowadays, because the protagonists being the same gender feels more equal to me. It’s kind of sad that I feel that way, though, because this gender inequality shouldn’t exist in the first place. 🙁 About guys kissing a girl on the lips when they aren’t in a relationship yet, a friend told me about a survey, where most girls who responded said they preferred it when the guy made the first (kissing) move. But not that many girls preferred the girl making the first move, or when the guy asks for… Read more »
Taurean J Watkins @TaureanWatkins
I’ve not seen this meme, but I sadly am not surprised they exist. One thing I wish we talked about more is abuse and assault doesn’t just happen to women and children, it happens to grown men, too. It may happen to girls and women more, but when we NEVER talk about men who’re sexually abused/assaulted, we make it harder for them to come forward than women as at least women have so many resources, at least for the U.S. and Canada. That plus the whole culture of denying boys and men to valid need to talk about it without judgment, or putting their masculinity on trial, figuratively and culturally, makes it worse. That aside, you’re totally right that context, nuance, and consent play into all of this. The problem isn’t always the words, but the context in which they’re used, and of course consenting. Since I’ve done some erotic writing (mostly for me since I’m too shy to share them with most people) and things that used to disgust me a couple years ago now are fun to write and think about. As I say, my sexual awakening came WAY later than the average man my age so I’m playing catch up in many ways. lol Part of the problem sometimes is that we talk more about what not to do and not enough “What to do instead.” Not just what consent is, and what it isn’t, but also the pleasure and joy exploring sex and sexuality in a… Read more »
Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Great post! I hadn’t seen the issue you describe, but even if it’s being said, a key point would be that women read romance books, not rape books.
A boss deciding to make a pass at a junior who presumably needs to keep her job, is inexcusable abuse of power. So I won’t be reading the book.
A man making coarse remarks about a professional TV hostess he’s about to meet, is sheer vulgarity.

Loni Townsend

I haven’t seen the meme yet, but I definitely side with you on this issue, Jami!

Ingrid
Ingrid

I can’t say if I did see the meme you refer to – if I did it didn’t register. But the issue of consent is major, in fiction and real life. I did read fifty shades, out of curiosity, and I was wary that it may imply rape etc. I read it a long time after it was first published and there was a lot of talk about it. I don’t really read or write romance, but I do read and write crime. Any story I read, if there is anything that requires consent, I like to see how it works out. Consent is important, every where.

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