When Fiction Is Better Behaved than Reality
(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:
- 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.
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*
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?Pin It
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!
Yes, I was never a fan of GH, but I understand. In my upcoming story (that you should see soon! 🙂 ), the heroine points out those Sleeping Beauty issues. 🙂 Thanks for the support!
I wasn’t a fan of GH either, in part because friends encouraged me to start watching it (way back when), but there was this couple named Luke and Laura, and I discovered he’s previously raped her and was like, “No way. No stinkin’ way.”
I don’t blame you at all. 🙂
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.
Yes, very true…
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! 😀
Thanks for the support! And yes–I’m excited to be part of the WHW program too. 🙂 So many great people–like you!–that I’ve recommended over the years!
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?
Thanks for sharing your perspective! So many families are having to deal with their kids hearing the excuses or being approached by bullies in their school parroting the words (“Hey, if so-and-so can get away with saying it, why can’t I?”)–not to mention the attacks and unethical choices being made in every direction–that I feel sorry for those trying to instill good values and morals into the next generation.
As a whole, our society isn’t being a very good role model. *sigh* Thanks for the comment!
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.
Yes, “seduction” is very different than taking advantage of power for self-gratification without thought of the victim. Thanks for the support!
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.
Hi S. Elizabeth,
Yes, I wanted to say something like, “to see if the excuses are simply about politics, imagine someone else bragging about sexual assault.” Unfortunately, rape culture would react the same way if it was the Cookie Monster who’d said it. Some people just don’t want to understand the power dynamics of assault.
I can only hope that we can raise the next generation to do better. Thanks for the support! 🙂
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.
Yes, I don’t read those old-school romances for that reason. Those are the book version of the Luke and Laura issue Julie mentioned above. 🙂 Similarly, I avoid much of the “dark” romance sub-genre in the modern stories too, simply because I’d have to trust the author could succeed in balancing out the power dynamic, and only a super-trusted recommendation could get me to try an unknown author.
But that’s me, and even if readers make different choices, that shouldn’t be the literary equivalent of “well, she was asking for it,” implying that our reading choices prevent us from complaining about real-world issues. 🙂 Thanks for the support!
Forget y’alls *smile* & *sigh* you need to add
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.
LOL! Thanks for the support!
And that’s so true about our real lives as authors often being nothing like our characters or the stories we write. 🙂 What’s on a page is not reality. Thanks for the comment!
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.
Thank you so much for sharing your insights! And I hope I made my case well enough in a non-political way that people would be willing to listen. 🙂 Thanks for the support!
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.
Eh, I honestly don’t consider this post to be about Trump. It’s about the choice of some defenders to respond to a quote describing an attack on women by attacking women AGAIN…for their reading choices.
“Yes, let’s claim the attack isn’t that bad by adding another attack on top, but no, we don’t have a problem with women.” Brilliant! Not. 😉
(Truly, I’m not a fan of any candidate this year. If Hillary’s supporters had dragged romance into politics the same way–or for that matter, if this had been the defense when any big celebrity had made the claim–this post would be exactly the same. 🙂 )
If people can’t see the illogic of conflating fiction and reality, that’s on them. If they can’t see the issue is about consent and not the words used or the politician involved, that’s a reading comprehension issue. 🙂 And besides, if people are too afraid to stand up to anyone in power (whether that be a politician or bullies in a schoolyard), we already face a dictatorship. *shrug* But thanks for the support! 😀
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.
Romance tends to get dumped on for everything and anything, so I’m not surprised either. But at some point, we have to put up our hand and say, “Now just a darn minute. Stop.” 🙂 Thanks for your support!
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 »
Hi Serena, Oh! I love that point about power inequality and gay romances. As you said, characters can still have a power differential because of work or class status, etc., but the gender side of social status is negated. Awesome insight! And yes! I’ve seen some try to make fun of consent, as though it takes all the fun and spontaneity out of it. But a) it should be fun for everyone, and b) it often just means a quick line like “Are you sure?” to ensure the signals and comfort level are where one assumes before taking major steps. You’re right that kissing can be an interesting situation, as I know many women who swoon at the thought of someone they like being overcome at the need to kiss them without explicit verbal consent. I remember one romance author tweeting that her relationship with her now-husband started when–after they’d made eyes at each other in college–he caught up to her in a stairwell and kissed her against the wall. 😉 I think the key there is that interest was clearly expressed first. Strong interest–flirting, direct eye contact, smiles, open and encouraging body language, etc.–can act as consent (in my mind) for the first step of a relationship. If the parties already know each other on some level (don’t need introductions), the next step could be to ask them on a date or start physical contact (hand to arm/shoulder/face or kissing, etc.). If people have empathetic understanding of others, verbal… — Read More »
Hahaha, I love how there are different opinions on the kissing matter! Thanks for sharing your perspective too. 🙂 For me, I would actually be quite upset if a guy kissed me first, even if I clearly see his romantic interest and even if I feel romantic interest towards him. On the other hand, if a girl kissed me first under the same conditions, I would probably have the swooning reaction. XDD (Btw, I recently developed a crush on a female classmate…which is horrible because I think she’s straight, lol. She also has a boyfriend so I would really like my feelings to go away asap. 🙁 ) This is probably related to my strange quirk where, if a guy asked me out, I would be scared and freaked out. But if a girl asked me out, I would feel so flattered and honored, LOL. I know I’m supposedly bisexual yet I don’t look very bi here, hehe. But yeah, I think I’m more romantically interested in girls than in boys. The thought of dating a boy kind of fills me with boredom, while the thought of dating a girl feels more interesting and exciting. Yet, I am capable of intense of attraction to both boys and girls. Attraction and interest are completely different things to me, haha. Well, anyway, different strokes for different folks! I find that I feel the strongest attraction (and interest) towards people who are nonbinary in gender identity but who were assigned female at birth,… — Read More »
LOL! Not narcissistic at all. 🙂
Psychologists might eventually dig into whether society has built up so many expectations or internal scripts of what hetero dating would be like vs. the lack of those expectations with same sex dating that it can create different reactions in bi people. So it doesn’t sound unusual to me at all. LOL!
Plus, I thought I’ve seen a scale that pointed out how attraction and interest are different functions for most people. I know many straight women who drool over such-and-such male celebrity (attraction) but think they’re a scumbag as a person and would never want a relationship with them. So, nah, not unusual at all. 😀
Oh, interesting! Because I brought this up with a number of people, and most of them said they’ve never been crazy about someone without desiring them before, haha. Once again, this might be about our social circle or something? Oh, and btw, I meant crushes on people we meet in our own life, not celebrities, haha. Also, when I say “want to date” someone, I mean it as a purely emotional reaction rather than a reaction with anything rational in it. So you could rationally think that being involved with person X would be a bad idea, because they have these problems, or you have your own reasons for not wanting to get involved (e.g. they are not of your religion). But your emotional and irrational brain might want to date them. Does that make sense? I know it sounds like I’m trying to split hairs again, lol, but this is a topic I’ve been analyzing to death XD, so I’ve reflected a lot on my feelings towards this. Do I not want to date my classmate because: 1) she already has a significant other, 2) she is probably straight, 3) my mom is highly homophobic (and I’m not out to everyone), 4) I might not even be her type or fit her ideal partner criteria, 5) I don’t think we have enough similar interests, 6) I’m not into relationships personally, OR is there an emotional reason as well? What I mean is, if: she’s single and attracted to girls… — Read More »
LOL! (And I’m not laughing at you–you know that–but at the overly analytical long comment because I so understand that perspective. I overthink everything. 😀 )
Anyway, I know several married people who love the feeling of falling in love, but obviously they can’t personally fall in love again and remain true to their spouse. So for them, reading romance is a great way to experience the feelings without the relationship, and I think it’s great that you’ve discovered how it works maybe somewhat similarly for you. 🙂 (And I cracked up at the dog example, but I understand what you meant. LOL!)
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 »
You know I agree with you completely. As I mentioned at the end of the post, both women and men have been victims of sexual assault, and I don’t minimize the suffering male victims have endured just because they’re men.
If you check out my reply to Serena above, you can see where I pointed out how I disagree with a double standard and how I think the power inequality can be in the favor of women sometimes (not to mention that men can sexually assault men and boys). And as you say, the issue of consent should not be put all on one gender or party. Both parties should be equally responsible for checking on the comfort level and interest of the other.
Thank you for sharing your insights and for taking the time to emphasize that fact! 🙂
Thanks for replying, Jami, I’m looking over Serena’s replies, but I did feel it was important to offer a male perspective since women tend to speak out more on this issue.
When men do speak out they often use their wives, daughters and female relatives, but excludes boys and men from being potential victims.
Again, while girls and women may be the majority, to ignore boys and men who face this, that’s making their pain and struggles look abnormal and invisible.
Women still struggle to speak out despite all the organizations and outlets for support. When boys and men see next to nothing for them, they feel alone, and I truly admire and respect the few boys and men who do speak up inspite of all that’s stacked against them.
Even outside this issue, there are parts of society where men and boys are in the minority and don’t feel they belong, that’s not being misogynistic, that’s making a fair and reasonable observation to me.
But sometimes I fear some women can focus so much on what they don’t have and to even the playing field (again as they rightly should), but we shouldn’t have to create a reverse dichotomy where men’s issues are seen as petty and demonically patriarchal.
You’re exactly right. If women still struggle to speak out, even with all the support, how much harder must it be for men? Sean Kent just posted about his sexual assault on Twitter this evening, and it’s astonishingly insightful about the emotional turmoil victims go through with self-blame, and it’s only worse when a man feels like they should have been “strong” enough to prevent it.
Let us hope that we as a society will stop accepting the assault of anyone. We should be able to support both genders without bringing one or the other down. Thanks for the comment!
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.
Yes, I have much lower tolerances for alpha-hole behavior in heroes than some readers, so jerk characters would have to do an awful lot of groveling to make me think they deserve to “win” love. As you said, romance is different rape, and even today’s jerk characters don’t go that far. 🙂 Thanks for the support!
I haven’t seen the meme yet, but I definitely side with you on this issue, Jami!
Thanks for the support, Loni! 🙂
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.