Romance and the Language of Consent
All too often in my experience, people pick on the romance genre. They think romance stories are silly, or unrealistic, or formulaic, or too girly, or just porn for women.
On the one hand, fans of the genre might disagree. Of course some examples of the genre won’t be stellar—they might be poorly written or have a problematic premise—but the same can be said of any genre.
On the other hand, fans of the genre might agree…and say “So what? Why does it matter to you what some people like? Why are you trying to police anyone’s reading choices?”
Either way, putting down the largest genre of stories based on a minority of books or on their opinion of what (mostly) women “should” be reading says more about how much the attacker thinks to score a few “easy points” than about the genre itself.
Many intelligent essays have pointed out that it’s no coincidence that a genre written mostly by and for women—and that features women’s happiness front and center—gets picked on the most. Why, it’s almost like the idea of women having agency (as authors, as readers, and as characters) upsets the status quo. *grin*
All of that plays into why I’m proud to write romance. So it’s no surprise that the #MeToo movement empowering women (along with male victims) has prompted a lot of thoughts in me about the role of the romance genre in women’s lives.
Sex-Positivity Isn’t a Given
As I’ve said before, I never expected to become a romance author because I didn’t have a “sex positive” history. I’ve always believed that love is the most powerful force in the world, but I didn’t think I’d write any of those scenes—you know the ones. I didn’t think I could.
If you’ve read any of my novels, you know my muse had other ideas. I couldn’t “close the door” during intimate encounters without feeling like I was cheating the story and my readers of my characters’ emotional journeys.
Luckily, before my muse had me write any sexy scenes, I’d already started reading romance. For the most part, the romance genre focuses on showing positive relationships, so romance stories helped me recognize that desires and sexuality are, in fact, healthy.
Now, with years of reading and writing romance under my belt, I’d consider myself sex-positive. I can even give “the talk” to pre-teens and teens without batting an eye. *smile*
So I’ve seen both sides of the situation when it comes to sex-positivity. And I think the different perspectives on this issue explain part of the debate about consent.
What Is Consent?
Most of the cases being talked about with the #MeToo movement involve active harm, such as harassment or assault. For many of those, the question of consent doesn’t enter the equation, and we can all agree the attacker is in the wrong.
However, in some cases, we’ve heard of a victim going along with the attacker out of fear. Perhaps they were afraid of bodily harm, losing their job, being blacklisted, or intangible threats they couldn’t identify other than pointing to the attacker’s greater power.
Manipulation and coercion are big problems in encounters between people of different power levels. The old-school “rule” of No Means No isn’t enough when a victim doesn’t feel safe or empowered to say no.
To try to combat that uncertainty, there’s been a push to change the “rule” to An Enthusiastic Yes Means Yes. The idea is that a victim might feel too scared to say no or be pressured into saying yes, but honest enthusiasm is real consent.
Society Hasn’t Shown Us What Consent Looks Like
Enthusiastic consent is very different from what much of pop culture has shown us about sexual encounters. I grew up in the era of teen (and adult) movies that almost all included a reference to what we’d now consider rape (or at least cringingly problematic behavior).
Pop culture does a poor job of teaching consent, but romance stories might help. Click To TweetIn popular culture, women have long been considered objects, a prize to be won by the “hero” who’d succeeded in his quest. What the woman wanted was never considered. In fact, as far as much of society and pop culture’s history is concerned, women didn’t have an internal life at all.
That attitude carries over to real life and a sense of entitlement. “I did X (was nice, paid for dinner, helped her move, etc.), so I’ve earned Y.” However, women aren’t vending machines, empty of their own will or preferences and obligated to hand out sex to anyone who thinks they’ve paid for the right to get it.
Yesterday, Alexandra Erin pointed out on Twitter here and here (or view the whole thread) how men are often excused due to their assumed internal intentions and women are blamed due to their external actions:
“When we’re asked to consider that a man meant well and had no intent to transgress, that’s subjectivity. When we’re only allowed to consider what a woman did, externally, that’s a denial of subjectivity.
…Our culture does not adequately prepare us to deal with women being subjects rather than objects, having subjectivity, having desires and emotions as real and important as those of a man’s.”
Sexual encounters are too-often framed as men conquering, tricking, cajoling, and taking. Historically, it was women’s job to hold onto her innocence and men’s job to take it from them by any means at their disposal.
That picture from popular culture is very different from the image of enthusiastic consent. And many men (and even some women) haven’t thought through how that implicit power differential affects women. (This Twitter thread includes dozens of replies from women sharing some of the things they’ve done to try to stay safe while dating in a society where they’re considered prey not equals.)
The Idea of “Enthusiastic Consent” Is Great…
Those of us who read romance know exactly what that enthusiasm looks like: the couple reaching for each other, needing their hands on each other, their eyes searching each other’s gazes, their lips and fingers tangling in their haste, moans, gasps, pleading and begging.
Romance stories show how “enthusiastic consent” can be sexy. Click To TweetContrary to the naysayers who claim enthusiastic consent is akin to filling out a contract, romance readers have seen countless ways to make enthusiastic consent hot and sexy. Characters in a romance often make the other one beg for what they want, or they’ll verbally compete to see who wants the other one more.
In other words, enthusiastic consent requires a situation where the couple is making a decision as one. They’re both filled with desire, and they’re partners, equals, trying to share an experience.
Sharing. Not taking. Not conquering. Not manipulating. Not pestering. Not guilting. Not coercing.
As this article says about expecting enthusiastic consent: “It shifts the acceptable moral standard for sex, making it much clearer to everyone when someone is violating that standard.”
Or as this article points out about men who accept less than enthusiastic consent: “Don’t you want the woman having sex with you to be completely gung-ho about it?”
…Except for When We Can’t Admit It
If you read my post from Tuesday, it’s no surprise that my bias toward believing partnerships make for healthier relationships means that I’m a big supporter of enthusiastic consent. However, my non-sex-positive past means that I also know that we’re not all on the same page.
As I mentioned in my post about the debate of writing open- or closed-door sex scenes in our stories:
“Young adults are told to accept nothing less than “enthusiastic consent”—which is great…in theory. But in real life, many people weren’t raised with a healthy, sex-positive perspective, so enthusiastic behavior could be seen as something shameful.
Should only those confident and outgoing enough to express their desire get to have sex? Of course not. But nuanced depictions of the consent stages of relationships might help show the variations found in the real world.”
We’re not all speaking the same language when it comes to expectations regarding sex. Not just as far as what consent looks like, but also whether we think women can (or should) enjoy sex as much as men, or if it’s something women “give as a gift” to men while enduring the process, etc.
And developing that language and vocabulary is where the romance genre really shines:
- showing readers what enthusiastic consent looks like
- showing readers all types of characters who accept (or learn to accept) that sexuality isn’t bad or shameful
- showing readers that we’re all different in what works for us or doesn’t work for us and it’s okay to verbalize and express our preferences
Romance Stories: Developing Our Knowledge & Vocabulary
This past weekend, author Jennifer Weiner posted a great article on this topic of romance novels and sex education at the New York Times:
“They taught readers that sexual pleasure was something women could not just hope for but insist upon. … When you don’t know how to ask, when you can’t bring yourself to tell, when you don’t possess the language with which to talk about desire, that’s when you can end up with crossed wires, missed signals, mixed messages, a guy who goes to sleep thinking, “That was fun!” and a girl who goes home crying in an Uber.”
Or as romance bookseller Bea Koch was quoted in the article:
“They highlight conversations about consent, birth control and myriad other topics that people generally find difficult to talk about. In some instances, it can be a literal script for how to bring up difficult topics with a partner. They give a road map to people wanting to experiment with their sexuality, or even just get in touch with what they want and need in a sexual relationship.”
Bree Bridges (one half of romance author Kit Rocha) continued the conversation on Twitter (or view her whole thread):
“Romance novels’ big crime isn’t giving women unrealistic expectations. It’s just… giving them expectations. And we’re not supposed to have those because they are very inconvenient for the people who have never been forced to reckon with our humanity or our inner lives.”
Of course in a genre so huge, not every romance novel is a great (or even good) example of consent. Some “dark romances” depict outright abuse. So I’m not claiming the whole genre is perfect and should be celebrated on these grounds.
However, there’s more good in the genre than bad when it comes to consent because it defaults to empowering women as characters (and thus readers and authors too). And as for the charge of unrealistic expectations, I’ve talked before about how romances aren’t wholely unrealistic. Obviously, we’re unlikely to meet a prince or werewolf or whatever, but love is powerful, sexy enthusiastic consent is possible, and respectful relationships are realistic.
Romance reading and writing gave me the vocabulary to have important conversations with myself. Even in a healthy, respectful relationship without consent issues, we can’t strongly advocate for ourselves without the right language to express our needs. Romance gave me that knowledge. *smile*
How do you define consent? What bad pop culture examples that mislead people about consent have you seen? Have you seen good examples (and if so, where)? Do you think romance reading can help people become more comfortable with enthusiastic consent or avoid shame? Do you have other insights to share?Pin It
I LOVE all this thoughtful information on writing Romances. So my next question is WHEN is your new workshop on romances going to be available!!! I can’t wait!
Thanks for the post.
LOL! Yeah, it’s on my list of things to do. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
This is an incredibly insightful post, Jami. Thank you for putting in the time and the compassion it took to craft it.
Of the hundreds, perhaps even thousands (I’m old), of romance novels I’ve read over the last 40 years, I always call up “Whitney, My Love” when I’m prompted to think of an example (and there are many others, but that’s the one that’s emblazoned in memory) of non-consensual sex in the romance genre. I know that’s damned near sacrilege. Still, it’s the one that made me uncomfortable long before this conversation was even contemplated.
Hi C C,
Yes, I haven’t read it (I missed that whole bodice-ripper phase, as I wasn’t reading the genre back then), but I know that book is famous, precisely because of the “hero’s” egregious treatment of the heroine. I’m glad the genre has moved past that for the most part, and now I just avoid the “dark” romance subgenre. *shudder* Thanks for sharing your insights!
I saw an interesting article the other day – from the Washington Post, I think – pointing out that the hookup culture has complexified the issue of consent, because a lot of how we express desire or the lack thereof is not verbal, and it can be hard to accurately read the non-verbal cues of someone who is basically a complete stranger to you.
Enthusiastic consent is great (though I have my doubts about “making the other one beg for what they want” – it seems manipulative and a power imbalance all of its own), but we should at minimum be insisting on unequivocal consent. And if that means only having sex with people you know well enough to be sure of, well, that’s not a bad thing.
That’s a really good point about the difficulty added when trying to read and understand a stranger. I’m glad I’m not growing up in the hookup culture. (Yay for being old? LOL!) That said, as so many have pointed out in similar articles, if we’re not sure how someone feels, we should ask. 🙂
As for your other concern, I agree there could be a power imbalance or manipulation with making someone do something, but as I stated in the post, we’re framing it here as part of a partnership. That means rather than acting out of selfishness or thinking only of self-pleasure, making the other beg would be a tease to increase desire and enhance pleasure for both parties. Like in the case of a game of domination and submission, consent isn’t necessarily about the actions but about whether it works for both. Mutual pleasure isn’t selfish or mixed messages. 😉 Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
Thanks for a terrific article on a touchy subject, Jami. I enjoy all your posts, and pass them on often…including this one!!! My adult daughter is very involved with social justice, for women and LGBQetc in particular, and she’s shared a lot of info about this, but this discussion knitted it together for me. I also respect the way you used your non-sex-positive background as an analytical tool.
Aww, thanks for the kind words! Another great thing about enthusiastic consent is that it applies to non-heteronormative relationships as well. The old assumptions of man-takes-from-passive-woman really don’t work in the LGBTQ+ world, but affirmative consent and mutual desire work no matter the combinations of the couple. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
This is a thought-provoking article. I have loved your novels because of your imagination, but normally I don’t read much romance. This gives a deep purpose to writing romances. I tried to write one but I had no real purpose, no compulsion to continue beyond an introduction. The idea that writers can model different relationships both beneficial and negative in romance novels is intriguing. I hadn’t seen the concept laid out so well before. I agree the current news stories give an added dimension of importance to what romance writers present in their stories. They have an opportunity to “do good” by fleshing out our feelings and options as women.
Quite often in social history romances – about working and not well off women of the past – we find that the heroine has little say in marriage and not a very exciting sex life. If she is lucky her circumstances change and she meets someone better suited to her in every way.
I am in college now and there are posters up along the lines of “You asked her name, you asked her for a date, you asked her home, but did you ask if she wanted sex?” And similar ones for two guys. With the final message that sex without consent is rape.
Yeah, romances can indeed give people the knowledge of what “enthusiastic consent” can look like. And I appreciate your bringing up how non-sex-positive environments may complicate things. I know that in the traditional Chinese culture, women are not supposed to express their enjoyment, let alone enthusiasm, for sex, otherwise they would be seen as “dang fu” (which basically means whore or slut). Not that this cultural difference is any excuse for making someone have sex without their permission, though. Sometime ago, I read a fantasy mostly set in ancient China. There was a scene where the main hero forces the heroine to have sexual relations with him. I was shocked, because that would be deemed rape, since it was clearly non-consensual. Yet, I realize that before I learned about the necessity of consent, I would not have known that this was very problematic. Apparently, what the hero did would be considered “okay” in that context, because: 1) he loves her and she loves him; 2) he was very upset and believed that she cheated on him (she’s innocent, actually); 3) he has a rascal personality anyway, so this would be expected; 4) He is pretty much her boss and superior, so she didn’t have the power to say no to him. 5) This was set in ancient China, where there was no concept of consensual sex, as far as I know. Very cringe-worthy and problematic stuff indeed. 🙁 Even more disturbing that I didn’t realize how wrong this was until… — Read More »
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