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Why Consent Is Imperative in Romance Novels

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If you’ve been playing along, you know I recently had some encounters with heterosexual romance novels again. I’m honestly over the proliferation of 50 Shades/After/365 style stuff, which tend to glorify things like abuse and rape and gloss over stuff like consent and bodily autonomy and treating women as people, not objects.

This pile of Barbie dolls in various pieces could represent the way some people see women in society.
(Skitterphoto / Pexels.com)

And as much as people can tell reality from fiction and vice-versa, there is a point where lines get blurred. If all you ever see are these poor representations, then you’re going to believe these are natural and normal and, moreover, correct.

That’s why it is so, so, so important for romance writers to consider the issue of consent and to include it in their books.

Consent Is Sexy

Now, a lot of people hear “you need to have them consent” and they think that means you have to have the characters sit there and discuss what they’re going to do. They have to have some big conversation, maybe sign a contract before they get down to business.

In all actuality, consent is a lot more subtle than that. And that’s important, because consent has to be ongoing. This is not a one-and-done sort of thing. This is not Ana Steele and Christian Grey sitting down and negotiating a contract in one scene and then he has the right to do whatever he wants forever and always.

Consent, once given, can be withdrawn. And that’s an important message to convey, especially to young women (and girls, ‘cause let’s face it, we all know we stole our grandmothers’ “dirty books” when we were 12 or so). If you consent to one thing, that doesn’t mean you consent to everything. You can withdraw consent if something happens that you don’t like. Maybe you’re okay with kissing or touching, but you don’t want to go much further than that. Maybe something starts to hurt. If so, you can withdraw consent.

And that should be respected. And a hero who respects that? That’s super sexy. They care and wants to be sure their partner is cool with everything they do.

Using Consent to Express Desire

That kind of respect leads us to situations where the hero and partner are constantly negotiating their exchange. I’ve talked about how sex is about power dynamics, and consent is a prime example of that at work. When the hero continually checks in with the partner, it gives us continual give-and-take between the two of them. We understand that they both have power in this moment. Yes, the hero could just go on regardless, but they are choosing to surrender some of that power. In turn, the partner gains the power to stop the action at any point.

A leather whip and collar on a red background. Implements like these are common in BDSM settings, which rely on consent.
(Anna Shvets / Pexels.com)

The partner technically should always have the power; BDSM relationships function on that principle. Yes, one partner is “submissive,” but done correctly, the submissive actually holds most of the power. They can stop the scene at any point. (Technically, the dom can as well, and it’s the dom’s job to push the sub where they need to go and not any further—they need to be quite attentive to what the sub needs from them.)

Now, you might be thinking, oh, continual consent is going to get exhausting. “Is this okay?” “Yes.” “Are you sure.” “Yes.” “How about now?”

Oh, just shut up and get on with it, right? They already said yes once!

But this is the thing: consent doesn’t have to be quite so cut and dried. Consent, when done correctly, is a chance for the partners to express continual desire.

And that’s pretty damn sexy, actually.

Is the Character into It?

This is my golden rule for writing sex scenes. I developed it after discussion with my editor, who, admittedly, does not see the appeal of sex scenes. If you’ve read any of my books, you know I write a fair amount of graphic-ish sex. Not as graphic as it could be, but fade to black this is not.

My editor enjoys my work, but she always stumbles on the sex scenes. She’s admitted she finds pretty much any kind of dirty talk “cringey.” As I said, she fails to find the appeal in these scenes. (With her full permission, I’ll mention here that she is ace.)

So, we were discussing how she could approach these scenes. She was having trouble with them, because she has a tendency to zone out, skim sex scenes, because they don’t appeal to her.

In thinking about this, I said, “The important thing is not how we feel about it; it’s how the character feels.”

I read a lot of kink that I know I don’t specifically enjoy IRL. It’s not my thing. I’m not super into pain, for example. Yet I’ll read about characters who enjoy pain, who want to be pushed to the point of it or further.

In real life, I do find dirty talk difficult and a little silly. Objectively, a lot of it is pretty cringey, and you might get laughed at if you break it out in the bedroom. Yet, in fiction, it’s pretty natural.

So, what makes the difference? It’s if the character is into it.

Fiction is all about making us feel what the character is feeling. So if this is their kink, if the dirty talk is turning them on, then what’s really important here is not what’s done or said, but how it makes the character feel.

And if the character is into it, then we can quickly find our way around the issue of consent. A character who is into what their partner is going to express vocal appreciation of that. They’re going to consent, maybe. If that character is the POV character, we’re going to understand that they are very, very happy to keep going forward with this scenario.

Writing Kink and Dubious Consent

The golden rule here also keeps us this side of writing rape. We can have scenarios that involve certain kinks, poorly negotiated kink practice or BDSM scenarios, as well as dubious consent, so long as we can portray that the characters are into it.

What does this look like in practice? Here’s a short excerpt from Boardroom Omega as an example:

“You’re not getting out of this bed until I say you can,” Perce snarled, threaded his hands in the alpha’s hair, those auburn locks. “I’m in heat—I’m going to keep you pinned down here, make you satisfy my every need.”

Jake groaned long and loud against him, and Perce’s eyes were wide, his breathing too fast for his own good. “Oh my god,” Jake whined, “oh my god, yes.”

The main character, Percival, is not asking his partner for permission. He is simply telling him how this is going to go. Jake’s reaction, though, tells us that Jake is one hundred percent down with that. He is super into this.

Yes, technically we get the vocal consent—Jake says “yes.” He consents. There’s a question of what would happen if he didn’t—Perce is not technically asking.

The cover for Boardroom Omega, which features a blond man in a business suit superimposed over a dramatic cityscape.

But Jake is very clearly into it, and the issue is avoided. We don’t need to worry about how this scenario would play out if Jake said no, because he doesn’t say no. He is very enthusiastic and clearly into this idea.

So not only is he consenting but he’s expressing desire too. He is “into it.” And we don’t have to like Perce’s domineering attitude; we don’t have to like what he says or think it sounds hot. What matters here is that these two characters are both into it, consenting to each other, and continuing.

This is not the only point where their sexual interactions play out this way. Perce likes giving orders; Jake likes being ordered around. Perce gets off on being in charge; Jake gets off on not being in charge. There’s a power exchange happening here, but one that both characters are negotiating as they continue to interact with each other.

And this comes back to the golden rule: this is okay so long as the characters are into it. After all, kink is something very personal and YMMV with any kink. And this is always how I’ve managed to get around the issue of “your kink is not my kink” when it comes to reading: what I’m assessing is not how “hot” I personally find the scenario. I’m assessing how hot the characters find it, how into it they are.

Because desire, want, need is incredibly sexy.

How to Avoid Making Non-Con “Okay”

There is still an issue here. Even if we invoke the “golden rule” and make a character super into something, we don’t totally avoid the issue of non-con. If a character is reluctant until they get into the middle of something, we could accidentally be writing non-con.

How so? Physiological reactions are natural and normal. That’s why shit like “her mouth says no, but her body says yes” is highly problematic. You need to listen to my mouth, not my body. Because my body is going to react.

Lots of people point to this when they try to blame victims. (There’s even the nonsensical idea that, unless a person actually wanted it, a baby conceived of a rape event would be aborted. Sorry, it doesn’t work like that; whether the person wanted it or not does not matter to conception and subsequent pregnancy. But certain groups like to argue that if a rape victim ends up pregnant, then it wasn’t really rape because they wanted it.)

This can make the rape event even more traumatic and confusing for victims. If they didn’t want it, why did their bodies react this way? In effect, they feel they were “turned on,” which would suggest that, on some level, they were enjoying themselves.

Nope. Physical reaction is not necessarily tied to desire, something researchers pointed out when they did studies of women’s physiological reactions pornography. Women were aroused by any kind of porn (as measured by vaginal blood flow and secretions). Didn’t matter if they identified themselves as straight, lesbian, or bi/pan. Straight women watching lesbian porn still showed signs of physical arousal, even if they didn’t want to engage in that activity themselves.

Two Asian women dressed in flowing robes rest on an ornate sofa. The woman to the right of the frame, who wears white, rests her head in the other woman's lap.
I mean, who doesn’t like lesbians? (Yaroslav Shuraev / Pexels.com)

(Researchers theorized this had something to do with the “taboo” of watching porn; the other part of the theory is that sexual content just kind of makes us react.)

When you take a normal, healthy body and apply touch, it reacts. The problem, of course, is that the physical reaction doesn’t necessarily constitute desire or want. An unwanted touch can still lead to physical arousal.

So, penises will still get erect and vaginas will still get wet (yes, they’re supposed to do that) when touched, even if the touch is unwanted or uninvited.

That is confusing for the victim, and more confusing when their assailant suggests that their physical reaction means they do actually want it or when society blames them and says that they must have wanted it.

When we’re writing, then, we need to be very cautious and careful about falling into this trap. Desire is not simply about the physiological reaction. If a character is conflicted, confused, and expresses that they do not want it, but then suggests that they must want it because they’re reacting physically, we have a problem.

That’s where vocal expression and enthusiasm come into play. With POV characters, it’s easier to express underlying thoughts and emotions—we can see how much they want it, on a cognitive level. Partners need to express enthusiasm in words and actions; they can clearly express both consent and desire by eagerly participating in the interaction.

And, again, this needs to be present from the beginning of the interaction. A character can maybe not be feeling it at first, sure. Maybe they have a headache or they’re not quite in the mood, but they can be coaxed (not coerced). They’re open to the idea, at the very least, and they do indeed want to have sex with this person—but possibly not right at the moment. Again, negotiation becomes key to avoiding falling into the non-con trap.

If desire only shows up mid-scene, once someone has started (unwantedly) touching the other person, then we have a problem. The character is likely confusing their physiological reaction for desire; this brings us to severely dubious consent, if not straight into non-con.

Can We Write Dub Con and Non-Con?

Now, let me make something clear: I read and enjoy dub con and, to an extent, some non-con. But what is crucial about this is framing.

If you write dub con, do not sell this to me as romance. Do not hold it up as some ideal, that it’s pure, something I should want to emulate.

Tell me this is sick, twisted, dark. Tell me it’s not exactly a healthy relationship.

People have problematic relationships all the time. People do things that walk the line all the time. And sometimes people cross boundaries and lines, and I don’t really see a reason we shouldn’t explore those scenarios as writers.
The crucial point, though, is that we have to make sure we’re framing those explorations correctly. When we call something a romance, then present rape on the page, it makes the subtle suggestion that rape is romance. That this is how relationships go, that this kind of treatment is what we should desire.

And that is a big problem, particularly when we see this proliferating in media over and over again. The implicit message, then, is that rape is okay, that your partner doesn’t need to respect you or your needs. That you can say no, but your body might say yes and that’s more important than your verbal denial of consent.

And therein lies the problem. When dub-con and non-con are portrayed as romance, over and over again, people have trouble recognizing it as rape, as a problem.

“Well, if no one realizes it’s a problem, is it really a problem?”

Yes. Why? Because it leads to victim-blaming, the upholding of rape culture, a world where some people feel entitled to sex and stomp all over the bodily autonomy of others. It leads to trauma and mental health issues that people don’t even recognize they have, which then creates strife in their relationships, their work, and more.

Trust me on this. My own trauma does not stem from sexual abuse, but I walked around for years without realizing I was traumatized. And not recognizing it made it harder to see where my problem behaviours originated. And that made it impossible to deal with them, because I had no idea where they were even coming from.

So unrecognized trauma is a big problem, possibly even a bigger problem than recognized trauma. Because we act out and we don’t understand why, where these feelings and behaviours come from. So our culture upholding rape as romance, telling us it’s natural and normal, leads to a whole bunch of unrecognized trauma, replete with all its cascading behavioral problems, and people have no idea why they act this way. And that means they can’t see ways out of maladaptive behaviours like anxiety, depression, or rage, because they think these feelings and behaviours are totally “natural” and “normal.” They feel off, but don’t quite understand what could possibly be wrong.

So, yes, even if we don’t see a problem, there is still a problem. A big one. Because rape is a violation of personhood. It is traumatizing, even when it happens in, say, the context of a marriage. Just because we didn’t recognize it for what it was before—and often still don’t—doesn’t mean that it wasn’t hurting people.

So that’s where consent becomes such an imperative for romance writers. We need to be aware of how we’re portraying relationships, the kind of sexual interactions we present as natural, normal, desirable, romantic.

Portraying rape as romantic is a problem—a big one. And that doesn’t mean we can never explore such a subject; it means we have to be aware of how we’re framing it in the context of our novels. If our hero has sex with a partner who seems not to consent, then is he really a hero? Can we really root for these two to end up together? Is there anything romantic about this relationship?

These are the questions we need to sit down and ask ourselves whenever we write relationships. And we should always focus on the exchange of power, consent, and desire between two adults.

Because not only is that indicative of a healthy relationship, it’s also pretty damn sexy.

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By Cherry

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