Romance gets a lot of flak about consent. Even our common euphemism as “bodice-rippers” implies a certain lack of agreement.
Last month’s Romance Writers’ Report had a great article about how to make consent sexy in your writing. They suggested using role reversals (have the passive character ask/propose something) and using “dirty talk” as a way to explore what characters are okay with. They also cautioned against getting caught up in knowing what the characters are thinking. The reader may know that both the hero and heroine are into it, despite earlier protests, but if they haven’t actually talked to each other, they can’t know that it’s now okay.
I spotted a great article on Facebook using the metaphor of asking someone if they want tea. It did a great job of simplifying the matter. No one would consider pouring tea down the throat of someone unconscious, or forcing them to drink a cup, even if the person had previously indicated they might like tea. Nor would you assume that you could drop by to offer them a cup of tea on a random night simply because they’d accepted an earlier cup of tea.
I get how difficult it can be to keep track of things in the middle of passion. We don’t draw parallels between romantic hormones and street drugs by accident. They are powerful and intoxicating. But they are not an excuse and our brains are infinitely more powerful. We are sentient beings and, frankly, we’re better than our hormones. Checking in with our sexual partners on a continual basis to make sure we haven’t crossed any boundaries is not too much to ask. It’s a basic level of human respect.
Romance novels are fantasies, by definition. If there is every any doubt, ask anyone who has tried the common fantasy of sex-on-the-beach and discovered the gritty unpleasant truth. But I think romance writers have a certain obligation to try and encourage good fantasies. It’s becoming much rarer to find a love scene without a condom, which was once believed to be a total page-killing mood-destroyer. We can do the same thing with consent.
I also would like it if romance writers could begin work on the common myth that only women need to consent to sex. I’ve seen several novels where the sex scene begins while the hero is still asleep (actively dreaming but still 90% unconscious). That bothers me on a deep level. While I understand the appeal of the fantasy of having someone desire you so strongly that it even comes out in their sleep, that reads to me like a rape, just like if the woman was unconscious. Perhaps I’ve become more sensitive to it because my children are boys, but I use the following mental exercise when plotting out a love scene: if I flipped the genders of this action, would it feel uncomfortable?
I’m sure there are those who will believe I’m being too sensitive and requiring too high a standard. And perhaps they are right. But I will argue against anyone who insists romance isn’t “serious enough” to teach or shape ideas. Fiction is infinitely more powerful than statistics and reports. Just as Star Trek took on race relations and government corruption, we can take on consent.