I’ve heard a number of spirited debates about the responsibility of romance writers when it comes to portraying healthy relationships. One of the trickiest to negotiate is the issue of consent.
At their heart, romance novels are fantasies. Real world inconveniences don’t come up so going to bed with wet hair doesn’t lead to snarled rats’ nests and tables never break (unless for dramatic purposes) and kids don’t come down with the flu on date night.
But at the same time, romance novels also offer a chance to normalize certain behaviours in the courting process. Because a romance reader will vicariously experience many more relationships through the books than in real life, the stories can subconsciously provide a pattern for how a relationship should proceed.
Many romance authors consciously decided to include condom use as part of love-making, hoping to make it more common. They gave readers a number of different scripts to use in their own lives, transforming asking for and using the condom into a sexy experience.
But what about things like making sure both partners are okay with the level of contact, intimacy and kink? By definition, nothing can occur in a fantasy which is against the fantasizer’s will. Even if the fantasy involves the illusion of a lack of choice, nothing makes a fantasy dissolve faster than actually having something done against a person’s will.
This is a tricky concept for most people to understand. For example, if a person likes the Bad Sexy Cop fantasy or a multiple partner fantasy, then it can be harder to understand why he or she might not be a consensual partner during a real life scenario. Some psychologists have said that disgust is the key to understanding the difference.
Suspending disgust is a sign of intimacy. The idea of sharing a French kiss with a loved one is appealing. The idea of an unwelcome stranger sticking their tongue in your mouth is disgusting. The consent is what makes the difference. So a person can engage in a perfectly consensual act but then be unwilling to engage in that same act at a later time or with another person and that is a perfectly human and natural thing.
BDSM romance has been something of a trend since 50 Shades of Grey sparked with the general public. But what concerns actual practitioners is the fact that a large number of stories don’t show the negotiations which lead up to enacting the fantasies, the use of safewords and attention to both partners’ level of comfort during the scene and how to take care of both parties once the scene is completed.
Romance has always been an opportunity to raise issues that concern women and a way to explore women’s sexuality. This is why I think romance writers have a responsibility to making sure the fantasies presented contain enough reality to help their readers.
The stories that I enjoy make it clear that both hero and heroine (or hero and hero or heroine and heroine) are willing, eager participants in what occurs between them. They give asking for a kiss a sensual buzz and make the conversation part of the anticipation. And that lets me enjoy the fantasy.