Thursday, 1 February 2018

Let's Talk Consent

There's been a heck of a debate raging over the last month about how consent should work.  Should you accept a soft no from your partner?  Is an enthusiastic yes the only option that is acceptable?  Should details be worked out in advance?  Should we all start using safe-words?

And more to the point, how does pop culture determine how we frame these debates?

Sex is one of the trickier social minefields to navigate.  Most of us want it but society isn't big on talking about it.  Our desire for sex is used to sell just about everything, but we aren't supposed to admit that we want it.  Sniggering, degrading talk about our partners is still somehow more acceptable than honest sharing of experiences.  We are supposed to be experts but we're not supposed to have practiced.  Let's be honest.  It's a mess.  And it's made even trickier by the effects of desire on our minds.  Our ability to predict consequences go down and we're more willing to engage in risky behaviour.

Add in the misleading messages from pop culture and it's no surprise that there are a lot of misconception about how and when to obtain consent.  There are dozens of examples where men are able to magically understand that a woman really wants to say yes when she's clearly saying no (Han Solo and James Bond to name a few).  Women are portrayed as constantly wanting men to pursue them but have to pretend not to be interested, thus men should see refusal as a coy trick instead of a genuine expression.  It's a sobering experience to look at many of the great love stories of my youth and see many troubling assumptions about how people should interact when entering a relationship.

So how is it possible to change the narrative to one that is safer and more respectful of both parties?  First and foremost, by encouraging more voices to share their stories.  Those who have been on the wrong end of these assumptions are going to be faster to identify the problems.

Second step: use pop culture to change the narrative.  The biggest weapons in the arsenal for changing our views in society are novels, television, and movies.  I'm biased, but I think romance novels are particularly well placed to change the script of how we pursue relationships.  But it's not just the romance genre, any story that has a subplot of people connecting on a romantic, emotional, or physical level needs to be aware of what messages they're sending.

In the eighties, asking for consent was seen as weak.  I recall Oprah saying on air that if a man has to ask if he can kiss you, the answer will always be no.  (That statement now makes me cringe.)  Using a condom was seen as a sign of distrust and as a total mood-killer.  Go back a few decades earlier and a woman who enjoyed and actively wanted sex was considered morally flawed.

These attitudes were all changed through pop culture, specifically romance novels.  It was a gradual shift, starting with women enjoying sex even if they didn't actively seek it out (hence the "ravish" plotlines) but then more and more authors found an audience who wanted heroines who took an active role.  Authors deliberately took on the challenge of making condom-use a standard part of love-making.  They reframed using a condom as a way to protect and care for your partner (rather than a sign of protecting oneself), and finding ways to make it part of the erotic process.

Now there are calls to do the same with making enthusiastic consent into a similar default.  There are still plenty of authors who see asking for consent as an interruption of the flow, but more and more, we're finding ways to make it sexy and exciting, the sign of a hero or heroine who is attuned to his or her partner and cares about their experience.  I believe that we can make a real difference by providing alternate scripts to the magical thinking approach.

And for those who enjoy a good alpha hero or heroine, I don't think they need to be worried.  Alphas don't need to be synonymous with jerks.  A character can be fierce, strong, protective, and take charge but also demonstrate caring about their partner.

The goal for all of us should be to want our partners to enjoy sex just as much as we do.  Mutual pleasure shouldn't ever be an option.  And the only way we can do that is by being honest and communicating, and then also be respectful and listen to what our partner is saying.  Maybe it takes a little longer, but it makes sure that we all have a lot more fun. 

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