To begin with, this discussion deserves a CW for discussion of sexual assault, harassment, and rape. I will not be discussing anything explicitly, nor will I really get into any of those topics. But the discussion of consent necessarily approaches the discussion of these things, and I don’t want anyone to be harmed reading this post.
Consent – What do I mean?
Consent can have a lot of meanings (and no I don’t mean this in the ridiculous way people justify assault). Consent can be enthusiastic, understood, discussed previously, discussed in the moment, consistent, well established, fresh, etc. When I’m discussing consent in this post, I mean to include all of these versions of consent. Romance novels often stray into the world of erotica, and necessarily include scenes of BDSM nature, which I will admit to not knowing extensively. This isn’t a post about BDSM though, as I mostly want to touch on historical romance and contemporary romance that don’t feature a lot of sexual scenes.
For some people, consent needs to be enthusiastically given and given multiple times during a sensual or sexual scene. These people withdraw consent if they no longer feel they can enthusiastically agree to moving forward in the act they are participating in. Their silence is their withdrawal of consent. A loving and/or respectful partner would know this (typically through discussion beforehand) and be aware that silence is not a yes.
For others, perhaps due to the nature of the sensual or sexual scene, it isn’t realistic to provide an enthusiastic yes to every new activity or experience. This usually means that they have had a discussion with their partner(s) ahead of time to establish boundaries, determine what word or behavior means “stop” or “no,” and to give explicit consent to certain activities. If there is not a discussion of this beforehand due to spontaneity, this type of consent can be reflected by active participation and reciprocation of activities throughout a scene.
Behaviors that are not consensual
CW: This section addresses behaviors that are romanticized in writing but are not necessarily consensual acts and thus may be harmful for some readers to read.
We all know the tropes. They’re popular in enemies to lovers stories, they’re popular with the “asshole with a heart of gold” trope, and sometimes they’re appealing and other times they’re insidious. What am I talking about? Well, here’s just a sampling:
- Using a kiss to shut someone up during an argument
- Ignoring a clear and angry “no” because it’s “really a yes”
- Forcing kisses upon someone in any situation that is inappropriate
- Using sensual/sexual touching in public as a way to distract or mess with someone
- Initiating sexual activity with a non-consenting spouse (ie, arranged marriages that ‘must be consummated’) leading to sudden love and/or intimacy
- Any kind of real power imbalance in which the partner with the power initiates sensual/sexual activity without consent because they want to
The singular exception to all of these is if there was discussion of the scene beforehand and the partners agreed it would be fun to try and clear consent to initiate such a scene was established. An example of this would be Partner A and Partner B discuss kissing at a public event, believing it would be exciting. Partner A gives Partner B permission to initiate such a kiss at the event even if it seems risky to do so. Partner A at no point says “stop” or “no” or “I don’t want to,” and is enjoying the thrill of the kiss at an inappropriate event.
Why do romance novels have so much trouble with consent?
To be entirely honest, they don’t. There are a lot of romance novels and stories out there written by a diverse group of people. You can easily find stories in which consent is a major factor. On the other hand, there are a lot of novels (and popular ones too) that struggle with the line between an appealingly tense relationship and non-consensual scenes. The sexual tension between enemies, characters with some sort of power imbalance, and forbidden romances can be really well written. However, it seems that a lot of writers don’t seem to know how to walk that line without having moments of non-consent between the characters.
This is insidious in a lot of ways. First of all, there are significant portions of reading populations that idealize romance novels and try to achieve similar interactions in their real lives. If the romance novels they read and idealize include degrees of non-consent, these readers may perceive this as the norm and be taken advantage of due to this. They may be gaslighted without realizing what’s happening and fall into dangerous situations because certain red flags appear to them as green. Predators will absolutely take advantage of someone who sees certain events of non-consent as sexy or romantic, and will use that to push the boundaries even further.
Second, these portrayals go a long way to discredit survivors of assault. If popular culture internalizes non-consensual activities as “normal” and acceptable, then it becomes more difficult for survivors to come forward with their stories. Victims won’t be believed because what they describe, while an act of non-consensual assault or harassment, is also considered “romantic” and so they are told they misunderstood the situation.
Final Thoughts: What can be different?
I think it’s time for romance writers and readers to start owning up to the issues of consent presented in a portion of the body of works out there. There’s no reason for consent to be left out of romance novels. I don’t care what the context is, unless the situation presents as “we have previously discussed roleplaying this situation that includes dubious or nonconsent” then it should not be romanticized. This romanticization can and will be weaponized by predators, by popular culture, and by courts.
Consent is incredibly easy to include. A partner checking in every few minutes, making sure everything is okay, should be normalized. Romance novels in a historical setting can still include consent, and absolutely should. It’s nonsense to portray every sexual encounter in a historical setting as nonconsensual, or borderline assault. It’s also time to stop portraying characters who are clearly predators as romantic and sexy. If you want to tell a story about someone who needs to grow, have them grow before they start assaulting their love interest.
I no longer find I’m able to excuse a lot of this behavior for the sake of reading a story. When consent lines get crossed, I bow out of the book. I hope that other readers will join me in identifying these red flags, putting down the books that have them, and picking up better written stories in which consent is a big part of the romance.