21st Century Issues: Consent
In my blog post last week about writing for a 21st century audience, I spoke about issues that affect all genres. This week I'd like to look at an issue that is very specific to the Romance genre: the issue of consent.
Ever heard of Dub-Con? Neither had I until recently, when a slew of online book retailers announced changes to their self-publishing platforms, requiring authors to confirm that their novels do not contain certain sensitive subjects (acts mostly illegal in the real world). Dub-Con is one of them, and it stands for Dubious Consent - ie. where the characters have sex that is not necessarily consensual.
We've come a world away from the time when dubious consent (and in many cases actual rape) was a feature of Romance novels!
There have been tons of articles over the years trying to rid Romance of that clinging image of romances as 'bodice rippers' - like this one and this one. It is certainly true that back in the 70s and 80s there was a fad for heroes who were such dominant Alpha males that they took whatever they wanted - whether the heroine wanted it or not. There were a lot of 'rape fantasy' novels in which heroines fell in love with their rapists. I sincerely hope you went 'bleurgh!' reading that last sentence.
Back in the 20th century, women (yes, even in Western countries where Madonna ruled the pop charts) were not allowed to be sexually permissive. They were not supposed to have desires or seek out physical pleasure. Good girls did not go around kissing boys (unless they were Madonna), and only sluts initiated sex (but then most people in the 80s considered Madonna a slut), so women who enjoyed sex had to have been forced into it, right?
As a result, heroes in Romance novels of that time are masterful men who kiss their heroines, even while the heroines fight them off. The heroine would then swoon in his arms, and bang! She was in love. And when she said 'no', what she really meant was 'yes'.
Thankfully, the world has moved on, and women in most of the Western world (incumbent Presidents notwithstanding) have achieved enough authority over their own bodies, their own choices and their own reproductive rights for sex to be consensual, and rape to be a crime. Today 'no' means 'no', and 'yes' means 'yes'. We've grown quite literal that way.
In the 21st century, we're much more aware of where the line is drawn between sex and abuse. We're very much more aware today that a man who rides roughshod over a woman's stated opinions and desires has the potential to escalate to abuse in the future. And we no longer find abuse attractive.
We're also a lot more cynical these days. It takes a lot to convince us today that a man who acts abusively towards a woman is going to magically treat her with respect when he finally realises he's in love with her.
While slut shaming is still rife in the 21st century, we're a lot more aware when it happens. Yes, many still believe a woman who dresses provocatively is 'asking for it' but looking at the fall out from the light sentencing of Stanford rapist Brock Turner, we can see that the the tide of public opinion has turned.
This is the same public who will be buying, reading and reviewing your books. What will public opinion say about how your hero treats your heroine?
Most Romance readers are women. And sadly, way too many of those women have had to contend with being groped against their will (even Taylor Swift has!), and way too many have been the victims of physical violence. How will those readers respond to reading a book in which the hero, the man they are supposed to fall in love with, ignores what the heroine says she wants, kisses her while she's trying to push him away, or grabs her arms to force her to listen to him?
And I'm not just talking sex scenes here - this doesn't only apply when the characters are intimate, but to every interaction between the hero and heroine.
Yet this is something I have seen a lot recently in books by as-yet-unpublished authors. Perhaps these authors are remembering the books they grew up reading and are trying to emulate them. (I'd hate to imagine it's because they're used to men treating women that way!) But as I said in last week's post, you cannot copy other authors, and most certainly not authors from bygone eras. You need to remain true to both yourself and to your readership.
None of this means that you can't write a hero who is domineering or intimidating! There are readers who enjoy strong Alpha heroes, and entire imprints devoted to publishing stories featuring dominant heroes. There are successful contemporary books in which the hero threatens the heroine's family or business, or blackmails her, to coerce her into doing what he wants, and readers still love them! There are also readers who enjoy reading stories with Dub-Con or rape fantasy.
The difference between those books and the ones by beginner writers, is the intent.
An accomplished author knows where the lines are drawn, understands the market she or he writes for, and makes conscious and confident decisions about their characters. Beginner writers tend to lack that conviction, and readers can sense it - they're smart that way!
Clues that a writer has written an Alphahole by accident rather than by design include:
The heroine forgives everything the hero does because he looks good without his shirt on (or because he's rich).
The hero's reasons for assuming the worst about the heroine are weak, and he treats her like dirt because that's just what he does, rather than due to a deep and complex (and believable) motivation.
The tone of the book does not match the characters' behaviours - most books featuring cruel and dominating heroes tend to be dark and edgy, rather than fun and flirty. So if your writing style or subject matter is more light than dark, you may want to consider how threatened your heroine feels when she's alone with the hero.
It's a fine line to get right, that delicate balance between having a masterful hero who makes the heroine swoon, and a brute who threatens her.
How do you get that balance right? I have four very simple tips:
Ensure your heroines are strong women who can stand up to strong men. A lot will be forgiven a hero if the reader is not afraid for the heroine. If she swoons, we're going to assume she's incapable of protecting herself against him. If she can get him to remove his hand, or listen when she says 'no', with just a look or a well-timed stiletto in his in-step, we're going to believe no harm will come to her.
Give your hero some softer, more appealing traits. Don't let every interaction between the hero and heroine be against a backdrop of argument and intimidation. Give the reader a reason to love him. Even Dexter the serial killer has his gentle, charming and considerate side!
Read the latest books being published in your genre, or by the imprint you want to be published in. What are the norms and reader expectations in that genre? How do those authors handle these issues?
Put yourself into your heroine's shoes. How would you feel if a man treated you the way that your hero treats the heroine? In real life, where would you draw the line? Would you fall in love with a man who intimidates or threatens you? If you're writing characters that aren't true to who you are, and to your own personal values, the reader will sense it and will not trust you enough to follow where you lead.
This easy-to-understand article on enthusiastic consent includes some really great examples of enthusiastic consent in current romantic fiction.
Do you agree or disagree? Do you prefer your heroes demanding and assertive, or do you prefer a hero who treats his heroine with respect even when he's mad at her? Do you think stating consent in every sex scene is a passion killer, or a necessity? And have you read any books in which you felt the hero (or heroine) crossed a line you didn't agree with? (Christian Grey, excepted)
PPS: You might be wondering how BDSM fits into this, but that's really easy to answer. Most people agree that there is no such thing as non-consensual sex. All sex is consensual. The moment it is non-consensual, it is rape. In BDSM, the submissive always gives the other partner permission to dominate them. There's the consent right there. So the rule of thumb is always: was clear consent given? Great, then you're cool!