The #MeToo movement has sparked a reckoning about power, sex, and consent that has already reached deep into the entertainment industry, inspiring conversations about how to build better a popular culture. Perhaps the most frustrating attitude that this has flushed out of the underbrush is that consent can’t be sexy, or that heightened concerns about it will somehow kill flirting. I was curious to hear the perspective of a group of women who probably spend more time thinking about hot and sexy consent than almost anybody else on the planet: romance novelists.
Despite years of internal conversations about how to handle consent on the page, the perception lingers that romance novels are full of romanticized sexual violence. Discussing #MeToo with the Washington Post in November, Hillary Clinton casually tossed off the remark that, “The whole romance novel industry is about women being grabbed and thrown on a horse and ridden off into the distance,” offering it up as a reason that some men might be confused about what sorts of advances a woman would welcome. Clinton’s comment was a galling misrepresentation of the genre that many found disappointing—in a response published at the Washington Post, Lisa Kleypas drew a parallel with Clinton’s own life, arguing that, “It’s a misleading cliche about the genre—like so many misleading cliches about your fabulous trailblazing life.”
While it’s true that the books that birthed the modern, sexually explicit incarnation of the genre were marked by consent that was questionable at best and totally absent at worst—the term “bodice ripper” didn’t spring out of nowhere—the actual contents of The Flame and the Flower and Sweet Savage Love were always much more complex in their approach to women’s sexual agency than most observers gave them credit for being. What’s more, the debate within romance over how to handle the question of consent is much older, deeper, and more nuanced, than outsiders ever seem to grasp.
In her 1987 survey of the genre, The Romance Revolution, writer/novelist Carol Thurston describes a panel at the 1985 Romance Writers of America professional conference, where members of the audience got so mad at comments made in favor of sexualized rape scenes that many of them walked out, while “other writers stayed on to make strong statements about ‘what rape really is’ and to vehemently protest what the panel members were advocating, all to the accompaniment of spontaneous audience applause.” That was a radical conversation in 1987, as the backlash to the feminist movement was well underway and the trope of a no forced into a yes still held sway across the pop cultural landscape.
Romance novels have always had a complicated relationship with reality. There’s sometimes a tension between being a literature of fantasy and the genre’s one hard-and-fast defining mandate: happily ever after, or at least for now. How does one provide a space to explore sometimes darker fantasies without propagating unhealthy ideas about relationships? But the tides turned against “forced seduction” in the mainstream right around the time I was entering grade school, in the early 1990s. I can’t promise that any book picked randomly off Amazon (especially self-published books) will contain positive examples of enthusiastic affirmative consent; occasionally I’ll dip into something with dynamics that make me wince. But then, many critics seem to want to judge romance novels against some Platonic ideal, rather than weighing them against what we see in the wider culture—which is only just now beginning to think about whether maybe we should cancel Woody Allen.
In November, Publisher’s Weekly thoroughly assessed the current state of consent in the genre and concluded that, “Once undiscussed or nonexistent, consent is now explicitly present and character-driven in many books.” And how often elsewhere do you see moments like this one, from Alexis Daria’s Take the Lead?
Pulse pounding in his throat, he undid the clasp on her bra.
Just to make sure he wasn’t reading the situation wrong, he asked once again, “More?”
Her head jerked in a slight nod, and a second later, he got his reply: “Yes.”
He asks this same question, specifically, a total of five times during one sex scene, which Daria uses to build tension. Or take these lines from Never Loved, by Charlotte Stein—who maybe writes the best horny women in a genre full of them—spoken by a hero who is standing a full ten feet away from the heroine:
“Or that you maybe think you can’t tell me to go in case I do something violent, even though I’ll tell you right now I’m never gonna put a foot out of place if I think for one second it makes you uncomfortable. You say the word, and I’ll take ten steps back. I’ll take a thousand steps back if that’s what it takes to keep that sweet face smiling.”
Navigating consent is an essential element of the romance novelist’s craft. Their fellow writers and entertainment industry pros so rarely seem to listen—witness this recent article from the New York Times about novelists trying to write sex, which creeps no closer to the genre than speaking to author Jennifer Weiner—it would behoove everyone to take a note. If you’re a romance reader, a recent Hollywood Reporter piece theorizing “How the #MeToo Movement Could Kill Some Sexy Hollywood Movies” seems particularly ludicrous. And I’ve sure as shit never seen Game of Thrones handle consent in such a sophisticated way as almost any romance novel I’ve read in the last five years.
I spoke with six authors I thought would have interesting things to say on the topic. Bree Bridges and Donna Herron write as Kit Rocha; they’re best known for the post-apocalyptic Beyond series, which Bridges has memorably billed as “about a bisexual love army fucking up a theocracy in between their kinky orgies!” Sarah MacLean and Maya Rodale are both historical romance novelists, and Rodale has also written Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. Alisha Rai writes contemporary romance and has published herself, via indies, and is currently with a major New York imprint. Sierra Simone, the author of Priest and the New Camelot trilogy, self-publishes contemporary romances with a strong kink element. Here is some of their wisdom:
Sierra Simone: I frame my sex scenes almost entirely around the idea of consent. Most of my books examine sex and power in some lens, and for me—because I write erotic, and kind of taboo erotic—consent is that parachute that you can strap on your back before you jump out of the plane. There is no way that I as a writer would feel safe, or I as a reader would feel safe and therefore I assume my readers would feel the same way, if we didn’t have that parachute before we go on this journey together. And for me, part of it is because I would never enjoy reading a hero who didn’t make sure that those things were taken care of.
It’s one of those things that I have to have marked on the page, before we can really jump into the sex scenes. The consent can become more tacit through time but especially that first one, it’s something that needs to be laid out. So the question is, how do you balance the fantasy—which is someone powerful wanting you, right?—with safety and with respect. So how can a powerful man want you and you can still indulge in that fantasy without it actually becoming like Harvey Weinstein? The saying that’s been going around is—if this man wasn’t handsome and a billionaire, would this actually be gross and creepy?
Alisha Rai: I remember when I first started writing romances, I sort of grew up on these books—and we all kind of did—where no meant yes. And you just had to keep pushing until you get that no to turn into a yes. That was something I had to think about and say, I don’t want that to be in my books, though. I don’t want that to be something that is carried forward as romance canon, because there’s plenty of books without that even in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, we just don’t see them as much. So I think it is just a conscious decision to say, I’m going to let go of the things I’ve been taught and forge a little different path.
Simone: I think that there has to be a pause in action. If they are moving close to the bedroom, there has to be a brief pause. He can’t be putting on the condom and then be like, “Is this all right?” For me, kissing is totally fine pre-explicit navigation, because, maybe this is old paradigms talking, but kissing is low-stakes enough that I feel safe using unspoken and tacit cues. I do still frequently use consent before kissing, but I can get past that. But nothing heavier than that.
So if we’re going to get into any kind of penetration, whether it’s digital or intercourse, any kind of oral, to me those are things that need a pause before they happen. You read American King, there’s in a part in it, one of the boys in it, Ash, he’s at a bar and he picks up a guy. They are kissing, and every time Ash crosses a Rubicon, like unbuckling a belt, he says, “Okay?” and then the boy says “okay” back. Or, “Yes?” and then the boy says “yes” back. That’s my barest bones consent, where there’s a question and a response, essentially. And that doesn’t mean it needs to be formed as a question, but it means one party is reaching out to the other and checking in. Really, that’s all it is. It’s just checking in with someone. I mean, you check in with someone when they’re eating a meal that you’ve prepared and you want to make sure they like it. You’re checking in with someone if they’ve had a long day at work and you want to make sure they’re doing okay. That’s actually pretty normal social behavior. It doesn’t have to be phrased as a question, necessarily. In the book I’m writing now, they’ve already agreed to have sex and so now it’s just moving forward. So he says, “Okay, I’m going to put my hands down your pants and I’m going to play with what I find there. Is that okay?” And then yes. It doesn’t have to be super formal. It can be kind of casual. But just that idea of reaching out, touching base or checking in, and then have a response in the affirmative back.
Maya Rodale: Sometimes I’ll be writing these scenes, and you’re typing, and you catch like—“His mouth crashed down on her,” or “he pulled her,” or he did this or he did that. And I go back and I check myself. Does that sound rapey? Does that sound potentially uncomfortable? Also, one thing I always try to have is a moment of explicit consent. Like a “stop me now, babe!” “No, I want this!” and it’s the smallest thing in the world to work that in. It doesn’t kill the mood, it doesn’t slow the scene. I personally have no problem writing or reading sex scenes with consent that are super sexy.
I would say maybe the best sex scene I’ve ever written, the hero and heroine sit on opposite sides of the room and never touch each other. And it’s like, every step of the way—Are you okay? Is this cool? And not in an annoying way, but giving the heroine agency and power and control over what’s happening, and that’s kind of sexy, in and of itself.
I like to have and make sure I have articulated consent. But then you do it in layers. So it’s in the character’s head, like, she’s feeling good about it. You’ll read in the old-school romances where the heroine’s conflicted, like, “she knew she should say no but she had to say yes,” or, “she didn’t want this, but okay.” You can do a lot with the heroine’s interior thoughts. You can do a lot with the hero’s interior thoughts, like making him hyper-aware of the sound of her breath, how she’s moving. Is it good for her? And I think that’s another reason it behooves men to read romance! Here’s how to experience this from this point of view but with that hyper-awareness of how it’s going for her. You have the verbal layer, you have their interior thoughts. And then you do watch your verbs and how you describe these things. Is it something forceful? And it’s not necessarily bad! But it’s how they all work together.
It’s the easiest thing in the world to write that exchange of dialog in. “Do you want this? How does this feel? I want you, I want this.” And the other thing—yes, the author’s in the character’s heads, both of them, and so is the reader, but those characters aren’t in the other person’s head. That hero’s not a mind reader, and neither is the heroine. And so I would want the author to have some awareness of what they’re thinking and are those characters really truly okay with what’s happening.
Rai: In terms of consent, the dynamic of who holds the power and who’s using that power is something I’m really conscious of. The main thing when I write is—if we put consent on the back burner—I’m always keeping an eye out for what internalized thing am I falling into? Is it misogyny? is it racial stuff? Is it sexism? Is it consent? What thing have I internalized in some way—because we’ve all internalized stuff from society—what hole am I falling into? And there are times when I’ll read back a book and I’ll go, oh, something isn’t right. And it sometimes is as easy as, well, you played into the hands of whatever and you have to fix it. So I think for me, the main thing is keeping clear of any -ism that I may not even know that I have.
Sarah MacLean: I’m writing a book right now that is the first book I’ve written since the rise of #MeToo. I can’t really speak to whether it’s true in every scene that I write, with every character that I write, but I think this is where point of view comes into play a lot, and maybe that’s what I think about more—this sense of whose head I’m in when these things are happening. Interestingly, this book that I’m writing right now, sex scenes are in the hero’s head. Because it’s important to me that the hero be conscious of the heroine wanting it. I don’t know if that’s because of this book or if that’s because of the world, but it’s critical to me that the hero is concerned about—maybe not concerned, but it’s critical to me that the hero knows. Like, yes, she is saying yes, she is into this, this is happening, because she wants it, and I want her to have pleasure. I want this moment to be about her.
Bree Bridges: For us, it’s never a question if we’re going to have consent in our books. For us, it’s understood it’s always going to be centered and prioritized. I think one of the biggest things we have is we have to talk a lot about power dynamics because I feel like, in culture, we’re not exactly raised and trained to recognize them. Even between ourselves, sometimes, we have to look at scenarios and double check our first instincts to make sure that informed consent exists, which is kind of the point of Beyond Shame—that consent is not enough. You have to have informed consent, and you also have to have the ability to say no safely and confidently. And if you can’t do all of those things, then “yes” doesn’t really mean anything. And so you know, we have to look at the power dynamics a lot and we have to discuss who’s got the power, how are we going to mitigate that, how are we going to navigate it, how are we going to end this relationship on an equitable level. Because I feel like that’s actually one of the ways you make a happily ever after really believable, is that you’ve mitigated any extreme power differentials or imbalances.
Donna Herron: It seems like a really, really, really horrible thing to say, but I feel like if you are centering the idea of not just consent but enthusiastic consent in your work, you’re having to world-build that, because it doesn’t exist in our society. It doesn’t exist in our world. We’ve proven that a lot here recently. So if you are centering that, you have to do it early. You’re having to build a circumstance and a society and set of people for whom that is important and vital. You can’t start late. There’s no such thing as starting world-building late. It’s either there or it’s not. You’ve either done it or you haven’t. If you have not gotten that at the very least in your head, not necessarily on the page yet but if you’re not approaching it from a place where that was something you were thinking of from the start, then you don’t have it.
Bridges: And I think that’s one thing we were able to showcase by having some of our characters come from places where consent wasn’t the norm, which means they had to reckon with the new culture and a lot of them, I feel like, had a sort of perspective that we have, that our culture currently has, where grudging acquiescence is acceptable. Or if you’re not saying no and punching someone, then you’ve essentially said yes. And so we have the ability to take those characters through the journey of understanding that yes needs to be enthusiastic and fully informed and both people have to truly want everything or it shouldn’t be worth it. You shouldn’t have people who will settle for less than that. You shouldn’t have heroes who will settle for less than that.
Rodale: Here’s the other thing that I’ve started to think about more and more, especially in the post-Weinstein era, especially as a historical romance author: No matter how much explicit consent is there and no matter how much people want it, you’re still dealing with massive power disparities between your duke—and it is always a duke—and your heroine, who is a woman in the world and so she has very little actual power. It’s really tricky to navigate it. But you try. You do your best. But you bring this hyperawareness to it.
I had this really interesting moment with my new work in progress recently, where the hero and heroine had a fight and she stormed off and I was about to have him follow her, because otherwise then they’ve separated and he’s lost the girl and how is he going to find her again and oh my God, my story just died on chapter four. So, well, okay, he’ll follow her, and he’ll see where she lives and he can come back. And then I was like—no no no, self. That’s creepy as fuck! And I suddenly became very aware that your go-to thing, your easy plot driver, is probably not necessarily the power dynamic you want to represent or the type of hero or heroine you want to portray. And so I deleted that, and had a think, and did some revisions, and the novel moved on, and he’s not creep. So, yeah, I think authors definitely think about it, and I think about it beyond just the sex scenes.
Simone: One of the things I really like about writing kink in romance is that kink, kind of radically, has explicit negotiation and navigation built into it. That’s before you ever do anything sexual. In fact, the best practices in kink are to have boundary and safeword discussions before you ever take your clothes off. The idea is you don’t get in bed and then get halfway through something and then say, “Is this okay?” In kink, everything is discussed beforehand. And not everything is on the menu, which I think is also kind of a radical idea. Usually, in sort of traditional sexual dynamics, if a woman agrees to take a man into a bed, she’s agreeing to a pre-set menu of things. She’s probably agreeing to oral on both sides, she’s probably agreeing to intercourse, she’s probably agreeing to a certain number of positions. Well, in kink, every one of those things is a la carte, and every single one of those things are then discussed and then agreed to or not agreed to, as the case may be. So you have a character who chooses not to have intercourse but may have oral. Or you may have a character who only wants to do kink practices like spanking or bondage, but with no sex at all. So kink not only centers consent, it centers the idea that you have a choice about each and every thing that your body undergoes while you’re in a power dynamic with a person.
Rai: A lot of people who come to romance come to it so young, and they’re reading this when their brains are still figuring out how to interact with the opposite gender and their own gender. I think when you show people positive depictions of anything, but particularly consensual relationships and what respect looks like and what empathy looks like and what you should expect from your partner, when you show it to them when they’re younger or even when they’re teenagers or young adults, they internalize that. Then when they come across something that isn’t right—and our society is not right. It’s not right for men to behave this way. So when they see that, they should feel comfortable saying, “I have always been told this is wrong.” If we get enough people who have that mindset, it’s not as scary to reject it. it’s scary to reject it now, because you feel like you’re alone.
That was one of the things that startled me so much with the Aziz story, or even the Harvey story, is the number of women who pushed back on it and said, “This is just how men are.” No. That shouldn’t be how men are. We shouldn’t maintain a bar that’s that low for men. And so I think if you have enough people who can say, “no, that’s not right,” it is easier for people to come together and say, “This happened to me and it wasn’t right. It wasn’t any fault of mine. This guy did this thing and it was wrong.” And that’s a reckoning. If you behave badly, that reckoning should happen. But you do need numbers for that, because it is scary.