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Posted on Mar 18, 2014

Writing Consent: Part 2

In March of 2011, I blogged about consent in speculative fiction (I recommend reading that first if you aren’t sure about what consent is). It’s 2014, and I’m still having the same conversation over and over. We’re still struggling with consent in everyday life; it makes sense that consent is muddled in our fiction, too. I have to admit, though, that I’m always stunned when I pick up a book and what is supposed to be the sexy love scene is actually a rape scene.

“What,” you might asked. How is that even possible? How can the sexy love scene be a rape scene in modern books? Don’t we all know what is and isn’t rape?
WARNING: From this point forward, there will be plenty of spoilers about my books.

 

At the end of Dark Whispers, Jeremy shows up at Rachel’s house drunker than a Canadian at the Vancouver Olympics. Rachel has been in love with this man for years. And there he is, no longer in a relationship and hitting on her.
She says:

I’d like to say that I was strong, or daring, or threw caution to the wind and jumped him right there. That’s what Misty Monroe would’ve done; she’d have kissed his Jack Daniels-laced lips and walked away, letting her robe slip off her shoulders on the way to having spirit-healing sex.

But the truth of it all was that I didn’t do that. Jeremy was my friend. If our roles were reversed, I’d never want him to take advantage of me and that is exactly what I’d be doing if I jumped him when his defenses were down and his judgement impaired. There’s a word for people who do that. I wasn’t that kind of person.

I get a lot of feedback about that scene. One reader, in particular, wrote me to say that she was stunned by the scene. She’d read dozens, if not hundreds, of books with the exact same circumstances and always, without fail, the very sober person has sex with the very drunk, and very vulnerable (post break-up, grief, whatever) person. In the scene above, Jeremy was so drunk that he passed out moments later. He was in no shape to make a decision about how many aspirins to take for his upcoming hangover, let alone sex.
Yet, I get overwhelming comments about how surprised readers were that Rachel did not take advantage of him. That Rachel did not rape him.

In the movie, The Holiday, Cameron Diaz’s character gets blind drunk. IN the morning, she wakes up to discover the man she’d had sex with once before and had been her date that night. She asks him if they had sex, and he says no. She says, “Thank God” and then asks why not, because she couldn’t remember anything.

Judd Law’s character turns to her and says, “Call me old fashion, but one doesn’t have sex with girls who are unconscious.”

Think about that line for a moment. Sure, it’s a joke, but think about the impact. He brought her home, stayed with her (because she was begging him, apparently), but didn’t rape her. He did not take advantage of her. That’s what makes him an alpha male. That’s what makes him the hero of the story.

In First (Wrong) Impressions, G confides that George raped her by purposely getting her drunk and then sexually assaulting her after she blacks out. She’d blamed herself for a long time because she was drunk. But the characters, and the police, in the book do not ever blame her. No one calls her a slut or a whore. They put the blame squarely where it belongs: on George.

I have previously announced that my sex scenes will always have consent in them. I think I need to go a step further and explain what I mean by consent. So here we go.

No harm will come to the heroine, or those she cares about, if she says no to the sexual situation. I don’t care how much her lions swell and ache at his alpha male good looks. If he says anything remotely like “give in or I’ll kill/maim/capture/torture/sell/do anything bad to your family/friends/dogs/cats/parrots/vegetable garden”, he is threatening her. This is now a sexual assault scene.

Both parties will talk about if they want to do what they’re doing. If her body language says she’s uncomfortable, he stops. If his body language says he’s not into it, she stops. That means they talk.

Consent is sexy. Sure, I wrote this scene, but I don’t think this stops the sexy at all:

He kissed her nose. “Lizzy, if you want me to stop, let me know. At any time. “

“Thank you for saying that, William.” She wrapped her legs around the small of his back and pulled him down. “I want to make love to you tonight.” She grinned. “Provided you’re up for it.

That scene summarizes both of them perfectly. She’s teasing, he’s serious. And they both asked and gave consent.

If someone’s clothes is ripped off against their consent, this is assault. If crazypants demon is trying to impregnate the heroine on the stone altar and sexypants hero comes in to save her, do not write this like a foreplay scene. She was just assaulted, people. Give her some space to make choices. Do not have the hero hitting on her moments later.

If the hero wants to remain a hero, he doesn’t rape the heroine. You’d think this was obviously, but it’s not.

If someone is sexually assaulted, they aren’t over it in 2 days. Now, they might consent to sex. They might not. The person who has been assaulted will make their own choices about how they wish to proceed. There’s no wrong or right. What is wrong, however, is to assume the magical wizard healed her bruises so she’s magically not emotionally hurt. Unless the magic made her heal a decade, she can’t just act like nothing happened – unless she’s purposely acting like nothing happened. Nuance, people. Think it through.

I’m not saying that I won’t write rape and sexual assault. I write war books. I have some brutal, violent books (Tranquility’s Grief, for example). But I do try very hard to have clear rules for when the assaults are happening and when they are not. I try very hard to “accidentally” rape my characters.

 

What books do you recommend that have clear, enthusiastic consent?

5 Responses to “Writing Consent: Part 2”

  1. It hasn’t been released yet, but C.M. Kars’ Never Been Kissed has a FANTASTIC sex scene with enthusiastic consent. I practically seal-clapped, except I was supposed to be taking editing notes. *cough* Istillsealclapped

  2. Hi Krista,

    Thanks for bringing this issue into the light. I think it’s definitely something we don’t really talk about as authors. I mean, we talk about how to make sex scenes–consensual or otherwise–emotionally powerful, but rarely does the conversation turn to how those scenes effect our culture.

    I’m actually working my way up to a consensual sex scene now, so great timing too. Definitely something for me to think more deeply about–especially when I’m editing the earlier part of this novel, which has two rape scenes.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing :) May you write many hot, steamy and consensual sex scenes.
    ~Dianna

  3. T. L. Haddix says:

    Krista,

    Great blog post. I’m trying to figure out the words to explain what I’m thinking right now. Most of us who are writing romance now, who’ve come onto the scene in say the last five years, grew up on bodice rippers. We grew up with reluctant consent books. And I hope it doesn’t make me too dense when I admit this–I never saw reluctant consent books for what they were until recently. I guess it was the cultural thing, and the “education” I’d been given from reading all those bodice rippers.

    I’ll go out on the shaky limb here and say this. Some women have rape fantasies. And while I personally don’t, it’s not any of my business if other women do. So there is a market out there for nonconsent/reluctant romance, and the hands-off libertarian in me says that’s fine. Adults should be able to read what they want. The problem with that is a lot of the most popular books out there today use these old tropes. Look at FSoG. It’s chock full of them. And that trend in fiction is teaching young women that force and reluctance are okay, when they aren’t. That it’s the definition of true sexiness, when it isn’t. That a man (or woman) who is respectful of their partner is to be disdained. That’s not the case for everyone. It’s only sexy if you’re an adult who knows the difference, acknowledges the difference between consent and non-consent, and you plow on ahead regardless.

    I love seeing romance authors like you who stand up and say “I’m not going to do this, my characters are not okay with this, and it’s important that readers know the difference.” Because like I said, until recently, I didn’t see reluctance as a big deal. I’d get caught up in the story and swept away. But when I realized that if I found myself in the same circumstances I would be using knees and elbows and fingers to maim the man doing the “seduction,” I had an epiphany. And it’s because of authors like you, and some reviewers that I’ve gotten to know recently, that this epiphany occurred. So thank you. I guess that’s the main thing I wanted to say. Thank you. :)

    • Krista says:

      You bring up a good point. There is a place for consensual rape fantasies. Some people confused rape and consensual rape fantasies. They are hugely and widely different. BDSM and other forms within the genre are often confused at being about no consent. When, in fact, it’s all about talking it out first and giving consent.

      A lot of writers mistakenly think BDSM automatically means abuse. But when done with care and understanding, it can be an excellent example of adult consent.

      The “reluctant” consent books of the 70s and 80s are a part of the history of romance novels and women’s reading. I think it’s an important part of the liberation of women’s literature and the ability for women to read what they want, including premarital sex where the woman doesn’t have to be raped to have it.

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