Romance and adventure await…
Content Warning for “bodice ripper” romances.
This morning I read a fantastic blog post on XP Chronicles about rape culture and consent. It’s a well-written, thoughtful piece that encapsulates a lot of conversations I’ve been engaged in recently. It’s this part in particular that resonated with me:
As a society, we tend to view consent as a mystical concept, one shrouded in romance. The man will know when to make the right move, the woman will resist to protect her virtue, the man will persist and eventually win her over. They’ll both find themselves overcome with “consent”, or at least this is the mythology surrounding it.
This sort of thing is really, really deeply entrenched in our society. It’s the narrative that TV, movies, books, comics, games, etc, all reinforce. It’s a narrative I keep in mind often when I’m writing, worried about letting it spill over into the novels I write.
When I explore darker themes and fantasies in erotica, I’m not so worried about it there because the reader is seeking out darker fantasies. The reader knows exactly what to expect from a story about tentacle monsters, knows this is supposed to be equal parts horrifying and titillating, and knows that this cannot possibly happen in real life. Well, I hope the reader knows that. If this comes as a surprise for you, sorry. No tentacle monsters are waiting under your bed.
It’s the stories of romance that really worry me, because those are the ones that we base our romantic ideals on. Like newly hatched goslings, we tend to imprint on this stuff. The issues surrounding romance and consent are everywhere in our culture, but the little part that I feel responsible for is the stuff I write: romance novels.
The genre has changed a lot over the years, which is a good thing. The first romance novel I ever read was a battered old copy of A Pirate’s Love by Johanna Lindsey. She went on to write some really great stuff and I consider myself a fan, but this book is the perfect example of how awful and rape-y romance novels used to be. The hero repeatedly rapes the heroine and then blames the heroine for “making” him rape her because she won’t just submit to him. There isn’t even wiggle room for how to interpret this: the word rape appears sixty times in the book. Sixty. And this is a thing that literally happens:
“No!” she cried, trying to push him from her, but it was like trying to move an iron man. “I refuse to share this bed with you, Tristan. It is bad enough that I have to suffer your—your mauling and raping my body, but I will not share your bed!”
“And if I insist?”
“You will not!” she fumed.
“Ah, but I do insist, little one,” he returned, with an amused smile curling his lips.
“Don’t you know how much I detest you?” she hissed as she squirmed to get out from beneath him. “I cannot stand to be near you. Now release me!”
“If you don’t stop wiggling, you will be raped a third time this day. Would you prefer that to sharing my bed?” he asked, his eyes gleaming with devilry.
As a kid in love with pirates and adventure, the book had appealed to me because of the setting. Then I got a heaping dose of rape. The romance genre has moved on from that sort of thing, Johanna Lindsey is a wonderful writer today, and things have improved a lot, but readers and writers both have grown up in rape culture. It still influences what we write and read.
For example, as an adult I still love pirates. I still wanted to write romance novels about pirates and the above travesty was still lurking in my head. In my first full-length novel about pirates, Captive to a Pirate, I knew I didn’t want it to be a bunch of rape-y swill, but did I succeed? I’m still not sure. Clear, verbal consent is exchanged…
One of his hands brushed her hair over her shoulder, exposing the back of her neck, and he stroked his lips over the freshly bared skin. “Do you want me, lass?”
“Yes,” she said, the words barely a whisper.
…but it’s just after a fight and sexual contact has already occurred and the hero Liam had recently threatened the heroine Bridgid with the brig for stealing from him. So, there’s a lot there that makes me uncomfortable when I think about it now. The hero is supposed to be kind of an asshole at the start anyway and he becomes a better man by the end of the novel, but there’s still that shadow of A Pirate’s Love.
Contrast that with my favorite love scene I’ve written yet, in His Dangerous Infatuation:
Angela hesitated. “Isn’t the limited furniture a problem when you have company?”
“Not really. I don’t normally have company unless we’re going to be sharing the bed.” Her eyes widened in some alarm and he happened to glance up to see it. He frowned. “We’re just having dinner. You don’t have to have sex with me.”
She took a deep breath and nodded a little uncomfortably before crossing over to take a seat on the rug. “Of course. Thank you.”
“For what? Not demanding you fuck me?” He chuckled. “You must have a very low opinion of men.”
“Excuse me?” She sat back on her knees and began to think about heading for the door.
“Just a look. Just think, if something went wrong on the way to Mars your breasts could be the last ones I ever see.”
She scoffed. “Oh for God’s sake. Are we thirteen?”
He spread his hands and leaned away from her. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”
His lips lightly grasped at her earlobe. “All this time and you’ve never had a lover? What a shame. You should be sharing a body this beautiful.”
She hissed through her teeth, her body rising up to his touch. Her fingers tightened in his hair as she turned her head to nuzzle his temple. The scrape of his teeth at her earlobe was too lovely to interrupt, so she didn’t move her head more than that. No sense making him stop.
“No one’s ever been that interested,” she murmured.
“Mm. I don’t see why not. I find you very interesting.” His lips left her ear, making her protest softly, but a moment later they were on hers again. It was a soft, tantalizing kiss, making her itch for more as he denied her.
“But you don’t have to have sex with me,” he reminded her quietly.
“I don’t?” She breathed the words out. Angela shifted, sliding one of her thighs against his to feel more of him. He was half on top of her and she was half undressed. Suddenly, that half seemed like more of a tease than a bit of security. “After seeing your apartment and everything else, I expected you to be more aggressive and less respectful.”
He propped himself up on one elbow to look down at her, quiet for a moment. “Well, us being business partners and and all…do you want me to be aggressive and less respectful? Because I can be.”
Lip caught between her teeth, she looked up at him. It hadn’t been meant as a complaint, though perhaps it had sounded that way to him. Everything that had happened since she had walked through the door, she had enjoyed. Yet now that he had made that offer, she was curious. And what value was there in being cautious? She could be shot through the heart while standing in a cafe.
“Oh. Well then.” Jaime moved onto his knees over her and began unbuttoning his shirt. “And here I was spending all this time trying to behave.”
I’m genuinely proud of that scene. Jaime in HDI has a lot of the same personality traits as Liam in CTaP–the swagger, the arrogance, the naughtiness–but Jaime’s playfulness and forthrightness set him dramatically apart from Liam. He says what he wants, but also reminds Angela that they’re only going to do things they both want to do, without pressure. He can be dominant and aggressive, but only when he’s been invited to be.
Books about perfect people who only ever do everything right would get boring fast, so I don’t think cookie cutter “this is where we establish consent now” love scenes in romance are the way to go. On the other hand, there’s no reason why negotiating consent can’t be sexy and fun. It can be a teasing, slow buildup like with Jaime and Angela, where respecting boundaries becomes part of the foreplay. Or it can be a brief clarification of, yup, we both want to bone now.
We’ve all grown up in rape culture and are surrounded by it every day, so we’re as unlikely to be perfect people as the characters in our novels. We’re going to mess up–I know I have–and that’s okay. Owning that and resolving to do better is how we move forward. Johanna Lindsey has come a long way from the cringeworthy A Pirate’s Love and, while I fully admit I’m no Johanna Lindsey, I can learn from that. Even when I make mistakes, I can keep getting better. We all can.