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Consent in Romance

Posted by on April 23, 2011

Preemptive disclaimer: I love both modern and historical romance and have read and adored many books and stories in which some of the following issues come up. In fact, I am often great fans of their authors, but I do think these are questions that it is useful to think about and discuss.

I have recently been seeing a number of posts either obliquely or directly discussing the issue of consent in BDSM and “regular” erotica and romance – something which I also touched on in the sticky post on my front page.

As most readers of romance will know, although they probably don’t think about it much, there’s a lot of coercive sex in romance novels – particularly certain types of “historical” romance novels. In such books, women are often taken captive and then either manipulated into having sex with their captor or outright raped. They generally end up enjoying the experience and often fall in love with their abuser (lets be frank, that’s what we’d call someone who did this in real life) and living happily ever after – although some books where this occurs do explore the trust and emotional issues that such forcible sexual experiences may cause.

Rape fantasies* can be incredibly hot, and I grew up adoring books where pirates and Indians tied up their female prisoners and ravished (we don’t say raped) them violently and ecstatically until the women were overcome by lust and start to reciprocate their affections. I still enjoy many of those books. It’s simply that I’m now sometimes troubled by the consent issues involved. Still, their historical settings allow me to tell myself that I’m not condoning coercive sex as a relationship building technique… and mostly I believe it.

The problem comes about more for me when I start reading modern erotic romance – and particularly modern BDSM romance/erotica – that contains dubious or absent consent. In the real world, most of the time, people who practice BDSM do so as informed, consenting adults. They set boundaries and limits, enforce those boundaries, and anyone who tries to coerce someone into a sexual experience in a BDSM space is likely to get bounced out on their behind.

However, as Dirty Birdies discusses in the post I also linked to above, there is a lot of BDSM erotica and erotic romance where the sex happens not because both people want to be there and have consented to what is going on but because the dominant partner is coercing the submissive partner (or the top is coercing the bottom) into doing what he or she wants. Generally the coerced partner ends up liking it, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any more comfortable for the concerned reader – are we reading about hot, consensually violent, encounter or are we reading about a rape?

I freely admit that sometimes it can be hard to make consent clear – particularly if you’re writing a scene where people are playing with apparent non-consent. I know that I came across this problem in my upcoming anthology of kinky fairy-tale erotica (more about that in my next post, since I just got back my contracts from the publisher.) However, I think that a lot of the time it really is a question of the author putting the victim in restraints, having the aggressor sexually violate them without their consent, and having them enjoy it. That disturbs me, because it makes me wonder if it encourages people who are uninformed about BDSM to assume that such forms of non-consent are the social norm. Plus — although these issues come up in gay, lesbian, and female dominant erotica as well — I really don’t like endorsing the sexual script where men are sexual aggressors and women are gatekeepers who need to be convinced.

Does it matter? I don’t know. As a sex educator it certainly gets stuck in my craw, but I’m not sure that it doesn’t just bother me as a reader because I think it should. Still, I thought about it a lot when I was writing my BDSM fairy tales. It became very important to me not to conflate rape and non-consensual force with hot sex in the world that I was writing – even if it made my work harder. Furthermore, I plan to continue to make a conscious effort to be certain that consent is very clear in my kinky (and not-so-kinky) stories and to not reward non-consensual aggressors. I know that I have previously walked a fine line in some of my stories, and I think that I’ve even occasionally crossed over to the questionable side of the tracks.

BDSM is not abuse, although it is easy to write a story that makes abuse look like BDSM. I think the bottom line is that I just want to know which I’m reading about.

*And if you haven’t read Margaret Atwood’s essay/story with that title, you should.

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