April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and I thought I’d talk about consent and sex scenes in novels. Basically, I want to know if you see a lot of consent in the books you read. Why do writers shy away from it? Why don’t we talk about consent all the time, instead of only during April, say, or during conversations about rape or when referencing college students? (College aged people seem to be targeted for these messages a lot. This isn’t a bad thing but I think every age group should get information about consent, don’t you?)
What is consent and really, who cares?
Consent is simple. It’s asking for permission and respecting the answer, whatever that is. Most people think of consent within the context of sexual relationships, and certainly it’s important to talk about consent when you talk about sex. However, consent should be a part of our lives from youth to old age. Why shouldn’t we be asking people for consent to hug them or touch them or whatever else? Why shouldn’t we get into the habit of asking for consent for all things, so that it’s second nature?
Where’s the consent in books?
Books are fiction. Fiction is all about escape. Why do we even need to bother with issues of consent or sexual violence or murder or what have you? Right? The story is the thing.
For one, the things we create reflect the world we live in. If we only have books that glorify rape, what does that say about our society? If we have a few books that glorify rape but an abundance of books that celebrate consent, what does that say about our society? Right now I’m seeing a lot of so called dark romance books. These books feature kidnapped heroines who are sold into sexual slavery, often to be abused, raped, and tortured, only to end up in love with their ‘master.’
Now, just like with 50 Shades of Abuse … I mean Grey, to each her own. If you want to read Justine or Fanny Hill or the latest dark romance, that’s okay. Fiction IS entertainment and escape. But I challenge you to consider why those books were created? What was the author seeing in his or her society that compelled him or her to write about rape or mutilation or torture? We absorb the culture and atmosphere of our environments. We may reject the norms or we may embrace them but we are aware of them on some level. And those things seep into our creative works.
Let me give you a for instance: 50 Shades of Grey defenders say that it was a great book because Anna had all the power. She could have walked away but she stayed. She embraced the sex. She was the strong one. Opponents pointed out the red flags of abuse: the power differential between Anna and Christian, his stalker-like behavior, the unreasonable jealousy, his overstepping of her boundaries, his rejection of her “no.” In a way, all these things reflect the culture we live in today. Outwardly, women are strong, they are in positions of power, they have this illusion of control, in other words, just like Anna. Underneath, there still are wage gaps, sexism, sexual violence, oppression and more, but wrapped up in handsome suits of equality.
Back to the topic: consent in books. What was the last book you read that celebrated consent? One that stands out in my memory is Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome To Temptation. The sex in that book was incredibly hot and it was consensual. In fact, when I think back on the sex scenes that stuck with me, they were either sexy and consensual, or disturbing in their sexual violence. A book to illustrate that point is Whitefire by Fern Michaels. Why? Because the ‘hero’ rapes the heroine and the author has the heroine fall in love with him in the end. ARGH! The heroine displays all the symptoms of PTSD throughout the book and still the author pushes her into marriage with her rapist.
I do a lot of presentations about sexual violence, healthy sexuality, consent and more and one thing I hear a lot is, “Why do I need to ask permission if s/he already said yes at the beginning? Won’t asking kill the mood?”
The reason I hear this a lot, I think, is we don’t have very many examples in TV shows or movies where consent is shown in a sexy, romantic light. Movies are fond of having one MC (main character) yank the other MC into their arms to kiss them silly. “It’s romantic!” people cry. “If they asked, it would kill the mood!”
Why? If Gerard Butler (Insert whichever leading man you lust over) leaned in and asked you in his husky voice, “Can I kiss you?” would that make you say, “No. Seriously dude, way to kill the mood.” If Scarlett Johansson (Insert whichever leading lady you lust over) sidled up to you and asked, “Can I slip my hand into your shirt?” would you roll your eyes and stalk off?
No. No you would not. You’d gasp and stutter and maybe your heart would fly right out of your chest, but you wouldn’t be turned off by the asking.
Same goes for the woman you’ve been dating for a couple of weeks or the man who has been taking you to dinner every Thursday. They won’t be turned off by respect. If they are, do you really want to date them anyway?
If you’re a writer, try writing a few scenes where the MC’s ask permission before they touch or kiss or grope. If you’re a reader, let yourself be aware of what’s going on in the books you’re reading. Take note of the times a character takes without asking. Analyse the impact it has on you when the sex is consensual and when it’s not.
Most importantly, have conversations about consent with your friends, your lovers, your kids if you have them, your parents. Everybody. It’s important. It’s fun. Consent is sexy. Trust me.