Tamsen Parker took on the tough topic of consent in romance, as per our chat this Sunday, and she makes some great points for us to think about.
Consent has become a bigger part of the romance conversation than ever before, and it’s a conversation that is essential to have. We don’t live in the era of the bodice ripper anymore when I’d argue that women were demonstrating agency by writing stories in which they could still obtain sexual pleasure without receiving society’s censure for acting “unladylike,” or for, heaven forbid, admitting that they wanted sex. We don’t have to do that anymore. Which raises the question: what is our responsibility in regards to consent in the romances we pen?
As a writer of BDSM erotic romance, consent has always been a key part of the stories I tell. In some ways, writing kink means consent is easier. Establishing boundaries, what’s okay and what’s not okay, is part of the culture; it’s built in to the process of getting your kink on. It also means that through the magic of safewords, participants get to play with consent: everyone knows that at baseline, their partner is cool with what’s going to happen in any given scene and that there’s an escape valve should someone change their mind.
There can be an exhilaration to breaking taboos, and having a safeword enables a person to scream “no” as loudly as they want while everyone involved knows things are copacetic because if there was something really wrong, they’d say “red.” It’s not a guarantee that nothing will ever go wrong because humans are, above all, imperfect, but the level of explicit conversation demanded by cultural mores in a wide swath of the BDSM world does offer a certain level of security. And as a writer, it lets you put consent into the story in a way that’s not only accepted, but expected. Not that pre-play conversations are always easy—sometimes they’re awkward or embarrassing—but they also have the potential to ratchet up tension and be sexy as hell.
So where does this leave consent in the vanilla world? Most people haven’t been taught how to be straightforward about what they do and do not want, and pre-getting-it-on negotiations aren’t really an established part of the process. Which is part of the reason I think we see so many partners in romance (particularly heroes) who know intuitively what their partner wants or needs. Who wouldn’t want a partner who can fulfill their every desire without having to say a word?
While I can absolutely appreciate the fantasy, what I’d like to see more people acknowledge is that the perfect partner who can figure everything out by the pitch of a moan or a tilt of the hips is in fact a fantasy. Should partners be attuned to body language and other non-explicit clues? Absolutely. But will they be able to read small and inconclusive signs like a manual of how to get their partner off? Probably not.
I’ve seen the assertion that consent isn’t sexy. That these conversations are clunky, that it “ruins” spontaneity, that it takes the fun out of sex. Which is where our skill as writers comes in. How do we make consent fun, playful, sexy? It doesn’t have to be stifled or tedious. Even at its most awkward, there is value to be found in the care and consideration that partners take of each other. Use that to your advantage to tell your stories. Find a way to incorporate permission in a way that’s in character and that furthers the tale you are trying to tell.
Consent doesn’t need to be in the form of a checklist or a contract, nor must characters check in with their partner between every button popped, every article of clothing shed, every stroke of a tongue, or every thrust. Although just typing that has me tugging at my collar a bit because I can imagine a scenario in which that could be very, very hot.
But if that doesn’t fit with your characters, a single question can do the trick: Is this okay with you? Are you sure? Or perhaps a desperate plea: Tell me you want me. Consent can be proactive: I want you so badly. Do me now. Yes. Harder. Or it can be a request and a promise: If I do something that makes you uncomfortable, tell me, and I’ll stop.
So that is my challenge to you. Find a way to put consent in your story in a way that will satisfy you and your readers, that will be in character for your leading ladies and your swoony men. Let them show how deeply they care for their partner by wanting them to be happy, satisfied, and able to say no. Because to me, there is nothing sexier than someone wanting to keep their partner safe.