Consent in Romance Writing

Enter the hero, full of someone’s interpretation of masculine charm. (Read: A complete, overbearing dick.)

Enter the heroine, who takes one look at the hero (asshole) and says, “No.”

The hero responds, “You’re wrong. You mean yes.”

The heroine tells him, “Get the fuck out.”

The hero leaves, secretly planning how to best stalk her, learn her secrets without her knowledge, and manipulate or coerce her into being his.

Insert 200 pages of stalking and attempted date rape.

The heroine swoons and declares, “You were right all along!”

So, this isn’t an accurate take of all romance novels. I know that. I really do. But it happens so damned often, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.

Yes, there’s appeal in being wanted (though not in an FBI sense) and pursued (though not in a dark alley sense) but what happened to “No means no”?

What happened to the appeal of a partner who’s aware of the finer nuances of consent, and who understands the line between seduction (a good thing) and stalking (very much not good)?

Here’s a quote from The Longest Night:

As he stirred up the embers and coaxed the fire to catch, he considered fetching drinks for them both. After his unintentional addiction to painkillers, he was still wary of alcohol, but one glass would help her to relax. Then he pushed the idea aside. He wanted her trust, and that meant conscious, fully-aware consent, not trust born of artificially relaxed inhibitions.

Through the whole book, I tried to emphasize that Ian was giving Cecily a choice. At every step, he’s careful not to assume interest.

At first, it’s out of simple self-preservation. He’s going to be staying with her in an isolated cabin for weeks or months.

“It smells wonderful,” he said, carefully keeping his distance, though the aroma of fresh-roasted coffee called to him. The last thing either of them needed was for him to make a pass, her to rebuff him, and both of them to spend the next few weeks awkwardly avoiding one another.

But then it becomes more.

As he put on his coat, though, another thought occurred to him: Marguerite. He closed his eyes and thought back to how he’d instinctively flirted with her, how she’d responded — and how quickly Cecily had left.

Was she jealous?

The thought had definite appeal. He’d been trying not to think of Cecily that way. She hadn’t shown any overt sign of interest, and he was painfully aware that he was intruding on her solitary life. The last thing she needed was her unwanted guest rudely making advances on her. That would make an already awkward situation untenable.

And he still leaves it to be her choice.

He glanced at her in the faint light bleeding through the kitchen window and wondered if he should suggest she try to sleep. It seemed like she lived on catnaps of two or three hours, which couldn’t be healthy, and for a moment he was tempted to suggest that they share the bed, even just to give her the warmth and safety of someone beside her.

He knew himself, though; he’d been attracted to her since the moment he saw her standing against that little airplane of hers. The last thing he wanted to do was to act on that temptation and make an already-awkward winter even more uncomfortable.

So instead, after they hung up their coats and built up the fires, he wished her goodnight and went into the bedroom alone. He undressed, wrapped up in her blankets, and laid in the firelit darkness, listening to her moving quietly around the kitchen, and wondered if there was anything he could do to help.

He respects her boundaries and her privacy. Eventually, yes, he does make his interest known, always in a way that won’t be awkward or uncomfortable for her. He always gives her an out — a way to say no. And after they kiss, after they have sex, he still doesn’t assume that he can do anything he wants.

To me, that’s a hell of a lot more sexy than some arrogant, overbearing, cocky asshole who’s going to try and tell me he knows best what I want.