Earlier this month, I shared a list of some things I love to see in romance novels. At one point, I intended to branch out and devote a segment to the importance of consent when writing sex scenes, but that bit began to expand to the point I realized it needed to be explored in its own separate post.
So here we are.
If you haven't guessed already, this post is for mature audiences only. Also, this post contains references to sensitive topics including assault and violence.
Reader discretion is advised.
Let's Talk About Sex
Sex is a common thing to see in literature. The amount, the intensity, or how intimate the reader gets with those scenes varies between genres and from one author to the next.
Romance has a taste for getting down and dirty with the hot and steamy. Let's not forget the Bodice Rippers that can come to mind when talking about the genre.
Romance as a genre has a reputation for bare-chested men and scantily clad ladies entangled in one another's limbs and sheets. For some readers, that is one of the biggest enticements when seeking out the next book to whisk them away.
But this can set up for some problems depending on the situation in which this occurs.
Hillary Clinton once notably described the genre as being full of, "women being grabbed and thrown on a horse and ridden off into the distance."
This, as you might imagine, was met with swift backlash from the romance community.
The genre has undergone many changes in recent years, from taboo and guilty pleasure to becoming more mainstream, and in the way sex is portrayed. Conversations stemming from the #MeToo movement have drawn criticism to the genre, and with it is the advocation for the portrayal of healthy relationships.
Though Clinton's comments were in 2017, this concern has been alive for years.
In 1985, a presentation at the annual Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference saw many of its audience members walking out in protest to sexualized rape scenes, while others remained behind to challenge the panel's statements.
One such book is 1972's The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss, which many call the original modern romance novel and credit for revolutionizing the genre's popularity. However, the novel includes several instances of sexual abuse after the protagonist is mistaken for a prostitute after she kills a man attempting to rape her.
To quote the summary on the book's Wikipedia page directly, "Unaware of the misconceptions on both sides...[Captain] Brandon Birmingham, rapes Heather. When he does so, he ruptures her hymen and realizes she was a virgin and, therefore, probably not a prostitute."
Heather falls pregnant after this assault, resulting in Captain Birmingham being tracked down by her aunt and uncle and forced to marry her. Although neither is pleased at first, their feelings begin to soften and they ultimately live "happily ever after."
Nowadays, The Flame and the Flower is often regarded as a look into what was expected and gender stereotypes then and a mark of how the genre has evolved since.
Recent years have revved up these discussions, drawing attention to the importance of consent in writing sex scenes.
I think it's fair to say that Fifty Shades of Grey also inspired a number of these conversations. While I'm not a fan of the series for reasons I've mentioned on this blog in the past, it did bring erotica into the mainstream and make it less eyebrow-raising to hear someone reads or writes it. However, the relationship between Ana and Christian is incredibly toxic and brought attention to what a healthy romance actually is and what it is not.
Part of this stems from its betrayal of BDSM, which can involve bondage, Dominant/Submissive dynamics, sadism, and masochism.
BDSM itself isn't innately toxic. As described by Annabelle Knight, "Many specific practices by lovers who indulge in BDSM are performed in neutral, mutually consenting relationships. This emphasis on informed consent is of paramount importance when carrying out a BDSM act because BDSM often involves varying degrees of pain, physical restraint and servitude."
BDSM is about consensual play, as noted by sex therapist and author of Different Loving Gloria Brame, Ph.D.
However, this consent is largely absent in Fifty Shades of Grey. While there is the scene of Ana and Christian sitting down and hashing out the terms of a contract regarding what Ana is and is not willing to try in this relationship as far as the sex goes (as shown below), giving her the opportunity to set some boundaries, the feeling of unevenness is still at play.
For starters, Christian's contract lays out a set of rules for Ana regarding their relationship to the point it becomes controlling and manipulative, like limiting what she is allowed to eat or dictating how she behaves and states she will obey any instruction he gives her without hesitation and do so immediately.
“The more you submit, the greater my joy – it’s a very simple equation." [he says].
"Okay, and what do I get out of this?"
He shrugs and looks almost apologetic.
"Me," he says simply.
Knight also mentions that the submissive in a BDSM relationship, "should always expect a level of balance and to be able to guide sex within the boundaries of their own desires without pressure to exceed them."
However, as pointed out in this Brokenquiet article, the wording of this contract revokes Ana's right to say no should she not want to engage in any sexual activities.
We also see this happen.
Ana attempts to set boundaries multiple times, and each time Christian just ignores her. Consent can absolutely be withdrawn, even in the middle of sex, yet he continues to bend her to his will and urges, even forcing himself on her in Chapter 20 after she tells him to back off.
This is one of many red flags when it comes to Fifty Shades, and fueled criticisms of erotica and romance novels (which, it's worth mentioning, are two different genres and not interchangeable).
However, this also raised concerns about how sex is handled in these books.
As noted in this Glamour post, it's not enough to just be having these conversations. Writers need to act on them.
Consent means actively agreeing to be sexual with someone. You are aware of what you are getting into and have the ability to say yes freely and clearly.
Consent is not limited to verbalization. It can also be conveyed through body language.
Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol does not constitute consent. Being pressured, guilt-tripped, or forced into it does not constitute consent.
Consent is vital to a healthy sexual relationship.
Even in BDSM, there is a level of trust and limits. A good partner accepts those boundaries and does not push you to go beyond what you're comfortable with.
Like I mentioned above, sex is something that is commonly found in fiction. The genre or author's personal preference can affect how much or how little appears. Some might just allude to characters making love while others close the door to the reader and let their characters have their intimate moments to themselves, and others might invite the reader in.
I personally choose to include sex in my stories but don't go as deep as others within the romance genre.
Setting up these scenes is honestly quite fun. In one of my WIPs, the characters have just gotten engaged and take things to his bedroom after a make-out session. Another takes place at an inn on the protagonists' wedding night. My current project's occurs on the eve of a duel, driven by a now-or-never feeling and not wanting to risk dying (or living) with regrets should things take a turn for the worst in the forthcoming fight.
Whatever the case, getting my characters in the mood and building up to that step beyond the threshold is something I just enjoy.
Heading into these scenes, though, I try to ensure a pause. A moment to reflect and to recognize what's up.
This way, both characters have the ability to consent.
It doesn't have to be as stiff or straightforward as...
Character A: Do you want to have sex?
Character B: Yes, I want to have sex.
Character A: I also want to have sex.
...but having that laid out before the characters get laid is crucial.
Lines like "Do you want this?" or "Tell me what you like." can get the job done and can give writers plenty of opportunities to play with things like their character's sense of humor, awkwardness, or sexiness.
Again, consent is not limited to dialogue. Body language can be just as telling and just as it can be sexy.
Maybe one character's hand is gliding up her partner's chest or his is traveling along her spine, both pausing as they await permission to continue. Eye contact is a favorite of mine, along with fingers interlocking and inviting smirks.
It depends on the situation, but it's not hard to slip in.
While these are smaller indications, you can definitely go more in-depth with these moments and devote pages to them.
One contemporary novel I read featured the guy pulling over to buy condoms at the gas station before they headed back to his place, with him asking his partner if she had any preference as far as make and model went (I was about fourteen when I read that one and wow did I learn a lot from it!).
Fun fact: condoms did exist way back when. Cundums, as they were spelled in 1811 according to my go-to resource for Regency slang and cant, were made of dried sheep guts and "worn by men in the act of coition to prevent venereal infection."
The more you know, right?!
Even a quick little check-in before carrying on with the naughty goodness or several scattered throughout can make the difference between a scene that is questionable and a scene that is immensely pleasurable.
Remember, consent does not have to be verbal but can be conveyed in a simple nod or gaze, or one character pausing as her touch skims her partner's chest to make sure they're still up for it.
Giving the reader clear indication that the characters are equally willing to take part in the event and allowing them that agency we love to see. Sex is a commitment, and it shouldn't be made unwillingly.
I'm very much a fan of using consent to heighten sexual tension. That extension of Will They/Won't They can be so much fun to explore, and it can also make for great character development.
A character who has been previously unsure of their feelings embracing them? So rewarding.
A character who wanted to abstain until their wedding night and a now-spouse who respectfully waited until then taking the plunge after leaving the reception? Chef's kiss.
Having sex, whether it's your first time ever or the first time in that relationship, or if you've been with the same partner for a while, can be a significant moment. Whether it's just a quick fling or a monumental occasion like your wedding night, being on the same page is essential.
On a similar note, one character changing their mind in the midst of the action and the other respecting that boundaries and backing off makes me absolutely giddy.
Forcing a no into a yes is a big NO from me. There have been occasions where I was enjoying but put it down after one character's expressing a disinclination to have sex was either chided or ignored altogether.
It's perfectly okay to withdraw consent. What is not okay is making someone feel bad for doing so or disregarding their wishes.
Same goes for situations where a character says they're ready but has been drinking, so their partner instead puts them to bed rather than climbing in with them. Recognizing your partner is unable to give their sound consent and not taking things further but instead taking care of them is honestly so swoon-worthy.
In the grand scheme of things, I wish handling consent was not a topic I needed to dedicate an entire post to. It should just be the norm and the expectation when it comes to writing healthy relationships.
You don't need that boardroom setting and a contract hashing out terms and conditions, but establishing boundaries and honoring them can make your sex scenes more enjoyable not only for your characters, but for your readers.
Consent is key.