Guest Post: Romance, Consent and the #metoo Movement
The Adventures of The Everyday Fangirl welcomes back author Corrina Lawson as a guest blogger to talk about her newest release, A Hanging at Lotus Hall.
Take it away Corrina!
Thanks so much Patty!
Romance, Consent and the #metoo Movement by Corrina Lawson
It’s been one of my longstanding goals as a romance writer and as a geek to breach the wall between the two. My books are in genres like my upcoming steampunk, A Hanging at Lotus Hall, or superhero-style romances, like the Galaxy-award-winning Phoenix Institute series.
But, still, bridging that gap isn’t as easy because while there are many romance-writing geeks, like the owner of this blog, there are many science fiction and fantasy-loving female geeks who have internalized much of society’s views of romance. Like “they’re formulaic,” and “the woman have to be rescued,” and “the heroes are all way too pushy.”
All of us who know the romance book genre know that these clichés are, in general, falsehoods. Indeed, much of what the general society views as romance is from entertainment created by straight white men that inevitably puts women in second-place, as a sidekick or helper. These stories almost invariably inform people’s views of romance books, which is frustrating because, for the most part, this stuff contains terrible romances, even when the love interest survives the story.
But because romance is viewed this way by those outside the genre, questions about consent and the #metoo movement have naturally gained some traction. Even many in the romance community have started to look at their books with a fresh eye about consent.
This is a good thing because it’s always good to be aware of any unconscious harmful societal assumptions that have made their way into our work.
But it’s also a bad thing because it feeds on our assumption that the romance genre, overall, has a problem with writing consent properly. It doesn’t.
I’ve spent the last year reading the romance books that have won the Rita, the Romance Writers of America’s award for excellence in romance. That means I’ve read 112 books so far, starting with the winners in 1982, when the award was called the Golden Medallion.
I, too, had unconscious assumptions about what I’d find in these award winners, particularly the older ones, especially about whether there would be heroes who rape or sexually assault their heroines.
Because I’d heard “romances used to be rapey.”
The truth was not even close to that. The first winner I picked up, A Day Beyond Destiny, started with a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, with a husband who rapes her, and she finds the courage to leave him for the lover who values her. Clearly, romance-reading and romance-writing woman in 1982 already knew what was what.
Over and over again, I saw few issues with consent in the Rita-winning books that I read. There were some problems in the short contemporary romances with overly pushy heroes, heroes who thought they knew a job better than their heroines, heroes who thought nothing of grabbing purses to look in them, heroes who assumed they were superior. And, yes, most of the heroines overlooked this pushiness. But there was always a moment in these stories where the heroine stood up for herself, forced the hero to understand her point of view, and made him, well, grovel.
In short, in these older contemporaries, women were writing about women in the workforce who pushed back and stood up for themselves, in bed and out. And the sexual consent was clear in these stories.
I expected this not to hold true in the older historical romances, with the leeway given heroes with a literal medieval or Regency-mindset. Instead, I read historical romances that could stand up to the scrutiny of today, with heroines who demanded respect and the heroes who gave it to them. That held true in the bedroom, especially for those trapped in marriages of convenience. In one medieval, it was made clear that the heroine could escape, if she choose, but because of reasons related to her love for their estate, she choose to stay and deal with the hero.
It was obvious, as I read books from 1985, and 1995, and 2005, and 2015, that the romance genre as a whole understood consent.
The one book that I could not finish, Shadowheart by Laura Kinsale, did have a hero who outright raped the heroine. But this was an outlier even for Kinsale, who wrote the incredible and wonderful Prince of Midnight. I can’t say what was in Kinsale’s mind while writing this, but I suspect she was exploring how dark a romance can go and how much punishment can be doled out to a hero in order to make him grovel and consider him redeemed.
Other than Shadowheart, I can only count three Rita books with problematic consent. That’s slightly less than four percent of the overall total.
And, like with Shadowheart, the authors were deliberately exploring the boundaries of consent, and power, and the push-pull between two independent people. These romances aren’t to my taste, as a sexual assault survivor, but it’s also clear the authors of these books weren’t ignoring the idea of consent but deliberately delving into it, to see what was and what was not over the line.
All this doesn’t mean that we, as writers, need to ignore the importance of the #metoo movement. A workplace romance with a power imbalance has an inherent consent issue that needs to be addressed perhaps more head-on than in the past. Readers, even of romance, are coming into stories now with eyes that have been opened.
For instance, when I wrote my dark paranormal BDSM, Love’s Inferno, I knew I was pushing boundaries of the S/M aspect. My hero gets off on pain and he can heal his injuries, meaning to fully enjoy himself, the pain has to be at a level high enough to cripple an average person. That meant exploring knife-play and fireplay (my Google results were quite interesting for a time). But it also meant discovering how explicit the consent had to be, at each stage in the fetish scenes, as is done in the majority of non-fictional BDSM communities.
On the fictional side, what I found is that BDSM romances are more likely to have openly verbal and informed consent at every step of the way than in a regular romance, where the consent is clear but our heroes and heroines can be swept up in the moment, jointly consenting but with body language and actions, rather than explicit verbal instructions of what the other wants.
BDSM romances are inherently careful about consent for each individual sex or fetish act in a scene. That’s no a bad idea to carry over to romances in the other sub-genres, either, as verbal banter can be an excellent way to add sizzle to sex scenes. There’s nothing sexier than two people telling each other how much they enjoy what the other person is doing in bed (or elsewhere).
Overall, as writers, it’s good to ponder consent more than in the past, even if it doesn’t change your writing, because readers are coming at scenes with a different set of assumptions.
But, in reading the Rita-books, the stories given by writers to other writers, it’s clear that the romance genre already knows the pitfalls inherent in problematic consent and not only actively works to avoid that pitfalls, but it has always done so.
Corrina Lawson is a former newspaper reporter with a degree in journalism from Boston University. A mom of four, she now works from home writing romance novels with a geeky twist, as a sci-fi and fantasy blogger for Barnes & Noble, and is a founding editor of GeekMom.com.