In terms of consent and what consent looks like in romance books, we’ve come a long way.

We also still have a lot of work to do because conversations about progress are not the same as gaining actual progress.

In the 1970s-era “bodice ripper” novels, consent was dubious at best.

But there has been an active and ongoing conversation about how power dynamics are handled within the genre since the 1980s – and today consent is something that both authors and readers are very aware of.

Questions about agency, equality and what enthusiastic consent looks like are now an expected part of the conversation.

Gone are the days when readers want the heroine to end up with her abuser.

In the early 2000s, when I started reading romance books, the “forced seduction” theme was still kicking around.

That’s where the main character explicitly articulates the word ‘no’ in dialogue, but the love interest takes that as her just playing hard to get. Eventually, the FMC also capitulates (both in her inner dialogue and from her point of view), admitting to the MMC that he’s actually right; she didn’t really mean it when she said ‘no’ and sex is amazing.

That was always problematic.

Then came the whole question of how to write stories that were more relevant to contemporary readers and incorporating condoms in a natural and sexy way became the standard.

Now, consent has been included in that.

And when it comes to consent, it really comes down to the power dynamics in a relationship.

A character can explicitly state their consent in dialogue, but you also need to look at the plot and examine how the characters think of and treat each other.

Because in some relationships, where there is an inherent power imbalance or power dynamic conflict (such as in the boss/employee trope), consent is questionable until it’s been stated clearly.

And the further down the scale you travel towards consensual non-consent, the more explicit you need to be about what consent was given and with whom the power over the situation truly remains.

All characters should always have agency in their consensual activities.

And when you start by constructing the power dynamics of their relationships mindfully from the very beginning, these things flow out organically.

Too often, romance books get a bad rap.

People who ridicule the genre think that the stories are silly, unrealistic, formulaic, too girly or simply classed as “porn for women”.

But romance is one of the top-selling genres, right alongside murder mysteries.

Similarly to murder mysteries, romances tend to follow a familiar structure and employ routine tropes.

Both genres also have their signature endings; murder mysteries typically reveal the culprit and will often also fork out a bit of justice; romance books end in the happily ever after (HEA).

I mean, “Oh well, I guess we’ll just go have coffee and get on with the rest of our day” said no mystery novel main character ever.

The fans of the genre know what to expect and that’s what they love. It’s what makes both romance and murder mystery fans prolific readers.

The predictability of the stories in both genres is the comfort food of reading.

And that’s why it’s all the better that we’re finally seeing that values like sensitivity, empathy, generosity, kindness, honesty and respect are as important in bed as they are in other parts of life.

The best way to educate people on what great consensual, communicative sex with enthusiastic consent looks like, is to give them more examples of it.

The great thing is that now we’re also seeing more diversity in the characters portrayed in the stories with BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors bringing in new perspectives – and this means that our lexicon of experience grows ever more varied.

As an author, you control every aspect of your story.

Though the consensus in the romance community is that Fifty Shades of Grey was an unfair and unsympathetic depiction of a BDSM relationship, the thing that’s ofter really overlooked is that showing a woman thinking about and articulating her boundaries is a powerful thing.

There’s a constant negotiation of what Ana wants as she sets and negotiates for her own boundaries.

And the important thing to remember is that the power dynamics stretch far beyond just the sex.

What was once touted as “gentlemanly behaviour” just isn’t going to fly anymore – like following the heroine home “for her safety” (without her explicit consent) because he’s a “good guy”.

Unfairly exerting power over another character really isn’t okay no matter which way it flows.

So, as authors, we have the choice to portray “heroic” behaviour in whatever way we please, so I advocate we use this power for good.

Write all your characters as thinking, feeling people that all have real agency.

Ask yourself things like:

  • What are the power dynamics in this situation?
  • If someone can easily leave but don’t, they’re implicitly making the choice to stay. Is that right for the story?
  • Does the love interest’s mouth crash on the main characters? Is the main character conflicted about the kiss? Is the love interest?

And lastly, writing explicit verbal consent that’s also sexy isn’t difficult.

Someone whispering, “Don’t stop now. I want more.” or “Don’t stop there.” is enough when you’ve set up the power dynamics right.

So, go out there and create something sexy, evocative and enthusiastically consensual.

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