Toxic Romance: Consent

The #MeToo movement brought to light sexual misconduct across many different industries and placed it at the forefront of the American cultural conscience with the force of a category five hurricane. In the wake of #MeToo revelations, it became clear that the way we treat sexual violence and victims of sexual violence in this country needs to change. Many blamed the media. Many more blamed the victims. And some—including former presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton—blamed romance novels. In an interview on the Washington Post podcast Cape Up from November 28, 2017, Clinton claimed, “The whole romance novel industry is about women being grabbed and thrown on a horse and ridden off into the distance.”

While I don’t personally believe that Clinton was blaming the romance genre for promoting sexual violence toward women, she was playing the cause and effect game. It’s the old “violent video games make kids more violent” argument. However, the fact of the matter is that romance novels get a bad rap. In an open letter addressed to Clinton published in the Washington Post on December 8, 2017, romance novelist Lisa Kleypas wrote, “your comment, especially pulled out of context, doesn’t represent all romance novels. It’s a misleading cliche about the genre — like so many misleading cliches about your fabulous trailblazing life.”

Romance is a wide, complex genre encompassing many different themes and tropes with something for everyone. There are subgenres for every type of reader: paranormal, western, contemporary, regency, historical, sci-fi, fantasy, and more. Yet despite its many facets and diverse readership, romance is often scorned and panned by critics. In an op-ed for the New York Times, author Jennifer Weiner wrote, “But those books, for all their soft-core covers and happily-ever-afters, were quietly and not-so-quietly subversive. They taught readers that sexual pleasure was something women could not just hope for but insist upon. They shaped my interactions with boys and men. They helped make me a feminist.” 

Kleypas further argued, “The romance genre has undergone remarkable changes in the past 30 years.” This is a fact which has been well documented by several sources. In “A Brief History of the Romance Novel,” Amanda Pagan, a librarian for the New York Public Library, highlighted the evolution of the romance novel over time. Kathleen Woodiwiss’ 1972 novel, The Flame and the Flower, is considered by many to be the birth of the bodice ripper and is one of the first romance novels to feature sexually explicit scenes. 

In the early days of the bodice ripper, consent was highly questionable, which is a stigma that continues to linger over the romance genre today. According to Pagan, “bodice rippers were notorious for featuring rape and abuse as part of the ‘love story’ and eventually were replaced by narratives that did not promote assault or violence. Bodice rippers remain a relic of their time—however, the impact of these novels is still felt in modern romances.” 

In the 1978 novel, A Pirate’s Love by Johanna Lindsey, Bettina Verlaine is an aristocratic French woman whose father arranges her marriage to a stranger and sends her, by ship, to the Caribbean to meet him. While en route, Bettina’s ship is beset by pirates and the pirate captain, Tristan, takes her captive. Tristian tells her, “I intend to make love to you, Bettina Verlaine, then I will take you to your betrothed. So take off your clothes. I would rather not have to rape you and perhaps hurt you in the process.” 

Bettina refuses Tristan and says she will fight. He then claims to have taken crew members from her ship captive and the only way he will allow them to live is if Bettina doesn’t fight him. The following is an excerpt of their “bargain” from Chapter 6:

“‘Your submission for the lives of those men. You I will have whether you fight me or not. I will not be denied you. But I will spare the lives of the prisoners and set them free in the next port on one condition—that you don’t fight me.” He paused and smiled. “You have lost already, Bettina, for I will have you no matter what you decide. But the prisoners have everything to gain. They will live and not be harmed if you agree. I want your answer now.”

“You are merciless!” Bettina gasped. “Why must you rape me?”

“You surprise me. You are a prize worth having, and I want you,” he said.

“But I do not want you!”

Tristan manufactured consent from Bettina by using other people’s lives as incentive for her cooperation. This is not true consent as it was done under coercion. Bettina is a prisoner who fears for her life and the lives of her ship’s crew, which Tristan knows and uses to his advantage. By securing her word that she will not fight him, he has taken away her autonomy and any true choice.

Throughout the novel, Bettina is further victimized by Tristan as he continues to abuse her through a series of threats and lies. He also weaponizes sex against her and vows to show her “the joys of being a woman.” At times Bettina experiences pleasure during rape: “he moved inside her, slowly at first, then faster, much faster, and it actually felt good. Bettina relaxed and shamefully enjoyed the feeling of him inside her. But then he gave a final deep thrust and relaxed completely, crushing her with his huge body.” 

The article, “What Science Says About Arousal During Rape,” by Jenny Morber and Double X Science, which was featured in Popular Science on May 30, 2013, details that rape and arousal can happen concurrently. “Quite simply, our bodies respond to sex. And our bodies respond to fear. Our bodies respond. They do so uniquely and often entirely without our permission or intention. Orgasm during rape isn’t an example of an expression of pleasure. It’s an example of a physical response whether the mind’s on board or not, like breathing, sweating, or an adrenaline rush…they just can’t help it.”

For Bettina, who is being manipulated and raped, to have an emotional response to her rapist is yet another problematic element of A Pirate’s Love. Not only does Lindsey have Bettina suffer sexual abuse throughout the novel, she also has her heroine experience pleasure at the hands of her rapist, leading her to fall in love with him. Romance novels should not glamorize women who allow men to sexually abuse them in the name of pleasure or love. 

Questionable consent is not just a byproduct of the bodice ripper. It also appears in contemporary romance and other subgenres. Furthermore, there are many examples where men are victims of non-consensual relations. For example, in chapter 3 of This Heart of Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, the book’s “heroine” Molly Somerville rapes the hero Kevin in his sleep while they’re both staying at her family vacation home. After snooping through his shaving kit and finding a condom, Molly sneaks into Kevin’s room and climbs into his bed. 

“This was a terrible invasion of his privacy. Inexcusable. But as she gazed down at his rumpled dark blond hair, she could barely resist brushing it back from his brow…Appalled, she watched her fingers curl around the covers and tug. Even as the blankets fell back, she told herself she wasn’t going to do it.” Molly knows what she’s doing is wrong, but she does it anyway. Kevin is half asleep and mistakes Molly for his ex-girlfriend, not realizing the truth until it’s over. He confronts her and asks the question, “‘what would this situation be called, for example, if I’d decided to crawl in bed with you—a nonconsenting female!’”

Things are further muddled when you consider that Molly is the younger sister of Phoebe Somerville, owner of the fictional Chicago Stars football team, for whom Kevin is the starting quarterback. “What if she crawled in with him? It was unthinkable. But who would know? He might not even wake up. And if he did? He’d be the last person to tell the world he’d been with the owner’s oversexed sister.” Not only was it a violation of Kevin’s consent to climb into his bed in the first place, but to do so knowing she has power over his livelihood? Molly disregards the fact that Kevin is vulnerable to her in more ways than one and pursues her own wants with no consideration for his. 

Throughout the rest of the book, Phillips tries to illustrate this initial action as out of character for Molly and justify Molly’s behavior because she had a crush on Kevin, makes reckless choices when she’s overwhelmed, and that she never got to have a normal childhood. I’m sorry, but growing up with a dead mother and a distant father is no excuse for forcing yourself on a man when he’s vulnerable and has no say in the matter. 

Despite the evolution of the genre, there are still problematic romance novels being published today. The jungle that is Amazon’s self-publishing platform is littered with titles containing plotlines packed with questionable consent. In her article, “The Romance Novelist’s Hot Guide to Consent,” which was published in Jezebel on February 14, 2018, Kelly Faircloth wrote, “I can’t promise that any book picked randomly off Amazon (especially self-published books) will contain positive examples of enthusiastic affirmative consent; occasionally I’ll dip into something with dynamics that make me wince.” 

While self-publishing is the perfect scapegoat to highlight issues in modern-day romance (generally due to lack of editing) consent issues in romance are not found exclusively in self-published books. Recent examples from major publishers include Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James (Penguin Random House), This Man by Jodi Ellen Malpas (Hachette Book Group), and Just One Touch by Maya Banks (HarperCollins) to name a few. While you could argue that none of the aforementioned titles have defined rape scenes such as A Pirate’s Love, violation of consent in the modern romance novel isn’t always related to sexual abuse. 

For example, in This Man by Jodie Ellen Malpas the “hero” Jesse Ward is the quintessential toxic alpha male. Quite frankly, he makes Christian Grey look like an amateur. At the beginning of the novel, Jesse hires Ava O’Shea to do the interior design on a recent expansion to his property, which she mistakes for a hotel. She doesn’t discover the truth—that it’s a members only sex club for posh people with too much money and kinky tastes—until the end of the book. 

Overwhelmed by Jesse’s presence during their first consultation, Ava leaves to use the restroom and (unbeknownst to her at the time) Jesse adds his contact information to her phone. When Ava has the audacity to refuse to work with him, Jesse blows up her phone with numerous calls, stalks her across London, and frequently weaponizes sex to subdue her. All of these actions are a violation of Ava’s consent and free will within their relationship. However, the true pièce de résistance is when Jesse steals Ava’s contraceptive pills in the hopes of impregnating her without her consent. Why? Because he doesn’t want her to leave him. In This Man Confessed (Book 3), Jesse explains, “All I thought about was every reason for you not to want me. I knew it was wrong to take them, but I saw it as collateral. That’s how desperate I was.” 

Despite the popularity of the “alpha male” trope in romance, it is hard to execute the right balance between caring and overbearing. In This Man, Ava essentially falls in love with her stalker and every time she tries to voice her concerns or flat out deny Jesse, he uses sex to subdue her. Although Ava does not deny Jesse sex, is she truly consenting? How can their relationship function healthily if the man is constantly overpowering the woman? Jesse’s actions might not be physical or sexual violence, but he is emotionally abusive and sex is his favorite weapon. As Kleypas argues, “It is never a romance novel if it condones or normalizes abuse or makes a woman less than she is.”

Although there are still many problematic romance novels being published today, I would argue most traditional publishers focus more on books that emphasize consent and sexual empowerment for women. In the article “For the Love of Independence,” which was published in Bitch Media, S.E. Smith wrote, “Feminist romance offers models of consent and conversations about sex and sexuality rarely seen elsewhere, alongside critical analysis of sexual power structures.”

When asked about the importance of consent in her writing, Sarah MacLean, author of Wicked and the Wallflower, said, “It’s important to me that the hero be conscious of the heroine wanting it. I don’t know if that’s because of this book or if that’s because of the world, but it’s critical to me that the hero is concerned about—maybe not concerned, but it’s critical to me that the hero knows. Like, yes, she is saying yes, she is into this, this is happening, because she wants it, and I want her to have pleasure. I want this moment to be about her.” 

Wicked and the Wallflower is the story of Felicity Faircloth, a spinster with “a storybook name,” as the book’s hero, Devil, refers to her. Tired of being ignored by society and used as a pawn by her family, Felicity refuses to accept a marriage without passion. She strikes a bargain with Devil to teach her how to make her future husband desire her. And, because it’s a romance novel, they fall for each other in the process. Determined to see Felicity returned to society’s good graces, Devil refuses to take her virginity. However, Felicity won’t take no for an answer and tells Devil precisely what she wants, “‘You told me you would give me what I want. I want that. I want tonight. With you. All of it. All of you.’”

Positive depictions of consent are particularly important in period romance novels because, historically, women had few choices available to them. According to Kleypas, women were historically viewed, “as idealized beings who belonged in the house, women were supposed to go from maidenhood to motherhood. They were required to be demure, virtuous and sexless, placed on a pedestal so high that their voices could never be heard. Obviously, that definition of the ideal woman was a trap — a woman is trapped any time she lets someone else define her.” When an author makes their female character the primary decision maker regarding physical intimacy, it not only illustrates positive, consensual relations, but takes on a deeper historical significance by giving a voice to women who would have traditionally been silenced. And by providing their fictional characters with a voice, authors can unknowingly empower their readers to make similar decisions regarding their own bodies, sexuality, and relationships. 

In The Kiss Quotient, by Helen Hoang, Stella Lane is a brilliant econometrician on the autism spectrum who struggles with intimacy. Convinced she needs to be taught how to be in a relationship, Stella hires an escort, Michael Phan, to be her “pretend boyfriend.” Throughout the book, Stella and Michael communicate clear consent during intimacy: “Peeling away from her, he sat back on his heels and extracted a small foil from his pocket. ‘Do you want to?’ She pushed herself up, and the bathrobe slipped off her shoulders. She stifled the reflex to cover her nudity but couldn’t bring herself to meet his eyes. Her pulse was out of control. ‘Yes, I want to.’…‘You have to talk to me, okay? If something hurts, if you don’t like it, if you want something more, if it’s perfect. Say everything.’ Eyes still shut, she said, ‘I’ll…try.’”

We are in the midst of a cultural movement that is actively redefining how we view relationships and what we are defining as both right and romantic. At the center of this movement is consent. Not only does consent remove any notion of rape, but it also fundamentally changes other aspects of the relationship. First, it establishes that there is equality between the partners. Second, it emphasizes that each partner knows their own mind and is capable of making decisions regarding their bodies. Third, it demonstrates the importance of communicating with your partner. For many modern romance readers, this lack of blurred lines makes the reading experience more pleasurable, as they are able to see a relationship worth celebrating.

Romance is one of the only genres that normalizes sexual pleasure and having discussions about sex. Therefore, the genre has a duty to show relationships that are both healthy and consensual. Not only does this protect the genre from slipping back into old cliches that counter modern feminist movements, but it also improves the reader experience by removing the dead-weight of tropes that the cultural zeitgeist is tearing apart. Even if you are going against the grain set by the bodice rippers of old, I think you’ll find that a person saying yes is far sexier than a person who does not take no for an answer.