Drawing The Lines Of Consent In Romance

Last week romance author Jeffe Kennedy taught an online RWA workshop on how to distinguish between various lines of consent. We were intrigued by what the author had to say on the subject, so today she's giving a run-down on consent in romance and how readers distinguish between what's consensual and what isn't.

Cover of The Mark of the Tala by Jeffe Kennedy

In writing romance, the question of consent comes up fairly frequently. After all, the genre — along with many of us writing and reading today — has its roots in the gloriously rapetastic romances of the 70s and 80s. We might cringe at the term “bodice-ripper” (if only because the people who study historical costumes will remind us that corsets do not rip easily), but when the hero tears the clothes from the protesting, possibly tearful and trembling heroine? Yeah … I loved that stuff. A lot of us did and still do.

At the same time, the romance community is chock full of smart, educated, self-directed and dynamic women. We’re all very clear on what is consensual sex and what isn’t. We’re an enthusiastically sex-positive group in general, big fans of love, intimacy and all that a good romance brings, both in fiction and in real life. For the most part, we decry slut-shaming, any kind of misogyny and sexual harassment or violence. We’re not the ones debating the definition of rape.

So why do so many romances dance along the lines of less-than-full consent?

Because we're talking fantasy here. Fiction. Not real life.

For me, it's a huge distinction. Certainly people differ on the issue of consent in fiction. Some readers and writers tolerate nothing but full consent in their romances, taking their yardstick from real life. But for the majority, real life considerations are different than fictional ones. That's because, with fantasy and fiction, the most important judge of what is acceptable and what isn't will be the fantasizer - in this case, the reader. The reader is the one who must consent.

What we, as writers, are playing with is fantasy. It's psychological dynamite. We're dealing with subconscious desires, dark needs, sexual fantasies. So, when we talk about drawing consent lines in romance, we have to talk about them in a different way.

In real life: Consent is EVERYTHING.

We all know this. We see it in the news every damn day. Consent is a hard, bright line that no one wants to cross In Real Life. Unless a person is sober, in their right mind, not pressured or overpowered in any way, they cannot give consent.

Bestiality is out, because animals cannot give consent.

Sex with anyone underage is out, because they don't have the maturity to give consent.

Anyone under the power of another cannot give consent.

Anyone impaired by drugs or alcohol cannot give consent.

This is not so in fiction. Fiction lets us explore fantasy, those gray and black areas beyond the hard line. That’s what makes it delicious, escapist. We can dabble in the forbidden without exposing ourselves to actual danger. So, in truth, the only hard and fast rule of consent in romance is that the reader agrees. As long as the reader is on board, wants what happens and cheers for the clothes to be greedily ripped away, then all is good.

Because we’re all smart enough to know it’s fiction.

- Jeffe Kennedy

Intrigued? Dear Author has two articles on reader consent for those wishing to read up on the topic. You can pick up Jeffe's latest, The Mark of the Tala, available now. For more romance news and views visit our Everything Romance page.