How to Write Consent in Romance Novels

The genre has historically offered up plotlines that range from uncomfortable moments of pursuit to nos that imply yes. One author discusses her decision to go about it differently.

Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The Proposal, Jasmine Guillory’s newest book, begins with a catastrophe. When the Los Angeles–based freelance writer Nikole Paterson agrees to attend a baseball game with Fisher, her dashing but dim-witted actor beau, she has no idea that the sentient man bun has made plans to propose to her. But suddenly, as she’s eating her Dodger Dog, Fisher pops the question—on the scoreboard. And has the nerve to misspell her name while doing it.

The JumboTron proposal causes Nik untold embarrassment, not just because she’s hardly prepared to spend the rest of her life with a man she’s been dating for only a few months, but also because of the pressure that comes with the public declaration. When she reacts with shock and not immediate enthusiasm, Fisher turns on her—and so does everyone in the stadium, along with thousands of viewers watching live footage, news coverage, and viral videos of the moment all around the country.

The swarm of public attention, paired with the intensity of Fisher’s rage, sends Nik into a spiral of fear. Guillory takes great care in writing the effects that Fisher’s calculated display, and his red-faced tantrum after she turns him down, have on Nikole. In the grand scheme of indignities that women suffer, an unwanted public proposal may not be the most dangerous, but it still constitutes a denial of agency. The Proposal is as much a subtle indictment of manipulative patterns in courtship as it is a love story.

“My idea of a hero is not someone who comes and sweeps the woman off her feet and turns her into a princess, but a man who cares about what a woman has to say, who listens to her, who pays attention to her needs and wants,” Guillory said when we recently spoke over the phone, adding that the ideal romantic lead would also then ask “what she wants, just to make sure that he’s right” in his assessment.

Fisher, with his arrogant belief that Nik ought to be thrilled by his attention, clearly didn’t meet that mark. But Guillory is particularly skilled at writing the men who woo her novels’ female protagonists with compassion and empathy. Men like Fisher serve as foils to the characters who most compellingly animate the author’s books. Guillory’s male leads aren’t perfect, but they’re unwavering in their respect for the women at the center of these stories.

Purposefully written consent shows up repeatedly in Guillory’s work—not just in The Proposal, but also in her January debut, The Wedding Date. The latter follows Alexa Monroe, a municipal employee in Berkeley, California, who winds up stuck in an elevator with the Los Angeles–based doctor Drew Nichols, who’s come up to the Bay for an ex’s nuptials. When Drew begs Alexa to be his date—and fake girlfriend—the two must set clear rules and boundaries for their pretend relationship. Alexa is not swept into Drew’s life the moment he lays eyes on her. Of course, things go pleasantly awry, but each recalibration of the pair’s relationship occurs not as a negotiation, but as a dialogue.

Guillory fell into writing romance unexpectedly. She began writing professionally about eight years ago, and didn’t imagine at the time that the genre would capture her attention. But after a health crisis made her pause a different project—and left her with lots of time to read—Guillory found herself drawn to the comfort provided by the predictability of romance’s hallmark: the happy ending.

“I discovered that when you’re going through something difficult and there’s a lot of uncertainty in life, romance is really great,” she said. “You know, going in, everything’s going to be okay at the end of this book. And that’s exactly what I needed at that time.”

While many romance novels woo readers with the guarantee of a happy ending, the genre has a fraught relationship with how exactly its characters end up there. The most infamous subcategory of romance, so-called bodice-rippers, first gained massive popularity during the 1970s with stories of helpless women saved from the tedium of their lives by the love—and overpowering libido—of lustful, virile men.

Kathleen Woodiwiss’s 1972 novel, The Flame and the Flower, is one of the earliest and most influential books of the trend, which continued through the ’80s. Set in 1799, the book follows 17-year-old Heather Simmons, who is nearly raped by one man in London, only to later be serially raped by another because he confuses her for a sex worker. This second man is the novel’s male lead, 35-year-old Captain Brandon Birmingham. Woodiwiss writes the captain as a powerful, domineering figure so overcome by his attraction to Heather’s “high-curved breasts” and “rosy butt” that he must have her, even as she sleeps. Eventually, Heather falls for the man who had thus far been her rapist—and the two set sail for America to, well, live happily ever after.

The Flame and the Flower, as well as the broader category of bodice-rippers, have earned a fair amount of criticism in recent years. Concerns about the genre’s depiction of love and sex have received renewed attention as coverage of the #MeToo movement shifts to acknowledge the role that cultural products play in shaping consumers’ understanding of consent. In a November 2017 interview with The Washington Post, Hillary Clinton dismissed romance as a genre full of “women being grabbed and thrown on a horse and ridden off into the distance,” which she cited as an example of “how men often are very aggressive toward women who love it” in art.

In the years since bodice-rippers first rose to prominence within the genre and the marketplace, romance writers have been grappling with the questions raised by these sorts of assumptions about their work. Clinton’s reductive framing was rebutted in the Post by Lisa Kleypas, an author of historical romance and contemporary fiction. “The romance genre has undergone remarkable changes in the past 30 years,” Kleypas wrote. “Romance readers give a variety of reasons for why they love the genre: It’s empowering, it’s an escape, it explores the complexities of relationships in ways that cause them to reflect deeply on their own lives.”

The author’s sentiments echoed those that the prolific novelist Lindsay McKenna shared with Publishers Weekly in November 2017. “One of the things I teach in my books is how men should treat women, because most people don’t have a fucking clue,” McKenna said. “Back in the 1980s it was about a man being dominant and a woman was second best, and calling it love. That’s not love, I’m sorry. That sucks.” These kinds of books have not entirely faded into obscurity; popular titles from the ’70s and ’80s are still circulated heavily online and in stores. But broadly speaking, the genre’s tide is shifting to account for lessons learned in the interceding decades.

Guillory has a notable respect for authors who wrote during earlier eras, but her work is instructive in its comparatively progressive depiction of women’s desires. In The Proposal, the thing Nik most needs after the disastrous titular event is a reprieve from constant, caustic attention. Guillory does allow a handsome doctor to rescue her heroine in a way—but he doesn’t do it alone, or for long. Nik is saved from the stadium spectacle by two strangers, the doctor Carlos Ibarra and his sister, Angela, who whisk her away from Fisher after they see the ordeal he’s putting her through. The three go out for drinks afterward and soon become friendly, but Carlos doesn’t immediately register as a viable romantic option for Nik, who needs time to heal before she can even consider spending more time with him.

Nik’s journey to overcoming her anxieties is as satisfying as the romance novel’s inevitable happy ending. She enrolls in a self-defense class with Dana and Courtney, her two best friends, later writing a story about the owner of the women’s gym (a thoughtful subplot that manages to convey a host of truths about abuse without veering into after-school-special territory). Even in a story centered on an unexpected connection between a man and woman, Guillory foregrounds women’s friendships. Nik’s constant love for Dana and Courtney is as important to the novel as her evolving romance with Carlos.

Guillory wrote the book before the recent uptick in national dialogue about consent and sexual violence, but one of The Proposal’s most impressive feats is how deftly it captures both the terror laden in subtle acts of boundary-crossing and the singular relief of feeling respected by a partner. The sex scenes are scintillating not just because of the acts they describe, but because of the attention Guillory pays to pacing and communication. In one scene early in the protagonists’ tentative courtship, the two notice that it’s gotten late. They nervously dance around the question of whether Carlos should leave Nik’s apartment:

He stopped halfway through standing up and sat back down.

“Didn’t you … ” He paused for a few seconds, shrugged, and continued. “Just to be clear—do you want me to go? Because if you do, it’s no problem, but if not, I’m happy to stay.”

After Nik affirms that she wants Carlos to stay—and that she was simply lamenting the fact that they’d yet to make it to her bedroom—he again defers to her. “Lead the way,” Carlos says as he takes her hand. This exchange, as in the rest of The Proposal and in The Wedding Date, establishes the characters’ comfort with each other prior to the ensuing sex scene. But it also underscores a crucial requisite for the lustful activity to follow: enthusiastic consent. Here, Nik and Carlos are bashful with each other—the hallmark of a new, uncertain romance—but that anxiety isn’t channeled into overcompensation or domination.

Guillory says one of the best compliments she received about The Wedding Date was that the book could serve as a model for young people who want to better understand romantic boundaries. A friend from law school read the book with her book club, which comprised several mothers of young children. “One of the women told me that she wanted her little girl, when she got old enough, to read my book to know what consent was and how a man should treat her,” Guillory said of the meeting, which she Skyped into. “It just really made me feel emotional, because I want girls to grow up thinking that they deserve to be heard, that their voices matter, that men should listen to them by default.”

The Proposal and The Wedding Date both depict consent as necessary and sexy, but they’re hardly the first books to do so. Guillory credits the world of romance with addressing the importance of uncoerced interest well before other genres or mediums were paying attention to the dynamics inherent in how people relate to one another.

“Romance writers have been thinking about this stuff for a long time and people haven’t really paid attention, and now people are paying attention, which I think is great,” she said. “I’m not going to pretend that all romance novels are perfect on this. There have certainly been books that I’ve read that I’ve been like, Ahh, I’m not sure about that. But I think they’re good examples of both what to do and what not to do.

“I think they’re good things for people to look towards to see how can we teach our daughters and how can we teach our sons to change their behavior to pay attention to women,” she added. “To know that you have a voice and that you matter. And I think romance can play a really big role in that.”

Guillory’s commitment to respecting her female characters’ integrity extends beyond the way she writes their romantic interactions. The author writes black women who do not need to announce themselves. “Women of color read a lot, and read a lot of romance,” the author noted. “I really wanted their conversations about race to feel like the conversations that I have with my friends. I talk about race with my friends all the time, every day, but not in a Now we’re going to sit down and talk about race [type of way]. It’s just like, God, can you believe what happened? And then it’s like, you talk about it for two minutes and then you're like, All right, should we get pizza tonight?

Fittingly, Nik doesn’t have to talk about antiblackness at length to be real. Neither does Carlos, her love interest, have to take up the mantle of immigration reform to be a believable Mexican American man. In The Wedding Date, Alexa pilots a program for court-involved youth, but the root of her concern lies close to home. She’s not an avatar for criminal-justice reform. So often, characters of color function largely to represent the issues their communities face. Guillory chooses not to dwell unduly on the racial makeup of her characters, but the books are not so much color-blind as they are conscious of the fact that race—or, more accurately, racism—is not the sole factor driving people of color’s lives.

For Guillory, romance novels also help soothe the difficulty of existing in a world that is often hostile to women, and to people of color of all genders. They lessen collective and individual burdens, if not by changing others’ conceptions of marginalized people, then at least by providing a welcome distraction from the chaos of everyday life.

“There are so many hard things going on. [But] reading romances about women of color finding joy and finding love is just something so affirming to me and something that I need to read,” she said. “Because all day you’re looking at the news or you’re on Twitter and you’re seeing all of the bad things that are happening to women out there, and I just need to see men treating women well in a book, you know?

“Women who have their voices heard and have joy and love and agency—that's the thing I really love about romance.”

By Jasmine Guillory

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