In a perfect world, I would not have to define consent in its real world application. I could sweep on over to depicting its role in fiction - but then, in a perfect world, that would probably be unnecessary, too. I know what consent is today, because I got angry at the news too many times, and then I read a lot. At 18, when it would have mattered, I had no idea.
So I decided not to assume we are talking about the same thing from the get-go - and not because I was taught to always clear the parameters of a discussion beforehand, no. I'm going to talk about it, because all too often, we are shown consent as the absence of a no. Not even that, in fact, but as the absence of a persistent no coupled with a struggle - a persistent, hard struggle. One or two refusals or a single shove seem to be what women are supposed to do anyway, unless they want to be seen as just giving it away.
Consent, is not the absence of refusal - it is the enthusiastic, uncoerced yes or body language to that effect.
Now, remember that perfect world I mentioned above? In it, it would be this simple, but of course it isn't. A lot of the time that old and disgusting adage that a no is just a yes in disguise is true - because of the movies we watch, and the stories we read, because of moral constructs and fear of judgment. In the real world, I can't blame anyone for being afraid to offer enthusiastic consent. That's hard to do, especially when we're young and shy.
In fiction, I can.
I'm not trying to say that fiction should be a perfect world, far from it. But when problematic actions appear in fiction, we as authors can comment on them, we can lead our characters to realizations or regret, we can punish the assholes and give dignity back to those who didn't know how to express their sovereignty over their own body.
Now, I am the last one to say we shouldn't have grey areas and complicated situations. But the only way of dealing with them properly is to be aware of why they are problematic and how to shift them just a little into okay territory. A book doesn't have to eschew all instances of doubtful consent - we just have to take care not to portray them as romantic. When the stalker gets the girl in the end without some serious repentance and we reward the behavior, or when the guy who pressured his girlfriend into sex remains the white vested romantic hero throughout, something doesn't feel quite right to me.
So here are some situations where we have to be especially careful:
- Male athletes / hunks. This is just because they tend to be physically strong, and we have to make sure they don't (even accidentally) use it to intimidate the woman.
- Power dynamics. This goes for office environments as well as the popular maid or babysitter scenarios. Consent is always compromised when there is an imbalance of power, when the woman has to worry about her job, her future or her reputation. Here it is all the more important that she gives that enthusiastic consent we mentioned above - maybe that she even initiates. The same goes, of course, for prison or professor/student scenarios.
- Drugs, alcohol or any other emotional state that might impair judgment (like grief or elation etc.). This is pretty self-explanatory. I know for a fact that most people can still consent when drunk - but it makes them easier to pressure or to manipulate, so make sure the hero is hesitant and the woman happy.
- Reluctance. Reluctance is often realistic and I see no reason to keep it out of fiction. However, if we want to maintain the hero as someone to root for, we have to be careful and show that he respects it, backs off and only tries again when we give him a good reason to believe she might have changed her mind.
And for good measure, it always helps to make sure you show that the hero respects his heroine: that he doesn't objectify her or only comments on her looks or sex-appeal. Making it clear that he is truly attracted to her as a human being with a mind, skills, talents and opinions can give you a lot more leeway with above situations.
Now how about you - have you come across scenarios that made you feel uncomfortable? What would have made it better for you?
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Essays on WritingNon-Fiction
Essays on Writing is a collection of thoughts I come across during my writing journey. They cover topics such as grammar, editing, writing, publishing and very often character and story development within the expectations of genre or society.