Consent and Happy Ever After
We asked Adriana Herrera how her work as an advocate for support for survivors of sexual abuse influences her writing. Does she still believe there can be Happy Ever Afters? And what advice does she have for when we are faced with the "consent isn't sexy" brigade?
PHS kindly invited me to talk about something I think about constantly as part of my day job: consent.
My job is to provide advocacy and services to survivors of sexual violence. My day to day involves hearing from men, women and children about what those experiences were like for them. I hear about all the ways in which they were robbed from feeling safe, mentally and physically. It can be heavy at times, but my job is to bear witness and to hold a space for my clients where they can do what they need to do to heal. Like them I have to hold on to the hope they can overcome their trauma.
I’m also a life-long romance reader and author who firmly believes in happy endings. I have to, it’s part of my job. Both of them. Which is why, for me, it’s so important to be thoughtful about the kinds of relationships I write in my stories. From the Meet Cute all the way to The End I try to keep consent and agency front and center in my protagonists interactions.
I am mindful to pave a path for my protagonists that makes their happy ending not just romantic and swoon worthy, but viable. A big part of that viability comes from working at making the relationship equitable. As I understand it, consent is not about a yes or no question, consent is about an implicit balance of power between the person who asks and the one who offers consent. Consent is a big topic, impossible for me to cover entirely in a thousand words, but what I can offer are a couple of things to think about when crafting the dynamics between your protagonists.
Consent begins way before the clothes start coming off. To be clear, I’m not saying we don’t want that enthusiastic, resounding, "Yes", during a steamy love scene... We do. But, we also need to make sure we’ve constructed a dynamic between the protagonists where that yes has weight, and it’s coming from a place of agency and equity.
I’ll explain. To me, consent starts and ends with two things: power and control. It seems like such a straightforward thing right? They’re both adults with free will, so what’s so complicated about that? But we must always remember we are operating in a patriarchy, so we must be proactive and vigilant not to be trapped into antiquated gender roles or aggressiveness masked as courting.
What do I mean by this? If you have a man and woman in a relationship and he has the power everywhere else (physical, financial, emotional), but hers only comes down to the “yes” that gives him access to her body...then the agency behind that consent may not be as hefty as you think.
Kate Harding in her book “Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do About It” states:
“...we live in a culture where men, as a group, have more power than women. This isn't a controversial statement, despite the protestations of guys who funnel their frustration that not all extremely young, conventionally attractive women want to sleep with them into an argument that women, as a group, have 'all the power'.
"The really great thing about this argument is how the patently nonsensical premise—that some young women's ability to manipulate certain men equals a greater degree of gendered power than say, owning the presidency for 220-odd years—obscures the most chilling part: in this mindset, 'all the power' means, simply, the power to withhold consent.
"Let that sink in for a minute. If one believes women are more powerful than men because we own [most of] the vaginas, then women's power to withhold consent to sex is the greatest power there is.”
That part—the one about falling into the trap of implying that because a woman can grant access to her body she somehow overrides the power men hold in every other area of society—is a pitfall I am very mindful of. I mean think about it, if he’s her boss, or who emotionally “holds her together,” who can support her financially—or is just regular dude in a patriarchy, he is already in a position of advantage.
To pretend she holds all the cards because he wants her is simplistic, and frankly, just not enough to make it a relationship of equals. So, when you are building up to that “yes” make sure that you’ve set it up so it’s powerfully delivered. This doesn’t just apply to M/F couples, any type of romance should be written with this in mind, and it begins way before sex is part of the picture.
That means, don’t write jerks.
Let me be blunt, possessive and controlling behavior is not courting, and it’s not cute. A person who assumes they know what their love interest wants, or who can’t be patient enough to let the other person get to a place where things can go further, is not my idea of a catch. Those are red flags and symptoms of behavior that could only escalate as the relationship deepens. There is nuance to these things, if a protagonist has to badger their love interest, figuratively or literally, to let them know they want them, that’s when you may be in shaky ground with consent.
I’ll use one of my stories as an example. My debut novel American Dreamer, is an M/M romance. The main characters are both young professionals, and from the get go things are seemingly equitable, their professional and personal lives are completely separate. There is not conflict of interest or any external factors making one dependent on the other. So we’re good right?! Not completely… They are also totally different.
Nesto is a confident, out and proud Dominican who is ready to pursue Jude as soon as they meet. Nesto also has a wealth of support in the form of his family and friends. Jude has some of that, but he is vulnerable in other ways, because of his family history. Nesto has to be mindful of this and pull back when he is coming on too strong. He must let Jude be the one to take the step into taking things further, and still every step of the way Nesto has to keep asking if things are okay for Jude. Why? Because emotionally Jude has a lot more to lose than Nesto does.
The morale of my diatribe is that consent cannot be just a moment or a word. It’s an amalgamation of small and larger contracts that are made again and again by two—or more—people who are embarking into a relationship. It’s a big thing, consent, and it should be earned thoroughly. Make your protagonists work for each yes, they will be that more meaningful for it.
What examples do you have of sexy consent? How can we best write it without being clumsy? Comment below or contact us on social media.