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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Summers

Empowerment & Enthusiastic Consent in Romance

UPDATE: I’ve created a list on of romance books which have enthusiastic consent between the partners. If you’re looking for a great read OR want to add your favourites to help build the list for other readers, please go here: 

Yesterday, I attended the Edmonton International Women’s Film Festival and spoke about enthusiastic consent and empowerment in romance – an incredibly important and timely topic. I thought I’d post my speech here to continue the conversation: 

Thank you to everyone for being here today. I was thrilled to be asked to talk about empowerment and consent in romance. As a romance writer, this is a topic requires a great deal of consideration, not only when you start out but as you go on, because what is considered desirable, and acceptable, in our society continually shifts. If you’re going to keep readers happy, you need to change with the times. These days, nobody wants to read a book where the heroine and hero slap each other across the face, then kiss passionately. And for good reason. The ‘bodice ripper’ books that were popular in a few decades ago are long gone, having been replaced by feisty, strong heroines. In fact, it’s a real sign of the times that one of the more popular keywords searched for by readers looking for romance novels online is ‘strong female lead.’ This shows me that we’re getting somewhere as a society.

Certain aspects of romance will likely always remain the same – including the reader’s expectation of an HEA (or happily ever after). They also demand that we don’t make it too easy for the couple to end up together because if it is, you don’t have much of a story. It’s the reasons the couple shouldn’t and can’t be together that make a novel interesting. But that reason should never be because one of the partners is abusive emotionally, mentally, physically, or sexually.

I’ve only been writing for five years, but in that time a great many things have shifted already in our culture. About a year before I started this career, a little book called Fifty Shades of Grey came out and had women everywhere reading – and talking – about things that most of us haven’t tried. Controversial? Yes. Favourably reviewed? Depends on who’s doing the reviewing. Did it depict a healthy, balanced relationship? I can’t answer that because I’ve never read the series or seen in films. Not because I’m too good for it, but because BDSM just isn’t my thing. If I had to guess, I’d say Ana Steele may not have always been enthusiastic in her consent to what was happening in that red room.

But beyond that, did Fifty Shades get us talking? Absolutely. As a romance writer — one who came after E.L. James broke the erotic market wide open — I owe her a debt of gratitude. What she did opened the doors for what I do, which is to tell the romantic stories I want to read. And the best part is I don’t have to feel ashamed about it, like I otherwise may have done. This is important for women because if we strip away the shame associated with thinking about, talking about, and having the sex we want, we take back our power.

In my opinion, the best romance stories, feature strong heroes but even stronger heroines – women who know their minds and desires, and aren’t afraid to go after what they want. Those are the heroines I want to write – modern-day women who have hopes, dreams, struggles, and insecurities as we all do, but who are also brave when required.

When I started writing my first book, I wanted to find a way to make healthy sexual relationships sexy. I was aware that a teenage girl, or boy for that matter, may sneak my book off her mom’s shelf and give it a read. As much as I cringe at that idea, I didn’t let that deter me from writing. Instead, I decided to write stories in which the balance of power and treatment of the two main characters is essentially equal. I wanted the sex scenes to be healthy in that it allows a full exploration of pleasure for both partners. In looking back at my books now, I think I’ve managed to accomplish this, and have created heroes that I’d be happy to see married to my best friends.

As far as the steamy scenes go, romance novels have always served a somewhat instructional purpose, which is why men everywhere should be reading mine ;). Rather than complaining that we romance writers create unrealistic standards (and I do get that from time to time), men should dig into these books to find out how to please their significant other, therefore besting the ‘book boyfriends’ at their own game.

But I digress because I was talking about how to ensure that the sex scenes are depicted in a healthy way. How do you do that, especially when the appetite for many readers is for alpha males? You know the type – tough as nails, doesn’t reveal much of his feelings, rockhard…everything including his abs, of course. This is the kind of guy who takes what he wants. I think the love of that alpha male stems from the common female fantasy of being desired in an almost uncontrollable way, the keyword being almost.

The swoon-worthy romance has a hero whose need for his leading lady is so strong, it has him crossing oceans, risking his life, traveling through space and time to find her, and even shocking readers by turning off sports highlights when the heroine gets home after a long day at work.

So how do you balance that type of hero and that uncontainable desire into something that can coexist with respect, honesty, and real love?

The answer is easier than I originally thought. You make your hero so utterly secure with himself that he isn’t whiny or needy. He doesn’t need to badger her or pout to get a little something. Instead, he considers her pleasure to be his number one goal in the bedroom. If she isn’t satisfied – at least twice – he has failed.

He also isn’t ever going to force so much as a handshake from anyone. He doesn’t have to. All he has to do is let her know he’s interested and she’ll call the shots from there because he’s secure enough to be with a strong woman. In fact, he craves a strong woman because only someone who knows her mind will hold his interest. Think Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy who remain one of the most popular couples in literature even two-hundred five years after Pride and Prejudice was first published. Mr. Darcy needed Elizabeth (a woman who would only enter into love as an equal partner) because he knew she would forever challenge him (and that thought got his motor running).

But that’s not all we should expect from our hero. He still needs to do one last thing to ensure she’s not going to have second thoughts about the sexy time stuff. He needs to check in to make sure she’s at least as excited about what they’re about to do as he is. In any of my books, the first time a couple is together, there will be a line from the hero when he asks some form of,” Is this okay?”

Her response is often so enthusiastic that he can’t even get the whole question out. The heroine, who up until this point in the story, has been building in her own lusty desires until she’s reached the point where she can’t really take it anymore unless they do this right now. Right frigging now.

And that’s when you let the games begin.

In my opinion, most women wish for two things from their significant other: respect and adoration – in that order. We want to be desirable and desired. But not if you don’t show some R-E-S-P-E-C-T first. And this will only become more obvious as our culture moves forward in the post-Weinstein era. With the #timesup and #metoo movements in full swing, expect to see more respect, clearly defined boundaries, and asking for permission in film, books, and television. Expect to see the next generation grow up with a very different idea of what it is to be a man and how to treat a woman. Expect things to improve for us all because if a woman feels the freedom to act on her desires, feels no shame for having those desires, and has a partner who respects her, she’ll feel more empowered, which is one of the most effective aphrodisiacs.

So here’s to a super sexy future that will have women everywhere saying, “Oh my God, YES!”

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