Consent and You! Why It’s Important to Think About Consent in Your Writing

CToday, we’re going to talk about consent.

Consent has quickly become one of my most touchy, push-button subjects. I find myself constantly analyzing media (especially television shows and movies, but books as well) for how consent is portrayed. More often than not, it is shown very poorly, as Hank Green of the Vlogbrothers talks about. 

Hollywood’s representation of consent is so poor that they barely bring it up at all. Nearly everything I watch has at least one character that has things done to them without any sort of nod to that character’s understanding or wish of that treatment. Think of all the times you watched a love scene where the man walks in, grabs the woman by the face or jaw, and starts to kiss her. Think about those scenes where a man picks up the woman and carries her off, completely ignoring her protests. Think about what that means in terms of consent.

Now think about how the directors and filmmakers and actors want you, the audience, to feel. Like these actions are romantic and emotional. Like it’s normal for the man to do what he wants with a woman, no matter what she says or doesn’t say. I mean, she wants it anyway, right?

How do we really know that?

Consent is a conversation that people — and your characters — need to have.

That, at its heart, is what consent is all about. People talking to each other. Letting each other know what’s okay and what’s not. Letting them know “Yes! I want this!” or “No, not now” (or ever).

When filmmakers or writers neglect to portray adequate conversations about consent, they are (perhaps unwittingly) telling their audience it’s okay to not ask for permission, that you don’t have to respect other people. That getting what you want is the only thing that matters, no matter what the other party says. And that is adding to the problem, not helping it.

But what does that mean for writers?

Consent is an important–and tricky–topic to write around. Not all of your characters are going to obtain consent from their partners before they try something. Not all of your characters are going to care. Not all of your characters, even if asked, are going to give their consent. And that’s fine. Good even, because those stories need to be told just as much (or more!) as the ones where everything works out and comes up roses.

However, as the writer, you really shouldn’t skirt around the issue of consent.

Be aware of the lines of consent between your characters. Address it. Know how characters are going to react to enthusiastic permission versus firm denials. Know how your other characters are going to react (the love interest’s friends, for example). If you have a guy hitting on your female lead at a bar, and he keeps pushing her and pushing her to come home with him, no matter how many times she says “no,” what is she thinking? What is she feeling? How are her friends reacting? How are his friends reacting?

What’s important for you, as the writer, to think about and address, is how your characters act and react to situations where consent should be addressed. Even if your characters aren’t addressing it, you as the writer needs to make your readers aware of it. Make it clear in your writing where the lines of consent have been blurred, or sharply defined and then denied, and address it. Address the actions and reactions and repercussions of it. Because it’s a big deal. Not only do you further your opportunities for character and relationship development, but it also shows a respect for humanity that is sadly lacking in other media nowadays.

And if you don’t, well, people are going to start losing respect in you.

If you want to continue this conversation on consent, please visit my blog in the upcoming weeks as I do a series of posts on how consent is portrayed in the media.



20 thoughts on “Consent and You! Why It’s Important to Think About Consent in Your Writing

  1. You have made a very good point. I work in the healthcare field and informed consent is always needed before doing a procedure. I have never really thought to apply it to movies and books. Although in my two novels permission is sought before even getting a hug. I think it makes the scene sweeter and adds an element of respect.

    • I’m sure it does! 🙂 Even if your characters make the decision that asking for permission isn’t relevant (for whatever the reason), the important thing is that you, the author, ARE thinking about it. Your readers can tell by the prose and narrative alone if the author had any clue what consent is or means for a scene. Being actively conscious of it while writing does a heck of a lot.

      And how healthcare is portrayed in the media is a WHOLE other post. It is, frankly, equally appalling as their portrayal of consent. Especially mental healthcare. I may be doing a post about that in the future.

  2. Great post. I think this is particularly relevant to romance novels. Women never seem to object to being swept off their feet, but in reality, if a guy just burst in and kissed you or whisked you away to a penthouse, you’d be screaming rape or kidnapping.

    • Exactly. And female characters should react like real women, right? So we, as writers, really need to think about that more when we write these scenes. (Not that I mind being swept off my feet–just with warning. Otherwise I will be screeching and aiming my knees for your sensitive spots.)

    • Thank you. 🙂 It’s an important topic to me, as you can see. And Hollywood really does have a pretty terrible track record when it comes to accurate portrayal of reality. Worse, we have no other major media competitors with Hollywood. (You could argue Indie films, but really? They just can’t get the funding to really get on Hollywood’s play level.)

  3. It feels like I’ve been paying more attention to consent lately. As someone who reads a LOT of romance, I’m finding that wonky consent during the sex scenes can really sour how I feel about the book, especially if one person has been clearly against the idea previously. It’s something I am definitely keeping in mind for everything I write in the future stories. 🙂

    • Yeah, I’ve felt that way in some books I’ve read. Sometimes it just feels like sloppy writing; one character (usually the girl–really people? It’s not always the girl that’s reluctant in these things!) is really reluctant to form a relationship, then BAM! Chapter Seventeen: I’ve Totally Changed My Mind For No Apparent Reason Whatsoever. Really? Is that all the author could have come up with? Just a total 180 of the character’s feelings and opinions, because the author is too lazy to guide the character towards another viewpoint? Just sloppy.

      • And I meant that more in the romantic sense: how one character feels towards another. But the bedroom scenes sometimes do that, too. And in which case, usually run on the spectrum from sloppy writing to out-and-out sugar-coated rape. And both of those are a big no-no for me, as you can tell.

  4. You make some very good points here, and now I find myself sitting here thinking about all kinds of scenes in all kinds of movies and shows and thinking, “Well crap…I don’t want to do THAT in MY writing.” And that’s a good thing, of course, making sure that we’re all thinking about these important matters! Good show. 🙂

    • Thanks! 😀 I just feel like it’s really important for writers (of all mediums and genres!) to really take the time to think about the stories they’re telling and putting out into the world.

  5. It’s really important to depict consensual sex, and, in cases where there isn’t consent, to at least show some consequences and depict it realistically. I actually enjoy the non-consent/reluctance subgenre of erotica (provided it’s done well), but it’s always clear that this is just a fantasy, not real life. An erotic fantasy is much different from real-life instances of non-consent!

    • Yes, there is such a thing as rape fantasy. Even so, sometimes I wish that erotica stories wrote about it in more of a safe, sane, consensual way–like with safe words and a nod to some sort of agreed upon arrangement beforehand. I feel like there is such a fine line between the rape and the fantasy in stories nowadays, when really it can be totally separate from each other. And should be.

  6. Alex Hurst says:

    I was reading a Japanese comic recently for young adults, and the main love interest, in a move that was portrayed as “romantic” and “cute”, kept forcing himself on the female protag, molesting her, and ignoring her stop’s and no’s as if they were funny. It was such a turn off… and I couldn’t believe the manner in which it was presented! (In a different chapter, a guy she didn’t like tried the same thing and she had the natural response. So, I guess the moral is, if you like him, let him? =_=)

    Anyway, yay Hank Green mention! DFTBA!

    Alex Hurst, fantasy author in Japan, participating in the A-Z Challenge.

    • You know? That’s not the first time I’ve run into that sort of plot line/trope in Japanese media. I used to read a lot of boyslove manga, and that exact situation was a very frequent occurrence in those stories. I eventually stopped reading them entirely because I didn’t like the idea of such one-sided, dubiously consensual relationships. I think that’s when I really started diving into fanfiction, because it was easier to find stories where the two main characters actually acted like they wanted each other instead of the skeevy “I’m going to do this to you whether you like it or not” plot lines in the manga I was reading.

      It makes me wonder if consent is something Japan has deeply problematic issues with. 😦

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