Yes and No: Consent in sex scenes
This post is about writing consent in sex scenes so there will be quotes from sex scenes accordingly. It’s about active consent: I’m not going into noncon or dubcon here.
I was an editor at Mills & Boon at the beginning of the millennium, during the Great Condom Crinkle Crisis.
The what? Well, this was when safe sex was generally known to be a Good Thing, but a significant and vocal minority of readers just didn’t want to hear about it. We got letters of complaint. Mentioning condoms in a sex scene was gross, offputting, and ruined the mood. Unfortunately, failing to mention condoms, and thus raising the spectre of pregnancy or STDs, was unrealistic, irresponsible, and ruined the mood. (You might feel at this point that authors just can’t win, and I wouldn’t argue.)
The solution? The Condom Crinkle.
Devon looked passionately into her eyes. There was a crinkle of foil, and his stiff length entered her.
This seems ludicrous now. (It seemed fairly ludicrous then.) Condom use/sexy putting-on/comic misadventures have become part of the repertoire. But back then, the crinkle of foil covered more than just the hero’s silken manhood: it stood in for the whole conversation around safe sex and contraception that readers knew about, but didn’t want to hear about.
Similarly, these days there’s a lot of people who’d agree that consent is a Good Thing, but they don’t want to hear about it. Consent in romance sex scenes is frequently covered with a single “do you want this?” or variations thereon. (Or even “If you want me to stop, tell me now because I won’t be able to control myself much longer.” That was in a book published two years ago. Wow.)
The argument goes, roughly, that we know we have to tick the consent box, but:
- it’s unsexy to ask permission
- a properly sexy alpha hero can intuit that the virgin hero/ine really wants flagellation followed by anal on their first time
- consent is wishy-washy PC nonsense that gets in the way of the good stuff
- consent is boring because it’s just endless repetition of ‘may I kiss you’/do you like this?’ and people don’t really do that.
(Yes, we know people don’t often obtain consent in reality. That isn’t a good thing. I’m going to assume you don’t need me to explain the moral imperatives behind consent in reality, and I’m going to address consent here as a technical writing issue, not a moral one.)
People are allowed to enjoy or dislike whatever in their reading. But IMO consent is one of the most versatile and interesting things in the author’s sex-scene toolkit, and treating it as a Condom Crinkle–a box to be ticked that then permits all future sexual activity without discussion–is missing a huge opportunity to develop character.
The standard line about sex scenes is they have to advance the plot or character–if they don’t do that, if they’re skippable, you’re getting it wrong. I see a lot of novices asking how to go about that. One excellent way is by talking. Consent isn’t simply an administrative preliminary to sex: it’s a discussion of what people want. The way consent is portrayed in sex scenes gives a massive amount of info about the parties involved. We can tell a lot about a MC and a relationship from how and whether they actively ask for consent, or seek it non-verbally, and when they do this.
When a character is repeatedly checking in with their partner, that might tell us what they feel about themselves, or their attitude to their partner, or their confidence, or their insecurities, or their past bad experience, or the fact that they really like talking about sex while their partner hates it. There might be past trauma or power imbalance to be negotiated, or just personal tastes. There is a vast amount for the MCs to learn about each other—not just their sexual preferences, but how they approach negotiation, how much care they give their partner, whether they ask or assume or fear. Think for a moment about the huge difference between these:
- “I want to do [X sex act]. Tell me you want it.”
- “I want to do X. Do you want that?”
- “What do you think about X? Because I’d love to, if you wanted.”
Those are not three ways of saying the same thing. That’s three extremely different things, and bundling them all under ‘consent’ is simply silly.
I should say here, sometimes the condom crinkle is all you need. A clear question that receives a verbal yes is not a compulsory part of a consensual sex scene. With a long-established couple in a series, it might go without saying (but with body language/enthusiasm). Or it might not go without saying, if one partner is dealing with trauma, or if they’re trying something new. It depends.
But the vast majority of romances treat couples getting to know one another better, and a talk about what they both want is a terrific way to do that.
I am going to break down a few of my scenes as examples. Lots of text incoming. Please note that sex scenes always look mildly painful out of context. *advance cringe*
Slippery Creatures and character through consent
Kim Secretan is aristocratic, nervy, untrustworthy. Will Darling is a tough ex-soldier, back from the Front, bisexual with limited experience with men. They’ve already had a couple of encounters (with very little discussion beyond whether to have a cup of tea afterwards) but Kim has screwed everything up by being a lying twisty git. Here they are having a rapprochement.
Kim gave him a long, glinting look, under lowered eyelids. It was the sort of look a seducer might give a girl in the pictures. Will was no girl, didn’t need seducing, and still felt a pulse of something a little bit like nerves. “Do you like to fuck?”
“Er, yes? Oh. You mean all the way?”
Will had to lick his lips. “Me doing you?”
“Ideally with a better verb but yes. If you’d like. Is that appealing?”
In theory, absolutely. Practice might be different. “Thing is I’ve only done that once and it wasn’t marvellous for anyone. You know. Flanders.”
Kim paused. “Do you mean Flanders as in ‘it was wartime’, or is there a Belgian buggery problem I should know of?”
Will almost spilt his drink with the force of his bark of laughter. Kim was obviously amused by his own joke, eyes warm, face light and lit. “Arse. Wartime. Everything in a hurry, military police, no privacy all that. The point is, I wouldn’t know what I was doing, and I wouldn’t want to hurt you.”
Kim’s eyes flicked to his, then away. “You didn’t have a good first experience, then?”
“The other bloke didn’t seem to, and that’s not my idea of fun.”
“It can be good. But it’s entirely up to you.”
Will examined his face. “Do you want that? I mean, is it something you like to do?”
Kim didn’t answer for a few seconds. When he spoke it was deliberately, but not with his earlier defiance. “I like getting fucked, yes. I realise one isn’t supposed to, but there we are. Does that matter?”
Will’s previous partner had initiated the experience as well, for all that was worth. “Of course it does. I don’t want to do anything you don’t want. That’s no way to go about things.”
“You said something along those lines before. That it made you, ah, horny to think I liked sucking you off.” Kim sounded as though he’d never used the word before in his upper-class life. It was oddly endearing.
“I don’t know. Because you like it, that’s all. I want you to want it, and to tell me so.” He saw the velvet darkness growing in Kim’s eyes and went on, deliberately. “I like knowing that you want me to fuck you, even if you aren’t supposed to want it. Especially that, maybe.”
“One really oughtn’t, of course.” Kim spoke softly, almost purring. “And yet I just can’t help myself. The sheer pleasure of getting fucked—the feel of a man in my mouth, or bending me over a bed—”
“Oh God.” He couldn’t believe Kim was admitting this; it was killing him, tightening his gut and constricting his ribcage with desire. He wanted to give him what he asked for, make him gasp and beg and spend. “Do you—uh—”
“Spit it out. As it were.”
“The first time, when I was standing up. I wondered if you wanted me to move. To fuck your mouth for you.”
“Interesting you should say that,” Kim said. “It’s suggestion five. I rather thought at the time that you might like to.”
“I didn’t want to be rude.”
“Manners maketh man.” He ran a finger along Will’s cheek. “How do you want me, Will? Would you like to find out just how hard it would make me to take your cock?”
“Jesus. Yes. You’ll have to talk me through it, though.”
Kim plucked the whisky glass out of his hand and put both tumblers on the bedside table. “My pleasure.”
Let’s break this one down in exhaustive detail. From the top:
- Kim asks if Will is interested in penetrative sex, which tells us he isn’t making easy assumptions based on Will’s class/physicality. Point to Kim.
- We learn Will had a bad experience that he feels guilty about. We’ve seen in the book to date that he’s extremely ready for a fight, but now we also see he isn’t casual about causing pain. Will is not someone who pursues his own pleasure at other people’s expense. And he’s very reasonably pissed off with Kim, but he isn’t going to take that out on him here. Point to Will.
- We learn by inference (including a reference to an earlier scene) that Kim has had bad experiences being held in contempt for his preferences. Kim is covering up a lot of wounds and is more vulnerable than he seems.
- Kim probes further, confirming that Will actively enjoys his partner’s pleasure. He’s obviously better at talking about sex than Will; nevertheless Will takes the ball and runs with it (as it were). They confirm they read each other correctly in an earlier encounter. Now they’re both clear on what the other wants, and they’ve established that it works for them both.
- Because of all this, Will’s initial reservation shifts from “I wouldn’t know what I was doing” to “You’ll have to talk me through it.”
Exploring mutual consent has built sufficient trust to let Will ask openly for help, and Kim not to feel fearful or embarrassed about his pleasures. It’s turned sex into a collaborative effort, which is what it should be. It also indicates to the reader that these two men are extremely capable of communication and cooperation when (if) they’re being honest with each other. This is crucial, because oh boy has it not been apparent in all their dealings to date.
Obviously that breakdown is painfully turgid, which is why I didn’t write it like that. But that’s information about character plus a step forward in the relationship, all conveyed by a discussion on consent.
Band Sinister and explicit verbal ongoing consent
One of the arguments I often see from Condom Crinklers is that consent is too often written as a tedious series of “Can I kiss you? Can I touch your leg? Can I kiss you again?” It is of course possible to do this badly, as it is possible to do anything badly. But ‘badly’ here would mean “without considering why MC1 is asking and how MC2 is answering.”
Maybe MC1 is aware that MC2 has past trauma. Maybe MC1 is profoundly uncertain about taking the initiative in sex, and MC2 is patiently confirming it’s all right, you’re doing fine. Maybe they’ve got a running joke going. Maybe it’s their first time and MC1 just takes consent really seriously. All of those situations would play out completely differently—as long as the author knows why the characters are going to this level of granularity about consent.
Example time. In Band Sinister, Philip is an experienced rake (older, titled, reasonably wealthy) whereas Guy is a virgin, a poor country innocent who has never been kissed and whose incredibly limited information about sex comes from reading the classics. He’s somewhere between embarrassed and terrified by Philip’s interest. The power disparity is huge, even if we disregard that Guy is being forced to stay in Philip’s house for plot reasons (what, it’s a classic trope, shut up).
And therefore the consent in their first scenes is explicit and ongoing. Philip asks Guy about everything. This is not to get the box ticked. Its purpose is to make Guy understand he has both the power to say no, and the power to say yes–to accept this is happening with him, not to him. As follows:
He turned. Philip was standing, waiting, watching him. Guy made himself meet those grey-blue eyes. “I’m, uh, not sure what I should do.”
“Well, let’s see. You might ask if you can kiss me.”
“You’re doing this too, my dear. And you need my permission as much as I need yours.”
“What do I say?”
“I think ‘Can I kiss you?’ would do very well.”
Guy swallowed. “Can—can I kiss you?” It came out as a whisper.
“You can,” Philip said. “Come here.”
Guy closed the two paces between them, and found himself staring at a cravat, which was somewhat dishevelled after the walk and the tree. A gentle finger nudged his chin up.
“You’ve my permission,” Philip said softly.
He’d assumed Philip would take the lead. Guy stood on the balls of his feet to make up the extra height, awkwardly tried to move his mouth to the right place and angle, and wobbled. Philip’s hands came up, one steadying Guy’s arm, one applying the gentlest possible pressure to the back of his head, and their lips met.
Philip specifically encourages Guy to talk to him, not just to agree with Philip’s suggestions, but to voice his pleasures in order to own them. This isn’t a matter of getting a ‘Yes’ for the record, but one of Guy learning himself, along with helping Philip do the same.
“You may touch, if you like, or you can lie back and let me touch you. Do you think you could speak?”
“What should I say?”
“What pleases you. What you think you might like. What you’re hoping I’ll do, if you care to say it: you won’t shock me, and I’ll let you know if it’s impractical. You could start with how this feels.” He leaned forward, and licked Guy’s nipple.
“God!” Guy yelped, the blasphemy coming to his tongue without volition.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
And this leads us by the end of the scene (which is a long one) to Guy actually taking control for the first time, not just nodding along to Philip, even though they both want the same thing:
“Is that good?”
“Very. Up and down. A little harder. Christ, yes.”
“But mightn’t you spend on me?” Guy blurted. There would be nowhere else for Philip’s seed to go but between them, on his skin. His chest tingled at the thought.
“I might indeed, my sweet, and joyfully too. Or would you rather I didn’t?”
Guy had no idea at all. Furtive nocturnal stickiness had always been a regrettable necessity, to be hastily concealed. To have Philip do that, deliberately— “I don’t know. Um, do you want to?”
“Oh, I want to, very much indeed. I don’t have to if you’d rather not.”
“It’s all right.” Guy had no idea if it was anything of the kind, but he could hear the urgent desire in Philip’s voice and the thought of pleasing him outweighed all else. “If you want, then do. Please do. I’d like it.”
“Jesus Christ.” Philip’s voice was rather high. “Say that again. Ask me.”
Guy couldn’t previously have imagined himself asking that of anyone, but then, he hadn’t imagined this business would involve nearly so much talking. He’d always heard coupling described as men having their way with their partners. The idea that one sought permission to do things, that one asked other people to do things to one…
It meant this was up to him, in his control. It meant that he could give pleasure to Philip, rather than Philip taking pleasure from him. He could say the words and let, make this thing happen.
“Spend on me,” Guy whispered, moving his hand faster. “Please spend on me. I want you to.”
This is a shedload of asking, but it’s absolutely crucial to the development of the characters and their relationship. Giving Guy the space, kindness, and respect he needs forces Philip to think about the relationship more seriously than is his wont, and allows Guy to rebuild the self-respect and strength of personality that have been crushed out of him by life to date. They are able to reach their HEA because Philip has learned to be more considerate and Guy more assertive, and this grows organically out of the consent scenes.
None of that would work if Philip had said “Can I kiss you?”, got a timid yes, and then gone on to do the rest without discussion. We wouldn’t see Guy’s journey or Philip’s capacity for care in action, so they wouldn’t be as convincing. I could have written a few lines about “Guy felt like a new man, having lost his virginity. He felt strong and confident now,” but it really wouldn’t have fooled anyone.
Plot is character in action. So is consent.
An Unnatural Vice and Being a Mess
Consent is, broadly, not complicated: you check if someone wants to do stuff. However, people are complicated, and don’t always behave as per the handbook. (I’m not discussing dubcon/noncon here, but about handling consent in non-straightforward ways.)
Here Nathaniel is a rather self-righteous journalist (well-born, well-off, physically imposing) and Justin Lazarus is a professional medium and all-round shitbag who has crawled out of poverty, and who Nathaniel intends to expose. They loathe each other on sight but the sexual tension is twanging. Here’s the first scene: full-on hate sex.
Nathaniel moved. He didn’t plan it, he just moved, driven by an urgency he didn’t know how to control, and then his mouth was on Lazarus’s, biting, greedy, forceful. Lazarus’s hands were in his hair and gripping his coat, pulling him in, and the savage movement had them tumbling back onto the floor, grabbing and groping each other, blind and deaf to anything but the surge of desire.
Lazarus was on his back with Nathaniel over him, wrenching at his coat, wild-eyed. Nathaniel sat back to pull off coat and shirt, letting Lazarus sit up to do the same, shoving him back down as soon as he was bare-chested, plunging his tongue into the man’s mouth. Lazarus snarled around it, sucking and biting, nails clawing down Nathaniel’s back, hips pushing against his. There were a few frantic seconds of thrusting, and something the same shape as kissing but nothing like it, then Lazarus pushed violently up and rolled them both over together so he was on top.
“Bloody liar,” Nathaniel told him hoarsely.
Lazarus bent, biting at his ear and neck, making Nathaniel writhe. “You self-righteous piece of shit.”
Nathaniel grabbed his hair. “Just admit it.”
“I will if you will.” Lazarus’s hips ground against his. “Prick.” He plunged his tongue between Nathaniel’s lips again, making rasping, incoherent noises as Nathaniel clawed at his back, not caring if he left scratches, wrapping his legs around Lazarus’s hips. They were rutting like animals, still half clothed, every bit as much fight as fuck.
Nathaniel pushed unavailingly at Lazarus’s waistband. “Get these off.”
“So you know,” Lazarus panted in his ear. “I fuck other people. Nobody fucks me.”
“Of course they don’t.”
Lazarus bucked and writhed, the sharp edges of his teeth setting into Nathaniel’s shoulder. He pulled back, stared down. “What do you want?”
“A jar of something slippery, and you bent over your desk.”
Is this a sensible and healthy discussion of consent? No. But does it cover everything they need? Also no. This is clearly a terrible idea. Notwithstanding, the mutual enthusiasm is as clear as the mutual dislike.
Two things to note here: first, Justin (Lazarus) does not seek Nathaniel’s consent, or negotiate. But he does set a clear boundary of what he won’t do. Nathaniel (physically and socially far more powerful, deeply moral) is able to respect that, and even to make the concession of asking what Justin actually wants; Justin doesn’t offer any sort of compromise or question back.
Stick a pin in that. Because as things progress, we learn that Justin has been through a lot. He’s been abused; he lives a life of staggering selfishness because he’s never had kindness extended to him; his self-respect is beyond threadbare. Justin has no experience whatsoever of being asked for consent.
As Nathaniel realises this, he sets a boundary: he won’t approach Justin sexually unless Justin asks him to–nicely. It’s originally intended as a reassurance (if a rather snarky one). Justin turns it into a battle of wills.
“You made it quite clear that you didn’t want advances.”
“No. I asked you to name your price for your help, and you said, none,” Justin said. “Or perhaps what I asked for was reassurance, and you gave it to me unstintingly. I don’t know. I am well aware that you didn’t need my instructions to be decent.”
“As am I that you’re in a damned vulnerable position.”
“I’m never in a vulnerable position,” Justin said. “Never.”
Nathaniel put his fork down. “Yes, well, for all your bravado, I made you a promise. I told you I wouldn’t come near you unless asked, and I meant it.”
Justin took a piece of paper and propelling pencil out of his pocket. He scribbled a few words on the paper, folded it up, blew on it, and made a quick throwing motion, palming it as he did so.
Nathaniel blinked. “What—“
“Check your pockets,” Justin suggested.
Nathaniel gave him a long look. Then he put his fork down, put his hands in the pockets of his jacket, and extracted a piece of folded paper with a satisfying look of incredulity. “What the—“ He opened it and read.
I’m asking nicely, Justin had written there before dropping the paper in his pocket a good half hour ago.
Even now Justin isn’t capable of vocalising this as a request, and when Nathaniel subsequently tells him in so many words to ask for what he wants, he turns it into a roleplay game where he can pretend it’s not really him asking. This eventually brings us to a clash where Nathaniel is specifically trying to show Justin he cares by asking for his consent, and Justin still isn’t capable of letting go control and revealing his feelings.
Making love. That was what it felt like in its slow care. Justin lay back into it, letting Nathaniel do as he wished, muttering his assent to the questions. May I undo your shirt? May I lick you? May I touch you here?
“You really don’t have to ask,” he said, with difficulty. “Assume yes.”
“No.” Nathaniel had a thumb and finger round his cock, working it so gently Justin could only just feel it. “I want to know that every time I touch you, you want it.”
“I want it.”
“Badly. Harder, you prick.”
Nathaniel grinned down at him. “Ask nicely.”
“Fucker.” Justin thrust up fruitlessly. “Harder.”
Justin wanted to laugh, and swear, and come, all together. He whined and bucked instead. “Go to hell. Harder.”
“No. Ask nicely or—“ Nathaniel’s grip became so light it was barely a touch.
Justin gave a cry of protest. “You piece of shit son of a whore bitch fucker!”
“You’ll have to ask me very nicely now.”
Nathaniel looked as though he was feeling much the same baffling combination of emotions. “God, you look good when you’re stubborn.” He drew a finger sideways across Justin’s mouth, pushing it softly between his parted lips. “You can’t stop fighting, can you?”
What Justin needs, says, does, and thinks makes up a cat’s cradle of contradictory and tangled emotions, which Nathaniel can’t push through with a simple yes/no consent question. It may seem profoundly perverse for Justin to assert control by refusing to give clear consent, but that’s what I mean about complicated. It’s a huge act of trust for Justin to admit his feelings and ask for what he wants, and in asking for affirmative consent, Nathaniel is actually and unknowingly requesting a great deal more than a simple agreement to a specific act.
I could give a lot more examples, but hopefully that selection shows what I’m getting at. Don’t treat consent as a simple box to be ticked. Maybe you just need a Condom Crinkle, but check in on that. Ask yourself if you’re missing out on an opportunity for a discussion, and if that would be productive, emotional, awkward, row-causing. How about showing us what happens in a ‘goes-without-saying’ set-up if one of the MCs changes their mind?
And when you show consent in action, don’t just affirm it, use it. Is it an act of care, or love, or basic decency, or back-covering? Is the asker more concerned about making sure they’re getting it right, or getting it right for the other person (not quite the same thing)? How would they react to a no? Is their past coming into play? What stage do they ask at? Is the question asked in a serious way that puts other things on hold, or is the conversation funny, or super-sexy? Are they on the same page before the question is asked? Do they reach the same page afterwards?
“Ongoing affirmative consent” sounds desperately buzzwordy. But what we’re actually talking about here is the ebb and flow of a relationship, the development of trust and honesty, deep knowledge and mutual understanding, shared pleasures and fantastic sex. Which is, really, what romance novels* are meant to do.
(*the ones with sex scenes, at least)