Monday, March 18, 2013

A Rape Culture Primer for Writers - Consent

We interrupt my scheduled Editing 101 with Mama Bitchstress series to discuss something terribly important. With the Steubenville rape conviction, lots of things are being thrown around about rape and rape culture.

As a reader, I have encountered many rapey books that make me weep. Here are some tips to see if you're perpetuating rape culture in your books.

First, what is rape culture?

Wikipedia actually has a good, simple definition: Rape culture is a concept used to describe a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape.

When you hear people blame the victim, that is rape culture. When rape is so normal people fail to recognize it as rape, that is rape culture. So let's stop perpetuating it in fiction.

Next, what is rape/sexual assault?

Legal definitions can vary from country to country and even state to state. So I'm not going to get into those. We're going to talk morally. Sexual assault is any kind of sexual contact where one party does not give consent.

Okay, that seems simple and obvious. But books start to get rapey when the authors seem to be fuzzy on consent*, usually with regards to sex between acquaintances or intimate partners. Rape can be the stranger in an alley wearing a mask, but there are many non-violent ways intercourse occurs without consent.

(As an aside, this post is phrased in a heteronormative way, but sexual assault occurs between same sex partners as well as by women against men.)

Just because she isn't saying no...
doesn't mean she's saying yes.
You cannot give consent if...

  • You are drunk/drugged.

Yes, yes, I know--alcohol loosens inhibitions. A lot of people engage in alcohol consumption and then sexual acts. And that's totes okay. But there is a common trope where the heroine drinks a lot, sleeps with someone (the hero usually in romance or romantic comedy), and wakes up unable to remember anything. If your character is getting black out drunk and waking up to not know who she slept with (or if sex occurred), I am concerned. If you choose to do this in your novel, showing her enthusiastically consenting and engaging in the sex act with her partner in the text (ie no fade to black or sudden "the next morning..." scene change) will help it seem less rapey, otherwise readers are left to assume the worst.

I recently read a book by Krista D. Ball where the heroine's long time crush showed up at her home needed to be consoled, quite drunk, and there was a moment where they easily could've fallen in bed together. Instead, the heroine made the conscious choice not to do this, insisting he be sober and in his right mind before it went further. It was an unexpected twist on a common trope and made me root for the couple even more.

And in a similar vein, you cannot give consent if...

  • You are asleep.

In real life, this SHOULD be pretty obvious: do not engage in intercourse with someone who is asleep. In fiction, it's another common trope (often in comedy) that makes me facepalm. A woman (or man) is in bed asleep. Someone fondles him or her. Said person wakes up and is all "OMG what?" and it's treated as funny or not rapey.

I'm sorry but this is rapey.

Once again, this is a trope that CAN be effectively turned around but it requires a little extra work on the part of the author. I read one romance where the heroine and hero had engaged in sex throughout the book (obvs) and the hero at one point decides to wake the heroine up with intercourse. This was in his POV and it worked because he spent time pondering the act and her reaction to it--the author addressed the fact that it could be perceived as rapey. And the heroine enthusiastically enjoyed her wake-up call.


You cannot give consent if...

  • You are being tricked/deceived into thinking it's someone else.

I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I strongly disliked Riley. But the one time I felt genuinely bad for him was in the fourth season: bad girl slayer Faith switched bodies with Buffy and then banged her boyfriend.

Wait, no, she didn't bang him. She raped him.

Yes, it seems fuzzy, it was Buffy's body, etc. But the fact remains that he thought he was having sex with his girlfriend but it wasn't her--it was someone pretending to be her and she fooled him. This is rape.

Like, seriously even legally this is rape. Sometimes these cases get tossed out or the perpetrators are acquitted, so you will find it different from state to state. Morally? Rapey McRapeson does this kind of thing, folks.

Again, if you choose to use this trope, a) don't do it for laughs, b) have real consequences for it. It was treated on Buffy like relationship drama and ignored the fact that Riley did not give consent to do those things with Faith.

You cannot give consent if...

  • You are saying no.**

This seems like a no-brainer. But I know a lot of the time characters in all genres like to fight their attraction and show reluctance, especially in love-hate relationships. So they kiss, someone says no, the other someone kisses them anyway, etc etc.

Okay, we need to please stop doing this.

"It's not sex...when he changes is mind."
Not to keep harping on Buffy as it's still my favourite show, but a lot of the later Buffy/Spike scenes absolutely turn my stomach. I bet you think I'm talking about the attempted rape in Seeing Red, right? Wrong. It's actually the number of times she said "no" "stop" "don't" while engaging in sex and she was ignored. Yes, it was to show her reluctance or internal turmoil over physically enjoying it while hating herself for it. But it's terribly disturbing.

Also? If a character withdraws consent and the other party continues, that is also rape.

There was another book I read a while back where the hero and heroine were having intercourse and at one point she asked him to stop. He said "too late" and continued until he finished.

I just...what the what?

That is rape. Please do not do this in your book.

Okay, so those are some common non-consent things. What DOES consent look like?

Consent is when both parties say yes enthusiastically.

Not when someone "doesn't say no." Not when someone is physically UNABLE to say no. But when everyone is all like, "YEAH, let's take off our clothes! Woohoo! Sexy times!" while in their right mind. Yes means yes.

It's classic show vs tell, my friends, combined with an awareness on your (and hopefully the characters') part about what consent looks like and how it differs from rape.

The most important thing to remember is that no one--in fiction or in real life--should be treated as though their default position is "yes" to sex. Yes cannot be assumed. Yes must be given. Ignoring this = perpetuating rape culture. Even in fiction.

But, but, but...

Don't "but" the Bitchstress.

Note that there is a difference between depicting behavior realistically and still not condoning it. I'm not saying you can't have your heroine abused or raped*** or not show victim blaming afterward. Victim blaming happens all the time, so of course it makes sense to include it in the book. But there's a difference between showing the victim and/or others blaming her for what happened to her but explicitly NOT condoning it in the text. There is a difference between showing a destructive, abusive relationship and not romanticizing/idealizing it.

Why does this matter? You have power, writers. You have the opportunity to go all Inception on the reader and plant a seed of an idea. You have the power to reinforce for the women reading your books that consent matters and sex should be a positive, welcome experience. You have the power to show victims that what happened to them was not okay and to stand up to a culture where rape is the norm.

Take that power and use it.

Why should you? Why care about this power? Because the odds are, if you're reading this, a quarter of the women you know have been victims of sexual assault. Whether they were molested as children or raped on a date in college or assaulted by their spouse as adults, rape is a reality women live with. A reality that tells them it's their fault or that it didn't even occur or is some kind of "gray" area or that it is somehow romantic. You damn well SHOULD fucking care about that. These are your friends, your family, and your readers.

Next time, we're going to discuss victim blaming and reactions to sexual assault, as well as when it should/shouldn't be used in fiction.


* There is an erotica niche called "dubious consent" which is like "no means yes." Usually one partner says no but physically reacts in a way that enjoys the sexual act. This skeeves a lot of readers out and many publishers do not take this genre. But rape fantasy is an actual thing (which we are not going to debate here, so don't start) and it doesn't involve ACTUALLY wanting to be raped but to control a fantasy where one gives up control. So in this discussion, I want to make it clear I do understand this niche exists and it is not what I'm referring to.

** Unless you have a safe word! But this post is not about How to Talk About Consent in BDSM. It's just general. If someone more knowledgeable than me about the lifestyle would like to write that post, please have at it.

*** In my last book, the heroine engaged in sex with the enthusiastic consent of a partner who was not in his right mind and she knew it. The scene was in character and had to be written, but both she and I were aware of the fact that he couldn't legally consent, and there was text directly discussing this fact, so I did try to be responsible about it.


ETA: Okay, we are getting some great traffic and great comments. Please remember, I carry a mighty banstick. I am very aware of the fact that survivors can be triggered by these sorts of discussions and, guess what? I'd rather a safe comment section for thoughtful replies than worry about butthurt misogynist feelings. So watch your fucking self.

If this is a problem, please fill out this form.

Finally, because I cannot in good conscience waste the opportunity to do so, if you're reading this post as a survivor of sexual violence, read this article.


  1. It hurts me so much at how much feedback that scene got. She wants to have sex with him, more than anything. But she realizes that, in the reverse, she wouldn't want to be taken advantage of. As she says, "There's a word for people who do that."

    She refused to be a rapist and chose to be a human being.

    How sad that we have to cheer her choices because they are so rare in fiction.

    1. Absolutely. And I had to highlight it for this post to show writers they don't HAVE TO go there. They can defy tropes, have their characters be decent human beings, and readers will enjoy that.

    2. Consent is one of those things I want clear in my books. I want my characters to behave like decent human beings. And, if they aren't going to behave like a decent human being, then I want them called out for it.

      No one tried to convince people to have sex in my books...unless it's about being pressured into having sex when you don't want to. No one is psedo-raped in my books; they either consent or they don't consent. And they all stop and have an adult conversation to ensure that yes, this sex is consensual.


    3. No, it's not hard, and actually it reminds me of the whole condom thing in contemp romance. It's very, very prevalent now where (as I understand it) it used to be something skipped over in the scene because it wasn't sexy to pause the moment and put on protection. Yes, well, guess what? Good writers CAN make that sexy. And good writers can make a scene where consent is discussed and given sexy too.

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  3. Awesome. Thank you for writing this, because I thoroughly agree that writers have an opportunity and a responsibility to affect our culture positively. I have been watching the Steubenville case closely for awhile. It reminds me of a story idea I had scribbled down somewhere. I feel more than ever it needs to be told. Thanks, again, sharing this!

  4. Sorry, I can't back you on the Asleep bit as a blanket statement. You'd essentially have just called anyone who's ever woken their partner up by sexual means a rapist, when ninety-nine point some more nines percent of the time this would be anything but the case.

    Either common sense needs to play a role or definitions need to be more specific.

    1. You think someone can consent to sex when they're asleep?

      I specifically said (right up there, above, under the first paragraph about consent and sleep) there are instances where this is done well in fiction, and yes, people in a relationship can, and do, wake one another up initiating sexual contact.

      But legally, and logically, someone cannot actually consent to sex if they're asleep whether by regular means or by being drugged/drunk as listed above. Since they aren't, y'know, conscious (this is a thing, legally).

    2. I don't know what about the law in your country, but in mine (Canada), sex with an asleep person is rape.

      Now, true, there is some implied trust and consent with a partner. But if the partner says "stop" or "no" or "I'm tired, fuck off" you stop. Because, legally, it's sexual assault after that point.

      This is actually not that complicated.

    3. I wasn't so much nit-picking that one example as I was saying the bit about common sense.

      You either have to allow for common sense or you have to define it well enough that there's no need to use any. If you don't do either, you have plenty of gray areas that piss everyone off. You can even end up with situations where one party can decide after the fact whether it was rape or not and that is severely screwed up.

    4. No. You are attempting to cloud an issue.

      1. Spouses can rape spouses. This is law.
      2. Asleep means no consent. This is law.
      3. There is no grey area of rape. The law outlines it quite clearly. Here is a link:

      4. One party decides after the fact that it's rape is a fallacy. The false rape conviction stats are rather consistent across several countries. People seem to assume that lack of conviction = false rape, but that has been debunked by lawyers, police, and social workers. Repeatedly. Do a google search.

      5. What is severely screwed up is how you are trying to drag the conversation away from the law.

      So, again, the default answer to, "Will you have sex with me?" is NO unless the words, "YES/Fuck me/ Let's do this/I love you and want you, etc" come out of the other person's mouth.

      So, if you wish be waking up your partner by touching him or her, have that conversation...WHEN THEY ARE AWAKE. So that way, you already have that consent.

      See? No grey area.

    5. Krista, are you a fellow Edmontonian???

      I whole heartedly agree. My fiance and I got into a heated discussion in regards to the sleep and sex thing. Showing he was totally male his biggest concern was can the police charge me with rape if you tell your friend I woke you up by having sex with you. Which proved to me on some level HE knew it was wrong. He finally relented and said yeah, sex with an unconcious person to him seems more like necrophilia than sex.

      Necrophilia can't be made sexy it is an ewwwww factor. (Sex with the undead is not necophilia as the are un-dead)

    6. Really, that's the thing--according to law, it flat out IS assault if you touch a sleeping person in a sexual way. Consent MUST BE continuous and contemporaneous. Because what else would the law say? That consent isn't necessary if the people involved were previously intimate partners? That used to be in the law and it said there was no such thing as marital rape, which we know is not true.

      The "common sense" others have called for is that it's up to the conscious individual to ensure consent has been given. Don't want to maybe be charged with assault? Either don't touch a sleeping person or communicate enough with your partner that you're reasonably certain they'd like to be woken with a groping. End of story, full stop. That is the law.

      As for fiction, of course certain liberties are taken--all I've called for is that writers a) be aware of what consent is, and b) tread carefully and examine how they treat these things.

      Random, as a fellow Canuck, ever see the Canadian movie Kissed? Necrophilia romance!

  5. This isn't complicated. Sexual assault = sexual contact without consent. Consent = agreeing to something without being tricked, coerced/threatened/forced, and of sound mind, and it must be continuous and contemporaneous.

    And as I repeated over and over, choosing to do write these things in fiction is something that should be done with care and awareness. Aka...common sense. Because repeating the same tropes over and over that disregard consent is not only lazy but contributing to a bullshit culture that normalizes rape. First step: understanding consent and taking care how we treat it in our work.

  6. This isn't the first post I've read about this recently, but it's a great one and should be read by writers of all genres! I've been troubled both by the experiences of sexual assault some of the women I know have told me about, and also how I approach it in my fiction -- how do you ignore a reality like this? How do you write with it as context without reinforcing it? How can you change the culture by treating the subject honestly? I think this post addresses some of these points, for which I also applaud you.

    1. how do you ignore a reality like this? How do you write with it as context without reinforcing it? How can you change the culture by treating the subject honestly?

      Precisely the right questions all writers should be be asking, and I think it all begins with awareness. Same as any other issue we write about, whether it's racism or diverse characters, etc. Know the tropes, know why they're problematic (which I attempted to explain here), and be aware of how you treat it when writing. We're all bound to fumble a bit but we're likely to do a better job of it if we're at least trying. (And I absolutely include myself in this as I have to watch what stereotypes and negative ideas I'm reinforcing too.) Given the number of people hellbent on claiming Steubenville's Jane Doe consented despite being legally unable to is appalling and a clear indication everyone needs to be having this conversation, including within our fiction.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

    2. I struggled with this in a particular (and crucial) scene in which the main character underwent a sexual assault, and though I felt it reflected the experience without glorifying it or condoning it, I could not answer the question of, why is the main character forced to be the victim in this? Was I not basically saying that was her role? I partly wanted to reflect the reality of what I knew had happened to women I knew, but as part of the story, it still just seemed to be -- woman character gets raped/assaulted.. Posts like yours help me articulate why I was not happy with this, and why I felt no matter how "realistic" I was trying to be, it was not enough. The whole function of the scene in the story, even contextually, was still problematic.

    3. That's an excellent point and something I'd like to talk about in future posts as well, as it's something that tends to divide writers. Some writers will not have their female protags raped ever, full stop, the end. And I completely respect that. On the other hand, I frequently revisit this issue in my fiction (both male and female characters). I write it different ways, in different circumstances, with different outcomes, all to both process and transmute.

      And there's really no right answer. Why is/was this character raped? What am I trying to say? How will this change her? Does it NEED to change her? It's something we question, I think, with damn near every decision we make when writing (everything must serve a purpose) but it seems so emotionally charged because it's so very real to so many people.

      I write rape because I want to show men and women heal from it. I want to show it's real, it happens, and it's wrong no matter the circumstances (or how hot the guy is). To give characters the strength I don't have, to give readers hope and tell them they aren't alone.

      I'd say the only time I have a real problem with it--besides writers (of books AND films, as movies inspired a lot of this) missing the concept of consent--is when rape is used as shorthand for character development. Need a traumatic past? Just rape her! There you go! *sigh* No.

    4. Yes, and that too, is partly what bugged me about the scene I was writing. It became the defining moment in her whole backstory, to the exclusion of anything else. It was lazy writing on my part not to have MORE to her, however well I struggled to write that scene and its aftermath.
      It isn't necessarily, but I think it can be, a way of "othering" rape victims, by implying it's the only bad thing that can happen to a woman. As I write that I don't know if I'm articulating it quite right. But it seems to relegate the experience to a cliché, which, to me, diminishes all rape victims.

    5. You're articulating it perfectly and I totally hear what you're saying.

      You know, I think it's the same thing in YA with the dead parents. "What's the worst thing that can happen to a kid? Dead parents!" (Unless they're a girl; then it's rape. Double points for raped orphan.)

      I just finished playing the new Tomb Raider, and there was a LOT of attention ahead of time about Lara possibly getting raped, etc, and it all turned out to be bad PR, but that was what the issue brought up: WHY did she HAVE TO BE raped? WHY did that HAVE TO BE her defining moment? As it turned out, despite the bad-touching from an antagonist, failing to hit the right buttons during the scene resulted in murder, not rape, BUT the whole thing was written much better than expected. Her defining moment wasn't almost being raped, it was an epiphany as she first killed a man. It was realizing she'd reached a point where she had to become someone else--beyond merely resourceful, but possibly a killer--to survive and save her friends. And I found it really powerful for that reason. It COULD Have been what everyone feared, just another heroine-defined-by-rape moment, and it was much more nuanced. It might not have worked for everyone, but as a player--and woman--it worked for me.

  7. Hm, that's interesting -- kudos to the game writers, then.
    I wonder if writers, of either gender, who use rape as a fallback "most awful thing" are not just showing a lack of depth in character development for that female character. That is, if the first, or only thing you can think of as "most awful" is rape, then that suggests to me the writer is assuming either her inherent vulnerability is her defining characteristic, or perhaps, her identity as a sexual object. More character development = more potential "most awful things" that could happen, narratively.

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head. It's sort of like...I've run into things from often-male writers where it's like they don't know what to do with female characters, so they are all either mothers or love interests. So the thought process--for both genders of writers--often seems to boil down to, "Okay, she has a VAGINA, so...what do vagina-people do again? Oh right, they get raped, have babies, and get married." You're absolutely right, the less of a character she has, the more those shorthands seem to crop up.

    2. Oh yes, the love interest/mom for good characters, or shrew/bitch for nasty ones -- lazy writing can quickly turn into sexist or misogynist writing.
      After reading abut the Bechdel Test, I decided to apply it to my own WIP and realized many characters could as easily be female as male, and so switched genders on a lot of them, and then gave them better backstories than they'd had. Was embarrassing how many walking cliches I had in it.

    3. I just did that as an exercise - had a male character make lewd comments about my FMC to my MMC, and it occurred to me that there was no reason why the comments couldn't be made by a woman. So I changed it, and suddenly I've got a new, fun, lewd, awesome side character waiting to cause havoc :D

  8. Had a note to make on the "While you're asleep" caveat which (since I got all excited and didn't bother reading the rest of the comments) may or may not have been addressed: I've known more than one person who has taken a sleep aid drug, like ambien, and woken up realising someone (in one case, the long-term partner) had had sex with them while they were 'asleep'. This caused real problems in that relationship, because that partner kept doing it even after the person told them to please not. Issues of knowing when someone is awake or sleepwalking aside, the onus is on the person who did not take the drug to look out for the person who did, particularly if you're supposed to give a damn. Kay? /rant over.

    1. Excellent, YES. Absolutely. Thank you for commenting (I didn't find it rantish at all)!

  9. In defense of the "blanket" asleep statement (HA HA PUNNY!), here's my five cents (inflation - plus they're supposedly doing away with the penny up there, yeah?):

    Having worked in many a setting where these kinds of incidents crop up on a regular basis, I wish to note that a person of altered consciousness (I did a post about that) CANNOT GIVE CONSENT.

    This includes any altered level of consciousness, including someone who has been awakened from sleep. There's a window of about 5-10 seconds in which a person's level of consciousness is significantly altered (from asleep to awake, as we're all well aware of - "I'm not awake yet.") and they cannot legally be held responsible for what they do. This is why people get accidentally shot in the middle of the night by someone in the house they've woken up, because in that brief moment, reality/perception/cognitive function is altered.

    It should go without saying that this also applies to anyone who is UNCONSCIOUS.

    An unconscious person cannot give consent. To anything. Period. This is why hospitals have medical proxys/powers of attorney for people who are unresponsive, because they CANNOT DECIDE FOR THEMSELVES. They cannot give consent.

    This is the purpose living wills serve as well. All those papers you fill out before surgery that say, "if you are unable to make decisions for yourself...."

    And so on.

    If a person is not full - and I mean FULL, as in COMPLETE, ALL, TOTAL - possession of their cognitive abilities, no matter the cause (trauma, drugs, alcohol, medical issues), they cannot give consent. For anything.


  10. As I mentioned on Skyla's Blog what most people don't get is that RAPE = MURDER. The person that existed before that moment is gone, destroyed, done...bring out the shovel, say the prayers.Done. That is how serious it is, How damaging to the ID and EGO.

    When our movies and books don't cover consent we are giving credence to the view that we don't own our own bodies. Thus DATE RAPE.... had to explain this one to a couple of "dates" just because you paid for dinner, you did not "pay to play" That I was not a whore and could not be "purchased".

    Anne Bishop did an incredible series (IMHO) The Black Jewels Trilogy that covers systemic sexual abuse. From children to men. I read these books and own them in hard cover because I love them so much. Recently on Goodreads went and read the reviews.

    Alot of reviewers thought it was too dark and rapey, when all she did is take historical and current male roles of rape and victimization made those characters female and the victims children and men.

    Its this societal denial that makes rape a punchline for comedy, or the non discussion of consent acceptable. No-one wants to hear it....and you can still hear it today that women use RAPE as a tool to get what they want from men. I actually hear it more from women than men, and that's truly sad.


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