Special Sections » Sex and Love

Safe sparks


While romance novels of the past had a reputation for being "bodice rippers," featuring manly men often violently pursuing sexual conquests, the genre has transformed in recent years. Current authors in the genre are importantly incorporating consent into relationships and sex scenes. Consent doesn't have to be decidedly un-sexy. In fact, it can be written romantically, and it can be hot. Here we've rounded up eight great examples of enthusiastic consent written into steamy scenes.

"Get a Life, Chloe Brown" by Talia Hibbert


Talia Hibbert's 2019 debut features digital marketing consultant Chloe Brown, who lives with fibromyalgia, falling in love with Red Morgan, who is recovering from an abusive relationship. With deep-seated traumas as part of the identity of both characters, communication and consent are crucial.

The first time Chloe and Red are about to get intimate, Red holds her hand, kisses her jaw, and murmurs, "Chloe, I want to kiss you. Can I kiss you?" It's a sweet moment, but for Chloe: "Sensation spiked between her legs...She was melting for him...She. Was. Losing. Control." Control is a big thing for her, so she "made herself whisper, 'Stop.'" That's all it takes. "He obeyed her the same way he did everything: calm, easy, as though it had been his idea. His mouth left her skin before she even finished speaking the word." This moment of consent is critical, because it shifts the power to Chloe. She has the power to say no when she's not ready for physical intimacy.

Hibbert does an excellent job building tension and longing between the characters. We arrive at the pivotal, penetrative moment; instead of Red asking for Chloe's consent, she proactively asks for what she wants, clearly showing Red her enthusiasm: "Not to ruin this very romantic moment, but would you possibly consider fucking me now?" she asks. There's clarity, excitement, and enthusiasm on both of their parts.

"Red, White & Royal Blue" by Casey McQuiston


Casey McQuiston's debut made a splash in 2019, with its hilarious and romantic story of the First Son falling in love with the Prince of Wales. McQuiston builds in moments of consent throughout the book. The first time Alex and Henry hook up, Henry asks, "How do you want to do this?" Alex's reply is, "Get on the couch." In response, "Henry's breath hitches and he complies." But the two talk to each other about how they want to start their romp. Alex is ready, but is less experienced as he's only recently realized he's bi. "I've actually never done this before," he says. Henry gives him an out, making sure that Alex truly wants to do this and isn't being forced. "You don't have to" he begins. But Alex responds, "No, I want to...I just need you to tell me if it's awful," and proceeds with enthusiasm.

As their sexual adventures continue, so too do the moments of consent. When Henry proposes they try anal for the first time together, the need for mutual consent is key. When Henry brings it up, Alex asks, "You sure?" Henry replies, "I know we haven't... But, er. I have, before, so, I can show you." Alex is on board, but double checks to make sure it's what Henry wants, asking "But you want me to?" to which Henry replies, "Yes. Absolutely." For an experience that's new to them as partners, they ensure that they are both fully committed before diving in.

"The Book of X" by Sarah Rose Etter


Content warning: rape

Sarah Rose Etter's 2019 novel "The Book of X" is a work of experimental fiction that starkly contrasts sex without consent and sex with it. Cassie is an outcast at school and Jarred has taken a twisted interest in her. She brings him to her family's farm, where he aggressively initiates sex. When he asks her if it's too much, she nods affirmatively, but he disregards her response and assaults her.

In Etter's experimental style, she follows some chapters with a section labeled "VISION," in which Cassie reimagines moments from her life. In her vision after the rape, Jarred pursues her with tenderness. This time around, he asks "Can I touch you?" waiting for her affirmative nod before he proceeds. As he unzips his pants, he asks again, "Is this OK?" and she nods once more, leaning into him with pleasure. Etter's depiction of the consent version of the scene shows the early blossoming of trust and respect, instead of the consent-less version, where Cassie is violated.

"The Bride Test" by Helen Hoang


Helen Hoang's second novel "The Bride Test" (2019) follows Khai Diep, who has autism and falls in love with Esme Tran. In this novel, consent takes on even more significance due to Khai's autism. Khai is extraordinarily sensitive to light touch and cannot tolerate being touched on the bellybutton. The first time they have sex, Esme is too nervous to touch him anywhere, worried she'll upset him. The second time, they pause to lay out the ground rules. "The place I'm asking you not to touch is... my bellybutton," Khai tells her. She asks, "I won't touch you there. I promise. But... I can touch you everywhere else?" He tells her yes, and ground rules laid, they're able to proceed as two consenting adults who understand each others' needs.

"The Wedding Date," by Jasmine Guillory


Jasmine Guillory's 2018 novel "The Wedding Date" incorporates many non-cringey moments of consent. Alexa Monroe meets Drew Nichols when they get trapped in an elevator together, and she ends up tagging along with him to a wedding as his date. Guillory is known for doing a damn sexy job writing consent, and her first book is no exception.

The first time Drew and Alexa have sex, they're just starting to get frisky in their hotel room when he stops and says, "Tell me what you want." She hesitates, and he presses her: "Do you want this, Alexa?" He won't proceed until he has confirmation that she wants to move forward. She replies, "You know I do," pushing herself against him. "Then tell me what you want me to do to you," he replies. She smiles and tells him, "Kiss me." Drew repeatedly asks her what she wants, constantly asking for consent and ways to please her. "You know I want to hear you say it," he tells her. With open and clear communication from the get-go, their partnership is off to a great start.

"Natalie Tan's Book of Luck & Fortune" by Roselle Lim


Roselle Lim's 2019 debut "Natalie Tan's Book of Luck & Fortune" is categorized as women's fiction and magical realism, but it interweaves elements of romance and consent. Natalie moves home to San Francisco after her mother's death, works to reopen her grandmother's restaurant, and falls in love along the way.

Our previous examples have showcased verbal consent, but it's also possible to consent nonverbally. A nod, pulling someone closer, actively touching someone, or initiating sexual activity can all be considered consent. Consent is not passive and silent; it should be clear and enthusiastic. In Lim's novel, most moments of consent are quiet, but clear. When Natalie and her love interest Daniel kiss, he leans across the table; "I inched closer," Natalie reports. The magical realism elements of Lim's writing underscore each romantic moment, with "bubbles hovering in the air [exploding] into miniscule fireworks...bursting into stars."

"The Chai Factor" by Farah Heron


Farah Heron's 2019 debut follows graduate student Amira Khan and barbershop quartet singer Duncan Galahad, an unlikely pairing. Despite their initial distaste for each other, after a guitar lesson, sharing some Indian food, and a few glasses of bourbon, Duncan and Amira are ready for a full-blown make out session.

As Duncan gently starts to kiss Amira, he pauses and asks, "This okay, Amira?" She responds, "No. I suspect you can do better than that," then "she pressed herself closer to his hard body and curled her arms around the back of his head, scraping her fingernails through his hair." In this situation, Duncan stops to verbally ask for consent, and Amira gives him both a verbal and a nonverbal answer. She encourages him, both in what she asks for and in her physical response.

"Royal Holiday" by Jasmine Guillory


Guillory's latest, "Royal Holiday" (2019), highlights the fact that consent is important at any age. Malcolm and Vivian are in their 50s, and meet while Vivian is on vacation in England. When they first kiss, they have an awkward false start. Malcolm pulls his car over to kiss Vivian, and she doesn't kiss back initially. He stops immediately and rapidly apologizes: "I'm sorry, I thought... Did you not?" But "she grinned, wrapped her arms around his neck, and leaned forward. 'Oh, I did.'"

Sometimes it's hard to read each other's intentions, sometimes there are moments of hesitation. In those moments, it's important to pause to give the other person a moment to respond. If they don't respond enthusiastically, as Vivian did, then you respect that and stop.

Once they're ready to have sex in Vivian's hotel room, she takes the initiative. Physical and verbal cues confirm the direction things are going. Here, Guillory deftly illustrates that consent is an ongoing process. "They both figured each other out. Did she like it like this...or like that? Did she like it when he touched her here, too, or was that too much?" Good partners are sensitive to each other's needs and wants, and check in regularly to make sure both parties are enjoying themselves. There's nothing awkward about consent here, it's just two adults communicating, happy and satisfied.

Emily Hessney Lynch is freelancer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to becca@rochester-citynews.com.

In This Guide...