The Reader and Consent
Robin (aka Janet here at the blog) wrote a paper which was presented this past spring’s PCA conference. The core of her paper is the reason that readers have different responses to forced seduction is based on the reader's grant of consent to the act. In essence, the reader is acting as proxy for the heroine in either withholding consent (rape) or granting consent (seduction). It's a more nuanced argument than this, but ever since I read her paper, I began to think about the reader and consent in books.
All readers come from a different place because none of us have had the same upbringing and same life experiences. These experiences and biases affect our ability to grant consent or go along with where the author is leading us. It's the old "It's not you, it's me" refrain.
For example, it is hard for me to read a legal romance and grant consent to the liberties taken with the law. This was a huge issue for me in Nancy Gideon's Chased by Moonlight wherein the lead investigating officer on a murder case was sleeping with the prime suspect and even kissed him in the interrogation room. But witness this commenter's response:
Now because it is a piece of fiction I don't care if the a police procedureare right are not. I know it's not that way in real life and this is just a book.
She was able to give her consent to this scene whereas I was not.
In Willing Victim by Cara McKenna, the heroine wants to be ordered around during sex in an extreme way, yet the author is careful to convey that this is at the heroine's own direction at each step of the way so that the reader can give consent to the simulated rape. McKenna starts off with a test to prove to the reader, the hero's restraint. “Michael” is their safe word.
His posture transformed in an instant. He sat down next to her on the bed, hands clasped between his knees, wary eyes on her face. "Too rough?"
"I'm not sure. I think mostly I just wanted to test the safe word. I think I needed to know you'd stop, if I asked you to."
It helps a great deal that these scenes are almost all from the female's point of view so that the reader knows she is hot for every increasingly demanding and threatening act:
Laurel made a fearful, breathy noise and was rewarded with a few violent thrusts. "Stop," she panted. "Please."
"I said shut up."
"Please, stop. "
"Fine. Gets me hot when you beg, anyway. "
She alternated pleading with helpless noises, the role-playing arousing her more than she'd imagined possible. Flynn felt godlike behind her, insanely strong and powerful.
Maya Banks uses this technique of being in the heroine's point of view for a struggle scene in her upcoming "Four Play" contribution (ellipses in place of actual content to attempt to make this post somewhat safe for work):
A decadent thrill washed over her at the thought of Brody forcing his way into her resisting body. Oh yeah. Nice. It obviously didn't pay to be too accommodating. She'd stop that nonsense right now. – Then, as if realizing her game, he gripped both hips and held her in place-
"I told you what would happen," Brody said, but he didn't sound very sorry at all.-.Oh God, he was big and it hurt and she loved every second. She wiggled and squirmed, trying everything she could to unseat him.
But the reader as proxy (not stand in) but proxy works on levels even beyond ones that involve a sexual situation.
Ever put down a book? Why? Sometimes it is because the story is boring but sometimes it is because there is something in the story that bothered you.
This happened to me recently when I was reading a book the other day. The hero declared (to another person) that he was in love with the heroine and I put the book down, metaphorically speaking. I wasn't ready to go there with the hero. The author hadn't prepared me well enough for that scene to happen and thus I wasn't satisfied with the direction of the story.
I read one story in which I entirely skipped over a sex scene because I wasn't ready for the couple to have sex yet. The hero had done something bad and I needed groveling for him before the heroine allowed him the pleasure of sexual intercourse with her.
And, of course, as I alluded to at the beginning, every reader has a different point at which she consents to the scene. For example, the groveling in an Heir for the Millionaire by Julie James was sufficient for me, but for commenter Holly, it was not, leading the book to be a wallbanger for her:
Based on the recommend I downloaded this to my ereader. I just finished The Greek and the Single Mom by Julia James. I just gotta ask-what the heck were you smoking when you gave this a B? Please tell me you were feeling maudlin and had polished off a bottle of wine before you read this. Shaking head in dismay.
I finished the story and only because I paid a LOT of money for my ereader did I not chuck it at the wall. OMG!!! Just OMG.
*Possible* Spoiler ahead. But then this is often an HP kind of plot device so maybe it isn't a spoiler.
The guy feels like he's the aggrieved party all the way through? Exsqueeze me? He was the ultimate in asshat angry boner men and it didn't take me long to figure that out. His reaction to finding out about his son was-poor. She's vindictive? Say what?
You know, your review appealed to me because you talked about a fiesty heroine with a spine. Yeah, she had one-right up until the end of the story. Then it appears to have been surgically removed when both she, and I, were not looking.
Near the end of the story the guy commits a calculated, manipulative act with despicable intentions. And the heroine, once he tells her what he did, thanks him for having committed it instead of properly hunting for a spoon with which to dig out his heart (assuming he has one) – cause you use a spoon to make it hurt more. (Alan Rickman/Robin Hood reference). She THANKS him!! Is she an idiot? A masochist? You know she can't be a masochist because I read BDSM and even masochists aren't THAT masochistic. OMG. Again.
By the time that the HEA rolled around, this reader wasn’t prepared for it. She didn’t consent to the HEA because the hero committed an egregious act and did not redeem himself sufficiently in her eyes. It didn’t matter that the heroine consents or excuses this behavior, the reader hasn’t consented or excused the behavior thus making the HEA unbelievable for that reader.
The reader’s grant or withholding of consent is not the same thing as being a placeholder. Instead, it is where the reader is emotionally within the story and where she will allow the story to take her Whether the reader grants consent for a particular emotional movement can and will vary based upon the reader’s experiences and personal biases. A woman who was the victim of sexual assault likely has a very different line for consent when it comes to forced seduction as opposed to the reader who has never experienced such an experience.
If an author gets a number of complaints about a particular book maybe it was because she hadn’t fully paved the way for the reader’s consent. Or it could just be that it’s not you, it’s me.
What do you think? Are you, as a reader, consenting?