Consent matters. We all know consent matters – at least we think we do. But how often do we actually practice consent? As an aunt to several rapidly maturing children (who range in age from pre-school to high-school) and the adult most likely to be asked awkward questions, I have grown especially sensitive to seeking consent. Every time I want to hug or kiss them, I ask. We talk about how important that is, why it matters, and how to respond if someone doesn’t respect your right to consent.
We watch movies together, and this is where it gets hard. They ask me why Sleeping Beauty would marry a man who assaulted her, and I say it’s because she doesn’t know any better, that she was taught to think rape is love. I say this because it was what I was taught, quite literally; I am a survivor of childhood abuse and Sleeping Beauty was always my princess as a child. Honestly, she is not alone in being a problematic princess. Many poignant satire videos which point out the copious lack of consent present in media have been posted on YouTube and other sites.
Media is a cultural expression of who we are as a society. We grow up thinking the things we see in it are normal; we internalize the books we read and the characters we love as a part of ourselves. When we consistently consume media which portrays love as something easily mistaken for abuse, it’s no accident that we find ourselves in a society where bodily autonomy is rarely recognized and good people fall in love with abusers. We were taught that’s what love looked like.
When I sat down to craft a romantic relationship, I made very deliberate choices in how it would be portrayed. I knew that I – as a writer, as an aunt, as a survivor of sexual assault – needed to see for myself and show to others what consent looked like. Raven consistently asks Kara’s permission every time he kisses her, even before their first kiss as a married couple. It was especially important to me that he ask before this specific kiss. Why?
I live in a country where there are lighter punishments for spousal rape. In some cases, these acts are not even considered rape unless the husband issues a direct threat of violence. Spousal rape wasn’t even prosecutable as rape in the US until the 1970’s, thanks to a 17th century English Common Law which states a “husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind to her husband which she cannot retract.” This country spent two hundred plus years believing women give up consent in marriage. I don’t think the last fifty years has changed this outlook much.
When I wrote The Laws of Entanglement: A True Love Story, I wanted Raven to be the sort of man who never takes his partner’s consent for granted, not even when they are married. Kara’s feelings matter to Raven, so he always asks for permission because he acknowledges her autonomy as a separate person and values her feelings above his own desires. This insistence upon consent turns out to be the very thing that Kara loves most about Raven. She knows that he will always consider her thoughts and feelings.
I recognize this may be radical and uncomfortable at first for most readers, and that’s the point. As writers, we possess a singular power to sway people’s minds and hearts simply by showing them a new perspective. I wanted to use my power to talk about consent, especially after marriage. I want to write the sort of stories that can be made into movies my kiddos watch one day and say, “Yes, this is what love looks like. Love asks, every single time.”