Old Skool vs New: Consent in the Supernatural

17 Nov

by Kiersten Hallie Krum

Consent in romance can be a bit tricky to unpack given the less than vaunted history of rape fantasies and forced seduction in the genre. One of the most common slurs against the romance genre is that they are nothing more than “bodice rippers,” novels where the pristine heroine is “forced” to succumb to her older, more-experience lover as he reveals her untapped passion. I put forced deliberately in quotes because in such old skool romances, as we refer to them now, the heroine had to be portrayed first as a sexual innocent and then as only reluctantly “forced” into enjoying her sexuality through the hero’s overwhelming desire. She could only give into sex and enjoy it if the man gave her no other choice whether by overwhelming her with his desire or by actually overwhelming her. Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ seminal The Flame and the Flower is the gold standard of this trope where the heroine is mistaken by the hero for being a prostitute and is “forced” into sex, almost blatantly raped under the guise of romance. Later, after he’s forced to marry her because she was innocent and genteel-born and he “ruined” her, she essentially falls in love with her rapist. Wonderful role-models for romance there.

Thankfully, romance has come a long way from those rape fantasy tropes. These days, if there’s force going on in a romance, it probably involves bindings…and is consensual. But that doesn’t mean the issue of consent has gone away and in fact it shows up most overtly in paranormal and urban fantasy romance novels. The question of consent hovers over stories with “fated” lovers, the trope in which the conflicted supernatural creature– whether vampire, wolf shifter, or honey badger–needs his (it’s almost always the male who is in need) fated mate in order to offset some horrible curse. The heroine often sacrifices her ability to consent in these situations: when the world is in peril from a curse, who is she to quibble over losing control of her “destiny”?

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The first installment of the crackalicious Black Dagger Brotherhood series involves this trope along with some class A stalking issues for “her protection” as does the original first installment of Kresley Cole’s (admittedly addictively awesome) Immortals After Dark series. As readers, we go with the flow of the story here, that this obsession of the hero for the heroine, one that forces her (no quotes here) to go along with what he wants for an immediate payment of equally supernatural orgasms, is “romantic” in its way since it evolves into a committed love relationship and often is part of the heroine’s own journey to her power, which either matches or eclipses the hero’s. Sure, it’s romantic to think of a lover compelled by forces beyond reason to love and need only one woman, the whole concept of “soul mate” in these cases taken to a supernatural conclusion. But is that really any different from an old-skool forced seduction that ends in a loving marriage? (Full disclosure: I’m actually a big fan of the “fated soul mates” trope, at least in fiction, but that makes me want to all the more deeply deconstruct them.)

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Fellow Lady Smut blogger, Madeline Iva, and I touched upon this idea during last week’s Facebook release party for The Lady Smut Big Book of Dark Desires. In her novella in that anthology, Sexomnia, the heroine, Jenny, is possessed by a succubus demon who calls herself Jennifer. When Jenny sleeps, Jennifer comes out to play with a variety of partners with no gender barrier and no thought to Jenny’s own desires. Each night of excess leaves Jenny somewhere new in the morning with no memory of anything–or anyone–Jennifer did while she slept. In this, Jennifer is malevolent, evil, not because of her unapologetic sexuality, but because she’s removing Jenny’s power of consent.

This week’s episode of the deliciously creepy Sleepy Hollow, while admittedly not a romance, featured a succubus as the monster-of-the-week. Here there’s no question she’s entirely evil, sucking life and hearts from her victims in order to sustain a demon overlord. It’s safe to assume nobody consents to getting their heart sucked out.

On the urban fantasy show Lost Girl, Bo is a succubus fighting to understand and control her growing powers. She feeds off the sexual chi of her lovers (or are they victims?) who die when she takes too much of their life force. One of the (sadly) unique draws of the show is the stated lack of slut shaming toward Bo for her biological need to have sex to sustain her life force. But the issue of sexual consent for her partners is never outright addressed. (It’s safe to assume a lack of consent to her draining them of life.) When she trolls her neighborhood bar for potential partners, there’s never a question of whether or not, free of her succubus influence, those partners would choose to have sex with Bo. She’s hot and seductive so it’s assumed that anyone she chooses, male or female, will naturally be ready and willing to get it on.

But what if they’re not? Under the influence of her supernatural power, how would they know? Part of Bo’s power is the ability to control people outside of sex too through her influence on their libido and then make them forget what they did for and with her. How again is that different from a roofie in someone’s drink eliminating their ability to say no? And what about the dichotomy between what the body wants and what the mind knows better than to do? In the Lost Girl mythology, a succubus can arouse a man or woman’s body whether or not his or her mind objects. Any fidelity toward a significant other, for example, would have no significance regardless of the person’s otherwise clear-headed, uninfluenced wishes. Also, the succubus is traditionally female, likely in order to further invest female sexuality as something evil, but switch the genders and the issues of consent in this supernatural trope are even more obvious and possibly even more alarming.

DarkDesires

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Yeah, romances can just be an escape and urban fantasy/genre shows can just be fantastical camp. But does that erase the responsibility to at least be aware of how we’re playing with and perhaps influencing the consent issue in a pop-culture obsessed society? As we manipulate genre tropes and celebrate female sexuality in its many varied and wonderful embodiments, should we be more careful of addressing consent? Or doesn’t it matter when we’re writing or watching succubuses and vampires and that ever elusive honey badger in the first place?

Want a taste of a demonic succubus? Check out Sexomnia and the other sexy stories in The Lady Smut Book of Dark Desires, now available.

Follow Lady Smut. We’ll ask for your consent every time…and a safe word when needed.

8 Responses to “Old Skool vs New: Consent in the Supernatural”

  1. Elizabeth SaFleur (@ElizaLoveStory) November 17, 2014 at 9:00 am #

    Another wonderful question raised by the Lady Smuteers…Incidentally, you named two of my favorites here – Kresley Cole and Lost Girl. What an interesting topic. Consent doesn’t come up for me for as much in paranormal of fantasy because fantasy (to me) equals “not quite real.” Fun, definitely. Engrossing, most definitely. But, I never “gave in” to the fact that anyone is really being hurt. It may be a shortfall on my part, but when fantasy is involved I’m much more lenient when it comes to consent. Now . . . if the story involves someone who may be alive today (or have lived in that case of a historical)? You better hear “yes” all over the place or you’ve lost me for good! Perhaps I should give greater thought to this consent issue in fantasy and paranormal. Hmm, definitely something to think about – especially in today’s modern times where too many people don’t play by consent in real life!

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  2. Madeline Iva November 17, 2014 at 9:26 am #

    So glad you dive into this topic. I am obviously *very* interested in it. I also love the paranormal series you mention. I love that they are so obviously fantasies where men can want a woman so strongly it breaks the bounds we allow men to express today because it would be too stalker-y. I have to admit, that with J.R. Ward I saw those issues, and yet as a reader they still captivated me. With Kresley Cole, I loved one of her books — Kiss of A Demon King in particular — but another book the guy was stalker-y and because the woman REALLY didn’t seem to be into it at first, I found myself very aware of it and turned off.

    I think saying ‘yes’ to women’s desires is a feminist act — even if those desires aren’t PC. Because it’s ‘just’ fiction you get to have your cake and eat it too. You get to be empowered to express and fantasize about your desires–whatever they are–and no one was harmed in the process. And these illicit desires are SO common. It doesn’t mean we’d ever really act them out in real life or endorse them in real life.

    Alexa Day turned me on to this idea.

    If you think that allowing women to express their desires regardless of the cultural mores of their time is a feminist act, then you can see that those romances back in the seventies and eighties were subversively feminist. Because women weren’t supposed to want it back then–not before love not before marriage–or they were sluts.

    But women romance readers obviously DID want it. These books let them have it — and yet did so in a way that made it psychologically acceptable for them.

    Is that why society looks down on romance? It their scoffing and disapproval of romance an act of suppressing woman’s sexual desires?

    How much have we really changed since then? I think readers still love innocent/pure heroines.

    In ‘Sexsomnia’ I feel like I’m championing the heroine who would never have a one night stand or casual hook up–it’s just not here. All the same she’s peering over the fence a tad wistfully, wondering about hot, hot, no-hold’s barred sex with a guy she’s just met and with whom she doesn’t seem like she’d have a future with.

    When I wrote ‘Sexsomnia’ my good friend Nara Malone immediately brought up consent issues with the story. I see it as a silver lining sort of thing — on one hand, this character suffers horribly because her ability to consent is utterly stripped away from her when she’s ‘infected’ with an evil demon.

    On the other hand–this is the silver lining part–going through this painful experience, she winds up confronting some of her subconscious desires finally. By the end she is finally empowered enough to start embracing her own desires, and takes charge of making her sex life hotter for her own pleasure.

    But it’s my first published romance story. You can argue (or as my writing prof used to say, “you can lawyer me all you want”) about the story’s justification. Ultimately, we want readers to respond with their gut — and usually gut wins over head. So, I’m ready to learn if readers respond to this story with their gut — or if the consent issues really do get in the way.

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    • Alexa Day November 18, 2014 at 12:03 am #

      Aw, my ears were burning!

      I mentioned yesterday that part of my job is to provoke thought, and so I think things like consent issues have to keep appearing in erotica and erotic romance. Not only do consent issues open the door to trust issues, which are important, but they give us readers the chance to really ask ourselves questions. “Is this stimulating? Is this interesting?” I think we have to come at these questions honestly. We have to make sure that our own desires for ourselves aren’t being colored by the desires society has for us, and erotic romance is a great way to check in on ourselves.

      Women’s desires are still being fenced in, but not in the same way. We are encouraged to want some things and not to want others. But the spectrum is larger now than before, which is nice.

      Anyway, I do think we as writers should be more aware of how we’re dealing with stuff like consent issues. For my part, I want to make sure the door stays open for as many complicated, conflicted sexytimes as possible. The fun part for me is when readers wonder, “Wow. Would I want *that*?” My responsibility, then, is to make sure we’ve always got new things to ask about, think about, talk about, and maybe try out for ourselves. 😉

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  3. nypinta November 17, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

    I was actually thinking about this topic the other day, mostly with regard to Lost Girl (shocker), and I recalled that in the original pilot “Vexed” Bo doesn’t use her power in either instance she has sex. When she shows up on Dyson’s door, in serious need of healing because of some pretty serious wounds, she still doesn’t use it. Nor does she later with Lauren. She only uses it to get the guard at the prison to let her in to see Luann. And I’m a bit fuzzy but from what I recall, in the first season she doesn’t use her compulsion like ability to overcome someone’s ability to say no to her for the sole purpose of sex. She does use it badly, like the first two episodes when she does use it first on a man that roofied Kenzi (so it feels like turn about being fair play) and in the second episode she uses it on a woman to calm her down but then her own hunger turns on Bo and really removed Bo’s own ability to consent as well, and they make it clear that Kenzi has to stop her from doing harm.

    It seems they get into trouble when they try and use humor with the various sexual situations as they did in the second season when Bo has to find other means to feed and uses her power on the pizza boy. I suspect they found it funny at the time since the pizza guy is a well known porn trope but when you think about what she really did it feels just gross, yet it’s played off for laughs. The scene later with Bo and Lauren at the Dal feels creepy, but they never show on camera if she uses her powers on anyone or not. I guess it’s just the idea that when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter because Bo *can* overcome anyone’s objections with her touch.

    I think if they had been more careful about demonstrating a concious effort to only use it in cases like with the prison guard or to get answers from a suspect in one of her cases, or when she uses it to calm someone (like crazy psycho girl in the episode with the furies or the fae in the babysitting episode) then we wouldn’t assume she’d use her power on someone to take away their consent. And that makes me kind of sad since Bo is supposed to be the hero that fights so hard to be able to make her own choices and one of her assets shouldn’t be relying on her ability to take them away from others.

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    • Kiersten Hallie Krum November 17, 2014 at 12:22 pm #

      I was thinking specifically of the pizza boy and the trolling in The Dal with Doctor Lauren when I was writing that paragraph (among other incidences). The pizza boy was endearing b/c he was so sweet but it was also a clear incidence of her victim protesting b/c his mind knew better and yet sucked under by the needs of his body that Bo deliberately inflamed for her own needs. The implication is that he should be thankful such a hottie wanted him in the first place, but it’s actually pretty creepy. Again, reverse the genders and the ick factor is glaring.

      The trolling at the bar was just balls out “I can have anyone I want and they can’t say no.” That she picked someone who looked interested was just a lucky bonus.

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  4. Kel November 21, 2014 at 5:06 pm #

    I find this a hard topic to be fair on, probably because I don’t have any issues with my reading choices crossing lines that real life should never cross. I do get bored with “fated” mates removing the whole concept of consent, but I think part of the fantasy is that consent can be fluid.
    Paranormal romance especially can cross boundaries that real life can never cross. I do dislike when people don’t properly delineate consent in non-paranormal situations, though. I feel like it creates unrealistic expectations about potential real life scenarios.

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    • Madeline Iva November 23, 2014 at 9:09 am #

      Well said, Kel! Fluid consent — sounds dirty when taken out of context. ; >

      Like

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