Guest Post: Consent in Romance

This guest post is from Eliot West. Eliot West is an independent editor specializing in romance and interactive fiction. Their work is informed by deep interests in inclusive language and storytelling, gender diversity, human sexuality, and consent. They hold a PhD in English literature, with a focus on literary theory and the novel … but their real education has been in reading queer romance, working with students, and getting their hands dirty in manuscripts as stories grow into themselves. Find them online at their website or Mastodon.

Confession: I’m a little obsessed with both consent and romance. Recently, I’ve been teaching a course and giving presentations on consent for fiction writers, and as I have these conversations, I’m amazed by just how many connections there are between consent and storytelling—especially in our genre, which is of course the best.

Today I want to share a little of what I’m learning about consent, how it’s connected to romance, and what diversity has to do with all that. And I am obviously honor-bound to share reading recs: at the end, you’ll find a list of romance novels that are super smart about consent and diversity, as well as links to resources on consent.


There are a lot of ways to define consent, and some of them kind of bite.

First, we’ve got blandly unhelpful dictionary definitions—Merriam-Webster tells us that consent is “compliance in or approval of what is done or proposed by another: acquiescence.”

I mean, okay, I guess?

We’ve got legal definitions, where the whole point is whether a crime or breach of contract has occurred, according to some standard of evidence, and who’s liable. That is a low bar, my friends! When ordinary people talk about consent, they’re often imagining a kind of bureaucratic checkbox system, where one person (usually a man) seeks permission to do something to another person (usually a woman), so as not to get in trouble. That’s us drawing dismally on a legalistic concept of consent.

But there are less depressing ideas out there, too. Some researchers, including social psychology professor Vanessa Bohns, want to develop a psychological definition that embraces the internal, experiential aspect of consent.

What does it feel like to want and to say yes?

What’s it like to be in consent?

What do we need in order to say no?

What does it feel like to express a boundary?

What does it do to us internally when we don’t feel we’ve engaged in an act freely and voluntarily?

Imho, these are questions romance novels already consider at length and with a lot of nuance. What Bohns calls “the subjective experience of consenting” is of great interest to romance writers and readers!

Or we can consider sex educator and author Emily Nagoski’s definition, from her podcast Come As You Are:

“Everyone is glad to be there and free to leave with no unwanted consequences.”

And this longer version of a similar idea from Meg-John Barker, the author of several really cool books on sex and gender:

In order to consent to something, we have to fully and profoundly know that we don’t have to do that thing, now or ever. This applies whether the thing in question is having sex with a partner, doing the task we’d set ourselves on a particular day, hanging out with a friend, or being in a certain relationship or group.

We have to know that nothing is contingent on it, that we’re not bound by entitlement or obligation, that there’ll be no punishment if we don’t do it, and that there’s no assumed default ‘normal’ script or path that we’re expected to follow here: like what other people do, or what we’ve done before.

In these more promising perspectives, consent is about freedom, agency, boundaries, wants, and a complicated context of power dynamics and personal histories.


Why does the treatment of consent in fiction—which is, in fact, made up—matter?

One reason is ethical: We straight-up need better representations of consent, particularly in sexual contexts, because our culture constantly undermines consent and safety. We’re not okay, y’all: send help.

We all know that romance is sex ed for a lot of people. Many many people learn about bodies and the mechanics of sex acts by reading romance novels. We’re also all learning about the ethics of consent, about what’s realistic to expect in a relationship or a sexual encounter, about what consent can and should look like, when we read and reread these stories.

But also, a thoughtful approach to consent is good for storytelling. It’s a craft tool, for fiction generally and for romance times a million. The development of intimacy and trust; how humans somehow take the risk of vulnerability, even though we’ve been hurt; and what wanting feels like and does: that’s the stuff of romance. And it’s the stuff of consent.

Another reason romance is an excellent place to explore consent is that the need for a barrier means these stories almost always involve difficult trauma histories, fraught power dynamics, communication problems, self-knowledge problems, or other dynamics that make consent both extra challenging to navigate and very, very compelling as a storytelling element.

I could talk absolutely all day long about consent as a craft tool related to character development, tension, romance barriers and resolution, worldbuilding…all the things. But for the rest of this post, I’ll bravely restrain myself and focus on one building block of solid consent representation (which feeds into all those lovely crafty things). And that is…


Weird, right? But bear with me.

If we list a bunch of nonconsensual (or rape) culture myths, one of the less obvious ones will be:

It’s normal and fine to objectify people and police bodies along the lines of size, shape, appearance, gender expression, and so on.

This is such a common habit that it can be hard to notice that it’s related to consent. But policing people’s bodies along various lines of oppression and aesthetic preference is tied up with objectifying people. Paying attention to whole people and our diverse desires is really important to a consent orientation.

That means that cisheteronormativity—the way our cultural imagination tends to assume virtually everyone is cisgender (rather than trans) and straight (rather than gay, bi, pan, etc.) as well as allosexual (rather than asexual)—disadvantages consent. Normativity of any kind disadvantages consent.

When a whole society pretends that certain desires and behaviors are just normal and to be expected, there’s huge pressure on individuals to conform, and not so much space for free choice or even self-knowledge.

Assumptions about who and what is attractive (or unattractive) undermine a consent orientation by putting characters in a sexual script—like we’re smashing Ken and Barbie dolls together—rather than allowing them to have their own specific wants and experiences. Spoiler: the second option is more emotionally satisfying romance writing. Racism, ableism, anti-fat bias, and the like are all culprits here.

The assumption that sex is universally important to romantic relationships, and that there’s some gold standard of “real sex,” creates similar problems. And let’s be real: it’s not incredibly insightful from a storytelling perspective to just plop everybody on the same inevitable path with the same motivations and goals. It’s a whole lot more interesting to see characters navigating their paths to HEAs—and ending up delighted and secure in their relationships—when one of them is absolutely not okay with being penetrated (as in Cat Sebastian’s The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes) or has no interest in sex period (as in Cass Lennox’s Blank Spaces) or in a myriad of other ways does not fit into our society’s tidy boxes and scripts.

A story world that assumes a diversity of experiences, perspectives, and desires creates space for meaningful—and interesting! and hot!—consent. A diverse world with plenty of room for all sorts of readers gives us bigger, cooler playgrounds for storytelling, while also doing less harm in the real world. It’s a win-win.


These (and, fortunately for us, many other) incredible romances do really smart things with consent, in part through building those big cool playgrounds:

You Had Me at Hola
A | BN | K | AB
Alexis Daria, You Had Me at Hola

This contemporary, starring the two leads of a TV show who meet on set, does such neat work with consent—in part through featuring an intimacy coordinator on page!

Satisfaction Guaranteed
A | BN | K
Karelia Stetz-Waters, Satisfaction Guaranteed

One main character, a sex educator who works at a sex toy shop, is totally at ease using her words in this arena—and works to make room for her far less comfortable and chill love interest to experience and communicate a yes.

EE Ottoman, Documenting Light ( A | BN | K )

A contemporary romance featuring a nonbinary person and a trans man, this one has a quiet and gentle approach to consent that’s beautifully grounded in communication between two trans characters.

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake
A | BN | K | AB
Alexis Hall, Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake

I tend to focus on positive representations of healthy, meaningful, freely given consent—and this very funny and charming novel has those. But I also admire it for its smart representation of insidious abuse dynamics and the threat of sexual assault.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown
A | BN | K | AB
Talia Hibbert, Get a Life, Chloe Brown

Chronic illness and pain management are woven into interactions around consent, attraction, and pleasure in this one, and it’s just fantastic.

A Gentleman’s Position
A | BN | K | AB
KJ Charles, A Gentleman’s Position

The romantic leads’ employer-servant relationship—and their very different perspectives on consent and power because of their particular class and life experiences—lead to a thoughtful treatment of consent in context here.

The Countess Conspiracy
A | BN | K | AB
Courtney Milan, The Countess Conspiracy

This gorgeous historical in the Brothers Sinister series is also a brilliant reflection on the difference between wanting and consenting, and on navigating messy situations toward robust, healthy consent.

Cat Sebastian, literally all of her books, if I start listing any I won’t stop. Part of why I love them is their nuanced, and also hot, explorations of consent in contexts where trauma, mental health issues, and all manner of sociocultural dynamics are all very much at play.

And if you’d like to dive more deeply into consent, here are a few great places to start:

The Consent Checklist,” Meg-John Barker, or almost any of their books
The Wheel of Consent Explained,” Rupert James Alison
Self Consent: An Introduction,” Love Uncommon
Consent and ‘Enthusiastic Maybe,’” Emily Nagoski

What about you? What romances have you read that expanded your ideas of sexuality, identity, and consent?

Add Your Comment →

  1. kkw says:

    Cat Sebastian is always stellar with this, absolutely, and Alexis Hall.

    AJ Demas is clearly having a great time with all the different norms in the alt-ancient Mediterranean, and it’s gratifying to see how the clashing cultural expectations are handled.

    I thought of the Society of Gentlemen series too but it’s not as much about Richard and Cyprian although that too. Richard and Dom was a fascinating way of illustrating what happens when desires do not align and how negotiating that can go poorly even with all the love and best intentions. Actually Phillip and Guy in Band Sinister have one of the first believable and sexy conversations explicitly about consent I ever ran across in a romance novel. It’s a glorious rebuttal to all the assholes who whine that consent isn’t sexy. Oh, then when Justin finally able to…ok ok I’ll stop. KJ Charles. The answer is always KJ Charles.

    Also huge shout out to His Quiet Agent series which is asexual romance, something I wasn’t expecting to enjoy but I felt like a better person, in a better world, after finishing, so that was expansive.

  2. denise says:

    currently reading an ARC of *Thank You for Sharing* and it is really handling consent well, especially after a main character experienced a traumatic non-consent in the past.

  3. Maria Vale says:

    Thank you for this post. It’s important to give ourselves permission to say ‘no’ in an intimate relationship. I don’t kink-shame, but I also hate the coercion implicit in “are you a prude?”I wish there were more stories in which a partner says ‘no’ just because it’s not their yum and it’s okay.

  4. Darlynne says:

    I would sign up for any lecture you gave. Thank you for such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post; real consent includes so much more than I understood.

  5. Karin says:

    Thank you for this post!

    Definitely Guy and Phillip from Band Sinister when it comes to writing consent in a sexy way. Absolute gold standard!

    Upside Down by NR Walker when it comes to asexuality. Though it is a very funny book, it makes some really good points about about asexuality.

  6. Jean Lamb says:

    I liked ‘At the Feet of the Sun” by Victoria Goddard. It turns out that it’s ok for Kip to say no to sex he isn’t comfortable with instead of being pressured into it and discovering he loves it (a sadly normal path in many romances). It’s ok to have a relationship that is close and loving in a way an ace hero is happy with. You don’t see that very often.

  7. One thing I appreciate in Celia Lake’s historical-fantasy Albion series is that consent is always sought, and almost always verbally. (Not that there aren’t other ways to seek and give consent, but particularly early on in a relationship, using words can help avoid mistaken assumptions.)

  8. Gill says:

    Great post. Following for recommendations

  9. Chefcheyanne says:

    As HS teacher working with poor minority students this entire consent issue annoys me. It seems embedded in white classes of economic privilege. It seems to ignore the constant economic brutality poor minority females endure. It seems to ignore the iron clad cycle of generational poverty&ignorance many of these young &women face. Reading the multi questionnaire to determine sexual conduct was hilarious. Let’s set that code up against say the creepy male landlord who has abused young offspring living in his tenement apartments. The desperate adults living there only solution is to provide tubes of lube. What would help? Realistic housing child care health care job training transportation all these things available in most if the industrialized world. Take that energy direct it towards cleaning out politicians refusing to create fund social safety nets.

  10. Jane says:

    I recently read The Romantic Agenda by Claire Kann because I was curious to read an ace perspective, which was something I didn’t know much about… only it turns out I did, I just didn’t realize it. I wish I’d had the words/understanding of the spectrum (allosexual to asexual) when I was younger because relationships would have made a lot more sense. I’m looking forward to reading more about this spectrum including the recs above. Thanks Eliot!

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