Friday, January 27, 2012

Boffing Like Rabbits: Sex and Consent in Science Fiction Romance

In an effort to expand my science fiction horizons, I've been reading books and stories outside my comfort zone. I've never had an affinity with romance as a genre, so I thought I'd try out some SF Romance. Yes, it's a thing. Not as big as the Paranormal Romance genre, but it exists as a niche within a niche, and often as a subplot within a larger Space Opera epic.

The stories I have been beetling around with lately have been specifically focused on the romantic plot line, and the science fiction is merely a background. The stories have been a bit hit and miss, because for me I expect the science fiction (sociologically and technologically) to be forefront and informing the behaviour of the characters. Love, romance, sex and sexuality are partly socially culturally informed, and one would expect that as culture evolves alongside science and technology, these would evolve too. What does sex in free fall look like? How does one negotiate relationships in a cozy environment like a space station or ship? How would people deal with contraception? What will female sexual empowerment look like in 50 years, 100 years, 1000 years? How will people reproduce in the future? What will the cultural environment look like for queer people in the future?

While these are questions which are important to me, there is a market for mindless, fun, easy to read SF romance. Two people meet, things sizzle, bing bang boom, wocka wocka wow, and we're done. Smokin'.

Unfortunately, one of these bing bang boom SF romance stories I read recently reiterated some very harmful stereotypes about female sexual agency, bodily autonomy, sexual consent, normalized heterosexuality, and standards of western beauty and desire.

It goes like this: (supposedly strong) chick in a pickle (on a starship) is saved by handsome brooding bloke; to avoid suspicion from Le Authoritah they party like its 2999 and get excessively drunk; they boff like rabbits; brooding bloke comes clean about his past and recalcitrance, offers chick a way out of her pickle; they ride off into the nebula.

On the surface it looks like standard female-forward romance fare, and that's my first gripe - stripped of it's science fiction trappings, it's a story that could be dumped in any setting, any time frame. The technology had a minuscule part to play and could easily be McGuffined into any setting.

Next comes our white, heteronormative, Western idealized characters. The female is written in standard romance formula so the supposed female reader can insert themself into the character's place - we get to know her name, but she is not physically described beyond hints at her muscularity (this is important because of her physical job) and nice breasts. We're shown only a little of her clothes (again, important to her lower class role and job).

Conversely, the male hero is described in loving detail multiple times. He is tall, broad shouldered, has great abs and arse, smells fantastic, and his scars give him a dangerous, rakish air. And - wait for it - he's blond haired and blue eyed. One gets the sense that he physically towers over and dominates the female. This is important to the context of his manipulation as the story goes on.

When our hero rescues the woman from impending doom, he sweet talks their way out of trouble with the local authorities and forces her to pretend they're a couple to maintain a public cover. I use the word force, because he withholds information about his identity, will not physically break contact with the woman, holding her close to him in often painful and awkward positions, and despite her protestations makes her mimic his drinking habits to maintain the illusion that they are a couple.

It was at the drinking scene that alarm bells started to ring for me. The woman repeatedly said no to alcohol, explaining that she did not drink at all, feeling that it took away her control. The cultural idea that a woman's drinking must be policed is another whopping great stereotype. Good girls don't lose control like that or it gets them in trouble and HELLO VICTIM BLAMING. However, she felt impelled to give in to maintain the ruse because her life was in danger. Let me repeat that: the woman gave up her autonomy to do something against her beliefs because she  felt threatened. These are classic manipulation factors employed by abusers.

During the drinking scene, the woman steadily lost her inhibitions and had been thinking up until that point she felt physically attracted to the man but wouldn't act on it because of her suspicions about him. However, by the end of the evening the two were blind drunk and stumbled back to his lavishly appointed room to tear each other's clothes off and boff. The quality of the man's room is important, because it shows that the man is richer than the woman and can save her from a poor/lower class existence, another achingly ridiculous trope, that women need saving not only physically but also from (culturally, patriarchal imposed) financial doom.

The sex is where it gets really scary. As per typical "good girl" romance, it fades to black before anything can be shown. And I'm not talking about the stereotypical "use your imagination/insert your sex fantasy here" fade to black. The woman ACTUALLY BLACKS OUT. She wakes the next morning, bruised, battered, sticky (yes, the adjective 'sticky' is employed), and completely unable to remember the sex she just had.

For all intents and purpose, this woman was raped.

This may be standard feminist 101 to some of us, but let's be clear about sexual consent. She may be attracted to him; she may be flirting; she may be playing hard to get for her own titillation; she may be drunk; she may be dance grinding against him (which happened during the drinking scene); she may be sticking her hands down his pants (again, this happened); he may have fondled her in public and she let him (happened); they may have stumbled kissing and fondling to the room; they may have ripped each other's clothes off; she may have leaped on to the bed, opened her legs wide and said 'come get some!'. This may all look like consent, and she may be giving consent up to this point. But the moment a person is unconscious CONSENT IS WITHDRAWN.

Let me be clear - I am not protesting about a depiction of rough sex. Whatever floats your boat so long as it's consensual. But from what I can tell from the story, there was no discussion about contraception (not even some hand wavey SF magic towards what women did for contraception in the Year Whatever), nor whether the woman actually liked the rough sex in hindsight. She kept thinking she was attracted to him and liked the idea of having sex with him, just not what sort of sex, and especially not the sex she had just been through. In fact, when she woke up she attempted to shower, to get away from him and straighten out her thoughts, she even asked for privacy AND HE REFUSED HER, physically blocking her from leaving the room.

Here is where the story is so incredibly problematic I'm actually scared that women will read this and think it's ok. When the woman wakes up and discovers herself covered in bruises and walking like a cowboy, the man never actually overtly informs her that she was an enthusiastic participant in the sexual act. She just assumes that she must have and it doesn't bother her she has lost time and memory.

Now here's a thing about lost time and memory loss. IT'S TERRIFYING because you have completely lost control of your body. I've blacked out and lost time twice in my life, both from accidents. Both times I lost about 10-15 minutes. Both times I apparently spoke and physically moved about. Both times I was injured and I do not know how I sustained the injuries (I can only guess or piece together what people told me witnessing the accidents). It's a terrifying thing to ask your brain for information about an experience that you participated in and it can't or won't give it to you.

I was lucky, because both times I blacked out I had people I knew looking after my welfare. Now can you imagine what it must be like for a woman if she is in an unfamiliar situation, with an unfamiliar person (or people), when she's had her usual objections and autonomy stripped away, in terror of her safety, drunk or drugged beyond her control? This is standard rapist and abuser behaviour that is posited as normal. She put herself in that position, she had a choice to get out. Ehh, wrong.  Her choices were either to go to jail, or hang out with a manipulative dude who held all the cards. He might have been worth boffing, but attraction can wane.

The man in this story physically dominated and emotionally manipulated this woman into sex, and in the cold light of day when they FINALLY talked (he didn't tell her his name or why he was there until this point!), he offered to "rescue" her from her lifestyle and "teach" her new skills for a better job. And he was offering to do this for her because -WAIT FOR IT - she was making him look bad in his job! Tan tarah, it's our White Knight supreme!

Our heroine was ostensibly set up as empowered, strong woman - she was in a dangerous business (hence, the trouble she was in), and she screwed the hero happily (albeit in a parody of consent and autonomy). However, she called herself a little bit stupid. She demurred to the man's superior knowledge of her job, and she made flustered gestures towards her inferior physicality and scientific knowledge. She was so blinded by lust and fear she couldn't think of an alternative - that sounds disempowered to me and particularly infantalizing. While she hand waved towards her empowerment, she admitted she wanted better knowledge for her job. But instead of being able to search out this knowledge herself, she took the first offer that came along because she felt after this episode she wouldn't get any more opportunity to help herself. This is more classic abuser behaviour - the man now has her indebted to him for saving her life and elevating her in class and education.

At the end they agree to work together in their dangerous business, which means if she ever tried to leave or cross him he has the means to hurt or hunt her down. Or he might not, we don't know that, because he has the possibility of being a Nice Guy (cue: flashback scene about his mother. Seriously. It happened. Because Brooding Dudes can only civilized by a woman).

Another person might look over this story and think it's romantic, sexy and there's nothing wrong with it. Obviously they did otherwise it wouldn't have been printed in the book I read. But because our culture has taught us that White Knighting is normal and to be fetishized, a woman's objections are to be set aside (focus on disdaining the 'wrong' emotions), her sexual autonomy is less important, even set aside, if some desire can be accounted for (how do we know her desire isn't a social and cultural construct on it's own, informed by her life experiences within a patriarchy?), and she is put into extenuating circumstances.

Authors: please PLEASE stop doing this. Bring us the queer romance. Bring us the genderqueer romance. Bring us non-western idealized romance. Hell, bring us group sex. Bring on the boff with enthusiastic consent and no black outs. Bring us the women who can get out of a sticky (pun intended) situation with an alternative other than a White (literally) Knight. Bring us a woman who isn't a cardboard cut out, whose needs a real, whose concerns are real which are not just shoved aside for the sake of a good sex scene.

And here's the final kicker: this story was written by a woman. This shit is so deeply embedded, y'all, I sometimes despair that we'll ever be able to dig our way out of it.


  1. It's sad that there's still romance like this being published. Some of the bad elements of romance - lack of consent, rape as seduction, that women can't have sex and enjoy it, that women have be societally-accepted beautiful to have good sex - are the main factors that drive me when I write romance.

    There are lots of other romance writers out there doing the same, and the tide is turning - m/m romance for example is one of the biggest growing sections of the genre. Menages are also big.

    But as long as books like this get out there, the rest of us just have to keep fighting that much harder.

  2. Thank Nicole! Yes, I know there's some good stuff out there (yours included!) and I'm awesome keen to see the queer romance niche coming through and feminist writers going gung ho. I should have added that Lethe Press do really good queer romance/spec anthologies. As a complete specfic romance noob I appreciate all suggestions so fire away.