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Consenting adults: Kate Cuthbert on the romance novel and representations of sexuality after #MeToo


Consenting adults: Kate Cuthbert on the romance novel and representations of sexuality after #MeToo

Escape Publishing managing editor Kate Cuthbert gave the keynote address at this year’s Romance Writers of Australia conference. This is an edited version of her speech.

Good morning. Thank you to the RWA for inviting me to address the conference, and congratulations on a job well done.

The title of this keynote is Consenting Adults. The topic evolved out of a discussion I had with the conference organisers about romance novels and the representation of sexuality after 50 Shades of Gray, and in an emerging #MeToo world. This is clearly not a topic that can be covered adequately in thirty minutes, nor is it a topic that comes with well-defined answers.

What I’d like to do today, as someone who cares deeply about this genre, its writers, its readers, and its place in the literary landscape is begin a conversation. Ask some questions. Provoke some thought.  We are at a crossroads, and every one of us will have to make our own decisions.

The ones I present today are mine.

I’d like to begin this morning’s discussion with a recounting of one of the bravest acts I’ve ever seen. I had the privilege earlier this year to attend the Australian Romance Reader Awards where Melanie Milburne was the invited guest speaker. At the table before, she told me that she wasn’t sure how her speech would be received, that she was nervous because what she had to say was controversial. And then she got up and she said that after a stellar career and nearly 80 titles to her name, not only were there some books that she wished she could go back and rewrite, but that there were of which some she was actively ashamed. Ashamed.

Melanie’s growth as an author and as a person meant that books that she had written earlier in her career were now deeply uncomfortable to her. Situations, characters, scenes transgressed into areas that made her profoundly uneasy, and given the option, she would have them taken out of circulation.

I was taken aback and so impressed in this age of backlist gold and constant self-promotion that an author would not only admit that some of her books made her uncomfortable, but that she would do so publicly and unreservedly. It was courageous truth-telling.

Some of Melanie Milburne’s more recent titles

It also opens up some uncomfortable questions for all of us, as readers, writers, publishers, and advocates for the romance genre. Because Melanie is not alone, and there are aspects of our history and our traditions that we need to talk about.

Romance has always existed in the margins of the literary world. Not economically, of course, but within the broader literary landscape, romance is kind of equivalent to Wakanda, the mythical land out of the Marvel movie Black Panther. Those outside only see a desolate village, starved of real culture and devoid of literary merit. But once you cross into the borders, find the book that takes you from outside to inside,  you find a vibrant, thriving community, supportive, organised, and running on a mythical, powerful element that the rest of the world does not even know exists.

In Wakanda, of course, the element is Vibranium that can be used to make previously unheard of weaponry. The romance genre element is almost exactly the opposite.

Romance harnesses hope.

It’s what the happy ever after ending means. It’s the kernel of motivation in every one of our stories. That no matter where we are now or what is happening, that things can get better. That things will get better.

That there is out there friendships and family and relationships and connection and love, and we might have to work for it, harder than we’ve ever worked before, go deeper and be more vulnerable, strike out on adventures with  no guarantee of success, risk everything we have and everything we are to get to that ending.

But that ending exists, different from where we are now, from who we are now.

Hope has been inbuilt to romance stories from the very beginning and it’s tied so strongly to what has made this genre so subversive for so long – that hope is tied to the idea that women’s lives can be better.

At the beginning,  our hopes were tied to finding the right husband – a husband who would not only take care of his wife, but that would also care for his wife, making sure that her emotional needs are met as well as her physical. Hope that he would see her as a whole person and not just a possession or a brood mare.

But romance didn’t stop there. Instead it hoped new hopes for women: personhood, careers, ambition, self-acceptance, self-love, sex, great sex, mind-blowing sex, sexual autonomy, bodily autonomy, lively and nourishing friendships, passionate and enduring love affairs, but mostly romance hoped for women’s lives to be well-lived.

Along the way, romance also hoped other hopes – it hoped that emotional would no longer mean weak, that fear would no longer turn to anger, that feminine would no longer be an insult. It hoped that men would be able to cry and dance and feel joy and unshakeable love and express those things out loud. It hoped that everyone would be able to find a HEA with whomever they loved. It hoped that faith would be a cornerstone to life but not a barrier to humanity. Romance hoped a lot of hopes for many different people, but mostly it hoped for a world better than the one that currently exists.

In our own little bubble, we read and wrote and published and edited and shared our stories and hoped.

But literature tells us truths about isolated bubbles – that keeping the world out also means keeping ourselves in. When Samwise Gamgee in the Lord of the Rings begs Frodo to just forget about the quest and go home to the Shire, he misunderstands that we are all of us connected, and that the fate of one must necessarily become the fate of all.

So here we are. In 2018, what does romance look like? What hopes are we hoping for ourselves and for our future, for our daughters and sons and their children?

Romance has always been a genre that elevates the feminine. It tells the stories of women and those things that matter to women – community, family, friendship, love. Connection to the world. Connection to each other. Connection to ourselves and our own goals. The balance between the personal and aspirational. Between self-care and giving of ourselves. The importance of our emotional landscapes and how they fit in – or don’t – to the physical landscapes around us. How to navigate this world.

Importantly, it tells the stories of women who win – who take on the big corporation, the dastardly criminal, or even their own self-doubt and emerge triumphant in the end.

In 2018, as a woman, it’s harder to win. The world is both bigger and smaller and the strides that we have taken forward seem to be but a façade for a deeper, more insidious malevolence, one that exists in shadows and nuance but can’t be targeted for defeat. One that hides behind humour and innuendo and the demand for hard proof and the scepticism of critics. One that requires a constant, exhausting vigilance.

Suddenly, the stories of triumphant women matter, more than ever. If we were in a romance novel right now, we’d be in the opening chapters, facing an obstacle that seems insurmountable, too strong, too ingrained, too powerful to ever defeat.

And there’s shame.

Because this enemy is not new. In fact, many of the behaviours that are now being called out – sexual innuendo, workplace advances, kisses stolen because the kisser couldn’t resist – feel in many ways like an old friend. They exist in the bubble. They show up in our stories. They provided a way to hope back when we weren’t sure how to do so, and they readily tap into that shared emotional history over and over again in a way that feels familiar and friendly and safe.

So when the outside world comes along and points at our frenemy and tells us that it’s wrong, it’s so easy to ignore. After all, romance is used to hearing that we’re wrong. Especially from outside voices. And we’re really good at disregarding that criticism, because we’ve been doing it for so long.

It’s so easy to curl back into our bubble. To turn our backs on the outside world. To soothe the enemy and stroke its head. They just don’t understand, we say. There are genre conventions. Our readers understand. We’re just writing fiction. Readers can tell the difference between what is real and what is fantasy…

I want to say something here that a friend of mine said to me, and it changed the way I think about the romance genre and our responsibility to the greater world.

The media, she said, the media and the art that we consume are the most powerful influencers on our lives and our actions.

If that art is romance novels, then we have the potential – and the obligation – to affect women around the world.

I’m not the first person to talk about romance in the #metoo era. There are several articles, thought-pieces, Twitter threads and blogs that look at the romance genre through the lens of sexual harassment, coercion, and consent.

But I keep coming back to this idea of potential and obligation. Because I think this is why romance has been so important to so many women for so long. Because it shows the potential within all of us, and it honours its obligations.

Now, obligations are slippery, and in a genre as big as ours, they’re hard to pin down. We, all of us, contain multitudes, and the romance readership contains multitudes of multitudes. It’s an impossible task to be everything to everyone. And, as one cogent argument goes, we’re not the only genre. Just as every institution and community is complicit, so too is every literary field. So why is romance being held accountable in a way that other genres are not? Why must we answer to this ingrained malice in a way that no one else is expected to?

Because it’s our obligation. We’ve operated under the radar for years. Our subversion has been subversive in many ways because no one bothered to look. And many of us – most of us – have agitated against that, actively sought a reputation reboot, and recognition. But that recognition is a double-edged sword. If we want to call ourselves a feminist genre, if we want to hold ourselves up as an example of women being centred, of representing the female gaze, of creating women heroes who not only survive but thrive, then we have to lead. We can’t deflect and we can’t dissemble. We need to look to the future and create the books that women need to read now.

We’ve been shown our potential. To rise to it is our obligation.

And this is where it gets tricky, because as a community, we have to do the one thing that romance has never taught us how.

Break up.

But this can’t be a fire and fury break up, all emotions and pain and passions. There is no big misunderstanding. This is not the safe breakup, where we know that everything will be OK. There will be no touching reconciliation. There is no happy ever after.

No, this is a breakup that we as a community need to go into with clear eyes and calm minds, a sense of peace and a sense of mourning. It’s okay to grieve the loss here. It’s healthy. After all, in a relationship as long as the one that romance has shared with these familiar, uncompromising behaviours, there were good times. There were strong times and happy times and sexy times. Our decision to move forward now, to recognise the toxic underpinnings that exist behind the aggression, doesn’t erase the good aspects of the past. It just recognises that this relationship has run its course, and that we as a genre have grown beyond it.

Be strong, because no break up is easy, and this one is especially hard. There is still seduction in stolen kisses.  An intense romantic onslaught can still provoke excitement.

We have been conditioned to respond to coercion.

The pursuit. The games. The inclination to play hard to get, to not voice desires for fear of being seen as forward or unladylike. The value judgements wrapped up in our response to our own bodies and our own desires.

I read an article once that said you should never trust first responses, because your first response is how you’ve been trained to respond – by your family, your teachers, the media, society. Your first response is your conditioned response. But the second response, the one that follows immediately afterwards, is your thinking response.

We have been conditioned to respond to coercion.

It’s time to start relying on our thinking response.

Mostly, we have to accept that our relationship with these behaviours were healthy for a time. They were good for us. They allowed to us to begin the hoping for women’s sexual authority and gratification. They allowed us to put into novels the first descriptions of women’s sexual desire and satisfaction in such a way that she didn’t have to die at the end for the ignominy of having enjoyed an orgasm.

I think Melanie Milburne is incredibly brave, but I’m afraid I also think that she is mistaken. There is no shame in the books that we wrote before we knew better. And part of this break up needs to include compassion for ourselves for the things of which we weren’t yet aware. We must forgive ourselves for not knowing what we didn’t know until we learned it.

But we do know better now. And that comes with the obligation to do better.

This relationship that we’ve had with coercion is no longer good for us. That doesn’t mean that there were never good times. It doesn’t mean that this relationship was always wrong. But it’s become toxic. It’s become dangerous. It’s become hazardous to that kernel element that is so crucial to romance. Clinging to this relationship is circumventing our ability to hope for better lives for women. Art is life. Romance novels make lives better – I know many of you have received letters to that effect.  It’s a privilege to write for women. But it is also an obligation.

It’s time to honour that obligation, so we can live up to our potential.

But it’s very easy for me to stand up here and spout metaphors and Lord of the Rings references. Writing is hard. Romantic tension is hard. Writing good sex is really hard. These tropes that I’ve spoken about work as a shorthand and they make writing just a bit easier.

Kate, I can hear you all thinking at me. Kate. Inspiration is all very well and good, but practical writing advice is so much better. Help an author out, would you?

The original discussion about this speech was a panel pitch to provide information on the sex positivity movement, and how writers can write sex positive sex scenes. Much of my discussion here has been informed by sex positivity, and how it can be applied to fictional worlds.

There are two key principles to the movement: first, active, informed consent in all aspects of sexuality and second that anything that happens between consenting adults is natural.

I particularly like how principle the first flows into principle the second: if you have active, informed consent, then anything consenting adults do afterwards is natural.  Critics of sex positivity – indeed, critics of including sex positivity in fictional universes claim that it is restrictive, and inhibits spontaneity, but I think the freedom is dizzying. As long as all parties are consenting, anything is natural.

And yes, it means consent for everything. Recognising the heroine’s bodily autonomy, her right to decide what happens to it at any and every point is crucial to these discussions. We need to divorce the idea of sexy from the idea of surprise.

It also means empowering your heroines to know their bodies, what they want, and how to ask for it. She can’t mumble or say no when she really means yes. She can want to be pursued – there’s a lot of scope in ‘I’m not yet convinced, but you’re welcome to try’ – but she cannot, must not be prey.

We can no longer think of consent in terms of no means no, but rather only yes means yes. A nod, a smile, a spoken word. Even if your heroine doesn’t want to want it, she still has to be present in the moment.

It means empowering your heroine’s choices – write that contraception scene. The crinkle of a condom package should become cliché. Or an all clear from the clinic. I don’t care. But this is the genre where it should become so ingrained that women engage only in safe sex – protecting themselves and protecting their partners – that it becomes invisible to readers. Empower your heroines to demand safety, and empower your heroes to deliver it without being asked.

Write options. Secret babies are a treasured part of our genre, but unwanted pregnancies have serious financial, emotional, and professional repercussions for women without a support system around them. Use this plot point, by all means, but don’t romanticise it. You don’t know who’s reading, and we are so lucky to live in a country with pro-choice legislation, even if it’s not easily accessible to everyone, and with social support programs, even if they don’t adequately cover the cost of living for single parents.

Your belief system will absolutely play a part in what your heroine decides or how you choose to address unwanted pregnancies. But address the realities – if your heroine is going to have her happy ever after, how will she keep her head afloat until such a time as the hero comes back?

Love your secret babies, but be deliberate in your choices.

I’ve developed a reputation as someone who doesn’t like alpha heroes, and I will cop to that to some degree. I do appreciate the quieter heroes, the ones that use humour instead of commands, patience instead of exasperation.

But there is room for every kind of hero, from alpha through to omega.

For me, the difference between alpha and beta has always been aggression. Like all emotions, aggression is neither positive nor negative, but can become either in the way that it is expressed. Everyone in this room is aggressive. You’re being aggressive just sitting here. Aggressively pursuing your goals, whether it’s a first sale or a new genre or expanding your network. How the aggression manifests itself is the difference between an alpha hero and an alpha hole.

The issue for me is that romance has entered into a phase of hypermasculinity. Not like the 90s, when we saw a massive uptick in military heroes and warriors, where paranormality meant that heroes didn’t have to follow the rules of society, but a throwback to the very earliest genre romances of wards and guardians, where the heroes were cold and distant, unfathomable to their naïve heroines. In the billionaire era, we saw this same hero emerge – cold and ruthless, distant and disconnected. A hero that demanded. A hero that commanded. A hero that believed everything had a price and was wealthy enough to feel entitled to it.

We also saw a battle of trends, each one trying to out-alpha the next, dancing on the edge of – and sometimes leaping right over – the lines of respect and consent. The word ‘edgy’ has come to mean toxic, and it’s infiltrated the genre.

But aggressive doesn’t have to mean violent, or hostile, or destructive. It can mean progressive, advancing, expanding. It doesn’t have to mean controlling; it can mean incisive, deliberate, and sharp.

A hero can be reserved without being unkind, aloof without being callous, dominant without being dominating, assertive without being overbearing.

You are writers, and this is your craft. Craft the hero that meets his potential.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to recognise that our genre favourites might have a long history, but that history is tied to exclusivity. Those edgy areas that you love might be keeping others from engaging in the genre, creating barriers where we should be open.

Progress isn’t made without sacrifice. Privilege isn’t shared if the privileged don’t make space beside ourselves.

It won’t be an easy transition – none of it. But the alternative is to continue normalising coercion and domination and disrespect and powerlessness in our romantic relationships.

We are all of us in the business of imagination, and we’ve all of us chosen the genre of hope. I hope that you have a wonderful weekend this weekend. I hope that you come away inspired and engaged. And mostly, I hope that you understand the power that you hold in your hands, the potential each of you holds, to influence the world and make it better. To continue our long tradition of hoping for better lives for our heroines, and the heroines around the world who read these stories and learn to hope for themselves.


Thank you.


An edited version of this speech appeared first in Books & Publishing on 12/9/2018.


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