How to Include Active Consent in Romance (Without Killing the Pace)
Updated: Jan 29, 2021
First things first: Both partners need to actively, enthusiastically consent to whatever is happening in a romantic or sexual scene. And consent for ONE thing or at ONE time doesn't automatically mean consent for anything else.
Consent doesn't ruin a romantic scene. Consent makes the romance BETTER, because both characters know that the other one wants it.
However, any interaction badly written can make me want to scratch my eyes out. And for some reason, pre-canoodling conversations often fall flat, if they're included at all.
"Hello, Person To Whom I Find Myself Attracted. Would You Like To Have The Sex With Me." "Why Yes. I Would Be Delighted To Do So, Person Whom I Also Find Attractive." "This Is Wonderful News. Let Us Now Commence Touching Each Other's Genitals." "O Happy Day! Copulation!" *sexytimes*
Yeah. Unless it's being played as humor, that's not gonna work.
Rest easy: there ARE ways to include active, enthusiastic consent without throwing the scene's pacing, rhythm, characterization, and general success out the window.
How we're gonna break up the aspects of consent for a romantic scene:
Trigger warning: In the section on nonverbal approval, I will be briefly describing my own experiences with non-consensual touch. I won't be going into detail, it'll be pretty vague, but heads up.
This is as straightforward as it gets.
No room for misinterpretation.
How to integrate it: Emphasize how the asker is feeling. This is prime characterization, right here. Is the character nervous? Eager? Sultry? Frustrated with all the UST? Use that emotion to showcase the moment.
Here's the bonus: The characters (and reader) get to live the touch twice. First in hearing what will happen, and then in doing it. You can show that with a little shiver, gasp, or flare of heat.
Ways you might play this:
"Can I ____?"
"Will you ____?"
"I'd like to ____."
"Dear lord, I want to ____."
"Please let me ____."
Fun fact, a well placed "please" gets me every time.
Sometimes verbal initiation gets played as "I state that I'm going to do something but I wait until you agree." This can work, but be careful. You don't want it to come across like Character A is pressuring Character B or pushing them around.
Again, clear as leaves on a tree after you get your new glasses prescription.
This might take the form of "yes," "finally," "of course," "do it," a playful "I dare you"... The list goes on. The point is, Character B affirms out loud that they welcome the advance.
How to integrate it: Reflect or contrast with the way they were asked. Maybe Character A is nervous, but Character B is excited and has been waiting forever for this moment. Or maybe both A and B have been dancing around this for a long time, and they're both a little aggressive in their pent-up frustration.
You know how in Hitch, Will Smith says to go 90% and let the other person come the last 10%? That's not that far off from what we're talking about here.
To be clear, nonverbal initiation should NOT involve actually touching the other person.
How to integrate it: Nonverbal initiation typically includes Character A biting or wetting their lips, coming veeeeery close to Character B, staring at Character B's mouth, and so on.
The iconic "one hand on the wall and leaning in" pose is iconic for a reason.
My point here: Character A makes it super clear with their body language that they're interested in progressing to the next step, without actually pushing themselves on Character B.
Nonverbal approval needs to be OBVIOUS.
How to integrate it: IMHO, the best nonverbal approval is an enthusiastic nod OR doing the thing.
If Character A says, "Can I kiss you now?" and Character B kisses them... Mmm. That's good stuff right there.
Why does it need to be obnoxiously clear? Because it's dangerous territory, especially when combined with nonverbal initiation.
And I'm gonna open myself up here for a minute, okay?
More times than I'd like to count, I've been in a situation where I was with someone and they progressed to the next level of intimacy without asking. For a long time, I was so startled and uncomfortable that my brain went blank. I froze and mentally clocked out of what was happening as a defense mechanism.
As I got older, I programmed myself to react loudly and clearly and even angrily when someone touched me in a way I hadn't consented to. It's as much of a defense mechanism as dissociating—just lashing out instead of withdrawing.
But this tactic took me years to develop, and that's my point.
[end of trigger warning]
In real life, one person might freeze up or dissociate when things progress past where they're comfortable. In these cases, there might not be a "no," but the nonverbals are NOT indicating enthusiastic consent.
Remember: if one person suddenly goes quiet or still, the other person NEEDS to stop and check in with them. Hashtag basic human decency.
As a recap, here are our ways of including active consent in romance:
Verbal initiation that showcases the way the asker is feeling
Verbal approval that either reflects or contrasts with the asker's emotions
Nonverbal initiation that does not include touching
Super-clear nonverbal approval
Now go forth and write enthusiastically consensual romantic or sexual scenes!
I believe in you!
If it sparks joy, you can follow me on Facebook ("Author Ivy L. James"), Instagram (@authorivyljames), Twitter (@AuthorIvyLJames), and YouTube ("Author Ivy L. James")! I post about writing, writing romance specifically, adulting, and other fun things.