Yes means know: Respect, ravishment, and the non-con job of being a wanton woman
A conversation with the best in the bizz about consent, slut-shaming and “Guys We F*cked”
By Emily Jordan Salon
Of course, James has always been a radical. Or at least, she’s lived what her many loyal fans call her “double life.” Her father is poet and author Robert Bly. After graduating from Harvard University, James got her M.Phil. from Oxford University, a Ph.D. from Yale, eventually becoming a Shakespeare professor. She’s also published a whopping 26 romance novels, 23 of which have hit the bestseller list. Her newest novel, the brightly entertaining “Seven Minutes in Heaven,” about a woman who runs an agency for governesses and against her better judgment, falls for a demanding rake, was just released in January and hit the NYT and USA Today Bestseller lists. Its central plot point, a sexy kidnapping, is the focus of our meeting. How does one write things like kidnappings responsibly and yet still keep the heat? What are the ways that this trope has evolved over time? And whatever happened to the alpha brutes? Are they so 2007?
“Our culture continues to change in terms of eroticism,” James informs me, futzing in her bag. “On one level, it has something to do with economics — we’re all exhausted! It’s the ‘Fifty Shades’ question: how far would you go for someone who’s solvent and owns a car? Because in a contemporary romance, the girl can make love to 15 people. The parameters are defined by her. This is refreshing and fun to see. But in a historical romance, for instance, which is what I write, slut-shaming isn’t a viable thing. Because there’s no space in which you wouldn’t be shamed in the Regency period. It’s like being gay before the Wilde trials. You can’t say ‘gay’ in Shakespeare’s time. These words— slut-shaming, rape, gay— didn’t have the meaning and impact that they do today. You have to remember how culturally specific sex is. When Keats says ‘shagging’ we don’t know what he means. We think of ‘Austin Powers’ but that isn’t it.”
In other words, if you once obsessed about the incestuous flowers in V.C. Andrews’ infamous attic, or followed Luke and Laura over the summer with “General Hospital,” the sticky pickle of soft-pedaling sexual assault has possibly fallen on literary hard times. Or has it?
For starters, if you live in a culture where women are chattel and have no agency, a woman is an entropic force. She is merely a dowry. She can only give birth to the people who get to own the property and then quietly die. She is even not a separate gender, but the absence of maleness defined for and by men. So the assertion, or rather, insertion, of maleness through marriage or, in the worst case scenario, rape or war, is a negation of the woman’s absence by filling her. She can neither grant nor take away consent. This is the rub.
It makes sense, therefore why the honorific ‘Ms.’ was so essential to Gloria Steinem and all the other white second-wave feminists as a redefinition of women’s social identity. It was no longer “who squirted me into my mother?” or “who’s squirting other people into me?” Suddenly, you had your feminism. What’s more, the Pill became widely available. At first glance it would seem that “bodice rippers” (a term no longer in parlance for obvious reasons) were a secret bedroom backlash against the “The Feminine Mystique” and “the Female Eunuch.”
Hutchinson throws in, “I added the tagline, “The Anti Slut-Shaming Podcast” because we like to do comedy with a purpose as often as possible. Using humor is the best way to make a statement and have that statement really sink into your brain to make you think or reassess. I love talking about sex and was always so turned off the the clinical, dry approach most people use when approaching the topic. So many people have a stick up their ass when it comes to talking about sexuality, which makes sense given how little we hear candid, overly honest conversations about it.”
“I feel like ‘slut’ is a very vague concept,” Fisher continues. “Once you really know a human being, it’s hard to think of them as any shitty word and that goes for all words with historically negative connotations. When you hear a person’s story, their actions make a lot more sense — sexual stories are no different. Our intention was to be very honest about what we’ve done without apologizing for it. Slut-shaming is thinking less of someone, usually a woman, for the amount of sex, sexual partners, and kind of sex she has. I also think the real power in slut-shaming comes from creating a cloud of shame around people so they can be controlled. Once a person is free in any way (including sexually), they are less easily controlled. And that’s no good. Especially for women.”
For Sarah MacLean, the idea of “policing women’s kink,” is the worst kind of feminism. Yet the romance writer’s job is still to pepper consent markers throughout any sex scene or even prior. In other words, no means no, but by all means, talk dirty to me! Another method is establishing clearly delineated boundaries and safe words, as in Lilah Pace’s controversial “Asking for It”—a novel in which the protagonist has fantasies of being raped and chooses to enact them safely with a partner— or other romance novels that push the boundaries of sexual consent, (like pretty much all the books on your bookshelf by any Western author, because, rape culture).
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