Even if you don’t write about young adult relationships, consent and non-consent in fiction needs to be handled intentionally and fairly. Most of us try really hard in our writing to not promote slut-shaming and rape culture and victim-blaming, but writing about healthy, considerate relationships requires more than that.
So what shouldn’t we be doing?
Showing force and manipulation as sexy— sometimes we think hey, isn’t it sexy if he/she wants him/her that badly? And I hope you know the answer there. Selfishness is never sexy.
Allowing our characters to react as if being pressured isn’t a big deal. Power and influence are incredibly strong forces on people, especially young adults, and being pressured for something you’re not ready for is traumatic and frightening. Enough people blow it off already; we shouldn’t let our characters do that, too.
Implying that “no” doesn’t really mean “no.” Playing hard to get can be a fun part of a relationship story, and teasing/flirting can be great. But when you’re building a healthy relationship between your characters and one says no to a date, a call, a text, a kiss, anything– the other one had better respect that. Sometimes we think it’s charming to have the guy take being turned down as an invitation to try harder, and when everyone is well-intentioned and our characters have no ulterior motives, it can be. But in real life, what does that look like? What does that feel like to the person who said no, to know they’re not being taken seriously, that their current wishes aren’t being respected? It’s scary. It’s offensive. We shouldn’t be modeling that as charming. It’s not charming; it’s dangerous.
So what should we be doing?
Calling out the flaws in our characters’ relationships— sometimes we write certain characters who do need to learn respect and boundaries, and relationships don’t always start off as healthy ones. If that’s the case, awesome job for writing realistic people. But call it out in the story. Make it an issue. Don’t let it just resolve itself (hint: that’s not resolving it) because they decided they loved each other. It’s a big deal; make it a big deal in your story. In addition to promoting a culture of consent and respect, those can be great turning points for your characters that will add depth and complexity.
Actively showing consent moments. It doesn’t have to be the super formal and sometimes awkward “can I kiss you?” (But hey, we all love awkwardness because it’s cute!) Work the consent into the flirting. Through hesitation and eye contact and body language. Use words and distance and time to show respect and permission. And if it’s more than just a brief kiss, have your characters check in with each other. Permission for one thing is not permission for all things.
Bringing consent into the relationship itself, not just the physical intimacy. Getting a girl’s number from a friend and calling her when she didn’t know you had her contact info? That’s invasive. In most situations, that’s not okay. Showing up at his house when he didn’t give you his address? Creepy. Invasive. Sometimes we show it as okay, as something that’s charming. For example, in the Vampire Diaries pilot– Stefan showing up on Elena’s doorstep. He’d met her outside the bathroom at school, then scared her in a graveyard– and now he’s at her home, at night? She really shouldn’t be charmed there. Not okay, Stefan.
Consent should be showing up all over the place when you’re writing a healthy relationship. And it doesn’t have to be super serious– it’s fine to keep it light-hearted. But work it in. Yes, you can call me. Come over some time. Can I meet your family? Would you like to go out again?
Home, contact information, being introduced to parents and siblings (especially younger siblings), and even friends mean your character is handing out some measure of trust and vulnerability. Don’t let those things be taken from them– let your characters give them to the other person. And if one (or more) of those things is taken away from them, make it a big deal. Address it. Your readers and your characters deserve a culture of consent and respect.