Consent? Safer sex? “These issues tend to be less relevant in the world of queer romance,” says Ruth Sternglantz, editorial consultant at Bold Strokes.
With that in mind, PW spoke with Sternglantz, Riptide editorial director Sarah Lyons, and Santino Hassell, pseudonymous author of Down by Contact (Penguin, Jan. 2018), about how LGBTQ romance fiction navigates these questions.
When we’re talking about consent, are there considerations that are unique to LGBTQ romance?
R.S.: There’s no tradition in lesbian romance of the trope of “she said no but she meant yes.” Many of the tropes of heterosexual romance translate really nicely to lesbian romance, but not that one. And I am very happy about this—I’m proud that the romance fiction depicting the fantasies of people in my community doesn’t include rape.
There are definitely books where [there are] questions of power in relationships, or BDSM tropes, but consent is always negotiated. In fact, one of the first books that [veteran author and Bold Strokes founder] Radclyffe published, a book called Shadowland (2005), is set in a leather club, and the villain of the piece is a top who drugs women and takes away their consent. The neutralization of this character is one of the major subplots.
S.H.: People assume that two men don’t really need consent or give consent like that. Or that two alpha males would think that coercion and pressure is sexy. I don’t really agree with that.
That’s something that’s always bothered me since my days in slash and fan fic: I would see people say, “If this was male-female this would enrage me,” but why is it only enraging if it’s a male and a female?
What about safer sex?
R.S.: Let’s be honest. Most of the way safer sex is addressed in romance is around prevention of pregnancy and transmission of HIV. In lesbian romance, you very, very rarely see any mention of something like gloving up or dental dams. Because in lesbian encounters there is no fear of unintentional pregnancy, that issue is not negotiated. In a loving context in gay fiction, condoms are routine. Routine and explicit.
S.L: The issue is risk, and the issue is consent. I remember one romance in particular where one of the characters was HIV-positive and the other character didn’t know. The HIV-positive character let the other [perform unprotected oral sex] without having told him that he was HIV-positive. That created a great deal of debate among the editorial staff as to whether that was acceptable. Yes, if the virus is undetectable, that’s no more risk than doing that with a stranger who claims he’s HIV-negative, but it’s an issue of the guy consenting to take the risk for himself.
Do you see a lot of feedback between queer romance and heterosexual romance?
S.L.: The trends from hetero romance take about a year to 18 months to hit M/M romance. We’re just starting to see the trends of dark romance.
The websites Smart Bitches Trashy Books, Dear Author, Happily Ever After—they’re reviewing more queer romance, but I don’t think the conversations have much crossover. I think individual romances will start conversations, but if a book doesn’t hit the collective consciousness, I don’t know.
R.S.: I do think, maybe, that the rapidity with which the gay community embraced the routine use of condoms in loving relationships in fiction may [have influenced heterosexual romance]. But I don’t think that mainstream heterosexual romance publishers looked at lesbian romance and said, “Oh, my god, no one’s raping these women. That is such a cool idea!”