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 extract of her speech.
I’d like to begin by recounting of one of the bravest acts I’ve ever seen. Earlier this year I attended the Australian Romance Reader Awards, where Melanie Milburne was the guest speaker. At the table beforehand, 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 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 some of which she was actively ashamed.
Melanie’s growth as an author and as a person meant that books she had written earlier in her career were now deeply uncomfortable to her. She said that some situations, characters and 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 but also impressed that in this age of backlist gold and constant self-promotion an author would not only admit that some of her books made her uncomfortable, but also that she would do so publicly and unreservedly.
Melanie is not alone—there are aspects of our history and traditions that we need to talk about, which raise uncomfortable questions for all of us, as readers, writers, publishers and advocates for the romance genre.
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 in the Marvel movie Black Panther. Those outside it see only a desolate village, starved of real culture and devoid of literary merit. But once you find the book that takes you from outside to inside, you’ll find a vibrant, thriving community that is supportive, organised and running on a mythical, powerful element that the rest of the world does not even know exists.
In Wakanda, the element is Vibranium—used to make weaponry previously unheard of—but in the romance genre, that powerful element is something else entirely. Romance harnesses hope.
Hope has been built into romance stories from the very beginning, and it’s tied so strongly to what has made this genre so subversive for so long—the idea that women’s lives can be better. 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, things can get better. Things will get better.
At the beginning, hope in romance was tied to finding the right husband—one who would make sure her emotional needs were met as well as her physical needs. We hoped that he would see her as a whole person and not just a possession.
But it didn’t stop there. Romance 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, and passionate and enduring love affairs. But mostly romance hoped for women’s lives to be well-lived.
Along the way, romance also 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, dance, feel joy and unshakeable love, and express those things out loud. It hoped that everyone would be able to find a happy ever after with whomever they loved. 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 edited and published and shared our stories and hoped.
But what does romance look like in 2018? What hopes are we hoping for ourselves and for our future, for our daughters and sons and their children?
Suddenly, stories of triumphant women matter more than ever. 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 hides behind humour and innuendo and the demand for hard proof. One that requires a constant, exhausting vigilance.
Many of the behaviours that are now being called out—sexual innuendo, workplace advances, stolen kisses because the kisser couldn’t resist—feel in many ways like an old friend. They exist in the romance bubble. They show up in our stories, with a long history of providing a way to hope 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 safe.
Something that a friend once said changed the way I think about the romance genre and our responsibility to the greater world. 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 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: 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. The romance readership contains multitudes, and it’s impossible to be everything to everyone. And, as one cogent argument goes, we’re not the only genre. 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 obligation. 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 to do: breakup.
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 behaviours, there were good times, and we should acknowledge that our relationship with these behaviours was healthy for a time. They allowed to us to begin hoping for women’s sexual authority and gratification. They allowed us to write and publish 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.
Our decision to move forward now—to recognise the toxic underpinnings that exist underneath these behaviours—doesn’t erase the good aspects. 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. The value judgements wrapped up in our responses to our bodies and our desires.
I read an article once that said you should never trust your first response, because that is how you’ve been trained to respond—by your family, teachers, the media, society. Your first response is your conditioned response. But the second response, which follows immediately afterwards, is your thinking response.
We have been conditioned to respond to coercion. Now it’s time to start relying on our thinking response.
And part of this breakup needs to include compassion for ourselves for the things we weren’t yet aware of. 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 an obligation to do better.
Much of my thinking 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, 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.
And yes, it means consent for everything. Recognising the heroine’s bodily autonomy, her right to decide what happens to it at every point is crucial to these discussions. We need to divorce the idea of sexy from the idea of surprise. Your heroine can be pursued, but she must not be prey.
It means empowering your heroine’s choices—write that contraception scene. This is the genre where it should become so ingrained that women engage only in safe sex—protecting themselves and their partners—that it becomes cliche. 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 be deliberate in your choices and don’t romanticise it. You don’t know who’s reading.
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 in the business of imagination, and we’ve all chosen the genre of hope. I hope that you understand the power that you hold in your hands to influence the world and make it better. And I hope that you 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.