I know this isn’t the first time, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t the last, but I’ve really struggled with this one. You sent your book to me for review, and labeled it a “humorous romance”. Okay. I like humor. I like romance. I write and love fantasy. You very professionally sent me the additional materials I asked for, we set a review date, and I added your book to my TBR pile. About two weeks before the review date, I started to read. For me, reading a book for review is a commitment. It takes time to read carefully, taking notes as I go. I set aside other obligations, other books and other authors to focus on your book.
At the beginning, your book came across as a somewhat goofy SciFi fantasy. I didn’t love it but I read on. Then came the first gratuitous naked meet. Hmmm... I read more. Pretty soon, I was reading about a man’s “right” to “chastise” (spank) a woman who had not knowingly given him that right. Oh, but wait — she had amnesia. He says she had given him the right some time in the past. Double-hmmm…. I read on. Now I read about a character who kidnaps and repeatedly rapes his unwilling ‘concubines’ by threatening their lives and their families. Ick. Then a kidnapped woman is handed over to him—to be stripped, assaulted, and raped despite her clearly voiced objections. Oh, but wait! It turns out her assailant is sexy and attractive, so it’s all okay. Like hell no!
The subtext here is that if the man is “hot”, the woman’s “NO” is soon overcome by her irresistible lust for his domination and so they will fall in love. Leaving aside for now the question of whether that could ever happen — after all, this is a SciFi novel and I’m not refusing to review the book because of faster-than-light starship travel — I come to the question of whether or not I should review this. I know there are erotic possibilities to domination and bondage sex games. For some, spanking is a complete turn-on. What I don’t understand is how any of those things could be even remotely acceptable unless both parties have consented to them. Otherwise, it’s not a relationship and it’s not romantic. It’s assault. It’s rape. And — as I say in my review request guidelines — I don’t review rape that’s not specifically presented as a criminal assault.
This isn’t a particularly high bar. A character who ignores a clearly-voiced “NO” because he or she owns/wants/feels entitled to/loves the other isn’t sexy. It’s sick. And—as a writer—it’s unnecessary. We writers are gods. We can make our characters do anything we want, including taking the time to make sure both partners are on the same page. We can make them say anything we want, such as, “Here’s a safe word.”
Real life, of course, is different. I have four children. The thought of one of them being forced in this way—or even thinking it’s okay to have someone else in charge of their consent — makes me physically ill. (That’s why I’m in favor of measures like California’s Yes-means-Yes legislation.) Clearly-stated, actively consensual sex is sexy, erotic, and a turn-on, whether it’s missionary or BSDM. As The Toast‘s Mallory Ortberg writes,
“One of the dangers, I think, of depending on passive consent — the idea that all conditions are Go unless you are met with a swift, stern “NO MEANS NO” or a slap to the face — is that it conditions sexual aggressors (particularly men) to ignore or deflect or attempt to wear down perfectly clear rejections. As long as a No is plausibly deniable, it isn’t really a No; and if she didn’t really say No then you can’t possibly have done anything wrong.”
So, Dear Author, when does “NO” really mean “YES”? That would be never. At least in books I’m reviewing. If that’s what your book contains, send it to some other reviewer. But do both of you a favor — first tell them what’s in there.