Revisiting the depiction of sex and consent in YA Fantasy: What’s changed?

Ask Alice is an online column written by our former Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay under the pen name A B Endacott.

Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!


One of my first Ask Alice columns back in December of 2021, Is sex and consent in YA Fantasy as magical as we’d like? drew on the research of Dr Elizabeth Little (who is now a Committee member!). Across her work, Little interviewed teenage female readers to get insight into how they unpacked the depictions of sex in YA fantasy books.

Something Little drew attention to was the muddled depictions of consent which exist in these books. Take, for example, her analysis of a passage from A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sara J Maas:

When Tamlin attempts to kiss Feyre, she tells him to “let go”, but instead he embeds his claws in a wall behind her head. When she pushes him away, he “grabs [her] hands and bites [her] neck”.

Feyre’s reaction to Tamlin is confusing as well. While she tells him to stop, she also describes her feelings of sexual arousal. She “couldn’t escape” from Tamlin but “wasn’t entirely sure [she] wanted to”. To Feyre’s fury, the next morning Tamlin says he “can’t be held accountable” for her bruises. 

At the time of her fieldwork in 2021, Little found the girls with whom she spoke were able to identify Feyre did not give consent for the kiss. However, there was uncertainty over whether Tamlin’s actions were ultimately justified because of Feyre’s arousal and lack of effort to remove herself from the situation – or more forcefully say no.

This murky depiction – and consequent understanding – of consent is an observed trend in Young Adult fantasy which other YA genres seem to have moved away from. However, given over two years (and a lot of very headline-dominating events) have passed since this research took place, I thought it worth revisiting the question: are depictions of sex and consent in YA Fantasy still problematic?

Certainly, in the last two years there have been changes in the discussion we have around consent, specifically the discussion we have with teenagers and young people. In February 2022, consent education was mandated in all Australian schools. This went into effect last year, is outlined in the Australian Curriculum, and is supported at a state level, such as with these resources from the Victorian Department of Education. Interestingly, I couldn’t find any data or evaluations of the curriculum in action, although this might be forthcoming later in the year. It’s something I’d be interested to know about, so if you are a teacher or educator with knowledge, please do reach out to me.

In a forthcoming article titled, ‘It’s not not consent’: Using literature to teach sexual consent in secondary English classrooms, Little and her colleague Kristine Moruzi undertook some investigation into this, noting, “the way that curriculum is implemented varies not only between schools or across year levels, but between classrooms following the same lesson plans.” In particular, they observed the implementation teaching consent is sometimes as reductive as simply showing the tea video.

It’s worth noting consent is a complex issue and the legal definitions of it vary from state to state in Australia. For instance, NSW, Victoria, the ACT and Tasmania have affirmative consent, which Western Australia, South Australia, and the Northern Territory do not have.  While I often think it’s a simple matter, I have to remind myself that I’ve been exposed to conversations around consent for a very long time, both as a student and as a teacher.

Moreover, the ‘murky consent’ tropes such as we see in fantasy texts (such as ACOTAR) are confusing, especially when the characters are clearly interested in one another and end up together. If I put on my ‘fantasy author’ cap for a moment, I can provide some explanation: The enemies to lovers trope is prevalent in all literature, but fantasy’s roots are grounded in fairytales which historically have some pretty problematic character dynamics and societal norms influencing them (Beauty and the Beast is an obvious one, but think of Cinderella passively waiting for the Prince to come and find her, let alone Snow White’s stepmother only finding value in youth and looks, culminating in Snow White being kissed while unconscious).

Even fantasy storylines which bear no resemblance to those classic fairytales are informed by certain tropes – especially when that fantasy is (as is often the case) medieval in its setting. To work against those norms which are engrained into the very fabric of the setting requires serious, deliberate, and conscious work at virtually every step of the worldbuilding and writing process. It makes sense then that the genre might be taking some time to catch up in its representation of consent and romantic relationships.

I put out a call out to see whether or not readers of YA fantasy felt the genre had become less murky in its depiction of consent. Little observed in an email to me that, “the way sexuality is represented in YA Fantasy has shifted. There’s much more clear consent in sexual relationships, but also in relationships more generally […] You can even see this within series. So if you take ACOTAR for example, the way sex is depicted and narrated in A Court of Silver Flames is much more aware of the broader discussions happening with consent. Same for [Holly Black’s] The Cruel Prince series.”

However, there was, again, not a lot of consensus on whether or not this was the case across the board. Perhaps most interesting was the general sense that people were more aware about the content of such books. One reader voiced the perception that ‘romantasy’ had emerged as a more clearly defined genre which signalled explicit sex scenes would be present. This helped ensure the readership skewer slightly older. Another reader pointed out that even when consent was reasonably written, the depiction of sex was often “0 to 100,” with characters experiencing their first sexual encounters in ways devoid of the awkward and fumbling learning curve that is the reality.

To my interest, regardless of whether or not the genre as a whole has caught up to depicting sex and consent in healthy ways, Little and Moruzi actually advocate using fantasy texts and their sliding scale of problematic depictions of consent in classrooms as a vehicle to assist in teaching consent. The method they explored used the texts as an entry point for broader discussion through the dissection of specific moments (for instance, in Jodi McAlister’s Valentine when Pearl learns Finn has been seeing her dreams as their relationship begins to turn to the romantic, or in Tracey Deonn’s Legendborn when Nick ensure he has explicit consent from Bree before kissing her).

This was one of the key takeaways in the initial column on this topic: the importance of discussion. To quote myself:

“Frank and bold discussions of these power dynamics and problematic (verging on abusive) behaviours both in-text and outside of the text is an opportunity to deconstruct them, which can be a valuable educational experience for all readers – not just young ones.” 

I ended the first column with this reflection: I think that’s my favourite thing about books. They’re not just something we consume in isolation. They’re something which we can unpack together, and in doing so, forge better understandings of the world around us, and how to navigate it as stronger, better, versions of ourselves.”

I stand firm in that claim, too. Books are something that, while we do read as individuals, we unpack with others. Regardless of whether or not Young Adult Fantasy has gotten better in its depiction of meaningful consent (and I happen to think that yes, it has), any depiction of sex and consent still needs to be discussed and unpacked if we are to send our young people into the world equipped with attitudes and understandings which enable them to be healthy and safe.

 

An enormous thank you to Elizabeth Little for sharing her research and findings with me (again). 

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