The gray area of consent

One of the things that can be really powerful about narrative is the way that it explores issues that we are currently wrestling with, either as a collective or personally. I’ve talked about this idea before, and so have many others. So today I’m going to continue some thoughts I’ve expressed in other posts with two new stories as a lens. Today, let’s talk about consent. Trigger warnings here for sex and sexual assault.

Recently, I read A Companion of Wolves, which is kind of like if the Dragonriders of Pern were bonded to wolves and were Vikings. These books involve a lot of really gray area sex, which is a thing that I remember questioning about the Pern books as well when I was a kid. This is driven in large part by the wolves themselves, who often engage in more open mating habits and take their humans along for the ride. One of the central conflicts for the main character in this book, Isolfr, is that he is bonded to a female wolf, and, despite being mostly uninterested in sex with men and definitely uninterested in public, multi-partner sex, is forced in a very memorable moment to engage in both by his wolf.

Reading this scene was pretty traumatic for me, largely because I felt very certain that if the same thing had been visited on a female character it would have been unequivocally rape. It is fairly obvious by Isolfr’s reaction that this is what it is to him. He did sort of consent to what happened – he joined the wolfcarls, and he loves his wolf Viradechtis. But he never did it gladly, and he largely only consented because the choice was taken from him. If he wanted to stay with Viradechtis, he had to submit to the indignity. There is no joy here and very little pleasure.

I have also been a long-time reader of Lore Olympus, a webcomic hosted on WEBTOON which deals with some of the same themes. This story is a retelling of the Hades and Persephone myth, and it also per force deals with rape and consent in its narrative. While what happens to Persephone in Lore Olympus is not so graphic in many ways, it shares similarities with what happens to Isolfr in A Companion to Wolves. Persephone at first consents to sex with Apollo, but soon finds that she is not comfortable and is unable to escape the activity. Much as Isolfr does, she goes to a place inside herself and tries to ignore what is happening to her body. But Persephone does not call it rape – Eros, upon finding out what happened, is the one who uses the term.

The parallels here, to me, are obvious. First, consent is given but not heartfelt. The consent is given largely under duress – in Isolfr’s case, he would be cast out if he did not participate; in Persephone’s, she is ambushed in her bed, half-asleep, by someone who is insistent and then disrespectful and uncaring of her very real, physical and emotional pain. Both are hurt deeply by what has happened to them. Both are actively participating in a sexual act until they… aren’t. And once they are no longer feeling safe or good or just feeling enjoyment there is no way to get off the carousel. They are forced to endure this moment until the person taking their pleasure from them decides to end it.

It’s tempting to say that there is no gray area of consent. That consent is either a yes, or a no. But that’s not realistic. In both of these cases, the characters clearly demonstrate the emotional repercussions of a lack of enthusiastic consent. A large part of the plot for both narratives is about these characters dealing with their trauma from these events. And I think that reading these kinds of stories, especially stories that clearly name situation’s like Persephone’s as rape, can help us to re-define how we think of consent and recognize the ways we should check in with and care for our partners when we do engage in sex.

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