Okay, in case anyone needs a definition of sexual harassment/assault, I recommend we all start with author Chuck Wendig’s excellent (and hilarious) blog post on the subject here. I’ll wait.
Everybody got that? Good. I agree with Chuck’s base line: We all learned to keep our hands (and other parts) to ourselves in kindergarten, or we should have. It’s no longer cool to assume your sexual interests are automatically returned by everyone in sight, Austin Powers. I would add that, as authors, if our heroes and heroines are having trouble following those rules in our stories, maybe we ought to rethink their actions.
In this age of #metoo, there are at least a few outmoded science fiction romance tropes we might want to send back to spacedock for some radical reworking.
--Fated Mates—It is undeniably romantic to think there is only one person out there for each of us. These stories speak to that yearning in all of us to mate for life, like swans or wolves. But perhaps we can agree that the time of the dogged, single-minded pursuit of the alpha male of his Fated Mate may be past (can we say “stalking?”). The heroine invariably knows nothing of this Fate; she isn’t “ready.” The hero must be steadfast in his courting and never give up! Acck! I’ve read and enjoyed dozens of these, but I will probably never read them the same way again. Now they are just creepy.
--Abducted for (Whatever)—In the pulp-fiction past these stories were known as “Mars Needs Women” tales, but they’ve recently become more popular and “mainstream.” Earth women are abducted by aliens for use as sex slaves, mates, queens and similar biological fodder. The main point here is the lack of agency on the part of those Taken. The abducted rarely escape their fate; they must make the best of it somehow. Or worse, the abduction is portrayed as a good thing, with lots of fun sex and/or a rescue from a dull Earth life!
--Harems/Reverse Harems—According to Veronica Scott’s USA Today/HEA Blog, this is an up-and-coming sub-sub-genre of SFR, sometimes flipping the script to portray stables of sexy men-beasts owned by a lucky female. Is it any more humane to keep men as slaves for the sexual pleasure of women than the other way around? Doubtful.
--Coerced Sex and/or Violence—Do I even have to say it? Forget “safe words,” some things just go too far. Slaves forced to have sex, to breed, or to fight as gladiators may be historically correct and an idea that could be projected to alien planets, but when used as titillation in a romance, we approach sexual exploitation, ie. ick factor.
But even without wading in these murky pools, if we’re writing romance, by definition the issues of sexual dynamics underlie everything we write. We owe it to our readers to examine the relationships we portray on the page to make sure: Is the hero the kind of man he should be? Is the heroine his equal as they build a relationship? Alpha males are all well and good, but Neanderthal attitudes toward women should be the last thing a reader should expect in a genre primarily (though certainly not exclusively) written by women for women.
My first novel was a Star Trek fan fiction story titled Mindsweeper. In it, Captain James T. Kirk has been suspended from his post pending a hearing for sexual misconduct. (About time, you might say! Kirk is nothing if not an alpha male with a predilection for interaction with females that skirts the line of what is appropriate.). He meets a lone-wolf trader named Kate Logan, who asks him if the story is true.
“Does it matter?” he says.
“Does to me,” she says.
Right away, we know she is his equal, and not about to take any of his usual BS. (Turns out, he’s undercover trying to ferret out a Federation mole. The misconduct rap is part of his cover.)
The risk of sexual misconduct is part of the plot in Unchained Memory, Interstellar Rescue Series Book One, too. Psychiatrist Ethan Roberts is attracted to his patient Asia Burdette from the moment she steps into his office, but, as a professional, he dares not act on the feelings she stirs in him. She’s strong and independent, no longer in need of his professional help, and, most significantly, no longer his patient by the time circumstances drive the two of them into each other’s arms.
I even wrote a Fated Mates story in Trouble in Mind, Interstellar Rescue Series Book Two. But at the first sign of their mutual fate, the heroine reacts quite justifiably as if the hero violated her, and the hero is equally horrified at his own actions. It takes the couple almost another third of the book to reconcile.
The point is that I made sure in these cases to acknowledge the elephant in the room, and deal with it as part of the plot. My heroes and heroines struggle with their sexual dynamics before they earn their happily ever after.
As SFR authors, we have more freedom than do historical or contemporary romance authors to create the world we want for our characters. All the more reason for us to be conscious of the limits we place on the men and women of the futures we build.