Romance For Newbies: Outlander & Models of Consent

Note: here be spoilers for Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.

In the introductory post to this series, I mentioned that I was new to romance as a genre in part because I had some internalized-misogyny-type snobbery about it for a long time. Even so, though, in practice I’ve always enjoyed romantic stories, which is why cross-over type novels were on my radar a long time before standard romances made it into my world. Cross-overs from historical fiction, in particular, are things I’ve been reading for a long time and pretending they weren’t romance novels because they had, you know, research behind them.

Enter Outlander, which is one of those books that I love so much I go back and re-read it as something like comfort food. If I’m feeling sad or lonely, the characters are friends, and their stories are warm blankets. I eagerly awaited the new season of the show this fall, and when I set out to write about the series for Genretastic, I was expecting it to be a loving kind of piece about finding solace in imaginary worlds, with some literary thoughts about anachronistic audience surrogates thrown in.

I started drafting that piece in December, hoping to get it out before the baby arrived (clearly, I did not!), but in the midst of trying to pull my thoughts together, the #metoo movement was also gaining traction. In particular, the story came out about Aziz Ansari, and while there’s no doubt in my own mind that what happened there was non-consensual and deeply troubling, it was a little more complex, and led to a fair bit of navel-gazing and deep thinking about how we seek and give consent to sexual encounters, both as a culture and as individuals. One of the most difficult truths, of course, is that most of us have a strong cultural conditioning to see sex and consent in a particularly competitive way, one that leaves a troubling amount of room for miscommunication and trauma. With that in mind, it’s difficult to talk about the romance genre and especially Outlander without giving some consideration to these ideas about consent and coercion.

Whether accurate or not (and that’s something we’ll have to talk about later), romance has a reputation for having some regressive ideas about gender equity, consent, and women’s choices. There’s plenty of discourse on that subject (and again, we’ll get to that!), but as I was revisiting Outlander for this series, I saw a few parallels between this romance and what’s been going on in the real world. Although the vast majority of sex in the novels is enthusiastically consensual, there are some notable deviations, including several very obvious rapes. One of the most notoriously “sexy” scenes in the story, in fact, is one where the lines of consent get a little fuzzy: the wedding.

The reason I want to highlight this particular scene above others is that the question of whether the sex is consensual is actually fairly murky, and certainly gives us a useful framework for considering sexual encounters in the context of what happens in the time leading up to them. In the inn itself, Claire and Jamie are gentle with one another, taking their time and teaching each other as they go. It’s easy to forget that the previous twenty-four hours were tumultuous: Claire was sexually assaulted and nearly raped by Jack Randall, and in the aftermath, Dougal MacKenzie and his lawyer determine that the only way to protect her is to make her a member of their clan: she has to marry someone. That the chosen suitor is Jamie is largely a matter of circumstance: he’s the only young, unmarried option. Both Claire and Jamie initially refuse and have to be coerced into the arrangement, with Claire being dragged to the chapel in a hangover haze. The final indignity is the fact that, in order to be fully legitimized, the marriage must be consummated.

So if, in the inn, Claire and Jamie accept each other and do what they’re told they to, does their tenderness and consideration make it consensual? It’s pretty clear that they were heavily coerced into being in that bedroom in the first place. Because the coercion was at the hands of a third party makes it difficult to say for sure (plus, it’s fiction), and I truly don’t have an answer, but these real-life conversations we’ve been having about consent require that we think about encounters in context. If, for example, Claire had been required to marry Dougal instead of Jamie to protect herself, but everything including those moments in the inn was otherwise the same, would the equation be different? I have to think it would.

I’m a strong proponent of using fictional metaphors to help us understand real world problems (it’s even in the tweet pinned at the top of my twitter profile), so while I know this kind of thought exercise might seem like a stretch to some people, I think that there’s probably plenty of opportunity for us to consider the prolific works of people–mostly women–who’ve made careers out of writing love and sex stories when we’re considering the consent models that do exist as well as those that might exist. Fiction reflects and informs culture, and as we’ll see when we dig into some of the non-fiction I’ve been reading, the romance industry has at least as much progressive attitude to consider as regressive.

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