Consentiquette: An Unsuitable Heir
Consent isn’t just the most vital part of any romance; it’s also good manners.
March 13, 2018 at 10:00 am
Hello my dear ones, and welcome to Consentiquette with Madame Marchpane. It has come to my attention as of late that some people have become confused about what constitutes good consent and what doesn’t. In this NSFWorkshop, we will review a particular favorite novel of mine to learn about common courtesy and its place in the bedroom.
Today’s lesson will be around clear communication. It is the foundation of consent, and makes for exceptionally erotic romance reading. Verbal intercourse, be it in letter writing or simple conversation, is both mannerly and multifaceted. The best example of this I have found in print is within An Unsuitable Heir, by KJ Charles. Ms. Charles writes luxuriously lusty romances about queer lovers through the ages, and I’ve included some of the less scorching excerpts for your education. Spoilers are contained hereafter my darlings, so proceed with caution.
A proper host is always attuned to the needs of their guests. This goes doubly for romantic hosts, who are bound not merely by social constraints, but by the spoken and unspoken bonds of the heart. This includes usage of preferred titles (My dear friend the Viscountess of Mulberry, for example, goes by “Chauncey” in polite company), recognition of power dynamics, and comfort during sexual activities and even outside the bedroom, be it in Regent’s Park or on an ill-advised Venetian pirate escapade. Being charming without harming is your immediate imperative whether engaging in slow seduction or spontaneous slap-and-tickle.
Comfort is all about creating a safe space for your lover to be who they are, and fiercely protecting that space on their behalf. Repentance “Pen” Starling is genderfluid, with varying gender presentation feeling “right” on a given day, and the spectre of dysmorphia looming. But though Pen may feel ill-suited for English society, he’s perfectly suited to Mark, who he overwhelms with his gorgeous physicality. Mark is just an ordinary bloke, penny-plain, while Pen is a glamorous acrobat who performs as both a man and a woman. Pen is shocked by Mark’s unexpected acceptance, but pleasantly surprised. Likewise, additional bedroom accommodation and non-damaging terminology is something Pen seeks to provide in return, as Mark was born with one arm. Consent is important to their relationship from day one.
Pen said, “What can I do for you?” Mark tugged him forward. “Anything you fancy and nothing if you don’t.” Pen’s eyebrow went up sharply. Mark kissed it. “Mate, we’ve all got our ways and mine is that I take no for an answer, all right? …I don’t ask for what’s not freely given, by you or anyone.”
Pen “didn’t want special treatment, only what other people had, which was to walk down the street without having to dress up as someone else.” Mark is into Pen’s, as they say, “whole deal.” He explains, “Sometimes I feel like eye paint and frock coats…[s]ometimes I feel like silk and not shaving. Sometimes I feel like none of me is right, and sometimes I feel like it all is.” It’s worth mentioning that English subjects throughout the ages have found ways to escape from rigid social norms. Some decided to express their predilections behind closed doors or the protection of wealth, while others turned to piracy. Mark teaches Pen to let his long hair down, and supports him to fully inhabit his identity out in the world. Adroitly accommodating the unambiguous comfort of a lover will seem effortless if you practice it in mundane contexts, be they food or fashion or festival-going.
By that same token, context matters. For some folks, sexual acts that feel fine one day will be difficult the next, either mentally, physically or emotionally. Just as I would not be so uncouth as to suggest a periwinkle pelisse for an audience with Her Majesty three weeks into a courtly mourning period, so too I grant equal consideration to the changing tides of a lover’s bodily boundaries.
“Do you like being touched, on your arm?” “People mostly avoid it.” “Do you want me to?” Mark exhaled. “Jesus, Pen.” “I want to know,” Pen said. “Or if it’s different on different days, or if you’d like to try and I’ll stop as soon as you say. I know all about that.”
Both Pen and Mark understand what it is to inhabit different roles depending on the context, as behavior that feels comfortable in their local society, the Jack and Knave, would be dangerous in London at large. That is why frequent verbal check-ins with clear assent are an absolute must; safe words for an unsafe world.
Proper forms of address have long been a pillar supporting the noble firmament of personal protocols. Name changes signify titanic change, whether in station or soul. Repentance restyles himself as Pen, and is reborn through life on the stage. Dear readers, if your lover asks you to address them using a new name or particular pronouns, respect what this request means to them and do just that.
Mark asks which pronouns Pen prefers, not (and this is important) because any one of those would be a turnoff for Mark, but because it is deeply important to Mark that he not misgender Pen. Always seek such determined deference to preferred pronouns in any new lover, nay, friend, NAY, anyone. Those who ignore such graces are bellwethers of bad consent, and must be shamed for their lack of human courtesy.
He. Mark had asked about that, if there was a better way of putting it, and Pen had shrugged. “I’m not a she and I’m not an it, and at least he doesn’t cause trouble.”
The Conscious Style Guide is an excellent resource because the goal of inclusive language is not mere politesse; it is to avoid inflicting harm on others.
Practical Power Dynamics
Noblesse oblige means “privilege entails responsibility.” It is the obligation of a person of elevated social status, such as some landed gentry I’d care to name, to look out for the well-being of those who are not in a privileged position. Beyond etiquette, it is a duty. Power dynamics are a common theme in romance novels, though in cishet romance stories that power often rests with the man (notable exception being Alisha Rai’s BDSM billionairess in A Gentleman in the Street). Whoever the social power rests with, imbalance is no excuse for boorishness. Be on the lookout for areas where you have privileges over your partner, and respect their experiences that you don’t have, be they earl or urchin.
Suitable Power Dynamics:
“I know what it would do to you if you had to contort yourself into their stupid box labelled man, let alone earl. And that’s not fair and I won’t ask.”
Initially, Pen and Mark are of similar social standing. Through a series of sordid mixups, Pen finds himself the legitimate heir to an earldom. Though this conveys abundant power, financial security, and lavish physical comfort, becoming the 7th Earl of Moreton would require increased compliance with social norms that would prove disastrous for Pen’s mental health. Mark “[begins] to understand the daily courage and effort it took his lover not to contort himself into the shape dictated by birth and the world around him.”
The value of a happy ending is not just for the paramours in question, but for all of us who desire a just society ruled by consideration for bodily autonomy and heartfelt houghmagandy. We can learn more about the conduction and conclusion of a conSensual romance from those who have faced great obstacles to do so. Queer historical fiction is often fraught with peril in an era when things were truly not very good for those on the margins. An Unsuitable Heir deals with the vagaries of English society and their realities, yet contains characters unafraid to insist on happiness anyway, which I wholeheartedly endorse.
Next time you find yourself secreted in a beau’s bedchamber (or backroom of a public house, you naughty thing!), call to mind our voluptuary muses. Our amorous archetypes Comfort and Consent, Politesse and Power will never lead you astray. Farewell my desirous darlings, and remember this: regardless of your particular proclivities, practice constant communication for cataclysmic coupling!
Madame Antoinette Marchpane
Baroness of the Boudoir