When the floodgates of #MeToo opened in 2017, the conversation about sexual harassment and assault quickly detonated into a broader discussion of “bad dates” and “bad sex”. As pundits engaged in armchair analysis of non-consensual encounters involving celebrities, opinion split roughly down generational lines. Gens Y and Z tended to consider ignoring consent clues akin to assault. Gen X and baby boomer commentators, meanwhile, argued that women had the agency to remove themselves from uncomfortable situations and that it was infantilising to treat them as damsels in distress.
Navigating the treacherous terrain of dating in the digital era after my divorce, I found myself straddling the two camps. If I, confident in communicating my desires after 20 years of sexual experience, found articulating an outright “no” tricky at times, what of younger people just finding their feet? What deeper forces of cultural conditioning were at play? As I set out to document our shifting scripts in The Future of Seduction, these were some of the books that informed my understanding of the complexities of consent.
1. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Tess’s financial circumstances make her vulnerable to unwanted advances. Despite clearly and consistently communicating her lack of interest in her wealthy patron Alec, he persists in his pursuit, resorting to drugging and raping her. Her hopes of happiness are ruined when her new husband rejects her after she comes clean about the incident. While women in literature are no longer confined to a fate of “wed or dead”, the victim-blaming and double standard to which Tess is subjected remain all too familiar.
2. You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian
Based on a “nasty” experience of the author’s own, Kristen Roupenian’s short story Cat Person went viral after appearing in the New Yorker at the end of 2017. It recounts the brief courtship and consummation of a relationship between a 20-year-old woman and a man in his mid-30s, including a detailed depiction of the woman’s consenting to sex to avoid seeming “spoiled and capricious”, rather than out of desire. Elsewhere in this collection, Roupenian plays with our preconceptions of predation: “If a woman bit a man in an office environment,” she writes in Biter, “there would be a strong assumption that the man had done something to deserve it.”
3. This Is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill
Having probed consent in fiction and nonfiction for more than three decades, Gaitskill was drawn to explore the dynamics of #MeToo. The novella is narrated in turn by Quin, an editor fired for accusations of sexual misconduct, and his friend Margot, who is trying to make sense of the women’s allegations. Quin is depicted as caught in the cross hairs of changing codes of conduct, with behaviour that was previously found innocuous now considered harassment. Initially puzzled that his accusers didn’t draw a firmer line, Margot comes to acknowledge that not everyone is taught how to stand up for what they want.
4. Milkman by Anna Burns
In her Booker prize-winning novel, Burns limns the ambience of intimidation of an 18-year-old woman stalked by an older, married man. “I did not know intuition and repugnance counted,” says the narrator, “did not know I had a right not to like, not to have to put up with, anybody and everybody coming near.” Inspired by 1970s Belfast during the Troubles, the fact that the characters are referred to by epithets rather than proper names makes the danger feel all the more pervasive, suggesting that it could be occurring any time, anywhere.
5. Cleanness by Garth Greenwell
Described by the author as a lieder cycle, the interconnected stories of Cleanness represent a range of homoerotic desire. “I want to be nothing,” the narrator tells a man who demands to be called gospodar (“master”) in a sadomasochistic encounter. The “exhilaration of being made an object” turns to fear and shame, however, when the man attempts to force unprotected sex. In The Little Saint, the narrator takes a dominant role, pushing his own “upwelling of tenderness” down to respect his partner’s desire for pain. Greenwell’s unhurried sex scenes convey the complications of internalised homophobia and plumb the depths of desire more broadly. “There’s no fathoming pleasure,” he writes, “the forms it takes or their sources, nothing we can imagine is beyond it.”
6. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
In her acclaimed debut, Carty-Williams portrays a young black woman on the rebound from a serious relationship. Queenie starts to see a man who is eager for sex but indifferent to her needs – refusing to kiss her or engage in the post-coital cuddling she craves. Although the brutal sex they have is technically consensual, he pushes past her “pain barriers”. Carty-Williams has said that she sought to highlight the tendency of young women to see their worth through the eyes of men: “I was in pain, but still I didn’t cry out, didn’t ask him to stop. I didn’t want him to,” says Queenie. “This is what you get when you push love away. This is what you’re left with, I thought.”
7. Boy Parts by Eliza Clark
In a book that toys with our gender expectations, flipping the phallic symbol of the camera, Clark’s debut novel features a young woman who scouts conventionally unattractive men to photograph them in fetishistic poses. She preys on the vulnerable – one young man “may have been in sixth form” – and sadistically pushes her models past their comfort zones. As the violence crescendoes, we unpack a Russian doll of abuse: Irina harms and is harmed, as are some of her victims. She often gets away with it, though, because “people always conflate beauty with goodness”.
8. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
Several novels in the past few years have delved into teacher-student relationships, including Susan Choi’s tricksy Trust Exercise, which expanded the question of consent to include who has the right to tell a story, and Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa. Among these narratives is The Friend, which features a college professor who regularly beds his students. When students complain about being addressed as “dear”, he stops, “but not without sulking”. What bothers him more than evolving standards of appropriateness, however, is his waning attraction as he ages. Submitting to him without desire, what drives the young women instead “is narcissism, the thrill of bringing an older man in a position of authority to his knees”.
9. Boys & Sex by Peggy Orenstein
Having interviewed more than 100 American college and college-bound boys, Orenstein sheds light on their views of masculinity and intimacy. It’s not that young men can’t read cues on consent, she concluded from her conversations, but that – due in large part to an unprecedented exposure to porn – they have been conditioned to prioritise their pleasure and interpret the cues through the lens of their own desires. Sex education, as such, would do well to address these blind spots, as well as remind young people that, as the educator Shafia Zaloom suggests, consent only ensures that sex is legal; it doesn’t necessarily make it ethical or good.
10. Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again by Katherine Angel
In this essay-length book, Angel takes issue with the onus put on women to know and express their desires ahead of time. Because women can still be punished for showing sexual interest, “consent culture” puts an unreasonable burden on individuals to solve bigger societal issues of unbalanced gender norms. Further, it risks pitting vulnerability as unattractive, Angel argues. And what could be more vulnerable than sex?
• The Future of Seduction by Mia Levitin is published by Unbound. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.