It’s a familiar scene in movies—the male lead grabs the female lead and forcefully kisses her, despite her protests. She then melts in his arms, and theater audiences sigh.
The forced kiss is also a familiar scene in books. I’ve even written one.
Lately, though, because I’ve become more concerned about the problem of sexual assault, I’ve decided I’m not going to write scenes like this anymore. I don’t want to condition my readers, especially young readers, to acquiesce to a man when they haven’t yet decided whether they want physical affection from him. This is not to say that women are responsible for physical violence against them, simply that in some cases, women don’t say no when they want to.
Although I don’t have very many male readers, I would hope that when a man does read my work, he comes away with a better idea of how to date a woman. Force isn’t romantic. What’s really romantic is a man who asks for permission. I love to compare Mr. Darcy, who seeks and waits for Elizabeth’s affection, to Mr. Wickham, who kisses Elizabeth’s hand without asking. This is one of the reasons I think Pride and Prejudice should be read by both young men and young women.
The proposal scene between Elizabeth and Mr. Collins is another scene that modern authors would do well to emulate because it shows a woman asserting her will despite everyone else’s expectations. Mr. Collins really isn’t ready to take no for an answer, but Elizabeth holds her ground. She is a great role model for women, even today.
The issue of consent is even bigger for Fanny Price who is shunned by her family for refusing Henry Crawford’s affections. I’m afraid poor Fanny often comes across as a bit of a prude to modern audiences because she does such a good job of standing her moral ground. She certainly wouldn’t be a good fit for a John Wayne movie or anything in that vein, which is why I think she deserves more respect.
Austen addresses the issue of woman’s consent in many of her novels, sometimes showing the negative consequences for women like Anne Elliott or Harriet Smith, who let others make decisions for them. For most of my life, I’ve considered it to be an old-fashioned issue that was resolved long ago, but once again, Austen’s novels are proving their timeless qualities. The details may be different, but the basic theme of a woman’s right to make her own decisions is still relevant today.