CW: Sexual assault.
Kindly fuck off if you disagree: but consent is good, sexual assault is bad.
Black and white. Right? I know this. You know this. They teach it in schools. It’s written into law. My toddler even has a basic grasp of ‘your body, your choice’. What I want to talk about is the grey areas. Those times where you say ‘yes’, but wake up wondering what possessed you to do so. Those times when you don’t necessarily say ‘yes’, but you also don’t say ‘no’, purely out of politeness. Those times when you are manipulated into situations that feel wrong, but you enjoy yourself in that moment, so it is really that bad? These are just a few examples of the grey area of consent. Its reach extends across the whole of our society. There is not one person in our world who is not affected by this grey area. Problem is, most of us never really notice this grey area exists. All we focus on is the black and the white.
In the context of this space, I’m going to specifically look at grey areas within Queer YA, using Jared Thomas’s novel ‘Songs That Sound Like Blood’ as an example. I think it is vital that all of us understand why this grey area is so problematic, but teenagers (the target market of YA fiction) are especially vulnerable to these issues. It is important as authors and editors of YA fiction that we are not glorifying unhealthy attitudes toward these grey areas. To scale that down even further, it is important to not underestimate the toxicity of these scenarios within Queer relationships. Often Queer (and in particular same-sex) relationships are assumed to be relatively equal in terms of power between the individuals involved. This is dangerously misunderstood. Manipulation of power can and does occur in all types of relationships.
The main problem repeated in many YA novels, including ‘Song That Sound Like Blood’, is what from here on in will be referred to as the ‘Dangling Carrot’ conundrum. The most common way this plays out is when Person A sets up a scenario to manipulate Person B into doing something they want. In Queer YA’s this is often Person A (who is usually ‘out’ and relatively comfortable with their sexuality) kissing Person B (who is generally oblivious or only just discovering their sexuality) with zero warning whatsoever. Person B is shown to enjoy this kiss, which leads to their sexual awakening. This is the case in ‘Songs That Sounds Like Blood’, where Ana kisses Roxy without her permission, in fact without even letting Roxy know she is Queer (Ana has had a previous serious girlfriend, while Roxy has little to no insight into her own sexuality), which then leads to Roxy realising she’s Queer and the two of them starting a relationship.
Why is this considered a grey area? Because Ana possesses power and knowledge that Roxy does not and so is able to manipulate her into a relationship, via a Dangling Carrot (Ana invites and pays for Roxy, who is a musician, to attend a gig, under the guise of it being research for an article Ana is writing). If Roxy had known Ana was interested in her romantically, would Roxy have accepted the invitation? If Roxy hadn’t been Queer, would their kiss have been viewed as non-consensual? In this novel Roxy likes the kiss, so no mention is made by the author concerning consent. Effectively, Roxy is lured by the Dangling Carrot and the two of them enter an extremely unbalanced relationship in terms of power-dynamics. This is also never addressed within the text itself.
How could this have been done better? If Ana had just been a normal fucking person and said, ‘Hey, I think you’re really cool, would you like to go on a date with me?’. That way Roxy would have had a chance to adjust to the situation and decide for herself whether she was interested in taking things further, rather than being assaulted with an unexpected kiss (her very first same-sex experience, which I found even more troubling). The fact that she liked it does not cancel out the fact that she had literally zero chance to say ‘no’. She was manipulated into entering a relationship with someone who held far more power than she did.
The other common Dangling Carrot scenario is when Person A knows about Person B before Person B knows anything about Person A, and uses this to seduce them. Often this seems harmless. It’s super common for one person to develop feelings before the other one does. That unrequited love thing that YA novels are famous for. Shy Girl loves Bad Boy or whatever straight authors are doing these days. That’s totally fine, but mega grey areas occur when Person B finds themselves constantly on the back foot and doing and saying things they are not comfortable with out of politeness (this person is being super nice to me and bought me all these gifts, it’d be rude to go home now, I’ll stay for one more drink), or lust (this person is so charming, they love all the same things as me and it’s definitely not because they have spent the last year stalking me online and figuring out all my favourite things! I think I am genuinely attracted to them yay!), or ignorance (my platonic friend has invited me around to study, no biggie, off I go, oh dear god they’re kissing me, we’re kissing, how did this happen? Was this planned?).
In YA, literally all of these scenarios are romanticised. It is considered a GOOD thing if someone likes you so much that they go out of their way to find out all your favourite things and then manipulate you into loving them by creating an extremely attractive Dangling Carrot for you to fall for. It’s CUTE when someone is too shy to share their true feelings and so they have to make up elaborate excuses to lure you to their basement in the middle of the night.
Stop all of this. This is all GREY AS FUCK. I get it. Every rom-com in the universe uses some form of the Dangling Carrot. And I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to show an interest in the things your date likes, but whether in real life or within the context of a Queer YA book, USE YOUR WORDS.
And your ears.
If you are interested in someone, even if they are the most amazing person in the world and therefore you are completely terrified of sharing your feelings, you just have to tell them so. Or stay far away from them forever. If they do not reciprocate your feels, respect their decision.
No more tricks. No more falsity. No more wasting a person’s time because you were too scared to ask them out. Stop fucking with all the Queer book characters and making them do harmful things.
I’d predict that a large proportion of us have been a victim of the grey area. If you find yourself in one, understand it’s not your fault. It’s a quiet manipulation, but it can hurt just as much. You are allowed to feel both wrong and right at the same time. You can like the situation you are in (like Roxy and Ana’s first kiss), but feel uncomfortable about how you got into it. You fell for a Dangling Carrot. Sometimes the fallout isn’t so bad. Sometimes you will have a few regrets. Sometimes you will be completely fucked up by the experience. These are all valid things to feel.
The best way to navigate these grey areas is by developing a strong understanding of what they are. Being in a Queer relationship doesn’t make you immune. Being in love doesn’t make you immune. Locking yourself in a tower doesn’t make you immune (Rapunzel 100% fell victim to the Prince’s Dangling Carrot, and yeah, I know how that sounds). The only real way this will ever be resolved is if our whole society is picked up and thrown into the ocean from a very high cliff, then hit by lightning and ejected into space. Until that happens, educate yourself. Learn how to be confident in saying ‘no’ (the hardest fucking word in the world). See how women especially have been conditioned from childhood to be polite, often to the detriment of our own comfort and safety. Work on trusting your instincts and your intelligence. You are stronger and smarter than you give yourself credit for.
As writers, recognise these grey areas within your writing and confront them. Allow your character to have open and honest conversations about their feelings and intentions. Stop focusing on only the black and the white.
Show the next generation of readers that they are worthy of respect and that they are valued for who they are, not for what they can do for others.
Here’s to shining a light on the grey areas so that those who come after us don’t have to be so blind.