Last month, a New Yorker short story, ‘Cat Person’ by Kristen Roupenian, went viral. It was the first publication in the New Yorker by the writer and she went on to win a major publishing deal.

The main reason the fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, wanted to publish it was that it made her uncomfortable while reading (in a good way.) While the story is not explicitly about rape or sexual harassment, it is about “the fine lines that get drawn in human interaction” and “the lengths women go to in order to manage men’s feelings, and the shaming they often suffer nonetheless.” Roupenian herself has said how the story was inspired by a bad online dating encounter. And, of course, given everything going on these past months with the #MeToo movement, the story came along at just the right time.

To me, the story is about how we all understand sexual consent and how such decisions/choices are based on intricately-nuanced and deeply-rooted cultural conditioning.

I have had a few online discussions about the story with other writer friends about how this fraught, complex issue of sexual consent has been handled by several other writers too, who deserve as much, if not more, attention.

For example, Mary McCarthy’s memoir, ‘How I Grew‘ includes a story of how she, as a 14-year-old, tried to pass off as older to be with a 23-year-old man for whom she has ambiguous feelings. She was still studying at a convent school and wanted to lose her virginity before college. And, though McCarthy did not give a second-by-second account of the actual act as it happened (like Roupenian), she did a much better job, I think, of relaying all the conflicting emotions her younger self went through leading up to and during it as well as those of her older self who later tried to bring all the memory fragments together and put them into words.

That said, I very much appreciate the skill with which Roupenian manages to make us, as readers, switch back and forth in our concern (I cannot bring myself to say sympathy or empathy) for the two main characters. She creates enough space in the story so that we readers can experience the woman’s ambiguity and uncertainty about what is happening and how she should respond while also wanting to give the man the benefit of the doubt. This is very difficult to do in storytelling, trust me.

So, for this month’s selections, I went on the hunt for stories about consent. They are not necessarily the definitive “best” but they are very good, free to read online, and by these writers: Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Minot, Tracey Slaughter, Lori Sambol Brody, and Lynn Steger Strong.

I must apologize this is not as diverse an anthology as I would like, particularly as people of minority groups — based on ethnicity, race, religion, gender identity, sexuality, etc. — have very different experiences with the matter of consent. And while those diverse stories are out there too, sadly, they are not published, highlighted, applauded, discussed, or awarded enough. Yet.

Also, though I tried to stay away from actual sexual abuse/violence and focus on “consent” as the main theme, as you can see from the stories, it is a slippery slope.

1/ ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates

(Note: link above is a PDF download file.)

When I read Roupenian’s story, I was also reminded of this one. They are both rather different but the key similarity is how an older man goes after a teenage girl who acts so sure of herself but then crumbles with anxiety and shame in the end.

Oates’ story, first read decades ago, gave me a creeping chill up and down my back. Oates is a master at writing about this sort of creepiness lurking in seemingly average people. That she based this on the true story of a serial killer, Charles Schmid, makes it even more unsettling though Oates ends her fictionalized version long before any actual violence. There is an excellent movie version, Smooth Talk, with Laura Dern.

Connie is a 15-year-old who gets talked into going with Arnold Friend, a man in his 30s. Interestingly, the story was written in 1966, at the peak of the sexual revolution, when issues of how sexual innocence is lost in adolescence and the roles that sex and gender play in social hierarchies were being explored. And, just over 50 years later, #MeToo has shown us how sex and gender (and race) have continued to have a huge impact on our social hierarchies.

Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn’t much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it. “Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you? You think you’re so pretty?” she would say. Connie would raise her eyebrows at these familiar old complaints and look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: she knew she was pretty and that was everything. Her mother had been pretty once too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.

2/ Lust by Susan Minot (Narrative Magazine)

Like the above story, this one also is popular in creative writing courses because of the skillful writing — jumps in first and second person voice, past and present tense, and an entire sexual coming of age revealed through a succession of relationships, from boarding school onwards, described in small paragraphs brimming with specificity and brilliant sentences. The progression of these relationships gets darker, sadder, more sinister. The protagonist realizes she is only a sex object to most of the boys/men and the non-physical attributes they prefer the most are her compliance and her silence.

This story was published in 1989 and is still so relevant and alive even 30 years on.

Certain nights you’d feel a certain surrender, maybe if you’d had wine. The surrender would be forgetting yourself and you’d put your nose to his neck and feel like a squirrel, safe, at rest, in a restful dream. But then you’d start to slip from that and the dark would come in and there’d be a cave. You make out the dim shape of the windows and feel yourself become a cave, filled absolutely with air, or with a sadness that wouldn’t stop.

3/ Consent by Tracey Slaughter

(Note: link above is a PDF download file.)

Slaughter is an award-winning New Zealand writer and creative writing professor. This is from her 2016 collection, ‘deleted scenes for lovers‘.

I mean, the title says it all, right? Again, we have an older man grooming a self-assured teenager so that she does what he wants sexually. Till things go terribly wrong, of course. I have to warn you: not only is this story told very graphically but there is violent abuse. My blood ran cold at those particular descriptions and I rushed past the images they formed in my head. I might be able to revisit the whole story if I allow myself to focus on just the skillfulness of words and sentences rather than what the progressively brutal scenes — especially the final ones — show. I cannot imagine what the writing of this story must have been like because it is so visceral and unforgettable in the reading.

Let me tell you about consent. I consented to smile at him. At least, the muscles of my mouth twitched for him as much as they did for any customer. He leaned on the counter, sideways, as I rolled the ice cream he ordered, triple-scoop orange-chocolate chip, and he tapped a twenty, folded horizontally, up and down on the metal trim. He was so tall he could look right over the counter, so tall that whichever way I bent his look would be all over my arse or boring right down the groove between my little tits.

4/ The Whole World Is Desert by Lori Sambol Brody (The Rumpus)

This one does not start out like any of the above stories and is about many things beyond consent. But it is that aspect of the story that is the pivotal/turning point and, I think, so well-written.

Madeleine is a spoilt brat of a teenager on vacation with her separated mother and scheming to seduce their handsome tour guide. Little does she know that the tables will be turned on her rather callously and heartbreakingly.

When I first read this 2017-published story, I was struck by the narrative voice of the protagonist — particularly how, despite all the typical teenage angst, sarcasm, biting comebacks, and even downright meanness, she is not just some caricature and we readers are on her side. This is not an easy thing to achieve in storytelling with this kind of character. And I loved the tender ending, which I will not spoil for you.

My mother dragged me halfway around the world just to see a fucking desert. She had an affair she was stupid enough to confess to Dad, and then a complete mental breakdown and mid-life crisis when my father dumped her for—get this—his secretary. So here we are in the ruins of a thousand-year-old fort in the middle of a desert in a country nobody has heard of in Central Asia.

5/ The Hard Small Fact of Men by Lynn Steger Strong (Vol. 1 Brooklyn: Sunday Stories)

I have mentioned before how I love good flash fiction because of its ability to say so much in fewer sentences/words — typically less than 1000 words, really. This is one such story and, like the previous one, also published in 2017.

Another innocent teenager. Hmm. Why aren’t there more stories about consent with older people? If anything, the #MeToo movement has shown us that even adults, when dealing with significant power dynamics, struggle with consent issues.

In this story, a 17-year-old girl finds that her 23-year-old guardian “was good and sweet and caring till he wasn’t anymore.” It’s a short read so I will not spoil it further for you other than to say it reminded me of the Brock Turner case.

I wish he’d held my ankles, pulled my hair. He was twenty-three and still a virgin, had never left the small town where he grew up and would later raise his kids: clichés were all he had. It was summer; I was seventeen and working in Wyoming. They called me jailbait and sent me off with him because he was so sweet and safe and good.

Enough

The Rumpus has an ongoing series, ‘Enough‘, which includes “essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.” Some heartbreaking stories there. The poem by Nikita Deshpande (scroll toward the bottom) about what goes in Indian culture in terms of lines of consent is worth a read. Her note at the end says she was responding to a 2017 Delhi High Court ruling that included this observation from the presiding judge: “Instances of woman behavior are not unknown that a feeble ‘no’ may mean a ‘yes’.”

So you can see, we have a long way to go yet.

UPDATE: Here are a few more selections from Hermione Hoby over at Lit Hub.

For writer friends:

if you are planning to write fiction involving consent issues, sexual abuse, etc., please tread carefully and sensitively. Here are two excellent essays with useful pointers:

Maggie Stiefvater’s ‘This Is a Post About Literary Rape’

Rene Denfield’s ‘Don’t Make Violence and Abuse Just Another Plot Device In Your Novel’

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