When Does Sex Become Sexual Assault?

This is a really difficult topic to write about.

That doesn’t mean it should not be written about. It’s just that attitudes (and experience) are so diverse that anyone venturing an opinion is very likely to be hated by at least a subset of readers, no matter how sensitive and tasteful they try to be.

So why am I even dipping a toe into this murky and dangerous pond?

Because this morning an American reviewer of my new book Welcome to Ord City, after giving it a massive thumbs up, left this postscript:

A trigger warning for some folks, there is sex in this book and it is not always consensual – this bit seems to be glossed over [by] the characters but these acts would be considered sexual assault.

I was stunned.

Then I was defensive.

Then I was just plain horrified. So many beta readers and editors have read the book and not one of them suggested that some people might find any of the (handful of fairly mild) sex scenes problematic.

I then calmed down a little and mentally reviewed the various scenes – trying to get some insight into what I’d done. I even engaged my legal brain and considered the defining elements of sexual assault under Australian law.

They more or less boil down to this: sex becomes sexual assault when one party becomes aware that the other party is not (or no longer) consenting, but continues anyway.

I can absolutely guarantee, hand on heart, that this never happens in Ord City. I could go through each scene and give a careful analysis as to why whatever happens is not non-consensual but that would give too much away. (My sex scenes always have an impact on the plot – see previous post: How to Write an Excellent Bonking Scene.)

Yes, there are a couple of complex, ambiguous moments, but that’s what makes them interesting. Now I am agonising over the possibility that some people might think I’ve put non-consensual sex into a book – which I would never do (unless there were to be very severe consequences).

I guess this, to some extent, comes down to different laws and cultural sensitivities. Until today, the book had only been read by Australians and no-one had the slightest issue with it. But as we speak, Ord City is being read by reviewers all over the world and maybe some of them will think I’ve sailed too close to the line.

There’s nothing I can do now. The ebook’s out and the paperback will hit the shelves next week. I can’t change it, but neither do I want to change it. I know there’s no non-consenting sex in the book but once a book is out there an author loses control. The audience make what they will of it and that’s it. (In fact, I contacted the reviewer and thanked her for her very thoughtful review.)

But, there is an edge to my writing, which is why you’ll always find a few one star reviews on goodreads sprinkled through the raving fours and fives. I expect the same again with Welcome to Ord City but I sincerely hope I don’t get called worse than Hitler.

Not again.






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