Keynote: Consenting Adults with Kate Cuthbert

This represents my (Renee Dahlia) notes on the presentations at the 2018 Romance Writers of Australia conference. Please consider my status as an imperfect recorder of verbal presentations (ie this is not a transcript). This blog uses affiliated links.

Kate Cuthbert is the managing editor of Escape Publishing (my publisher), the digital-first imprint of Harlequin Australia.

“I care deeply about this genre, it’s writers, and it’s readers.”

Kate spoke about how moved she was by Melanie Milburne’s speech at the Australian Romance Readers Association Awards earlier in the year. Melanie Milburne discussed how she was ashamed of her early books, and their lack of consent, and how much her writing has changed as time marches on.

Romance needs to talk about our traditions – the 70s rapey novels, the blurred consent lines of older books, and how that shifts in the #metoo age.

Like Wakanda, romance exists in the literary margins. For those on the outside, all they see is a crappy village, but once inside a whole world unveils, with magic and hope. Romance harnesses hope, it is “our kernel of motivation.”

Through romance, we learn that things will get better. There exists connections to friends, and love. We might have to work for it, and risk everything, but the HEA exists. Romance tells you that women’s lives can be better. In the beginning (of the romance genre), a romance was a marriage where the man cared, instead of keeping the woman as a possession. Romance has grown into full ‘well-lived’ lives for women. (Note: and marginalised people). Romance also lets men feel their feelings, but romance is an isolated bubble.

We are connected to the world outside romance. We need to ask – what does romance look like? What are our hopes? In 2018, we don’t have a simple target, like suffragettes of old (fighting for the vote, etc). People still exist who want to keep us (women and other marginalised people) down, and they do it through nuance and from the shadows. It’s harder and more subtle to fight them. We can’t ignore them.

Romance (as a genre) is good at ignoring outside, dissenting voices, because we have done it for so long. We also trust our readers to tell the difference between real and fantasy.

“The media and our art is the most powerful influencer. If that is romance, then we have the power to change women’s lives.”

Consider our potential and our obligations. Romance shows us our potential, and we need to honour our obligations (to our readers).

Why is romance accountable for the ingrained malice of society? Our subversion is there because they (society) hasn’t bothered to look. However, it’s a double edged sword. If we want to be truly the feminist genre, we have to lead. We have to create books women need to read now. We need to recognise the toxic underpinnings of aggression in the lack of consent. This will be hard, because we have been conditioned to respond to coercion. This coercion has become toxic and dangerous. It is stopping our ability to hope for better times. Learn to never trust your first response – it is your conditioned response, the one you’ve been trained to do. Your second response is your thinking response.

And – there is no shame in the books we wrote before #metoo, before we knew better.

If we want to be sex positive, remember these two principles:

  • Active, informed consent.
  • Anything that happens between consenting adults is natural

Critics will say active consent inhibits spontaneity, but this is the coercion preventing your characters from having body autonomy. Empower your heroines to know their body, and to ask for what she wants. Yes means yes. Don’t blur those lines. Empower her choices. The crinkle of a condom packet should become so normal in romance that it becomes invisible.

Secret babies: address the realities of single motherhood, think about your reader and their social support system (eg the USA medical system).

Alpha heroes: aggressive drive doesn’t mean meanness. All of you in this room are being aggressive by sitting here and pursuing your goals. How you do it is the key. Avoid the throwback to the cold, distant hero and hapless heroine. Don’t leap over consent. “Edgy” often now means toxic. An alpha doesn’t have to be controlling.

Craft your hero to meet his potential – toxic masculinity hurts men too.

We need to stop normalising coercion.

We give hope to readers.


  1. Susanne says:

    Thanks for sharing your notes on Kate’s speech. I would love to have been there to hear it.

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