In Chapter 13 of Mutual Benefits, a very raw and spontaneous bit of emotion happens: Quinn reveals, possibly even to himself, that the way Taylor treated him in a consented sexual situation has upset him now that he knows more about himself. A few readers expressed confusion at him being upset and I can totally understand this. The level of subtext I was going for is probably above my skill level but this is also something people often miss in the real world too, so I’d like to unpack this.
Even in stories that deal with the nuances of consent and feelings, events are often made painfully clear. Misunderstandings need to be either a complete mystery or annoyingly obvious. If one character is upset at another, the reader needs to be made aware of the grudge or the reason behind it beforehand so they can fully sympathize with the protagonist. What’s more, in sex stories, conflict is often made to enhance the sex stakes, or the stakes in general. In general, people don’t really like to emulate the real world.
But the truth is, in the real world people change their mind about how much they enjoyed past events. You can probably think of both a time you changed your mind on a past event, and an argument that stemmed from someone changing their mind on a past event. And that doesn’t mean their complaints are invalid. This is a very normal and human thing to do.
I didn’t know Quinn was going to be upset about this as I wrote his dialogue. This was another chapter that was supposed to end a different way, but lo and behold, the characters reigned supreme when it came to choosing the direction of the story. But frankly, I understand him. He was a shy virgin who felt pressured to accept the status quo of his popular teacher, and she had fun with it by making him her sub. Taylor isn’t necessarily to blame here because consent was clearly voiced and she’s also a high schooler that doesn’t fully understand consent or even mature communication yet. If I was being completely cold, emotionless, and rational, Quinn should be upset with the circumstances more than her. That said, he’s within his rights to be upset at her. This isn’t a “Taylor is wrong arc VS Quinn is wrong arc,” this is just “wow, turns out a nerd banging a popular girl is complicated and creates a lot of consequences.”
Obviously, not every popular girl that has banged a nerd is going to make him crawl; that’s a ridiculous assertion. I don’t mean to imply I write beat-for-beat what happens in reality – I guess I just write a little more realistically than most smut (and frankly most YA novels) I’ve read, in terms of cause and effect, as well as dialogue. I don’t think people are here for my pacing or my rate of output.
Revisiting old events, especially sexual ones, and realizing after-the-fact something was unfair is a very human feeling. It doesn’t even have to be the other person’s fault. I’ve been on either end of this exact phenomenon multiple times. If we weren’t people that change how we feel about things after a period of time, even without situation-changing evidence, drama and tears would be in short supply on this planet. And yet we run an indefinite surplus, to the extent where nearly everyone owns stock, and those who don’t feel like they’re missing out. What a world.
This is another nuance to add to consent. Too often we see consent as “Did something bad happen and if so, who’s wrong.” Not everything about consent is someone choosing to violate boundaries. Sometimes boundaries aren’t even violated at all. Consent is a complicated subject, to the extent where people who write stories about it their whole adult life (hi there) are constantly learning about it. If the situation in chapter 13 was new to you… I’m glad we could continue our learning together, because it’s not yet entirely familiar to me either. I’ll talk to you all next week.