Monday, 24 February 2014

A Rape Survivor on Writing "Non-Con"

TW: Rape, Childhood Sexual Abuse, Eroticized Rape

I've wanted to write this post for a really long time, but it's been an uphill journey to thinking that I could or even should. Even now, I'm not really sure. It's not an easy subject to write about, it's not a subject without controversy, and to top it all off, it's highly personal, to me and likely to many of you reading.

So I'll come right out and say it: I'm a survivor of rape and childhood sexual abuse, and I write non-con.

But first, a note on genre. There's a lot of debate surrounding the term "non-con." It stands for "non consent", as in "non-consensual sex", as in "rape." It exists, as a genre of fiction, in contrast to "dub-con," which itself stands for "dubious consent", and also refers to situations that in the real world would rightly be called rape.

Many people assert that we only use these terms to euphemistically pretty up rape fetishes, or try to assuage our guilt about consuming them--"Oh, I don't get off on rape, just non-con!" I'm not going to dismiss that belief outright, as I definitely think there's validity and truth to it, but I will say that when I use these terms, I use them only as a way of distinguishing between different fictional representations of rape.

Here's an excerpt from an old post of mine that further elaborates on my perspective:
When we’re talking about non-con or dub-con, we’re talking about erotica specifically. [A] depiction of rape not meant explicitly to arouse is a completely different beast. So, assuming the purpose of erotica is to arouse, then the difference between non- and dub-con lies in how they’re meant to arouse. 
Non-con is all about a character who says and means no, and then is raped regardless. The appeal of these scenes is their sexualized suffering and violation. These stories can either be sympathetic to the rapist or to the victim, which is a further distinction that also changes the shape of the narrative and also the specific appeal of the story. Someone who enjoys stories that sympathise with the victim might not like ones that sympathise with the rapist, and vice versa. 
Dub-con, on the other hand, is about someone who says no but means yes, or someone who says yes but means no: for example, a bodice-ripper where a heroine says no but discovers sex was what she wanted all along, or a story where a person is coerced into sex or has to have sex to save their life or their house or their job. Here, the appeal is more about the tension inherent in a scenario where consent and desire don’t match up, whether that means saying no and meaning yes, or saying yes and meaning no.
In sum: non-con and dub-con are both subgenres of erotica, fiction explicitly meant to titillate. When I say "non-con" I mean "fictionalized rape written for sexual enjoyment." A fictional account of rape that isn't meant as erotica I would just call "rape fiction," and what happens in real life to real people is rape. What happened to me and to many other women and men I've known is rape. I wouldn't call it anything else, not unless I'm following the language the victim/survivor has chosen to use for themselves about their own experiences.

So now that we've got that distinction of genre out of the way, it's time for me to get personal.

Rape and me have a long history. Considering the pervasiveness of rape culture, that statement is probably true for most of us. For me, though, I can remember the exact moment when it started.

I was in elementary school. A friend of mine called me breathlessly on the phone and told me I had to come over to her house right away, she had something mindblowing to show me.

What she had was an issue of Reader's Digest. That afternoon is so burned in my memory, I even remember the cover: it was a photo of a tidal wave. The article she turned to and had me read was a woman's detailed account of her abduction, rape, and release. My friend and I read it three times a piece together that day, and she later lent me her copy of the magazine. Afterwards, rape became a regular part of our pretend play: our Barbies were kidnapped and raped nearly constantly. We even acted out (in a non-explicit way) rape scenarios using our own bodies.

As for the woman whose story so electrified us? I don't know her name. I don't know how she's recovered or where she is now. But I remember the detailed account of her rape. I'm not going to recount it here, obviously, but it was presented with a level of sexual detail I'd never seen or heard at that age. I won't call what I felt reading her story "arousal"--I was too young, and it didn't resemble any sexual feelings I have now that I'm an adult--but I definitely experienced a sense of  titillation that could be termed as proto-arousal. Back then, I thought of it as "tingling"; whatever it was psychologically or developmentally, it was a game-changer. It was my first sexual experience, and it was of rape.

Now, in our culture, exposing kids to sex too soon or in an inappropriate way is rightfully frowned upon. Had this woman's story been consensual, it never would have been published; not in that level of detail, and not in a magazine like Reader's Digest. I'm sure my friends' parents wouldn't have left it around where she could read it. But it was about a rape, not consensual sexual pleasure, so it was freely available, and it was explicit. For more on our double standard re: women in sexual situations, just check out how differently movies in North America are rated depending on whether a scene shows a woman experiencing sexual pleasure vs. sexual violence.

I don't know how much of the story's lurid presentation was the explicitness of the victim's own recounting, and how much of it was how Reader's Digest chose to interview her and how to present that interview. Without their influence, would she have told the world the specific details of how she was sexually abused by her captor? I have no idea. I sure as shit know that in telling her story, she wasn't expecting or intending on a pair of little girls to come across it and become excited or enthralled by it. I'm not angry at her. I hope she's not angry at me. I didn't understand the difference between fiction and reality, then. I didn't have fully developed empathy. If I read the same story today, I would never find it sexually exciting. If your first reaction to someone's personal account of their rape is arousal and not horror or anger or grief or empathy or even pity, I genuinely think you need to seek help.

Our culture makes it much easier for us to view and consume depictions of rape than depictions of healthy sexuality (especially as it pertains to women experiencing sexual pleasure). Because of that, my first sexual experience was inextricably tied with another woman's rape and abuse. It almost certainly shaped how I would later experience sexual fantasy and sexual pleasure.

As long as I've had sexual fantasies, I've had fantasies about rape. When I was sexually abused as a preteen, and later when I was raped as a teenager, those fantasies never abated. In a way, they were an escape during the times when I thought my own sexuality was vile and disgusting and pathetic and wrong. Fantasizing about being raped, after all, was different from fantasizing about seeking or enjoying sex.

However, they also left me with a pile of guilt and confusion. Since I fantasized about rape (although never about my actual rape or rapist), did that mean I secretly wanted to be raped and my rapist had sensed it? Since I fantasized about rape, did that mean I deserved to be raped, or that I didn't deserve to be upset about my rape? Surviving rape is a horrible, difficult thing. Not only have you been violated, but you're later re-victimized by peoples' judgments and comments, bombarded by careless depictions of rape and rape apologism, and to top it all off, you're often unable to access any form of meaningful justice. No man who has violated has ever come to justice for what he did. Which is to say, I never felt like there was a point to getting the law involved, but even for victims who do seek justice through the legal system, they don't always (or even often) find it, even if their rapist was convicted of a crime.

Dealing with all that and still fantasizing about being raped . . . I was a mess. Thankfully, in college I came across The Survivor's Guide to Sex, a self-help book about reclaiming your sexuality and experiencing sexual pleasure after being a victim of rape, sexual abuse, or incest. It had a chapter on rape victims with rape fantasies that literally changed my life. This book told me it was normal, how I felt, even for someone who had been victimized. If you're struggling with sex after rape, whether you have rape fantasies or not, whether you want to accept them or not, I highly recommend the book.

As for me, a crucial part of my healing journey was to let go of my guilt.

This wasn't a decision I made lightly, and for me, it was literally a matter of life or death. The self-hatred was consuming me. I would not have survived if I hadn't let go of the guilt.

But that doesn't mean I don't still think critically about what turns me on and why.

I know the prevalence of eroticized rape in our society has to do with misogyny and rape culture. I know that I'm not the only person in the world to have had a formative sexual experience tied to rape in some way, colouring the way I experience my sexuality now. I've gone from guilt to acceptance about my proclivities, and while I don't subscribe to the ultra sex-positive school of "sexual feelings exist in a vacuum and are never wrong and you can never express them in hurtful ways", I'm also done apologizing for how I've personally chosen to process rape culture and my own past abuse.

Survivor or not, all women have been affected by rape culture and the demonization of female sexuality, and all of us work through it and react to it in different ways. Rape fantasy is one of those ways. As long as you keep the fantasies in the realm of fiction: you don't act them out with unwilling partners, you don't force people to read or hear about them, you don't make unwilling survivors the subject of your fetish by using their real-life experiences for sexual fodder . . . As long as it's fantasy, and as long as it's consensual where it counts--(for more on that, check out this related post I wrote on Breaking and Bending Consent in Erotic Fiction)-- I think we have a right to our fantasies. We have a right to accept them and a right to find them troubling and want to move past them.

I don't expect other people to share my proclivities, or enjoy them, or even approve of them-- especially not other survivors--but I'm done hating myself and I'm done trying to "fix" myself. I think of my sexuality as an individual journey I am going on. This is where I am at this point in time, and I feel safe and secure and healthy, while still accepting that other people can't accept how I am or how they are, and that's valid, too. To each their own.

In my mind, there are different ways to embrace your sexuality. There's reflective reasoned self-acceptance, and there's being egotistically, willfully blind. I can't pretend that I am not a part of rape culture. I can't pretend that nobody has the right to be hurt or offended by the concept of a rape fantasy. I can't pretend that our individual fantasies have no effect on people outside ourselves; just ask any transgender woman, any fat woman, any Asian or black woman (or man), how it feels to be somebody's fetish. How it feels to be dehumanized by a fetish, mistreated in the name of a fetish, forced into a fetish.

So how do I justify writing non-con? I acknowledge that it's not a zero-harm enterprise, although I wish it could be. I wish I could write about these topics that excite and intrigue me without ever contributing to the harmful miasma of rape culture. I wish I could write them without ever causing a moment of hurt in other rape survivors who may find my stories exploitative or triggering. So why just not do it? Why not keep my fantasies in my head?

Honestly? Because sharing them lessens the load. I've often described the process of writing my non-con series The Flesh Cartel as an exorcism. Writing it gets it out of my head, so my mind can move onto other things. Having other people read it and discuss it makes me feel less alone. Owning it publicly makes it feel like less of a dirty secret, which in turn resolves my guilt about it. I try to minimize harm by using detailed and visible trigger warnings, by always speaking out in support of readers respecting their boundaries when it comes to their comfort level with the material, by not using the platform to reproduce unhealthy and dangerous attitudes about rape--which rape porn most certainly can, especially when you're talking about the misogynistic male-centric rape fantasy narratives that centre around "punishing" women for perceived crimes and that ask the audience to sympathize with the rapist character.

As for my own portrayal of rape, I don't know if I'm successful or not. I don't know if I'm doing enough. Trying to be mindful and participating conscientiously is all that I can offer. We all make concessions and compromises, and this is mine.

Rape is a part of who I am and I write about it. Sometimes I write about it to titillate or excite, for thrills and chills. Sometimes I write about it in a less eroticized way, meant more to work through the culture of rape and the emotional repercussions of sexual violence, especially as it relates to my characters' gender, race, and social class.

The Flesh Cartel and King of Dublin are definitely written for the thrill. Some people read them as erotica for sexual pleasure, while others read them as horror and thus are looking for the visceral (and sometimes sexual, but not wholly or always) reaction they get to being disgusted or frightened or anxious. Either way, it's about a satisfying emotional/gut response for the reader.

Stories like Cruce de Caminos, Mark of the Gladiator, and Wallflower, on the other hand, have scenes referencing or threatening rape, but they're not intentionally written for the thrills (although obviously some people may read them that way, the author being dead and all that). These are stories about 1. a young sex worker, 2. a slave in ancient Rome, and 3. a feminine-presenting trans person, respectively. Not that writing a narrative about these people has to include rape, but in those instances I felt rape was a natural and important part of the narrative as I wrote it. They're literary explorations of character and setting and culture, meant to be read with your head rather than your gut. To some, this is the only acceptable kind of rape narrative in fiction: one meant to seriously and thoughtfully explore the subject, and not meant to excite or titillate the reader in any way.

For me, both ways of approaching rape are valid, and worth exploring through fiction--just so long as the reader knows what they're getting into and is given opportunities to consent to or reject and avoid the material . . . which is why I distinguish between "rape" and "non-con" when it comes to fiction. Flesh Cartel and King of Dublin, I label "non-con". The other three, "rape." I talk about them differently, I approach them differently, I write about them differently, I market them differently. There may be an overlap in audience between both, but I'd hope that going in, expectations are different, and that I've fostered those differing expectations.

But they're both accurate representations of my understanding and experiences with rape. Will I--and my writing--evolve? Likely yes. But for now, this is the balance I've found, and that I can live with. What's yours?


  1. I appreciate this thoughtful post Heidi. Like you I am a survivor and think that a lot of my reading of non-con and dub-con fiction is a means of processing my experiences and affirming that survival and thriving is possible. The distinction you draw between head and gut stories and head and gut reading/reader response makes a lot of sense to me. I need both sorts of reading experiences especially because between my past and living with chronic illness I fled into my head. Stories that operate and connect through the body have their place and help me to be in my body.

  2. Hey, Heidi. There's a lot to think about after reading this post, mostly because I've simply avoided thinking about the guilt and disgust I feel at my own erotic dubcon fantasies and also because those suppressed feelings have been stopping me from writing in this genre even though I've wanted to do so for a pretty long time. I was both relieved and surprised to read about the incident from your childhood, because it resembles my own introduction to sex at a similar age. It wasn't a literary depiction for me though. A female cousin who was older by a few years started this game where the two of us were 'imprisoned' by evil men who would touch us and we would resist, until our heroes came to rescue us and then we would go off with them and then they would ravish us. I think I was nine and she was about eleven or twelve. Her stories made me 'tingle' as you said. I didn't yet know what sex was. It would be a few years before I read about it in biology and our movies are all about birds and bees and heavy censorship, so I really had no other way of knowing what we were doing was related directly to a whole world of sexual fantasy and exploitation. At that point it was a game and in my teens when I discovered masterbation, it was those dubcon fantasties that managed to arouse me. The older I grew the more clearly I could see the distinction between what I found titillating and what horrified me. I knew real life rape and incidents of abuse made me angry, but my fantasies were close enough that the guilt has still remained. Anyway, this post made me realize that there was a connection between how I was introduced to the idea of sex and what my mind now finds arousing. Thanks.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this post. As a sexual assault survivor who writes stories dealing with rape (in the horror field, mind you) this really made me feel better about what I'm writing and reading.

  4. I loved your point about early exposure to rape but no early exposure to consensual, healthy sex and I'd love to learn more about the impact this has on early sexual development. I remember being about 8 when the news posted pictures of a rape victim bound to a bed. It was crazy and I can't believe anyone would have signed off on that, but they did.