Wednesday, 12 February 2014

"Like it or Not": Breaking and Bending Consent in Erotic Fiction

Note: This post first appeared in 2012 on the Storm Moon Press blog to coincide with the release of the anthology Like it or Not. It has since been deleted, so I am reproducing it here. It was originally co-authored with Violetta Vane, but I can no longer guarantee she endorses these views. This post does, however, still accurately represent my own. Its contents are therefore my responsibility alone.

How does consent apply to fictional sex?

For rape in real life, only one standard should matter: the lack of consent of the victim. Not the context. Not the level of physical harm. Not whether or not the victim fights back or to what degree. Not the intent of the aggressor. Despite attempts by some misguided people to define things like “gray rape” (ugh), there is, by moral necessity, a clear line. No consent? Rape. No possibility of consent? Rape.

In fiction, the situation is vastly different. The first step is to state the obvious: consent violation or consent play is acted out between fictional characters. Fictional characters have lines of consent that are constructed artificially—woven together before they’re broken—in the dynamic interplay between writer, text and audience. Context matters. Who is the writer writing it for? Who might the writer sympathize with? Who do they want the audience to sympathize with? What level of insight are readers given into the characters’ level of consent?

Audience and genre become crucial, too. Is the story meant as a quasi-memoir to share with other people who have gone through similar experiences? A sexual fantasy explicitly disconnected from real-life reenactment? Is it meant primarily for women to read, or for a general audience, or for men, and what’s the primary intended sexuality of the audience? Does the writer frame the story by saying how they mean it to be read and dictating what kinds of people should read the story? And if they do, will readers feel any obligation whatsoever to follow those instructions?

Types of Potential Fictional Consent Violations

Sex work - There’s a wide spectrum of consent possibilities in depictions of sex work. Some sex workers may enjoy particular jobs and enthusiastically consent to them. Many more enjoy it about as much as a sandwich artist at a sub shop enjoys making a sandwich... but they still consent to it. Others in the most desperate of circumstances have limited (or no, in the case of modern sexual slavery and human trafficking) ability to consent. A lot of erotic narratives of sex work cluster around consent issues in the middle of the spectrum—dubious consent—that we’ll discuss later.

Rough sex - This encompasses any kind of sex with fighting and struggling. Consent is played with, but only up to a limit. The struggling is not about whether or not there will be sex, but about what kind of sex. That is, one of the partners is not trying to escape, and they’ve made some kind of agreement, explicit or not, to struggle against each other and accept the outcome.  The fighting lacks real stakes of consent, and everybody has a good time, no matter who ends up on top or how many bruises they have the next day.

Rape fantasy roleplaying - In these narratives, consent is played with, but it’s not a real issue in the story, because the partners have already given each other consent to play certain roles. They both have power over when and where the play will stop. The play-victim can sink into pleasurable passivity with no fear. The play-aggressor can exert control in a pleasurable way without worrying that they’re harming their partner.  For the reader, this is a fantasy within a fantasy, and therefore two steps removed from real-life consent issues. It’s safe for the reader as well as the characters. This can be a good thing or a bad thing; sometimes readers crave portrayals that aren’t so clean, that have a greater level of verisimilitude to real-life lack of consent.

Dub-con - Dubious consent. This is a much more difficult category to define. It’s more of a catch-all for certain tropes, and different writers and readers will draw the line between dub-con and non-con at very different places. Dubious consent does not necessarily mean that a given fictional situation would not be rape in the real world.

One possible standard is that dub-con covers sex for any other situation than “You’re hot, I want to have sex with you.” Or perhaps one or more partners is in some kind of condition that limits their ability to consent. Transactional sex could fall into this category. One partner needs to have sex, for financial, political, or supernatural reasons. The other partner may or may not know about this need. Maybe one person is about to lose their home and live on the streets if they don’t have the sex. Or maybe there is no victim/aggressor dynamic at all, and both characters are under some magic spell that if they don’t have sex, they’ll die (AKA “fuck or die”). Or strange entities outside of a human moral framework coerce the partners into have sex (AKA “aliens made them do it” or “sex pollen”—favorites of our home fandom, Torchwood).

Dub-con can apply to other types of consent play in which consent is obscured or made problematic. For a rape fantasy roleplay, what if the writer starts the first page in the middle of the roleplay? The reader might not know it’s a roleplay. Maybe that’s only established at the end, or it’s established inconclusively. Maybe it’s a rough sex scene that goes bad halfway through, or a BDSM scene done wrong, on accident or on purpose.

Dubious consent is common across many genres. Many books with paranormal elements are absolutely stuffed full of dubious consent. Vampires first hypnotize then pleasurably penetrate their prey. Werewolves go into heat. Fairies glamor mortals into sex. Characters who feel a supernatural attraction or compulsion to have sex are all over urban fantasy, horror, and paranormal romance.

Our own story for the anthology, “Salting the Earth”, starts off in dub-con territory, although it might not end there. Ronan, our main character, is a vulnerable young man who makes a very bad decision for the very best of reasons. He’s forced into a situation where he has to trade his body to gain back someone dear to him. The sidhe seem to grant him that choice—they’re the Irish true-to-folklore fairies, so they’re wingless and rather terrifying—but at the center of the story is the question of whether he ever really had a choice at all.

Non-con - There is no agreed upon single definition, but non-con generally portrays lack of consent meant to titillate. Consent explicitly isn’t given. There may even be a struggle or an openly said “no”. Non-con is usually written for the reader to identify with the victim, who often (but not always) comes to enjoy the experience even though they initially didn’t  want it. The victim is usually shown as enjoying the sex despite—or because of—the lack of consent.  

The most common examples of non-con, although they’re usually not labelled as such, are so-called “bodice rippers”. They used to be a hugely popular form of mainstream romance, but their popularity has diminished in recent decades. This oft-maligned genre arose out of the sexual politics of the day—and to some extent, our day—that simultaneously demanded heroines have sex as a part of the romantic plot, but also couldn’t show them seeking sex for fear of having them appear “promiscuous”: thus the heroine who is raped by the hero, learning halfway through that sex with him was what she wanted and needed all along.

In modern M/M, these issues with female sex and desire are different. Female desire is either a moot point within the story, or perhaps coded and decoded into male-bodied form. Non-con can serve other purposes, some of which may overlap with the bodice rippers. For example, Non-con allows the writer and reader to explore the most extreme of sexual power dynamics in a way that is physically safe.

People write and read these narratives for a variety of reasons, and it’s impossible to establish either purity or impurity of intention from the outside; many people don’t know exactly why they like it themselves. Non-con isn’t safe for everyone: the potential for psychological harm exists, just as it does with any narrative, sexual or non-sexual, involving extreme emotions. But the basic principle is that non-con hits primal extremes of emotion—desire, terror—while preserving some measure of safety for the reader.

Slavery - In BDSM, this can, like rape fantasy, still mean “safe, sane, consensual”, where consent is clearly and freely given with boundaries negotiated by both parties before the “scene”. Even in more time-intense scenarios, in which the master has control over certain aspects of the slave’s non-sexual life, if there’s still clear consent negotiation, it’s neither dub-con nor non-con. At any time, the slave can decide they don’t want to keep playing the role.

Outside of that scenario, this goes straight into non-con or rape fiction, because real slaves, unlike sex workers, cannot give consent because they do not have the power to withhold consent. The master might believe it’s consensual, and the slave can even make themselves believe it’s consensual as a defense mechanism, but it would still be rape in real life due to the lack of ability to withhold consent. Most people understand this even on a subconscious level... hence the controversy over the incontrovertible DNA evidence that Thomas Jefferson repeatedly raped his slaves. Slave fiction set in fantasy worlds where slavery exists, or that use popular historical settings like ancient Rome, sometimes choose to explore these ethical issues. It depends on the degree of verisimilitude to real-life slavery (historical or modern) that these stories want to establish.

Rape fiction - Another genre which can be difficult to define. At first, it seems clear: rape fiction portrays rape in a manner intended to disturb and frighten. Rape here is sometimes used for cheap shock value, or it can honestly and unflinchingly explore the experience of rape and its aftermath. Examples of rape in fiction are numerous and varied, with “rape revenge” being a common plot element across many genres.

It can also be pornographic, intentionally or not. For example, stories can be written from the POV of the rapist or a voyeur, and the source of titillation in this case isn’t about the extreme power dynamics and loss of control as with the non-con examples above, but instead about asserting power through the debasement or “punishment” of someone else. It’s hard to draw an exact line, because other forms of fiction will also depict the POV of the rapist or draw on elements of humiliation to create realism or intensify emotion, and sometimes well-meaning portrayals of rape meant to disturb or frighten can take on an exploitative sexual layer.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the current most popular example of rape fiction. The protagonist’s rape is absolutely central to the narrative. In the movie, audiences are first asked to identify with her as a victim, when she’s violently raped by her parole officer. She then turns the tables and in a later scene, rapes him; at this point, audiences are asked to identify with her as a rapist. However, critics of book and film argue that both portrayals are exploitative, regardless of who is being sympathised with or why, because how the act is portrayed is just as important as intent. By focusing on, say, the victim’s sexual attributes, a scene ostensibly meant to disgust can also titillate; sometimes this juxtaposition is accidental or unconscious, but sometimes it can be entirely intentional, a callous decision by the-powers-that-be to include sex in a way that doesn’t up the movie’s rating. An explicit consensual sex scene could lead to an NC-17, after all. Nothing about this is cut-and-dried, largely because the influence of rape in our society is so far-reaching even before introducing elements of author and audience.

How realistically should erotica portray consent?

We’ve used mainstream sources as examples to show that erotica and our type of m/m erotic romance really aren’t more “edgy”. In fact, they’re often simply more honest about the fictional connection between sexuality, consent and power.

Erotic fiction shouldn’t be held to higher ethical standards than mainstream fiction. But it shouldn’t necessarily be held to lower standards, either. With this in mind, one important ethical consideration in writing erotica involving consent is... does it support stereotypes that contribute to the oppression and pain of real-life people who are most vulnerable to rape? We’ve listed some misogynist stereotypes above since, as women, that’s the area in which we have the most personal experience, but there are stereotypes specific to vulnerable men, straight or not (“prisoners deserve rape”), and others specific to LGBTQ people such as “corrective rape”. And there are rape stereotypes along many other axes such as race and disability.

Some argue that erotica has no social responsibility whatsoever, and fantasy should always be free from judgement. Others, that erotica should always be written with an eye to encouraging healthy real-life sexual practices. Most withhold that “always” and fall somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. Where does dub-con fit? And non-con, and other stories that stretch the boundaries of consent? That depends largely on the writer... and the reader.

When we wrote “Salting the Earth” for the Like it or Not anthology, we created a story that’s very much in the middle, and in more than one way. It takes place between two worlds: the magical, extramoral realm of the sidhe mound and the realistic one of modern Ireland. And these two worlds won’t stay neatly apart. Grim events in the real world are called forth within the mound, stripped from their human ethical context and transformed into stage plays for the sake of inhuman aesthetic pleasure. Conversely, events within the mound have lasting real-world impact: unlike the legends of fairy gold, they don’t fade away by daylight.

Fear, love, shame, erotic arousal... all of these emotions blaze brightly as they burn across both worlds. And to some degree, all erotic stories involving consent aim to work this way: to bring readers close to the fire without getting burned.

Links for further reading:

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