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?

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: