Elephant in my Room: Nonconsent in Erotica

Elephant in My Room: Noncensent in Erotica

I tweeted a bit about this, because it’s something everyone’s grappling with right now.

It’s rising to the surface in American media, in Canadian media. Much as we may pretend our neighbours to the south are extremely different, rape culture isn’t limited by borders. It’s a product of cultures that commodify bodies, a cruelty that reaches back centuries and continents.

Rape culture is shitty, and it’s gross, and it turns something fun and awesome into violence and shame. It’s insidious, creeping into sexual interactions, into movies, into advertising, into books, into pornography.

How can I avoid or duck out of this conversation, and feel that I’ve made the responsible choice? I don’t have a lot of answers. I have values, and I need to articulate them; and I have fantasies that give me pleasure, and I don’t want to be barred from expressing them.

So, then, the question that underlies my thoughts and worries: Is it morally correct to write fantasies of nonconsent? Will they influence an abuser to continue in their abuse? Will they cement further this myth that women secretly all want to be raped and violated? That men should never learn to respect body language and boundaries?

Will I, as a fantasist, create harm rather than pleasure?

It’s trivial fact, not even news, that many women have rape fantasies (and, presumably, going off things I’ve seen here and there in my time on the internet, all genders do). Fantasies of being forcibly taken are evoked by the term ‘bodice ripper.’ Gentle, sensual pornography is not the kind most often seen on the internet.

Why do people have them? I’ve never heard a definitive answer.

Certainly, I have had no childhood history of abuse that explains my preferences. As long as I can remember, I was always captivated by those tense moments in movies when the heroes were captured and bound, and that excited me in a way that was proto-sexual in the way of children. There could be any number of factors, and I’ll guess that in the end it doesn’t matter. Having a fantasy or a thought is not immoral. Morality is made up of the choices you make in the real world.

I don’t always fantasize about nonconsensual situations, but I do a fair amount. Elements of nonconsent turn up in some—but not all—of my work. I also think enthusiastic consent is pretty hot too: it’s really a matter of how it fits in the story. I like the layer of padding that fantasy situations provide. They’re another step removed from reality. When a wizard takes advantage of a little fairy, it’s impossible, it’s intangible. Fantasy is the armour I use to protect my fantasies from nastiness. In the real world, rape is power and selfishness. Participation is forced. In a fantasy, it’s about the sex. The reader is safe to engage or not.

Adults are responsible for their own choices. They are responsible for the way they handle a situation, and the way they react to the results of what they have done. They are responsible for the media they consume. But they are also shaped by their environment, and the knowledge and guidance they have access to.

It’s important that we teach young people about consent. It’s important that we learn how to read and respect body language. It’s vitally, vitally important that we hold people responsible for the choices that they make. Social pushback is a great way to help people grow. We grow through adversity. The men in power who are making the headlines as abusers must be held to be a better standard, or else they continue to abuse. When they are found guilty, appropriate punishment should be in order. (And yet, this so often isn’t the case! How frustrating!)

There are men who have apologized in exemplary ways, and we should also appreciate that recognition of fault. We should acknowledge and support those who make changes while ensuring we watch them, to make sure they don’t falter again.

We should also teach women how to assert their boundaries, uplift them and respect their efforts, so that when they’re put in uncomfortable situations they can know how to say ‘no’ without feeling that they’re the bad guy. Because learning to assert your boundaries is a skill, too—and I can attest that I’ve been in uncomfortable situations where if I’d said ‘no’ confidently, I would have avoided grief. 

I’ve heard those on the other side of #MeToo hashtags confess that they wished they’d had the people-reading skills or a better understanding of boundaries. These are cases of bad sex, of misunderstanding. They’d take it all back if they could, because making the other person feel violated and unsafe hadn’t been their intent or even their instinct—but they did it anyway, and now they have to live with that. The situation had been charged and unclear. We could demonize these people, but it’s better, in my mind, to let them grapple with that guilt and work to be better each day.

Communication and respect are the cornerstones of relationship. They’re also skills that need to be taught. If parents and schools fail in that respect, who is accountable?

I’ve been discussing situations of pushed boundaries, of discomfort and emotion: violence and rape are another more serious thing, and there should be stronger pushback and punishment.

Rape culture is an immense cultural snarl that needs to be unknotted a few threads at a time. Believing and standing with victims. Letting abusers know they’re responsible for what they’ve done. Choosing each day to be responsible for your conduct in the world.

That’s my personal moral take on this, but where does art come in?

I don’t know.

I’ve read books that seem to glorify real-life rape, and that turns my stomach. I always try to underpin my nonconsent scenes with arousal or eroticism; I try to give every character many facets and hope they read realistically, and not as cut-outs. I try to make the interiority of my abusive characters clear: that they are in the wrong, or that they’re pushing a boundary for the purpose of a sex and power that’s meant to give the reader a rush, rather than skeeve them out.

I’ve said before that I want my reader to feel like they have human dignity, even if the scenes depicted in a story are morally reprehensible.

There’s a scene in GRRM’s A Dance with Dragons, and probably also in Game of Thrones (which I don’t watch as I’m not a TV person), where a female character is paraded through the streets naked. I’d enjoyed parts of the series ’til then. I like bloodshed and violence, political intrigue and carnage. That scene made me want to throw the book against the wall. I came out of it feeling like it was shameful to be female. I felt like my limbs had turned to slime.

It wasn’t the first time I’d read books about violence against women, good lord no! Not to mention I’d read the whole ASOIAF series, and generally not been troubled with it.

Something about that scene set me off. And it wasn’t unlike the feeling I sometimes got watching certain kinds of pornography. I guess humiliation and degradation isn’t my cup of tea—except I’ve definitely gotten off humiliation and degradation in books and fanfiction before.

I don’t know what it is, why some things make me feel slimy and others just get me wet.

I just don’t know.

I want to bring people pleasure. Make them feel good about themselves. I try to be clear in my tags so that people aren’t met with nasty surprises in my stories. It’s hard with sex, because one person’s innocuous kink can be a major dealbreaker for someone else.

So I try my best. I hope people will consume media responsibly. That they’ll find outlets and catharsis in violence, and not take that into the real world.

Let’s all remember that honest communication and respect are vitally important each and every day. We’re nothing without them.

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