Wednesday, June 20, 2012

That Scene Was Almost Sort of A Little Bit Rape-y-ish

Dubious Consent in Romantic Fiction

A while back, a BDSM website reviewed By His Rules.

The review contained this line:

 "And, to be honest - while the first relationship clearly crosses lines that shouldn't be crossed, Aiden does have to take some of the responsibility. Scott has to take more of it, sure... but Aiden set up a pattern of Scott having to fight him and hurt him to ensure his submission."

The reviewer was referencing the scene where submissive MC Aiden, caught in an abusive relationship with a dom named Scott, is forced to have sex even though he repeatedly says no and finally safe words.

I want to make it clear that I’m not writing this post to fire back at a reviewer. It was a perfectly nice review, and readers of any story certainly have a right to their interpretations and assessments of its characters and events. But I do want to use this quote as a springboard to discuss a larger issue—one that has been on my mind for a long time, and one that I think is definitely worth talking about.

It’s the idea of “dubious consent” in romantic fiction—particularly in BDSM fiction.

I know a lot of other people have already written on this topic more eloquently than I will. And I know it’s my job to write romance novels, not stand on my soapbox and holler. But I do have to throw in my two cents here.

Fiction is a place where we’re free to delve into our fantasies—dark, light, secret, filthy, beautiful, silly, and terrifying. It should always be that place.

Dubious consent is a construct that exists only in fiction. It can be a very potent fantasy to be captured, bound, sold into sexual slavery, etc. To have Lord Musclechest McPirateCaptor tacitly understand that by “No! Please. Stop!” you really mean, “Yes, this is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life. Set me free with your magic touch.” And there is absolutely nothing wrong with having this fantasy (or some way subtler, better articulated version of it). Or with living it vicariously through books, or acting it out in in a safe, sane, and consensual scene.

The publisher's warning on BHR reads "dubious consent." Not "rape." A lot of books featuring acts that in real life would qualify as rape are labeled dub-con. Whether that particular scene in BHR gets called dub-con or rape, the act Scott commits is clearly intended to be violent, not sexy - and Scott is not the story's hero. But there are plenty of dub-con books where the dubious acts take place between the story's MCs and are meant to titillate. Several books I love fall into that category.

In real life, either you have your partner’s enthusiastic consent to participate in a sex act, or you do not—in which case, if you keep going, it’s rape.

No dubious consent. No “gray rape” (thank you very much Cosmopolitan).

What disturbs me - and what I think the line from that review would suggest if it were applied to a real life situation - is that some people think the rules are different in BDSM.

Here’s what’s different about consent in BDSM: Often a safe word replaces “No,” “Stop,” or “Don’t.” In plenty of BDSM scenes and relationships, “No” still means “No.” But for partners who enact fantasies of force and coercion, the safe word exists so that the “forced” party can yell “No,” or “Stop,” within the context of the scene and still have a way to end it if he or she wants to.

For any reason.

Any. Reason.

It doesn’t matter what the reason is. If the dominant partner hears the safe word and doesn’t stop whatever he or she is doing immediately, it’s rape.

Let’s say I have a partner or spouse, and we have sex regularly. One night I say, “Not tonight; I’m not in the mood,” but my partner/spouse has sex with me anyway. It’s rape. I do not bear some of the responsibility because I “set up a pattern” of liking to have sex with my partner, any more than Aiden bears some of the responsibility for his rape by setting up a pattern of liking to be “forced.”

He safe worded. End of story.

Scott’s line “Say it [the safe word] one more time and I’ll stop,” doesn’t make it not rape.

If you're a dom, you don’t ask a submissive to repeat the safe word. You don’t doubt or mock his/her reason for using it.

You just stop.

Any scene that a submissive has no way of ending is not a safe, sane, or consensual scene. Nor is a scene where a sub fears humiliation or retribution for ending it.

But I think the idea seeps into our collective consciousness that there’s a consent-shaped gray area where BDSM is concerned.

How can a submissive be raped if he or she has asked to be pushed past his/her limits? If he or she likes be forced, coerced, degraded, humiliated, beaten, tied up, or used in whatever manner his or her dominant sees fit?

The same way anyone can be raped - through the absence of consent and/or the ability to consent. That submissive better have agreed to the scene beforehand, and he or she darn well better have the option every second that the scene goes on of un-consenting to it.

Regardless of slave contracts.

Regardless of how total a Total Power Exchange is.

I don’t care if you clean your dominant partner’s toilet bowl every day with your tongue and love it. If one day you decide you can’t handle cleaning the toilet bowl with your tongue, you have a right to safe word and go watch a movie instead.

If you’re gagged, you have a safe signal.

Stacey May Fowles wrote an awesome essay about submission and rape. I’ve mentioned it on this blog before, but I can’t link to it enough.

So what about fiction? Readers know dub-con is just a fantasy, right? So get off your soapbox, author, and get back to doing your romance thing.

I read this article recently. It’s about a study that illustrates how we relate to characters in novels. The study found that we react to fictional characters on a much deeper level than we probably realize. We look to them for moral guidance, and we often subconsciously imitate the behavior of characters we identify with.

Am I saying that if we read books where one MC takes the other MC “dubiously,” we’ll suddenly believe nonconsensual sex is acceptable? Of course not. But romance is a genre that usually asks a hero to behave like a hero (Patrick Bateman is the “hero” of American Psycho in the protagonist sense, but hopefully we’re not modeling our values on his). To be loyal, strong, upstanding, trustworthy, etc. We want a romantic hero to have flaws, but not flaws that compromise his/her ability to be a Good Person.

If fiction repeatedly allows characters who play fast and loose with consent to be heroes, and either trivializes or eroticizes rape - or else presents as acceptable the shifting of responsibility onto victims - then we will probably continue to see those attitudes at work in real life. Because art reflects life, and vice versa.

I will always fight for two things:

A world without artistic censorship, where fiction is a mirror and a vessel for our darkest fantasies and no one has to be afraid of the acts and desires he or she lives out in the pages of books.

And a world where rape is never justified. Where no victim ever has to hear that he or she bears some - or all - of the responsibility for what happened.

I don’t think these worlds have to be mutually exclusive.

So what am I advocating?

Not an end to dub-con fiction. Not for those of us with dub-con fantasies to be ashamed of what turns us on.

Not even an end to the term “dubious consent” in fiction.

But an acute understanding of where the lines exist between reality and fantasy. If you swooned over the pirate captain in Romance Novel X who ravished a young captive, just promise that if you ever saw a pirate captain trying that in real life, you’d remind him that the ravishee has to say “yes” loud and clear and of his/her own free will—or else you’re calling the sea police.

Also the understanding that “submissive” does not mean “someone with no agency who has to take whatever a dominant gives.” A submissive does not ask for rape merely by being submissive, or by having consented in the past to rough sex or coercion play. That goes for anyone outside the BDSM lifestyle who enjoys those activities as well.

Because if Tuesday night I wanted to play “Tie-Me-Down-and-Do-Me-While-I-Yell-No,” but Friday night I said, “Eh, no thanks,” Or “[insert safe word here]”—and you “played” anyway? Guess what? It’s rape.

Nothing dubious about it.


  1. Also the understanding that “submissive” does not mean “someone with no agency who has to take whatever a dominant gives.” A submissive does not ask for rape merely by being submissive, or by having consented in the past to rough sex or coercion play. That goes for anyone outside the BDSM lifestyle who enjoys those activities as well.

    Totally agree and thank you for a thought-provoking post!

  2. I think I was still a teenager when one of those strange people from sex-ed classes mentioned to a bunch of us that the rape fantasy was normal. And not only normal, but perfectly healthy. It was a big moment for me, and told me that it was okay to distinguish between fiction and reality, whether we're getting served that fiction in a novel, or in the bedroom.

    And, as you say, Aiden safe-worded = consent withdrawn. End of story. Argument over.

    Also, Lord Musclechest McPirateCaptor? He can shiver my timbers any time he likes.

    1. I don't think any of my school's sex ed teachers were cool enough to talk about rape fantasy. But as a teen I found Mary Friday's My Secret Garden, a book about women's sexual fantasies, and I was like, wow, other people think about this stuff!

      Haha! Lord Musclechest McPirateCaptor totally needs his own book.

  3. Fabulous post. Thanks for spelling it out, and for the links.

    1. Thank you, Emma. I really love that article about how readers relate to novel characters -- such a cool study.

  4. Dubious consent is a construct that exists only in fiction.


    But you knew that. Because the last thing a hero needs is to be rapier. <3 you!

    1. Back atcha. Get it, non-rapey heroes!(But ask first...)

  5. This is a really interesting post on a subject that endlessly fascinates me. The main thing I feel about this is that because "rape as titillation" is not allowed to be sold, this limits the warning publishers can use. Basically, Loose Id could not have labelled it rape, considering it is an explicit scene, and still sold it on Amazon. And the net effect is that it limits the conversation that readers and authors and PEOPLE can really have about this issue. We are forced to talk about dubious consent and forced seduction and capture scenarios and all these other terms that dance around the issue of "he/she said no".

    Actually I don't agree with you that there is no grey area in real life. I think there is so much grey area that it makes my head hurt to think about. There are just too many times when someone says no and then legitimately changes their mind. There are too many times when they didn't. There are too many times when someone didn't feel like they COULD say no, and yet the other party never ever intended to rape them.

    There are times when a woman may feel just fine about something that happened, but a man feels guilt that he pushed or took advantage. There are times when a woman might feel shameful or weak in a sexual situation but the man acted as he does all the time and has never had a problem before with other women at other times. Of course, the line has to be drawn somewhere, especially when it comes to culpability under the law. And that doesn't always coincide with what our morality tells us because 1) the issue of intent is so hazy and 2) we would prefer that a guilty man go free than an innocent one be jailed.

    Obviously erotic fiction is not necessarily real, but take all dub-con books out of the equation, is there usually a time when the hero says to the heroine/other hero "Hey so, do you want to have sex now?" and she/he's like "Oh, yes baby. I consent." Because we all know that only yes means yes, and now he's verbally verified that. It doesn't often happen in fiction, and it doesn't often happen in real life, at least in my experience/observation. There are so many nonverbal cues that go into the mating dance, which is both completely natural and also a big part of the problem.

    So anyways, that's a rambling comment and my 2 cents. I absolutely LOVED By His Rules. It's a great book, and I enjoyed it purely for its entertainment value and also appreciate a book that makes us readers take a hard look at these issues. Thanks :)

    Amber Lin

  6. Amber,

    Thank you so much for your comment. I really like what you say about there actually being a great deal of gray area in real life. Enthusiastic and explicit consent by all parties in all sexual encounters is not terribly realistic. However, I do think it is an ideal to work toward.

    "There are too many times when someone didn't feel like they COULD say no, and yet the other party never ever intended to rape them."

    Absolutely. I think this happens all the time. Same with the other scenarios you presented. But I do believe that taking the absence of no—or an uncertain or coerced yes—as consent is still rape, even if the intent wasn’t malicious. “Rape” is such an evil word, and it may seem harsh to put a college guy at a party having sex with a girl because she didn’t say she didn’t want it in the same box as a stranger in an alley raping someone at knifepoint. But both are rape. And we can reduce the miscommunication and ignorance that sometimes leads to rape by obtaining or offering explicit consent.

    "There are so many nonverbal cues that go into the mating dance, which is both completely natural and also a big part of the problem."

    Yes, this! Part of what’s sexy about sex is what goes unspoken. I know that getting verbal permission to have contact with another person can seem ridiculous (SNL’s Is It Date Rape? Sketch about Antioch College). We laugh at scenes in old movies where a girl is slapping some guy’s hand off her thigh at a drive-in because it seems natural for a horny teenage boy to see how far he can go. But these images, funny as they may be, contribute to the idea that it’s okay for men (or women) to push for what they want sexually and eventually get it by “wearing down” the other party. And with BDSM, we hear a lot about doms wanting to push subs “to their limits” or “past their limits.” An idea that can sound both very sexy and very dangerous.

    I agree with you that human emotions, morals, sex, and communication are complicated. There IS a lot of apparent gray area in real life—particularly, as you say, legally. But I want to work toward a world where the gray area is reduced to a gray sliver. Because I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t take minute during whatever hot and heavy stuff is happening to ask a partner if he/she is okay with what’s going on. Or any reason we can’t utilize our self-control and call a halt to the proceedings if we’re not 100% sure said partner is enjoying him/herself. Untangling potential misunderstandings doesn’t have to be a buzzkill. For too long, the idea of a gray area has been used to justify rape and excuse rapists. If we have to do a major overhaul to get out of that mindset, I think it’s worth it.

    Thanks for pointing this out, too:

    "Basically, Loose Id could not have labelled it rape, considering it is an explicit scene, and still sold it on Amazon. And the net effect is that it limits the conversation that readers and authors and PEOPLE can really have about this issue."

    I have seen romance publishers put rape in their warning labels--usually as a potential trigger for readers. But you’re right, now that I think about it, that’s usually for rape that happens off-page, or is not explicitly described. What tends to happen for me is that if I see “dub-con” instead of “rape,” I take it as an indication that the scene(s) in question may have been intended to be titillating. And that can send some mixed messages about what our society does or does not excuse when it comes to rape.

    Thank you so much for stopping by and talking about this. I hope I didn’t sound like I was arguing with you—I feel like we’re on the same page, but your comments just really made me think, and I ended up writing a whole other post’s worth of stuff :) It’s a dialogue I love having, and your comments were very insightful. My dream world full of sexy, sexy consent is definitely not the real world—but I wonder if it could be someday.

    All the best,


  7. Thanks for your thoughtful response! I definitely don't take offense and honestly am always gratified when we can have an open discussion about this topic.

    Yeah, I really like what you're saying about if something is rape, don't dance around it, call it rape. I dig that but here's my thing. That girl at the party has the right to consent to any legal act she chooses to... even if she doesn't really feel like it, even if it kinda hurts, even if it makes her feel bad about herself. I may wish she wouldn't, but if she makes a choice to consent, I can't call it rape without undermining her right and dominion over her own body.

    Well, from the outside, that same physical act can definitely look like rape. Sometimes it is. So what's the difference between the two... I wish I knew. I think it depends on the person's mindset at the time, which of course an outsider can only guess at. It can depend on their reaction, which means the implication of the act can change after it is done and over. And all of that boils down to be... very fluid.

    Sometimes I will read a situation where something happened and the girl will be like, was it rape? And it's almost like she's asking for permission to be affected by it. If it's sex, it shouldn't matter. If it's rape, she's allowed to feel shame and guilt and seek help, etc. I wish that distinction wasn't so strong. I wish people knew it was okay to feel bad things about sex, even to need therapy or whatever, without the rape/abuse label.

  8. Yeah!

    It’s definitely not fair to patronize women by forcing a victim label on them and assuming they can’t decide for themselves how they perceive a situation. Something I come up against writing domestic discipline—a lifestyle I respect and adore—is that I feel way more comfortable with m/m DD than m/f DD with a male head of household, simply because a non-sexual scenario that involves men making choices for women or women being in such a subordinate to men makes me just slightly queasy. 'Cause of all that, you know, history. But I'd never want to suggest a woman isn’t capable of deciding for herself that she wants a man to make decisions for her. That she doesn’t have the same right as a man to be the sub in a DD relationship.

    Argh! Confusing. I chase my thoughts in circles with this one. I guess what it all comes back to for me is that the hypothetical girl at the party needs to have consented without having felt pressured. If she did consent, then the fact that she has negative feelings about whatever occurred doesn't mean she was raped. I too wish people felt okay having a wide range of feelings about sex.

    But I know often it's hard for victims of the you-didn’t-say-no-so-I-thought-it-was-fine-to-go-ahead rape scenario to come forward. And those people should be able to seek support without having to worry about being accused of "buyer’s remorse" (Have heard that term and I hate it. So, so much. Because sex is a business transaction??)or of not refusing strongly enough. Though unwelcome sexual advances are a fact of life, the responsibility shouldn't fall on the solicited party to fend off those advances, but rather on the advancing party to gracefully accept either "No" OR silence as a rejection.

    Rock on, Amber! I'm so glad we're talking about this.

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