Trigger warning for discussions of rape culture, and of a specific non-consent scenario.
Human beings are a storytelling lot, and every medium that we use to communicate with each other, we also use to tell stories. Every story is confined in some way by the medium in which it’s told and the means by which it’s distributed. Want to tell a story in television? You have to find an audience, advertisers, and a network. Want to tell a story in a novel? You have to find a literary agent and a publisher. Going through these channels restricts the diversity of stories we hear, or warps them from their original state.
Fandom is what happens when the people who love these stories talk back.
Fans talk back in all kinds of ways – by making campaigns to save the stories they love, like the Browncoats tried to do for Joss Whedon’s Firefly, or by having really long arguments on Facebook over which Star Trek show is the best*, or by writing their own stories that transform and play on characters, worlds, and themes from the stories they love. For the purposes of this post, I will be discussing the culture surrounding that last fannish practice, most commonly known as fanfiction.
What’s really exciting about fandom from a feminist point of view is that it is predominantly female. The people who are talking back to fictional media with their own takes on their favorite stories are women. This is a great opportunity to transform patriarchal, sex-negative stories told using the male gaze (which is the majority of media, sadly) into stories that represent our points of view. There are many fan communities that do this beautifully, such as Fantasy of Color and Half a Moon. However, all too often, the same biases that come up over and over again in fictional media are also replicated in fandom.
A lot of fanfiction has an erotic focus. Like everything else in fandom, erotic fanfic has the potential to be greatly liberating for the women who write and read it. The mainstream porn industry is male-dominated, and erotic fanfic written by and for women can portray things that women actually find sexy. When I first discovered this genre of fanfiction, I was thrilled. All other internet porn I’d encountered up to that point had repulsed me. I had finally found erotica created from a woman’s point of view.
However, as I began to merge the personal and the political in my life more and more, I became troubled by how much of the sex portrayed in fanfic was dubiously consensual, or outright non-consensual.
I understand that people can be turned on by rape fantasies without advocating or desiring rape. I even understand that some people who have been raped work through the trauma of the attack by reading stories, fictional or fannish, about rape. Therefore, I don’t think that erotic fanfic about rape is necessarily a bad thing. According to a friend of mine who’s a survivor and kinky as a submissive, it can be a freeing exploration of loss of control and all the eroticism that goes with that. If the fic comes with well-worded trigger warnings, letting readers know that it contains eroticized explicit depictions of rape, I don’t have a big problem with it. What I think is a serious problem is how some of the most common tropes used in erotic fanfic to create sexual tension or to bring two characters into a relationship are inherently non-consensual. These tropes are indeed so thoroughly normalized that most people either unaware they’re rape, or are aware, but don’t think it’s serious or important to warn for this content.
One very common family of non-consensual tropes is one in which one or more characters are put into a state, without their permission or control, of overpowering sexual need. One trope is “alien sex pollen,” a science-fictional substance that creates a sexual frenzy such that any characters exposed to it will immediately have sex with each other, regardless of whether they would have wanted sex with each other in an unaltered state. Another trope is “mating cycles,” in which a quirk of a character’s biology means they periodically enter a sexual frenzy in which they will have sex with anyone who comes near them, again regardless of whether they would normally want to do this.
According to a search I did on Archive of Our Own, one of many fanfiction archive sites, there are thousands of fanfics that fall within this genre; less than 10% of them warned for rape or dubious consent. I find this very alarming. Many women are survivors of sexual assault, so if we’re writing stories by and for women, we should allow survivors to avoid content that may trigger them.
This family of tropes fits neatly with the rape culture myth that sex is governed by uncontrollable desires. When you really want someone, you just can’t help having sex with them, and we can’t condemn anything that might happen as a result. Except that isn’t true. Yes, sexual feelings can be very powerful, but we always have a choice of whether to have sex with someone or not, unless someone else takes that choice away from us.
Another common family of non-consensual tropes is one in which characters are put in a situation where they must, or are strongly expected to, have sex. One trope here is the “fuck or die” scenario, where the characters must have sex or something Very Terrible will happen. Another is the forced marriage, where two characters are forced to marry and are strongly expected to have sex with each other (and in these fics, they inevitably do.) There are many variations on this theme, like scenarios in which having sex will create some sort of magical protection, such that the characters are pretty much obligated to have sex in order to survive.
This family of tropes corresponds with the idea that there are situations in which people must or should have sex. The problem here is that when it comes to sex, the only must is consent. No one is ever, ever obligated to have sex, even if it would save the world from Voldemort.
Some people in fandom with whom I’ve discussed this topic have told me that nonconsensual tropes are simply a convenient way to put two characters together in a sexual situation. But what does it say about fanfic writers if we write characters in non-consent scenarios just because we think it’s convenient? If you think non-consent is hot, then feel free to write about it, but we shouldn’t be writing non-consent just because it’s the easy, default way to get two characters to hook up. Consent should be the default, not the other way around.
Ultimately, what unites all common non-consensual tropes in fanfic is the idea that consent is irrelevant. All of these tropes are used to push two characters into a sexual situation so that they’ll eventually form a relationship with each other. The sexual situation is a catalyst that leads to a relationship, even though the sex is not consensual. This positions rape as a perfectly acceptable way to start a relationship. It doesn’t matter that the characters didn’t want to at first. Now they do, and that retroactively makes everything okay.
I tried to summarize the general trends of non-consent in erotic fanfiction, but it’s hard to cover it all. What I really want is for fanfic writers to realize when they’re writing a non-consensual situation so they can a) take a moment to consider whether they’re sure they want to eroticize this behavior, and b) if they decide to go ahead with it, to warn for potentially triggering content.
Not too long ago, I encountered a fic – with no trigger warnings whatsoever – in which Character A takes a sex partner home for a one night stand, and afterward becomes aware that Character B was listening in on them and masturbating. From then on, Character A started picking up one night stands at specified times and places such that Character B could get off on it voyeuristically – without telling the sex partners about Character B. It was obvious that the author regarded these temporary sex partners as mere set pieces to the sexual drama of Characters A and B and didn’t even realize or think about the fact that they never consented to this exhibitionist/voyeurist dynamic. It will probably not surprise you that Characters A and B were men and the temporary sex partners who were watched during sex without their consent were women. The author of this fanfic, statistically most likely a woman, didn’t even consider whether the women in her fic were consenting. Their consent was irrelevant.
So if you’re in fandom, what can you do to combat rape culture?
First off, if you write a fanfic with rape in it, even rape that takes place off-screen or is only discussed in the abstract, stick a warning on it. You’re writing fanfic to entertain other fans, right? Well, being triggered is the exact opposite of entertaining, so don’t let your readers go through that!
Second, if you write erotic fanfic, try writing some fic with explicit consent negotiations. What I like about this is that consent negotiation can reveal a lot about the characters. Does a character ask for consent shyly? Playfully? Do they lay out a twenty-point plan of exactly what they want to try in bed or do they just say, “Do me”? All of the erotic fanfic I write emphasizes consent, because telling a partner exactly what you want can be a courageous and vulnerable moment, and I like portraying these vulnerabilities in the characters I love.
Third, if you’re really keen, you should run a fest, exchange, or ficathon centering around enthusiastic consent. There was a really great ficathon a few years back called Saying Yes 2010, but they haven’t followed up since, and I think fandom could use more events centered around this theme.
*It’s Deep Space Nine, by the way.