Warnings: I’m going to talk about rape a lot in this post—real and fictionalized. The links also contain a lot of rape discussion. Read and click with this in mind. Also, the link about Game of Thrones has spoilers.
A few days ago, I read this excellent post by Samantha Field: Cersei Lannister, rape culture, and a lot of me flipping the bird in general. Not only is this a great explanation of what is wrong with the plot point itself, it highlights exactly why I won’t read or write that kind of fiction.
I have long had a problem with the various rape tropes in fiction, and for that reason I read everything with both a cautious and a critical eye. In particular, I have a strong distaste for what is commonly called “dubious consent.” For starters, I don’t believe there is any such thing. Either there is consent or there isn’t; there is no middle ground. For a person who is generally not a black-and-white thinker, that’s a pretty bold statement, but it’s one I hold to.
It isn’t that I have a problem with writers crafting scenarios in which there is a question about consent. After all, real life is full of situations in which a rapist might try to justify their crime, and there are many people who put their trust in the justifications. Pointing that out in fiction is not wrong. What is wrong is romanticizing it.
I have three very specific problems with “dubious consent” as entertainment. First, I find it horrifying when authors write non-consent as masturbatory fodder. This is a real thing; I could not make that up. If you don’t believe me, go back to Samantha’s post and re-read the section of the book she quotes. It is not subtle. Readers are intended to be aroused by the passage in question. The language used in “dubious consent” stories is full of the same verbiage found in fully consensual erotic stories, further blurring the lines.
Second, it romanticizes the rapist. Often, the rapist is written in a sympathetic way—troubled past, difficulties in forming good relationships, in need of the love of another character to become whole. Rather than having empathy for the victim, we become enamored with the rapist. In many cases, after the victim discovers the pleasures of non-consensual sex and falls in love with the rapist, the rapist is then transformed into someone now capable of love and tenderness. Similarly, the victim becomes the person who teaches the rapist they can have sex without hurting other people. It sets up the victim as the savior of the rapist, as though that should be the job description. The victim is often also a flawed person who needs the rapist to demonstrate what “good” sex is or should be like. In other words, the rape becomes “healing” for both parties.
Third, both of those are in direct contrast to stories in which there is violent rape. The problem with that is it sets up a false premise: “Real” rape is scary, bad, evil, violent, and horrific; “Dubious consent” is romantic, erotic, and potentially beneficial. We are not meant to see the two scenarios the same way. Despite the fact that “questionable consent” is still not consent, we are intended to view it as a whole separate category.
The use of “dubious consent” disturbs me. There are authors I refuse to read because of their constant use of those themes. No matter how otherwise “good” a writer is in terms of story arc, language use, and characterization, I still see it as not only disgusting but incredibly unoriginal. If the only way you can make a character flawed is to have that person sexually assaulting other people, you have a more serious problem than whether or not you know how to string coherent sentences together. Sex and sexuality can be powerful metaphors for other things, but they should not be used in a way that conflates victimization with love.
I question whether the writing of such material is influencing wider culture. My tendency is to believe it is more a reflection of what the writer believes, as encouraged by culture. In either case, I see myself as having the responsibility not to perpetuate those views. As an author, I do not want to fall into any such lazy plot devices. Characters meant to fall in love should be capable of doing so without the rapey undertones. Not only that, I refuse to promote the work of any author using rape tropes as eroticism.
If you are curious about rape tropes beyond “no really means yes,” try this link for several variations. Unfortunately, “dubious consent” is not the only form of rape denial and apologism in literature. I draw my hard line at rape-for-reader-pleasure because I think it’s particularly gross to rub one out over someone else’s assault. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to be careful about the other versions as well.
Rape myths are lies; we need to stop pretending they are anything else.