Tea Time with Alexis J Hall and Friends ~ Special Guests Santino Hassell, Allan Jay and Karen Wellsbury

TeaTime with AJHHello Tea Timers

Today I’m joined by Santino, Allan and Karen, and we’re going to be talking about sexual violence in m/m. Sorry for the heavy topic but it came up on Twitter and seemed interesting so, err, here we are.

Trigger warnings, I would expect.

K: when we decided to talk about this, I tried to do some research.

Allan: so what did the research tell you? Did you get far?

K: it was a minefield, I found out that last year a lot of books got sold, some were romance. Most were written and bought by women. And there are groups that seek out books with m/m non con in.

AJH: I’m just impressed by the fact you research at all – what were you looking at? I mean, all I’ve got sn a vague sense that there’s a lot of sexual violence in m/m and, for that matter, in het too.

K: mainly to validate that

Allan: Well there is a theory that for a fair few people they seek out representations of things that they’d never do or experience in real life. They look for videos and read books that contain things that are taboo in order to experience them second-hand. So that could explain the groups that search out non-con.

AJH: I think we probably need to establish our terms here. I mean there’s sexual violence in the sense of assault and rape, which is usually not presented as titillating, and there’s sexual violence in the sense of non-con, which can be. And of course the line between these two is pretty subjective. I confess I was noticing a lot of non-titillating sexual violence, but I’m happy to talk about all the things.

SH: I’ve always been really upset by the prevalence of “non-con” (both the term in general and the fact that it’s essentially glamorized rape porn) in fanfic and romance in general (including consent by erection/body reaction/etc even if a character says no), but I also realize it is a fantasy kink that is very similar to… I guess the gangbang rape scenarios that has been common in porn for years. But like you said, more recently I’ve been noticed a huge surge of abusive backstories in terms of queer characters, and I’m still of two minds about that.

AJH: Shall we talk about what seems (on the basis of no research) to be the rise of abusive backstories and then–if we’re feeling exceptionally suicidal–move on to non-con?

Allan: Let’s go for it. I’ll open with a blunt statement. I hate, with a passion, abusive backstories. It repeats, for me, a trope that we used to get in real life (not just books) about ‘oh you’re gay, you must have been abused’. Fuck that. So for me, it doesn’t deserve a place in my reading. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be written, but just that I won’t read it.

SH: the “you’re gay, you must have been abused” seems as common as the “you’re a lesbian, a man must have hurt you” bullshit.

AJH: I’m ambivalent. I’ve read some very good books recently that have dealt with sexual abuse in what, to me (and obviously I’m one person, not any sort of arbiter) felt like a really compassionate and authentic way (OFF CAMPUS, for example). And I do know plenty of people who, queer or straight, have suffered abuse–so not giving those stories voices would be as troubling as only giving those stories voices. But, yes, like Allan I am somewhat weary of the assumption that being queer automatically or necessarily is likely to have entailed abuse of some kind.

SH: Right, so that’s kind of why I’m two minds about it. I know several queer people, me included, who have experienced some level of abuse in their lifetime. It seems exceptionally common for queer people and there’s no denying that BUT I don’t think the way it’s often presented in fiction is always thoughtful or reflective of reality (I am not thinking of any specific titles here). According to research a friend of mine did for her job, a lot of violence is perpetrated by partners, not always in gay clubs by aggressive gay men etc (although there is no denying that this also occurs). Also, not everyone was abused as a child and this affected their identity. So, sometimes these backstories seem… based on a lot of assumptions or stereotypes which is why it’s become a trope.

K: This seems to almost glamourise abuse, and it totally happens in het as well, in fact it seems to be incredibly popular.

Allan: I think all of the above is why I have a problem with it. There is a direct line drawn between previous abuse = emotional distance = challenge for hero to overcome = happy ending that been dealt with. What I’d like to see more of is an exploration of the impacts rather than a solution.

There’s also a wider issue that Santino touched upon above. There was an article in a UK newspaper last year that highlighted the overly sexually aggressive and sexually disposable culture that is the UK LGBT scene. In a culture where sex is seen as disposable is it any wonder that people use it in an unthinking manner.

SH: All of these things are why I can’t necessarily say “there is no place for abusive backstories in m/m” but I think when it’s applied could be more thoughtful. I guess I sometimes want to ask people whether they felt a “raped as a child/attacked in a club” backstory is really necessary for the character’s development? Was it really necessary to explain why a character hates anal sex or hates night clubs or has an untrusting/distant personality? Could those things have manifested another way without using this trope and perpetuating this idea that queer people are super tragic messed up people who have messed up stuff happen?

AJH: It’s, gosh, it’s complicated. It reminds me a bit of … well in the fantasy genre, ‘randomly raped’ is just a default plot point for female characters. Character development for them in the way ‘learned to use a sword’ is character development for the hero. So I think that’s the idea that troubles me the most – that this is somehow standard character-development for queer characters. But then, of course, I do start wondering about the impact of romance as a genre – after all, rape culture is what it is, and a terrifyingly high proportion of women do suffer some kind of sexual abuse in their life times, so I can see why (in a genre that deals primarily with personal and emotional experiences) it comes up a lot. And I’m not saying that it’s less relevant to queer characters because … no … I kind of want to kick a kitten every time somebody tells me that it’s less troubling to rape male characters than female ones because privilege or rape culture or whatever. I think the world would be a better place if we accepted that rape culture is bad for everybody and nobody should be raped. Even if they have privilege.

K : people say that ? The history of abuse in romance is strong, and in a way it’s logical that this bleeds into m/m, but there is also this strong theme that the abuse just vanishes when the right person, cock, is met.

Allan: It makes me wonder whether what we are seeing then is the confluence of two streams of thought. The bleed over of abuse/rape as a plot point from het romance, mixed in with the certain lack of research (that some) writers seem to do into real queer lives. Giving this odd mix that sits uncomfortably.

SH: I think there’s totally something to that. I mean, I don’t think writers are implementing these backstories and plotlines to perpetuate stereotypes, but I think it’s something that became…easy to do? It’s an easy explanation for a lot of things, and an easy way to activate the hurt/comfort trope in romance. And full disclosure, I have written a character with sexual abuse in his past, so I am definitely not going full-on hypocrite mode here by castigating anyone who writes about this stuff. For me, it’s all about when and why and whether there was thought put into it, and how, like Allan said, the impact of it was handled.

AJH: I’ve also written sexually abused characters – I’m not opposed to the trope, I’m just entangled in the intersectionalities. Like I say, it can feel good to read a story that resonates with you and explores something that is still a largely unspoken experience for most male sexual abuse survivors. But since, I don’t know, casual, semi-anonymous encounters and clubs were sort of how I first began to articulate and experience and understand me and mah queerness – I get nervous when these scenarios and experiences are portrayed as highly likely to be dangerous, risky or abusive. Maybe I’m just ludicrously lucky but I’ve had very few bad experiences attached to any of those behaviours – and I’m troubled that I’m characterising that as lucky. That’s, err, normal, right? Not having horrible shit happen to you.

SH: I would assume it’s normal rather than assuming being assaulted is? I’ve had too wasted to consent issues at clubs and that seems common for many people in various circumstances, but I would hope most people don’t assume all gay clubs are dens of abuse.

AJH: They seem to be in a lot of m/m I’ve read recently. I don’t know if that’s just a weird … reflection of a particularly insidious aspect of rape culture, though. This idea that certain types of sexual (or sex-seeking) behaviour are inherently ‘risky’ – thus rape is a consequence of immoral / foolish choices rather than, y’know, rapists. I see that a bit sometimes, in het, so I wonder if it’s kind of … been transmitted to m/m.

K: for me thats hit the nail on the head, and i wonder, there a correlation between who is writing and who the main readership is ?

AJH: I think we can over-correlate those things – I’m wary of going down a “because womenz!” route. But I think it is relevant in that, obviously, women readers and writers have one relationship with rape culture but this is not only or even the dominant relationship to have. Queer women will have a different one. So will straight men. And so will queer men.

Allan: Is there then a ‘because hetz’ thing? That writing from a particular perspective doesn’t fully take into account the relationship not just with rape culture, but with sexual harassment and then sex more generally?

AJH: It is a lot of very complicated, very specific, very subjective relationships I think. And perhaps the problem is not the existence of these, or even the complexity, but the fact that one mode is presumed the only / correct / most important mode.

K: In novels, there is a huge difference in reading about either an on page, or backstory abuse that is relevant and what sometimes appears to be a cashing in on  a trend, I think as a reader we can sniff the difference out.

SH: I do feel it’s important for these issues to be written about and discussed because they are real issues, but not if they’re not being written about in a way that is genuine? Rape as a backstory shouldn’t be an easy pathway to “doesn’t like certain kinds of sex” “doesn’t trust people” which then leads to “romantic interest saves/cures this”.

K: Back to the magic cock syndrome again. But it’s an easy option don;t  you think ?

SH: It’s super easy, which is probably why it’s overused. Also, because the love interest is often portrayed as a person who is the best sex of one’s life/one who helps MC find themselves/become a better person/helps the MC to overcome odds/etc, and you can tie that all in with an abusive backstory or hurt/comfort tropes in general.

Allan: If I ever get myself a boyfriend with one of these magical cocks then I’m totally going to nickname him Harry (or Hagrid, if he’s a bit beary). But yes, I think it’s essentially writing that’s created in a rather shallow fashion. If some more thought were put into it we could have a broader/deeper feel to this particular trope, or indeed no trope at all.

AJH: We get into difficult subjectivities though. I mean, I’m sure writers don’t get up in the morning and think “hey, I’m going to portray sexual abuse in a shallow fashion today!” And obviously what feels authentic or compassionate or moving to one reader might seem just the opposite to another.

SH: Very true. I definitely don’t want to imply that I think most authors are just careless or that editors are careless for not sniffing things out. More that tropes are tropes for a reason, I guess? They tend to be overused because they’re convenient plot devices, especially when it’s something as subjective as this. It just so happens that this is a very triggering trope and it makes people passionate. There are no villains here. Just a culmination of many people writing about similar things until it becomes an issue for people who are triggered by it.

K:you guys are so polite, I would say that there are books where, as a reader, it totally comes across as lazy writing.

AJH:  Do we, uh, want to poke at the other aspect of this topic we mentioned earlier? I mean, it’s a huge can of worms but I’ll open it, if you will.

K: ah non con ?

AJH: Hmmm, this is already pretty long so perhaps we … leave it on a cliffhanger. Shall we do non-con next tea time? Which is probably the most absurd invitation I’ve ever issued. Any final thoughts about sexual violence in m/m?

Allan: I’d urge writers to treat it carefully and thoughtfully, as it’s so traumatic for people. It’s a trigger for some people, so there will always be someone who won’t like what you’ve done, but you still have to write about it.

AJH: My head is probably too muddled for usefulness right now. For me, my concerns are less about individual texts than visibility.  I know there’s lots of debate about who the audience for queer romance is … but it worries me that en masse we’re essentially – and I hope accidentally — telling queer people that they’re probably going to be abused and maybe they shouldn’t go clubbing.

SH: Right. Or giving the impression that many people who write m/m think being abused is somehow tied into queer identity? My concern is definitely not one particular book that really got my back up, so much as how common this particular thing has become and the message that can inadvertently send.

This is kind of a contentious topic but we hope you’ll share your thoughts and ideas with us inthe comments.

Alexis HallAlexis Hall is alive and on social media

Website: quicunquevult.com
Twitter: @quicunquevult



Santino Hassell was raised by a conservative family, but he was anything but traditional. He grew up to be a smart-mouthed, school cutting grunge kid, then a transient twenty-something, and eventually transformed into a romance writing and sarcasm loving guy that is most well known for co-writing a free, dystopian series that has spawned an online cult following.

Santino is a dedicated gamer, a former anime-watcher and fanfic writer, an ASoIaF mega nerd, a Grindr enthusiast, but most of all he is a writer of LGBT fiction that is heavily influenced by the gritty, urban landscape of New York City, his belief that human relationships are complex and flawed, and his own life experiences.

Twitter: @santinohassell
Website: santinohassell.com

Allan Jay writes M/M roAllan-Jmance. He’s had a couple of short stories published and is currently working on his first novel. You can follow him on Twitter – he’s always got it switched on – @allanjaywrites for the writerly things or @allanj69 for the everyday things. He’s also, reluctantly, on Facebook. He needs a kick up the backside to get writing from time to time, so go prompt him

Karen is construction worker by day, and a book blogger by night and a reader all the time. Her blog is May Contain Dragons

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Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,

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27 thoughts on “Tea Time with Alexis J Hall and Friends ~ Special Guests Santino Hassell, Allan Jay and Karen Wellsbury

  1. Phew, that was some heavy stuff at the end of the work day. Thanks for bringing it up though.
    I’m with Karen careless writing, especically with regrad to abuse. It sends dangerous messages and makes me wary as a reader to pick up stories with exessive violence/abuse.
    It’s a particularly sensitive topic that needs to be handled with thoought and care.
    As for the non-con and rape fantasies, and what Santino mentioned as being too out of it to consent, now that really scares me when it’s glorified or presented as intriguing/appealing both in het and queer romance. I definitely avoid reading such stories and I’m curious about your forthcoming discussion of this issue.

    • I can see the value of non-con in principle – in the sense that I know a lot of readers find them comforting/liberating/challenging in the right sort of way. But there are obviously, err, difficulties inherent in the subject matter – so, uh, I guess we’ll be talking about that next time.

      And I agree that writers should take care with careful topics – but it does beg the question who gets to judge what’s careful 🙂 I mean, I’ve seen protrayals that I found lazy, stereotypical or otherwise toxic that other people have responded really well to.

      • I agree that careful is subjective but then all things to do with emotions are. I understand what you mean that some people can accept as OK something that for me/you seems careless treatment of abuse.
        As Karen said, I think most readers are aware when the abuse is there just boost sales of the book. What bothers is me is why so many readers are drawn to stories with abuse, especially when it’s sloppily done. I’m being judgemental here but I can’t stand stories that present any kind of abuse as attractive – stalking is not OK, physical and verbal abuse is not OK, rape is not OK, captive/slave romances are not OK (for me, at least).
        I don’t really know how this should be approached. Stories with sexual abuse/violence seem to be abundant today and I’m wondering if it because the readers want such stories or because the writers want to write them.

        • Elena, on this “I think most readers are aware when the abuse is there just boost sales of the book.” – I want to say, I think there are times when abuse is included for what we might call shallow reasons, but isn’t necessarily just to boost sales. I think authors may genuinely do this just to make the story more interesting, not only to read but to write.

          I have to admit to having a lifelong attraction to hurt/comfort stories, going back to when I was a tiny, tiny child, before I could even read. I don’t know if I identify as comforted or comforter or both, but it’s always been a hook for me. And later, after my own painful experiences, I was even more intensely drawn to those stories, because they resonate.

          But I *don’t* always care if those stories are shallow or well written. I just want the hurt/comfort fix. So, in essence I guess I *want* them to be manipulative. Maybe it’s like “emotional porn” or something. 😛

          Point is, I get how formulaic, shallow plots can work for people, because they work for me. Plots you could almost create on a spreadsheet, with column headings like: “Vulnerability Backstory”, & “Illness/Injuries in Plot”. I confess I’ve plotted stories like that myself. Stuff like “hero suffers nightmares from repressed childhood trauma” & “heroine is self conscious about a limp from a childhood accident’, or “hero gets shot” &”heroine gets scarlet fever” .

          But the thing is, until not much more than a year ago it would not have occurred to me there might be a problem with using rape & sexual abuse in exactly the same way. Frankly, I couldn’t even comprehend that a real person could actually be hurt by what happens to a fictional character. I guess because it never happened to *me* & no one I was close to ever talked about it either. And most likely I’d still think that way, except for a couple of epiphanies I had reading a couple of Alexis’s blog posts in early 2014.

          So, I just have a feeling lots & lots of authors simply see this as I used to & don’t get that it hurts anyone. And honestly, I still struggle with it too. I . . . basically want to read *indulgently*, to be able to write that way too, if I I chose. Even the thought that it might upset some vague “someone somewhere” might be something I could sweep aside. But when it’s people you know or truly care about who might be hurt . . . it makes a difference. I just don’t think most people have the benefit of that perspective.

    • I just wanted to add here that I think some portrayals, especially Off Campus make a great use of an abuse back story. I found that so close to true at times the book itself was painful to read. But abuse by formula/ tick box is, for me more than lazy if I’m honest

  2. I tend to not read books with any kind of sexual abuse unless I really trust the author. Because my experience has been the vast, vast majority of novels that deal with sexual abuse don’t handing it in a way I feel comfortable.

    Very often survivors are portrayed as broken in some way, or nobly tragic. It also feels like often characters boil survivors down to that being their only character trait:

    “Read about how this perfectly normal person falls in love with a SEXAUL ABUSE SURVIVOR! How will they ever find happiness together considering one of them is a SEXUAL ABUSE SURVIVOR!”

    That’s like basically the plot of fifty percent of every romance ever read that address the issue. And as survivor myself I feel like there are lot of other more interesting things about me that I actually am proud of and have control over. Rather than from this horrible thing that was done to me without my consent.

    I also hate how it HAS to be a problem in the relationship. As if survivors aren’t capable of even so much as dating without angst and melodrama. I’ve dated and been in relationships with people who were themselves survivors and some we did manage to have perfectly nice time without it being an angst fest.

    This is not to saw that survivors don’t have baggage or they should get over any hurt they feel. I just hate that a person’s back story is always used as a road block for the couple to overcome.

    Everyone has baggage that they bring to a relationship. So why is someone surviving sexual abuse this big thing that MUST BE A PROBLEM and MUST BE EXPLORED. But like no one ever talks about food insecurity in romance.

    Which being me around the to the tried and true trope of ‘fixing’ the survivor. I’m not arguing that being in a healthy relationship can’t be nurturing, healing and constructive for survivors. I’m just wondering why the characters but erase every last holdover from the abuse before the survivor character can find True Happiness™.

    For example does the survivors how hates Y sex act because of their abuse REAL need to learn to like it before being happy?

    Does the survivor who really need to overcome X thing that is triggering to them before they kind find true love?

    If the survivor hates bondage because it reminds them of their sexual abuse, why the FUCK do we think it’s romantic to have the other non survivor character tie them up in an attempt to “fix” them?

    Like if the survivor character want to sure, but is “fixing” always portrayed as necessary? Why is the survivor always the one who has to change they’re behavior? Wh is it just take for granted that the non survivor partner knows so much more about the survivor’s trauma then they do? Why is a traumatized character only allowed to be happy when they’ve reached some level predetermined by non traumatized people.

    • I agree with everything you say, EE. I don’t see the need/the romantic aspect in making victim of sexual abuse overcome their dislike of certain sex acts in order for them to have a happy, fulfilling relationship. Turning a shy character with a more conservative sex preferences (becuase they have suffered abuse or not) into a fan of bondage and pain doesn’t work for me.
      I also think that everybody carries some baggage and the whole point is not so much overcoming/getting rid of it but rather finding a balance and supporting each other in the relationship. Magic healing is not necessary, or even viable most of the time in real life, so why perpatuate this idea in romance?

      • “I also think that everybody carries some baggage and the whole point is not so much overcoming/getting rid of it but rather finding a balance and supporting each other in the relationship.”

        Yes this. Exactly this I think should be the bottom line of all romance.

    • Yes, this, I agree, of course 🙂

      I’m sorry to keep going on about OFF CAMPUS (disclaimer: I am not a secret of AJ Cousins) but it’s literally the only queer romance I’ve read where these sort of ideas were explored – I mean, the abuse is a big deal but not MORE of a big deal than the family stuff the other character is going through. They’re both presented as … not even obstacles really … but they’re both presented equally as things each character has to individually come to terms with and find a way to live: it’s a story about growth, but it’s not solely a story about OVERCOMING SEXUAL ABUSE.

      And, again, I think it struck a really good balance between not trying to portray sexual abuse as something you can “get over” and be completely unchanged by but at the same time not being definitional. There are definitely sexual behaviours in which the character can’t engage and there’s no attempt to “fix them” by doing them. (I hate that trope with an almighty as passion as well. It actually triggers me – if I don’t like something because of abuse, if you make me do it–even in the name of wuv–that’s perpeutating the fucking abuse, stop it!). Instead they just deal with them – and have successful, fulfilling sex in other ways.

      I do know where this trope comes from. I think it’s because it feels negative to admit that something bad that happened to you as changed you inexorably. That feels disempowering and depressing–and almost like you’re portraying abuse survivors as weak or broken. And actually, I don’t know a single abuse survivor who hasn’t struggled deeply with the loss of some … freedoms of selfhood, I guess? But I personally believe *changed* is not *broken* and I’d derive greater solace / identification from the idea that you keep living. Rather than the only way to “win” is to somehow “reclaim” (urgh) yourself by demonstrating that you have everything you used to have.

      I also know why the FIX A SEX ABUSE SURVIVOR TODAY trope is compelling. I mean, it’s a very helpless-feeling situation in knowing that the things you can do for someone you love when they’re suffering tend to be entirely passive. It’s not like you can change your what happened, or beat up the person who did it, or heal it with your sweet sweet lovin’. But then we get into a sticky situation in which sexual abuse is being used as a redemption fantasy, not for sexual abuse survivors,but for the loved ones of sexual abuse survivors. And … uh… no.

      • Yep, yep.

        I also know how that’s where the ‘fix’ trope comes from. That’s also what you see it often in the context of disability and mental illness. But yeah I’m with you in feel like maybe not the best way to handle any of these aspects of a character’s life.

        And personally I find it the opposite of comforting and wish it wasn’t so, so common.

        I also agree that changed/different doesn’t equal broken. But it’s pretty ingrained in our society that it does.

        I guess the rest boils down to, as everyone else has said they hate, sexual assault being used to manufacture tension.

        I don’t know. I had a conversation with a bunch of authors a couple years back where I asked if you could have a character with a backstory of sexual assault without that being a key element of the plot. Every one of them agreed that you couldn’t because then people would feel you weren’t taking it seriously.

        Of course there are books and authors who do this. Who do have characters who are survivors and it’t not key to the story. But what really got me about that conversation was how it seems to be this writerly rule of thumb that you MUST address it in detail. And I … have really mixed feelings about that.

        I guess bottom line is I’ve written characters with pasts of sexual abuse. I might do so again in the future. I don’t think you shouldn’t I just think there is a lot of things to think about and a lot of ways the traditional tropes are problematic. And I think we all should really proceed with caution

    • I think that this is so valid, the ‘fixing’ of characters in general is something that makes me cross. The idea that a person can only be whole if they are taken apart, remade by another. Grr

  3. I think this is one of the keys, and leads to a larger issue about assumptions, which then perpetuate. Not a revelation, mind you, but true LOL

    “SH: So, sometimes these backstories seem… based on a lot of assumptions or stereotypes which is why it’s become a trope.”

    Because then there’s this which, might seem like the other side but, is really the same: the intention might not be there but the result is the same.

    “AJH: We get into difficult subjectivities though. I mean, I’m sure writers don’t get up in the morning and think “hey, I’m going to portray sexual abuse in a shallow fashion today!” And obviously what feels authentic or compassionate or moving to one reader might seem just the opposite to another.”

    An to Santino’s final concern, I agree: its not necessarily specific stories but how prevalent it seems to be. I’ve liked some of stories that included violence as it’s described in the convo, but those particular writers gave it full breadth, didn’t treat it as an easy means to an end for the story.

    Also, Allan, you’re awesome for this LOL:

    “Allan: If I ever get myself a boyfriend with one of these magical cocks then I’m totally going to nickname him Harry (or Hagrid, if he’s a bit beary).”

    Thanks for another awesome discussion!!!!!

  4. This is surprisingly one of the first discussions I have read, in recent times, on this subject and it’s a subject that really needs more thought generally. I hate magic peen stories they are demeaning to the characters, the readers and people who have survived abuse. Elijah Ottoman is quite right when they say…

    ‘If the survivor hates bondage because it reminds them of their sexual abuse, why the FUCK do we think it’s romantic to have the other non survivor character tie them up in an attempt to “fix” them?’

    I recently read a book from an author’s backlist, for review that had so much abuse and torture, not for pleasure, that I DNF…I could see where it was going as well the ‘not quite as immoral’ man risks everything to save abuse victim because he fancies him…no no no.

    Abuse as part of the storyline or as a backstory where the abused is saved by great sex (however, tenderly approached) is lazy writing and I find offensive….

    I look forward to see how the issue of ‘non-con’ and ‘rape fantasy’ is handled in a future T Time 🙂

    • “I hate magic peen stories they are demeaning to the characters, the readers and people who have survived abuse.”

      I know enough romance authors who are themselves to suspect that some survivors must find the ‘fixing’ magic penis stories in some ways comforting.

      But from my own perspective I totally agree with you. I feel it does send the message of “why haven’t you found someone to fuck this out of you? (preferably a man with a big penis)” and I find that really demeaning in every possible way.

      I think author’s especially authors who are survivors, should handle these issues in ways most comfortable for them. BUT as an author I’d think long and head before perpetuating this possibly harmful and problematic tropes.

      • I guess the thing is, as you say, some people (who may themselves be survivors) find the miraculously-fixed-by-uber-peen arc comforting. Whereas the consensus here seems to be that it’s awful.

        I guess the important thing is that there are a range of stories available – it feels to me there are more “healed by peen” stories than “welp, this is a thing I live with” stories so HBP feels like the default. Or, worse, the ‘right’ story to write and invest in. (And, therefore, it’s easy to feel sort of judged by it, in a weird way, for NOT feeling or living like that)

        Whereas if it was one trope among a wide and varied approach to abuse I think it might be less of a problem.

        • “it feels to me there are more “healed by peen” stories than “welp, this is a thing I live with” stories so HBP feels like the default. Or, worse, the ‘right’ story to write and invest in. (And, therefore, it’s easy to feel sort of judged by it, in a weird way, for NOT feeling or living like that)”

          No I agree, and this is definitely what it feels like to me as well.

  5. I remember a retweet popped in my feed about this subject that made a big impact on me earlier this year. Allan, you were actually part of the exchange. (https://twitter.com/VanessaNWrites/status/558420674721894400) Who can say why something hits you particularly hard and cements itself, but this tweet and exchange did for me. For anyone who didn’t go to look at the tweet it says, “I am so goddamn tired of sexual abuse backstories in romance novels. There, I fucking said it.”

    (Please don’t take this as any negative feeling against the author, whom I don’t know and haven’t read yet, or me “calling out” someone. Honestly, it’s because it and the comments after were so thought-provoking for me that I feel like it had to be quoted to say what I have to say.)

    My first thought, as someone who often bristles over others’ mandates for the genre, was, “here’s another thing someone doesn’t want (genre) romance to be.” It feels like every other day there’s someone else talking about what should or shouldn’t be in a romance, and it doesn’t feel like, “here are my preferences,” it’s like, “that’s not a romance because of x.” or “stop writing that thing and calling it romance.” I won’t go off on that tangent, just giving background on why my hackles rose up.

    I haven’t had a problem with the inclusion of sexual assault/abuse plots or backstory in what I read, but I understand why those storylines aren’t for everyone. I have seen enough people say that they read romance (of all sexualities) to escape the real world where horrid things like this occur. I can understand why people want trigger warnings or a synopsis to disclose abuse so people who don’t want to/can’t read it won’t accidentally do so. I don’t tell anyone how to live their life, and that includes how/what to read, so I have nothing but respect for those people who don’t want to deal with it.

    Had I just read that one tweet, I would have gone away soured again (and the tweet still actually does hit me wrong, if I’m being honest, but again, my issues). If you read further down in the thread, though, after you get past people being triggered, you find it’s a railing against bad storytelling as well. It’s against writers using it as easy, cheap characterization or plot point.

    So, here’s our common ground. The difference in say a book like K.Z. Snow’s Xylophone that I read a couple of years ago which has stayed with me because of its thoughtful handling of a difficult subject, and balanced so well with a sweetness and light quality; as compared to the craptastic short story I read last month where the (admittedly shifter – so, fantasy, but that doesn’t change my hate for it) character had been sadistically raped first by his stepfather as a minor then by any and all men his stepfather sold him out to FOR YEARS,and is suicidal, but finally gets to be with his mate, and, la-di-da, after that first time together is healed.

    Let me digress to say that others can give benefit of the doubt as to intentions, but in execution, I say, FUCK YOU, AUTHOR. Fuck you for having the audacity to use that level of abuse as a plot in that way and give it no more regard than a used tissue. The fact that these two books come from the same publisher is another layer of WTF-ery.

    I was blown a bit off track thinking about that, so I’ll just gather up fragments of thoughts unsaid and offer up a final coherent one. Discussions like these are important. Tropes and trends are always going to have an ebb and flow, and there will always be something that is popular that’s damaging and/or viewed as damaging because we all have our own levels of what’s OK and what’s tolerable in depictions or even just not enough background on a subject. For me, it boils down to wanting people to listen more when they hear a contradictory voice. When I read that tweet, I could have just taken it at that and moved on (huffily, obvs), or if I was a different person, went on attack. But I’m me, so I dug deeper to really hear someone else’s perspective. I will still keep reading and encouraging QUALITY abuse/assault plots/characterization, but I’m more attuned to how they’re used and their impact. That’s true after that discussion and this one.

    Thanks, everyone, for all the thoughts shared. Even though I didn’t directly note them (and there were things I meant to, because good stuff, but…), I heard you.

    • Thank you for the comment, Carolyn 🙂

      I totally understand you’re not calling out anyone. I remember that Tweet, as well, and I didn’t respond badly to it—but I suspect that was solely because I agree with it 😉 I can totally understand why it rubbed you up the wrong way, though—I think it’s definitely a massive problem when people are essentially saying “I don’t like [x] and so think [x] shouldn’t be written about” – nobody as the right to define what’s good or bad or right or wrong like that, and nobody gets to judge readers for what they personally like. For what it’s worth, I saw that Tweet as a personal reaction, rather than the above—so I didn’t feel annoyed or defensive about it (but, again, I see why you could). And—and, again, cards on the table here—I really like Vanessa, as a writer and as a human, and I don’t think she’d ever intend to do or say anything that would make someone feel bad about themselves or their reading preferences. That’s not a defence, by the way, or an invalidation of your feelings or reaction. Just another piece of context. I also think the problem is slightly Twitter-based in that everything you say on Twitter necessarily has to be abrupt, definitive and non-contextualised.

      My own problem with sex-abuse backstories, as I was saying in the talk, is that I don’t have a problem with them, but I don’t like it when they seem to become over-visible in the genre. And since it seems like every book I’ve picked up recently has had a sexual abuse backstory (sometimes don’t really well, sometimes done merely inoffensively, and occasionally done insanely badly) … I’m starting to wonder how I can eat my cornflakes in the morning without being raped. It’s true sexual abuse is a thing that a lot of people deal with, but I’m concerned by the idea that it’s … kind of a natural part of anyone’s life, you know? And I think in m/m it can be particularly problematic in that you’re sort of sending two bad messages simultaneously: one that gay men are probably going to be abused (whoop), two that men are just rapey in general so gay men are likely to rape each other more.

      But that’s a problem with visibility and execution, not sexual abuse back stories themselves. If that distinction makes sense.

      I would never argue against any type of story or suggest that certain stories shouldn’t be written. But, as you say, I think it’s important to look at the impact of these stories and what they might be saying.

      • Let me preface this by saying I never should have brought up Vanessa’s tweet. Rookie mistake. That was the entry point for my brain’s thoughts on this subject, and I should know better by now not to share how my brain goes about processing information. Being super, super clear, even though I don’t know Vanessa, I have never been in doubt she was a lovely person (and I have had one of her books waiting to be read, so I’m sure the writer thing will be proven true as well), and I never meant to suggest otherwise. It was never about her for me. Even those words still hitting me wrong is all about me, not about her. What I’m trying to say is I want to have Vanessa’s baby. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m trying to say, who can tell me with some days.

        SO. You touched on one of the points I meant to before my brain went all ragey and was no use to anyone. It was mentioned in the discussion and in your reply about all the books you’ve picked up with this backstory. I was struck by that because I don’t see them that often, like 5% of the m/m romances. It made me wonder if the people who see them often read differently than those, like me, who don’t. I’m as likely to read a just released book as I am one from 6 years ago, and I’m into all sorts of sub-genres and will read a popular author half as often as someone who’s not. So, I know I don’t even have the qualifications to see trends. Then it makes me think that the readers who do are in a position that they can’t help but see trends and so will be done and over with something before other readers are. This one, for all its troubling aspects, is of course, something you can be over the first time you read it.

        STILL. I think there’s a need for discussion about it because it is troubling when handled poorly, and like every other thing in a book that’s handled poorly, I’d love to see discussion of it. When I was trying to think of a troubling aspect for comparison that’s more prominent, for me, I thought of the body images of characters. That’s something that is on my radar. It’s weird to be gleeful about a character being described to have a pudgy stomach (like in the book I’m reading now), I’m sure, but god, I find the continual parade of sculpted, muscled bodies worrisome.

        ANYWAY. I’m sure the answer to all our woes is to read fewer books, but like all those pills being advertised to us, that’ll cause a whole new set of problems.

    • I think that is really valid point, if past abuse in particular is used to explore a particular type of behavior it can be in quite empowering, but it seems rarely to be the case. Since taking part in this I’ve read 6 books (which will be nameless) where my head felt like it would explode. if you’re going to do it, at least TRY and make it something other than a limp device to lift a limp story

  6. Argh. You guys blew up my brain! It’s entirely all your fault that this is like, the longest comment in the history of the universe. I worked on this so long that now I hate it, & the more I try to fix it, the worse I hate it. But, posting anyway 😛

    As usual, I have way too many thoughts & apologize in advance for all the tangents :/

    You know, two things struck me first in this conversation. One was how often someone speculated whether something was transmitted from het to m/m. Which surprised me. It’s all romance, so it seems sort of obvious to me that what’s in het would also be in m/m. Major themes, that is. I mean, sexual abuse & rape are human issues. Why wouldn’t they be in stories about all people?

    But, maybe what you’re seeing is a feminine perspective common to both genres, because so many authors are women. That’s not news, but I hadn’t really thought about how that might underpin the rape/sexual abuse trope.

    The other thing that struck me was what felt like a consensus by all three menz, that bad things that happen to queer characters in m/m is *about* their queerness. If they’re abused or messed up or at risk in clubs, it’s about queer people being abused, messed up, or at risk in clubs.

    Whereas, I read that stuff entirely differently. To me, those scenarios are about *people* being abused, messed up, or at risk in clubs. They just happen to be queer people, because it’s m/m romance.

    But, the thing is, if it hit all three of you that way, I guess you’re right in being concerned about the message it might send to other queer people. So, I get that, but it seems kind of awful. It feels sort of homophobically derived. Like, that a queer character can’t just be allowed to be “messed up” or have a bad thing happen to them, without it being “because queer”, or having to worry that’s what it looks like or that’s the message it sends. Even in m/m, which really seems like it *should* be a safe place 🙁

    I honestly feel it’s not the intent of m/m writers to promote harmful stereotypes about queer people. I suspect the prevalence of the rape/sexual abuse trope in m/m is incidental. The trope is prevalent in romance, so if you write romance about queer people, it will be prevalent there. I think if these writers wrote het, it would be the same there. I may be wrong, but that’s my sense of it.

    That said, intentional or not, I see how the correlation sexual violence or abuse with queerness could be very triggery for queer readers. But there should be ways to counteract that? Stories could make clear that sexual violence isn’t happening to characters *because* they are queer. Maybe have characters confront by & challenge that very attitude, in the story. Or, if abuse is a backstory, make it clear the character was queer before the abuse, ruling out any speculation the abuse *caused* queerness. I don’t know, just throwing ideas out there . . .

    Ok, then, a broader issue the discussion seems to take on is the reduction of rape & sexual abuse to a mere plot device. With a consensus this is a bad thing. Manipulative, shallow, lazy writing. And, not always stated, but implicit, I thought, that books which do this are disrespectful, trivializing of those experiences, exploitive of & insensitive to the real pain of real human beings.

    And I’m not saying that isn’t accurate.

    But there’s something about it that bugs me. I keep coming back to this: If it’s bad to reduce *rape* to a plot device, isn’t it also bad to do that with, say murder? Or terminal illness? I could go on, but you get the picture. Those are both examples of things that, for people who’ve experienced them or lost loved-ones to them, can be extraordinarily painful, traumatizing, even triggering. But murder-mysteries treat the violent taking of human life as fun, intriguing puzzles to solve, fantasy games make killing a sport, movies generate thrills with terroristic violence. And terminal illness is used as a throw-away backstory or tearjerker fodder *all the time*.

    So, I don’t know. On one hand, I agree the way to write about any sensitive issue is carefully & thoughtfully, with genuine emotion, not manipulatively &/or gratuitously. But then again, isn’t there also a place for shlocky, shallow, sensational stories? Or just, stories that reduce IMPORTANT TERRIBLE LIFE STUFF to bytes of entertainment?

    Anyway, I know, rape seems *different*. I feel the same way. The thought of rape as a fantasy game staple feels deeply abhorrent in a way that hacking off someone’s head with a sword does not. But, why? I mean, yes, rape is a horrific crime of personal violation – but I would guess it’s probably pretty violating to be savagely murdered too?

    Certainly not advocating for more gratuitous rape scenes! Just trying for perspective. The thing is, objectively, I don’t see how it’s materially different to manipulate reader sympathy with a rape backstory than to do so with a backstory of, oh say, witnessing your parents horrific murder in front of the cinema *blatant Batman reference*. I think, for a number of reasons, we’re just more sensitized to rape.

    I don’t want to say it makes us overreact, because maybe the real problem is we’re desensitized & underreact to *other* forms of entertainment violence. But, I do think it makes us sort of treat rape as almost sacrosanct compared to other forms of violence. It reminds me of how people sometimes behave as if some deaths (of children, or police officers, for example) have more value than others.
    Dichotomies like that just, bother me. I feel there’s some subliminal influence driving that difference in attitude that needs to be unpacked.

    Also want weigh in on what I see as one reason for the “popularity”, if you will, of sexual violence in genre romance, including m/m.

    I think it’s at least partly about readers’ & writers’ need to process their own painful backstories. And I don’t just mean victims of rape or sexual abuse.

    I think when you have any kind of painful backstory, there’s often a hunger to read things that resonate, or if you’re a writer, to write them. But, realistically, you have to do that, in large part, symbolically. Using myself for an example for a minute, & sorry for tmi, but I have a personal history involving bullying. And, y’know, it happened in early adolescence, decades ago, but you really finish with these things, so I have an ongoing need to revisit themes & emotions connected to that experience. And part of how I do that is through fiction.

    But I certainly don’t want to read book after book about bullying! Nor would I want to write only those books, if I were writing. So, I’m drawn to other stories that resonate. And when I think of situations that evoke the same feelings (shame, powerlessness, humiliation, violation, fear, anger, grief, self-loathing, etc.), rape is absolutely the first thing that comes to mind.

    There are many other resonant experiences. But, rape & sexual abuse seem to stand at the top of the list, as sort of the ultimate, iconic symbol of violation & disempowerment. (Partly answering my own question, from earlier, about why rape “seems different”) This makes them powerful metaphors for virtually every other experience that can be described in those terms. So, it makes sense to me that lots of writers & readers are drawn to rape & sexual abuse stories. I mean, obviously everyone doesn’t have abuse in their past. But, sadly, many do. And even when writers approach these things in a way that seems shallow or manipulative, I still think it’s possible these motivations are behind it.

    Of course, there’s always concern that using someone else’s experience as a metaphor for your own is appropriative. But I honestly don’t know how else you do this. People need to express & explore this stuff & there are only so many ways. I guess, once again, it comes down to writers being as careful & sensitive as possible to other people’s feelings.

    OK, last thing, I promise! This by AJH:

    “This idea that certain types of sexual (or sex-seeking) behaviour are inherently ‘risky’ – thus rape is a consequence of immoral / foolish choices rather than, y’know, rapists.”

    & later this

    “it worries me that en masse we’re essentially – and I hope accidentally — telling queer people that they’re probably going to be abused and maybe they shouldn’t go clubbing”.

    Starting with the last one first:

    I genuinely think that’s not really about “queer people shouldn’t go clubbing“, or even “people shouldn’t go clubbing”. I think it’s just about “the world is dangerous”.

    But, I think the idea that a behavior is “risky” and that this makes the consequences of that behavior the fault of the victim, are actually two separate concepts that are constantly being conflated, not just in fiction but in real life.

    The thing is, we live in a dangerous world. Any time you do *anything* that makes you more vulnerable to those dangers, you *are* taking a risk, which makes the behavior “risky”, by definition.

    But, that is *entirely different* from saying: Taking a risk is makes you “foolish” or “immoral”, so it’s *your fault* if bad things happen!

    That is the equivalent of saying people who leave their front doors unlocked or windows open are to blame if someone invades their home & robs or rapes or murders them! Um, nope.

    So, yes, I do think there’s inevitably some risk in clubs or bars or parties. Just because alcohol & drugs make people more vulnerable & when you put that together with strangers, or just with people you don’t absolutely know you can trust with your life, there’s an element of risk.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that when someone does bad things to you, they are at fault, no one else.

  7. Thank you for the comment, Pam. Gosh, it’s complicated.

    I guess, for me, it is about context: yes abuse and sexual abuse happens to everyone and so it makes sense that stories about a particular subgroup of everyone will include that among a range of possible life experiences. But, as you say, I think it’s a matter of (not necessarily feminine) perspective.

    As for us jumping to an “it’s about queerness consensus” … hmm … that’s interesting. It’s also very complicated. As I was saying above to Carolyn, I think part of difficulties around ideas about sexual abuse and queerness is the way it intersects with ideas about masculinity. I mean, of course straight men get raped, by other men and by women, and you can’t really trust rape statistics because it’s so hideously under-reported, especially for men. I think the working numbers are 1 in 4 for women, 1 in 6 for queer men and 1 in 10 for straight men. I’ve only read a couple of romances in which female characters were rapists—and in both cases it was borderline, in the sense I perceived it as rape, neither the author nor the heroine seemed to think it was. So, let’s face it, rape—rightly or wrongly— is seen as pretty much a men-only past-time: which means that one of the slightly weird things about the high proportion of sexual abuse in m/m is that you kind of end of reinforcing the idea that men are just inherently rapey. We rape women so obviously we rape each other :/

    The difference, I think, between rape and murder is that murder and violence—while they are often presented to us as entertainment (either as mysteries to be solved or pixels to be shot or bad guys to be punched)—there’s a very clear legal (and potentially moral) framework for addressing the fact that murder is wrong and *a crime*.

    I can’t really imagine a situation in which a defence attorney up stood up in court and said “Well, m’lud, the victim was wearing a particularly un-armoured shirt that day, almost as if he was asking to be shot.”

    Does that distinction make sense?

    • Yeah, the whole “men are rapey” thing, that really, *really* bothers me. I see it sometimes in online rape culture chatter sometimes & I find it deeply disturbing. Misandry is not the fix for misogyny 😛

      Your analogy at the end, yes, it does make sense. I still feel like there is a lot more complexity beneath the surface (isn’t there always?), but it’s probably impossible to untangle. With my rape/murder analogy, I was sort of playing Devil’s Advocate, as I tend to do a lot. Maybe I’m just contrary, but I’m wary of big issues where there a huge consensus of opinion. Even when I agree, or maybe especially when I agree, it makes me uneasy & I get deconstruct-y.

      But, that little courtroom example you gave? Scarily I can *almost* see that happening someday, in the US. Only with guns rather than body armor. There are some people who think everyone *should* be armed, like, as in it’s a duty. Taking that to it’s logical (or insane) extreme, I can almost see that scenario playing out :P.

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