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.
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.
Allan Jay writes M/M romance. 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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