Welcome back to Part 2 of the sexual violence in m/m discussion.
Because we like our can of worms open with the worms everywhere.
This is obviously a massively complicated and, err, sensitive topic so trigger warnings ahoy.
Just like last time I am joined by Santino Hassell, Allan Jay and Karen Wellsbury.
AJH: So, thank you all for joining me. I feel slightly bad about the composition of this group–not in the sense that I don’t think think you’re all awesome–but because I think we’re not necessarily a balanced or unbiased group for this particular topic. I did think of reaching out to someone who wrote non-con but then I thought that might be even worse, in case it came across as if we’d invited them in for a stoning. So just as a starting point, if you do write or read non-con and you’d like to offer us an alternative perspective, then do get in touch. I’d super happy to expand on this discussion in a non-stoning sort of way.
I guess I should also that whatever our perspectives or personal preferences or experiences … I don’t want this to become a writer/reader shaming space.
So, uh, let’s tread carefully.
So. Well. Cards on the table. I don’t personally get much out of non-con. But I don’t think I have a moral standpoint on it.I very much believe readers and writers should have the freedom to read and write whatever they like. But I guess where it does become sticky for me is that there’s no getting away from the fact that noncon exists in a very complicated space and discussions of it either blow up or get closed down very quickly. People who are pro-noncon tend to see people who are concerned with noncon as trying to censor their writing. And people who are anti-noncon tend to want to condemn people who are pro-concon for writing stuff they find offensive/hurtful. Which means there’s not really much opportunity to consider non-con as you would other genre tropes.
Allan: Just so we’re clear, my preference is not to read purely non-con stories. I don’t mind an element of non-consent in a broader story, I don’t mind a bit of dithering either. And I’ve yet to read a good story about someone who says yes, then regrets it. But that’s a whole other point.
SH: I’m somewhere on the fence about it. It really depends on the book. If a rape scene is relevant to the text then I don’t have an issue with it even if I may gloss over or skim it. I do have issue with noncon for titillation and it’s a personal thing. But one of my issues with noncon is the way it’s packaged. I think using the term “noncon” is kind of contributing to rape culture by softening the discussion of sexual violence. So sometimes when I see “noncon” instead of rape, I get just as frustrated as I do when I see the terms “child sex scandal”, “forced marriage”, or “forced seduction”. I’d rather have transparency/honesty in the way we discuss these things.
AJH: I think the reason for the distinction is not necessarily about transparency so much as narrative function? I mean, yes, in the Real World any non-consensual sexual act is rape. But while fiction obviously reflects and intersects with reality, it also operates within a different context and to (somewhat) different rules. To my understanding, in romance and fandom rape tends to denote … acts of sexual violation portrayed, uh, realistically and expected to be perceived in real world terms. Whereas noncon covers acts of sexual violation that may be portrayed realistically but are offered to the reader in a way that … um … gives them permission to respond to them as fantasy. (In het forced seduction tends to cover “she wants it really” type dynamics where the hero is aggressive and the heroine is like “no no” but secretly into it).
SH: Like Pamela vs Tess of d’Urbervilles?
AJH: That’s a fucking awesome example.
K: For me it’s quite hard to separate my emotions from this subject, i get that there are those who find it titillating, and also that from the perspective of writing it can be used effectively, I just find it decidedly uncomfortable.
Allan: I’m with you. As a story for the sake of it I’m not a fan. As an element in a broader story I can probably accept it. But it’s not the type of tale that I will hunt down to read. Although it’s quite clear (and well researched) that there are those who seek out particularly extreme fantasy reading to experience things in writing that they have absolutely no desire to do in real life. I’m fine with that, I’m just not one of those people.
SH: Describing it as extreme fantasy is kind of fitting, because that’s what it is I guess. I mean it’s not hurting anyone really unless it’s not tagged up with trigger warnings and there are tons of people who enjoy it whether it’s in M/M, M/F fiction or the gigantic scope of fantasy rape porn things you can find online. I started thinking about how widespread it is when we decided to do this post, and I asked a friend of mine what was behind her decision to write M/F noncon in some of her books (er not in a judgy way. more like what was the motivation behind X plot), and she said it’s not always about writing it for titillation and in her case, she thinks of it as exorcising demons and taking control of this awful thing that she experienced in her past. (she also gave me the okay to share that)
Allan: I can understand that. For both readers and writers the searching out of particular stories, tropes and characters is a form of catharsis as much as anything. I have a friend who almost exclusively reads YA and particularly gay YA because he is recreating, in fictional terms, what was for him a terrible youth. Now as an adult he can experience other people’s better times. So the existence of this writing and that it is widely read doesn’t surprise me.
AJH: Both of those things make a lot of sense to me. But I guess this is where it’s hard to entangle the political and personal because, as Karen said above, while I can rationally accept that some people are exorcising demons my own demons are kind of stirred up, rather than exorcised, by rape-as-titillation. And then you get into this tug o’war of demons: how to do you deal with someone else’s right to exorcise their demons by creating something that feels personally harmful to your own. (Obviously, the short answer is “don’t read it dude” but when get into group intersectionalties, rather than personal ones, the whole thing becomes an order of magnitude more complex).
K: I did some research, amongst readers, on why they read this, and generally Allan’s comment about it not happening in real life seems to make sense. Most readers are well balanced people, who haven’t experienced rape/ non con. And, I have to say that all the people I spoke to were women, so that it was happening to men seemed to be more acceptable, because it was removed from their own experiences.
AJH: I guess that’s where a lot of the concern lies for me: when it’s one group of people writing about a different group of people. And, again, I should emphasise I’m not trying to get into the Women Writing M/M Debate (I am 1000000% happy for women to write m/m) – but, for example, I would feel hugely uncomfortable writing about the rape of a female character and offering that up for titillation. For fairly obvious reasons, that would be Just Plain Wrong both personally and politically.
SH: It’s partially the power dynamics, I guess? It’s possible that some people feel that since females are consistently threatened by males in multiple contexts, a male including M/F noncon for titillation would be more alarming/aggressive (for example, the outcry against this past week’s episode of GoT where people were rightly wondering what the hell is wrong with the showrunners that they have a burning need to include so much rape) while a female author writing M/M noncon may be upsetting and offensive but is seen as less threatening because of the change in dynamics.
K: I’m not sure that I agree with this, especially as the sex of a lot of authors isn’t always obvious, but I do think that the issue of power dynamics is relevant. I was raised reading old school bodice rippers where the dynamic was clear, man trumps woman (at least sexually) . In m/m that trump card is less clear, so that non con isn’t always seen in such a dominating way ? But I am coming from a different perspective that you guys.
Allan: I reckon that we’re at a fairly distinct place in time where both gender and sexuality are now no long considered binary but are spectrums. So the power dynamics mentioned are all very personal and distinct to the character. Which, for me, makes reading of the non-con much more difficult.
SH: Agreed. I had difficulty even framing that hypothesis. (Also, I am against the notion that a M/M rape scene is less disconcerting because of supposed equality in power between two cis males. To me that smacks of “he could fight back if he wanted”.)
K: I think that the sex of the author is a bit of a .. red herring ? For me anyway, the issue is really the reasons for the act, as in does it actually add to the book ?
AJH: Hmm, I’m not sure if that isn’t a red herring as well. Because what ‘adds’ to a book is subjective and if your book is a piece of noncon erotica then … obviously the answer to the question of “does the non con add anything to this book” is yes … because it’s the point of the book. I guess for me the issue comes down to those very power dynamics we’re having trouble articulating: not necessarily about the sex of the authors but about the axes along which authors are marginalised compared to the axes along which characters are marginalised. I think a comfortable rule of thumb is whatever a marginalised group does for itself is (and should be) sacrosanct. But when you’re impinging on a group who are socially vulnerable, even if they’re socially vulnerable in a different way to you, then I think demonstrating an understanding of that, rather than downplaying or dismissing it, goes a long way to, uh, reassuring me at any rate. I mean there’s a shit tonne of rapey gay porn aimed at gays and while I don’t enjoy it, I understand it’s providing something that some queer men apparently need/want.
Allan: Very true. It’s never clearer to me just how much gay men can fetishize everything than when I stumble onto XTube. I mean have you seen the stuff they put up there.? Some people have very, very healthy sexual imaginations.
AJH: Yes, but it’s … god. Well you can’t really draw a line between what’s institionalised (I want to be gangraped by jocks because society hates me) and what’s empowering (I want to be gangraped by jokes because FUCK YOU SOCIETY). And obviously this bleeds into m/m noncon erotica: the people writing it tend to be marginalised along various axes, either by gender or sexuality, potentially by race, so I can see why it feels powerful as a mode of resistance against de-valued or silenced sexual desires. Unfortunately,it never feels empowering to me as reader (and again, this is personal): it feels like it feeds into and reflects lots of icky rape culture stuff. Like the idea that men can’t be raped. Or only weak men get raped. Or that it’s less problematic if a man gets raped because it’s not institutionalised the way it is for women. Or whatever. Which is not to say that is inherently disempowering to all queer men all the time. Or that writing is inherently oppressive. It’s just I find to find the dialogues around it quite problematic — more problematic, actually, than the noncon itself.
K: This is such a complex point, that it feels…superficial ? To answer it, I can totally see what you mean about the resistance aspect; and this is very subjective, but I believe that there are more effective ways of challenging than actually continuing to use familiar plot devices. But I also recognise that people should be free to read and write whatever they want. As adults we apply our own filters, that’s the theory, but the practise is actually a lot more challenging. The other point is about rape culture and gender, and I do think that this is such an important and valid point . While 1 in 5 women in the UK experience some kind of sexual violence, the figure is 1 in 8 for gay men and yet the myth that the raped are weak and victims seems to have stuck, despite all the evidence to the opposite. No matter how I rationalise all the freedom of speech arguments, this does not sit comfortably with me.
SH: It’s the primary reason for my discomfort as well. I mean, there are stats that show queer people experience much higher rates of sexual violence than their heterosexual counterparts (and the rates go up drastically for bisexual and especially transgender people), so it’s not as though sexual violence in the LGBT community is an invisible issue. It’s a huuuge issue, and it’s hard for me to shut off my awareness of that when I see novels about queer people being brutally raped and the intent is to entertain.
AJH: I’m wary of argument ad statistics, although like you I’m also very aware that violence and sexual violence is a huge issue for the LGBTQ+ community and that impacts my reading — I suspect in the same way that some women readers potentially respond to m/f rape erotica. But if you get too deep into the statistics you essentially you turn this issue into a… strange quest to find a group of people who are sufficiently socially privileged that you’re “allowed” to write rape porn about them without having to feel bad about yourself. And that troubles me because I don’t think that’s the answer and I don’t think people feeling bad about what they like is the answer either.
SH: That’s true and I definitely DON’T want to shame anyone… BUT I also sometimes feel that conversations about M/M noncon can take on a tone of “cis males are more privileged so it’s not as big of an issue”, which contributes to my general feeling of meh-ness about noncon erotica. I feel like I’m not allowed to say “this doesn’t make me feel okay”.
AJH: I think there’s a tendency to approach issues of marginalization and privilege with a kind of almost numerical mentality based around allocating degrees of privilege and minority. And while I feel this is, to a degree, necessary because otherwise the privilege would always and inevitably shout down the marginalised (and this tends to be what happens outside of social justice circles anyway), it’s also unhelpful. Because, yes, the sexual abuse of women is the “bigger” issue – more women are raped/harassed and rape culture–broadly–affects women significantly more than men. But that doesn’t mean the rape of men, and the rape of LGBTQ+ people, isn’t ALSO an issue. It’s not either/or here. And I think it sort of comes down, most basically, to empathy: I think a lot of women write noncon in m/m because it gives them a place of refuge from their own experiences with rape culture. And that’s fine. But I think when you do that, it’s only fair to recognise that what is a place of refuge for you, is potentially a very threatening reality to someone else. And that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do. Or feel bad about doing it.
SH: Agreed on that point. And I will say that the inclusion of trigger warnings help me avoid accidentally stumbling upon things that I’ll find upsetting. M/M publishers are really good about tagging them up.
AJH: Yes, the ideal answer to writer freedom (which I believe in) is repricrocal reader freedom.
SH: Yep. And this is from someone who was considerably less aware of how problematic the lack of specific trigger warnings were nearly a decade ago when I first started writing original fiction.
Allan: Now that’s got me pondering. How informed by current social norms are our reading choices and habits? In our current ‘no means no’ society the genre of non-con gets a tough time. Would it have been the same at another point in time?
AJH: I guess it’s complicated (heh, that’ll be on my gravestone). I’m not sure how much a greater awareness of rape culture does impact m/m noncon. I think it affects het in that people are more comfortable with the position “this is problematic but I still have the right to do it / be into it” (which, for me, is the most defensible pro non-con position). But, for m/m, I’ve seen people argue that because men are essentially not affected by rape culture, m/m noncon just isn’t problematic. Like it’s the guilt-free, low calorie non con. And that is … troubling to me.
SH: Same here. But I don’t believe most people go into writing/reading noncon with that specific thought in mind. I think most people recognize that it’s an issue for others but also know they have the freedom to read and write what they wish and they have more freedom to do that now more than ever before. Which brings us back to Allan’s point about noncon today versus in the past. A couple of decades ago, the purpose of noncon seemed to be tied into these really ridiculous ideas around gender roles. For example, in the past a sexually aggressive male was sometimes symbolic of him being Full of Testosterone. It reaffirmed that the male lead was Super Heterosexual. But now, I think it seems more common for people to use noncon and especially dubcon to illustrate this ultimate form of desperate passion? It’s less political and more about the fantasy of sex and especially rough sex and uncontrollable passion. I’m not sure if that makes sense.
AJH: No, it does. I mean, I think that’s a strong theme in a lot of the forced seduction I’ve read in het. But, then, there’s lots of hero behaviour in het that would make me (and presumably most other people) go “Uh, no” if it happened in The Real World. And ultimately I’m fine with that. We’re all grown ups, we’re all capable of engaging with our own fantasies, a lot of the power of the erotic comes from taboos and transgressions, and so on. So I guess for me noncon makes sense both in a genre and a literary context and I can definitely see its value to the people who read it and write it. But I wish there was more acknowledgement of the way it intersects with queer identity and rape culture. And I wish there was more discussion of its problematic elements and implications that didn’t automatically imply hostility.
As ever we let the worms out with no idea how to get them back in. We hope you’ll join us in the comments for discussion – though please do remember, it’s a sensitive topic so be nice to each other 🙂
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 does not have an icon and is a 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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