Consent (2000 essay by torch)
|Date(s):||December 13, 2000|
|External Links:||essay table of contents; Consent|
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Consent is a 1998 essay by torch.
Some Topics Discussed
- "Slash fans write and read different types of rape stories for a variety of reasons, and to say that some of these stories are acceptable and some not, that some of these motivations are acceptable and some not, is an arbitrary judgment. To judge the validity of others' issues and fantasies solely on the basis of what our own are is an extremely tricky endeavor, and also a very good way to lose friends. It's quite possible that people's preferences in fiction say any number of things about them, but it's foolish to assume that we know exactly what those things are, and arrogant to believe that it's any of our business."
- differing views of consent
- differing reasons for writing and reading
- fandom policing
Excerpts from the Essay
[everyone suddenly burst out singing]
You can probably see where I'm going with this. Discussions of rape stories tend to get bogged down in comparisons with real life, in moral outrage, in disagreement over intent, but above all in different semantic definitions, because people don't always agree on what a rape story is. Or what it says. Or what reading and writing it says about us.
Which could be because there are so many different types of stories that deal with issues of consent; these stories say different things; and we all read them for different reasons. (Yes, I said "issues of consent." The title of this essay is "consent," not "rape." "Issues of consent" is the most all-encompassing term I can think of, one that includes both the stories that everyone agrees on calling rape stories, and the ones that people argue about.)So what is a rape story? On her link page, Sandy lists several different categories, ranging from the plainly descriptive to the quirky, and I could probably come up with a dozen more, cataloguing everything from the violent to the seductive. I think, though, that the elements of rape stories that make people argue about them aren't to do with theme or setting or perpetrator (except perhaps in the case of partner rape), but with treatment and style: is the rape a trauma or a plot device? Is the raped character being tortured, or enjoying it, or both?
[no means no]
Some people will only read stories where rape is treated like a serious real-life trauma, described complete with what seems to them to be the right amount of suffering and consequences, with or without subsequent recovery. As a form of taste in fiction, this is no less valid than any other; as a way to avoid seeing a perceived trivialization of a sensitive subject, it is entirely understandable. People should take responsibility for their own feelings, squicks, and preferences. However, since there aren't separate warnings for plot-device rape and trauma rape, things can get a bit dodgy--not that I imagine warnings like that will ever become popular.
Arguments break out. ("Why didn't this story have clearer warnings?") Moral high grounds are pointed out by those who believe they are standing on one. ("To say that a rape victim would be willing to have sex five minutes later is demeaning and wrong.") In some of these discussions, people even feel compelled to wave their rape credentials ("I was/my sister was/my best friend was, and...") before speaking up, as if only people with personal experience are entitled to an opinion. ("Actually, rape stories can be very therapeutic.")
And once the dread specter of personal experience makes an appearance, rationality goes out the window; argue with someone after they've shared one of the most painful experiences of their life with you, and you will be perceived as trying to invalidate that experience.
Without waving any credentials whatsoever, I'd like to pause and point out that I am not attempting, in this essay, to invalidate or belittle anyone's experiences. But personal experiences of real-life trauma, while they can certainly affect what a person chooses to read, do not necessarily make good guidelines for discussing what is written.There is a profound difference between saying "I hate stories that trivialize rape and I refuse to read them," and "Stories that I feel trivialize rape are wrong and bad and should not be written.".
[no means ow]
So, what about those stories that are pointed out as trivializing rape, then? It seems to me that what I would call plot-device rape is frequently heavy h/c, with the rape added on as extra h, so to speak; it's not enough for the character to be beaten up by burly guards and thrown in a cell, he must also be gang-raped. Then he's rescued, and patched up, and has sex with his one true love.Which may seem trivializing and callous. My personal theory on this, though, is that it's a way to balance the h and the c, when the c has a sexual component. The character is injured in body, and also in sexuality; then his body is reclaimed and healed (well, bandaged, anyway), and his sexuality is also reclaimed and healed. From a narrative-structural viewpoint, it makes perfect sense. Those who argue that it doesn't work that way in real life (and those who argue with them by saying that in some cases it might) seem to be overlooking an important point: it isn't real life, it's fiction. The sexual injury and the sexual healing don't necessarily have to be read all that literally. It can be seen purely symbolically, or as a way of condensing a process into two central events, or as wishful thinking for an easier way to heal trauma... or, radical as it may seem, as something that just hits a kink, plain and simple. This is, as I believe I mentioned, fiction. Anything goes.
[no means non-con]
That discussion often starts because part of the reading audience is reluctant to label forcible seduction scenarios of the X ties Y up and has sex with him and Y stops saying no and has a wonderful time type as rape stories. Now, this might be out of a feeling that fantasies should not be subjected to real-life criteria, which is a position I could certainly respect, but at the risk of being flayed and salted, I must say that it's usually seemed to me that this argument has its roots in not wanting to call these stories rape stories because non-trauma rape stories are just wrong, so some people need for these stories not to be rape stories in order to allow themselves to enjoy them.
This strikes me as being along the same lines as "but I like Mahree Sioux in this story, of course she's not a Mary Sue!" Why not just agree that stories where one character has sex with another against the other's will, regardless of how long the 'no' lasts, are rape stories, and that one likes some of them?
More subtle issues-of-consent stories where force or violence usually doesn't enter into it, but seduction or blackmail or misunderstandings or external fuck-or-die threats do, are possibly my favorite kind of party game at this particular party. But they, too, frequently do not get classified as rape stories because the element of coercion is usually psychological rather than physical.
And to label stories like these as being rape stories is also in some sense misleading, since there is a certain difference in how the subject is treated, and a person who is bothered by brutal rape may not have a problem with blackmail (and a person who is looking for rape trauma and recovery may be disappointed at finding that the aliens forced them to boff like bunnies and they rather liked it). So what should we call these other stories? Non-con? Forcible seduction scenarios in particular are among the stories that more frequently get labeled as non-con instead, perhaps because the word rape is so loaded.On the other hand, no two slash fans have ever managed to agree on exactly what non-con is, and how it differs from rape, so the attempt at making a distinction between non-con and rape is less than completely useful.
[no means yes] Then we have the pleasure fantasy stories, where a character is raped (not forcibly seduced, as has been discussed before), in actuality or in story-internal fantasy, and loves it. Stories like that usually bring out the same argument that the plot-device stories do, couched in even more violent terms: that is, the moral argument, the argument that it is wrong to write stories like these, because they trivialize and misrepresent a very serious issue.
Certainly these stories are not an accurate representation of reality. And I have a great deal of sympathy for people who dislike seeing issues important to them misrepresented or trivialized. At the same time, I have a strong belief that no representation will suit everyone and include everyone's issues and experiences. Above all, I have an extremely strong conviction that fiction has no obligation, moral or otherwise, to be an accurate representation of reality.Rape fantasies are, as someone always points out at this stage of the discussion, not unusual. There is a vast difference, as someone else then goes on to point out, between having a fantasy (whether positive or negative) about something, and condoning it or wanting it in real life. To assume that readers and writers of rape stories are in favor of rape sounds to me a little like assuming that readers and writers of torture stories are in favor of putting lighted matches between people's toes for kicks.