Wednesday, 17 December 2014

What Price Fantasy? Consent and the policing of desire

This is sort of a follow-up to Alys' Addiction to Villains, dealing as it does with that fraught line between the fictional and the real.

Sex scenes and Consent:

A while ago, I read this fantastic article on the importance of consent in fiction by literary agent Laura Zats. The reason it's brilliant is because she's right. Consent is necessary, and hot and, y'know, the line between fun-times and sexual assault. Yet while the majority of my brain was cheering on this home-run of good sense and ethical sexy times in romance novels, I read this sentence and a tiny part of me flinched.

"Romance novels are also examples of what love and sex should look like in the real world."

I ignored the flinch. I flinch a lot.

But as the article charged on breathless to its rebuttal of rape culture, the little bit of me that flinched wriggled around a bit, pulled and nagged at my mind, and before I knew it I had my arms crossed over my chest and there was that nasty little whisper that used to keep me awake at night, "Just what is wrong with you?"


I thought I'd kicked that one. I thought I'd accepted the kinky mess of my brain, thought I'd settled with myself that dark thoughts and darker desires were not incompatible with self-worth, that I knew what I really needed and deserved, and what was just fun to think about. I thought I was over this.

But you're never over it. And it never takes much to bring it back again. Just some sweeping comment from a misogynist, just some below-the-line comment from an intellectual lightweight trying to save me from myself.

Or a thoughtful, intelligent, necessary article from someone I'd be proud to call an ally.

My shipping, my head-canon, the erotica I write (that you chaps are seriously never reading) would this be judged by others as "examples of what love and sex should look like in the real world", when it's not, and it isn't intended that way, and for goodness sakes, aren't we all aware of that by now?

I'm done berating myself about this. I got angry. 

Fiction is another word for fantasy. 

Even the most real-world, blow by blow account of an ordinary day is a fabrication, a falsity. And yeah, while I agree that we need a world that does not normalise sexual assault via media, can we not accept that some things are an escape? That some people like to think about things that - in real world terms - would constitute serious criminal acts?

Politically, I am left of centre. 

Actually, I'm left of centre by quite a long way. 

In fact, I probably couldn't see the centre with a telescope, but that's immaterial. As an unrepentant lefty, I would like to think that I am ethical. As such, I want an end to all the ways that people use power to hurt each other. I want an end to rape. I want, desperately, for every kind of non-consensual sexual activity eradicated from our world. I want our conversations around sex to become unambiguous and free from shame. I would like all abusive tosspots to learn how to be decent human beings and, frankly, while we're at it, I'd like an anarchist utopia. 

That's what I pray for, after all: people being decent to each other not because of law, custom or fear, but because it's the decent thing to do.

But just because I want these things, doesn't mean I'm not allowed to read books that glamorise vicious feudal societies. Just because I'm anti-murder does that mean I must resist the charm of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Just because I am a pacifist, am I not allowed to enjoy Preacher?

So, yeah, I'm anti rape. But does that mean I have to bar non-con from my fantasy life as well?

Especially when we get kinky, it's all about consent.

It's probably about time I mentioned BDSM. This is, after all, as much as a fictional framing device as erotic fiction. However 24/7 a relationship, it is still has its limits, however extreme the actions, they are always bound by consent. BDSM allows people to hurt or be hurt at one remove, not to experience power but to play at it. Just because someone someone indulges in interrogation play does not mean they want to be interrogated. BDSM is a safe space for fantasies, it is a yes-but-not-really.

I have heard arguments from erotica writers and readers that this is how it should be, that non-con should always be framed as fantasy within the construct of a story. So, any scene where a questionable act is eroticised it is necessary to reveal it as a consensual activity where all participants are engaging in a mutual game of make-believe. We may see something vicious, even violent, but when the lens pans out we see the mutual laugh and hug afterwards, the safe-word and the quick release restraints. In a longer story, we see these safe guards working, we see that this is all consensual and that, however intense, it is all in the name of good fun.

BDSM gives us as neat a get-out clause in fiction as it does to real life. We can go to these places without ever bringing our ethics into question.

But when we're reading a novel or a story we already have a framing device which tells the reader that nothing that follows is really real. A work of fiction is, of itself, a consensual, mutual game between the reader and the author. If a reader likes the idea of a forceful hunk sweeping them up to the bedroom over their half-hearted protestations, then a book is a place they can have that without the ensuing emotional scars. If at any point something unsettles them, triggers them, hurts them, they can say a non-negotiable "no", and put down the book. Stopping reading is the best safe-word in the world. 

What is more, most adults are capable of this distinction between reality and fiction. We know what we're reading isn't real - any crimes committed are not real crimes, the blood shed disappears with the next turned page. To add to this wonderful game a second disclaimer would be almost like a massive subtitle on the dangerous bits of an action film which state "These explosions are a special effect! Stunt doubles were used and not harmed!" 

When one reads - especially when one reads erotica - one suspends one's disbelief in order to get one's jollies. One does not want to come back to earth with a thump. We get it. It's a construct. If you aren't conversant with that, you really shouldn't be playing the game - you are still scrabbling at the backs of wardrobes seeking passage to Narnia, still walking into walls between platforms at King's Cross. 

So I could get scornful here, vicious against the people who fail to understand that, just because I entertain questionable notions in my head, doesn't mean I am ever going to act upon them in real, non pre-agreed reality.

But this attitude is rather glib.

Because that isn't what this is about. Because even though books are safe spaces, even though they are the finest of fetish clubs, even I draw back from too much realism in my villain. One might be fine with the idea of an elf-lord dreamboat pinning one's hands and ripping one's bodice, but when the setting is a market town in Surrey and the ravisher in question is a stockbrocker then no matter how much emotionally escapist bliss comes into play, to me that's going to sound like date rape.

Likewise, while I know that writers have no particular responsibility to their readers as a moral force, I am also aware of the part they play in creating cultural discourses and normative modes in the media. And these discourses - for all they are created in that 'harmless' realm of paper an ink - can cause real-world suffering, real world pain. I'm not talking about Harry Potter being the slippery slope into Satanism, I'm talking about semiotics. I'm talking about yet another strand of media excusing sexual assault, normalising it, glorifying it. 

In short, I'm talking about rape culture. Faced with that, to say, "It's only fantasy, I won't self censor, sod the consequences" is to show either blinding privilege or borderline malice. 

There should probably be a conclusion here

But there won't be. Because I know that people can't be held accountable for their fantasies provided those fantasies remain fiction (in whatever form). Because I know that reading about non-con, however horrific or scary, and getting off on it is not the same thing as wanting it to happen. I know that, as people, we need to challenge the dark bits of our minds, to embrace them and enjoy them if we can do that without harming people. I know that devotes of the macabre, fans of the kinky among us shouldn't have to feel like freaks, shouldn't need to be ashamed that they get a frisson from things a bit beyond the beaten track. The stigma against these things is strong enough as it is; let's not shame people further.

But I know, too, that if a story is told often enough to become our mode of understanding a thing it can do incalculable harm. I know if a person's, particularly a woman's, "No" comes to signify only token resistance, then we live in a society that excuses rape. And I am a hundred percent certain that this is wrong.

So I can't reach an answer. The line between fiction and reality is nothing like so definite as the line between enthusiastic consent and everything else. The boundary of what is too close to the bone changes from reader to reader, author to author, person to person. What's more, in a society that has so much shame, so much obfuscation around desire, too many people find themselves unable to communicate, to give or to ask consent. So, yes, we certainly need discourses which show us the words to do this, but as fiction reflects reality, we also need words which reflect back the pain of that inability, words for that struggle, for that uncertainty. 

How much do writers owe to ethics? To reality? At what price do our fantasies come? I wish there were a rubric that I could get behind, a pocket guide to acceptability because with the cost so high in human suffering, I could do with one.

All I know for certain is this; I am a Gothic writer, a teller of fucked up little narratives with ambiguous moralities, and I am not always sure that I am doing the right thing.

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