When I first started reading romanceland discussion boards one of the most confusing debates I encountered was the one over forced seduction v. rape. I didn’t see what the distinction was, but I respected the people making it and I slowly realized that it was a “this is fiction not real life” argument. Because a reader has access to the thought processes of a character, it’s possible to make the argument that she can see and accept that a character is finding a way to allow something to happen that the character cannot openly consent to, for whatever reason. I still am not comfortable with the distinction but I understand it better intellectually.
For me, generally speaking in fictional scenarios and in real life, consent must exist and must be freely given or coercion has occurred. In the case of rape, that means forced seduction isn’t really a possibility for me. I don’t mean that an author can’t write it or a reader can’t interpret a scene that way, I just mean that I am going to have a hard time doing that. When I was younger I read a lot of the standard erotica (classic and contemporary), but don’t anymore, and today, especially when I read stories that are written and marketed as romance, I have trouble giving consent in the sense that Robin has described in her posts on this topic.
My general rule is that women have enough stigmas attached to the expression of their fantasies and desires. Insisting that romance novels cannot feature what is clearly a fairly common fantasy reinforces such stigmas, and I prefer to err on the side of letting in too much problematic material rather than too little. I’m not at all sure I’m right about this, but it is something I’ve thought about for a long time, so if I’m wrong, it’s not for lack of cognitive effort.
All this navel-gazing is a preamble to a discussion about a couple of incidents and subsequent conversations that came across the transom this week. First, there was an author blog post railing against content warnings for problematic material in erotic and BDSM romance. One of the author’s books had received low-starred reviews because readers felt blindsided by the amount of rape in the storyline. There was some spirited discussion in the comments section, and these weren’t newbies to the genre or the press, so we’re not talking about stereotypical pearl clutchers here.
The press provides some warnings for books at their site, but Amazon’s policies make it difficult to put informative keywords in tags. The author was insistent that such warnings would never ever ever be included in a book (over her dead body, or something equivalent). Apparently there is a huge difference between having the warnings in the book and having the warnings somewhere the reader has to make an effort to find; as a mere reader I am clearly not knowledgeable enough to understand the ethical difference that is so important to this author.
Anyway. The author said many disdainful and condescending things about a reader who would want such warnings and blamed fan fiction for creating a climate in which such expectations would be seen as acceptable. This is, at best, ironic, since not only has said author has written fan fiction for many years, she has has ported one of the more problematic tropes of fanfic into her published, sold-for-profit original fiction.
This trope is dubious consent to sex, i.e., dubcon. The author insists that the way she uses rape in her story conforms with the “rules” of dubcon, which are rules that come directly from fanfic. The specific dubcon trope here is “fuck or die,” which apparently counts as something slightly less awful than nonconsensual sex, i.e., noncon. Noncon is the fanfic way of describing rape in fiction. Noncon is indistinguishable from real-life rape, but it occurs in a fictional story. I think everyone pretty much agrees that noncon in fiction is what the rest of us, in the rest of our lives, call rape. Fiction is not reality, so the distinction is not completely unmerited, but there is plenty of disagreement in fandom about noncon, dubcon, the line between them, and the desirability of content warnings.
There was also a lot of verbiage in the post about warnings being amateur and not appropriate in professionally published books (as opposed to their role in fan fiction). I don’t take my cues on professionalism from someone who writes original fiction that maps directly onto to fan fiction tropes, markets it to the romance genre readership, and then yells at readers for having expectations based on fanfic rules, so I’ll just leave that discussion to authors who have a stake in it.
Let’s be clear about this. Dubcon is the forced seduction trope of BDSM. If you’re writing “erotic romance” with dubcon, you’re writing a version of forced seduction. In most worldviews, “fuck or die” is just rape, which is not romantic, let alone romance.The way the forced seduction-dubcon-rape scenario works in romance is as a way for women to reclaim events and fantasies that are stigmatized. And if that’s how they’re reading it, then the whole “fragile flower” criticism of women who want warnings falls on its face, because content warnings become a way to find material, not just a way to avoid it.
Which brings me to another, related conversation that arose almost simultaneously. A colleague at DA reviewed a romance in which the hero is disabled and uses a wheelchair. The book was well received by both the reviewer and by some commenters who had also read it. But a perusal of the author’s website revealed that the author and the press she founded specialize in “disability devotee” romances, i.e., romances that focus on disabled men and the women who are attracted to them.
I found the website and its explanation of the focus of their stories deeply disturbing. But then I asked myself, why is it OK to read books that focus on rape in romance but not books that focus on a woman’s attraction to disability? They both involve fetishization. They’re both romanticizing a relationship that would be problematic in the real world. Aren’t they more or less the same?
I eventually concluded they aren’t, for the following reason. In centering the role of rape in a romantic relationship, a story can provide a way for a woman to exert control in a way she cannot in the real world. It’s not comfortable to think about but it’s understandable, given the myriad ways in which women can be dominated. Rape is an act of violence, but it has a sexual valence in society.
A woman who fetishizes disability, on the other hand, isn’t reclaiming a dominance she’s otherwise denied, because she’s the able and privileged one in the relationship. And if she is interpreting the relationship primarily or solely as reclaiming dominance, then she’s both ignoring the privilege she possesses and reinforcing gendered stereotypes (the caregiver, the mother, etc.). It’s possible for this relationship to be empowering for her, but that empowerment comes through assertions of the privilege she carries.
That said, there are plenty of people who read rape in romance (m/f and m/m) because they enjoy it. It’s a fetish in the same way that being a “disability devotee” is a fetish. Fan fiction is a place readers and writers are able to read and write about not only their love of characters but also their love of particular sexual fetishes. Fan fiction operates according to a previously determined set of rules, rules that include being non-judgmental about fetishes. You play the game, you accept the rules.
For-profit publishing in the romance genre is not fan fiction. The rules are different. Romance genre rules do not include accepting that a long list of fetish interests are part of the genre. If you are publishing a book under genre labels, you owe it to me, the genre-romance buying reader, to respect my rules. And my rules include knowing that what I’m buying falls within the existing parameters. Maybe it’s about avoiding certain scenarios, maybe it’s about seeking them out. This isn’t fandom, where we all know that “warning” is short for “trigger warning.” Romance publishers signal the internal content of books in a variety of ways, including covers, titles, and blurb language. If you and your publisher don’t want to play by those rules, that’s your prerogative. I just won’t accept your assertion that you publish romance.
There’s obviously a readership that is interested in purchasing fetish fiction, and it probably has an overlap with the romance genre readership. But they’re not equivalent, and I don’t see how it serves readers to act as if they are.