It is 2011, and I am at a literary award after party. There is no statue in my hand, but there is a vodka martini. I think it was number three. Maybe four? And the title of the book on everyone’s lips that night was not the one that had taken home the top prize two hours earlier; it was “that new mommy porn book.”
“Have you read it?” people asked each other. “Is it respectful? Is it clever?”
People danced around the topic, not wanting to speak ill of the author or the kink scene, but I, four (maybe it was five?) vodka martinis in, finally said “It’s bad, okay!? It’s got bad wordcrafting, bad punctuation, and bad BDSM! It’s dangerous. Someone is gonna read that sh*t and do that sh*t and land in the hospital because they didn’t get brought into the community through the community. Some poor girl is gonna let herself get stalked by a creeper who does not understand consent and she’s gonna die. The only damn good thing about the book is the great f*cking cover! But the rest? Kink Colonialism.”
Colonialism: The imperialist expansion of Europe into the rest of the world [...] in which a dominant imperium or center carried on a relationship of control and influence over its margins or colonies. This relationship tended to extend to social, pedagogical, economic, political, and broadly culturally. (From “Key Terms In Post-Colonial Theory.”)
In layman’s terms: Colonialism is the act of entering and subjugating a culture, then appropriating aspects of said culture to take back to the “Empire”/mainstream for display/use sans the original cultural context. This also carries insinuations of the mainstream/empirical culture being ‘dominant,’ ‘correct,’ and ‘the best,’ framing the invaded culture as ‘wrong,’ ‘Other,’ ‘weird,’ and in need of correction or saving.
And in Fifty Shades’ case? I won’t make assumptions about E.L. James’ sex life, but it seems as if she grasped onto a dangerous Orientalist view of the BDSM lifestyle and plopped it into standard romance narrative.
This isn’t much of a surprise when you consider the source material: Fifty Shades is famous for being a serial-numbers-filed-off Twilight fanfiction that hit big. The fact that it’s revamped fanfiction is not the issue here; the issue is that Fifty Shades, being based on an extremely problematic novel whose consent issues (amidst issues of racism, exoticism, etc.) are sky-high, has compounded the consent problem.
Because of the quality of both the writing and the kink, I though that Fifty Shades would eventually wither. The novelty would fade, and eventually the people who were honestly interested in the lifestyle that had been appropriated would move on to better-written BDSM romance books (The Sophie Scaife series by Abigail Barnette, who also writes the excellent and expository “Jenny Reads 50 Shades” blog; Phèdre’s Trilogy by Jacqueline Carey). From there I hoped the interested readers would do research, attend info sessions, workshops, playparties, and eventually find themselves a nice, healthy, fulfilling kinky relationship.
But here we are, four years later, and now there’s a movie.
This means that not only the reading public will be perhaps, to their detriment, internalizing the messages of Fifty Shades; there’s going to be a whole new viewing public as well. And that raises the question:
If and when one of those people reading or watching Fifty Shades gets hurt, who will be to blame?
Can, for example, Jian Giomeshi’s alleged victims sue E.L. James or her publisher Random House? He did name-drop the book in his first official statement after the allegations.
Before I began my career as a writer, I was a substitute teacher in high schools. During free reading periods, I talked to each and every student about the book they were reading – which character they liked best, what drew them to it, etc.
I once spoke with a young woman reading Twilight. I asked her if she was enjoying it and nodded along as she spoke, and straightened to go. Then I stopped, turned back and said, in a whisper, “Listen, I’m sorry. I know you’re clever. I just want to point out that this sort of romantic stalker thing in real life is dangerous. If a guy does this, you should–”
“Report his ass? Duh,” she interrupted. “This is fantasy. I know the difference.”
That conversation has remained in the forefront of my thoughts since. If we know that consent-play is fantasy, and we know non-consent situations are dangerous, not sexy, then why all the romance novels, films, and stories about the The Highland Bandit’s Kidnapped Wife and The Italian Millionaire’s Bound Pet and Doing As He Says, and the thousands of Daddy-dom erotic GIF blogs? The big question here is:
If we know non-consent is bad, why is it so damn good?
Why do we love these fantasies? My pet theory about it is this:
People read and write these sorts of stories to either consciously or unconsciously explore those fetishes that might otherwise make them feel unsafe to explore in real life. The reader can imagine being tortured sexually or forcefully seduced and is allowed to take pleasure in it. At least in the west, we come from a culture of permission, where “no means no” and issues of consent are extremely pervasive and important.
But when you delve into the world of fantasy, that changes. People fantasize sexually because they are looking for a thrill, a danger to court, or a new sensation to experience, or a new scent and taste, or a new sort of stimulation. They fantasize because they are not comfortable or ready to enact these fantasies in real life, or are not in a position to be able to do so.
And dubious or non-consent fantasy narratives tap into what I would call a very visceral and adolescent fantasy about early acknowledgement of sexuality. People of all ages, genders, and sexual identities who are on the cusp of their emergence as sexual beings struggle with the dichotomy of recognizing that they are sexually desirable and/or desire sex, but at the same time are romantically and sexually inexperienced.
Non-consent fantasy narratives allow the writer/reader to experience the rewards of being sexual without the stumbling block of inability and inexperience. In these fantasies, they get to be passive, and are still wanted by the other party, without the possibility of the humiliation of rejection or an inability to seduce. Non-consent fantasy narratives tap into that primal, primary fantasy of early sexuality and allow us to celebrate our own bodies and take pleasure in them without any real-life repercussions or shame.
In a way, in these fantasies, the forcible confinement and fantasy-rape is the ultimate compliment – we are wanted so badly that the dominating partner literally cannot help themselves. There’s a thrill in the fantasy of someone being so overwhelmed with lust or passion for you that they can’t hold themselves back; the fantasy of being chosen out of the crowd, the one special person, for no particular reason beyond just being you – to have a dark prince charming look at you and say, ah yes, here is the special one. There’s something freeing in the fantasy of being able to give up control, to just be pleasured, to trust your partner to be concerned about your pleasure, to throw off society’s slut shaming, Cosmo’s 101 tips, to not have to think or plan or worry. To just be given sex, and for it to rock your world, and know that the other person wants you just as you are. There is something endlessly appealing about being wanted.
I also believe that it’s from the desire to be wanted, to be deemed special, that the impulse to create a Mary Sue in fanfiction stems. I think this is probably especially true in younger girls just starting to explore their own sexuality and romance, girls getting their first crushes and learning what it means to want someone emotionally and sexually. Where better to fixate a first, foal-wobbly desire than on someone fictional? Someone safe? Even if the character they want isn’t the safe one? Especially if they aren’t the safe one?
If we understand why consent-play is steamy, the question that we writers of that genre must ask ourselves it this:
What do we owe the readers of our non-consent fantasy stories?
Firstly, do we owe them anything at all?
Well, yes. I think we do.
Poll a hundred women from the age of sixteen up, and ask where they first read stories involving sex. I will bet you dollars to donuts at least half of them will say they borrowed a mother’s/aunt’s/friend’s Harlequins and Mills & Boons. There are a lot of people learning about romance, desire, and sex from what we write.
And that is a glorious, privileged place to be. I think romance novels are fabulous mostly because the female characters in them have agency to desire, have fantasies, and pursue their own romantic, emotional, and sexual satisfaction. That is a great message.
But we also need to be aware of the other messages our work can send, too.
We don’t owe instruction manuals, or pages of boring explanations; but we do owe readers of non-consent fantasy an acknowledgement within the text that the sex and relationships happening on the page are, first and foremost, a fantasy.
We owe them accurate play scenes, well researched, so that if one of our readers tries to recreate it, they won’t end up in the hospital. We also owe them realistic and honest portrayals of kink culture, whether they’re our own kinks or not. And if a character is going to endanger another character, then we owe our readers to make it clear in the narrative that what that character is doing is unacceptable, wrong, dangerous, illegal, or potentially deadly.
We owe our readers actual discussions of consent or non-consent within the book. We owe it to them to model what consent negotiation looks like. We owe them sex scenes where the negotiation happens before sex starts, and mid-kiss, so they can see what it looks like when desires shift, and consent must be re-obtained. We owe them characters who negotiate boundaries happily and confidently, who speak up when they’re uncomfortable, who are concerned about their partner and who ask, verbally, for permission to continue, and who own their own bodily agency. And if we have a character who is refusing to seek consent or who is going to continue without it, we owe it to our readers to make it clear in the narrative that this is not acceptable behaviour.
We owe our readers realistic sex scenes which include the use of condoms, dental dams, and sex-safe lubes, safe words, and safety precautions. And if our characters are engaging in unsafe sexual practices, we owe our readers the acknowledgement that these sexual practices are unsafe in the text.
And frankly speaking, if you, non-consent fantasy writer, think that being responsible while writing your non-consent fantasy narratives is boring, or will drag down the book, then I’ve got advice for you:
Our job is to make anything sexy: monsters, aliens, dinosaurs, cowboys, race car drivers, and millionaires. If we can tap into the thrill of being wanted, if we can make rape, confinement, coercion, pain, and trickery sexy, we can sure as heck also make discussions of consent and safe sex sexy, too.
We owe it to our readers. And we owe it to ourselves.
J.M. Frey is a voice actor, SF/F author, and fanthropologist. She also writes SF/F erotica under the pseudonym Peggy Barnett. Her first full-length erotica novel, “Lips Like Ice” is now available from Circlet Press. You can follow her at @SciFrey or @EroticBarnett. She is represented by Laurie McLean of Fuse Literary.