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How to define ‘dubious consent’? Theoretically, if consent is dubious, then it’s not there, therefore whatever happens is not consensual. In real life, there is no ‘dubious’ consent. It’s either given or it’s not, but fiction grants the reader access into the minds of characters, and the borders between consent and lack thereof sometimes become blurry. As a writer, I don’t enjoy writing non-con scenes where there’s endless brutality and torture at the hands of some utterly evil villain. I do like to put the characters through the wringer though, and dubious consent situations in fiction are something that give me satisfaction on many different levels. They often create tension and conflict between the characters that is not external, but caused by the characters’ flawed actions, which creates conflict on the basis of cognitive dissonance in the character’s mind.
It seems though, from what I’ve read in many reviews of different books with this type of content, that there is a whole group of readers who will happily read explicit rape scenes written for titillation as long as there is no doubt left about the perpetrator being evil. I don’t know if it’s a question of political correctness, liking the protagonists to be pure and good, or of treating adult oriented entertainment as some kind of relationship manuals, but when violence and infringing on consent happens, all of a sudden it seems worse than full-on rape scenes. Same goes for asshole MCs acting all sorts of ‘wrong’ (ranging from unpleasant or possessive, to violent).
I’ve read many times that people actually consider this kind of content something that shouldn’t be written in books that have romance at the core, because it’s not ‘romantic’. But I will ask: who has the right to police what others consider ‘romantic’? If I find two killers bonding over a dead body, or a cannibal eating up his lover, romantic, do I not have the right to showcase that vision? I will obviously be in a niche, and most readers won’t share my ‘aww moments’ but I have actually read opinions that including themes of this sort takes your book out of the romance category.
I believe adults reading adult books should be given enough credit as intelligent people to be able to understand what the characters are doing. Their relationship might not be something a reader likes to read about, or is not attracted to, but I don’t think it’s a reason to say ‘one shouldn’t write about toxic relationships, what if people think it’s how things should be?’. Well, I assume my readers are intelligent and can tell fantasy from reality.
And this is where we get to one of the main points I want to make. I’ve been pondering on this for a while. Why do I enjoy reading and writing about violent men and their unsavory actions, when in my personal life I’d avoid men like that like the Plague? My parents taught me all about how a partner should treat me, all about self-respect, saying ‘no’ and being an all-round assertive person. So I suppose my attraction to anti-heroes and assholes stems from wanting to experience a fantasy, a situation I would never put myself in in real life. When writing, I don’t always try to create my perfect book boyfriend, but characters who are exciting and work for each other. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.
There’s no difference when it comes to exploring a fantasy in a book, be it non-con or dub-con. When I get all excited about a character doing bad things to the other, I don’t suddenly assume it’s okay to do those things in real life, and I give the same credit to my readers. I can’t exactly explain why villains or characters with dubious morality send a shiver down my spine and frankly, I don’t have to. Maybe it’s the confidence they exude, the raw sexual energy I feel when they exert their power, go against the grain of what’s right. It’s the same concept as behind the good old bodice rippers – the hero/heroine says ‘no’, but means ‘yes’, so I get to read about a character who is excited in some way, but also psychologically tormented – finger lickin’ mental masochism. It also often ends up creating a web of lies around the characters that I then enjoy slowly unraveling.
I’ve also noticed rape fantasy stories usually portray the villain being the rapist and then another MC riding in on their white horse to be the good guy (‘healing cock’ included). I can imagine it creates a nice, guiltless fantasy for some readers, where they can have all the ‘rapey fun’, and then see the culprit punished – the world is good again. Whereas with dub-con, it is something that more frequently happens between the two main characters who later on develop a relationship, so they have to deal with the aftermath of what they’ve done to each other. In real life, you’re advised to instantly get out of a relationship when there’s even a hint of abuse, but in fiction, the character isn’t you, he can make mistakes you (hopefully) wouldn’t make, because he’s flawed, because he excuses his partner or is just as bad as him.
There’s all sorts of types of dub-con.
They’re all sexual fantasies as well, just less straightforward than brutal rape.
Dubious consent is at the heart of our new novel The Copper Horse: Fear, though it could be argued that it’s non-con. I think it’s in some blurry space in between.
The premise is that Reuben, who has his set of forced sex and bondage fantasies from the very beginning, is abducted by Erik, a wealthy mobster with a passion (if not obsession) for ponyplay. Erik doesn’t care for consent, treating his new captive as an animal to be tamed, but what he doesn’t know is that secretly, Reuben is actually gay and increasingly enjoying his stay with Erik. That creates a dynamic where both men hold back some truths. On one hand, Erik holds Reuben as a ponyboy against his will, but on the other hand, the reader gets Reuben’s point of view which discloses all the secret pleasures. Objectively speaking, Erik is an evil man, the captor and abductor, yet he’s the one being blatantly cheated by Reuben into thinking that his pony is reluctant.
I like when the scales are constantly tipping from one side to the other for characters, for no one to yield complete power in a relationship even if it might seem that way at first glance. Erik is no sadist, and what he wants most is a soft-hearted, mild-tempered stallion for him to care for. He takes no pleasure in punishments as that’s not what’s at the heart of his kink. In a world where there’s no Internet to instantly connect to hundreds of potential partners, constant rejection from the men he does engage with must have made him frustrated and lonely. So, as time goes by and Reuben proves himself to be more and more the exact type of pony Erik yearns for, the scales of power slowly tip to Reuben’s side. Erik doesn’t have a POV, but I imagine it being hurtful for him to think that his pony will never reciprocate his feelings (boo-hoo, right? ;))
Reuben might be Erik’s slave, yet by knowing Erik is desperate to keep him happy, Reuben acquires leverage he never expected to have.
What I love most in stories, especially the romantic ones is that the characters you meet at the beginning are not the characters you end up with by the last page of the book. They change and influence each other. Dubious consent can develop into full consent and love, and seeing that change and a rising awareness of each other’s needs is a fascinating journey to take as a reader and an author.