If you read a lot of “non-con” romance, you will inevitably run across angry reviews making some version of the argument, “rape is rape.”
I associate the phrase “rape is rape” with the efforts to raise consciousness of date rape during the late 1980s and ‘90s. For people born before the sexual revolution, "rape" was something that involved a stranger with a gun in a poorly lit parking garage. Especially after the taboos against premarital sex were lifted, it became clear that the vast majority of rapes are “acquaintance rapes” where the parties are known to each other, and the most complex—i.e. hard to prosecute--of those cases take place between people who are romantically involved. Within that context, the phrase served as a crucial reminder that just because you dated or kissed or got drunk does not give your date the right to ignore your refusal to have sex.
And I understand that books that “blur the lines” over consent—romanticize what in real life is a crime, contribute to the myth that a woman who says “no” really means “yes,” that experiencing sexual release somehow negates the violation of will, and so on—would be infuriating to many people. From this point of view, calling these stories “non-con” is a dangerous whitewash.
I agree with these arguments—up to a point. It is absolutely crucial that everyone understand the importance of consent in sexuality, that we refute rationalizations that offer to excuse abusive, illegal behavior, that we empower all people to make healthy, conscious choices about their sexual relations. However, I consider accomplishing these real world ends to be something quite separate from, and not in any way incompatible with, the activity of reading romance novels that feature non-consent
Obviously, I am coming at this from the perspective of a woman who both reads and writes “non-con,” so I won’t pretend to objectivity, but I would like to lay out why I think the distinction between “non-con” and “rape” is both justified and necessary.
A lot of women, myself included, have what are commonly call “rape fantasies”—fantasies of being forced, helpless, humiliated, with varying degrees of violence. I have my own theories of why this may be, but they’re not based on any research, so they don’t have any more authority than anyone else’s. I do know that I have had these fantasies since before I was old enough to recognize them as sexual (for example, a childhood fascination with being kidnapped—I used to pretend my Sunshine Family dolls had been subject to a home invasion in their dollhouse) and that I do not have any trauma or abuse in my past that would offer up a “pathological” reason for why I have these fantasies.
I am also a die-hard liberal progressive, so I felt deeply ashamed and guilty about my fantasies for many years, until I hit my forties and finally said “WTF.”
For me, the distinction between “non-con” and “rape” is all-important. “Rape” simply cannot be a fantasy. Rape is my worst nightmare. It is the perversion of my most intimate fantasies into a tool to degrade, brutalize and damage me. It is turning me into the object of my enemy’s fantasy, one in which I am worthless, where my pain and humiliation serve to titillate someone else, where my feelings don’t matter. We hear pretty often the saying that “rape is a crime of violence not sex,” and that seems to me exactly right. It is an act of cruelty that seeks to violate the will and destroy the personhood of the victim.
“Non-con” fantasies are often treated as crude jerk-off fare, but my own experience is that they are quite complex, with deep roots in the inhibitions, sexual fear, guilt and shame that throughout most of history have been foisted on women and their relationship to their own desire. But whatever their origin, again from my own perspective, the defining condition of anything called an “erotic fantasy,” whether non-con or not, is that it must have pleasure and fulfillment as its ultimate goal. Moreover, within our fantasies, the loss of control is of course completely imaginary: there is no violation of will. No matter how violent the fantasy, the “victim” is always in control. In a very real way, what happens in the fantasy is simply not rape.
Insofar as romance novels are vehicles and expressions of these fantasies, I would argue the same rules apply. The fact that sometimes these depictions are brutal or violent doesn’t change that their goal is pleasure. And I can say as a reader, romance depictions of non-consensual sex do not feel the same as fictional depictions of the kind of “rape” I described above: the first is erotic and the second is horrifying.
Obviously, how a reader perceives a given scene is incredibly variable. Many readers are deeply disturbed by them, and unquestionably survivors of rape can find them traumatic, which is why content warnings are so important. But assuming there are safeguards to protect readers who don’t want to read books with non-con elements, I think it’s a very real question whether indulging in “non-con” fantasies causes greater harm either to the women who like them or to society at large—and by “real question,” I mean there are good arguments on either side and no real all-knowing authority who can inform us of the absolute truth. (And this doesn’t address the problem that I think there are plausible arguments in favor of regarding female fantasies about being “raped” as different and less harmful than male fantasies of raping someone else).
But as regards the question of damage, I would like to make two interrelated points. First, our society has a very old, very ugly history of condemning women for having “improper” sexual fantasies. In my own experience, women are at least as guilty of shaming other women for having the “wrong” fantasies as men are, and that impulse to condemn seems to spring as readily from the political left as it does the right. Ironically, as a sexually active teenager in the 1980s, I was able to dismiss my mother’s dire warnings that people would label me a “slut,” but I thoroughly internalized the often vitriolic feminist condemnation of women who indulged in disempowering, “retrograde” fantasies.
Bottom line: If we are going to argue the damage caused by female consumption of fictional “rape fantasies” then it’s only fair that we weigh that against the harm done by shaming and condemning women for their fantasies. (And, to risk another parenthetical, there is also the problem that shame and repression can make it difficult for some women to own their desires and communicate them clearly to their partners, which can in and of itself lead to destructive sexual encounters including rape.)
My second point is that the “rape is rape” argument negates the difference between fantasy and real life in way that seems to me utterly unhelpful and self-defeating. What we need is a better understanding of “rape fantasies” and why they are so different from the real-world crime of rape.
A few facts come to mind; as in fantasy, fiction is ultimately under the control of the author. She can know the true motives and desires of her characters, can state for certain what harms them and what doesn’t. In a novel, a scene of forced seduction can be credibly played as one character forcing through the unhealthy social repressions and inhibitions of another character for the simple reason that the author says they do—it’s within the parameters of the world the author is creating.
That knowledge is, essentially, magic. It does not exist in real life. There can be no scenario where a man can confidently dismiss a woman’s consent because he “knows” what she “really wants.” It is impossible to know for certain how a person can be helped or harmed by a given action. Violating the will of another person based on your own interpretation of their internal life is criminal—and delusional.
I would argue that we need to reinforce for both men and women why fantasy and fiction are fundamentally different than reality, just as we reinforce for our children that much as we love superheroes, those powers don’t and will never exist in real life.
I’ll just finish by saying that every woman I’ve ever met, whether she has been a victim or not, has to deal with the reality of rape. The fear is so ubiquitous and longstanding that most days we don't consciously register the million ways it influences our most basic decisions--over how we dress, whether we can travel, or even go to the store at 1am. I have no choice but to live with that fear, since even if I refuse to act on it, it has already shaped my instincts to the extent that I use words like "reality" to characterize it.
It makes me furious when I think about it, until that anger can feel like yet another assault on my freedom. So I am all the more intent on not ceding this most precious, private space—the space my fantasies occupy. I want a way to talk about these fantasies and explore them that does not automatically cede the parameters to my enemies, those who hurt women in such an appalling, intimate way. They should not have the final say—that rape is always rape.