Since I’ve stated that this essay is about “noncon fanworks,” I would like to start by defining, and defending, my use of the term “noncon,” as people have asked why I don’t use the word “rape” instead.
Firstly, I do. The only platform on which I currently publish my fanfic is AO3. And on AO3, the word “rape” is in the archive warning itself. If I tag (and I always tag) with the Archive Warning “Rape/Noncon,” the tagged work contains a depiction of sexual acts to which one or more of the participants do not consent.
Additionally, if I depict a rape scene, I will tag for “rape.” Rape, for the purposes of this essay, I’m defining as penetrative sex which occurs in the absence of consent. I will refer to other kinds of sexual contact occurring in the absence of consent as “sexual assault.” I’m defining “sexual-abuse” as rape or sexual assault perpetrated on a victim over whom the abuser has power.
Rape is, by definition, noncon. But not all noncon is rape. You can have non-consensual groping, or non-consensual kissing, both of which fall under the umbrella I’ve defined above as sexual-assault. In a fanfic context, there are also fics depicting tropes like “fuck or die” or “sex pollen” in which the sex depicted is non-consensual, but none of the parties involved is identifiable as the perpetrator.
Why is this important?
Let me tell you my story. I don’t think I should have to tell you this story to prove I have the “right” to speak about this topic (and I’ll talk more later about the harm caused by demanding that survivors out themselves), but it illustrates my point nicely, and if it is helpful for anyone else, it is worth telling:
When I was four years old, I was sexually abused by the father of a friend who lived in my neighborhood. I would prefer not to be explicit about the details of these non-consensual sexual encounters, but I will say that I don’t remember being penetrated. I was frightened of this man, and the things that he did to me made me deeply uncomfortable, though I was too young to understand them as sexual at that time.
After other girls in my cohort began making allegations against the man who abused me, and because my pre-school teacher told my parents that I masturbated during nap time, my parents became concerned that I had also been abused, questioned me about it, and took me to a pediatrician to be examined. While I think they were well-intentioned, based on a combination of the things my mother said to me and things she said to the doctor about me, my four-year-old self learned the following:
- My neighbor was a Bad Man, who had done Bad Things to girls my age.
- “Rubbing” (the euphemism my parents used for masturbation) was bad, and possibly indicated something bad had happened to me.
- My genitals were “too open,” which possibly indicated something bad had happened to me. (Once I was older, I realized that they were probably referring to my lack of a hymen; at the time, I didn’t understand what they meant apart from that something was visibly wrong with my genitals. I came to the conclusion my labia were too far apart.)
I cannot actually say that my precocious masturbation or missing hymen were in any way connected to the abuse. I have no memories which suggest this (though I also have blank periods in my memory where I clearly dissociated, so I cannot rule the possibility out, either). But I can say that I had not made a connection between my own, innocent exploration of my body and its capacity for pleasure and the frightening experiences I’d had with my neighbor until adults did. And while I do understand why my parents were terrified, in retrospect, the way that they handled the situation probably made it worse, because,
My four-year-old self drew the following conclusions:
Masturbation was bad, my genitals were bad, something bad had happened to me and people could tell by looking at my body.
These thoughts were arguably more harmful than the actual abuse.
My unease about my developing sexuality was further amplified by my being drawn to dark, sexual imagery at a young age. Again, whether this was a result of the abuse, or whether it is something that I might have been interested in regardless, I cannot determine; due to the extremely young age at which I was molested, my life doesn't really divide into “before” and “after” because I don't really have memories of life before abuse. But when I was six or seven, I fixated on the bondage scenarios in children’s movies (Jasmine in chains in Aladdin, Leia strangling Jabba with her chains while wearing the gold bikini in Star Wars). I acted out these kinds of scenarios in my play. Again, this disturbed my parents. My mother had a very negative reaction to finding a naked Barbie doll tied to a chair.
My mother’s reaction added on a new layer of shame. The things I thought about when I touched my genitals were bad, and my genitals were bad, and the fact that I touched my genitals was bad and meant something bad had happened to me. From so early on I almost can’t remember a time before it, I decided that my fantasies were bad and were the product of bad experiences. All of this happened before I actually knew what sex was.
When I was ten, a boy at school threatened to rape me. A few weeks later, I asked about rape in my first sex-ed class, and the teacher responded, “Rape isn’t about sex, rape is about power.” I was confused, and asked, “Isn’t sex always about power?” Because my understanding of sex, based on what I’d seen in mainstream media, was that it was something that people could use to get what they wanted, or use against other people. I don’t remember the exact response, but it was something along the lines of, “Consensual sex doesn’t work that way, only rape.”
I felt confused and frightened, because the movies and books I found “sexy” were those that depicted power imbalances. When I was told that only rapists viewed sex as being about power, I became afraid that being aroused by power imbalances meant that I either wanted to be raped or to rape someone.
My sexual education courses in elementary school also failed to mention anything about sexual pleasure, most likely because they felt discussing it would be tantamount to encouraging kids to have sex. Because of this, I was unaware that I was having orgasms when I masturbated until I read a description of orgasm in Cosmo when I was twelve. I realized I’d been having orgasms since pre-school. I later found out most people didn’t start masturbating until puberty, and that precocious masturbation was one of the indicators of childhood sexual abuse. Around the same time, girls started discussing hymens and whether you could use a tampon if you were a virgin. I realized I didn’t have a hymen. I asked another teacher, who was not teaching sexual education specifically but who offered to answer anonymously submitted questions, about rape. She shared her own survival story, and mentioned that she had been raped when she was young and repressed the memory, only to recover it years later.
I decided that something like that must have happened to me. I believed my fantasies about rape and sexualized violence were a product of the abuse. And I believed that the severity of my own abuse didn’t justify the depravity of my fantasies, so something worse must have happened and that I had repressed the memories. I knew the man who molested me had attempted to rape a girl my age around the same time I myself was abused; I remembered the concern my parents and pediatrician had expressed about my missing hymen, and I half expected that, at any moment, I would recall having been raped.
At the same time, I didn’t feel comfortable applying the label “survivor” to myself. I felt like this label should be reserved for people who were raped, or at least who were molested in a way I deemed more physically traumatic. I felt that because I hadn’t been penetrated, the abuse I remembered didn’t count. I felt as though claiming the label was somehow appropriative. I felt as though I was asking for deference and sympathy which was unearned. I felt like my own feelings of violation and worthlessness were disproportionate to the events I experienced.
I began to hope that I would recover repressed memories of having been raped, because I felt like then I would have an excuse for being as twisted as I thought I was.
I ask you to pause, and think about how severely fucked up that mindset is, how dangerous it can be when we perpetuate the idea that people who have rape fantasies need to have been raped to be “allowed” to enjoy their fantasies.
My first consensual sexual experience happened with my first girlfriend, when I was fourteen. It was at this point that I discovered that sex was about giving pleasure to or taking pleasure from a partner’s body, and that no one needed to be penetrated, or even take all their clothes off, for sex to be had. Having orgasms with my girlfriend without penetration helped me to realize that the things that had been done to me when I was four were, in fact, sexual acts. That my abuser had used my body for sexual gratification, and that, even though he had not raped me, it still constituted a betrayal of trust; he was an adult who was supposed to be taking care of me, and I was a child who was defenseless and in his care. I began, for the first time, to acknowledge that the abuse that I experienced counted, even though I had not been penetrated.
I’ve recounted my personal history here to explain that the definitions which I had of rape and sexual abuse, which were focused on acts which were penetrative or otherwise involved a penis, made it difficult for me to recognize that I had been sexually abused or to consider my abuse experiences valid.
I know that other people have addressed the problem of downplaying non-penetrative sexual assaults by expanding the definition of “rape” from forcible or coerced penetration to any form of non-consensual sexual contact. I personally do not like this practice, as I feel that it results in ambiguity, confusion, and can even dilute or minimize the bodily trauma and fear of disease or pregnancy that can accompany forcible penetrative intercourse. To this day, I would not describe what happened to me as a child as rape, nor call myself a rape survivor. That still feels like claiming or appropriating a label which is not mine.
But I think it is important to recognize that sexual abuse doesn’t have to involve penetration to be harmful. It is for this reason that I like the umbrella term “noncon”: It places the emphasis on the lack of consent in the situation rather than on particular sexual acts.
What I remember most about my abuser was the way he breathed. I knew that no one else breathed that way around me, that it was different, that it was wrong, that it was frightening, but I didn’t learn until I started having sex that these breathing patterns indicated sexual arousal. At the time, I only knew I hated being near him because whenever he was around he would corner me and come up with pretexts to touch me, and I didn’t want to be touched. The memory of being trapped with him breathing on me is what stands out strongest in my mind.
When I was twenty-one, I was sexually assaulted in a foreign country. Again, I was not raped, but the encounter was violent and left me badly shaken and with lasting PTSD triggers (it has been ten years, and still, a few weeks ago I had a panic attack trying to explain to my therapist why I still flinch when my husband touches the back of my neck). I went to see a rape counselor after. The counselor said that I had “boundary issues.” I initially resented this comment, but ultimately I came to agree with her and to realize some important things about myself:
I realized that I didn’t struggle or protest against unwelcome sexual contact because I didn’t respect myself or my body. I didn't really react to having men grab my breasts or ass, put a hand up my skirt or down my pants, or on one memorable occasion, lick my face while I was kissing my (female) date on the dance floor. And I also saw how this lack of self-respect carried over into some of my consensual sexual encounters. I would sometimes have sex with people I wasn’t really interested in, to avoid “being rude” by saying “no.” I dissociated during some of these encounters.
I binge drank. I dressed provocatively. Neither of which are any justification for sexually assaulting someone. But after the assault at twenty-one, which happened after I’d consumed five shots of alcohol before going to a carnival with people I didn’t know, in a country where my grasp of the language was tenuous, I felt that somehow, perhaps even on a subconscious level, I had been putting myself into dangerous situations because I felt like something terrible needed to happen to me in order for my dark fantasies to make sense.
These feelings are difficult to talk about, because I understand that it is a form of victim blaming. No one is responsible for the actions of the men who violated my bodily autonomy as an adult except for those men. The fact that I froze in response to these encounters instead of struggling is not my fault. Neither is it as simple as saying that I froze in that moment because I had been abused in the past; freezing in response to a sexual assault is a common reaction even in non-survivors; women are socially conditioned not to be confrontational with men and then shamed if they don’t fight back or scream if they are assaulted. My assault at twenty-one is not the fault of the man who molested me when I was four, nor the people who shamed me about my sexuality over the years. The man who perpetrated it is responsible for his own actions.
Nevertheless, I still struggle with the feeling that I was somehow courting disaster. Paradoxically, I found it empowering to think of my own actions as a contributing factor to my assault, because it made me feel like if I changed my own behaviors, if I stopped binge drinking and stopped running around in lingerie and learned to say “no” emphatically, I could avoid being re-victimized. It made me feel as though I had some control over my own body and my own destiny. And I did feel better when I resolved to be a bitch, to refuse to allow men to impose on my body or my time.
As I began reclaiming my boundaries, I also embraced feminism and my own identity as a feminist. As I studied queer theory in college, I began to understand the meaning behind the axiom I’d first heard from my school nurse, that “rape isn’t about sex, rape is about power.” I came to realize that yes, rape is about power. But my earlier thoughts about sex also being about power weren’t far off, either. Because rape is only one of the more extreme abuses of power within a patriarchal society where there is an expectation of male dominance and female submission in even consensual encounters.
I found this cultural expectation even made its way into my same-sex relationships, where I felt pressure to have one person take on a more butch and another a more femme role. But I still felt like there was more choice about which role I could take in a same-sex context. I played a bit with gender. I tried male drag. By deliberately affecting a presentation of a gender other than my own, I became aware of the parts of my own gender that were performed. I began to realize that I sometimes adopted a feminine persona that was as much drag as a masculine one.
I am speaking about performance and drag because I think in a space like fandom, where there’s a great awareness of queer identities, the ideas of gender and role performance can be helpful for explaining a different kind of role performance I started engaging in around the same time: BDSM.
The dark fantasies I had been having since I was a child didn’t go away once I started identifying as a feminist. I just felt more conflicted and hypocritical about them. But, like most young adults in an internet age, I started looking for porn relevant to my interests. And ironically, it was through BDSM porn--or, more specifically, through the interviews conducted with the models before and after--that I discovered concepts like safewords, limits, negotiation, and explicit consent. It was like a lead weight had been lifted from my chest. I discovered that boundaries could be also be applied to my dark fantasies, that there was a framework in which they could be ethically explored, and that framework was consensual BDSM.
The root of my interest in BDSM is power exchange. There are lots of reasons why people enjoy either ceding power to or being allowed to take power from a sexual partner. A submissive person may enjoy the freedom inherent in letting their partner take the reins and not have to think of anything but their own pleasure. A dominant person may enjoy shaping everything that their partner experiences, of being responsible for their partner’s responses.
What finally helped me reconcile my feminist beliefs with my interest in power exchange was the realization that my desires are probably shaped by the culture, and that consensual, deliberate, self-aware exploration of dominance and submission was a way to work out the feelings I had about those expected roles.
Much as performing a different gender helped me see my own gender as a performance, BDSM allowed me to see submission as a performance, rather than a natural or expected consequence of my gender. I performed dominance, too. And I discovered that the roles of top and bottom (giving vs. receiving sensation) didn’t necessarily have to line up with dominance and submission (taking vs. ceding power). I discovered the existence of dynamics like dominant masochist/submissive sadist. And I discovered I enjoyed certain kinds of physical sensations in BDSM play without performing any roles at all.
I returned to the thing that had piqued my interest in BDSM in the first place, which was rape fantasy. To me, rape fantasy is about one person appearing to have all the power while the other appears to have none.
Rape fantasy is different from other power exchange fantasies--but only in degree, not in kind. This is why I refer to rape fantasy as a “kink,” because for me, it is an extension of other kinds of power exchange and D/s play.
If I’m acting it out with a partner, then it takes the form of an actual BDSM scene. If I’m writing a fanfic which features rape fantasy, then there’s a virtual sort of BDSM scene taking place in the mind of the reader. Shinelikethunder made an excellent post comparing the similarities between engaging in rape-fantasy roleplay and reading/writing noncon fic:
One final note on noncon fic specifically: it works on the exact same principle as consensual nonconsent play IRL. No, the character(s) didn’t consent; neither did the persona being acted out by someone playing the victim in a con-noncon scene. The consent that distinguishes it from real-world violation isn’t between the characters in the fantasy; it’s between author and reader. The back button is the safeword. And in contrast to one of the dangers of IRL con-noncon play, it’s a safeword the author has zero power to override or ignore.
I understand some people find the use of the word “kink” to describe rape fantasy offensive and say that it fetishizes the experiences of those people who have experienced rape first hand and find it decidedly not kinky. I think this is partially because there are conflicting definitions of the word “kink.” When I use the word “kink,” I mean “non-conventional sexual practice,” like BDSM or other fetishes. But in fandom, I sometimes see the word “kink” being used to mean “something that turns me on.” People using different definitions of the word “kink” is, I believe, part of why one attendee at the panel dismissed rape fantasies as “thinking rape is sexy.”
And on the simplest possible level, I suppose this second definition of “kink,” as “something that turns me on,” applies. I am turned on by rape fantasies. But to say this means that I “think rape is sexy” is to conflate actual rape with the fantasy of rape. Actual rape is not sexy, and everyone I know who has rape fantasies knows this. Despite my feeling that I may have subconsciously put myself in dangerous situations intentionally when I was younger, I have no desire to be raped or rape someone in real life. In a space like fandom, which prides itself on supporting diversity of sexual expression, on supporting the exploration of sexualities, and extending one another the benefit of the doubt as we learn and grow together, I feel like this should go without saying. But certain voices in fandom have been equating people who have rape fantasies with actual rapists.
I do not see this same lack of distinction between fantasy and reality being extended to other kinds of violence. BBC Sherlock is a TV show about murders. No one is saying that people who read and write case-fic about serial killers are serial murderers in the making. People seem to understand that watching a show about murder is only enjoyable because we know that no one actually dies, though even real-life murder stories are considered acceptable entertainment by many people; TV shows are centered around real crimes which involve interviews with the victims’ family members or police, and may even show real life crime scene photos. Still, people seem to understand that reading fic about murder or watching true crime thrillers on TV doesn’t mean we condone real-life murder or want to be murdered or murder someone. But people are fascinated by the darker side of human nature, or because they want to see the “bad guys” get caught, or they are interested in seeing the resolution to the mystery. Murder mysteries are a channeled, controlled form of fear which becomes thrilling. It’s why people enjoy horror movies and roller coasters and skydiving.
Rape fantasy serves a similar role for some people. Whether or not someone has experienced rape, rape culture is terrifying. During the sexual assault that drove me to seek counseling for the first time, my attacker squeezed the pressure points on the back of my neck, twisted my arm behind my back, and kept insisting we “go someplace dark.” I was afraid that I would be raped, or worse. But the fear of rape is in the back of my mind in more mundane scenarios--when I cross a dark parking lot and a stranger catcalls me, when a drunk coworker says something inappropriate at a holiday party. I think this is true for many women and people who are sexual or gender minorities. We exist in an environment permeated by the threat of sexual violence. Some people cope with that fear by eroticizing it. Like the horror movie or roller coaster, noncon fanfic is a way of scaling down something terrifying until the fear becomes manageable, even, for some people, thrilling.
Still, rape fantasies, despite being very common, both among people who are survivors and people who are not (I am linking here to a post by ninezku which explores this and provides sources ), are taboo in most real life spaces outside of the BDSM community, and are becoming taboo within fandom. We’re told not to talk about it, not to think about it. That if we're interested in it, it means we’re bad or broken or sick. That it’s antisocial or abnormal. Paradoxically, that makes it somehow more appealing. There is an erotic pull towards the forbidden, which is why so much erotica focuses on a character desiring someone or something that they “shouldn’t” want, and why we use words like “filthy” when describing explicit fic or (my personal squick) describe ourselves as “trash” for enjoying certain kinds of pornography.
Sexual interests which are taboo is yet another definition of “kink.” I’ve thought a lot about this word; I identify strongly as “kinky,” and it is a huge part of my sexual identity.
In some ways, my kink is a bigger part of my sexuality than my sexual orientation. Having a partner who understands my fantasies and is willing to explore them in safe and consensual ways is more important to me than having a partner of a particular gender, which is part of why I identify as pansexual. And, like my gender and my sexual orientation, I didn’t choose my kinks, and they aren’t going away.
My sex life would be a hell of a lot less complicated if I were aroused by “normal” things. But while I can derive some superficial enjoyment from vanilla sex and fluffy fic, power exchange is the only thing that gets me to engage both physically and mentally in a sexual way. The brain is the most important erogenous zone, and dark erotica engages my brain in a way that nothing else can.
I read and write darkfic because even though I have been able to explore some of my fantasies with partners, there are still things I fantasize about which would be unconscionable or impossible to realize. And so the things I can’t, or shouldn’t, or wouldn’t actually want to do in real life, I write about.
Fanfic offered the possibility of writing scenes with no limits save those self-imposed by my own inhibitions. Fanfic and fandom also taught me the importance of being accountable to a community and of respecting the squicks and triggers of others. Much as an ethical top in a BDSM scene respects the limits and safewords of their bottom, an ethical fic writer tags and warns for content so that readers know what to expect. Similarly, just as a bottom is obliged to let their top know if a scene isn't going well or use their safeword if necessary, fanfic readers, especially darkfic readers, are obliged to protect themselves and avoid reading material they know might be triggering.
AO3 is the only platform on which I publish my fic. If you want to read it, you have to click past the “This work could have adult content” button, and the “Rape/Noncon” archive warning, and my list of tags for anything I can think of that might squick or trigger a reader. You would have to read past my author’s notes where I further elaborate what I mean by the tags, and my additional warnings at the beginnings of chapters I think have particularly graphic content. If you do all those things, you are consenting to read what I have written. And if, after all of that, you come and tell me that I’m a rapist, or a pedophile, because of what I’ve written, then I’m inclined to believe the problem isn’t with me, but with you.
However, even within a culture of tagging, there is no way to guarantee a reader won’t be triggered by something they read or see. I personally used to be triggered by sex on office furniture for reasons having to do with my personal abuse experiences. This is not something which I would expect anyone to tag for, and I’ve spent years working on this trigger so that it now only makes me mildly uncomfortable instead of inducing a panic attack.
There are certain issues: rape, child abuse, domestic violence, etc. which most people understand can be triggering for people who have survived them. But lots of triggers are specific to individuals, and there is no way for content creators to anticipate every possible trigger.
For this reason, fandom can never be a completely safe place. I like to think that fandom is a safer space than the world at large. If I may make an analogy to safer sex, where barriers and (where applicable) birth control reduce the risk of STIs and pregnancy, tags and author's notes can reduce the risk or squicking or triggering a reader. But there is no way to eliminate all risk, and as with sex in real life, individuals must do a risk/benefit analysis and decide whether it’s worth it for them.
I’ve been asked, “What about minors or other individuals who may not know themselves well enough to make that risk assessment?”
I have conflicted feelings about telling teens who may have had a forcible sexual initiation as children, as I did, or who may already be engaging in underage consensual sex with their peers, as I did, that they are too young to read depictions of what they have already experienced. However uncomfortable it makes adults, children and teens are sexual beings.
This does not mean that I condone pornography involving actual children or countenance adults engaging in relationships with minors. I believe these things should be prosecuted. Children’s sexuality should belong only to them. Teenagers should be allowed to share their sexuality with consenting partners of approximately their own age (and most places with reasonable age of consent statutes allow this). I believe that some spaces, including those that host pornography or erotica, should be adults-only, both to protect children from exploitation by adults and to give adults the freedom to express themselves without being worried about the presence of minors.
I think providing places where adults, especially women and sexual minorities, who have been historically been told that their sexual desires aren’t important, can discuss sexuality without minors present, is as important as protecting minors from adult content.
However, even with child protection software, a determined enough minor can access these spaces. It is my belief that we should assume that children will encounter pornography, possibly even violent pornography, before they are of age, and that the best way to protect them from it is to educate them about rape culture early, and in an age-appropriate way. I think we need to teach children about consent, about bodily autonomy, about pleasure.
If, instead of being told “Don’t talk to strangers,” I’d been told that my body was mine and that no one should ever touch it without my permission, that it was okay for me to touch myself in ways that felt good, that adults did it too, but that adults and children should never touch each other that way, I might have been able to articulate that I had been abused. Again, I’m not blaming my abuse on anyone but my abuser. But I think children need to be given the tools to talk about sexual abuse at an early age, and that doesn’t happen if we pretend that children aren’t sexual beings.
I believe that the solution for young fans is the same as what I said earlier of children: we need to provide education so that they have the tools to cope with upsetting material. Where with small children the emphasis should be on consent and bodily autonomy, I think with teens we should add in discussion of relationship dynamics and what makes for healthy ones, and what the red-flags or warnings signs of abuse are and how to extricate oneself safely from an abusive relationship. I think we should discuss rape culture, and the media’s perpetuation of it.
It is not possible to have these kinds of conversations in an environment where people are hurling baseless accusations of pedophilia and “rape apology” against individuals who create noncon fanworks. In fact, the veritable witch-hunt that certain elements of fandom wage against the producers of this content actively hurts both the survivors who create these kind of content and the survivors who strive to avoid it.
I’m not proposing normalising stuff like rape and incest the way rape culture does. I do propose normalising the existence of these kinds of works in fandom, so that creators and consumers alike can go on doing what they want to do without being ostracised, with the added bonus of them being more willing to tag or trigger warn their work because they no longer fear repercussions.
I wholeheartedly agree with the above. I will hide my work behind a trigger warning; I refuse to hide myself. I’m not ashamed of my stories, and if people ask me what I write, I usually mention that I write darkfic or noncon. It’s not the only kind of fic I write, and I don’t want to be known solely for it. But the noncon works are the ones that are closest to me, the ones where I feel like I’ve ripped open a part of myself to get the words on the page.
Therfm’s second point, however, is even more critical. If, instead of normalizing the existence of fics that portray noncon and underage, we make these themes taboo, if we pathologize them, if we require noncon works to be kept in a separate archive, if we insist that it be labeled with derogatory terms like “rapefic,” then what will happen is that writers who think that their work has “a bit of dubcon” in it will not tag it as such, in the hopes that it will fly under the radar and they won’t be banished to the leper colony with the filthy rapefic fans. This will have results that neither the responsible creators and consumers of noncon, nor the people who dislike it and categorically oppose it, want: that someone who doesn't want to see noncon will see it.
I wrote the above paragraph close to a year ago, and my predictions are already coming true. I have seen noncon and underage fanworks being posted without appropriate tags and warnings. Some of these inadequately tagged fics are being posted by the same people who accused me and my fellow gender politics panelists of being rape apologists and pedophiles. The creators of these works defend them as being somehow different than the works the so-called rape apologists create, because they themselves were underage when they drew the fanart or wrote the fic, or because the work features the right” pairing, or the “right” kind of non-consensual situation, or because they don’t “eroticize” the noncon aspect, or because there’s a sufficient amount of comfort to offset the hurt, or for any number of other reasons.
In addition to causing creators not to tag for fear of repercussions, dragging and shaming creators of dark fanworks encourages people who are ashamed of their own fantasies to lash out at creators. I have seen individuals who have bookmarked or subscribed to dark fics call the creators disgusting after they finish reading them with a fervor reminiscent of born-again converts with checkered pasts exhorting their fellows to repent.
I have also seen people claim that the noncon works which they enjoy are not actually noncon even when they are tagged as such, which again, I believe is a result of them being shamed into thinking that noncon works and individuals who like them are disgusting and gross.
For example, a reader make a comment on a friend and fellow noncon writer’s fic which followed the following ‘logic’:
I do not like noncon. I liked this fic, because the pairing is my OTP and these characters belong to each other. Therefore, this fic must not really be noncon.
(I feel obliged to add that my friend rushed to correct the commenter and explain their fic was, in fact, noncon.)
The kind of cognitive dissonance displayed by these individuals disturbs me as a person who considers herself a responsible consumer and creator of noncon fanworks. Which brings me to:
What are the things that I think make a person a ‘responsible’ creator of noncon fanworks?
A responsible creator:
- Tags and warns for content. Per the “safer-space/safer-sex” comments above, this isn’t foolproof, but helps immensely. This requires that the creator
- Is intellectually aware of the issues they are raising and is emotionally honest with themself and their readers. This doesn't work if a creator uses “dubcon” instead of “noncon” to describe a noncon fic because the appropriate term makes them uncomfortable.
- Shares kink with the like-minded. I’m not going to read my fic aloud, or paste it about on public forums without warning. This doesn’t mean I agree with the idea of putting ‘rapefics’ in a segregated archive.
- Puts things in context. As stated previously, I think the best defense against rape culture is education, since not all parents or school districts do a good job of educating kids about consent. Tools like author’s notes on AO3 and/ or links to resources can help put this in context.
- Participates in inter-fandom conversations about abuse awareness, tagging etiquette, depicting traumatic events in respectful vs. non-respectful ways, and how we can make fandom a safe(r) space for all fans. The wonderful Healing Through Fic panel at Unlocked Con was an example of such a discussion, where all participants engaged respectfully in a productive conversation.
- Is respectful of people, especially survivors, who hold opposing opinions on sensitive issues. This does not mean if any survivor says you should not write noncon or underage, you must stop. It does mean not ridiculing people and calling them derogatory names or making fun of their triggers. It also means listening to their stories with respect.
Let me also say what I do not think it’s necessary to do in order to create and share dark works ethically:
It is not necessary to be a survivor of rape or CSA to produce fanworks which engage these topics, nor is it necessary to out yourself as one. Saying that noncon is only for survivors can be damaging, because it makes people who are not survivors (and really, everyone who lives within rape culture is a survivor of the inherent violence of rape culture) search for things that are wrong with them. It’s also potentially dangerous for survivors to out themselves. I am living proof that disclosure, even in supposedly “safe” spaces like a 221b Con panel, doesn’t offer any protection from the kind of individuals who label survivors who consume or create dark fanworks “dangerous” or “maladapted,” and perpetuate the misinformation that survivors are more likely to become abusers themselves as a justification for dragging people who they believe cope with CSA or rape in an “unhealthy” way. Studies have shown that there is NOT a correlation between being a female survivor of CSA and being a perpetrator , and that in male survivors, the risk of childhood victims of sexual abuse becoming abusers themselves is lower than previously thought . Yet the myth that survivors of CSA are more likely to become abusers themselves, or that abusers who molest children are frequently survivors, persists, and many survivors have real (unfounded) fears that that they will harm children. Calling CSA survivors “pedophiles” exploits those fears. It is traumatizing, and no one should be made to expose a vulnerable part of themselves to hostile strangers.
And the second thing I want to say I do not think is necessary, the sort of elephant in the room that even other, well-articulated defenses of noncon fanworks avoid:
It is not necessary to only produce realistic works which focus on the damage that rape and childhood sexual abuse cause in real life. Works which depict fantastical rape or sexual abuse scenarios which “eroticize” rape and violence are not illegitimate forms of expression, nor are they inherently damaging.
I understand the desire to have works that treat with sexual violence focus on the consequences. I think it is important to draw attention to the consequences of sexual violence in real life to counteract some of the harm of rape culture. However, I do not think it is fair to demand this of works of fiction. Just as some readers want to read fic that shows unprotected sex without consequences, or adultery without consequences, some readers want to read works which show rape without consequences.
In some cases, this is because the kind of works which explore realistic emotional reactions can be triggering. It can destroy the all-important emotional distance necessary to explore a dark topic without re-opening old wounds. Writing unrealistic, fantastical rape scenarios can be a way of literally re-writing an experience so it is about pleasure rather than pain, or power rather than powerlessness, or love rather than fear.
In other cases, it’s about wanting to access the primal desires, the hindbrain, without letting the judgmental superego get in the way. I’m referring here to idfic, not all of which is darkfic, but which forms an important subset of the genre. Sometimes it’s easier to deal with the darkness if the story is about a character being raped by tentacles or raping someone while under the influence of heat pheromones or sex pollen, to engage with these themes in stories which were never meant to be taken as realistic.
It’s important to engage with these id/hindbrain urges, particularly the dark ones, in order to acknowledge our own potential for evil. It’s very easy to say that we would never commit acts of violence or sexual violence, and that kind of unexamined self-assurance can result in a kind of complacency. Most atrocities are carried out by ordinary people, not monsters. Or, if you prefer, each of us has a monster within ourselves. I’ve spent a good part of my life, starting from when I was tying up Barbie dolls, trying to understand that monster.
I see people dismiss creative exploration of one’s inner darkness as a “maladaptive” coping mechanism, encouraging survivors who create dark fanworks to stop and instead get “professional help” or “real therapy.” I do not believe any survivor is required to disclose their mental health issues or the treatment thereof; however, I will say that I have spent years in “real therapy,” and my therapist has encouraged my writing as a way of continuing to work through the trauma of my abuse. Also, no therapist or psychiatrist who has ever treated me over the years has ever said that my dark fantasies make me any kind of threat to my sexual and romantic partners, let alone to children. But that dark part of my psyche is there, and I think it is important to face my own demons rather than suppress them.
There is a difference, however, between exploring the darkness inside and wallowing in it. I am by no means arguing that noncon and underage fanworks are harmless. In fact, after 221b Con 2015, I took an extended hiatus from a very dark WIP I’d been working on for months because I wasn’t in a headspace where I could write it. I believe that writing darkfic can be healing and cathartic--but it can be traumatic, and yes, triggering, too, and it’s not a task to be undertaken lightly. Neither do I think it’s a task to be undertaken without self-criticism. I am constantly questioning my own motives, and my own relationship to rape-culture, and the possible impacts of my work. And in the past, I was willing to discuss it, including with those who disagreed with me who were engaging in good faith.
But when I was speaking at the Gender Politics in Fandom panel, engaging in what I anticipated would be a brief conversation, a passing mention of an issue which is only one of many about which I feel passionate and which the panelists intended to discuss, I simplified the complex arguments I have outlined here. The easiest way to summarize why I write noncon was to say, “I write noncon because I am a survivor and I’m working through trauma.”
And this is the truth. A few months before 221b Con 2015, I read several fics by the same author which touched me in a profound way. I wish I could rec this person’s deeply moving and wonderful stories, but I do not want to draw attention to them in the current culture of doxxing, harassment and shaming directed at writers of noncon in general and underage noncon in particular. This writer has already received anon hate on their (tagged/warned) fic, and I don’t want to make things more difficult for them.
But these stories affected me so deeply because they were, essentially, my story. The first fic was underage noncon--I use the word “noncon” rather than “rape” deliberately here, because the abuse never escalates to rape but it’s still clear that it’s Not Okay. And while the details of the abuse were different, the feelings, articulated through Sherlock’s POV, were the same: the uncertainty about what might or might not have happened to him as a child, the fear/hope of recovering repressed memories that would explain his “abnormal” sexuality. In the second fic, Sherlock, who is asexual, has a room full of empty boxes in his mind palace, and he has suspicions about what should be or used to be in them but doesn’t know, and worries that he has repressed memories of sexual trauma.
When I read these stories, I realized that I myself have spent my whole life pawing through empty boxes, looking for evidence of further, repressed trauma. And it may be there; I’ve discussed this possibility with my therapist, who believes the idea that I have repressed memories is reasonable and that they may yet surface. But I’ve come to accept that it doesn’t matter whether something else happened to me which I've repressed, because what I remember was enough.
Seeing a story very similar to mine tagged as “Rape/Non-con” reinforced the fact that I “counted” as a survivor. Foregrounding the issue as being one of consent vs. non-consent, rather than making it about specific sexual acts, helped me realize that experiences like mine also merited that archive warning. Realizing I would never tell Sherlock that he wasn’t molested “enough” in that story to have experienced lasting trauma helps me tell the same thing to myself.
It’s important to stress that I could never have written that series of fics, or one like it. When I write noncon, I usually write details which differ significantly from my own experiences in order to put some distance between myself and my creative work. This is necessary both to prevent myself from pushing on old triggers, and also because I’m trying to tell a story, not bleed on the page.
Having Been Breathed Out made a fabulous post about the depiction of taboo themes in literature and why it’s of literary value to depict these themes. While I’m not about to compare myself to Maya Angelou, I have a creative writing degree and I take my fic seriously. I write to give insight into the emotional states of the characters while simultaneously developing them through a structured narrative. I can’t do that with stories that are too emotionally close to me.
I say this because some people have been saying that survivors who feel compelled to create fanworks depicting noncon should keep them to themselves and never share them, that there is no possible justification for putting out more depictions of rape or abuse into a culture already saturated with them.
The problem with this argument is that it assumes that the story or artwork that the survivor is capable of creating is the one they need to read or see. Not every survivor is capable of, or willing to, depict their own story. Moreover, telling creator-survivors that they should keep their work to themselves is telling people who already feel isolated that they need to remain alone; it’s telling people who already feel silenced that they need to remain silent.
If the author who wrote “my” story had been bullied or shamed into keeping their work to themself, I would never have had the experience of reading it. I also wouldn’t have the friendship that resulted from that connection.
The rape-recovery fic that I write is very much about me working through my own experiences and is written with the intent of reaching out to other survivors. But I can’t honestly say the tentacle rape porn I wrote for No Shame November is about me working through any kind of personal trauma. I just wrote it because I find the idea of complete sexual overload erotic. But it’s difficult to talk about idfic and erotic rape fantasy in a room with people who are saying that any representation of rape in fanworks at all is harmful.
So, what I said at the panel was true, but it’s not the whole truth. The larger truth is that I have spent years convincing myself that my interest in noncon is not entirely the result of my childhood trauma. I like to think that, even if I had never been abused, I would have ended up tying Barbie dolls to chairs anyway. Because if I say that this significant facet of my sexuality is the product of my abuse, it becomes fruit of the poisoned tree. All of my pleasure is then derived from a source of fear and pain. For the sake of my sanity (and I am not exaggerating here; the feelings of shame I felt as a child contributed to depression, low self-esteem, self-harm, sexual risk-taking, even suicidal ideations), I had to divorce my CSA experience from my sexual interests.
But talking about writing rape-recovery fic is taboo enough. Talking about taking pleasure in rape fantasy for its own sake is still more so, and so I steered clear of the subject on that panel. But as I see people defending certain kinds of noncon as valid (e.g. survivors ‘shipping to cope’) while decrying others as sick, I feel obliged to speak out. I do not want to imply that because the majority of my noncon works have been realistic and serious, that I am somehow morally superior to the individuals who prefer rape fantasy of the non-realistic variety. Which is why I am outing myself as a fan of tentacle rape porn.
I know that my interests actively trigger some people. I know there are people who believe that dark fanworks “normalize” rape and abusive relationships, or attribute their own abuse to their consumption of such fanworks. My heart goes out to these individuals, because their stories remind me so much of the narrative I told myself after I was sexually assaulted at twenty-one, that I had somehow courted the assault because of my subconscious belief that I didn’t “count” as a survivor and that something “worse” had to have happened to me to justify my dark fantasies. Survivors tell ourselves these narratives as a way of trying to take back power from those who have stripped us of it. But these narratives are a form of self-blame, and they are harmful to other survivors who engaged in the actions we told ourselves contributed to our own abuse.
I understand that some survivors who are triggered by noncon fanworks want to make fandom, which is their ‘safe space,’ a rape-culture-free zone.
I would ask the individuals who are delighted by the prospect of eradicating noncon from fan spaces to consider this: The individuals who are most likely to be silenced by your efforts are the ones who want to produce and share this content in an ethical way, who are the likeliest to portray sexual trauma with sensitivity and respect, who are, in many cases, survivors themselves. The individuals who produce actually exploitative, illegal content will not be impacted at all.
There would still be actual child pornography, and a myriad of other horrible, traumatizing content, on the internet. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to remove child pornography from the internet or prosecute those who abuse children in order to create it. I’m saying that, no matter how much we try, we won’t be able to eradicate it completely, which is why I feel that education about how to process exposure to it is essential.
But people who are making a fortune distributing actual child pornography aren’t going to stop making it because some social justice bloggers on tumblr tell them it’s bad. Fan creators, who tend to be majority female, majority queer (in other words, the people who experience the most harm as a result of rape culture) might stop producing art or fic which depicts rape or sexual abuse of fictional characters. And it is perhaps for this reason that it is fellow fans being targeted, and not, say, actual child pornographers or self-proclaimed “men’s rights activists” who support the legalization of rape. Because fellow fans make easier targets.
I oppose the censorship of noncon and underage fanworks because I have experienced first hand that the idea of protecting minors and rape survivors can be used as a pretext (including by hypocritical individuals who themselves create and consume noncon and underage fanworks), to bully individuals for reasons that have nothing to do with dark fanworks. If there is an individual in fandom you believe poses an imminent threat to an actual minor, the thing to do is to notify the police, not doxx that individual and tell their friends they’re a pedophile.
I would also challenge people who are squicked or triggered by noncon fanworks to consider that creative works that depict sexual violence or abuse can be transformative. Just as fans can transform canon works and subvert the narratives to better suit themselves, so can creators subvert the narratives of rape culture. Fandom is filled with extraordinary, moving, empowering, noncon and underage fanworks. I know because I’ve read them. According to some readers, I’ve written them. And a group of bullies telling me that this somehow makes me the same as the actual pedophile who molested me when I was four will not make me stop.
But other, more vulnerable fans, might stop. And that would mean more survivors like me wouldn’t have the transformative experience of reading someone else writing their story. Silencing the survivor who would have written it, and isolating the survivor who would have read it, are acts of violence. And we cannot respond to the violence of rape culture with more violence.
I’ve been working on this essay for more than a year, and find myself having difficulty finding a way to conclude it. So I will quote from another wonderful essay by itsbuckybitch , whose argument is much shorter and more succinctly worded than mine:
If you are anti-darkfic, you are anti-survivor. [....] You need to realise that your comfort and safety, while important, are not more important than the comfort and safety of other people. You need to understand that it is your responsibility to learn how to peacefully coexist alongside people who experience the world differently from you, even if their experiences make you unhappy or uncomfortable. You have no right to ask us to stop existing so that you can feel at ease. You have no right to demand that we prioritise the needs of some survivors over others. You don’t own fandom, and you have no right to dictate who does or doesn’t get to participate.
You are not brave heroes speaking out against the spread of moral degeneracy in fandom. You are bullies, deliberately and systematically targeting trauma survivors with your abusive tactics. It really is that simple. And it needs to stop.
I would like to thank everyone who took the time to read this lengthy piece through to its conclusion. I hope that individuals on both sides of the debate can find ways to listen to each other above all the bullying and noise, as I have been fortunate enough to be able to do in recent months. I don’t know if I personally am in a place where I can engage with anyone directly, as I am still recovering from the trauma of what happened at 221b Con 2015, when I attempted to engage in good faith with bad actors who violated me by posting a video of that conversation taken without my knowledge or consent. But I hope that others can use my ideas as a jumping-off point for conversation.