non-con vs. rape

I commented on a blog the other day, a post about warnings in fiction, and I wrote: “I think sometimes the big stuff (rape, especially rape for titillation) should be warned. I honestly feel there is NEVER a need to explicitly describe rape in fiction, and especially not in Romance. Rape happens, sure. It is unfortunately a reality of life. Talk about it, let the characters deal with it, that is all great. But to write out detailed rape scenes? I question the author on that, and I feel a warning is the least they can do.”

Then I was on Scribophile, and I read a thread where a writer was asking if he posted a non-con fantasy, would anyone be willing to critique it. Most people said yes, that they enjoy his writing and like him as a person, and would be happy to read his work even if it pushed their boundaries a bit. I read the thread but didn’t reply.

Those two conversations, happening within hours of each other, made me think.

Saying “not consensual” is basically a fancy way of saying rape. I know this, and I think everyone who writes it does as well. But usually, in the context of erotic fantasy, we indulge this trope as harmless; a fictional exploration of a real-life horror. Some people claim they use non-con erotica as a way of working through their own traumatic experiences, of re-claiming ownership of their own sexuality and sexual fantasies. I get that, and I think it is wonderful that erotic fiction can serve that function. Others simply admit to harboring a rape fantasy, in a controlled fictional environment at least. They say they understand the seriousness of rape, but see no harm in enjoying all varieties of sexual fantasy in fiction. Some people (me) see few positives about non-con erotica, but fully support the author’s right to freedom of expression.

I think anyone who has read a fair amount of erotica will understand that almost anything can be sexy, in the hands of the right author. But a non-con sex scene is probably not ever going to be okay with me, personally. Although… thinking back, I have certainly read a few that I thought were hot, when the participants were werewolves. Wolf/shifter stories often play on the edges of rape fantasy, using the “animal instinct” or the “mating urge” combined with pack hierarchy to tip it just onto the acceptable side of erotic fiction. What makes that “better” than a straightforward rape fantasy? Is it? Or is it the same thing with another name?

Someone commented on that scrib thread that they could read a non-con fantasy, if it was made very clear in the narration that the “victim” was actually an enthusiastic participant, and was enjoying being “taken.” The literary equivalent of “I know you want it,” I guess. But maybe that is what makes non-con erotica acceptable: we CAN look into the head of all the participants, we can know what they are thinking and feeling. When we say “I know you want it” we actually do KNOW they want it. Which gives us the illusion of consent.

In other, non-erotica, stories, where the rape is an act of violence and not some sexual fantasy, using too much description in a rape scene feels wrong. But then, I also wouldn’t want to read a detailed murder scene, or a torture scene. To me, that crosses the line. It feels like something included purely for shock value, and honestly I lose respect for an author when I read something like that.

What do you think? Is there a difference between non-con and rape? Is there a place for either in fiction?

16 thoughts on “non-con vs. rape

  1. It was actually my blog about the Warning in Books LOL… And it was very well said.
    I don’t feel there is a difference between non-con and rape. They are synonymous. That’s the cut and dry of it. I think the word RAPE is always shocking to hear. Non-con gives people pause but it lacks the shock value… But they mean the same thing

    • I know! Funny how things kind of come in groups. After reading your blog I saw the other, related, conversation and the two things together made me realize how thin the line is between erotica with “dubious consent” and non-con/rape. Neither are desirable subjects in erotic fiction for me personally, but lots of people do enjoy dub-con or even non-con, yet those same people would probably quail at a graphically written (non-erotic) rape scene. Makes me wonder why.

  2. I think there can be a difference between non-con and rape, actually. Like, let’s take slave fiction. You have a slave who technically probably can’t consent because, ya know, he/she is owned by someone else and has to do what they say or suffer the consequences. If they DO consent to sex, is it really consent given their situation? Does that mean someone should never write a slave and master fall in love story? Meh.

    As for saying rape shouldn’t ever be detailed in a book for titillation purposes, I disagree on that because it is a well known fact that many women fantasize about rape. It doesn’t mean THEY WANT TO BE RAPED. I fantasize about all kinds of things I don’t want in real life. Threesomes, sex with men that aren’t my husband, being a boy with a dick that I use on someone else, etc, etc. Do I want to actually have those things happen? Well, maybe the boy with a dick bit. 🙂 But probably not really because it would mean giving up my happy life. BUT there is no doubt that many women DO enjoy rape fantasies featuring themselves or characters, and there is nothing inherently wrong with those fantasies. There is something called kink-shaming that is talked about a lot in the fandom/fanfiction world but isn’t discussed enough in the world of pro-writing in my opinion. Basically there is a say, “Your kink is not my kink and that is FINE.” So, someone who likes rape scenes and finds them titillating and hot FOR WHATEVER REASON shouldn’t have to be shamed any more than someone who likes threesome scenes, or bdsm scenes, or food-sex scenes, or feet-sex scenes (which, um, EW makes me gag and I’d rather read rape/non-con any day than someone who likes feet–but ykinmk and that’s okay.)

    So while you do not want to read or will not enjoy rape/non-con in a book, there are plenty of people who do, and saying that you’d judge or look down on an author/reader who liked that sort of thing says that you’re not okay with their kink. And that’s your right, but it’s more about you than about them. Because, no, these people aren’t going to go rape people, nor do they really want to be raped themselves, but if it turns them on to read about some character getting off on being violated, etc, that’s just as legit as liking tentical porn, or shifter erotica, or whatever else. *shrug*

    So, yeah, I disagree with you, but you’re entitled to your opinion. However, so are others, and they are readers/writers, too. 🙂

    • Well, I don’t have a problem with rape fantasies, really. And I certainly don’t want to tell anyone what to read or write. I just find it interesting to think about – what is it that makes something an acceptable fantasy, and something else a shocking horror? I think in much erotica, it is the pov of the “victim” that makes the difference. A skilled author will show that it is truly an enjoyable event for all parties, and that is maybe what turns it into a fantasy, versus a crime.

      I still don’t agree with explicit rape scenes (not “rape fantasies” but rape crimes, explicitly detailed) in fiction. I feel like it is much the same as an explicit murder or torture scene. In some (few) instances it might be relevant, but I feel most of it is put in for shock value. having said that, though, I still wouldn’t tell anyone not to write it, it just isn’t something I feel is necessary, and it’s not something I would ever choose to read.

      I mentioned the werewolves because I think many paranormal stories function as a vehicle with which we can safely (safe from our own insecurities and from the judgement of others) explore those fantasies. The slave angle is another good one. I personally have written master/slave stories, and enjoy reading them. It is, when you break it down, a non-con situation, in that the “slave” is not able to truly offer consent. So I agree that is another way we can safely explore those fantasies.

      • Well, you said that you thought there was NEVER a reason to write a detailed rape scene in a book, which does seem like you’re saying that “because it gets me hot” or “because I want to fantasize about that” or “because I wanted to read/write it” isn’t a good enough reason for it to even exist even in dark erotica. There might never be a reason that you personally would want to read a detailed rape scene, but that’s not what you said. You said there was never a reason to write one. So, in that way, I took it to mean that you were trying to impose your preferences on other people, writers included. I understand now that might not have been your intention after all. 🙂

  3. More info on rape fantasies.

    So, all of this to say, people enjoy reading and writing about different things and this applies to erotic material, too. I guess I don’t think it’s my place to tell authors or readers how they should be feeling about any particular content, and whether or not they are okay people to read or write certain things. I’m going to assume that they read and write certain things because it is important to the character, the story, or because somehow it’s hot to them, or they’re exploring limits of eroticism, etc. Now, if someone goes and rapes a person in real life? Yeah, sure. I can get angry about that. Fantasy does not equal reality, though.

    • Well, yes. There is a huge market for horror/gore in writing, and I suppose detailed rape scenes would fall into that category. Some people love reading that, and many people love writing it. It’s just not something I want to read or write. Same thing with erotica, and erotic rape-fantasies. Some people love reading and writing it, though it makes me uncomfortable unless it is very well cloaked in explanations.

      I guess this whole post was me, realizing it was a bit hypocritical of myself to so vehemently dismiss rape in romance, while kind of accepting that non-con in erotica is okay, and trying to work out the differences.
      I certainly did not intend to shame anyone.

      • Cool. Yeah, there is a huge market for horror and gore in tv and in genre fiction. It’s not my bag, though, I think I could deal with it more in writing than in visual form. I’m such a wuss when it comes to gore and horror that I can’t even watch a show like Supernatural (too scary!!!) but I can read some dark erotica with questionable consent like whoa. Who knows why!?! 🙂 People are people and they all have their hard limits.They are not always the same. 🙂 I’m glad you weren’t trying to shame anyone. I was confused by your adamant comment that there was NEVER a reason to write it and then saying you’d lose respect for an author who wrote it.

      • I was thinking more of general fiction, not erotica. Though I guess I should never say never. I mean, a crime drama where the plot revolved around a rape and it’s aftermath might be a reasonable story in which to include a detailed rape scene.
        I just feel like a lot of times the rape is used purely for shock, or to establish the vulnerability of a character, or to add drama, or whatever, and all those things are fine of course… but the scene doesn’t need to be so gory it becomes triggering to readers. There are a lot of ways to respectfully deal with it. Especially since so many of us have lived through it, I mean literally anywhere between 25%-50% of women have been victims of rape. I think it deserves attention, but also requires some tact.

  4. This is an interesting topic. In terms of the criminal law, depending on the state, there is sometimes a difference between non-consensual sexual assault and rape (which often requires force/forcible compulsion). In PA, sexual assault is non-consenual sex (without a force requirement) and it’s a second degree felony, while rape is a first degree felony. So, under the law, there can be a difference.

    As for fiction, I avoid novels that include either. I worry that scenes depicting rape or sexual assault in fantasy form normalize that behavior.

    • Wow, that is interesting about the legal definitions of non-con vs. rape, I hadn’t thought about that!
      I somewhat agree about rape in fiction “normalizing” it. But then, it is a sad fact that rape is common, if not normal. One of the only good things I can say about rape in mainstream fiction is that at least it gets the subject out in the open, instead of allowing it to remain the secret shame it often is for so many women.
      In erotica, the fantasy element is stronger and so it does give the subject a different spin, I think. The popularity of thousands of romance stories and erotic fantasies in which women are pursued by an aggressive, almost predatory, male speaks to the fact it is fairly normal, as far as fantasies go. It is also nothing new: the old “bodice ripper” Romances (and even more respectable works of so-called “women’s fiction”) romanticized such behavior, a trend that continues today in books like Twilight and 50 shades. I agree, the cumulative effect is possibly dangerous.
      I don’t know what the “right” answer is, or if there even is one.

      • Yes, rape/sexual assault are common. What worries me is that this type of fictional portrayal of it–the “I know she wants it” myth (and then finding out by reading the character’s mind that she actually does!) will further normalize the excuse. That’s very dangerous.

        This discussion reminds me of the book cover of Anita Shreve’s Strange Fits of Passion. It’s a brutal story of domestic violence, but the publisher called it “romantic”! If you don’t mind the link, I have pictures of the cover here: http://misfortuneofknowing.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/domestic-violence-is-not-romantic-traditional-publishing-doesnt-seem-to-know-that/

      • I see! Yeah, that cover is horrible for that type of story. Ugh.
        Such a tricky subject, isn’t it? Because on one hand, we know that for sex to be safe and healthy in real life all participants must give informed, enthusiastic consent. But what happens when the lack of consent is explored in fiction? Is it wrong? Dangerous? Acceptable? Can it ever be sexy, or romantic? I think maybe it can be all of those things.
        What I really have a problem with is when it is depicted as normal and realistic, as in a contemporary Romance. When a rape or sexual assault scene is presented as “sexy” with no framework of fantasy to support it, that is disturbing. Perhaps, for me, I need that layer of fantasy (like a werewolf story) to completely remove it from reality and make it acceptable.
        I see what you are saying about it normalizing the excuse “I know you want it,” very good point.

  5. In my world, the most important thing everyone is overlooking between rape/non-con and wanting to be taken or rape fantasies is a very basic emotion. When someone wants to be taken, forcefully or whatever, and they enjoy it and they want it to happen – that’s not rape. Rape is when someone does not want it, they are fighting for their life, the action is being forced upon them, and they do not enjoy any part of it.

    To me, this puts the stories that most people are talking about when they say things like “rape fantasy” in the role play or game playing category – not the rape for titillation category. Their can be fighting, and saying no, and trying to get away, but if both parties are getting off on it, and want it to happen this way, then it is NOT rape or non-con.

    Just my 2 cents.

    • I agree. I think that is really is the difference: fantasy vs. reality.

      In the world of fantasy, rape is sometimes presented as sexy. This is not my personal brand of sexy, but it isn’t horribly offensive to me if it is done in a way that clearly shows all parties are enthusiastically enjoying the scene.
      In reality, those “scenes” just can’t play out the same way. Even if in a real-life BDSM scenario, the participants have (hopefully) already offered informed consent. Any other situation is a violent crime, not a fantasy.

      What bothers me a lot, and the thing I was denouncing, is when a rape (violent rape scene, not erotic rape-fantasy scene) is presented in a work of fiction in extreme detail. I have read a few stories where, upon finishing the book, I realize there was absolutely no need for the rape scene to be on-page or explicit. Those scenes, put in for titillation (sexual or not, even just a shock-value type titillation) are, in my opinion, tactless and gross.

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