Fanfiction Considers the ‘Vast Gray Area’ of Consent

In Dubcon: Fanfiction, Power, and Sexual Consent, writer Milena Popova argues that stories of "dubious consent" are a form of "cultural activism"

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Fanfiction Considers the ‘Vast Gray Area’ of Consent

Slash fanfiction, when fans rewrite pop culture characters and storylines with same-sex pairings, is commonly understood as a way for women to enter a fantasyland where real-world power imbalances are rendered meaningless. Systemic inequalities between men and women? Poof. The disparities that complicate hetero sex and romance? Gone. But, while this is true of some slash fanfiction, popular sub-genres instead focus on inequality. They depict arranged marriages or imagine alternate universes divided into roles of dominant and submissive. In the fictional universe of the Omegaverse, there is not only the concept of male and female, but also the “secondary genders” of alpha, beta, and omega—which makes for six different genders, and some potent dynamics around sex and power.

In the new book, Dubcon: Fanfiction, Power, and Sexual Consent, writer Milena Popova shows how these fanfiction sub-communities play with power rather than eliminate it. Stories of “dubious consent, or “dub con,” as it’s called, recognize that inequality sometimes implicates consent, making it not-so-clear-cut, “not a matter of ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” In the real world, writes Popova, it’s questionable whether “partners are free to know and express their own desires and limits without any external pressures or power structures.”

“Young women agree to or even initiate unwanted sex because they feel they should act as sexually liberated, they should please their partners, or because they have previously agreed to a particular act and feel that consent to that same act is now assumed,” argues Popova. The author asks, “If we initiate sex to conform to societal expectations, is that sex in any way meaningfully consensual?” Dubcon stories explore this “vast gray area” that is “mired in power relations and inequalities,” says Popova.

The fanfiction community co-opts mainstream pop culture to explore the gray areas. It pokes and prods at the sexual norms that constrain consent. Readers watch characters navigate the disconnect between their own desires and popular sexual scripts. Writers experiment with fictional approaches to gender “to ask questions about how we do gender and, as a result, how we do sex in our own lives,” says Popova. Fanfic forums aren’t just places to read and write fiction, but to debate everything from the appropriate consent label for a given story to how the community should respond when the man at the center of a “real-person fandom” is accused of rape. As a result, Dubcon argues that fanfiction is more than entertainment, it’s a form of “cultural activism” challenging dominant ideas and imagining alternatives.

Jezebel spoke with Popova about arranged marriage tales, fanfic controversies, and how these fictional stories influence readers’ IRL love lives. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Omegaverse writers and readers attest to the fact that “many of the stories they enjoy contain at the very least dubcon—dubious consent—if not outright representations of rape.” Where does that enjoyment come from?

Ultimately, every single writer and reader will be enjoying different things for different reasons. It’s a bit like asking, “Why do all of these straight women”—and they’re not actually all straight women—“write about men banging?” There’s a few things we can say: There’s obviously erotic enjoyment in the same vein as bodice ripper romances. Rape fiction—read by women and other marginalized groups, queer people—isn’t anything new. It has a very long history and sometimes you just need to let go of that critical part of your brain and go, “You know what, this is hot, and that’s fine.”

There are also lots of cases where people are working through their own experiences, whether that be survivors of sexual violence or abuse or people looking at, “OK, I had this sexual experience, with hindsight it’s rather uncomfortable. What was uncomfortable about it?” It may not be something that we would readily recognize as rape, but that’s what the whole book is about, the areas of our lives in our sexual experiences that our dominant culture wouldn’t readily name as rape. But they’re uncomfortable and, if we poke at them sufficiently, we might find that your consent has been violated or your consent has been in some way made meaningless.

One of the things I found really interesting was diving into the origins of some of the very first Omegaverse fanfictions, even in those early stories, people are playing around with, “What does this sexual set-up mean for consent?”

You argue that writers and readers use fanfiction to process the frequent dubiousness of consent in the real world. Why is fanfiction such a popular medium for that?

I think there are a few reasons. One is that it’s a space where there’s an established culture of, “You know what? We write smut.” Once you start writing smut, you start poking at, “OK, this smut is hot, why is it hot? This smut makes me uncomfortable, why does it make me uncomfortable?” It’s a community where that kind of sexually explicit writing is normalized. Once you normalize that, there are all sorts of things that you can do. The other factor is anonymity. People tend to be anonymous or pseudonymous on the internet. That’s gives an amount of protection. At the same time, it gives you access to where you can work through some of those fantasies in a communal setting. You’re not just writing them for yourself, you’re getting feedback, you’re getting engagement.

We’re already in the gutter here. Fanfiction readers and writers almost glory in being in the gutter. We’re out of sight, we’re out of the public eye, we’re just going to play around in this gutter, and in any way we want to.

One dubcon genre is arranged-marriage fanfiction. There are a lot of parallels there with the marriage-of-convenience romance novel. But there are also significant differences. How do these genres converge and diverge?

If you think about the classic marriage of convenience romance novel, you get two characters who maybe have never met, they get married for financial or social reasons. Frequently, the heroine is financially and socially dependent on the hero, even if she is bringing a dowry to the marriage and saving his estate. She is now tied to him and has to work out how to make this marriage work. In classic romance trope fashion, the hero tends to be gruff and frequently downright abusive. The heroine is stuck in this relationship where she has very little power and very little choice. She has to work out how to make this work and how to stop him from being abusive. Eventually, they kind of find love, but a lot of what happens is that the heroine does all of the work toward making that relationship work. She gets to know her new husband, she adjusts her behavior to fit his tastes and needs. Ultimately, she changes, quite dramatically, while he barely does, to make him love her.

What was happening in arranged marriage fanfiction is that, actually, and again I was looking at slash specifically, so it’s two men, it’s quite common across the arranged marriage genre in general. People very clearly established the partner in the marriage who has less power and the partner in the marriage who has more power. The person who has more power in the relationship, so the equivalent of the hero, has to do all of the work. They have to respect the other person’s boundaries. They have to make sure that consent is present. They have to make sure that if the other person never wanted to touch them or look at them, then that was going to be okay. They weren’t going to force anything.

It’s an interesting reversal, then.

That is really what consent is about in a society where we are all encumbered by operations of power and the kinds of things we’re told to believe about gender about sex about how relationships work. Wherever there is a power imbalance, and there is always a power imbalance, it should be up to the person with more power to make sure that “no” is always an easy and available option.

You interviewed fanfiction fans about how fanfiction informed their understanding of consent. What did you find?

What I found was that it was a very cyclical process of learning and teaching and discussing and creating knowledge together as a community about issues of consent. I have this fantastic quote in the book from one of my interviewees—effectively what they said was, “Fanfiction taught me that negotiation—verbal, direct negotiation in sex—can and should be a thing. And that informed me that sex isn’t just what I have historically been taught is sex—penis goes in vagina—it can encompass a whole bunch of other things. It’s a much bigger space that you can navigate and negotiate together.”

There was a layer after layer of unpeeling everything this person had been taught about sex. They really started questioning how does this work, how does power work, how should it work? They said, “I’ve taken these things I’ve learned into my relationship and sometimes I have written about things I’ve experienced in my relationship in my fanfiction. Then they had feedback and talked to other readers and writers, maybe somebody else was inspired by their work and wrote something in response. It’s very communal, building on top of each other, and creating new knowledge.

The other thing that’s important is around some of the cultural norms in the fanfiction space, particularly things like the Archive Of Our Own, which is the main platform where fanfiction is shared these days. The Archive Of Our Own has allowed fans to use different tags, initially as a way of cataloging and helping people to find things. But around this technical functionality, the community had built really different practices and uses that allow people to use those tools to aid in that conversation around consent. Readers will expect a writer to have tagged for dubcon or noncon, or any kind of specific issue. If that tag is not there, people will go I don’t think this is entirely consensual. That, in itself, is helping navigate that space and learn about that space.

The other really interesting thing: One of the reasons that people say they enjoy dubcon and noncon is when they have confidence that the writer is aware that they are writing dubcon or noncon and that they are doing it on purpose. When they are reading something and it’s coming across as dubcon or noncon and it’s not in the tags, that enjoyment is significantly diminished. It’s a very conscious exploration of these issues.

How do you think about the danger of fanfiction reinforcing rather than critically questioning patriarchal structures and power?

The fanfiction community is not one community, they are overlapping intertwined communities that sometimes play with each other, sometimes don’t. Sometimes they craft very delicate boundaries. Sometimes there’s an agreement to disagree. Sometimes there isn’t. There’s a lot of conflict in fanfiction communities over what is the right kind of fanfiction to write.

How are fanfiction controversies and debates handled?

It depends whether we’re talking disagreements between a few people within a small sub-community or whether we’re talking massive shit wars. In my research, one of the interesting experiences I had was the fandom that I was myself in. It was a real-person fandom [around Hockey star Patrick Kane], and the real person in question was accused of rape. At that point that fandom had to decide, “OK, what do we do about this? Can we meaningfully continue to be fans of this person? Can we continue to create fan works of this person? Can we even keep our existing stuff online or should we delete all of that?”

That was a lengthy process with a lot of discussion, a lot of disagreement. It was really interesting in that people brought a lot of different kinds of arguments to the table. A lot of it was driven by a desire to live by feminist values and to not reproduce rape culture. For most people, the goal was not to reproduce rape culture, and the disagreement was over how to not do that.

Some people were saying if we keep creating fan works, then that is a way of reclaiming and subverting that space. Others argued, yes, you can do that to some extent, but not once the real person has been accused of rape. A lot of people believed that it was very possible that the person was a rapist. A lot of people had this realization of, “From what I know about the real person, I believe he could have done it. Therefore that has an impact on me as a fanfiction creator.”

Some critics have argued that Omegaverse’s construction of gender—where characters have primary genders and secondary genders, and where the focus is often on male alpha/male omega pairings—suggests that fans are gender essentialists. What do you think?

I think it’s hard to make a blanket statement. The Omegaverse, to me, is something you have to read a lot of stories for it to really start making sense. It’s a whole body of work that works inter-textually. People read one work, compare it to how another writer interpreted something. One of the things that really struck me was that some writers will use gender and say, “Yes, these differences are biological.” But, actually, far more writers will question that and actually say, “Whatever biological differences there are, a lot of what actually makes the universe tick is the social construction of gender on top of that.”

Even in the very early stories, there were characters going, “Oh, well, yes, I’m an omega but there’s been an omega liberation movement in this universe and I can live a perfectly independent life. This is all sorts of social construction that’s put on top of my gender that I don’t want and reject and will fight against.” It’s very similar to what we’re seeing people do with gender in the real world.

How do understandings of consent gained via fanfiction translate to readers’ real lives?

In a number of different ways, and they’re not necessarily big and world-changing. A lot of it is in small trickles. You might learn about consent from fanfiction and take that into your own relationship and make changes in how you approach sex. You might also take that into other feminist activism and activist communities and take some of those conversations with you. People were very particular about not wanting to reproduce rape culture, wanting through their actions to model consent, even if that meant deleting hundreds of thousands of words of fanfiction that they had written and loved and had a lot of emotional investment in [as with the Patrick Kane rape allegation].

One of the premises of the book is the way that our culture thinks about gender and sex and consent is so deeply messed up that we are never free from the operation of power. We are never free from being told that we should act a certain way, even just how we think of what a romantic relationship is. We think if we’re in a romantic relationship, we must be having sex with our partner. There are other ways to think about sex; there are other ways to think about consent.

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