As a writer who has brought out her first novel in the last year, I am still at the stage of experiencing a little thrill of pleasure each time I see my book added to another to-read list on Goodreads. It’s with mild disquiet though that I notice Gaius and Achilles is acquiring the label of non-con or dub-con from prospective readers.
Of course, the moment I sent my book out into the public eye, I lost any right to direct or complain about how it is received, interpreted or responded to and that is not what I am trying to do here. I am merely prompted to muse aloud on the implications of Gaius and Achilles receiving that label and what we can assume about power imbalance and the possibility of consent in fiction if not real life.
My assumption is that prospective readers are giving the book the label of non-con basically because it is about a sexual relationship between a slave and his master. For me, the label is disquieting because a central theme of Gaius and Achilles is that two people manage to form a consensual and mutually respectful relationship despite the fact that one of them has absolute legal power over the other in the context of a slave-owning society that they both take for granted.
As various eloquent commentators in the blogosphere have powerfully elucidated of late, non-consent, rape is a fictional theme that many readers, specifically women, enjoy writing and reading for a complex variety of reasons. I entirely support the right of women to write honestly about such desires and fantasies without fear of censorship. (I doubt I would feel nearly so accepting though about men cheerfully writing about their fantasies of raping women – a double standard?)
On the other hand, speaking personally, non-consent is really not my thing. If anything, I kink on consent, negotiation and willing, gratuitous submission. A beautiful, strong man kissing the whip is hot, while a character suffering so much as a caress they didn’t want leaves me feeling icky and reaching for the back button.
The seemingly automatic labelling of Gaius and Achilles as non-con has prompted me to consider whether its premise might appear politically naive at best or at worst be seen as offering some kind of apologetic for societally-imposed power-imbalances which is very far from my intention. The question powerfully raised by an earlier generation of feminists as to whether or not someone can meaningfully consent to sex when they are economically dependant on and subordinate to the person in question is a valid one in the realm of slavery at least as much as that of traditional, male-dominated marriage.
Within the dynamics of slavery, however many times a master says, “You can say no if you like,” and the slave replied, “No, really, I want to,” the suspicion would remain that a refusal might displease the master and have later unpleasant repercussions for the slave. Purely from that perspective, sex between master and slave can be always and automatically labelled non-con.
Having painted myself into this corner, the only way out I can see is the plea that human beings are complex social entities with complex desires and ways of relating to each other.
Gaius, an elite Roman male, does not refrain from raping his slave Achilles because of some clear-cut moral imperative. Supposing he ever thought about it, he would agree that a master has every right to use his slave as he sees fit. Essentially, Gaius doesn’t rape Achilles because he doesn’t want to. He prefers the challenge and the rewards of seducing the rebellious and distraught young man into becoming a willing and enthusiastic bed-partner.
Despite benefiting from being at the top of the heap of a hierarchical, violent and exploitative society, Gaius dislikes violence and unpleasantness in his private life. The hundreds of slaves who labour on his vast estates may be driven by the whip, but he would never raise his hand to the familiar individuals who wait on him personally. Naive and hypocritical? Yes, but we all negotiate a way of living amidst a heap of contradictions.
Consider how many of us bestow untold love and kindness on our cat or dog but eat the flesh of animals who have lived and died in hideous conditions. Consider how some women in the most patriarchal and repressive of societies, and who are indeed vocal supporters of that patriarchy and repression, find their own ways of exercising power and putting their views across. St Teresa in her writings sometimes begins with, “I am a mere woman, but…” then delivers blistering criticism against the shortcomings of the male clergy.
Achilles, for his part, is a slave but grew up as a proud, freeborn citizen. He could be broken, of course, by brutality and deprivation, but he is too naive and proud to yield to the mere possibility of brutality and deprivation. Kindness and charm may be another matter…
So as two contradictory individuals, the two of them struggle towards relating to each other honestly and, on an emotional level at least, as some kind of equals despite the fact that one of them has absolute power over the other.
I now fear the point I am trying to make boils down to the romantic idea that the hardy weeds of humanity, love, and compassion can flower even in the most unpromising of concrete cracks.