Fiction, Slavery and Consent

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.

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9 thoughts on “Fiction, Slavery and Consent

  1. The idea that any such relationship between the powerful and the powerless is always questionable is one that there’s really no good way around. For one thing, readers of slavefic are condtioned to see it that way by the predominance of non-con writing. For another, people see things through their preferred filters. Also, though I don’t mean this as a criticism, sex is so central to Gaius and Achilles that it satisfies readers’ expectations without offering a strong-enough “philosophical” position to counter-balance it. The counter-balance, in the day-to-day aspects of their relationship, is there, but would need to be more fully developed in relation to the sexual aspects.

    A male fantasy of female rape is never acceptable, but most slavefic of this kind is between two males. Since it’s read mostly by women, I have to assume that the same-sex relationship is what makes it acceptable. It isn’t threatening to women. Though why anyone gets off on non-con sex of any kind is beyond my understanding. The majority of these stories are so amateurishly conceived and written that there’s really no reason for them to exist and find popular acceptance except for the willingness of readers to get their jollies this way.

    • All relationships with power imbalances are indeed questionable.This was true to a less dramatic degree of middle class Victorian marriage where the woman could own no property of her own and could be confined to an asylum at her husband’s pleasure as well as Greco-Roman slave society. However, I don’t think all Victorian marriages were based on rape and abuse or that the man was really always in control even though the situation was far from ideal.

      Yes, I suppose readers approach a book with generic expectations and ‘filters’ based on what they have read before and perhaps on what they want to read.

      Also true that G&A delivers in terms of slave and master sex, whips and all. However, I don’t think there is any point in their sex scenes at which consent is ambiguous or indeed where it is not emphasised, so, for me, the sexual scenes in themselves do provide a counterbalance to assumptions that this is a slavefic complete with non-consensual sex.

      There isn’t much philosophical counterbalance, if I follow you correctly, because being of their time, G&A have no notion of human rights or any such to guide them (arguably Stoic philosophy might have nudged them in the direction of treating all human beings well, but neither of them happen to be students of Stoicism). Instead, they are guided by their personal feelings and sensibilities.

      In terms of rape fantasies, I wasn’t thinking exclusively in terms of m/m slavefic but more broadly in relation to various blogs by romance and erotic female writers that I had dipped into recently in which their enjoyment of non-consensual tropes in fiction involving women was defended and explored. As such writing has recently been under direct threat of censorship on Smashwords, I felt that while I personally feel uncomfortable with such themes I should acknowledge that some women, including abuse survivors, do enjoy reading and writing non-con and fair play to them.

      It is an interesting and uncomfortable point though that female writers of slavefic and related m/m genres are happy about gratuitously crossing the line into rape and abuse in a way many would not stomach if the victim was female.

      • This is an interesting discussion.

        As someone who enjoys reading rape-fiction (and freely states so) I am consistently astonished at the amount of negative emotions directed my way the moment I say so. This far too often by women who claim to have the best interests of women in their minds. I so far haven’t puzzled that one out. I do not at all understand how policing what I find titillating might help women in general.

        I do by the way prefer m/f rape-fiction to m/m, though I will take just about any combination. I have no problem with male readers or writers of rape-fiction either, there are a few excellent authors around who like myself quite clearly understand the difference between erotica and real life.

        I haven’t yet read your book, but going by what you state, I see a powerslide but
        no coercion. That’s, from my personal vantage point, not non-con. It would indeed mean that every women of the past couple thousand years was raped every time her husband climbed onto her. My own mother still belongs to the generation which gave a husband the firm right to “marital communion”, even against the professed will of the wife without any consequences whatsoever.

        Those laws were changed during her marriage, but she would never state that prior to that she had non-consensual sex (or was raped). She always was able to say “no.” To me that’s the clincher – that the side invested with power respects a “no.”

      • Thanks for your thought-provoking comment Anne; I’m glad you found this discussion interesting. You have prompted a musing reply!

        I suspect that part of the reason why many feminists and others do not like to hear women say they fantasise about rape or in any way eroticise the idea is that it is disturbingly reminiscent of the rapist’s excuse that his victim “really wanted it” and so on. If you spend a lot of your time trying to get wider society to take the crime of rape seriously, I can see how it would feel like a betrayal to hear other women saying “actually, rape is hot”.

        As you say, however, this perspective ignores the fact that functional adults are generally capable of distinguishing fantasy from reality, that people don’t want their fantasies necessarily to be fulfilled in real life. Fantasising about being a slave or even living in a D/s relationship does not mean you would actually wish to be plucked off the street and sold in the local supermarket.

        Telling women what they can and can’t write or fantasise about or, most irritating of all, telling women that they only feel as they do because they are poor, oppressed victims and know no better is just another form of oppression and infantilisation.

        I suppose the issue of men eroticising the rape of women disturbs me partly because we already live in a society where women are objectified and marketed for male sexual consumption. Although, on the one hand, we should be able to tell fantasy from reality, on the other, our perceptions are shaped by the culture and media we are surrounded by and the dehumanisation of women is still very much part of aspects of our culture. I suspect also it is something I just have a personal gut feeling against. It is always interesting to examine these feelings though, so thank you for raising the question.

        Your comparison of Gaius and Achilles’ situation with that of a marriage in which the wife has no legal protection from rape by the husband is an interesting one. In the UK, the law was only changed in the 1990s allowing women to charge their husbands with rape. Previously, they could only have been charged with assault, even if they had been separated for many years. This means, in theory, that every married woman’s power to consent to sex was compromised during that period, but it would be untrue in any real sense to say that every married woman was therefore raped by her husband. Just because a legal power exists, doesn’t mean it is going to be exercised.

      • Yes, you sum it up very nicely what I touched there. I’ve very recently had a young physician state that female rape fantasies are sick (as BDSM is as well acc. to him) and necessitate a therapy and when I tried to reason with him was more or less told that I belong into a closed institution, need medication, and after that a crash course in self-worth. To say I was rather floored would be understating things even more.

        Regarding slavery and my comparison, I think it is a close enough one to at least illustrate the mental process behind things. Maybe not as stringent, for that you’d have to go back to marriage during and before Victorian time, but the similarities are there. I’m not even saying that there weren’t women as well as slaves who indeed considered it the right of their husbands/owners to have sex with them even though they did not want them to do that. There very likely were quite a few of those. However, if the relationship is written so it becomes clear beyond doubt that the partner with less legal agency has been awarded full agency by the one who has the option to do so, then there is – in my opinion – no question of consent at all.

        Personally I find it disheartening that there are people mistaking this, because what it tells me is that they have not learned and internalised that at the core of everything is choice and respect thereof.

        Really nice discourse! Thank you 🙂

  2. I probably shouldn’t have used “philosophy,” but I couldn’t think of a way of expressing how you would present a balancing viewpoint. I think it’s necessary because of those filters that people bring to their reading. I suspect that a lot just overlooked the fact that the sex was consensual, or brushed it off to better meet their own bias.

    I did read a bit of the discussions about female fantasies, but it’s not one of my interests, so I just read enough to get the gist.

    • I think to be honest they haven’t yet read the book at all, as the labelling was from people’s to-read list rather than read. It was just that assumption that started me thinking.

  3. The to-read list does set up something that isn’t necessarily so, but I suspect that many of the people, when they do read the book, will keep those classifications. But any excuse for a good discussion will do. 🙂

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