An image is going viral right now of a young UK man stating that he does not need to be taught not to be a rapist.
It is true that he may not need his college to teach him that. Maybe he does understand what consent and active, enthusiastic consent is. Maybe he understands how to navigate and negotiate complex situations so that he ensures that any kind of sexual encounter he has with someone is consensual.
Here is the thing, though.
Being Raped Is Passive, Raping Is an Active Choice
We do not do anything to become rape victims except live our lives. That is the horror of being a victim of any crime. If someone wants to make you a target, they will. Either you will survive the experience or you will not. The person may not be sucessful in their attempt at the crime against you. That is irrelevant to the initiation of the crime.
Any crime, and rape is no exception, is an active choice a criminal makes.
- You can be a misogynistic pig and still respect consent and not be a rapist.
- You can be a pedophile and not be a child molester.
- You can be a kleptomaniac and not be a thief.
- You can be a sociopath and not be a murderer.
Actions are choices that we make. While we may have things that drive us to desire to make a choice, we are also conscious, thinking, reasoning creatures. We know that our actions will affect another person. We do not even have to be able to empathize with someone to know that. If I rob from someone, I have a direct impact on his life. Depending on what I steal, I may have an impact on his well-being as well.
This is not rocket science. It does not take a degree to understand.
It does take learning, though, to develop the behaviors that let you make good choices. If you understand consent, especially in situations that can be hard to navigate consent such as drinking at a party or participating in BDSM or other fetish activities, that means you were taught about consent. You do not have to be aware of those lessons. You could have learned by example, observing parents who displayed consent clearly in their relationship. Very likely, though, you learned it as a combination of discussion and observation.
Maybe You Do Not Need to Learn, but It Is Clear Others Do
Just because you know what consent is, when consent is given, and when it is okay to ignore consent (spoiler: it is never okay to ignore consent) does not mean that everyone knows these things. Not everyone’s parents discuss these things fully with them. Media certainly does not give us good lessons about consent. I can show you in most movies featuring some kind of romantic tension where consent is violated.
- Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Han is massaging Leia’s hand. She tells him to stop. He does not and instead moves to kiss her. Her telling him to stop is her saying no and laying out that she does not consent to what he is doing. He ignores it because romance.
- Gone With the Wind
Most of the romantic interactions between Rhett and Scarlett.
- Any movie or book or television show where one person makes physical contact with the other without knowing if that person wants that physical contact.
In fiction, these are representative of a fantasy: the ravishment fantasy. Men and women have this fantasy and, here is a super serial secret, both men and women can be on both sides of that fantasy.
What Does the Ravishment Fantasy Mean?
Another meme I see from time to time on my feeds goes something like this:
You expect me to be a gentleman then you fantasize about Christian Grey (or insert Bad Boy of choice).
The ravishment fantasy does not mean that a person wants to be raped or harmed in any way by another person. The ravishment fantasy has at least two harmless and, well, romantic meanings depending on the person.
- It is a desire to be able to give up power to someone we trust. In a Ravishmet Fantasy, the person being ravaged is never in danger. He or she is also not threatened (though sometimes the actor in the fantasy may make humiliation-related threats, which really is just another layer of fantasy being added onto the ravishment fantasy). The person also does not partake in anything that he or she does not enjoy, no matter how humiliating, dirty, risque, etc that thing may be. The fantasy is a way to introduce oneself to other fantasies in a way that feels safe because someone you ultimately trust (your fantasy strong man/woman) is guiding you through it.
- It is a desire to be surprised – again by someone we ultimately trust or can trust. When the romantic hero kisses his love interest, not knowing if she will reciprocate, he is looking to be surprised. From her point of view, she is looking for the same thing. This simple and “innocent” form of the fantasy is the idea of finding love (or pleasure) where we do not expect to find it. When Han tries to kiss Leia, this is what is happening. Han is just a smuggler. Leia is a stuck-up princess. Of course C3PO interrupts it, but that is another analysis.
Fiction Is Not Real Life
Fiction is not real life. Fiction is a fantasy. It is a story told to present an idea to you. Sometimes fiction can be a guide, but when used in this way, it can almost never be used as a literal guide. Instead, one as to find the symbols in the fiction and ascertain their meaning to understand what the guide is teaching you.
This is why you cannot look to how men and women absorb media to know what is okay and what is acceptable. What floats in fiction does not float in real life, not all the time.
Fiction Is Not (just a) Fantasy (This Is for the Writers)
Understand that when you write fiction, you are not just writing a fantasy. You are taking a fantasy and you are creating a reality for it. Yes, this is a conceit, but that does not make it any less true.
When you write a story, you are creating a world in which the behaviors you feature are either normalized or marginalized. You get to make that decision and that decision creates symbols that your reader will try to decode. It is important, then, that when you write your story that you input your symbols properly.
In Communication, we are taught that it is the responsibility of the Speaker to ensure that his/her message is understood. The same goes for the writer. EL James gets a lot of criticism for writing a book that promotes abuse and rape culture. That criticism is deserved and one can hope she learned from it. Why do I say this?
Because her symbols are poorly constructed. She gives us a ravishment fantasy, sure. But she does not give us the correct symbols we need in the fantasy to be able to properly translate it from fantasy into real life. So, if we try to examine the story for, say, what she says about human behavior, consent, and relationships, we find something that is disturbing. We find a man who behaves in cultish ways. We find a woman whose boundaries are constantly breached and whose ability to consent is constantly negated.
When you write a fantasy, you have to put the symbols in place for your reader to understand what he or she is reading. We do not want to think of ourselves as teachers and philosophers, but often we are. We do not have to like it. We can plug our ears and cry “la la” and pretend that it does not happen.
And strangely, erotica is one of the few places we feel that it is okay to behave that way as writers. In most other literary genres, if I were to say “Well, how my character treats <insert minority> does not matter because it is fiction” I would be ridiculed off the proverbial stage. It does matter. Why? Because what I am writing is a reflection. I am writing either a reflection of what I see in society or what I think society should be. So if my character treats characters of other ethnic origins poorly, am I saying this is happening because of a flaw in society, or a flaw in my character? Am I saying that this is acceptable behavior?
The answer will be in my symbols.
And my reader will take that away and try to process it. For a reader who is looking to understand and fill in gaps where his/her parents and schools failed, the message I transmit may be very, very important indeed.
If I want to communicate a specific message, I had better make sure I am clear with my meaning.