How The Line Between Fantasy and Reality Defines Consent: And Why It Matters
by Cecilia Tan
This blog post is prompted by two things that happened today. One, a male writer friend I respect a lot and who is clueful about many things including sexuality and feminism asked me: “Serious question: I’d love to hear your thoughts, as a kink-friendly feminist Asian woman, about racial fetishes. Blog post?”
The other is that right before reading his message, I had just gotten email from a reader who wrote: “Anything that makes violence abuse and torture seem more attractive, i.e. associating it with getting off sexually or glorifying in anyway, is keeping us from developing into a more enlightened society” and also “those feminists who think that rape portrayed in any format is okay are just shooting a cause in the foot.” This fan is someone that I met at a BDSM convention and their email to me says they’re okay with common consensual BDSM activities like bondage and flogging and spanking. What prompted their reaction was not the convention, but reading some of my fan fiction that featured “non-con” — non-consensual acts. (If you’re new to me: I’m a professional writer of erotica, romance, and sf/fantasy whose fiction often deals with BDSM. I also write fanfic for fun.)
You might think that someone who was okay with BDSM wouldn’t be able to make a statement like “Anything that makes violence abuse and torture seem more attractive, i.e. associating it with getting off sexually or glorifying in anyway, is keeping us from developing into a more enlightened society.” The point I’d like to make here is not that this particular fan is confused or a hypocrite, it’s to point out that this particular kind of hypocrisy is VERY COMMON. So common perhaps we should say it’s human nature, except then we’d have to accept it instead of trying to change it. And I’m trying to change it. My activism and my creative life for the past 23 years have been built on trying to change it, on the following basis:
• Oppression of women is bad, and there is a lot of it.
• Oppression of women often centers on sexuality.
• Rape and policing women’s sexuality are two big tools of that oppression.
• For that matter: policing EVERYONE’S SEXUALITY is a big tool of oppression.
• People have erotic fantasies. That includes “rape fantasies,” and fantasies built on pain and power/control.
• Policing people’s erotic fantasies is policing their sexuality, and is oppression.
This adds up to the following: Rape fantasies are not oppression, policing rape fantasies is.
One aside here about what I mean by “rape fantasies.” Critics of the rape fantasy have the broadest definition and that’s the one I use, too. They condemn anything that smacks of… well… pain, power, or control, especially if the person in control is male and the person being controlled is female. But people of all genders and orientations can have these fantasies.
This leads me to these:
• The fantasy underpinnings of consensual BDSM are pain, power, and control.
• Consensual BDSM is not rape. In fact, it’s the opposite of rape.
Did you ever wonder why consent and safety are the bedrocks upon which BDSM communities are built? It’s exactly because getting off on power, pain, and control is what we’re there for, but we’re NOT there to rape. For the community to exist based on the shared fantasy underpinnings, we have to agree that there is a line between fantasy and reality. We may not always agree on exactly where that line is, but we agree that it exists, and that is the most important part. (The rest is the other big bedrock of the BDSM communities: negotiation.) This means that policing BDSM is essentially the same as policing rape fantasies, and vice versa. You can’t say that a little consensual slap and tickle is okay, but the full-on kidnapping gang rape fantasy that I’m planning for my birthday isn’t. Or that erotica I read (or wrote) that gave me the idea for the birthday scene isn’t.
That’s the bedrock my activism (and my fiction) is built on: kink is okay because erotic fantasy is okay, and erotic fantasy is okay because we differentiate between fantasy and reality.
Those who don’t understand or grapple with their erotic fantasies, and who don’t understand that fantasy is integral to sexuality–because they’ve been shamed or silenced–are doomed to commit evil in this world because they can’t differentiate between fantasy and reality. How many times have we seen a story where a vehement anti-gay politician was caught with a male prostitute? How many anti-porn crusaders revealed as rapists or pedophiles? These people are mentally ill, sickened by the same oppression that kept them from developing any healthy sense of sexuality.
So, if I say we can’t police any erotic fantasies because it’s oppression, where do I stand on racial fetishes? I stand in the same place. Lots and lots of things turn us on. Many of them are as politically incorrect as–as established above–power, pain, and control, or if you would prefer to use the words rape and violence. Here again we have a tool of oppression. Oppression that centers on race, ethnicity, and culture is as endemic as misogyny and sexism. Oppression is bad. Racism is bad. Dehumanization is bad.
But that does not mean that fantasies involving race or skin color are therefore bad, anymore than rape fantasies are. I don’t think anyone should have their racial fantasies policed because no erotic fantasies should be policed. What should be policed is not BDSM, but actual rape. What should be policed is not erotica or ideas or fantasies about race, but actual rape and human trafficking. Trying to police THOUGHTS about sex is what pushes pornography into the gray market and pushes prostitution into the black market, where because it is a crime already adding ACTUAL SLAVERY and human trafficking on top of it happens.
So that’s where I stand. Member of privileged group fantasizing about member of less privileged group (male/female, master/slave, white/asian) LOOKS more problematic than when it’s the other way around (female dom/male slave, black/asia), but that’s a shallow view. It can’t be “more okay” for one person to have a fantasy than for another. What’s disgusting and wrong is when members of a privileged group actually oppress the members of a less privileged group. Having a fantasy isn’t oppression. But the way one chooses to act on the fantasy could be.
I’ll say that again. Having a fantasy isn’t oppression. But the way one chooses to act on the fantasy could be. And now that I think about it, with racial fantasy it’s a lot like with BDSM. Is there actual consent involved in the real-life ways the fantasy is acted on? If so, thumbs up. If not, thumbs down. For example, do you cat-call Asian girls on the street, yelling “Me so horny!” at them? Not consensual. Are you a white policeman who targeted black women you met while on duty for rape? Not consensual. Did you go to Thailand and pay to have sex with a teenage prostitute? Not consensual.
None of those acts of oppression are caused by the fantasies. They are caused by the inability to draw the line between fantasy and reality, and between consent and nonconsent. One of the biggest privileges of PRIVILEGE is not having to CARE where that line is. That’s why we’re having an explosion of these questions coming up now so often about sexual harassment and rape in tech, science fiction fandom, and gaming: the privileged in these spaces (generally white males) are getting a sudden wake-up call that the rest of us CAN SEE THE LINE THEY CROSS, while they can’t even see that there’s a line there in the first place.
The antidote isn’t to police everyone’s thoughts about sexuality even more. It’s to make it okay to fantasize and think about sex and talk about it rather than silencing it. How the hell is anyone supposed to learn that the line exists if no one talks about it? We’ve been pounding the “no means no” drum somewhat for several decades and all that’s done is shifted the burden of identifying that there is a line and where it is to the victim. We need a “yes means yes” campaign of equal strength that would not only make clear what consent actually is, we have to teach that the burden is on each person to deal with their own erotic feelings and fantasies. You may have seen the phrase “no one ‘owes’ you sex, just because you’re turned on.” A lot of privileged people cannot grasp that one basic thing. It’s not pornography’s fault that they can’t. It’s the fault of policing desire in the first place which has made the reality of it invisible.
So, yes, there are a hell of a lot of privilege issues wrapped up in race. That doesn’t make erotic fantasies that are fueled by difference wrong or invalid, any more than they do for fantasies based on gender difference or power-difference (master/slave, pirate/captive, owner/puppy, daddy/boy, etc…).
Where the major difference in my parallel between BDSM and racial fetish comes is that we have a thriving BDSM community where people on both ends of the power exchange spectrum get together to meet mutual needs. There are probably as many people wanting to get spanked as there are those wanted to spank them, for example, and we’ve built up plenty of consensual, non-commercial community ways for people to meet up for mutual benefit. I don’t think that’s the case when it comes to racial fetishes. I don’t know that there are as many, say, Asian women who fantasize about white men, as there are white men who fantasize about Asian women–I’m making the assumption that there are not. If they are evenly matched, my perception so far is that there isn’t a community that helps match them up the way there is with BDSM. So I guess what you have to meet the need are, again, gray and black market solutions, pornography and prostitution. My own moral choice when it comes to porn consumption is to purchase it from ethical (i.e. not kidnappers, they’re paying scale, etc.) companies based in the US and UK, but this is something each person has to decide and figure out for themselves. (Probably a lot of people don’t research the porn business the way I do and wouldn’t have any idea whether the Internet stream they’re watching is the equivalent of “organic, fair trade.”)
And that brings me back to fan fiction, actually, as a form of pornography that has no ethical issues. Fan fiction is a non-commercial endeavor, largely written in communities of like-minded folk. That means if you’re into non-con (or stalkerish vampires or whatever thing that might squick someone else), you can flock with birds of a feather. You write it for nothing, people pay nothing to read it, and no one gets hurt because both the production and consumption of it are entirely consensual. Fiction is already the safest place to explore the hot buttons and the dark corners precisely because it’s a realm of fantasy where no real people were harmed, and making it a community-based non-commercial endeavor makes it even more egalitarian. It’s the most “ethically sourced” pornography there is.
The problematic aspects of rape culture/rape fantasies and objectification/fetishization of race fantasies are the same: it’s wrong when the privileged take advantage of the unprivileged because they feel it’s their right. Empowering people, especially the un- or underprivileged (which in this day and age includes women, the non-white, and the non-heterosexual), to own and celebrate their own fantasies is key to fighting that imbalance. But it isn’t BECAUSE we’re not part of the privileged group that makes our fantasies “okay.” It isn’t that our fantasies are politically correct and those of the privileged aren’t. Teaching that we ALL have the right to our fantasies–and that part and parcel of that is learning what consent is and how to practice it in reality–is the only way to undo the imbalance of privilege and overcome the blindness it brings.