How The Line Between Fantasy and Reality Defines Consent

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.


  1. Yes; so much agreement.
    I also think that rape fantasies and rape fiction have an important parallel in things like… well, to take an example, thriller fiction dealing with themes like terrorism. People can read fiction dealing with terrorist acts in order to feel a thrill of excitement, but this doesn’t mean that they’re likely to commit terrorist acts, or that they approve of them. But people who want to read a thriller and get their heart pounding from their excitement won’t get that from fiction where everyone treats each other nicely.
    Rape fantasy tweaks people’s arousal, and lets people tap into the excitement of dramatic situations the way war or thriller fiction does, and hits on buttons of power interaction, all in one neat package. It can deliver the right mix of excitements.
    One thing that does preoccupy me, as someone who reads and writes it (and perhaps you might have thoughts to share?) is how it fits into a larger context of written cultural canon. That is, our writing does affect people’s thoughts and perceptions. We write diverse characters to expand people’s perception of diversity, for example. Strong female characters help people see women in a new light. And how we think about sex is already so screwed up. I find myself thinking a lot about writing these fantasies for public consumption, in a culture which already thinks real-world rape is no problem; in a culture which doesn’t differentiate fantasy from reality. And the best answer I come to is that we just have to keep hammering at the whole cultural mess of how we perceive sex, somehow? That we need to find ways to make the environment healthy so that these things won’t be contributing to an unhealthy environment. So that people can’t point and say “See? Rape is hot,” missing that line between fantasy and reality that we can see but much of culture doesn’t want to acknowledge. Anyway, this is the sort of question that keeps me up at night. If you have sage words I’d be glad to hear them!
    Thank you for writing this post!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Cassidy! Yes, it keeps me up at night too… (it was 3am when I posted this, I think?) Continuing to hammer away at the whole cultural mess of how we perceive sex is pretty much my general approach. I feel it’s improved over the past 20 years, honestly, so I think we’re making progress. I certainly feel more people are getting the consent message — even if there was quite a bit of moral panic over how not-cognizant of consent 50 Shades of Grey seems to be. I guess this is part of what I’m saying: although I would have definitely loved for 50 Shades to have been a stellar depiction of a healthy and hot BDSM relationship, it’s not, but that didn’t keep it from striking a nerve. I think overall many read it for exactly what they should have read it for: escapist fiction, and not for any moral lesson nor any kind of how-to on BDSM relationships. I *do* write books that have what I feel are definite sex-positive, BDSM-positive, consent-forward books, and that’s what I tend to publish via traditional means. But that doesn’t mean that those are the only valid forms of expression or of fantasy.
      I do feel each writer needs to make their own moral choice about what they feel comfortable putting on the page.
      My problem with thinking we should suppress rape fantasy so that the clueless can’t point and say “see? rape is hot!” is that silencing rape fantasy can’t ever be a solution to that problem. I truly feel only by talking about it, publishing it, and owning it can we raise consciousness enough to get the clueless past that ignorant and uninformed reaction.

  2. The same arguments come up again and again. There are people against rape fantasy because they simply don’t like it, and don’t understand why anyone else could like it. Then they try and justify their dislike by saying it represses women, or further women repression or the most ridiculous excuse that it romanticizes rape and can actually cause such to happen. Yet those same people will read horror fic or such, and does this cause an increase of killings, does this make them want to go out and kill. I’ve always been in a firm believer in letting people have their fantasies in fanfiction or drawn art, as no one is getting hurt that way.

    1. Anneke, that’s definitely true. Whenever people are squicked by something (even those who are freaked out by just the existence of slash pairings of canon characters!) they try to come up with a rationale for why it must therefore be morally wrong.

  3. What about when we take it outside of the realm of sex? Can one assign moral value, positive or negative, to “The Turner Diaries” or “Atlas Shrugged” or “1984?” Or are they, as works of fiction, morally neutral?

    1. Well, or any genre. Someone argued to me recently that I shouldn’t write non-con because it might have the same effect as someone committing a crime and then there being copycat criminals who do the same thing. It made me think… do people write to mystery writers and tell them they shouldn’t write their genre because depicting murders will cause copycat crimes? But now that I think about it, the argument was that the problem was that my non-con fic GLORIFIED the crime by associating it with arousal… whereas I suppose in mystery the culprit must always be caught and dealt justice. (Never mind that in my non-con fic the culprit is in fact dealt justice: the mere fact that it was intended to be prurient reading therefore was what made it a more potent contagion in this person’s view. So yeah, it was the realm of sex that bothered this person specifically.)

  4. Once again, I find my self nodding and wanting to call out, “fuck yes!” You and I have had the conversations, so you know already how strongly I feel about the importance of fiction as a medium that should be open to explore ideas, especially allowing us to look into our dark fantasies. Informed, true consent depends on the ability to speak freely. Silencing fiction that doesn’t conform to ideals of what we want in the real world is in itself dangerous.
    Which is a better way of showing the problem with state control — a lecture on the topic or reading George Orwell’s 1984? Fiction is powerful in that it allows us to explore not only the place we want to go, but, probably more often, the places we don’t want to go. Fiction allows us to explore, to experiment, with dark and/or dangerous ideas without harming real people.
    Whether it’s sexual or non-sexual topics, freedom of speech relies heavily on the ability to imagine beyond the real of the moment.

    1. “Whether it’s sexual or non-sexual topics, freedom of speech relies heavily on the ability to imagine beyond the real of the moment.”
      Yes, definitely. I hadn’t heard it put quite in those words before!

    2. – “Silencing fiction that doesn’t conform to ideals of what we want in the real world is in itself dangerous.” DM Atkins
      I love this comment! I hear people complain about real world ‘hot topics’ in books and want to yell “It is FICTIONAL!” There is a reason it is called fiction.

  5. This is a very interesting read and I agree with you. But I have to say, I thought I was completely okay with fan fics and fan art based on the reasons you´ve described, but then I realised there´s a lot of realistic drawings/manga stories out there showing children in sexual situations. And that made me worry. I know they´re fantasies, but I´m afraid of what they might inspire. Still, they´re just drawings, there´s no victim involved, so I don´t know. I firmly believe we´d be in a bad place if we started censoring people´s fantasies, but when drawings start to look almost like photos… You see, I´m confused!

    1. A.S. — I know what you mean: some of the fantasies that people express can really be disturbing. But it’s important to remember that fantasies don’t cause people to act any more than reading murder mysteries causes people to murder. The anti-porn crusaders want us to believe that ANY porn causes rape, and we’ve pretty strongly proved that not to be the case. (In fact it’s highly correlated that the more porn consumption there is, the LESS rape there is.) So why would this one particular type of porn be different in that regard? It isn’t: we just fear it more so it’s harder to accept the data.
      Also remember that chan and underage stuff seem to represent a lot of things for different people: some are merely using age as another type of power dynamic to explore in role-playing, for example, people who play at being “littles” and whose partners play the role of daddy or mommy. It’s consensual, it certainly looks like those folks are having a heck of a lot of fun, and I wouldn’t dream of thinking the fantasies they play with mean that they are actual potential child molesters. Some of the chan artists out there I don’t think are actually attracted to children themselves, but the art still works for them in other ways.
      But about those who actually are attracted to children. I read an article recently about a support group for people who are attracted to children–I think it was in Salon? and it really opened my eyes to the fact that there is likely a neurological basis for it: the way some folks are wired, basically, the childcare and nurturing segments of the brain are intertwined with the sexual arousal parts and can’t easily be separated. This blew me away. The problem is that this starts manifesting as early as most sexual feelings do: so it’s when kids are 12 or 13 they start feeling this attraction to much younger kids, but there’s such a strong taboo on it that they can’t talk about it, can’t ask about it. And then when they grow into adults that is still there. They can never even bring up the fact that they feel inappropriate sexual attraction to a child, because even though they’ve never ever acted on that attraction, they could get reported as a “pedophile.”
      I looked it up, the support group I was reading about is called Virtuous Pedophiles. And there was recently an episode of This American Life, the NPR radio show, about a 19-year-old who is attracted to kids, has never acted on it, and what his life is like. It’s online for listening:
      I was kind of blown away by learning all this. A lot of these folks feel like they were so silenced they are essentially going insane, they consider suicide. (A lot like how gays and lesbians feel in highly repressive societies.) So we come back to that whole idea that silencing people and policing their fantasies only perpetuates the actual crimes, because that’s what gives birth to people going nuts and acting out, or doing something desperate. Whereas if we don’t judge the thoughts, the fantasies, the attractions, but only the actions, then we open a space for people to be human and to find ethical ways to live.

  6. “Whereas if we don’t judge the thoughts, the fantasies, the attractions, but only the actions, then we open a space for people to be human and to find ethical ways to live.”
    Wow! Yes, of course! Thank you for your respons, and I´m sure you´re right. I´m thinking I need to work on my no-faith-in-mankind issues =)

    1. Humans can really suck. But I guess it’s up to each person to figure out if they’re part of the problem or part of the solution. And we shouldn’t let fear push us to wrongly believe something is a problem when actually it’s part of the solution. Thanks for commenting! Much food for thought.

  7. I like that you keep making the point and remaking it that there is a difference between fantasy and reality. I think it needs to be continually hammer home.
    Some people have fantasies that they will never act upon in reality like killing someone that is annoying them. They think about it but they don’t actually perform the act.
    I am a firm believer in that we can not and should not police thought. One should be free to think anything they want and not feel bad for the thinking.
    I so agree that it is in the actions that the person’s character should be judged.
    Yet another brilliant essay with lots to think about.

  8. There’s another dimension intersecting this which is relatively new to me.
    I’m cis-male, Kinsey 0, so a lot of issues are “next door”, so to speak. My own ox is one of the last to be gored.
    But as age has introduced complications (I’m 66; prostate surgery permanently damages bladder control; the only good one-liner I got out of it is, “I never in my life expected to have brand preferences in panty liners.”), I have been moved into areas where increasing negotiation is required around sexual activity. It is only a recent idea for me that the necessity and care required in negotiation are roughly proportional to the minority-ness of the practice(s) — which might be potentially tedious, but probably improves the experiences.
    I had always taken it for granted that when I expressed interest in someone, or vice versa, we had roughly the same activities in mind, so it never occurred to me that any sort of detailed review of options and tastes might be needed in advance; a bit of trial and error was all it took, and if anything, the trials and errors were features of the game.
    So I am exploring the idea that people who see themselves as “mainstream” or something like that may have never really thought about what might be involved in both the necessity of negotiation or the processes of negotiation. The concept of explicit negotiation being part of sex is largely out of the “mainstream”. This smells to me like a factor in many of these conversations.
    (p.s. — If my phrasing is infelicitous, please feel free to mentally transpose. This is not polished, but I hope it’s adequately clear.)

    1. Neil, thanks for your comment. That’s an excellent point. It’s interesting, because you’d *think* that between issues like herpes, HPV, and good ol’ contraception that at least some negotiation between “mainstream” heterosexual partners would have become the norm since the 1980s or so, and yet it seems it most definitely hasn’t except in subcultures or communities like the BDSM community. I’m sure abstinence-only sex ed hasn’t helped, either.
      A friend who is a college professor was telling me that there are some programs starting up that use role playing and peer groups to train male students in particular on how to ask for consent and how to speak up when it looks like one of your bros is trying to put the moves on a drunk (or unconscious) girl. It’s like we literally need to practice talking about sex at all or we can’t do it when the time comes.

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