Note from Elisabeth: This is a controversial topic, and one that I don’t see discussed very often. As a writer and also as a survivor of sexual assault, I find the subject fascinating – thanks so much to Laura for guest blogging and sharing her opinions today.
The “Unwilling Man” in Erotic Romance
By Laura Kaye
What’s more erotic than a battle of wills between two characters whose every interaction drips with sexual tension? I love a dynamic wherein characters are sexually attracted to one another despite strong animosities or real good common sense reasons to stay the hell away. I devour pages for the moment when such a couple gives into those basic, primal urges in utter disregard of all the reasons why their having sex is just a bad idea. The giving in is always so carnally delicious…
But what makes that moment so delicious, what makes me cheer and groan in satisfied fulfillment, is that they desire the sex—in whatever form it occurs—and give in to that desire.
That seems to me to be altogether different from what I’ve seen in some recent works in progress and published stories, both m/f and m/m. What I’m talking about is what I’ll call the “Unwilling Man” phenomenon.
The story often goes something like this: Powerful alpha male warrior is captured by rival tribe/alien race/immortal enemies. As a captive, he becomes a sexual slave or concubine. Said slave needs to be trained or prepped to fulfill his new function. The proud warrior/slave fights and resists, warranting humiliating punishments. Then, a new trainer takes over and wears him down with an erotic array of sexual acts, words, threats, punishments, perhaps even favors, until he “gives in,” often developing affection or even love for that person in return.
I understand others might not agree, but I consider this type of characterization to be the definition of non-consensual. For me, the non-consensual elements include:
1) His status as a captive and a slave clearly deprive him of the full ability to non-consent and to enforce his non-consent
2) His resistance constitutes an expression of non-consent, even if it isn’t verbalized
3) The use of humiliation, punishment, favors, or other means of cajoling or forcing acquiescence prevent that acquiescence from equaling consent
4) The captive having an erection is not evidence of consent; fear is also a powerful stimulant
5) The possible outcome of the captive orgasming is also not evidence of consent or desire for the sex act to have occurred, nor does it prove the person enjoyed the act.
Nonetheless, these stories often receive a positive response. Bringing the big strong alpha male to his knees has a certain appeal. The idea of having our way with him does too. Flipping it around, with a male aggressor and a female “victim,” rape fantasies or “make-‘em-like-it” fantasies are common—the journal Psychology Today released a study in May of 2008 indicating 37-51% of women have rape fantasies—a likely lowball figure. But these fantasies are usually imagined within an existing relationship, where some expectation of safety exists within the fantasy, or with a stranger who helps the woman act out “wanton” behavior or indulge in repressed desires, making her sexuality “okay” because someone “forced” her to do it.
But if we go back to our newly enslaved alpha male, that’s not the framework being used with the Unwilling Male. The Unwilling Male is not playing hard to get and not in an established relationship—and any relationship formed while the man is unfree hardly counts as safe.
An Ellora’s Cave story I read not too long ago had a different non-consensual set-up. It was a m/m “gay for you” construct within the science fiction romance genre. The two male characters had enormous sexual chemistry, despite the fact that one struggled with the realization that he had, for the first time in his life, sexual desire for another man. His slow process of giving in was erotic as hell. But then the author jumped the gun, as it were, and created a situation where the outwardly gay character (OGC) “had” to have sex with the GFY character in order to survive a crisis moment within the scifi worldbuilding (I realize this is probably making you scratch your head, but I hesitate to call out a specific author with clarifying details… Wuss? Maybe. 😉 ). The GFY character was telling OGC not to do it, that he didn’t want it like this or in this way, and then, in protest, the GFY character demanded—if OGC was going to do it against his will, GFY didn’t want him to use lubrication. So, he didn’t. And, of course, it hurt like hell, because, as well all know, our bodies don’t produce any natural lubrication back there. [NOTE: Every time a romance author writes an anal sex scene without lubrication, a kitten dies. Jus’ sayin’.] Now, at least the author gave the GFY character the dignity of breaking off the relationship and ending their former friendship…for a while. Because, of course, they reconcile and live happily ever after in the end.
For me, some of these premises border on rape as titillation. And leave me wondering, how would we react if the “victim” was female? If it was a female who was turned into a submissive against her will? If it was a female who was captured and torn away from everything she’d ever know, and then “trained” to be a sexual slave? If it was a female who had to be fucked against her will to save the universe? If it was a female whose family had sold her to someone to use as they pleased? These are all premises I’ve seen in recent months—as contest entries I’ve judged, works in progress authors have blogged about, or published books I’ve read.
Often, when I read or hear of these stories, I can’t help thinking of one of my all-time favorite alpha male warrior characters: Zsadist, from J.R. Ward’s Lover Awakened (Signet, 2006, Book 3 in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series). ZOMG. Total, epic, don’t-you-even-think-of-wanting-him-for-yourself LOVE for Zsadist, the bad-ass vampire warrior literally and emotionally scarred from a century of being imprisoned as a sex slave to a female vampire and being forced to sate her sexual and nutritional needs with his body. He hates that his body reacted to her against his will (often, literally—they used a herbal salve on the skin of his penis to force him to become erect). He grew to hate “the thing” / “the it” between his legs. He bears the humiliation of the thick tattooed slave bands on his neck and wrists. Once freed by his brother, he is totally dysfunctional in almost every relationship in his life, but especially with women, whom he can only fuck from behind so he can be in control, dominant, and not have to see them. He’s plagued by nightmares, sleeplessness, severe weight loss, and considered sociopathic even by those who love him. The story of how he finally gives in and falls in love is thus incredibly compelling and sweet because he finally gets to choose. To me, it’s all the difference in the world.
Clearly, because rape fantasies exist, the line is not as hard and fast in fiction as it might be in the courts (of course, even there it’s not as black and white as you’d think it would be). But, at the least, authors writing on the edge of consent should make an effort to get other eyes on their work before considering it ready for public consumption.
How do others weigh in on this? Am I in the ballpark or totally being too sensitive?