The fantasies which happen in my head are consensual. The fantasies which happen in my head are often non-consensual. It sounds like a logical fallacy: how can something be both consensual and non-consensual at the same time? The answer is that, of course, the ‘non-consent’ in my fantasies is only an illusion: the participants in my head are not real, the only real person here – the only one who needs to consent – is me. But when those fantasies leak out of my head onto the page or screen, readers – real live people – become a part of what’s happening, and their consent matters as well. Let’s talk about the ethics of writing consensual non-consent fantasies.
The following post will involve discussion of (fake) rape and assault.
Like every good GCSE English student, I’m going to start by defining my terms: consensual non-consent, also sometimes known as CNC, means consensual sexual activity that includes feigned reluctance, coercion or force. Some people use the phrase ‘consensual non-consent’ to refer to things like struggle-fucking, where one person will squirm and wriggle and pretend to want to escape even as they’re enjoying a good time. Others will use CNC as a synonym for more involved ‘rape play’ or rape fantasies: where two people decide to act a scene in which one of them is forcing the other into sexual activity against their will. I’m using it here as a catch-all term to include any and all sexual activity – including wank fantasies – that involve some element of reluctance, coercion or force.
Edit 29th Feb 2020: there’s an interesting discussion in the comments around the accepted/common meaning of CNC which you should check out if you’d like more info – some people would only use CNC to refer to play without a safeword, or where ‘blanket consent for anything’ has been issued (I don’t really think this is possible, and I would be wary of someone who wanted to play this way with me, because I think consent can always be withdrawn). I think when I bring reluctance/coercion into stories here on the blog they stop being ‘fantasies’ and become instead sex acts which the people reading can choose to take part in, so for me ‘consensual non-consent’ covers any scenario (real or imagined) with this tone, which I choose to share here on the blog, but I appreciate that is not what it will mean for everyone, hence defining terms and linking to discussion here.
Why do people fantasise about consensual non-consent?
There are various theories as to why people have rape fantasies, or other dreams about non-consensual activity. The most common theory, which seems pretty plausible given that rape fantasies are more common in women (who are more likely than men to be raped) is that fantasising about traumatic incidents is a means of de-fanging them: eroticising the stuff which would otherwise horrify us, to make it easier for us to move through the world without fear. Others hypothesise that for those who have been raped or assaulted, these fantasies help us process what happened and work through the horror in a safe place inside our own head. Some say that for women, rape or ravishment plays into fantasies of desirability – that we are taught to frame our value in terms of male desire, and also taught that rape is the result of being ‘too sexy’ (it’s not, but we’ll get to that in a sec). Others might say that non-consent fantasies are meaningless – akin to those dreams you have where you wake up without trousers in the middle of a geography exam.
I don’t know the answer, and I suspect that it’s a mix of all the above plus some other bits and pieces, depending on who you speak to – we’re all motivated by different things, after all. If you’re interested in exploring your own erotic fantasies (whatever those might be), you should definitely check out this zine on Exploring Your Erotic Fantasies from Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock. Personally, I think that the non-consent fantasies I have (and I have … a lot of them) are likely a mixture of:
- Nature. From the moment I first started fantasising, I have fantasised about non-consent, even before I can pinpoint external influences that might have nudged me in that direction. One of my first ever fantasies was about a stowaway wench on a pirate ship who was tied to the mast and whipped with a cat o’ nine tails: non-consensual. Unreal. Not something I’d aspire to ever make come true.
- Nurture. On TV and in movies, rape is common. It was one of the ways I was first introduced to on-screen sex, and so sex and coercion/force are linked by cultural references. On top of that, many of my fantasies involve kink, BDSM and pain which – naturally – crosses over with a lot of consensual non-consent. Sure, you can be punished for pleasure, but BDSM also involves a lot of punishment for stepping out of line, fucking as punishment, and other games we play that walk this line between ‘yes I love this please do it to me’ and ‘yes I love this but I shall pretend not to because it’s way more fun if we act like it’s earnest discipline.’ I suspect there’s something about being an object of desire in there too. Rape is not, ultimately, about desire, but I live in a society that has (“your skirt was too short, he couldn’t help himself!”) somehow managed to (“maybe you shouldn’t have led him on?”) equate rape (“stop being such a pricktease.”) with desirability – which tells us men rape women because we are too attractive/slutty/available. It’s not true, of course, but the myth takes hold and it settles in my brain and I’d be lying by omission if I didn’t include it here, because just as I don’t want to perpetuate it, nor do I want to pretend that it has no influence.
I’m sure there’s more that this. Feel free to speculate if you like, but I don’t expect you to get any closer to the truth than me. Besides, I am at peace with my fantasies – I am not looking for anyone’s absolution. What I’m interested in are our ethical obligations when we allow these fantasies to spill out into the world.
Non-consent: fantasy vs reality
I often think we need a new word in English to contrast with the word ‘fantasy.’ Something which clearly marks the difference between fantasies you actually want to fulfil and fantasies which are only fun to think about, and which you’d never actually want to come true. When I asked about this on Twitter the other day I got a lot of interesting ideas, of which I think my favourite was ‘live-out’ and ‘live-in’ fantasies. ‘Live-out’ are fantasies you’d jump at the chance to fulfil if you could, ‘live-in’ refer to those you just want to live inside your head. Previously I’ve tried to refer to ‘aspirational’ and ‘non-aspirational’ fantasies.
When I ask you to tell me about your fantasy lottery win, and you paint me a picture of luxury houses with swimming pools and chauffers, we’re both assuming – not unreasonably – that if you actually came into millions of dollars, that’s where you’d spend your cash first. It’s an aspirational fantasy – one you’d want to live out if you got the chance. Contrast with my fantasies about selecting men for my survival team in the event of an apocalypse: fun to daydream about, but I don’t really want the world to end. In fact, the closer the world gets to ending, the less often I have this fantasy: it’s becomes a bit too possible, and it stops being fun. It’s a ‘live-in’ fantasy: only enjoyable inside my head, terrifying if it came true.
My non-consent fantasies are similar. Not only do I actively not want them to come true, I can only enjoy them if they don’t. There are loads fantasies in my head which fit this description, sexual and non-sexual. I suspect there are some in yours too: have you ever fantasised about performing dramatic and heroic bystander intervention, where you rescue someone from a threat and/or save an entire plane full of passengers from a dangerous villain? You wouldn’t actually want that to happen, right? It’s dangerous and frightening in reality, but fun to think about when you can picture yourself as a fantasy hero. Likewise, in the sex space, you might have celebrities you imagine hate-fucking who you’d never even say ‘hi’ to in real life, or group sex scenarios which you know would trigger far too much shyness in real life, or fantasies about being ‘ravished’ which are only enjoyable if they remain unfulfilled.
You can’t control your thoughts, but you can control your behaviour
I can’t control my fantasies, and I don’t think I really want to – the idea of ‘training’ myself out of something that gives me pleasure and causes no one else harm sounds like a tedious and shame-inducing waste of time. What I can control, though, is my behaviour. When I push my fantasies out into the world, I have to be mindful of the way they come across to other people, and do my best to ensure that the things which are non-aspirational fantasies are clearly marked as such. That when I write about sex I’ve had which involves an element of consensual non-consent, I am presenting it in the right context so you don’t think it’s actual rape.
I have fucked this up in the past, more than once. One post I wrote when I was a baby blogger describes an intensely hot incident that involved an element of consensual non-consent. Not only did I write it appallingly – with absolutely no context whatsoever to explain that I had discussed this in detail with the guy – but when people criticised me for what I had written I doubled down, muddying the waters and failing to grasp that readers cannot magically intuit what happened beyond what I have written on the page. The sex was great when I had it, and reminiscing about it was fun, but the way I wrote about it was terrible. I also once got really annoyed by readers complaining about a consensual non-consent fantasy I wrote as a piece of fiction. To me it was obvious that it wasn’t aspirational, but other people can’t see inside my head, and it was absurd of me to expect them to.
Consensual non-consent: warnings and context
The main reason I’m writing this post is that I think I’ve typed the phrase ‘contains elements of consensual non-consent’ quite a lot recently – on my own audio porn stories, guest audio porn, and sexy things I write here each week. But I’ve never really written about what CNC means or what I’m trying to do when I include that, and I’d like to have something to link to which explains that a bit more thoroughly. So.
When I say ‘contains elements of consensual non-consent’, I’m aiming to do two things:
- Give people an easy way to identify stories that could be traumatic to them – after all, many people really do not want to read/hear this kind of stuff, and I would no more want to surprise someone with trauma than slip meat into a vegan lasagne. It’s a dick move, and although I’ve been guilty of being a massive dickhead in the past, these days I try quite hard not to be.
- Demonstrate to people that this post is either fiction or a scene which is ‘acted’ to fulfil a particular desire – the non-consent is not real, it’s an illusion. The story is consensual because I am consenting to write it and (provided you choose to read on) you are consenting to read it.
I do not mean by this that a content note along the lines of ‘here be CNC’ is a magic get-out-of-societal-influence-free card. I appreciate that the work I put into the world has an impact on that world: my behaviour matters, and it can be a force for good or bad or (most often) somewhere in between.
There may be more ethical ways to discuss consensual non-consent than the way I do it here on these pages. I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting ways to write consent into the darker stories I post, and flag with people which ones they might want to skip over, so if you have ideas or thoughts on this, please do join in below – I’m always keen to think through the question. If I’d stopped thinking when I started blogging, I’d still be writing badly-framed stories that traumatised people and kicking off at them when they pointed out it was wrong. At least now I’ve had to haul my arse out of my comfort zone and write this post – so I can link to it from other stories which involve consensual non-consent and show people my working.
If there is consensual non-consent in my recent fiction, I try to weave consent discussion and context into the tale, and although I am still sometimes surprised by readers who don’t understand this, it’s a learning process for me and one I want to keep working on. Including notes at the start, writing context into stories, and linking to blog posts like this where I can show my thought processes all contribute to a more ethical approach to writing CNC. It’s not a perfect system by any means, but the alternative would be for me to avoid ever talking about this topic. Pretending that I don’t have fantasies that involve non-consent, and leading others to believe that their thoughts in this area are somehow abnormal, inhuman. I don’t want to do that.
Porn is never just porn: we shape the world in the way we tell stories, and we should recognise that responsibility when we’re writing. But I think we can recognise that responsibility and deal with it in how we frame and tell stories, and the context in which we set them – explaining to readers that while this post is realistic, that one is not. This fantasy is aspirational, that one will never be.