That Pesky Empathy Thing

{Content note: the following post talks about forced seduction and sexual assault in romance and in real life. Nothing graphic, but the subject is pervasive. It’s also heteronormative as fuck, since the reference piece deals exclusively with heroes and heroines in m/f romance. My apologies that I couldn’t find a coherent way around that.}

We need to talk about empathy in romance. Specifically: who receives it, both in the novels and in the reader/author/reviewer conversations. And that’s a big, big project — so many books, so very many books we could discuss — so I’m going to start with the latest opinion piece, and confine my analysis to just the one bit of text.

The recent Dear Author rape-in-romance post spends a lot of time — like a third of the wordcount — talking about Jon Ronson’s failure of empathy. For those who missed the conversation the first time around (lucky you), Ronson wrote an infamously facile book on shaming in social media. The galleys of this book contained a line later edited from the final product, where Ronson tried to imagine what being raped would be like for a woman, and could only get there (kind of) by thinking about how it feels for a man to be fired.

It’s as gross as it sounds, and good on the editor for cutting it.

Choire Sicha had this to say in the New York Times:

Public shamings are often described in this book in terms of physical violence …Twitter users have “taken a lot of scalps,” Ronson writes. “We were soldiers making war on other people’s flaws.”

It so happens that I have been ganged up on online, and I have also been beaten up by actual gangs of men on the street. The actual beating is — surprise! — exponentially worse.

Jane’s post touches briefly on this same point: “male identity is often measured around his net worth or, at the very least, his ability to make money. Take that away from a male and, generally speaking, you’ve eviscerated him.”

Generally speaking, of course, but not actually. I cannot emphasize this enough. Emotional violence is devastating — but it is not really one-to-one comparable to physical violence. Especially since physical trauma so frequently brings emotional fallout as well. PTSD is a real thing and it sucks. Plus, for a woman, online abuse has a direct connection to real, actual, physical threats: just ask Brianna Wu or Anita Sarkeesian or Zoe Quinn or Adria Richards, or any woman who’s had to vacate her home after daring to put words together on the internet.

When women protest online abuse, it’s not only because they wish to avoid emotional pain: it’s also because they wish to exist safely in the physical world.

Jane continues: “There’s probably nothing more confusing for a man like Ronson than the rape fantasy. He’s been told that just getting rape threats is enough to adversely affect the mental health of a woman. Yet, 60% to 2/3 of women (according to varying studies) have had this fantasy at one time.”

At the risk of glibness: there is a vast difference between “imagining rough, even very rough, even nonconsensual sex” in your own head and “this actual human stranger on the internet has some very specific and uniquely vile acts to describe doing to you in hideous detail.” And to be honest I’m a little past caring about how difficult it is for poor Mr. Ronson to comprehend the twisty, contradictory brains of Teh Ladeez.

But notice what’s also happening here: Jane is extending empathy toward the unempathetic Ronson. She’s trying to tease out his thought process on an intimate level. She’s willing to allow the evisceration metaphor (for now) if it’s the best he can do. She’s giving Ronson the benefit of the doubt.

The next passage: “In some ways, I believe the [rape] fantasy is about eradicating the base line fear that lurks in the back of many women’s minds any time they are alone with a stranger or if not eradicating it, reclaiming it. If I am okay with being taken by force, the line of thinking would go, then I can survive this.”

This is Jane empathizing with women who have rape fantasies — note she is not saying that all women secretly want to be taken. She’s presenting the rape fantasy as a symptom of oppressive patriarchy, a reaction to a deep-seated and highly gendered threat. The fear that lurks in the back of many women’s minds any time they are alone with a stranger. (Though most rapists aren’t strangers at all.) She slips quoteless into first-person language: this is an even more intimate identification than before.

Which makes the passage immediately following kind of a wrench: “Women have been shamed over certain fantasies, arguing that those consenting role-playing fantasies lend itself to confusion to the male population. By creating a shame surrounding the fantasy, by questioning its equivalence to actual rape, the critics are taking the control and power away from the women who enjoy it.”

First, we have the straw man argument: some people apparently believe those consenting role-playing fantasies lend itself to confusion to the male population. Citation very much needed. I’m not convinced that “But it’s confusing to dudes!” has ever been the rallying cry of romance readers who like their love scenes clearly consensual. “But this makes the hero feel skeevy to me, a reader” is much more common, I would think.

Next, we have this amorphous enemy group: the critics. Who are they, exactly? People who object to rape fantasies in romance, I guess — hard to reach any other conclusion. And what do they do, precisely? The critics are taking control and power away from the women who enjoy it.

So: critics of rape in romance are … doing something that sounds an awful lot like a metaphor for rape.

Note the stark lack of any empathy for these critics.

Granted, any time someone mentions “the critics” in a piece I tend to lump myself in automatically. Know thyself, etc. But notice how suddenly the rhetoric becomes antagonistic: Jane’s not saying at least they’re trying like she did with Ronson, she’s not slipping into their mindset like she did with rape-fantasy-fans, she’s saying these people are harming women, with an implied and they should stop.

But this isn’t the biggest failure of empathy in Jane’s piece.

I want to talk about the heroine in the rape-fantasy scene — because it looks like nobody else is going to.

Jane’s conclusion leans heavily on Robin’s earlier piece on this same topic, where the success of the rape fantasy depends on how much “the reader consents on behalf of the heroine.”

Fiction is flexible: fiction is not real life. Headspace is different than meatspace. But increasingly I find myself skeptical of the idea that as long as the reader’s good to go, the heroine’s consent is essentially unrequired. Take this segment where Robin analyzes a forced-seduction scene from Anna Campbell’s Claiming the Courtesan: “It is a perfectly ironic scenario: the hero forces himself on the heroine, violates her bodily privacy and autonomy, in order to catalyze her acceptance of her own powerful and passionate nature.” Rape: it’s apparently good for her.

The heroine has virtually no agency in that description. The hero Does A Thing, Sexually, and the heroine reacts to it. He catalyzes her acceptance. She … accepts. She doesn’t even have a choice, narratively speaking. By Robin’s metrics, this HEA either succeeds or fails on the strength of the reader’s consent.

My perpetual question: Why do these posts constantly frame the heroine’s lack of consent as trivial?

Asked another way: Why is the hero’s sexual control more valuable to the reader than the heroine’s willing participation?

I can try to answer that question: in rape fantasies, the reader is empathizing not with the heroine/victim, but with the hero/predator. Again, if the primary cultural model for sexual behavior is masculine = active/feminine = passive, there’s an incentive to inhabit the masculine role for the purpose of regaining emotional agency/control. “Rape very much is about control being taken from a person,” Jane says. “It’s an act of power, cruelty and dominance.” She’s explained that rape fantasies result from a specifically feminized fear. So the rape fantasy must be about reclaiming control — and empathy with a predatory hero in fiction may be how it accomplishes this.

In which case, it’s a stopgap solution at best. You know how else we could eliminate the fear of being raped? By working to build a real world in women don’t have to be so afraid of becoming victims.

Jane’s conclusion, which I’m going to quote at length, emphasizes this dynamic:

Both the reader and the person who experiences the forced-sex role play in real life—has the power to turn off the fantasy at any time. The reader walks away from the book, the person who is the taken in the role-play can (or at least should be able to) give the safe word at any time and end the experience. It’s the ability of a woman to separate fact (rape) from fiction (role playing). The refusal to allow women to do this is an exertion of the male privilege paradigm over one where women have power and agency (not over men but over their own bodies and their own fantasies).

Emphasis mine.

How safe this paragraph makes rape fantasies sound! Just like proper BDSM, with safewords and aftercare and boundaries. The reader walks away from the book.

You know who doesn’t get to walk away from the rape in the book? The heroine.

Lilah Pace’s Asking for It presents a heroine who, to judge from the excerpts, is all about negotiating consent. She has a rape fantasy, she’s acting it out in a controlled setting, she’s pushing her own boundaries and making her partner abide by her rules. It’s good writing, as far as I can tell. But because it’s so very controlled, it’s not a representative basis for a defense of all rape fantasies in the history of romance. In order to find comfort and control in rape scenes from, say, The Flame and the Flower, the reader has to disregard the heroine’s refusal almost entirely. It’s an entirely different power dynamic. And refusing a heroine’s control of her own body sounds like it might be … what was the phrase … an exertion of the male privilege paradigm.

‘Forced seduction’ as a concept starts to look a lot like ‘legitimate rape.’

Yes, the heroine is fictional. But she appears woman-shaped, and we treat her as such. How we treat heroines reflects on how we think of women — how could it not? We expect them to be good, to be nurturing, to be thin, to be selfless, etc. etc. etc. Plenty of ink has been spilled to describe how romance readers are notoriously hard on heroines: how could the lack of empathy with a heroine’s sexual victimization be completely unconnected from that framework?

I am not arguing that rape scenes shouldn’t be written into romance, ever; I’m not saying that anyone who gets turned on by a dubcon scene should be ashamed of themselves. I am just arguing for my right to feel creeped out when I come across rape in my romances, especially when the rape scenes are received enthusiastically by readers and reviewers. Put most simply, it comes down to this: I don’t trust anyone, not even myself, to consent on a heroine’s behalf. I’m rooting for her and her happy ending. I’m on her side.

It’s that pesky empathy thing.

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8 thoughts on “That Pesky Empathy Thing

  1. THIS. I haven’t read the latest essay and may not, but I don’t feel competent to consent on a character’s behalf either. It also bothers me when non-consensual sex and rape fantasy roleplay or BDSM play are conflated. They are two different things. I don’t remember that being pointed out in similar essays on DA in the past, and if any commenters pointed this out, it was soon subsumed in other discussions.

    Many of these discussions seem more like a way to justify forced seduction/rape by recasting it as empowered when it is a way of coping with patriarchy than doing away with it. It may be an assertion of power to the reader, but it’s not an assertion of power for the character unless it’s part of consensual roleplay. I get why having choices taken away can seem sexy on the erotic level, but it’s so creepy on the social level that I can’t enjoy reading about it.

  2. “Both the reader and the person who experiences the forced-sex role play in real life—has the power to turn off the fantasy at any time. The reader walks away from the book”

    There’s a distinct lack of empathy here for those of us who “walk away from the book” feeling really upset. I’ve raised this point at DA in the past, and it felt as though it was brushed off by those who enjoy reading “forced seduction” or at least don’t have such a strong negative reaction to it. Which made me feel as though some people’s right to be turned on was being given a much higher priority than my need to feel safe while reading. Apparently I just need to take precautions and avoid books that’ll upset me (but labelling the books to help me and people like me do that would apparently also be bad, because that would ruin other people’s enjoyment and/or stigmatise the books and their readers).

    I entirely agree with lawless that “non-consensual sex and rape fantasy roleplay or BDSM play […] are two different things”; I might not particularly want to read about someone’s roleplay/BDSM play but because it’s consensual it doesn’t have the same negative emotional effect on me that “non-consensual sex” in a romance would. I’m a reader who can’t and won’t give consent to scenes like that.

  3. Alleged reader shaming is a one way street. DA loves two things – rape fantasy and claiming lovers of rape fantasy are being shamed. As someone who has written against domestic violence as romantic for thirty odd years now I assert that saying “I loved that rape scene!!” will be met FAR more warmly than “This really ruined the book for me.”

    As we all know, this topic gets me going. I am SO TIRED of the pretense that readers who enjoy rape scenes are being shamed when, as you adroitly detail, readers who do not receive little to no empathy. I judge not your erotic reading nor your romantic one but be damned if I will find domestic violence a happy ending for my heroines.

    Have I missed the point yet? Probably. I’m taking a lot of drugs.

  4. I have always found it odd that we don’t draw a bigger line between stories where the heroine is exploring her own fantasies and stories where the heroine is living the reader’s fantasies. Those seem like two entirely different constructs to me, and I think if we discussed them as two different types of fantasies, this conversation would be way less confusing.

    And maybe this harkens back to last week’s battle thanks to the HQN videos–do readers self-insert as the heroine? Some clearly do. And if they do, then perhaps they don’t see a big line between the the heroine’s fantasies and their own.

    I need that line. I don’t want to consent for the heroine because I’m not inhabiting her in any way when I read. I am cheering her on, rooting for her joy and happiness and fulfillment, and I want her to claim it on her terms. Which is why I can recoil from a book with the heroine being kissed punishingly for her own good and enthusiastically embrace a book where the heroine negotiates her own brutal rape fantasies.

    It’s when we conflate them that bothers me. Not even from a moral judgement standpoint. Just from a labeling standpoint. They serve such wildly different purposes, it seems pretty reckless to lump them together.

  5. My big problem with Jane’s rape post is that she’s conflating two things which have NOTHING to do with one another. Negotiating a faux rape NOT “dub/con non/con” which is what I see readers discussing as “rape fantasy”. In the first, which is what Jane discusses–bizarrely IMO–the heroine has given consent and is actively seeking out a fantasy of HER OWN. In dub/con non/con, the READER is seeking a fantasy of ACTUAL rape which is played out upon the heroine with the reader’s consent. I have zero problems with the first scenario. I have a boatload of issues with the latter one.

  6. I am so glad you wrote this. I walked away from that article feeling–as I have more and more frequently over the past several of years at DA–that I was stupid and out of touch and prudish.

    There are a few things that struck me reading this. First, as Isobel points out, the fantasy-of-the-reader vs. fantasy-of-the-heroine aspect. Dubcon may appeal to the fantasy of the reader, but it is not negotiated fulfillment of the fantasy of the heroine.

    Second, “rape fantasy” covers a wide variety of things that don’t get explored. The assumption seems to be that a woman who has a “rape fantasy” wants to read–and act out–the fantasy of being violently taken. There are plenty of women who like to masturbate to such a fantasy, but don’t want their partner involved. Or women who might consider role-playing rape-by-extortion, but not rape-by-violence. Like all fantasies, it’s a spectrum.

    Third, I think this deserves expansion:

    in rape fantasies, the reader is empathizing not with the heroine/victim, but with the hero/predator. Again, if the primary cultural model for sexual behavior is masculine = active/feminine = passive, there’s an incentive to inhabit the masculine role for the purpose of regaining emotional agency/control.

    I am not sure that this is limited to the rape fantasy. I have heard women who write (and read) m/m using things that veer remarkably close this as the appeal of leaving women out of their reading/writing. Every time I hear it, I think it’s depressing.

    Just my thoughts…thank you for writing this!

  7. I’ve gotten increasingly uncomfortable not with the existence of rape fantasies and eroticized rape—I’ve both read them and written them in the past, my hands are not clean here—but everything surrounding them. The marketing and promotion, the buying, the selling, the supply and demand. A lot of people like to imagine this sort of stuff floats around in a safe fictional vacuum, and it doesn’t, not in the slightest.

    I’ve been moving really far away from it myself. To a certain extent, yes it’s a spectrum, and some BDSM is essentially rape play-acting, but there’s also a line that people get a pleasure out of crossing, sometimes in a very malicious way.

    Your point about identifying with the predator is very important, I agree with Laura. And with m/m written primarily for an audience of women, I think there’s actually an extra layer of violence: the violence of the rape itself, and then the fictional violence of erasing women’s bodies, because these stories so often give female suffering to a male body, where it’s more palatable to the reader. It’s really depressing.

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