Dub-con and non-con are both tricky themes that can often be quite triggering. Do they have a place in fiction if they're just classified as abuse in real life?

“Dub-con” is a term used in the context of erotic literature, fan fiction, and discussions around sexual consent in fiction.

It stands for “dubious consent.”

Dub-con typically involves sexual encounters where consent is ambiguous or questionable.

This could mean that one character appears to consent, but is coerced or manipulated into the situation, or that consent is unclear due to factors such as intoxication, power imbalances, or other circumstances.

Dub-con scenarios are often explored in fiction as a way to delve into complex power dynamics, psychological exploration, or as a form of erotic fantasy.

In real life, there is no such thing as dubious consent.

If consent in real life is dubious, it is not consent.

In real life, consent should always be clear and freely given by all parties involved.

Dub-con in fiction needs to be approached with awareness and sensitivity to the issues surrounding consent and sexual boundaries.

And, of course, we can’t discuss dub-con without discussion non-con.

What is non-con?

Non-con is short for “non-consensual,” and it refers to content in literature depicting sexual encounters where one or more parties involved do not give consent for the activity.

Non-con involves scenarios where one party forces or coerces another into a sexual situation against their will.

This can include acts such as rape or sexual assault, but is not always the case.

Again, in real life, non-con is assault. No ifs, no buts, no coconuts.

Non-con content, just like dub-con, is often controversial and can be triggering for readers.

Writing this must be handled with care and sensitivity, and I think writers need to include content warnings for these kinds of themes. Always.

It’s important to alert readers to such material in advance, because even if a reader is alright consuming material with dark themes, it doesn’t mean that they’re mentally and emotionally ready to do so today.

Content warnings arm readers with critical knowledge, and we, as the creators of this content, need to use them.

In real life, consent is a crucial aspect of healthy and respectful sexual interactions, and any sexual activity without clear consent is unethical and, in many cases, illegal (yes, it’s awful that I can’t just say “it is illegal” because, sadly, several laws around the world still allow it).

What you don’t want dub- and non-con to do, is to romanticise or glamourise abusive behaviour.

If the portrayal of abuse is presented in a way that downplays its seriousness, romanticises the abuser, or suggests that abuse is acceptable or desirable behaviour, then it romanticises or glamorises abuse.

This is harmful because it can contribute to normalising it, and people may start to see abusive behaviour as acceptable or even desirable.

This can lead to a cycle where abusive behaviour becomes more prevalent and accepted in society as it perpetuates harmful stereotypes.

What people read in fiction, bleeds into real life.

For those who have experienced abuse, glamorisation can be particularly damaging as it can invalidate their experiences, making them feel like their suffering is not significant or worthy of attention.

It can also make it harder for current victims of abuse to seek help, if abusive behaviour is portrayed as normal.

However, if the depiction of abuse is handled with sensitivity, realism, and an understanding of its impact, it can serve as a means to shed light on important issues, raise awareness, and encourage discussions about healthy relationships and boundaries.

In such cases, the focus is usually on the consequences of abuse and the journey towards healing and recovery, rather than glorifying the abusive behaviour itself.

I think authors and creators have a responsibility to approach these topics thoughtfully and ethically, considering the potential impact on their audience.

It’s important to prioritise the well-being of readers and to avoid contributing to harmful narratives or reinforcing harmful beliefs about abuse.

And readers should engage with these themes critically and be mindful of their own boundaries and triggers when consuming such content.

So, why have dub-con and non-con in fiction if it’s just assault in real life?

As themes, dub-con and non-con are rooted in complex power dynamics.

They’re used to explore things like dominance and submission, manipulation, control, and coercion.

Through examining these dynamics, authors can provide insight into the complexities of human relationships and societal structures.

As these scenarios often involve unequal power dynamics between characters (such as one exerting control or coercion over the other) fiction can shed light on how power operates within relationships – whether it’s based on gender, social status, authority, or other factors.

This can help us, as readers, reflect on real-world power imbalances and the ways in which they influence interactions and decisions.

Because dub-con and non-con inherently raise questions about consent and agency.

By exploring the nuances of consent — including coercion, manipulation, and the ability to freely give or withhold consent — it gives us an opportunity to think about what constitutes true consent.

And how it intersects with factors like desire, fear, and social or peer pressure.

Dub-con and non-con scenarios can be used to shine a light on societal norms and expectations about sexuality and relationships.

By exposing contradictions or hypocrisies within these norms (such as the societal pressure to conform to certain sexual behaviours, or the stigmatisation of taboo desires) and exploring or confronting these issues in fiction, authors can encourage us to critically examine cultural attitudes toward sex and intimacy.

These themes also often intersect with gender and sexuality.

And as dub-con and non-con scenarios often involve traditional gender roles or stereotypes, they can challenge these norms by depicting characters with diverse sexual desires and identities in power dynamics they aren’t often allowed to inhabit in mainstream media, and add to conversations about gender dynamics, sexual orientation, and the fluidity of desire.

When characters subjected to dub-con and non-con situations end up grappling with their experiences and strive to find a way to heal from traumatic ones, these themes open up a way for authors to explore the psychological impact of sexual violence, including issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, shame, and self-blame.

Through these portrayals, we can gain insight into the complexities of trauma recovery and the importance of support and empathy for survivors.

And dub-con and non-con can be used to develop characters – both victims and perpetrators.

They provide opportunities for characters to grapple with moral dilemmas, trauma, guilt, and redemption from different points of view.

How characters respond to and process these experiences can reveal important aspects of, not only prevailing societal attitudes, but their personalities and motivations.

There’s also inherent conflict and tension in these themes that creates suspense.

This can be used to drive the plot forward and add layers of complexity to the narrative (like exploring taboo subjects and challenging societal norms around consent and sexual behaviour).

Fiction can be the thing that sparks important conversations about consent, agency, and the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

And for some readers, engaging with dub-con and non-con fiction provides escapism (as all fiction does) and catharsis.

It allows them to safely explore intense and potentially disturbing scenarios from a distance.

This is what fiction is good for.

Fictional depictions of difficult themes provides a space for processing your emotions and confronting fears in a controlled environment.

Again, with generous content warnings provided on such materials.

Dub- and non-con isn’t for everyone.

I so fundamentally understand that.

But when you’re the kind of reader (and writer) who has a lot of flexibility in the kind of themes and materials you enjoy, these kind of taboo and taboo-adjacent topics are interesting and challenging.

This inevitably leads to the question, how can you tell the difference between dub-con, non-con and abuse in fiction?

Because when you have stories that actually romanticise abusive relationships, but don’t know or acknowledge this is what they’re doing, the waters get really muddy.

If an author has written a romance that is actually setting up the victim to fall in love and be in a relationship with their abuser, we can ask if this is a conscious choice.

My first assumption is always going to be that it isn’t, and that this particular author’s idea of relationships has been shaped by their experiences and surrounding (patriarchal) culture, and that they may not ever have questioned whether that’s a good or bad thing (and so not be aware of their own biases).

Romance is largely a by women, for women genre, and I think it’s important to note that women aren’t immune to being indoctrinated with the values of the patriarchy.

(In some cases you can even argue that women can be some of the worst perpetrators of the patriarchy, e.g. the betrayal of the mother, but that’s a different discussion.)

The genre favours women that are white, (privileged), straight and cisgender.

This has a knock-on effect on the kinds of stories that are told, and the perspectives through which they are told, as well as through which BIPOC and LGBTQ+ experiences are interpreted.

Generations of women have gone before me who have had little choice but to accept their fates in the hands of the patriarchy (and men) whatever they were.

Questioning convention or seeking out other options hasn’t always been possible (still isn’t in many places/situations), and I know first-hand the kind of “just grit your teeth and bear it” attitude this has created, both in previous generations, and as it has been passed down to subsequent generations.

So, for people to still see abusive relationships or aspects of abuse as normal, isn’t surprising.

Sad, but not surprising.

And so, when these authors write what in their mind constitutes “not abusive” or even romantic relationships, we end up with that kind of romanticising of abuse/the abuser that can be so harmful. (How they choose to respond once called out on this by the readers is another conversation.)

I read an offered definition somewhere that when you’re looking at dub-con or non-con in fiction, the characters don’t behave as a victim would afterwards, even if the act itself is preceded by them saying “no” and “get away from me” or “don’t touch me” – all clear, vocal signs of withholding consent.

Similarly, the argument that “the act isn’t referred to as abuse or rape” isn’t a very strong argument, because many abusers in real life do not admit to or even understand having done anything wrong.

Also, I can’t help but wonder, if the victim is so brainwashed that they have romanticised the abuse they experience, would they act like a victim? In an abusive relationship you can still crave the attention and the affection of your abuser, even as it’s actively detrimental to you.

There’s also the possibility that someone who has been the target of abuse or has experienced abusive relationships is writing these stories.

When speaking of women, this is very common, which is one of the reasons why I think it’s important that we can have depictions of abuse in fiction – it’s the experience of a huge part of the population and, as such, should not be ignored.

But while I think story-as-therapy is a valid way to process your emotions and trauma, I don’t think doing it in the form of a published book, intended for public consumption within a commercial genre, is the best thing.

And, yes, I’m aware that even the publishers of these works are biased towards patriarchal values and profits, so they won’t necessarily flag something romanticising abuse as ‘not market-ready’.

If these works do not provide adequate content warnings, as readers we’re left to rely on the community to do that for us.

This may work for the more popular books, but can easily leave the lesser known ones to fall through the cracks.

(And this isn’t even touching on the fact that some authors outright refuse to use content warnings.)

Yes, fiction is a controlled experiment.

And in any given fantasy the individual imagining it is the one in control, playing all characters. Or, in the case of fiction, the reader steps into an already written scenario.

So, in this sense, we can draw a parallel between dub-con/non-con and CNC.

What is CNC?

The term consensual non-consent (CNC) has its origins within the BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism) community, where it’s used to describe a specific type of role-playing scenario.

This term emphasises the importance of consent within BDSM dynamics, even in scenarios where the appearance of non-consent is part of the fantasy.

Participants in BDSM engage in detailed negotiations and communication before engaging in any activities to ensure that boundaries are respected and that all parties feel safe and comfortable.

CNC is a way for individuals to explore intense power dynamics and taboo fantasies within the framework of clear consent, which is negotiated before the scenario begins, does not apply to any time outside of the scenario, and may even have restrictions or limitations within the scenario itself.

CNC allows the participants to act as if consent has been waived, and in a CNC scenario, all participants must consent, not just the individual who places themselves in a submissive position.

Extensive, negotiated and agreed-upon aftercare is also highly recommended, because scenarios like this can take an emotional toll on all participants.

CNC is a show of extreme trust and intimate understanding.

Even within the BDSM community, CNC is frowned upon due to the concerns around abuse and safety, and it is never something responsible individuals enter into lightly or with people they don’t know really well.

To recognise CNC in fiction, it should be defined by the fact that the characters had agreed to the events/actions in the scenario before it began.

But back to my point about how any dub-con and non-con fiction could be classified as CNC.

If we see the fiction as the scenario, the reader gives their consent by reading it.

But this only holds true when the reader enters into the experience knowing what they’ve agreed to (this is where the importance of content warnings comes in).

I don’t have a clear-cut answer to this, because I don’t think this is a clear-cut issue.

Yes, ideally every piece of fiction ever written would be clearly and accurately labelled with accompanying content warnings.

But because the experiences across the human spectrum are vast and people have done differing degrees of inner work to unravel their biases and heal their trauma, there’s never going to be a system that provides all the answers.

This is evident in the maturation of most platforms, as they go through cycles of cracking down on erotic content, first burying it deeper in search results and making it harder to find (or, as they describe it “make it harder for it to pop up accidentally in general searches”) when they need to clean house with growing popularity, changing laws or payment provider demands, and when seeking investment.

In this ever-changing landscape, the pornocalypse comes for us all, and I’ve been a smut writer for long enough to have seen this first-hand several times.

At the risk of sounding cliché, the only constant is change.

I want to point out that this is why media literacy is critical – and we teach woefully little of it in school.

Because there are stories that romanticise abuse and abusive relationships, but don’t know or acknowledge that’s what they’re doing, we need to be able to tell the difference, at least to a point where we feel like something isn’t right even if we can’t articulate it (because then we can seek help and second opinions).

I’ve been asked what my opinion on this whole issue is and this has often been a roundabout way of trying to get me to say that censorship is the answer.

It isn’t.

It’s important that we learn to read difficult material that has values and opinions different than our own.

Otherwise we’re all just trapped in our own algorithm-fed echo chambers.

So, at the risk of sounding evasive, I usually say that patriarchal ideals are so ubiquitous in a heteronormative world that no one is safe.

Men, women, the gays & the theys, we’ve all been steeped in patriarchal values from the start, and if we haven’t done the deep, difficult work to unpack our own biases, that stuff’s gonna leak into the stories we tell – whether we admit it or not.

So, the best thing we can do to protect ourselves is to sharpen our minds, develop our media literacy skills, and for the love of the gods, provide content warnings on material that is potentially emotionally and thematically difficult.

Not because “readers these days are too soft” to read difficult material, but because we all have a right to choose when (if ever) is a good time for us to engage with such materials.

Consent is everything.

Stay safe out there.

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