I’ve been aware for a while now that a surprisingly – or perhaps not so surprisingly – large amount of m/m is non-con or dub-con. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it made up a majority of the genre, but I think I can say it ranks alongside college boys and men in uniform as one of its mainstays.
Now, before I go any further I should say two things. The first is that this post is about, well, non-con so naturally comes with trigger warnings. The second is that the cons, be they non or dub, are not my preferred sub-subgenre so I’m very much not writing this as an insider. In fact, to put my cards fully on the table I tend to find non-con problematic in a lot of ways, and this post is my attempt to sort that out to my satisfaction.
There are, of course, as many reasons for reading or writing any subgenre as there are people who read or write it, and I understand that, for many, these sorts of books are a way to explore important, powerful, and challenging issues in a controlled environment. I also appreciate that some readers just get off on them, and that’s okay too.
Broadly speaking, I think there are two things that trouble me about non-con in m/m and, to an extent, they might be different facets of the same thing. One is its prevalence in m/m relative to het, and the other actually comes back to something I mentioned above, which is the way in which relationships between two men seem to be seen as a safer environment to explore these issues than a relationship between a man and a woman. Also I should say that this shit is complicated, and that, insofar as it is even possible for there to be experts on it, I most certainly am not one.
By my limited understanding, there’s been a bit of an uptick in the amount of non-con and dub-con across all subgenres recently, obviously less so in some, for example inspirationals, and more so in others. I hear that at RT Carina were actively soliciting non-con and slavery stories. But while non-con has a growing niche within the het market, in m/m it seems to be a mainstream fixture, and that disparity troubles me because I’m always troubled when I see stark differences in the way homosexual and heterosexual relationships are portrayed in any medium.
I should probably point out immediately that I suspect a big part of the issue is just the relative size of the genres. M/m is clearly a smaller pool, and so it’s easier for particular trends to ripple across it. That said, I do wonder if there isn’t some component of writers and readers seeing straight and gay (and particularly gay male) relationships through slightly different lenses. If nothing else, the fact that m/m is seen as a sub-genre of romance, rather than as a way to describe romances that happen to have two male protagonists, would suggest that the market does see a relationship between two men as something quantifiably distinct.
This itself becomes problematic because there are genuine disagreements within the queer community over the best way to think about the intersection, if any, between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. I tend to be of the school of thought which holds that, while relationships in general are diverse, the gender-identities of the people involved are not a meaningful way to categorise them. A relationship between two women can be legally recognised and monogamous, with a white fence, two kids and a mortgage. A relationship between a man and woman can be legally unrecognised and non-monogamous, with sex parties, spanking and shibari. Neither relationship is more or less valid than the other.
The other school of thought, however, is that stressing the normality of queer relationships is to try and force them into a heteronormative paradigm. To this second school of thought – and as always its hazardous to try and describe the opinions of people you don’t necessarily agree with – queer relationships are inherently subversive.
I suspect that part of the reason there is significantly more non-con in m/m than in het is that both non-con and m/m are, to a degree, seen as edgy, subversive, and outside the mainstream. Someone who is more interested in one is more likely to be interested in the other. To put it another way, non-con and homosexuality are both, to an extent, sexual taboos, and I can see that people who are interested in pushing boundaries might be interested in both. Where I find this difficult is that, to me, taboos surrounding same-sex relationships and taboos surrounding, to put it bluntly, rape are of different categories. Prohibitions against homosexual behaviour are culturally relative and, I would argue, harmful by their mere existence. Prohibitions against rape, well, not so much. And obviously there are cultural differences in attitudes to rape as well, but tolerance of it is not considered to be a marker of a liberal society.
As a consequence, I feel the association that is apparently emerging within the genre between culturally disparaged sexualities and acts of genuine immorality is – and I acknowledge that I am currently using this word a lot – troubling.
You may have noticed that in the last two paragraphs, I shifted from the using the word “non-con” to describe the sort of content I was talking about to using the word “rape”. This sort of brings me to my second observation which is that I sometimes get the impression that non-con in m/m is somehow seen as less rapey or less bad or possibly even less real than in het. A sense I get from reviews and blog posts is that there are a large number of readers who will only read non-con in m/m. Once again this is (and I’m using this word a lot as well) difficult because there are very sensible, very valid reasons why a person – particularly a woman – would be massively less comfortable reading a non-consensual sex scene from a female perspective than from a male perspective. But this intersects quite problematically with some very gendered and very heteronormative ideas about what sex is, what rape is, and, to some extent, what the roles of men and women are.
There is a cultural stereotype which suggests that sex in general and rape in particular only count if there is a penis and a vagina involved. This notion erases the experiences of a great many people, men and women alike. Clearly — on a personal level — people are entitled to be comfortable with what they are comfortable with, and uncomfortable with what they are uncomfortable with, and I believe people should have the freedom to explore the ideas they want to explore through the medium that makes most sense for them. But non-con is so prevalent in m/m that it feels to me almost normalising. The cumulative effect of which, when spread over a large number of books, is to present a model of homosexuality of which non-consent is an integral part.
Essentially, the stories we tell ourselves as a society are how we construct our ideas about what the world is like, and the current trends in m/m offer a view of reality in which rape is significant component of the experience of being a gay man. I should stress that this is not an issue with individual books but with the aggregate effect of a large number of titles forming a sizeable proportion of the market. And, once again, I find this… troubling.
My final concern with this whole phenomenon is that I feel it reinforces unhelpful ideas about sexual power and sexual behaviour which pretty much go back millennia. In a number of cultures, ever since antiquity, it has been perfectly socially acceptable for men to shag other men as long as they don’t go on the bottom. Indeed, in a great many societies homosexuality and heterosexuality were not a meaningful distinction. What mattered was who was penetrating and who was penetrated. In both ancient Rome and ancient Greece it was considered perfectly normal and healthy to bugger young boys or slaves, but perverse and effeminate to be, as it were, the buggeree (at least in adulthood).
And a tiny part of me wonders if non-con in m/m is an echo of these attitudes. I understand that, in the bodice rippers of the 1970s, non-consent or forced seduction was a way to permit the heroine and the reader to explore sexuality in a society where female desire was still, to some extent, taboo.
Not that this is an entirely solved problem, even today.
I have a feeling that non-consent in m/m might serve a similar function. I suspect that we, as a society, find it comparatively easy to accept and understand, within our cultural frameworks of masculinity, a man who desires to penetrate other men. I’ve sometimes heard this expressed as “he’s so manly he can fuck dudes, and it doesn’t count”. It’s much harder for us to condone a man who wants to be penetrated.
This goes directly against everything we are taught comprises male sexuality. And since a hero in a romance – het or m/m – is successful only insofar as he enacts male sexuality in a manner that the reader finds acceptable and, well, sexy, there’s an extent to which a hero who consents to be penetrated will, for many readers, cease to function as a hero. Tangentially, I notice very similar reactions against sexually submissive heroes in het, unless the author goes out of her way to make them uber-manly in other contexts.
I should probably end by reiterating that I do think it’s primarily a consequence of the size and relative infancy of the genre – but this is precisely why I believe this is such important issue to consider. M/m is still establishing itself within romance, and within genre fiction as a whole, and the trends that exist today are likely to shape what is written, published, and read for years to come.