Although I’ve written about being a Reylo here before, I don’t think I’ve actually written about intra-fandom discourse. But there’s a first time for everything — and honestly, while events on fandom Twitter are what got me thinking, obviously this stuff isn’t confined to specifically Star Wars fanfic.
I didn’t find my niche of fandom until I fell in with the Reylolds in April of this year, so it was easy to regard things as a monolith. Us vs them, Reylos vs ants. Every person with actual narrative sense vs JJerrio.
As the weeks and months passed, problematic aspects from the collective Reylo past started resurfacing — including either isolated (or seemingly-isolated) instances of racism from prominent writers, or ongoing issues that were evidently tolerated.
CW // racism, pedophilia, rape
The thing I want to focus on specifically was the way that the dialogue about racism in Reylo fic got sidetracked by accusations of kinkshaming, as though “anything goes” in fiction (especially fanfic, which by definition falls into a culturally grey area, acceptance-wise) including racist tropes — and if you don’t like what’s going on in a given story, move along.
As staunchly as I try to defend people’s right to ship and consume what they want, this argument really rubbed me the wrong way, especially given that many of the users crying kinkshaming appeared to be white.
Fanfic is one of the areas that it’s actually easiest to identify informed consent. First, we've gotta identify the participants: the author — which is to say the text itself — and the reader.
The author/text is static in this context. A work can be released without a writer’s permission, which is absolutely a consent violation, but there’s no way for an author to write a work and not be informed.
So it’s the other participant, the reader, who occupies our primary concern.
As with interpersonal sexual interactions, it’s in the mainstream or purportedly vanilla interactions that we find the worst transgressions. Much as I love Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, for instance, it really bothers me that in his arguably-more-popular 1992 novel Snow Crash, there’s a multi-page, highly explicit sex scene between a 15-year-old girl (Y.T.) and a WAY older and physically larger dude named Raven.
For some reason, pedophilia gets a pass when it’s wrapped in the trappings of the male gaze — and this is what I mean when I say that spaces like AO3 are safer to readers than mainstream stories. Tagging is the biggest tool we have in that regard, and it’s well worth noting that this feature exists both on FetLife profiles and AO3 works, despite obviously not being present in mainstream fic.
Yes race play is listed as a kink on fetish sites like FetLife — but an extraordinarily rare one, certainly nowhere near even the top 100 (some 2K kinksters vs. 134K for fetish #100, which is pegging, as it happens). Yet any true kink requires informed consent to be explored ethically between partners. So let’s take a step back and see what that means in the context of fic.
Something like perennial darkfic favorite rape/noncon is an ethical kink in a suitably tagged context, because the reader is engaging with the story in a framework that is ultimately consensual. For a reader to know what potentially triggering aspects a work entails and proceeding to read it means that informed consent has been provided — thereby transforming the nonconsensual situation within the text into the acknowledged kink of consensual nonconsent (CNC).
Ultimately, you have to own everything you write. I often write CNC, and that means I have to be super careful about making sure I tag appropriately, because many of my works inherently have the potential to trigger readers. Yet I consider CNC to be an ethical kink so long as the participants in question (my readers) are:
1) informed as to what the work contains;
2) consenting; and
3) of age to give consent (18 years old).
How does ethical kink apply in terms, of say, age play (a pretty popular yet morally grey-area kink — #48 on FetLife’s hot 100)?
If the participants are informed, consenting, and at least 18 years old, whatever ages they may be or may pretend to be are no one else’s business. In fic, characters simply are the ages they are; so not only was Raven’s rape of Y.T. in Snow Crash narratively gratuitous, it isn’t ethically defensible in any sort of age play context.
So finally we come back around to race play. Yes, it’s absolutely triggering, and no, it’s not ethically defensible. There should be no question about this, and if you’re a white person, you should not be trying to use “everything goes” as a smokescreen for your racism.
The entire reason that places like AO3 exist is because everything doesn’t go in fiction. It shouldn’t; just as consent frameworks exist in interpersonal sexual encounters, AO3’s tagging system makes it possible for informed consent between reader and fic text if it’s used properly by both author and reader. But using kinkshaming as a shield for untagged problematic content is insulting and unacceptable, not to mention overtly hurtful to people who are trying to point out that they’ve already been hurt by a racially problematic author or work.
The recent Twitter discourse put the fear of being cancelled into more than one white writer — but where we know we exist in a racially imbalanced culture, the fear of personal cancellation shouldn’t be a focus. Writing ethical smut should be.
When someone identifies problematic aspects of our work, we as writers are obligated to fucking listen. If someone says, “Yo, this is a problem,” don’t just blow them off. Take a step back, reevaluate, and for fuck’s sakes, tag as thoroughly as possible, taking readers’ feedback into account. A few words of warning and less fragility on our part are the very least we can do to keep our community safer.
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