Okay, so I’m a pretty social-justice conscious person. I’m well-aware of my cis-het white privilege, try to keep it checked as much as I can, try to boost the voices of my LGBT and POC friends to get their message across without speaking over them, and just generally try to live with as much sympathy and empathy and decency as I possibly can.
And here’s the thing. The majority of LGBT romance readers? Are also very aware of social justice issues, and aware of a lot of other sexual minority issues, such as those relating to safe sex and BDSM play. They don’t always handle them perfectly, but they can’t help but be aware of them by social media osmosis. There is not a single author or reader I follow on Twitter or Tumblr who doesn’t make posts or reblogs/retweets about social justice issues.
As the risk of being told “ur wrong” I would hazard a guess that the LGBT Romance audience is at least slightly more educated about these various issues than the common consumer.
In short: our readers are smarter than the average bear (the Yogi kind, not the leather-wearing kind.)
This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse because it means that we, as writers, have to pay attention to the details of what we do and make sure we don’t screw up, and that if our characters screw up, it’s because of a deliberate choice we made as authors to go that route, not because we were ignorant. But it’s a blessing because it means that we are not obligated to use our books to educate our readers on social or safety subjects, because they already know the issues at play.
Unfortunately, sometimes the blessing and the curse happen concurrently. Like, for instance, when our characters make choices that are not necessarily safe or correct, and our readers are aware of what IS safe and correct and believe that the author should have had the characters do it right.
The problem is, we, as authors (and especially as authors with an informed audience) are not obligated to make our books Public Safety Announcements.
Let’s take BDSM, for an example.
I’ve been involved with the BDSM lifestyle, whether actively playing or just hanging on the fringes with other not-presently-practicing lifestylers, for nearly twenty years. I’m well aware of the danger of the play we may pursue, how conscious BDSM practitioners need to be about the risks and about consent issues. I’m well aware of the misconceptions the uninformed public might hold and how it can lead them to making unwise or risky choices.
I think there are approximately zero people who are actually informed about BDSM who thing that Fifty Shades of Grey portrays it well, or sanely, or consensually, or safely. And I know some of them feel like the book should be shredded and the author (figuratively) scourged because of how badly those issues are handled. But for me, the way BDSM was handled in that book is not the make-or-break issue.
What is the make-or-break issue for me in that book is that it takes a relationship that already has a metric fuck ton of abusive subtext (Twilight meets all 15 criteria for an abusive relationship, according to domestic abuse authorities, and so does 50SoG because the relationship is based on the one in Twilight), romanticizes it (“the hero isn’t being abusive when he jerks the heroine around, sends her conflicting messages, stalks her, blames her for things that are his fault, and controls her social contact and the information she’s allowed to expose herself to; he’s just angsty and conflicted and enigmatic!”) and then throws badly-done BDSM on top of it.
The result is that it packages BDSM with a romanticized abusive relationship and then markets it to an UNINFORMED AUDIENCE (note that word: uninformed.) The target audience for Twilight and 50SoG is not the same as the target audience for LGBT Romance. We’re talking primarily vanilla cis-het women, either very young or from an older generation that is not as current on social issues, who are often quite ignorant of sexual and BDSM-safety questions, and who are already at risk of mistaking romanticized abuse for romance due to being inundated by images of such relationships in the media all around them.
In other words: the BDSM in 50SoG is problematic, but it’s not THE problem. The problem is the whole package.
But the LGBT Romance audience is different. They’re savvier. They’re less susceptible to being inundated by romanticized abusive relationships from the media because they are not only more informed on the various issues at play, they also read books that largely side-step harmful gender-role tropes and problematic power dynamics prevalent in M/F romance. That means we LGBT Romance authors can relax a little more about the messages we’re sending.
But even if we couldn’t…
Books are not Public Service Announcements. They are fictional narratives intended for entertainment and perhaps even to provide escapist fantasies.
One large issue this particular topic comes back to is the use of condoms, a subject I’ve posted about before. Our audience already knows about the proper use of condoms, and our authors are as well. If the author chooses not to have a character use condoms, it’s because the author has made the choice deliberately, either to further a fictional, escapist fantasy where sex without condoms is sexier, or because it’s a choice they feel their character would make, even if the author doesn’t support it. Our characters are not obligated to live by our (the author’s or the audience’s) ethics and standards of acceptable practices.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Anyone who wants to accuse me of being a proponent of unsafe sex because my character chooses not to use a condom is cordially invited to read my upcoming thriller about the author who goes around ax-murdering self-righteous and moralizing critics who are too ignorant or full of themselves to get the difference between fantasy and reality. Because if my character does it, clearly I’m okay with it, right?
(That thunderous sound you hear is not a nearby bowling alley, it’s my eyes rolling. Yes, hundreds or thousands of miles away. I’m that over it with this subject.)
The same goes for BDSM practices. If my characters choose to do something that would be absolutely Not Okay in the BDSM community (issues of SSC vs. RACK aside) it’s not because I don’t know how to BDSM. It’s because I made a creative choice to have my character do something that I, myself, might not be a proponent of.
Authors who do not condone rape can still write non-con or dub-con escapist fantasy. Because they trust their audience to be sane people who recognize the difference between fantasy and reality.
So before you jump all over an author and savage him or her with URDOINITRONG! stop and ask yourself the following questions:
1) Is the character doing this because the author is ignorant of the subjects at play, or because the author has chosen to take that route for reasons specific to that author, that character, or that scenario?
and 2) Who gave you the authority to demand an author make each and every work a treatise on the safe and proper use of condoms, or BDSM play, or whatever?
It’s really that simple. Authors are under no obligation to pander to your person crusade on “how to condoms” or “how to BDSM” etc. Their only obligation is to tell a story. You’re under no obligation to like it. You’re under no obligation to read it. Just don’t get self-righteous about it or assume objectionable creative choices equate to ignorance. And recognize that you have absolutely no right whatsoever to expect or demand that they do so.
My books are here to tell a story, not to promote a social agenda–mine or anyone else’s. Full stop.