Fiction, Reality, Fandom and Adulthood: a media academic and CSA/incest victim’s account
OR: Stop Using Victims As Your Shield And Take Responsibility for Your Actions You Wanker
I’ve never been particularly interested in ship wars and other such fandom wank. Even when I first joined fandom at eleven years old it seemed like a hot-bed of chronically insecure and eternally pissed off people arguing only for the fun of it, or to validate the ‘legitimacy’ of their liking a thing. This opinion has only strengthened over the years, from a vague feeling at that age to something I can express in a single sentence.
As a media studies academic with a special focus in fandom, I should probably be more intrigued by this whole phenomenon. I’m really not though. There’s nothing to investigate here: people feel like they’re fighting for some right they perceive as being challenged by other people expressing their dislike of a thing. Chronically insecure and eternally pissed off. So much so I’m sure there’s already people prepared to leap down my throat screaming about how they’re not pissed off or insecure it’s just that — blah, blah, blah, let the fansplaining begin.
This isn’t new. This isn’t exclusive to fandom. And usually I think this isn’t even worth commenting on.
Then something horrible happened: they started dragging social justice discourse into it. Specifically, related to rape culture, childhood sexual abuse, incest, domestic abuse, trauma, and most of all, victims. Suddenly I’m seeing posts either shouting about how ‘problematic’ it is to ship XY because it’s ‘abusive’ and won’t somebody please think of the victims, right next to posts shouting about how ‘problematic’ it is to call people out for shipping XY because it’s not ‘abusive’ and even if it was ‘abusive’ some people ship to cope with their trauma and won’t somebody please think of the victims!
Well, I have no choice but to think of the victims. Every day since I was six years old and became one, I’ve had no choice.
At six, I was first raped by a babysitter after several years of psychological abuse to make sure I wouldn’t fight back. I was then raped repeatedly by one of my older brothers, before finally being picked up by a paedophile seven and a half years older than me at age 13. I had to leave the country right after my 17th birthday to get away from that last one, but don’t worry, there was plenty of gaslighting from my brother-rapist waiting for me when I had to come home. Not to mention other emotionally abusive spouses using the already established framework.
So, essentially, I am always thinking of the victims. And not only because I often think of myself, but because I’m heavily engaged with several victim support communities, in addition to writing fiction targeted towards giving my fellow victims the message I desperately sought as a child and never found: this is not okay and you should not shut up about this.
You can imagine how pissed off I get seeing people invoke my suffering to fight ship wars of all petty things. Especially when it’s people I thought of as friends directly and personally paraphrasing things I’ve said in confidence.
With my media studies background, you might be able to imagine how unbelievable I find it when people throw around the question of ‘Does media impact upon what we do and think in reality?’ like that’s still a legitimate question in 2017. This is a question that’s so redundant by now I’m honestly at a loss for who to cite because just — pretty much anyone? Obviously it does.
Or maybe your head is so deeply buried in that fandom sandbox that no, you can’t see why I would be pissed off by either of those things. Chances are it actually is: why else would I feel the need to write this, if not for the very vocal community of people arguing as though they’re experts about things they clearly didn’t even do the basic Google search about?
Back to that question. The answer, if you’re somehow confused despite being so emotionally invested in a fictional relationship it makes you angry enough to shout at strangers on the internet, is yes. Yes, the media we consume impacts upon what we do and think in reality. Not just news media; not just tabloids; not just advertising; not just non-fiction. Fiction, absolutely, also does this. Some would argue more so, because fiction does it in a way that’s harder to notice and rationalise. I’m not sure if I agree with that point, but a lot of people a lot smarter than me bring it up a lot. And I mean, look at yourself screaming at those strangers. You’re affected.
But then on the other side, you get people taking this to the other extreme. You get people who say rape should never be portrayed in fiction because doing so is inherently fetishising and normalising it. They say this as though there aren’t real cases, that I know about because I lived them, where a twelve-year-old trying to ask for help getting away from her rapist-brother will be asked “Well did you flirt?” because that is how deeply ingrained rape culture is in our society. It’s normalised; all we can do now is unpack it and challenge it. This includes challenging the portrayals of rape and abuse in fiction, and I’m sorry, but saying “no you can’t write about his topic” is never going to do that.
In this Fandom Discourse, either fiction has no effect on people, or it effects us so deeply we’re passive little sponges absorbing everything we’re fed as gospel.
Fiction has a significant impact on people’s beliefs because we look for patterns in it that reflect reality. This is how we normalise ideas and actions seen in fiction: we see the patterns so repeatedly we start to believe it is real. A good example would be how many people believe CPR is highly likely to save a life, when in fact only 6% of CPR patients survive outside a hospital setting. Think about it: most of the time when you see CPR being performed on TV, by frantic man saying “Come on!”, “Breathe!”, “Live!” between mouth-to-mouth and worryingly slow and shallow chest pumps, they live. Similarly, courts have a crisis with jurors expecting too much from forensics and valuing forensic evidence too highly because of fictional media. This is called the CSI effect, and it’s extremely well-documented as a primary case of fiction being normalised on large and dangerous scale.
Another good example? One more culturally based? Sure. Soul mates. 73% of Americans believe in soul mates. We’re shown it everywhere, constantly bombarded with this idea of ‘The One’ who we will love eternally and spend the rest of our lives with. It’s in our music, it’s in our fiction, it’s definitely in our advertising, it’s in our non-fiction, it’s in our tabloids, it’s even in our news. One of my earliest memories is watching Beauty and the Beast, completely transfixed by the beauty of love. After watching that movie at about four, I asked my grandma to make a wedding dress for my Barbie instead of fairy wings.
People don’t believe in these things because they’re idiots. They believe in it because we’re a species the looks for patterns. Advertisers know this all too well, that’s why they do campaigns rather than individual ads. The things we see repeatedly presented in media we consume are the things we normalise as ‘facts’ or ‘reality’, whether they’re fictional or not.
“But wait, that’s all pretty mainstream stuff! What about the studies into violent video games!” I hear you saying, because I strawmanned you into it.
Yes, you’re right. The stuff we see in a mainstream context is the stuff we are most likely to accept as ‘universal’ facts. They will become the things we believe most people think and know. Violent video games, for example, aren’t as likely to have a wide-spread ‘murder is okay’ impact because the messages everywhere else are saying ‘no, no it’s not!!’
However, we don’t only exist in a mainstream context, and neither does media. We all participate in subcultures, smaller groups based on similar ideas, interests and so on. The rules of what is normal in a subculture are often different to what’s normal in a mainstream context.
For example: in a mainstream context (example: out in a street in your neighbourhood) it’s probably considered strange, or ‘deviant’, to walk around drinking alcohol. Change the context to a subculture — a party, let’s say. There’s booze everywhere, everyone’s walking around the room drinking. You’re expected to drink too, right? Especially if it’s a celebration and it’s celebratory champagne! And if you don’t, you’re going against what’s normal in this subcultural setting. Just like when I walk into the Pokémon fandom saying “I hate anime”, I’m against the ‘norms’ of that subculture.
The deviation between mainstream values and subcultural values usually isn’t too high. Subcultures tend to be a little more illegal. Sometimes though, when you get enough extreme, passionate people together, and they spend too long engaging with that subculture and little else, they’ll start to view the beliefs and behaviour of that subculture as what mainstream values should be. This is part of how cults happen, not to mention a lot of recent global politics that clever co-opt mainstream values and reframe them in the context of their subculture for a new kind of consumption.
And you can sometimes see these things happening in fandoms. Think about how many times you’ve talked to someone from outside your fandom and said something that’d make perfect sense in fandom, but not here, it just slipped out!! Or how often you’ve found yourself saying tumblr or twitter phrases offline, especially memes. I’m personally very prone to “Everything happens so much”, and most of the people I work with are these 55-year-old academic shut-ins who always act like it’s the deepest thing they’ve ever heard. No, Janet, it’s a horse.
This is normalisation. And sometimes, we see it with more sinister things, too.
Fandom tends to encourage extremes. We admire obsession in each other. We encourage obsession. Often in fandom, we even consume other fans as though they themselves were content — being close inseparable friends who cannot stand a few days or hours without talking, then never speaking once we’re no longer in the same fandom.
“But it’s normal to talk less to friends when you don’t share interests any more”, you strawman for me.
Yes, it is. But fandom has a very high consumption rate, especially in recent years; we consume one show obsessively, talking about little else, create content for it, obsess over the little details in our meta, a full exhausting storm, then once it’s done for the season, move on and barely mention it until it comes back. So what normally takes months or years offline takes weeks in fandom.
This isn’t inherently bad. Most of the people who engage in this type of fandom seem very happy to do so. However, I very firmly believe the extremity of the emotions felt during these cycles of fandom lead to people making very extreme (and often very aggressive) leaps of logic to justify their latest obsession. And extremities always lack important nuances. That’s how you end up dragging victims in to this debate that really isn’t that complicated if you approach it from anything but extremity. Nuance, people! Nuance!
So, what is the important nuance missing in this ridiculous debate here? Simple: framing.
Framing refers to the way in which a story is presented. You can read this Wikipedia page as a good starting point for more information, but essentially: the details we are given are not all that matters; how those details are presented to us matters enormously. Let’s go with an example from the most popular book series of my lifetime, Harry Potter.
One of the most fundamental (and relevant) facts of the Harry Potter franchise and the titular character’s backstory is the abuse he suffers at the hands of his caretakers, the Dursley family. When you lock a child in a cupboard under some stairs, often for weeks on end, that’s abuse: there’s no grey area here. However a lot of fans and readers have taken issue with how this is portrayed, because the majority of Harry’s interacts with the Dursleys have a comedic framing. The sequence of events, the details we’re given, the pacing and tone of the prose in these scenes, they all tell us the Dursleys are something to be laughed at. You often see casual readers talking about how privileged Harry is because in the magical world he’s a rich celebrity; bring up the Dursleys’ abuse and there’s a disconnect, because the Dursleys are comedic relief.
Yet, there’s nothing funny about what the Dursleys do. Any comedy comes from how the interacts between the Dursleys and Harry are framed. The way in which the sequence of events is presented to us, the audience, and the tone with which they’re described severely impact and limit our capacity to understand them. This is true of all media.
“Okay,” you might be asking, “what the fuck does that have to do with victims? Except that in this example you’re using one. I mean. In the broader context of fandom behaviours and this trend towards bringing up victims in debates about ““ethical shipping””, what the fuck does that have to do with victims?”
The curious thing with the Harry Potter example I just used is, reading those books as an abused child, I never realised people were missing the hints I saw at how much Harry was impacted by what the Dursleys did. I always interpreted it in much the same way as my own relationship with my abusers: to survive the terror I would find anything I could laugh at them, and focus on that, to the point of dehumanising them into caricatures. Now that I’m older I can completely understand why the comedic framing allows people to miss just how abusive the Dursleys are. Regardless of this being a thing that yes, abused children do, it not being framed in a more serious light kept the majority of the audience from comprehending the severity of the situation. It’s not framed in a way that enables us to understand that Harry could be disassociating through humour, so my childhood interpretation could never be anything more than a headcanon due to its lack of weight based on the canon evidence. The Dursleys are canonically bumbling laughably stupid idiot fools.
So when someone says “It’s okay to portray abusive relationships in fiction”, what they should be saying is “It’s okay to portray abusive relationships in fiction if you frame them as abusive.” Because not everybody in the audience will have the knowledge to interpret that regardless of framing. Appropriate framing enables the target audience to easily draw the conclusion you want, and if that conclusion is “abuse is bad” we probably don’t have a problem.
Yeah, it’s really that simple.
We’re not done here, though. Not by a long shot. You brought victims into this, so fine. We’re doing this, and I mean we are doing this. Let’s talk about how victimhood is treated in fandom and media. Let’s talk about how victimhood is enabled by these things, and also prevented by these things, because guess what? It is. And how audiences react to media (especially fans) is a huge part of both.
You asked for this can of worms to be opened, so I’m dumping my experiences right the fuck on your head. And a warning: from here on out, this gets graphic. Discretion advised.
I remember when I discovered fanfiction was something entire communities of people do. I was eleven, googling tips for defeating a certain boss in a video game, and I came across the FFnet archive. I read a few fairly terrible high school AU fics and I thought they were the most amazing things ever and I’d never be a good enough writer to be able to post on this holy bastion of quality called Fanfiction dot net.
I made an account to read, and made a few friends. They were all a good five to ten years older than me and spent a lot of time telling me how mature I was for my age.
I wrote a fic about the female lead of the game mourning the inevitable JRPG sacrificial death. It was about as terrible as you’d expect from an 11-year-old pretentiously pretending to understand James Joyce. I was very up front about my age, got a lot of sympathy comments as a result, and non-sensically tried to imply that one of the villains were back. Just because.
‘Nice twist,’ one of the reviews on that chapter said, ‘Seymour should rape Yuna lol.’
I didn’t know what trolls were so I pretty quickly abandoned serious fics, that fandom, and switched to Fullmetal Alchemist and Yugioh. I kept the friends though, who all laughed and told me I was being ‘butthurt’ and needed to ‘lurk moar’.
So lurk moar I did. I read every fic I could find in every fandom I knew even the tiniest thing about. After they added the filter by pairing option, it was a good way to develop a curiosity along the lines of, ‘What is the stupidest ship I can think of, and are there fics for it?’
Usually there were.
One of the first pairings I found this way between a 15-year-old protagonist and his evil 400-and-something year old half-brother whose only real goal in not-exactly-life is to murder aforementioned brother.
They actually made it fluff.
I couldn’t believe it. They’d twisted the characters so much I wondered, why don’t they just write original fiction? But I kept reading and reading, even though there were barely any fics of the pairing. Because it was a show I actually knew very, very well, the curiosity was only heightened. True, the most popular pairing in the fandom at that time was also ‘problematic’, a word here meaning ‘paedophilic’, but at least they sometimes resembled friends in canon!
I couldn’t get it out of my head, and I fancied myself a satirist, and my friends were into these paedophilic pairings, so I thought, why not. I started writing stealth parodies of these fucked up pairings turned into fluff. I wanted to understand how much you could distort these characters and still get praised as writing them ‘in character’.
Turns out you need about two of their personality traits at the start of the fic, and they don’t even have to be canon. Fanon works fine. After that, anything goes and is ‘character development’.
So here I was, a stupid fourteen-year-old thinking I was writing incredibly obtuse satire of shipping practices, and yet, receiving all kinds of gushing feedback about what a sweet couple they were!
I wanted to shout, No! It’s a joke! They are brothers! He is four hundred years older and wants to murder him! How is this romantic! Look at them arguing, look at the fucked up shit they’re doing to each other, just because they’re sighing that it’s love doesn’t mean it is.
But then again, I thought, I was fourteen. What did I know? Just because I had a boyfriend didn’t mean anything. He kept telling me how deeply in love we were when I mostly just felt bored.
Plus it was 2006. Everyone was trolling. The longer it dragged on, the funnier the joke would be when people realised, I told myself.
I kept a lot of my old friends and made a lot of new ones, some even my own age. But I looked down on the people my own age; all my adult friends kept telling me how mature and intelligent I was. So did my teachers. So did my boyfriend. I was just obviously on the same intellectual level as young adults, maybe even higher — they didn’t get that I was writing satire either. They kept telling me how romantic it was, how hot it was, how lucky anybody would be to have a relationship like that stupid ship.
“Well actually,” I said (or typed, because MSN was still everybody’s fave), “it’s a bit like me & my boyfriend. We argue like that a lot lol but he says I’m not supposed to talk about him cos he’s 22.”
What would you say to a 14-year-old you’ve known since they were 11 telling you that?
Now think again, in the context of fandom, in the context of your ships. Maybe you’re not sure if they’re serious. Maybe they’re lying about their age. You can’t see them. You don’t know. All you know for sure is you’ve got this ship in common.
Either way, “Aww that’s cute!!” is not the right answer.
I brought it up because I was starting to go from bored enough to date this guy to scared of stopping. I knew I was deeply in love; he told me so often enough. And he got angry when I called any paedo ship creepy. It mean I was calling him creepy, that I was doubting his love, but I mean, why did he care that I was saying a ship was bad when we were real and they weren’t?
He wanted everything I wrote to be an expression of our love. And when it was anything but, he’d talk until I was so ashamed I’d cry and then he’d have sex with me because he loved my adorable crying face.
I brought it up because it was getting very scary, and the night before, he’d talked me into cutting myself before he fucked me.
Sometimes he said “I love you enough to hurt you when you need it.” Which I swear I’ve read in a few hundred fics swept in as a swoon line when it really just means ‘shut the fuck up and let me do what I want cos I love you’.
I told her the details over a long period of time, and each time, it was cute, like our ship.
I told my other adult friends bits and pieces, in chats I’d host on servers where there’s no chat log so he’d never find out I was talking about us, and I got similar reactions.
Sexy. (or ‘smexy’ — 2006 was awful)
Our ship brought to life.
Use it as material in your fics.
Hey, why don’t you write porn, if you’re getting laid so much? XD
Does this mean you’ll send nudes? Lol JK
Star-crossed young love.
You’re so lucky.
I wish I’d found my soul mate at your age.
Over, and over, and over. And the adults who didn’t praise the way this 22-year-old took an abused child and crafted her into his sex-toy in the name of dark angsty true love crossed by just so many stars, well, they just didn’t really say anything. Just kinda changed the topic and kept talking about our fun little ship with the fifteen-year-old dating his four-hundred-and-something half-brother who wants to murder him.
What was I supposed to think when every adult I talked to reacted like this? These were my friends, and I had to live up to how mature they thought I was. I couldn’t spit in the face of our ship by admitting I hated it all along, it was just a joke to me, and then a way to explore my own fucked up relationship to see if I should be there to begin with.
It’s hard to find an out when people are telling you to stay in.
It’s hard to condemn your own actions when people who talk about how much they love you, respect you, value your friendship and safety and happiness, tell you it’s all fine. Especially when they’re like fun older siblings.
So I concluded I was wrong. I was the one who didn’t get it.
I had to keep writing the ship to try and get it.
And I had to stay with my boyfriend, because I was lucky anyone at all loved me. No matter what he did.
This sounds unreal, I know. But it did happen. And what’s worse, it didn’t just happen to me. I have a lot of friends that this same thing happened to, who have told me it in private because they’re terrified to speak up. I thought it was just a one-off thing I went through due to the ridiculous ship I was involved with until I heard their stories, which were essentially the same thing: the adults in fandom they turned to for advice fetishising their abuse, or worse, exploiting it themselves.
You can’t tell yourself it doesn’t matter when adults in fandom are using ships to convince teenagers to send them nudes. You can put your fingers in your ears and close your eyes and pretend it doesn’t happen, but it does, and you’re lucky if you get to be ignorant of the fact.
But this is stuff we all talk about in private, between multiple locked up accounts, because we’re all terrified of the backlash from all sides of the “ethical shipping” discourse.
What does it really say about this discourse, that it’s made victims terrified to speak in conversations that are supposed to be about us?
When I was ten years old, I read Lolita.
I read as many classics as I could as a child. I had a huge problem connecting with protagonists of children’s series so I went for the big greats, the ones people talk about as describing the human condition. Lolita scared me for a long time, because I was scared of what it would tell me about people who rape children.
I read it anyway because the reason I couldn’t relate to normal children was the teenagers who raped me, including my brother. And I was disgusted, of course, by this paedophile ranting about the fire in his loins set by ‘nymphettes’ and how he was oh-so in love until they got too old, how it wasn’t his fault, blah blah, blah blah, every excuse he could throw. As though the fact that he was in love meant anything was justified.
But I quickly realised, between the lines, in how Dolores reacted to him, the real story: this man is a monster who has turned love into a weapon. Love was his get-out-of-jail card, letting him kidnap her, rape her, force her into using the sexuality she shouldn’t’ve had as a weapon of her own, and remove her of her name until everyone knows her as Lolita, not Dolores, not who she is, but what she is to the man who abuses her.
I always assumed they raped me because they loved me. I made excuses because of that. You don’t kiss people unless it’s true love, I thought after the first time, when I was six.
But through Lolita? I realised wanting to own someone is different to loving them. And even if it is love, love is a terrible reason to destroy someone.
Then I saw it on a shelf in a bookstore labelled ‘ROMANCE’. And I thought, oh, I was wrong. This is what love is. Love is suffering. Anything is justified by love. They hurt me because they love me. Never mind.
I was ten, I shouldn’t have been reading it, yet I was reading it because it was one of the only things I knew to be associated with what I was going through. Is it Nabokov’s fault? No. Is it the storeowner’s fault? No. It’s a matter of the framing leaving it too loosely for interpretation, and thereby accidentally allowing the reinforcement of a culture that celebrates the abuser for his ‘complexity’ while shunting the victim off the side with such extremity, most people don’t know her name is Dolores.
I don’t blame the people who say Lolita is a love story. If you think this, fine, that’s how you interpret it. At the same time you can’t tell me not to view this as a red flag — especially when, throughout my literary studies, the people who would say “Lolita is a love story” were the same people who’d play ‘devil’s advocate’ while talking about real crimes in our criminology and journalism classes. They were the ones who would tell me I need to “think about it from [the criminal’s] point of view… they’re human too.”
I know they’re human. What I don’t know is that I am too. I always forget under the constant reminders my humanity being nothing next to someone else’s desires.
And really, what isn’t a red flag about someone calling the tale of an adult kidnapping a child and repeatedly raping her a ‘love story’, just because the adult is trying to justify himself by insisting it’s love? People taking the word of an abuser, even a fictional abuser, as gospel makes me need to leave before I get hurt again.
You’re free to interpret fiction however you want. You’re not free to pretend this has no impact or consequences on others.
“People really need to disengage from fiction more,” I see people vague-tweet whenever I mention this. As though it isn’t their refusal to disengage with fiction enough to recognise its impact on reality that has them this passive-aggressively defensive. As though this fiction isn’t build on the accounts of real suffering.
“If they say they don’t endorse it IRL, they don’t.”
What a luxurious position, to be so trusting in the convictions and honesty of others that you believe they will tell the truth. Or that someone vehemently denying the ways in which fiction shapes our approaches to reality is capable of recognising the truth within themselves.
My best friend called Lolita a love story simply because Humpbert says he is in love, and it was told from his point of view. As soon as the conversation switched to what Dolores thought, she would call it a horror story.
My ex-boyfriend called Lolita a love story simply because it validated his belief that he had the right to date a thirteen-year-old. As soon as the conversation switched to what Dolores thought, he would look at me blankly.
“I’m able to enjoy this because it’s not real,” they say, hintingly, apparently not realising what they are actually saying: This does not feel real to me, this is enjoyable to me, this is fun to me.
As though fiction is inherently and exclusively about ‘having fun’. As though anything we wrap in a layer of fiction is completely divorced from reality. This portrayal of abuse is fiction, therefore it has nothing to do with the reality of abuse. Yet, as soon as the topic changes to matters of racism, misogyny, classism, imperialism, the shouts are all “Fiction does not exist in a vacuum!” — and rightly so! It doesn’t. But you can’t pick and choose when to believe that based on your ships.
“I’m able to enjoy this because it’s not real.”
Shouldn’t it still feel real? Isn’t one of the favoured barometers for judging fiction based on how ‘real’ it feels? Don’t we compare characters to real people, to real events, to real feelings and illnesses? Yet suddenly you stop doing that as soon as the topic is abuse?
That’s such self-serving bullshit.
I would love to take these people on their word, to trust in their convictions and honest, but there’s another big reason I can’t: it’s always one rule for their fandoms, another rule for fandoms they’re not in. This has happened, without fail, with everyone I see making these arguments.
“If they say they don’t endorse it IRL, they don’t.”
How am I supposed to trust that from people who apply one rule to their own actions, another to those of others?
A few weeks ago, a friend and I were listening to a song. I can’t remember what its name was now, but it was one of those ‘love is so hard, baby, I shouldn’t love you, but baby, I can’t stay away, you’re no good for me, but baby, I love you anyway’ ones. There’s about a million of them to different extremities, so I’m sorry I can’t place the specific one.
“I love this song,” she said, “it’s like. My song with [her boyfriend].”
“Yeah it’s like, he’s doing engineering, I’m doing philosophy. We’re so opposites.”
“Oh, yeah, I get you,” I laughed, because it was easier than saying ‘I thought this song was literally about abuse’.
Sometimes our experiences shape how we interpret media. Sometimes we’re so used to narratives we see in fiction we don’t notice how they shape the way we interpret the world.
It’s hard to know where one begins, and the other ends.
It’s hard to talk in absolutes where there’s nothing but a blurred spectrum of human experience, and everybody around you sees something so fundamentally different shaped in the blurs.
It’s hard to believe I have the right to say “They raped me, they abused me, they destroyed me” when everything around me is screaming “but they loved you!” like that justifies it. And when people tell me it’s not there, not even a little, you’re overreacting, you’re reading too deeply, it feels like I’m too insane to know anything.
The point isn’t who’s right or who’s wrong, though. There are right and wrong ways to interpret things but those aren’t along lines of authorial intent: they’re along the lines of what’s actually in the media, and how is it framed. As long as it’s within those confines, as we both were, we’re both right.
For her, it enables a great relationship where they have fundamental differences in their careers and academia that enrich their lives but cause some difficulties in their communication.
For me, it enabled an adult to whisper sweet nothings in my thirteen-year-old ear until I would happily cut myself just to see him smile.
Vague framing can go both ways. That’s not always a bad thing; what kind of thing it is depends on the environment someone is in, and how much media they’re consuming that sends them similar messages. But at the same time, the interpretation that most people will give will be based on those common narratives in the mainstream culture, their subcultures. Always a mix of both; we bring our subcultures with us everywhere, we just engage with them differently.
Unfortunately, no matter what we like to believe while in fandom, it’s not a great place for nuance. Fandom is a place of extremity, and it’s most extreme about love.
Disney told me true love trumps all. Final Fantasy told me sacrifice is noble. Christianity told me sacrifice is essential, and suffering redemptive. Harry Potter told me sacrificial love is the most protective. A million soap operas, a million movies, a million TV shows, a million songs, told me that arguing with your spouse is as normal as giving them everything if you’re a woman. They told me opposites attract. They told me love always hurts. They told me men are entitled to the love of women. They told me anything men do to prove their love for women is flattering.
By the time I was six, how many princesses had I seen saved by kisses they never asked for?
By the time I was in fandom and questioning all this, how many adults and other confused teens told me a paedophilic, incestuous ship was so cute and not even that bad it’s just that society has the weirdest taboos against kinks?
I wrote bad ships as satire to be gross and wrong as I tried to figure out what was sweet and right, and they told me it was what love looked like.
I’ve seen people talk about morbid curiosity driving a deep interest in fiction that is abusive and otherwise fucked up. They talk about this as though they have an inherent and sacred right to indulge that curiosity.
It reminds me of the people who would stare at me in deeply searching ways after finding out about my childhood, like they wanted me to lay bear the psychological wounds for them to poke at from a safe distance of not having to actually care. It reminds me of the pauses in conversations before I’m interrogated, “What were you wearing?”, “How well did you know him?”, “Did you fight at all?”, “How did you even let that happen?”, “Why didn’t you just leave?”, etc, before I can even finish saying my bit.
Of course I’ve engaged with morbid curiosity, but surely we can all agree it’s something that should be indulged with great care? In both reality and fiction, of course, but especially in reality. Do you think recounting the exact details of my first rape to alleviate the morbid curiosity of people who will get no benefit from hearing those details is a good thing? And yet apparently because it’s just ‘curiosity’ I need to put aside how much it hurts to recall and address these very specific details of these extremely traumatic things at all, but especially on other people’s terms, or I’m being a ‘bad victim’.
People seem to get this idea that they have free access to things because it’s ‘just curiosity’. Yes, and it was ‘just curiosity’ that led my brother to rape me in the first place, so excuse me if I don’t buy that as a legitimate reason.
Is it just curiosity that’s led to people repeatedly spamming my inboxes, asking I write graphic rape scenes? Is it just curiosity when readers point out details of abuse in my fiction, jarringly, repeatedly, raising the question of how ‘real’ it is, how personal it is? Is it just curiosity when adults I admired asked for the nudes I mentioned my boyfriend forcing me to take? When does it stop being just curiosity?
Is it really okay to do whatever we want because it’s ‘just curiosity’?
That seems to be the question people are afraid to ask with these topics, along with: What purpose does my curiosity here serve?
Of course, most people would say it doesn’t need to serve a purpose. They’d probably call me capitalist for suggesting it should serve one. But here’s the thing: once you’ve dived in, once you’ve got the answers to your morbid curiosity, what next? What are you going to do with that information? How are you going to process it? Are you aware of the risks, of how potentially traumatic even rubbernecking on other people’s suffering can be? Are you going to process it at all? Are you going to help victims? Are you going to sit around stewing in ‘the feels’ until they pass? How are you going to process the natural horror this will inspire in you if you’re not totally detached from what you’re hearing? Are you just going to brush it off like it never happened? Are you just consuming mindlessly?
Isn’t it fucked up to ask trauma victims to lay ourselves bare for you to pick at whenever you’re curious?
“Oh, but they’re fictional victims!”
Yes, they are. And going into writing a detailed and accurate portrayal of a fictional victim is the suffering of real victims. You only know how to reflect it in fiction because of what has been expressed in reality.
People don’t write fiction from nothing, they write it from reality. Therefore all portrayals of trauma in fiction come from the scars of victims, usually distorted and warped by people trying to satisfy a morbid curiosity without actually engaging enough to understand our pain. We’re your fucked up award bait and you morbidly twist our suffering until you call it ‘beautiful’, an ‘exploration of the human condition’, a ‘curiosity’. And then just to stab us in the back again, you go ahead talking about how ‘fascinating’ the mind of an abuser is until our stories are all about them! Until Lolita goes on romance shelves because you trust the unreliable narrator who is a literal child rapist over his victim.
Isn’t it worrying that people find it easier to relate to an abuser than a victim? And if they don’t, then why are you always focused on portraying the criminal as human over their victims? Victims do it because we have been manipulated into doing so. What’s your excuse?
And more to the point: you can’t call fiction a way to satisfy morbid curiosity about real things unless you believe fiction reflects that reality in a meaningful way. Not necessarily an accurate way, but in a way that has enough meaning to address your morbid curiosity. If this is the case, how are you stopping yourself from processing this fiction as a signifier of reality? How are you stopping yourself from normalising what you’re seeing portrayed? And if it’s a morbid curiosity that you regularly indulge, well. Aren’t you all the more likely to normalise it?
Face it: it’s a morbid curiosity because it doesn’t feel real to you. And unless you’re engaging with media dealing with trauma in the right way, with the right framing, and actually processing what’s being shown to you, that curiosity amounts to nothing more than fetishing our suffering.
Isn’t it so beautiful, how I held my head high through being torn apart by men, including my own brother? Does it inspire you? Does it make you feel like you can do anything? Does my anger drive you back, make you question how dignified my suffering has been? Does it make you search for ways to discredit me and my experiences?
Am I a person, or am I your fucked up sympathy-fuelled inspiration porn?
When I was sixteen, my best friend handed me a comic called Tokyo Babylon.
I’d told her I wanted nice stories about love. I didn’t tell her why; that I was pregnant, and my resolve to breakup with my 24-year-old boyfriend was crumbling. If I was honest with myself I would’ve realised I was trying to turn to sweet romances to convince me, “He’s not that bad. Love is worth clinging to and fighting for, dammit! Even if he keeps making you cut yourself and getting you too drunk/high to fight while he fucks you! You owe him!”
I was sure I was going to get an abortion because I didn’t want it. I was terrified to do anything without his approval. So I tried this to manipulate myself into going back — after all, everything he did to me was out of love.
As she handed me Tokyo Babylon, my best friend said it was cute. Exactly what I wanted. If I’d been less of a wreck, I probably would’ve noticed the twist in her smile.
Tokyo Babylon is almost 30 years old and a classic of Japanese comics so I’m going to freely spoil it. There’s this boy, Subaru, who’s sixteen. A sweet, kind martyr-type who gives too much of himself to others. A very loving boy, being pursued by a smooth-talking, well-read 25-year-old man named Seishirou Sakurazuka. No wonder it drew me in.
Right from the start, it’s obvious Seishirou is a terrible guy. Like, a murderer who probably wants to kill Subaru too and is only pretending to love him to get close. He basically says that like, 10 times. But I mean, so what, right? These stories always end with the guy being purified by love. Love conquerors all. Love is everything good, everything pure, and so to reject love is evil, sinful.
A surprisingly hard thing to tell yourself as Seishirou breaks Subaru’s arm. As he looks down and says that it hurting this child, this child he made fall in love with him, is nothing to him. It’s like breaking a cup.
There was no redemption, no love purification, nothing. Nothing but a sixteen-year-old saying “I love you” to the adult who lured him in, broke him, and tossed him aside.
“Things like this happen every day in Tokyo,” Seishirou says.
They do. We don’t see it, but they do. There are a million Subarus in the world, children eaten and spat out by adults to whom it’s like breaking a cup.
It’s only another form of entertainment, my boyfriend mansplained once, when he got bored of watching me cut at his command and decided to feed me weed and alcohol until I let his friends do whatever they wanted, too.
I didn’t think about me right away though. All I could think was: Subaru didn’t deserve this.
After apologising for tricking me, my best friend said, “Sometimes you remind me of Subaru.”
That’s how a revolutionary thought came to me, for the very first time: I don’t deserve this.
I couldn’t bring myself to believe that this fictional character deserved it, but I couldn’t detach the similarities enough to go ‘but I do’. I didn’t deserve it either.
It didn’t matter what my family said, what my friends said, what everyone I’d ever tried to tell who shut me up said. It didn’t matter how strangers on the internet looked at satire I wrote about fucked up relationships and called it the sweetest fluffiest most ideal ships ever. All that mattered was that my boyfriend would not hesitate to break my arm. He had stalked me, he had lured me in, he had fed my insecurities until I would let him take everything from me and still whisper ‘I love you’ as he walked away.
And I don’t deserve it.
And his love isn’t worth anything if he can’t see me as a person.
And I never would’ve realised if I hadn’t had that fictional mirror up against my life.
The main lesson I learned from Tokyo Babylon was this: Love is great, but you shouldn’t have to suffer to be loved. That’s barely in the text; it’s not a fair reading at all.
This would be a more fair one I also firmly believe in: Never trust words that don’t match actions.
How did my boyfriend saying he loved me fit in with him choking me? Cutting me? Forcing me into sex? Sneering at the idea of me leaving him?
Whether or not he loved me is not the point. Because, guess what? He said it every day, and every day I felt that he meant it. It doesn’t matter, that’s not the point. The real point is this: he framed our relationship around his gratification. My pain was nothing if he was gratified. To him, breaking my arm would be like breaking a cup.
For five years, someone would only have to say Tokyo Babylon to me and I’d start crying. I told them it was because it was such a sad story.
But I have to admit how weak-willed I can be: the first big moment that made me doubt myself was seeing older people in the CLAMP fandom (people his age) calling Tokyo Babylon a ‘love story’. Now this irritates me in the same way all shallow readings of complicated fiction does, but when I was sixteen? The nuances of love were lost on me.
At sixteen, I didn’t have the emotional intelligence or life experience to be able to look at the word ‘love’ without associating it with everything positive to the exclusion of everything negative. Anything negative that got mixed in became positive by association. I don’t think I’m alone in that experience.
I know I’m not alone in looking at older people in fandom as cool older siblings who can help me make sense of the world.
Nobody asks for that responsibility. Yet, no adults ever said they didn’t want to talk to me about it when I asked for advice. They just dished out the bad advice, based on their kinks, that kept me in a paedophile’s arms.
I look back on those people now that I’m the age they were, and I feel sick. It’s like they don’t understand the nuances of responsibility that come with being an adult around children and teenagers. Oh but can they ever condescend to teenagers about how they shouldn’t be in those spaces, all while making no effort to ensure they’re not directly telling teenagers the wrong things.
I don’t think teenagers are stupid. I think teenagers are curious people trying to figure out their place in a world that makes them grow up too fast without giving them support. Teenagers will always be pushing boundaries, and we need to be there to help them get back on the right track when they’ve pushed too far in the wrong directions.
To teenagers reading this who find that condescending: I’m sorry. I would’ve too. But now all I can see is how much easier my life would’ve been if any of the adults I sought out had kinkshamed me.
And really, when has telling teenagers to stay within boundaries ever worked? They’re so good at thinking they’re the exception to rules. That’s what adults need to keep an eye on.
In the years since, I’ve openly called Tokyo Babylon my favourite comic. I’m only open about why when people say they’re interested in reading it. I’m aware that, as much as I got out of it, the creators didn’t frame it in that way at all. This is all the more obvious in the sequel, X, and in the message resonating throughout every comic by the creators; you have one soul mate and you must cling to them forever, whether you want it or not. You will love this soul mate, dammit, and as he destroys you you will be happy for it.
I got the exact opposite from Tokyo Babylon, but that doesn’t make what I see in it canon.
And it wasn’t until years later, when complaining to a fandom friend that all these teenagers kept asking me to write a teacher/high school student pairing into an existing fic, that I really processed all this. These kids were between probably 13 and 16, the age group I was when in that bastard’s clutches. And some of the people asking for this teacher/student pairing were even older than me. They all talked about it as though a teacher/student relationship was inevitable. Like it’s just a thing that has to happen in every school-based fic, especially the Hogwarts-set ones. It wasn’t that they were asking for any teacher/student pairing, it was a specific one, like, “Please make [ship] the teacher/student relationship ❤ ❤”
I couldn’t figure out why it distressed me so much. Because it was a fandom context. Because this adult/child ship was one of the most popular in the fandom. Because in every fandom I look at, at least one of the top pairings is CSA, or incest, or some characters who canonically want to murder each other twisted into a fluff ship. Sometimes it’s all three. After a while, you start to see it as normal. This is just how fandom is.
So why was I getting so upset?
My friend told me, “Write it. But write it properly. You know what it’s really like. Make them see it too.”
So I did.
Every chapter I got deeper into confirming, no, this is a bad relationship, no, this is destroying this child, no, this isn’t sweet or cute no matter what anyone is saying or trying to see it as. And every chapter I got more confused messages, then annoyed messages, then infuriated messages. It’s been almost a year since I finished that fic and I still get messages every other day telling me to kill myself for portraying a teacher/student relationship as a bad thing.
I’d assume I’d done a bad job if it weren’t for all the victims who’ve reached out thanking me for writing it. And more importantly, if the experience hadn’t cemented in my mind: anyone can normalise abuse in this subculture if they’re not careful. Even victims of it.
There is something seriously wrong with any culture that lets people think this bullshit is acceptable behaviour. And I know for a fact that it’s not just one person sending those messages because I’m very fast with block buttons.
As an adult, I would never ever react to a teenager telling me the things I told my adult friends with apathy or turning the conversation towards pairings, fics, inspiration for fics, all that. I would tell them to leave. I don’t doubt that I would’ve always done this.
But I also know I’ve been much too apathetic about the ways fandom portrays and treats victims, both real and imaginary. They treat the real ones as though they’re imaginary, and the imaginary ones as though they’re cute wooby sympathy porn suffering for love.
And I’ve realised I can’t pretend that the messages people take from my writing don’t matter. I know I can’t completely control what people do take from it — but can’t I frame things as best I can to give them minimal chance to come away thinking it’s oh-so-romantic for this 15-year-old to be dating his 400-and-something half-brother who literally wants to murder him?
I don’t think it’s too much to ask people to have a degree of responsibility for what they put online, especially in a community so full of young people. That doesn’t mean dictating what people create: it means accepting that you have influence over other people, and if you’re not willing to admit that, maybe that’s why you shouldn’t be posting online.
Ultimately, fiction gave me the strength to save myself from abuse. And writing fanfiction about abuse gives me strength and validation I desperately needed. I think these are good things.
Yet, at the same time, I have to wonder: how much of it could’ve been avoided entirely if the media I’d been exposed to had been different to begin with? And what if the framing, both in and out of fandom, had glorified ‘love-as-suffering’ less?
What would I have done, if I’d never been fed these perceptions that we should allow ourselves to be destroyed for love to begin with? Or at least, what if fandom hadn’t shifted that narrative to paedophilia and incest, until I felt like a monster for hating the real people putting me through those things? What if fandom hadn’t co-opted my voice as I tried to speak up and made it fetish material?
I’ll never know.
I do know this: I will continue to write and post whatever fanfic about whatever topic I want to write about, but I’ll take greater care with how I frame the darker topics. I want to see the framing of abuse in fanfiction change. When I’m browsing AO3, I want to see an abuse fic and think, chances are, this is condemning it, not fetishising or romanticising it. I want to tell stories that reflect the reality of what I suffered, to empower myself and other victims, and hoping that it will help others understand us better. I want to see the narratives around abuse change so it’s less about glorifying suffering-love and more about victims.
And if you still want to argue that this is all about fantasy, that fiction doesn’t impact reality, that nobody will ever look at the portrayals of abuse in media and come out of it hating victims, whatever else you tell yourself so you can jack it to rape, you have the right. Just as I have the right to go on thinking you’re a complete moron who doesn’t understand what they’re talking about.
Your behaviour is something I’m completely justified to judge you based on.
Your actions have consequences.
Fiction is a good place for escapism. But it’s also a good place to learn. It’s always been both, and it always will be both.
I’m sure you’d admit that this is true if we were talking about any other topic.
How much have you been shouting, ‘Not me! Not my ships! Not my fandom!’ as though that betrays anything except how very unreal the victims you claim to be fighting for are to you? It’s first and foremost about fandom to you.
This has never been about fandom to me. This has been about seeing people feel entitled to my pain, either to invoke it as a reason for others not to write things you personally don’t like in your fandom, or to invoke it as a reason to let anyone do whatever they want as though their actions have no consequences.
This is about fandom to you. Why did you bring victims into this in the first place? Why are you dragging us down as your shields in your petty, insecure ship wars? This is about fandom to you, and it sickens me how you pretend it’s ever been about anything else.
This is not so much about what you do, it’s more about how you do it.
Or, who you’re treading on in defending your ‘right’ to do whatever you want. Which isn’t even a thing you have, it’s an immature mindset from people who haven’t truly accepted that their actions will always have both impact and consequences.
I definitely don’t care at all about your intent, your thoughts, your feelings. Not when you’re clambering around my wounds trying to find a justification to ship two brothers, or a justification to tell someone who does ship two brothers to kill themselves.
I don’t care about your fandoms. I don’t care about your ship wars. I’m trying to keep my head above the water, and you’re pushing me under so you can climb a moral pedestal. How dare you say this is for any victim.
How dare you pretend to care, when this is all about fandom to you.
“But isn’t this entire rant about your personal comfort?” I strawman you, though you might have gotten the point by now, unless you’re so far gone you’re a caricature.
No. My personal comfort is disassociation and silence. Silence is comfortable because it is what society has been screaming at me to be from the moment I became a rape victim. Silence is easy. Easy is comfortable.
I don’t read or write these things because I ‘enjoy’ it. I do it because it keeps me in reality. Even the poorly framed fiction that’s barely capable of acknowledging the basics of abuse. It’s a reminder of how little the world cares about me, and people like me. I read and write these things because they force me to face the facts: I am a victim, I will always wear these wounds, and nobody will help me with them because throughout our lives we’re taught to ignore and hate victims. Whether we realise it or not. Abusers are interesting and complex but oh-so-evil; victims are best when silent.
From one side I hear, ‘Victims should silently let people ship whatever they want, however they want.’
From the other side I hear, ‘Victims should silently be relieved when people tell others to commit suicide in our names, grateful for every account of our suffering to also be silenced.’
Or maybe, you should stop invoking victimhood in your fandom discourses. Maybe you should stop twisting our realities and the facts of media normalisation for the sake of an argument that’s clearly primarily based on your need for strangers on the internet to approve of your life choices. Maybe don’t drag us into your petty fandom wars.
But I understand: fandom is an extreme place. You feel like you have to be extreme here. You don’t, though. You can like or hate whatever you like or hate, you just can’t say or do whatever you want to justify it. You probably don’t even have to justify it.
Reject that insecure voice in the back of your mind instead of following it on the quest for the moral pedestal.
We do not choose what media touches our lives. What we choose is how we interpret and reframe it for others, and whether we climb the bodies of real victims to reach moral pedestals.
Oh but I know, most of you who’ve read this far will come away going, “Yes! This exactly describes how those creeps in fandom behave!” and never turn that critical eye to your own behaviour. After all, your intent is good, isn’t it? You never meant to hurt anyone. You’re just having a fun time in fandom, and it’s not your fault if people misunderstand your actions and remarks. They’re judging you prematurely. They don’t know you. Your intent is suddenly all that matters, not that you’ve got a real person in front of you in pain that you, however accidentally, contributed to.
How do you react when people ask you to stop? Do you talk louder to explain yourself? Do you tell them to go away? Do you tell them they misunderstood, it was never a problem, they’re just overreacting, you didn’t mean it like that, what a silly little spat now let’s keep being friends?
Do you stop and think carefully about what they’re asking, or do you jump straight to insecure self-defence?
I don’t know about other victims, but I always judge people most by how they react when I ask them to stop.
Stop dragging victims into your Discourse Wars.
Do not touch my body. You don’t have the right.