[trigger warning for discussions of rape culture]
I've had a week to think about it, and the fallacy I keep coming across whenever there's a discussion regarding rape culture in books is the notion that if the reader is educated, then they are exempt from being influenced. This notion focuses on a small portion of readers that have been educated about what rape culture is and what it looks like, can recognize rape culture when they read or see it (and let me be the first to say that there are times when I, as a violence prevention and survivor advocate, and as someone who analyzes everything, cannot recognize it), and ignores the social norms that are inherent to and disguise, to the point of acceptance, rape in our society. It also shifts the burden of responsibility to the individual to educate themselves about what rape--and what the social norms that perpetuate rape--looks like.
Forced seduction scenarios contain an inherent element of confusion. They blur the line between rape and not-rape, perpetuating the society-accepted notion that "no" really means "yes." They are different from rape fantasies because a properly constructed rape fantasy not only defines itself as a rape fantasy but also creates a context that validates what consent is and isn't. While rape fantasies may still have a psychological impact on the reader, forced seduction fantasies are far more dangerous, because in a rape fantasy the reader is made aware that it is rape that is occurring, whereas in a forced seduction fantasy, there's no such tell.
I am a proponent of education that paints a clear picture of what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like. However, no education in the world can stand in the face of the repetitive and mixed messages American* culture is currently sending through every possible venue. Popular culture can be a magnificent, terrifying force. I'm sure there are people out there who can say, with utmost certainty, that they know exactly what rape and rape culture looks like and that they would be able to identify every facet of it every time. And I have no doubt that they can. But this isn't about the individual.
When books, movies, songs, advertisements, and tv shows, the things we buy and the things that are force-fed to us, depict unhealthy relationships as healthy and violence against women as acceptable, then even a discerning individual's ability to see beneath the sparkle can waver. Even more significant than these messages' impact on the individual is the impact they can have on the group. The 'culture' part of 'rape culture' reflects the systemic and institutional schemas that normalize rape on a scale of millions.
I am currently in the midst of conducting experimental trials regarding stereotype threat, i.e. negative stereotypes about a particular group that reduces performance on a related task. The particular stereotype threat my research focuses on is the stereotype that women are bad at math. Previous research has found that almost all American women have been exposed to and are thus influenced by this stereotype, regardless of whether they consciously believe it or are even aware of its existence. Simply checking the box that says 'female' before a math test is enough to consciously or unconsciously trigger the stereotype threat and reduce performance.
My point is that, in any discussion regarding rape culture or oppression or privilege, the words unconscious, subliminal, and implicit cannot be stressed enough. Simply by being a part of a culture, we are exposed to repetitive, frequently subtle, unrecognizable messages that we unconsciously allow to influence our beliefs, attitudes, and actions.
One example would be writers that write forced seduction scenarios. Either they have been exposed to the idea that a women who says no but then says yes after the hero ignores her original response is not rape, and
(1) thus not only consciously or unconsciously believe it themselves, but are also consciously/unconsciously sending it to the reader in equally implicit conditions because it corresponds with what societal norms say rape looks like, or
(2) consciously don't believe it, but underestimate the power of subliminal messages, particularly in the context of a culture that promotes the image of rape under narrow circumstances (which forced seduction does not fall under).
Rape thrives in part because women are blamed for the violence committed against them and because the definition of rape is frequently limited to a rape that coincides with physical violence. By writing forced seduction scenes, the author is caught in the bind that is rape culture, regardless of whether they recognize the harm their words can cause. It's a double-edged sword, one designed specifically so that women either perpetuate ideas that further their oppression or are silenced.
The other example would then be readers who intentionally or unintentionally read a forced seduction fantasy. A reader with education regarding healthy relationships or what rape looks like might be able to discern that it is, indeed, rape. Or they won't, and that'll be that. Or they won't, and this scene--coupled with other scenes and other books and other movies--might begin to chip away at what they thought they knew. Myths like gray rape might seem to gain credence.
A reader without any education regarding healthy relationships or what rape looks like might recognize it as rape. Or they might unconsciously or consciously integrate the scenario into their schemas of what rape isn't, based on what society has already taught them. If you're given two contrasting images, such as she said no/she liked it, the resulting cognitive dissonance will demand that you choose a side or find a happy medium. She said no = rape, she liked it = not rape, happy medium = it could have been rape, because she said no, but it wasn't, because she liked it.
It is rape culture when we're taught to believe that no means yes.
It is rape culture when our fiction reaffirms that no means yes and there is no context that disconnects this idea from reality.
It is rape culture when we're taught to believe that fiction that reaffirms that no means yes, without any context, doesn't harm us.
I don't consider myself to be patronizing women when I say that forced seduction scenarios are a symptom of a larger, cultural problem, one that not only sends mixed messages about what rape looks like but then also perpetuates the societal acceptance of violence against women. I don't consider myself to be patronizing women precisely because while I know for a fact that women are quite sharp, this kind of shit is sinister.
We've been taught to believe that violence against women is acceptable, that rape is only rape if it's violent. To combat this idea we've worked hard to raise awareness and demand better, and we've seen progress. But now we face the conundrum of whether some of our attempts at progress reflect and promote the very attitudes we seek to rid ourselves of.
To go back to the original question of the responsibilities of the writer, I don't think that writers are obligated to teach readers appropriate beliefs and values. I do think that they are responsible and should be held accountable for the messages that their books send, messages that are reliant entirely upon the context that either validates or invalidates them, particularly when the content of the message coincides with subtle, real world attitudes and is conveyed in an implicit manner. I don't say this to censor authors or limit readers or suggest that only certain things should be written. A fantasy about a mass murderer doesn't hold the same water in terms of readers' unconscious or conscious impressions because it's quite obvious that in the real world, being a mass murderer is a Bad Idea. A romance that portrays rape as not-rape coincides with social norms that also consider some rapes as not-rape and is that much closer to normalizing and condoning narrow definitions of what rape is and what rape looks like.
[trigger warning for discussions of rape culture]