After I'd finished it, and sighed happily, I held it close in my mind for a while -- as I do with such stories. I puzzled over its metaphors, and treasured my favourite parts, and analysed the things I found problematic in the writing, and looked for holes in the plot.
I considered its strong points (well written, good knowledge of the genre, interesting premise, great action, strong and human characterisation, and a fantastic depiction of forced intimacy due to close quarters), and its weak points (some of the sex scenes were over-written, the pace was a bit off in the fourth act). Mulled over whether the good outweighed the bad, and whether I should rec it... and realised, with some shock, that I felt very uneasy about reccing it. There was so much YAY! in the story that I had expected it to pass the rec test with flying colours. But instead, something was niggling.
I put that feeling aside, and continued to think about the story. I figured the problem, if there was one, would come to me eventually.
This morning, as I stood in the kitchen washing the dishes, I got to my favourite bit: figuring out what the story had told me. What I had learned. And bingo.
My stomach dropped, and I felt a terrible sense of, OH JOHN RINGO NO. Why? Beneath all that great dialogue and character interaction, this is what the story told me:
If you want sex and intimacy (especially with someone the world doesn't approve of), you must SUFFER and be TORTURED and have NO CHOICE. You are not allowed to say NO. Oh, you can try, but you will GIVE IN because of the DEPTH OF YOUR LOVE, even though you will be PUNISHED for it. But don't worry: you will become reconciled to being forced into YES once you are back in your real life, after suitable SUFFERING and GUILT, because once you have had intimate sex with someone, of course they must be your SOUL MATE FOREVER.
It's a tribute to the author that I didn't realise that's what the story was telling me until a day after I'd finished reading it and looked back on it as a whole.
The reason this is so dismaying to me is because I feel betrayed. I feel like I've been tricked into condoning rape and body hatred by reading and enjoying the scene-by-scene writing in this story. And I'm also angry that this message is still something we are invested in and telling to each other, in deeply coded form. Why must we still hate our bodies, our sexualities, so much that only kidnapping and torture can make 'healing cocks' something that are allowed?
I have read variations on this story many, many times, and not only in fanfiction. Frankly, I'm tired of it. So, so tired.
In my opinion, it's born of the same impulse that underpins the cliche of punishing anyone who has sex in horror movies. It's the same impulse that means That Man dominates the powerless heroine and makes her want it (without any negotiation or culpability on her part) in certain line romance novels. It's the same impulse that leads to porn with non-con fantasies in which men are forced to rape women (it's not their fault! The woman's evil best friend forced them to do it!). It's the same impulse that leads authors into tricking a reader into sympathising with a psycho (usually male), by showing their good side and then slowly and carefully explaining and excusing their acts of violence (oh, poor them, so misunderstood), and making sexy the suffering of their victims.
An example I can point to, so that you get a sense of what I mean, is Bareback by Kit Whitfield (find reviews here, here, here). It's very well-written novel, with strong world creation. I enjoyed reading it. It left a terrible taste in my mouth.
ETA: To clarify: at its simplest, the kind of story I'm objecting to here has a pattern of characters being forced into a situation with no choices, and that's the only point of the story, and everything leads to it, and everything flows from it, and the point of the lack of choice is to allow or justify rape/bdsm/incest/gay sex/torture etc. The main and only real dilemma of the story, in effect, is taken out of the main characters' hands. /eta
The thing is, I love clever crime stories, and I love angst, and I enjoy the potential of situations that lead to greater intimacy between characters who are already friends (by intimacy, I don't necessarily mean sex), and I love romance-against-the-odds.
But I really dislike characters being forced by circumstances into being in love or having sex or taking part in a power scene and liking it. Partly because I have a non-con squick that's pinged even when the author has made an effort to disguise the dynamic as true love (and fair cop, a small number of stories with these themes are not guilty of my accusations here, but merely ping me due to personal taste), but also because too often this trope is used thoughtlessly and the effect is one of passing off misogyny and body hatred as okay. I'm just over that more than I can express! If I never read another novel that encourages self-hatred for normal and/or ethically-self-controlled appetites it will be too soon.
As though that isn't enough, I dislike 'forced circumstances' because I think it's lazy writing (oh, direst of sins).
It's lazy because it short-circuits the characters actually having to make a moral or ethical choice of their own and take responsibility for what they want and do. It doesn't matter how much hand-wringing is done after the fact; if the characters are merely puppets, the dilemma is a cheat.
In my opinion, it's so much more exciting if the characters have a choice, and go there anyway! And then, yes, hand-wringing, angst galore, life being turned upside down all over the place. Fine! More than fine, even. That's the stuff of drama. That's Scarlett O'Hara or The Old Man and the Sea or Romeo and Juliet.
But I'm so so so tired of us finding excuses for variations on rape in our stories, and worst of all, not even seeming to notice that that's the kind of stories we're telling.
Normally I'd ask a question at this point, because I'm interested in finding out what other people think. But I really don't want to read screeds about how I'm seeing misogyny and body hatred where it doesn't exist. So: no questions.
Feel free, however, to rant about your own knee-jerks dislikes, your latest realisations about coded misogyny, or things that press your lazy writing hot buttons in general.
ETA: Wouldn't you know it -- my email is acting up. If you've tried to contact me that way and haven't heard back, please try again. I know at least one person has been affected, and I don't know their LJ handle.