Posts Tagged ‘Abuse’

As social media platforms enter their collective adolescence – Facebook is fifteen, YouTube fourteen, Twitter thirteen, tumblr twelve – I find myself thinking about how little we really understand their cultural implications, both ongoing and for the future. At this point, the idea that being online is completely optional in modern world ought to be absurd, and yet multiple friends, having spoken to their therapists about the impact of digital abuse on their mental health, were told straight up to just stop using the internet. Even if this was a viable option for some, the idea that we can neatly sidestep the problem of bad behaviour in any non-utilitarian sphere by telling those impacted to simply quit is baffling at best and a tacit form of victim-blaming at worst. The internet might be a liminal space, but object permanence still applies to what happens here: the trolls don’t vanish if we close our eyes, and if we vanquish one digital hydra-domain for Toxicity Crimes without caring to fathom the whys and hows of what went wrong, we merely ensure that three more will spring up in its place.

Is the internet a private space, a government space or a public space? Yes.

Is it corporate, communal or unaffiliated? Yes.

Is it truly global or bound by local legal jurisdictions? Yes.

Does the internet reflect our culture or create it? Yes.

Is what people say on the internet reflective of their true beliefs, or is it a constant shell-game of digital personas, marketing ploys, intrusive thoughts, growth-in-progress, personal speculation and fictional exploration? Yes.

The problem with the internet is that takes up all three areas on a Venn diagram depicting the overlap between speech and action, and while this has always been the case, we’re only now admitting that it’s a bug as well as a feature. Human interaction cannot be usefully monitored using an algorithm, but our current conception of What The Internet Is has been engineered specifically to shortcut existing forms of human oversight, the better to maximise both accessibility (good to neutral) and profits (neutral to bad). Uber and Lyft are cheaper, frequently more convenient alternatives to a traditional taxi service, for instance, but that’s because the apps themselves are functionally predicated on the removal of meaningful customer service and worker protections that were hard-won elsewhere. Sites like tumblr are free to use, but the lack of revenue generated by those users means that, past a certain point, profits can only hope to outstrip expenses by selling access to those users and/or their account data, which means in turn that paying to effectively monitor their content creation becomes vastly less important than monetising it.

Small wonder, then, that individual users of social media platforms have learned to place a high premium on their ability to curate what they see, how they see it, and who sees them in turn. When I first started blogging, the largely unwritten rule of the blogsphere was that, while particular webforums dedicated to specific topics could have rules about content and conduct, blogs and their comment pages should be kept Free. Monitoring comments was viewed as a sign of narrow-minded fearfulness: even if a participant was aggressive or abusive, the enlightened path was to let them speak, because anything else was Censorship. This position held out for a good long while, until the collective frustration of everyone who’d been graphically threatened with rape, torture and death, bombarded with slurs, exhausted by sealioning or simply fed up with nitpicking and bad faith arguments finally boiled over.

Particularly in progressive circles, the relief people felt at being told that actually, we were under no moral obligation to let assholes grandstand in the comments or repeatedly explain basic concepts to only theoretically invested strangers was overwhelming. Instead, you could simply delete them, or block them, or maybe even mock them, if the offence or initial point of ignorance seemed silly enough. But as with the previous system, this one-size-fits-all approach soon developed a downside. Thanks to the burnout so many of us felt after literal years of trying to treat patiently with trolls playing Devil’s Advocate, liberal internet culture shifted sharply towards immediate shows of anger, derision and flippancy to anyone who asked a 101 question, or who didn’t use the right language, or who did anything other than immediately agree with whatever position was explained to them, however simply.

I don’t exempt myself from this criticism, but knowing why I was so goddamn tired doesn’t change my conviction that, cumulatively, the end result did more harm than good. Without wanting to sidetrack into a lengthy dissertation on digital activism in the post-aughties decade, it seems evident in hindsight that the then-fledgling alliance between trolls, MRAs, PUAs, Redditors and 4channers to deliberately exhaust left-wing goodwill via sealioning and bad faith arguments was only the first part of a two-pronged attack. The second part, when the left had lost all patience with explaining its own beliefs and was snappily telling anyone who asked about feminism, racism or anything else to just fucking Google it, was to swoop in and persuade the rebuffed party that we were all irrational, screeching harridans who didn’t want to answer because we knew our answers were bad, and why not consider reading Roosh V instead?

The fallout of this period, I would argue, is still ongoing. In an ideal world, drawing a link between online culture wars about ownership of SFF and geekdom and the rise of far-right fascist, xenophobic extremism should be a bow so long that not even Odysseus himself could draw it. But this world, as we’ve all had frequent cause to notice, is far from ideal at the best of times – which these are not – and yet another featurebug of the internet is the fluid interpermeability of its various spaces. We talk, for instance – as I am talking here – about social media as a discreet concept, as though platforms like Twitter or Facebook are functionally separate from the other sites to which their users link; as though there is no relationship between or bleed-through from the viral Facebook post screencapped and shared on BuzzFeed, which is then linked and commented upon on Reddit, which thread is then linked to on Twitter, where an entirely new conversation emerges and subsequently spawns an article in The Huffington Post, which is shared again on Facebook and the replies to that shared on tumblr, and so on like some grizzly perpetual mention machine.

But I digress. The point here is that internet culture is best understood as a pattern of ripples, each new iteration a reaction to the previous one, spreading out until it dissipates and a new shape takes its place. Having learned that slamming the virtual door in everyone’s face was a bad idea, the online left tried establishing a better, calmer means of communication; the flipside was a sudden increase in tone-policing, conversations in which presentation was vaunted over substance and where, once again, particular groups were singled out as needing to conform to the comfort-levels of others. Overlapping with this was the move towards discussing things as being problematic, rather than using more fixed and strident language to decry particular faults – an attempt to acknowledge the inherent fallibility of human works while still allowing for criticism. A sensible goal, surely, but once again, attempting to apply the dictum universally proved a double-edged sword: if everything is problematic, then how to distinguish grave offences from trifling ones? How can anyone enjoy anything if we’re always expected to thumb the rosary of its failings first?

When everything is problematic and everyone has the right to say so, being online as any sort of creator or celebrity is like being nibbled to death by ducks. The well-meaning promise of various organisations, public figures or storytellers to take criticism on board – to listen to the fanbase and do right by their desires – was always going to stumble over the problem of differing tastes. No group is a hivemind: what one person considers bad representation or in poor taste, another might find enlightening, while yet a third party is more concerned with something else entirely. Even in cases with a clear majority opinion, it’s physically impossible to please everyone and a type of folly to try, but that has yet to stop the collective internet from demanding it be so. Out of this comes a new type of ironic frustration: having once rejoiced in being allowed to simply block trolls or timewasters, we now cast judgement on those who block us in turn, viewing them, as we once were viewed, as being fearful of criticism.

Are we creating echo chambers by curating what we see online, or are we acting in pragmatic acknowledgement of the fact that we neither have time to read everything nor an obligation to see all perspectives as equally valid? Yes.

Even if we did have the time and ability to wade through everything, is the signal-to-noise ratio of truth to lies on the internet beyond our individual ability to successfully measure, such that outsourcing some of our judgement to trusted sources is fundamentally necessary, or should we be expected to think critically about everything we encounter, even if it’s only intended as entertainment? Yes.

If something or someone online acts in a way that’s antithetical to our values, are we allowed to tune them out thereafter, knowing full well that there’s a nearly infinite supply of as-yet undisappointing content and content-creators waiting to take their place, or are we obliged to acknowledge that Doing A Bad doesn’t necessarily ruin a person forever? Yes.

And thus we come to cancel culture, the current – but by no means final – culmination of previous internet discourse waves. In this iteration, burnout at critical engagement dovetails with a new emphasis on collective content curation courtesies (try saying that six times fast), but ends up hamstrung once again by differences in taste. Or, to put it another way: someone fucks up and it’s the last straw for us personally, so we try to remove them from our timelines altogether – but unless our friends and mutuals, who we still want to engage with, are convinced to do likewise, then we haven’t really removed them at all, such that we’re now potentially willing to make failure to cancel on demand itself a cancellable offence.

Which brings us right back around to the problem of how the modern internet is fundamentally structured – which is to say, the way in which it’s overwhelmingly meant to rely on individual curation instead of collective moderation. Because the one thing each successive mode of social media discourse has in common with its predecessors is a central, and currently unanswerable question: what universal code of conduct exists that I, an individual on the internet, can adhere to – and expect others to adhere to – while we communicate across multiple different platforms?

In the real world, we understand about social behavioural norms: even if we don’t talk about them in those terms, we broadly recognise them when we see them. Of course, we also understand that those norms can vary from place to place and context to context, but as we can only ever be in one physical place at a time, it’s comparatively easy to adjust as appropriate.

But the internet, as stated, is a liminal space: it’s real and virtual, myriad and singular, private and public all at once. It confuses our sense of which rules might apply under which circumstances, jumbles the normal behavioural cues by obscuring the identity of our interlocutors, and even though we don’t acknowledge it nearly as often as we should, written communication – like spoken communication – is a skill that not everyone has, just as tone, whether spoken or written, isn’t always received (or executed, for that matter) in the way it was intended. And when it comes to politics, in which the internet and its doings now plays no small role, there’s the continual frustration that comes from observing, with more and more frequency, how many literal, real-world crimes and abuses go without punishment, and how that lack of consequences contributes in turn to the fostering of abuse and hostility towards vulnerable groups online.

This is what comes of occupying a transitional period in history: one in which laws are changed and proposed to reflect our changing awareness of the world, but where habit, custom, ignorance, bias and malice still routinely combine, both institutionally and more generally, to see those laws enacted only in part, or tokenistically, or not at all. To take one of the most egregious and well-publicised instances that ultimately presaged the #MeToo movement, the laughably meagre sentence handed down to Brock Turner, who was caught in the act of raping an unconscious woman, combined with the emphasis placed by both the judge and much of the media coverage on his swimming talents and family standing as a means of exonerating him, made it very clear that sexual violence against women is frequently held to be less important than the perceived ‘bright futures’ of its perpetrators.

Knowing this, then – knowing that the story was spread, discussed and argued about on social media, along with thousands of other, similar accounts; knowing that, even in this context, some people still freely spoke up in defence of rapists and issued misogynistic threats against their female interlocutors – is it any wonder that, in the absence of consistent legal justice in such cases, the internet tried, and is still trying, to fill the gap? Is it any wonder, when instances of racist police brutality are constantly filmed and posted online, only for the perpetrators to receive no discipline, that we lose patience for anyone who wants to debate the semantics of when, exactly, extrajudicial murder is “acceptable”?

We cannot control the brutality of the world from the safety of our keyboards, but when it exhausts or threatens us, we can at least click a button to mute its seeming adherents. We don’t always have the energy to decry the same person we’ve already argued against a thousand times before, but when a friend unthinkingly puts them back on our timeline for some new reason, we can tell them that person is cancelled and hope they take the hint not to do it again. Never mind that there is far too often no subtlety, no sense of scale or proportion to how the collective, viral internet reacts in each instance, until all outrage is rendered flat and the outside observer could be forgiven for worrying what’s gone wrong with us all, that using a homophobic trope in a TV show is thought to merit the same online response as an actual hate crime. So long as the war is waged with words alone, there’s only a finite number of outcomes that boycotting, blocking, blacklisting, cancelling, complaining and critiquing can achieve, and while some of those outcomes in particular are well worth fighting for, so many words are poured towards so many attempts that it’s easy to feel numbed to the process; or, conversely, easy to think that one response fits all contexts.

I’m tired of cancel culture, just as I was dully tired of everything that preceded it and will doubtless grow tired of everything that comes after it in turn, until our fundamental sense of what the internet is and how it should be managed finally changes. Like it or not, the internet both is and is of the world, and that is too much for any one person to sensibly try and curate at an individual level. Where nothing is moderated for us, everything must be moderated by us; and wherever people form communities, those communities will grow cultures, which will develop rules and customs that spill over into neighbouring communities, both digitally and offline, with mixed and ever-changing results. Cancel culture is particularly tricky in this regard, as the ease with which we block someone online can seldom be replicated offline, which makes it all the more intoxicating a power to wield when possible: we can’t do anything about the awful coworker who rants at us in the breakroom, but by God, we can block every person who reminds us of them on Twitter.

The thing about participating in internet discourse is, it’s like playing Civilisation in real-time, only it’s not a game and the world keeps progressing even when you log off. Things change so fast on the internet – memes, etiquette, slang, dominant opinions – and yet the changes spread so organically and so fast that we frequently adapt without keeping conscious track of when and why they shifted. Social media is like the Hotel California: we can check out any time we like, but we can never meaningfully leave – not when world leaders are still threatening nuclear war on Twitter, or when Facebook is using friendly memes to test facial recognition software, or when corporate accounts are creating multi-staffed humansonas to engage with artists on tumblr, or when YouTube algorithms are accidentally-on-purpose steering kids towards white nationalist propaganda because it makes them more money.

Of course we try and curate our time online into something finite, comprehensible, familiar, safe: the alternative is to embrace the near-infinite, incomprehensible, alien, dangerous gallimaufry of our fractured global mindscape. Of course we want to try and be critical, rational, moral in our convictions and choices; it’s just that we’re also tired and scared and everyone who wants to argue with us about anything can, even if they’re wrong and angry and also our relative, or else a complete stranger, and sometimes you just want to turn off your brain and enjoy a thing without thinking about it, or give yourself some respite, or exercise a tiny bit of autonomy in the only way you can.

It’s human nature to want to be the most amount of right for the least amount of effort, but unthinkingly taking our moral cues from internet culture the same way we’re accustomed to doing in offline contexts doesn’t work: digital culture shifts too fast and too asymmetrically to be relied on moment to moment as anything like a universal touchstone. Either you end up preaching to the choir, or you run a high risk of aggravation, not necessarily due to any fundamental ideological divide, but because your interlocutor is leaning on a different, false-universal jargon overlying alternate 101 and 201 concepts to the ones you’re using, and modern social media platforms – in what is perhaps the greatest irony of all – are uniquely poorly suited to coherent debate.

Purity wars in fandom, arguments about diversity in narrative and whether its proponents have crossed the line from criticism into bullying: these types of arguments are cyclical now, dying out and rekindling with each new wave of discourse. We might not yet be in a position to stop it, but I have some hope that being aware of it can mitigate the worst of the damage, if only because I’m loathe to watch yet another fandom steadily talk itself into hating its own core media for the sake of literal argument.

For all its flaws – and with all its potential – the internet is here to stay. Here’s hoping we figure out how to fix it before its ugliest aspects make us give up on ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

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Trigger warning: referenced child abuse

In the land of Uztar, falconry is everything. From the ruling kyrgs in their castles to the commoners who trap and train birds for a living, Uztari culture is centred on birds of prey. Yet one bird is feared and revered above all others: the legendary ghost eagle, a massive raptor whose strange, psychic cry exposes the worst selves of all who hunt it. Many falconers have died in pursuit of the ghost eagle and the glory it represents – including Yzzat, an abusive drunkard whose cruelty has forever scarred his children. Now free from their father, twins Kylee and Brysen are finally close to escaping out from under the debts he left behind – until Brysen’s boyfriend, Dymian, lands in trouble with the Tamir family. To save him, Brysen makes an impulsive promise: a ghost eagle in exchange for Dymian’s life. As the threat of war between the Uztari and the feared Kartami, extremists who revile all falconry, begins to shape wider events, Brysen and Kylee must negotiate their own troubled relationship in order to save their future. But what chance do two teenagers have against the ghost eagle?

Every so often, I find myself drifting away from YA as a genre, until a book comes along that drags me back in and reminds me what I love about it. Black Wings Beating is such a book: beautifully worldbuilt, exceptionally characterised and deftly written, it packs a lot of feeling into a compact, pacey package. It also hits that (for me) perfect sweet-spot of magic fantasy adventure meets queer romantic feelings: though queerness is normative and accepted within the setting, Brysen is still allowed to struggle with romance and identity along a different axis, neatly paralleling Kylee’s quest to accept and understand her gift for the Hollow Tongue, an ancient magical language that bestows control over birds.

Told with alternating third-person focus on Kylee and Brysen and interspersed with glimpses of wider political happenings, Black Wings Beating is, at its heart, a novel about abuse, autonomy and survival. Since childhood, Kylee and Brysen were pitted against each other by their father, Yzzat, who yearned to exploit his daughter’s gifts while reviling his son’s comparative lack of talent. Though furious with and frustrated by Kylee’s disinterest in falconry and her refusal to use her magic to his advantage, Yzzat still dreamed of winning her to his cause and, through her, obtaining prestige. As such, his physical abuse was reserved for Brysen alone: whippings, beatings and worse that left Brysen desperate to prove himself useful. And so the dichotomy between the twins was set: Kylee, reluctant to use her talents and thereby see her brother further diminished, forced to carry the weight of the world along with the care and management of her family; Brysen, rushing headlong into any opportunity to shine without realistic planning, dreaming big to cover how small he feels and the knowledge that, if he stops to think, he’ll remember to hate himself.

It’s an achingly real dynamic, and one that sees the reader rooting for both siblings despite – or perhaps because of – how often their feelings and shared-yet-different experiences put them at odds. London has a nuanced grasp of psychology and characterisation that makes even his minor characters feel fleshed out, and when combined with his vivid portrayal of falconry and its place in Uztari culture, the effect is powerful. Reading Black Wings Beating, in fact, I was finally able to articulate something I’ve been struggling to pin down in terms of YA novels generally: the distinction between a story in which potentially difficult teenage behaviours are excused, and one in which they are explained.

In the former instance, neither the text itself nor the events it depicts make any real judgement or commentary about the characters’ actions: whether they’re being kind or cruel, sensible or impulsive, hesitant or brash, and if this ultimately has a positive or negative effect on those around them. Rather, we’re shown how their motives are justified to them, such that it’s easy to conflate the character’s feelings with the author’s approval of their actions – sometimes correctly, sometimes not, but in either case due to the lack of textual evidence for a different interpretation. In the latter instance, either the text or the events it depicts, or both, are used to make us think critically about the characters, such that, even when we understand their self-justifications, we’re encouraged by the text – and, by extension, the author – to form our own conclusions.

To be clear: I’m not saying that the former type of story is bad, or that this dichotomy between stories that lack or feature authorial commentary exists only in YA. However, in the specific context of the teenage characters in YA SFF, who are often called upon to act in extraordinary ways or participate in world-altering events, and whose youthful impulsiveness is often used to propel them through their adventures, reading Black Wings Beating has confirmed my preference for the latter type of story. Over and over again, both Brysen and Kylee make terrible choices while only sometimes being aware of it. But while London shows us their rationalisations, he doesn’t present them as being objectively rational. Both Kylee and Brysen are trying their best, but their abusive childhood has twisted their relationship, their judgement and their self-perception in different ways, such that, even when they know they’ve made a bad decision, they don’t always know what the right one would’ve been, or even if there was a better choice to be made at all.

Set over the course of a few days, Black Wings Beating uses Kylee and Brysen as an intimate lens through which to view the incipient struggles of Uztar as a whole. Though we only catch glimpses of the power-hungry kyrgs and the coming Kartami threat, these parts of the story all fit neatly together, so that our focus on the twins looks like a convincing telescopic zoom-in on the localised details of a wider landscape. And throughout it all, the influence of falconry – of the eternally unrequited love of a falconer for their birds – is incorporated into the narrative. Just as Brysen’s existing relationship with Dymian, a falcon master, is contrasted with his newfound bond with Jowyn, a bone-white boy who lives with the mysterious Owl Mothers, so is Kylee’s friendship with Vyvian, a spy for the kyrgs, contrasted with her feelings for Nyall, a long-time friend who loves her despite her indifference to romance.

The love a falconer has for their bird will never be reciprocated, the story tells us, and yet that love – the willingness to care for a creature that may only hurt or disdain you – lies at the heart of falconry. It is this love which the Kartami despise as weak, but it is also central to the strength both Kylee and Brysen show: the courage it takes them to love at all – to love themselves, to love others, and to contemplate being loved – despite the abuse they’ve endured.

Though Black Wings Beating is clearly the first volume in a planned trilogy, it nonetheless ends on an emotionally satisfying note. I can’t wait to see what happens in the rest of the series, and I look forward to reading whatever else London writes in the future.

Warning: major spoilers for the entire Captive Prince trilogy.

Trigger warning: discussion of rape, slavery, child abuse, paedophilia.

Late last year, a friend recommended I try the Captive Prince trilogy by C. S. Pacat, describing it as an excellent queer fantasy romance series. I made interested noises and then, somewhat typically, forgot about it until it cropped up again on my tumblr dash. I don’t know what alchemical combination of blogs I’m currently following to make this so, but thus far, everything I’ve ever read, watched or played on the basis of hearing about it through tumblr has been something I’ve loved, or at least enjoyed despite whatever criticisms I’ve made of it. That being so, and as it was my birthday that weekend, I shelled out for an ebook of the first volume, Captive Prince, and decided to give it a try before bed.

I stayed up until 5am to finish it, then read the next two volumes – Prince’s Gambit and Kings Rising – in less than a day. They’re not long books, but length aside, I couldn’t put them down, and given how much I’ve recently struggled to stay immersed in any story long enough to finish it, that’s saying something. The series is, as advertised, a queer fantasy romance, but while it’s certainly SFF, it counts as fantasy only inasmuch as it’s set in an original secondary world – there’s no magic or mythical creatures, with the focus instead resting on romance and politics.

These are not, by a long shot, perfect books; in fact, they contain a great many elements I traditionally despise, and which would ordinarily cause me to run a mile in the opposite direction. Which is, in part, why I’ve spent the past three months drafting this review: to get my head around exactly how and why I enjoyed them anyway. Because I did enjoy them, for all that I’m about to launch into a lengthy, detailed criticism of their failings, and as easy as it would be to simply write them off as a guilty pleasure, I feel like they deserve more than that.

Here’s the blurb for Captive Prince, the first volume:

Damen is a warrior hero to his people, and the truthful heir to the throne of Akielos, but when his half brother seizes power, Damen is captured, stripped of his identity and sent to serve the prince of an enemy nation as a pleasure slave.

Beautiful, manipulative and deadly, his new master Prince Laurent epitomizes the worst of the court at Vere. But in the lethal political web of the Veretian court, nothing is as it seems, and when Damen finds himself caught up in a play for the throne, he must work together with Laurent to survive and save his country.

For Damen, there is just one rule: never, ever reveal his true identity. Because the one man Damen needs is the one man who has more reason to hate him than anyone else…

Straight away, then, it needs to be acknowledged: this is a world in which slavery, and especially sexual slavery, is normative, and where the primary romance is between a character who, at the outset, is enslaved by the other. Also salient is the issue of race: Laurent is white, while Damen, who’s described as being olive-skinned and dark-haired, is not. Those are going to be hard limits for some people, and with good reason. It’s not something I want to minimise or elide. As I recently had cause to say elsewhere, the fact that I can discuss these elements at a remove is a consequence of privilege: that I enjoyed – or was, rather, able to enjoy – the books otherwise is both personally disquieting and a concession I’d never expect of anyone else.

That being so, it’s also relevant – to me, at least – that Captive Prince was first published online, as an ongoing original  fanfic/slash story, with the first two volumes serialised between 2008 and 2012: by contrast, the content of Kings Rising, which only came out this year, is entirely new. Online, there’s an explicit culture of tagging and author/reader interaction in digital slash circles, both for fanfic and original works, that serves to contextualise which elements of a story are intended for reader critique, and which are explicitly included as a deliberate kink. It’s why, I’ve discovered, there are tropes and stories I’m happy to read in fanfic that I’ll baulk at elsewhere, and nor am I the only person of whom that’s true. It makes a significant difference to know that the author knows that a particular trope or exchange is problematic, and is writing it that way on purpose, as an exploration of flawed humanity or as a dead dove indulgence, instead of having to wonder if they genuinely think it’s okay.

Thus: while I’ve clearly come late to the party and didn’t see the original discussions surrounding, in particular, the early chapters of Pacat’s work, when they were first posted online, the fact that this engagement took place at all – that the story was written in expectation of such engagement – seems relevant to analysing it now. Master/slave romances are a longstanding staple of both erotica and slash, and while that fact doesn’t magically exempt them from criticism either in terms of individual execution or as a discreet phenomenon, it does situate the device itself as, well – a device, one Pacat recognises as such, and which she likely discussed with readers when the story first went up; a discussion to which I have no access, but which nonetheless impacted how and why the story was told as it was.

Here is the thing I struggle with about erotica/romance: the fact that something is explicitly written as a sexual fantasy doesn’t exempt it from criticism, but nor is a reader who enjoys such fantasies automatically wrong to read them uncritically. The act of writing is always an act of fantasy, of construction, but sexual fantasies, by their very nature, occupy a uniquely personal space. It is quite possible to compartmentalise what one finds acceptable in normal life versus what one finds arousing in fantasy, as fiction, within a controlled narrative space; and yet it’s also possible to confuse the two on both ends, to assume that privately desiring a thing excuses its uncritical replication, or to trust that such uncritical replication means there’s nothing to criticise in the first place. Our kinks are our own, but to a large extent, they’re also socially influenced, and as such, the primacy of particular narratives, uncritically viewed and ubiquitous, can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The issue becomes further muddled if we attempt to draw that salient distinction between sex and romance, particularly in the context of their interrelated tropes. Sexual fantasies are not the same as romantic fantasies, though there may be some overlap. Speaking personally – which, on the ultimate Your Mileage May Vary topic, is really all I can do – I have a deep mistrust of erotica whose romance elements are meant to be inferred from the hotness of the pornography alone, particularly in instances where the sexual fantasy elements either negate or raise serious questions about the healthiness of the corresponding emotional relationship. Which is where we run into something of a unique, arguably moral but certainly critical, conundrum: how, exactly, does one negotiate the intersection of kink with criticism?

On the one hand, it can’t be denied that the idea of sexual slavery is, for many, an arousing fantasy; and more, that their enjoyment of the concept in fiction isn’t contingent on it being portrayed exclusively as a meta-fantasy of the characters. By which I mean: however abhorrent one might find the concept of sexual slavery in real life, such that physically indulging in such play would (one hopes) take place only under the pre-negotiated auspices of safe, sane and consensual or RACK, the very fact of knowing that a story is fictional, and therefore a fantasy constructed for the reader, can void the need for the characters to engage in similar negotiations. Consent is therefore established, not between the protagonists, but between the reader and the work itself: instead of safewording, all we need do is set the book aside, the characters undamaged by virtue of being imaginary. That being so, a story doesn’t need to internally establish the immorality of slavery, sexual or otherwise, in order to scratch the itch of an otherwise deeply consent-oriented kink.

On the other hand, and regardless of whether the presence of slavery is either intended or able to satisfy a kink, we are not wrong to critique it, and especially not when its inclusion is narratively unexamined. Slavery still exists, both sexually and otherwise; its victims are myriad, their stories appalling. Its impact on histories both individual and collective is staggering, indelible, undeniable and ongoing, and even without any personal experience of or connection to such suffering, we have every right to be horrified by narratives or characters which do not unequivocally denounce it, or which feature it at all, for that matter.

Likewise in this instance, given the historical intersection of racism with both slavery and pornography (both straight and queer), it’s impossible to argue that race simply doesn’t matter, or insist that the characters be judged wholly on the basis of the setting. Calling a mandingo portrayal a kink instead of a trope (for instance) doesn’t make it any less racist – but then, the intersection of racism with fandom is something we, meaning white fans, are still notoriously bad at navigating. The “don’t like, don’t read” culture of fanwriting, which is frequently cited as grounds for critical exemption, is a case in point. While fair enough in theory – fans are, after all, working for free, for pleasure – this doesn’t change the fact that the persistent elision of POC characters, coupled with the joint problems of authorial stereotyping and reader pushback when they do appear, can make a space that otherwise prides itself on its inclusiveness both hostile and alienating to fans of colour, who are then further criticised for violating fan etiquette when they react. As ever, it’s a problem of wider social problems converging in fanspace: fanwriters didn’t create racism, but we can certainly bring it with us, and as Captive Prince began in fanfic communities, it’s certainly a relevant aspect of the discussion.

And then, on that perennially metaphoric third hand, there’s the issue of critical narrative immersion: the decision to accept that slavery is part of the worldbuilding, and to separate our judgement of its objective immorality from our judgement of how skilfully (or not) the world and its characters are constructed, and how they work on their own terms. This is a tricky thing to do, inasmuch as it involves embracing a deliberate form of cognitive dissonance: the parallel rendering of two disparate opinions on the same subject, both accepted, yet never quite reconciled. It’s this third path I find myself taking with the Captive Prince trilogy, further contextualised by my awareness of the other two options. Doubtless, there are some who’ll perceive me as drastically overthinking things, while others might assert that I’m thinking too little, or from the wrong perspective. That being so, the best I can attempt is honesty, both emotional and intellectual: to show my working where possible, and to admit the lack of it otherwise.

Here, then, is the short version of my opinion, by way of prefacing the longer one: Pacat is an excellent writer, one whose style and depth both demonstrably improve as the series progresses. That the first book was written online, in the context of fanfiction and that community’s discussion of both kink and sexuality is, as mentioned, salient in examining its portrayal of sexual slavery, particularly in comparison to the third. The abiding impression I have – or instinct, rather – is that, having used the concept of sexual slavery as a kinky premise for a story being updated live, the setup meant as an excuse for Damen to be deposed and enslaved by his half-brother rather than as a nuanced exploration of culture, Pacat was unable to go back and change things once the story took off. This potentially explains why the first book treats sexual slavery as a normative, largely unexamined central focus; why the second moves almost completely away from slavery without ever really addressing it; and why the third attempts, albeit tentatively, to acknowledge it as wrong without ever really probing its initial acceptance and the implications thereof.

All this being so, and with the best will in the world, it’s clear that Pacat is writing from a position of unexamined white privilege. Even if her initial introduction of sexual slavery was meant wholly as a kinky plot device, its wider implications for Damen’s history unconsidered at the outset, there is no such excuse (if we can call it that) for blithely assuming that the image of a brown-skinned man in chained service to a white man would be narratively neutral. That Damen’s race is never considered salient to his slavery within the story doesn’t change what it evokes to the reader.

Or rather, what it can evoke: from my perspective, Damen’s race feels like an unacknowledged elephant in the room of the Captive Prince fandom. I’ve seen it mentioned as a problem online exactly once, while a staggering amount of fanart involves Damen in chains, cuffs and collar. That he wears all these things at one time or another doesn’t change the fact that replicating them in fanart – emphasising them above other options – is a choice, and one made fairly consistently. That Laurent whips Damen nearly to death in the first book, resulting in permanent scarring, likewise invokes a very specific, very ugly history; as do the times when Damen is referred to as a barbarian, cur or savage. That these insults are delivered exclusively in relation to his culture and warrior-status rather than his race doesn’t change their potential, awful resonance for readers to whom these are all deeply personal, lived insults, nor does it justify their inclusion Because Worldbuilding. No matter how perfectly explained and narratively consistent the internal logic of a setting – no matter how many in-book justifications exist to try and soften the parallels – we all, creators and readers both, bring our world and its history with us. That is inescapable.

Paradoxically, it’s Pacat’s utter obliviousness on this front – and, as a consequence, the obliviousness of the narrative – which made it tolerable for me. (Which isn’t, I hasten to add, the same as defensible; see above re: parallel judgements.) If Damen was insulted on the basis of his skin colour or ethnicity, I suspect I would’ve flung my Kindle at the wall; instead, he’s slandered on the basis of being Akelion, with his countrymen casting identical slurs at the Veretians. The comparison of these countries is an interesting one: Akielos is heavily based on ancient Greece, while Vere is more reminiscent of a decadent, pre-revolutionary France, though in this setting, both nations were originally part of a single empire and exist now at an identical technological level. As such, while Damen’s colouring is less common in Vere and Laurent’s less common in Akielos, there’s enough of a shared heritage that Damen isn’t exoticised for his looks. In fact, it’s Laurent who’s more often fetishised on this count, regardless of the observer’s nationality.

That being said, things turn murky again on re-examining the issue of slavery. Like ancient Greece, Akielos is a slave culture, and at the start of the first book, our assumption is that the same is true of Vere. In fact, from Damen’s introductory perspective, Vere’s version of slavery is far more horrifying in its abuses than anything practised in Akielos, and as such, we’re inclined to sympathise with his outrage (which is, note, a different thing to agreeing with his corresponding defence of his homeland’s practices). The problem is that Damen is, in this respect, an unreliable narrator – not intentionally, but by virtue of cultural ignorance. The story is premised on the deposed, imprisoned Damen, along with a contingent of trained slaves, being sent as a gift to Laurent’s uncle, the Regent of Vere; this makes slavery seem normal in Vere, as does the presence of ‘pets’ kept by the nobility for sexual use.

Not unreasonably, Damen assumes the pets are slaves, and so, in turn, does the reader. It’s only later that we discover this isn’t true: pets are more akin to courtesans, occupying contractual, paid positions. With this information in hand, the opening scenes in Vere – which are, to say the least, both violent and debauched – are cast in, if not a redeeming light, then one in which consent isn’t quite so thoroughly disregarded. Damen and the other slaves are still vilely mistreated, but given the slow reveal of the Regent’s particular monstrousness, it’s not initially clear that this abuse is ultimately the Regent’s doing alone, rather than constituting a widespread cultural practice.

As such, once it becomes clear that Vere is not, in fact, a slave culture, our perception of Damen’s outrage – and of him – is necessarily forced to shift. From the outset, we know that he’s slept with slaves before, and that slaves are prized, treated gently, and praised for their submission in Akielos. Indeed, it’s the abuse of this submissiveness that rouses Damen’s ire, to the point where he intercedes with Laurent to have the other slaves gifted to an ambassador from neighbouring Patras, who knows enough of their training and value to treat them kindly. The slaves themselves – or one in particular, Erasmus, whom we take as being a spokesman for the others – are grateful for this opportunity; the question of freeing them is never raised. Which is where, once again, we run up against the intersection of kink and criticism: the ‘submissiveness’ in question is described in ways that make it feel highly reminiscent of BDSM, with submission offered as part of a reciprocal relationship involving a duty of care, both emotionally and physically, on the master’s behalf. Erasmus’s new master, for instance, is outraged by his rape in Vere, expressing a heartfelt refusal to sleep with him until or unless the other man is ready.

And yet, for all that we’re meant to be thinking of BDSM – for all that masters under the Akielios/Patras system care greatly about the wellbeing of their slaves – this is still an arrangement without consent. Slaves are taken as captives and trained; the practice is a legitimate source of anger in Vere, whose people suffer in border raids. Damen, raised to view this type of slavery as normative, sees nothing wrong with it, and as this seemingly ‘gentler’ alternative is being contrasted with the violent environs of Vere, the narrative doesn’t encourage us to question his assessment. But Vere, despite the depravity of its Regent, is not a slave culture; Akielos is. Yet even in his captivity, Damen doesn’t engage in any real reflection on the wrongness of of slavery (though Laurent makes some pointed remarks about it before then) until Kings Rising; at which point, now freed and fighting to reclaim his country, he eventually pledges to end the whole institution.

Obviously, this is a positive development, for all that it feels like too little, too late; and yet I can’t help thinking that, once again, the problem lies with Pacat’s inability to edit those early chapters. The first book, Captive Prince, treats sexual slavery as an uncritically examined kink/conceit in a way that the subsequent two volumes do not, but on which their events are nonetheless based. This forces Pacat to walk a very thin line in expanding on her own, unalterable canon: to address slavery as an evil – and to acknowledge the past abuses of the protagonists – without presenting them as wholly irredeemable, at least within the context of her world. That she manages this is a testament to her skill as a writer; nonetheless, I’d be remiss not to point out that the problem is one of her own making. Or, looked at another way, a problem of success: had the stories remained online, contextualised by fanfic’s tagging and commentary system – or had they been less popular, such that editing might have passed unnoticed prior to mainstream publication – my reaction might well have been different. At the very least, it might have been easier to distinguish intention from accident.

As if further complications were required, there’s also Laurent’s early treatment of Damen to consider. At base, the Captive Prince trilogy is an enemies to friends to lovers narrative, with each book representing one of those three stages. However unexamined the wider issues of slavery and consent raised by Pacat’s cultures and worldbuilding might be, it works in the series’ favour that there’s no introduction of romance between Laurent and Damen until the two are eventually placed on an equal footing. And yet – again – the offences of the first book cast a long shadow: in particular, three early offences that set the tone for Damen’s early hatred of Laurent. Namely: Damen is badly whipped at his instruction; is forced to engage in a fight where, if he loses, he’ll be raped by the winner (which involves him being prepped for penetrative sex beforehand); and is given oral sex by a pet, with Laurent instructing said pet on what to do.

Definitionally, these latter two acts – the prep and the oral sex – are forms of rape, but the narrative never acknowledges them as such. Damen wins the rape-fight by knocking out his opponent, and therefore escapes having to either rape or be raped, but that doesn’t change what was done to him beforehand, even if it never comes up again. Similarly, in the instant with the pet – which is orchestrated by people other than Laurent, whose complicity is politically forced – although Damen is initially unwilling and unaroused,  Laurent’s instruction results in his physical enjoyment of the act. While the two later discuss this event, it’s never described as a violation; which, on the one hand, is Damen’s prerogative, and as we’re in his perspective, we’re clear on his lack of trauma. If such a scene were present in a fanfic, I’d expect it to be tagged for dubcon – and perhaps, as per the story’s initial serialisation, it was. It’s exactly the sort of scene I can imagine being written for erotic value, as an explicit kink/fantasy, but as stated earlier, the ambiguity on this point, absent any authorial footnoting, is a source of personal unease. The whipping, however, has a different derivation, and is, somewhat strangely, situated within the narrative as being the most forgiveable of these actions despite being the most violent.

There are three major contextualising reasons for this.

Context the first, which constitutes a major reveal of the final book: that Laurent has known all along that Damen is Damianos, the man who killed his brother Auguste six years ago, ending a war that resulted in Akelios annexing a northern Veretian province, the death of Laurent’s father, the king, and the ascent of his uncle to the regency. Context the second, which a canny reader can intuit from various, increasingly obvious clues from the first book onwards, but which isn’t explicitly confirmed until the third: that Laurent’s uncle, a paedophile, abused him for years after his brother’s death – was able to do so without any threat of discovery or oversight precisely because Auguste was dead, and Laurent was left alone. And context the third, which leads directly to the whipping: after the rape-fight, whose conclusion involves Damen being propositioned by an underage boy, Nicaise (who we later learn is the uncle’s pet), Damen and Laurent have the following exchange:

“So my slave is bashful in the arena. Don’t you fuck boys in Akielos?”

“I’m quite cultured. Before I rape anyone, I first check to see if their voice has broken,” said Damen.

Laurent smiled.

This conversation happens in a bathing room, where Damen is shortly instructed to wash Laurent – not with any sexual overtones, but as a servile chore. Nonetheless, Damen becomes aroused, and when Laurent notices, this happens:

“Don’t be presumptuous,” said Laurent, coldly.

“Too late, sweetheart,” said Damen.

Laurent turned, and with calm precision unleashed a backhanded blow that had easily enough force to bloody a mouth, but Damen had had quite enough of being hit, and he caught Laurent’s hand before the blow connected…

Damen let his gaze wander downwards – wet from chest to taut abdomen – and further. It was really a very, very nice body, but the cold outrage was genuine. Laurent was not even a little amorous, Damen noted; that part of him, quite as sweetly made as the rest, was quiescent.

He felt the tension hit Laurent’s body, though the tone didn’t change overmuch from its usual drawl. “But my voice has broken. That was the only prerequisite, wasn’t it?”

Damen released his grip, as though burned. A moment later, the blow he had thwarted landed, harder than he could have imagined, smashing across his mouth.

Get him out of here,” said Laurent.

From Damen’s perspective – which is to say, the only perspective we’re given – Laurent is capricious, violent and cold: the kind of person who’ll whip a slave bloody for a minor infraction, or enter him in a rape-or-be-raped fight against a violent opponent for fun. He doesn’t introspect about Laurent’s motives, because he doesn’t need to: he only needs to hate him and survive.

From Laurent’s perspective, however, things are rather more complex. His abuser, who is currently engaged in a labyrinthine effort to see him discredited, dead or preferably both before he can take the throne in his own right, has just handed him the man he hates most in the world as a slave and publicly ordered him not to kill or harm him, such that any disobedience will see Laurent suffer. Trying to get around this injunction, Laurent pits Damen in the only kind of fight that won’t violate his uncle’s command – because it’s his uncle who encourages the rape-fights, though usually between willing pets – against one of his uncle’s men, who Damen subsequently defeats.When they then discuss this fight, Damen makes a joke about his own willingness to rape, which Laurent, a rape victim, construes – not unreasonably – as a threat. He reacts accordingly.

And it’s here, at the crux of this context, that we find the real reason I stuck with Captive Prince despite its rape-fixation – a device I find nominally abominable – and other problematic elements: the psychology. The steady reveal of Laurent’s motives and characterisation – accompanied, of necessity, by the similar reveal of his uncle’s monstrousness- is one of the most wrenching portrayals of abuse and gaslighting that I’ve ever seen. Damen and Laurent are both deeply flawed characters, and Pacat, in writing them, is aware of this. The point of their eventual romance isn’t to prove that either man was ever perfect, or to suggest that perfection is a retroactively bestowable state, but to engage with the psychological and emotional complexities their relationship presents, unpicking the reasons for their initial, mutual antipathy.

The fact that Laurent’s abuse remains opaque to Damen for much of the trilogy while becoming increasingly clear to the reader is a neat trick of characterisation and writing both. It simply never occurs to Damen, whose blind trust in the goodness of family is why his half-brother, Kastor, was able to capture and enslave him in the first place, as a possibility. For the same reason, Damen doesn’t understand the combination of tolerance, kindness and brutal honesty with which Laurent treats his uncle’s pets. When Damen rejects Nicaise, for instance, Nicaise becomes hostile to him; dangerously so. When Laurent appears both lenient with Nicase’s actions while criticising his person, it confirms Damen’s belief in Laurent’s cruelty; yet Laurent, in these moments, is speaking from awful experience, his words as cutting to himself as to Nicaise, though only he knows it:

“Do you take wine, or aren’t you old enough yet?”

“I’m thirteen. I drink whenever I like.” Nicaise scorned the tray, pushing at it so hard it almost overbalanced. “I’m not going to drink with you. We don’t need to start pretending politeness.”

“Don’t we? Very well: I think it is fourteen by now, isn’t it?”

Nicaise turned red, under the paint.

“I thought so,” said Laurent. “Have you thought about what you’re going to do, after? If I know your master’s tastes, you have another year, at most. At your age, the body begins to betray itself.” And then, reacting to something in the boy’s face, “Or has it started already?”

The red grew strident. “That isn’t any of your business.

“You’re right, it isn’t,” said Laurent.

Nicaise opened his mouth, but Laurent continued before he could speak.

“I’ll offer for you, if you like. When the time comes. I wouldn’t want you in my bed, but you’d have all the same privileges. You might prefer that. I’d offer.”

Nicaise blinked, and then sneered. “With what?”

A breath of amusement from Laurent…

“I don’t need you. He’s promised. He’s not going to give me up.” Nicaise’s voice was smug and self-satisfied.

“He gives them all up,” said Laurent, “even if you’re more enterprising than the others have been.”

“He likes me better than the others.” A scornful laugh. “You’re jealous.” And then it was Nicaise’s turn to react to something he saw in Laurent’s face, and he said, with a horror Damen didn’t understand, “You’re going to tell him you want me.

“Oh,” said Laurent. “No. Nicaise… no. That would wreck you. I wouldn’t do that.” Then his voice became almost tired. “Maybe it’s better if you think I would. You have quite a good mind for strategy, to have thought of that. Maybe you will hold him longer than the others.” For a moment it seemed as if Laurent would say something else, but in the end he just stood up from the bench and held his hand out to the boy. “Come on. Let’s go. You can watch me get told off by my uncle.”

Reading this scene the first time, it’s easy think that Laurent’s perception of Nicaise is jaded, unconcerned – especially as the reader, like Damen, is still new enough to the fact of Nicaise’s status to be horrified by it. Nor does that final line carry the same resonance as it does on a reread, as the revelation of the Regent’s paedophilia is yet to be made. Knowing what comes later, however, many such early exchanges are rendered chilling. More than once, the Regent criticises Laurent for being “childish“, repeatedly belittling him as someone unfocused, selfish, disloyal. That he still rebukes him like a child is an early warning sign, yet similarly easy to miss on a first pass:

The Regent’s expression changed. “I see you can’t be talked to. I won’t indulge your current mood. Petulance is ugly in a child and worse in a man. If you break your toys, it is no one’s fault but your own.”…

“I heard you killed your horse.” [said Damen]

“It’s just a horse,” said Laurent. “I’ll have my uncle buy me a new one.”

These words seemed savagely to amuse him; there was a jagged, private edge to his voice.

The reveal, when it comes, is a suckerpunch precisely because it’s been so long in building: we know that the Regent is trying to outmanoeuvre Laurent, but not what the history is between them. And then, having backed Laurent into a political corner – enabled, in part, by Laurent’s decision to protect Damen, who just saved his life – in full view of the court, this happens:

“There. It is done. Come,” said the Regent to Laurent, extending his right hand…

Laurent came forward, and knelt before him gracefully, a single kneecap to the floor.

“Kiss,” said the Regent, and Laurent lowered his head in obedience to kiss his uncle’s signet ring…

After a moment, Damen saw the Regent’s hand lift again to rest in Laurent’s hair and stroke it with slow, familiar affection. Laurent remained quite still, head bowed, as strands of fine gold were pushed back from his face by the Regent’s heavy, ringed fingers.

“Laurent. Why must you always defy me? I hate it when we are at odds, yet you force me to chastise you. You seem determined to wreck everything in your path. Blessed with gifts, you squander them. Given opportunities, you waste them. I hate to see you grown up like this,” said the Regent, “when you were such a lovely boy.”

In this moment, Laurent is utterly alone; is revealed to have been alone ever since Damen killed his brother and protector. This doesn’t excuse his mistreatment of Damen, but it does contextualise his rage, and as a reader, there’s something powerfully compelling about telling an abuse survivor’s narrative this way: as a trauma whose consequences, even when witnessed by others, are frequently misunderstood by them. Laurent’s soldiers repeatedly describe him as “frigid“, referring to the fact that he never takes lovers; like Damen, they assume he’s emotionally cold, not that he’s protecting himself. Throughout Prince’s Gambit and Kings Rising, during their scattering of emotionally and/or sexually intimate moments, Damen frequently reflects on the odd gaps in Laurent’s knowledge without ever realising their cause. Or rather, he knows part of the cause – that Laurent, in every aspect of his life, is someone who wants to remain in control, while physical intimacy requires both trust and negotiation – but not the base reason why. It’s an exquisitely consistent piece of characterisation, and one that Pacat writes with absolute believability.

That Pacat is able to take the hostile dynamic between Damen and Laurent presented in the first book and make anything legitimately romantic of it, let alone something quite affectingly so – even to a reader both conscious of her elisions and critical of the premise – is nothing short of astonishing. Though Damen notes Laurent’s physical charms in Captive Prince, there’s no hint of romance or genuine attraction between them until the power imbalance is addressed in Prince’s Gambit, and the two begin to engage in something approaching equality, with no consummation until the two are on an even footing. This is a vital point: whatever blunders Pacat makes with regard to slavery and despite her racefail, she is scrupulous in acknowledging the pitfalls of a power imbalance on a nascent romance.

At the same time, her skill in this respect also serves to cast her failures into stark relief. Returning to the issue of Akeilos being a slave culture while Vere, despite its initial appearances, is not, we’re put in the unfortunate position of reading a narrative in which our primary slave character is a man of colour, with slavery as an institution is predominantly enforced by his own (mostly POC) nation. Particularly given the later reveal – again, in Kings Rising – that Laurent is a secret abolitionist, something which had hitherto only been hinted at, there’s a jarring dissonance in the realisation that Damen, an enslaved character, has been more accepting of slavery throughout the books than his putative (white) master. Which… yeah. To use a technical term, that is super fucked up.

And yet (and yet), for all the series fails to examine slavery as an institution, there’s a very real examination of power imbalances, abuse and self-perception. Even when legally and physically enslaved, Damen always considers himself a prince: he never adopts a servile mindset, nor does he ever become, in the emotional sense, a victim, remaining instead a warrior in enemy territory. After the regent makes a failed attempt on Laurent’s life at the end of Captive Prince,  Damen and Laurent are forced into an uneasy alliance: Damen will try to keep Laurent alive in order to prevent a bloody, pointless war between Akielos and Vere, and by the start of Prince’s Gambit, though still technically a slave, Damen is no longer subject to the powerless indignities of the first book, but is treated in all important respects as a soldier and advisor. His servility thus becomes more theoretical than practical, and though he ultimately emerges as someone distressed by and opposed to slavery, the experience doesn’t touch his fundamental confidence.

Whereas Laurent, by contrast, has spent the years since his brother’s death effectively fighting a rearguard action, trying desperately to protect himself from his uncle without any friends or allies. Though perceived as cold and calculating, his position has been a source of fear, not confidence – fear of abuse, of abandonment, of murder. The more Laurent comes to trust Damen, the more his confidence in his own judgement unravels: he can’t believe he’ll be treated kindly, let alone find pleasure in anything they might do, which leaves him more fundamentally vulnerable – both around Damen and otherwise – than Damen ever is, despite his ostensibly greater position of power.

Ultimately, the Captive Prince series is a deeply problematic but nonetheless highly compelling narrative: one in which both protagonists are intrinsically flawed, and where certain of their actions, both independently and towards each other, are morally reprehensible, regardless of whether the narrative always recognises this fact. And yet their characterisation, the contextualising politics and the underlying psychology of their interactions is deft enough to make them both sympathetic; to  transcend their horrific beginning in the service of a romance that is genuinely affecting. Or so it felt to me, at least – as ever, Your Mileage May Vary, and as stated at the outset, I’m not going to argue with anyone who finds the fundamental problems with the story too glaring or painful to like anything else about it.

 

Though the first book is the weakest of the trilogy, Pacat writes a superb long game, where successive revelations cause our  understanding of the characters and their situations to turn on a dime. She is also, in every technical respect, an extraordinary writer. Her prose has a lyrical, graceful economy that’s utterly enviable, her characterisation ripe with psychological nuance: the same story in lesser hands – the same devices in lesser hands – would have nowhere near the same effect. Indeed, I’m still slightly baffled by how much I enjoyed the books despite my criticisms, and yet whenever I open them, I fall right back into the story. For all their failings, I already know these are books I’m going to read again, and while I can’t recommend them without significant racefail caveats, their success – both in terms of fanwriters moving into the mainstream and as a prominent example of queer romance – is representative of the changes currently overtaking the genre.

I can only hope we continue to do better.

Dear men who like to randomly proposition women on the street, and who get increasingly frustrated when those women ignore, reject or yell at them for their efforts, because you’re only being friendly and can’t understand why they’re all so uptight about it:

Imagine you’re a painter. It doesn’t matter what kind – you could be a visual artist or someone who paints houses, a professional or an amateur: what matters is that you’re walking around in paint-spackled clothes and smelling of turps, so that anyone who sees you will probably think, ‘Hey. That dude’s a painter.’

Imagine you’re on your way home from a hard day at work, when some random guy approaches you.

‘Hey man, hey! You wanna come paint my house? Man, I’ve got a great house, I’ve got awesome paints – you wanna come paint it for me?’

Now: on the surface of things, the request is friendly enough. This person isn’t abusing you, and as far as he knows, he’s not asking you to do anything you don’t do already – assuming you’re the kind of painter who does paint houses, that is, and not a watercolourist. The problem isn’t their tone of voice: it’s how and why they’ve made the request at all. On no greater basis than their ability to identify you as a painter, they’re asking you to stop what you’re doing and come with them, because somehow, they feel, their need entitles them to your time.

You’re tired. It’s been a long day. But you figure you’ll be polite, because the guy’s just being friendly, right?

‘No thanks,’ you say. ‘I’m sure your house is awesome, but I’m not interested.’

And you try to keep walking. But for some reason, the stranger decides to take personal offence at your refusal. He keeps following you, but now, he’s not so friendly. In fact, he’s becoming increasingly hostile.

‘Hey man, don’t be like that! You haven’t even seen my house – you think you’re too good to paint for me? What’s the matter with you? Man, I bet you’re a shit painter – I only asked you ‘coz you looked like you needed the work. You’re a lazy fucking bastard, aren’t you? Fucking layabout painters, man – you’re all the same. You’re all snobs. Why won’t you paint my house?’

How do you react to that? The stranger is bigger than you, stronger, and visibly more aggressive. Worse still, even though you’re in a public place, with lots of other people walking around, nobody is stopping to help you: every single passerby is just looking away, as though the stranger’s demands are perfectly reasonable. You’re pretty angry now, but you don’t want to argue – you just want to get home. But how do you shake the stranger? Your first response was perfectly polite, and all it’s produced in him is rage. How aggressively will he respond to an actual confrontation?

As if to prove this point, he takes this moment to get in your personal space. Maybe he jumps in front of you, physically forcing you to step around him. Maybe he puts an arm around your shoulders. Maybe he grabs your wrist. Maybe all he does is match your pace and walk really, really close to you, as though you’re not strangers at all. But whatever he does, it’s threatening, and the end result is clear: if you stop and talk to this man, if you let him detain you, nothing good will come of it.

So you do the only thing you can: you keep walking. You don’t respond. But the man doesn’t go away. He follows you for a whole block, and all the time, he’s alternately cajoling you (‘Come paint my house! I’ll pay you, I’ll pay you fifty bucks to come paint my house right now!’) and abusing you (‘Someone oughta teach you some manners. Don’t you know it’s rude to ignore people? Someone oughta shove a paintbrush right down your fucking throat, you selfish dick!’).

Understandably, you’re rattled, but mercifully, when you reach the ticket barrier at the station, the man is forced to turn back. He calls a final couple of insults to you, and then he’s gone, swallowed by the crowd.

And you’re furious. You’re physically shaking. How fucking dare he! Should you call the police? Should you have just confronted him? Now that he’s gone, you know just what you wanted to say to him, and derive a deep, momentary satisfaction from imagining his cowed, apologetic reaction when you told him, calmly and firmly, that he was a harassing, abusive jerk who needed to back the hell off, but even as you indulge this fantasy, you know things wouldn’t have have gone that way; that if you’d stayed, he’d likely have attacked you, grabbed you, or otherwise done something violent, because absolutely nothing in his behaviour suggested a willingness to listen or an ability to learn.

So you get on your train. The carriage is largely empty, which is a relief. You sit down, pull out a book, remind yourself that the stranger is gone, and try to calm yourself down.

Two stops later, another guy gets on the train with you. From the corner of your eye, you see him look around your almost empty carriage, full of free seats, and zero in on you. Surely not, you think, but no: the guy makes a beeline for you. Maybe he sits in the spare seat next to you, so that your bodies are physically touching. Maybe he sits in the spare seat behind you, so that when he speaks – and you already know he will – you’ll be forced to contort your body to talk to him. But whatever his choice, it’s already clear that he’s ignoring both your book and your body language, which, after your encounter with the stranger on the street, is practically screaming leave me in peace.

‘Hey, what’re you reading?’ he asks. ‘I really love painters. They always have the best taste.’

This second guy is much calmer than the first one. His tone isn’t exuberant with false friendliness: it’s conversational, casual. But all the same, he has you cornered: it’s another five minutes before the next stop, and you’re not getting off until after that. Depending on where this guy is headed, you could be stuck with him for up to thirty minutes. But maybe he’s more reasonable than street-guy. Maybe he’ll follow your social cues, and let you go back to reading if you’re polite to him.

‘It’s a mystery novel,’ you say. ‘And if it’s OK with you, I’d really like to keep reading it. I’m right at a good bit, and I’ve been looking forward to it all day.’

‘Cool, cool,’ says the guy – and for one brief moment, it looks like he’s going to leave you alone.

But he doesn’t. Of course he doesn’t.

‘What’s your favourite colour to paint with? I bet it’s blue. Is it blue? I can always tell when people like blue. Hey, who do you paint for? I bet you’re really talented. What’s your name? I’d love to look up your work some time.’

That last inquiry gives you chills. In a professional setting – or at the very least, in a conversation you’d actively consented to have – it would be complimentary, positive. But this guy, just like the other stranger before him, has just clearly demonstrated the fact that he doesn’t give a shit about you – if he had, he’d have left you to read your book in peace. This conversation isn’t about you, or your skills as a painter, at all: it’s about his need to make you acknowledge him. But once again, what can you do? You’re trapped with the guy, and even though getting up and moving carriages is technically an option, you were here first; and anyway, he might follow you. So you grit your teeth and deal with it.

‘Listen. I’ve had a hard day, and I really just want to read my book. Can you leave me alone, please?’

The guy’s face changes. You can’t tell if he’s angry or baffled or what, but either way, it’s certainly not the face of someone who’s about to apologise for inconveniencing you and leave. Instead, he starts talking again.

‘Yeah, but I’m talking to you. It’s rude to keep reading when someone wants to talk, you know? I just want to have a conversation. What, did you accidentally drink your turps or something, and now you’re all pissy?’ He laughs, as though this is hilarious, and keeps going. ‘Come on. Tell me about yourself. Tell me what kind of stuff you like to paint. Why are you being so uptight? I’m just being friendly.’

This second guy harasses you, non-stop, for twenty minutes. You don’t get to read your book, and the one time you raise your voice to him, the two other people in the carriage – who aren’t paying enough attention to realise you don’t know this man and didn’t want to talk to him in the first place – give you the stink-eye, because your loudness is inappropriate and upsetting to them. The harassment is interspersed with ignorant, stereotypical assessments about painters couched as benign compliments (‘I hate painters who use pastels; they’re all so flighty and high-maintenance. I bet you use oils, don’t you? You look like you use oils.’), and every time you fall silent or try to pull away – because you’ve long since given up on winning – the stranger chides you for being rude, reminding you, over and over, about how polite and friendly he is, until he finally gets off the train.

When you get home, you call the police about the first guy. At best, they tell you there’s nothing they can do, because technically, he didn’t break the law, and even if they found him, it’s just your word against his. At worst, they tell you to get over it; that he was probably just being friendly, and you were imagining any hostility – after all, you went out dressed like a painter, so clearly you were inviting someone to comment on it.

Now imagine being a painter isn’t something you chose to be, or can ever stop being. It’s who you are. These encounters happen more or less regularly. They are exhausting. When you complain to non-painters about it, they frequently tell you it’s all in your head, and that you just need to deal with it politely.

Does that sound shitty?

You bet it does.

Men who behave this way – who accost women in public places, demand their time and attention, violate their personal space, make abusive or threatening comments in response to perceived slights (that is, rejection or silence), and who ignore not only verbal requests to go away, but every accompanying scrap of body language saying the same thing – aren’t being polite. They’re not being friendly, either.

Politeness is all about social niceties and empathetic consideration: it is the exact polar opposite of making someone uncomfortable, or ignoring their discomfort, just because you feel entitled to their time and attention. Similarly, a friendly person cares about others, not just themselves: if someone asks you to leave them alone and you don’t, persisting isn’t friendly.

If this is how you treat women on the street, it doesn’t matter what you say, and it doesn’t matter what tone of voice you use: you’re not being friendly, and you’re not being polite. At absolute best, you’re being selfish and demanding, insisting that random women stop what they’re doing and talk to you in obviously antisocial contexts (when they’re walking, when they’re reading, when there’s no earthly reason why they should have to indulge your whims), then sulking if they don’t. This is what toddlers do before they’re old enough to know better, and even then, they mostly make such demands of family members and friends, not total strangers.

At absolute worst, you’re being manipulative, domineering and aggressive, deliberately targeting women at vulnerable moments (when they’re alone, when they can’t escape, when they’re preoccupied, when they’re in a rush) – and, indeed, are orchestrating those moments through a calculated abuse of social niceties (sans context, her shouting will look worse to a random observer than your quiet importuning of a stranger; so long as you keep your voice calm and refuse to desist, you ensure that your victim will be viewed as the aggressor if she protests your blatant disregard of her wishes, thereby deploying a second, subtler type of coercion to make her compliant while being harassed).

Precisely why you feel entitled to the adoring attention of strangers, I don’t know. Perhaps you’re really just that big of an egotist; perhaps you’re a sociopathic misogynist who takes pleasure in the discomfiture of women; or perhaps you’re a potential or practised rapist, which state isn’t mutually exclusive with either of those two others. Either way, I don’t know, and I don’t care. What I do know, though, is that you don’t care about her, whoever she is; you only care about getting what you want from the exchange. The women are interchangeable, and however much you might want to deny it, everything in your behaviour says otherwise.

If you cared about her, you’d respect her personal space.

If you cared about her, you’d respect that she might be busy, and let her go.

If you cared about her, you wouldn’t pressure her to stay.

If you cared about her, you wouldn’t threaten her for not being docile.

If you cared about her, you wouldn’t call her rude, uptight, a bitch, a whore, a user, a timewaster, frigid, a slut, a cunt, a shrew, hysterical, pissy, a harpy, fat (which shouldn’t be an insult, but invariably is), retarded (which shouldn’t be an insult, but invariably is), or any one of a dozen other heavily gendered slurs and insults just because she wouldn’t stop and talk to you.

Because if you cared about her, you’d afford her the exact same rights which, given your behaviour, you demonstrably afford yourself: the right to be assertive around strangers, the right to feel safe around strangers, the right to be left alone, the right to walk away, the right to express yourself freely, the right to have better things to do – the right, in other words, to behave like a fucking human being, and not just a nameless body whose rights are forfeit the instant she hurts your ego.

You men, who behave like this to women? You’re not friendly, polite and misunderstood. You aren’t nice guys in any literal sense of the term.

You’re abusers in training – or worse, abusers in actuality.

Get the fuck over yourselves.

Trigger warning: some talk of rape, abuse and pedophilia.

Here’s the thing about context: it matters.

Earlier in the year, there was widespread outrage over the actions of one Daniel Tosh, a comedian who thought that the best way to deal with a female audience member decrying his use of rape jokes was to start riffing about how hilarious it would be if she were to be gang raped right there and then. In the backlash that followed, one article in particular by Lindy West stuck with me – specifically, this paragraph (my emphasis):

 This fetishization of not censoring yourself, of being an “equal-opportunity offender,” is bizarre and bad for comedy. When did “not censoring yourself” become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time, because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks. Your girlfriend is censoring herself when she says she’s okay with you playing Xbox all day. In a way, comedy is censoring yourself—comedy is picking the right words to say to make people laugh. A comic who doesn’t censor himself is just a dude yelling. And being an “equal opportunity offender”—as in, “It’s okay, because Daniel Tosh makes fun of ALL people: women, men, AIDS victims, dead babies, gay guys, blah blah blah”—falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power. “Oh, don’t worry—I punch everyone in the face! People, baby ducks, a lion, this Easter Island statue, the ocean…” Okay, well that baby duck is dead now. And you’re a duck-murderer. It’s really easy to believe that “nothing is sacred” when the sanctity of your body and your freedom are never legitimately threatened.

Ignoring the off-key point about the Xbox, this argument perfectly encapsulates why, in so many cases, the context of an action matters more than the action itself. To run with West’s metaphor, the difference between angrily king-hitting a weak, vulnerable stranger and bestowing a gentle, congratulatory arm-punch on a sturdy friend is so monumental that trying to boil both incidents down to their single common denominator – punching – is categorically meaningless, because the contextual factors which distinguish them are more relevant than the single action which unites them. By sidelining context, you not only miss the extremity of the comparison, you forget to make a comparison at all. Such similarity as exists allows the contrast, but doesn’t automatically supersede it.

Thus: defending the actions of Michael Brutsch, aka Violentacrez, (or at least, denouncing his comeuppance) in the name of free speech without reference to any sort of context is equivalent to arguing that because king-hitting a stranger and shoulder-bumping a friend both involve punching, people who engage in the former should be protected and tolerated so that the rest of us are free to do the latter, because otherwise you’d have to outlaw both. By this way of thinking, it’s somehow innately hypocritical to condone an action in one context while condemning it in another, as though (to take just one of a bajillion potential examples) there’s no meaningful difference between having sex with a willing partner instead of an unwilling one. If the people currently defending Brutsch viewed sexual consent the same way they do freedom of speech, they’d end up arguing that condemning rape, pedophilia  sexual abuse, sexual harassment and other non-consensual activities is somehow fundamentally incompatible with accepting consensual sex and desire,  because unless you protect every single type of sexual encounter, you’re not really protecting any.

Oh, wait.

When it comes to summing up exactly how toxic, wrongheaded and fundamentally flawed this logic is – not just with regard to freedom of speech, but the impact of Reddit’s creepshot forums on women – I can’t do better than quote from this amazing piece by Aaron Bady (again, my emphasis):

…“Free Speech” is not and cannot be a blanket protection of all speech… If your speech is assault, it will be prosecuted as such; if your speech is conspiracy to commit murder (or god help you, terrorism), it will be prosecuted as such. If your speech is criminal, it is not protected…

…on those occasions,we understand that speech to be a vehicle for some other kind of act or violation. In those cases, it isn’t the speech that’s being criminalized, but the act of violence it’s being used to commit…

What I want to observe, then, is simply this: when people invoke “free speech” to defend a person’s right to take pictures of unwilling women and circulate those pictures on the internet, they are saying that it is okay to do so. They are saying that society has no legitimate interest in protecting a woman’s right not to have pictures of her body circulated without her consent…Freedom of speech only protects the kinds of speech that some version of the social “we” has determined not to be violent. And by saying that what he [Brutsch] did was protected, we are determining that those forms of violence against women are not, in fact, violent.

The idea that Brutsch’s actions were somehow “necessary” to the preservation of freedom of speech is therefore a fundamental – one might even say willful – misunderstanding of the restrictions already imposed on speech and other associate actions. Of necessity, these restrictions exist both legally and socially, because (to borrow West’s bluntly effective phrase) the human race does not consist entirely of entitled, sociopathic fucks. If you send someone death threats, your speech is not protected; if you racially abuse a coworker, your speech is not protected; if you stalk or harass a stranger, your actions are not protected. Freedom of speech is not synonymous with freedom from consequences, because freedom of speech does not constitute an inalienable right to do anything and everything we feel entitled to do, like violate the consent and bodies of others. This ridiculous “all or nothing” approach to free speech is predicated on a contextually useless binary – freedom vs censorship – which in turn stems from a false belief in the universality of freedom to begin with. Unless you’re a hardcore anarchist, denying the necessity of placing any legal, social or cultural limits on freedom is utterly unfeasible; and if you are a hardcore anarchist, then why you think Brutsch’s privacy should be respected due to the tenuous, technical non-illegality of some of his actions is beyond me.

And yet, conveniently enough, Brutsch and his supporters are willing to place at least one limit on freedom of speech: Thou Shalt Not Dox. How this is meant to fit with their established claim that all types of speech – no matter how offensive – should be protected for the Greater Good is beyond me, though in most cases, I suspect it’s less a matter of outright hypocrisy than a case of subcultural blindness:  doxing is so deeply ingrained as taboo in some circles that many adherents have simply failed to consider the argument that it could reasonably constitute an exercise in freedom of speech, at least in some circumstances. (To say nothing of the fact that, as discussed above, the whole idea of utterly uncensored speech is bunk anyway; even Brutsch drew the line at letting hardcore child pornography onto Reddit, though whether he did so because he thought it was immoral, as opposed to merely inappropriate content for his subreddit, is another matter entirely; as is the far more significant question of whether he actually reported such images and their posters to the police.)

But for those of us who do see the value in placing some legal/social limits on free speech, it’s important to note that doxing, or outing, or whatever you wish to call it, is justified or unwarranted depending on the context in which it occurs, rather than being inherently objectionable. To contrast two compelling extremes, for instance, whistleblowers frequently require anonymity and protection in order to speak out against wrongdoers without compromising their safety, the treatment of Bradley Manning after he passed information to Wikileaks being a case in point; online pedophiles, on the other hand, use anonymity in order to perpetrate abuse, making any defense of their privacy indefensible. As both Racialicious and blackamazon point out, doxing poses a significant threat to POC and members of other marginalised groups who rely on the comparative anonymity of the internet in order to speak freely about their oppression; likewise, countless others from abuse victims to minors to key witnesses to closeted QUILTBAG persons all benefit from anonymity in order to preserve their personal safety and wellbeing from those who take their continued, happy existence as a personal affront. But to say that everyone on the internet either deserves or requires this same level of protection is ludicrous: abusers do not, criminals do not, stalkers do not, and if for no other reason than the blatant hypocrisy of stripping consent and privacy from thousands of women through his subreddits while still trying to claim it for himself, Michael Brutsch certainly does not. The question to ask here isn’t, as Cicero once famously did, cui bono, but cui perfero magis – who suffers more? And whichever way you cut it, whatever consequences Brutsch is currently experiencing pale into insignificance beside the widespread damage caused by his trollish endorsement of domestic violence, misogyny, racism and yes, pedophilia. The bed he currently occupies is entirely of his own making, and though he’s beginning to feel the repercussions, one man categorically cannot suffer more than thousands, and especially not when they’re his own victims.

Note also, please, the staggeringly sexist discrepancy inherent in the fact that, while Brutsch has lost his job for posting creepshots of unconsenting women and minors (among other despicable things), the subjects of such photos often lose theirs, too – and more besides. One of the more disgusting modern chauvinisms is the pressure put on young girls to engage in sexting with men and boys who, having promised to keep the photos private, promptly share them online, where they enter circulation among exactly the sort of communities that Brutsch created. Countless teenage girls have committed or contemplated suicide as a result of the subsequent bullying and slutshaming they experience; others endure the harassment, only to live in fear of the day those old pictures resurface to ruin their adult lives, too. Neither is the problem restricted to teenagers: as the final screenshot on this chilling entry on the Predditors tumblr makes clear, some members were (and, presumably, still are) posting compromising photos of their unsuspecting, unconsenting partners online as masturabtory fodder for strangers, thus ensuring that women who’ve done nothing worse than engage in intimacy with boyfriends, fiances and spouses are at risk of suffering real life repercussions.

Fifteen-year-old Amanda Todd recently committed suicide due to sustained sexual cyberbullying by a man who sent topless photos of her to students at every school she attended – and in response, the vigilante group Anonymous has now posted his details online. Are we going to lament that sort of doxing, too? Or are we honestly going to assert that there’s some sort of fundamental moral difference between a man who drove one teen to suicide with his non-consensual sharing of sexualised photos and a man who created multiple massive subreddits devoted to the exact same principle?

Brutsch has lost his job for violating the privacy of thousands of strangers using the same skillset for which he was employed, and for unapologetically peddling racism, misogyny, pedophilia and images of dead children – all of which would be well outside of any workplace code of conduct – for laughs.  But thanks to the same sort of sexism his culture of trolling and creepshotting relies upon to perpetuate itself, the same women whose photos were distributed through his forums run a similar risk of real-world backlash, too: not because they’ve done anything offensive or immoral, but because evidence of their sexuality, whether distributed with their consent or without it, is construed as immorality. And meanwhile, the likelihood of any serious repercussions being felt by the majority of contributors to Brutsch’s subreddits is slim: happily, at least one teacher caught taking upskirt photos of his underage students has been fired, but as for the rest of the Predditors? Who knows?

As Aaron Bady made clear, Brutsch’s actions are fundamentally violent – against women, against minors, against POC – because they’re contextualised by their place in a culture of violence against women, of the aggressive, non-consensual objectification of women, and of the consequences of widespread and institutional anti-black racism. Defending him denies the reality of that violence, and in so doing helps it to go unchecked. Quite literally, freedom of speech is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Everything is contextual, and if you make a habit of exploiting, demeaning and sexually objectifying others, violating their privacy and consent through the misguided belief that you’re entitled to do so without let or hindrance? Then be prepared to deal with the consequences.

Or, better yet: just don’t. The world will thank you for it.

OK, so a deeply problematic thing just happened on Twitter.

Here’s the basic jist:

Evidently riled up by information on the Stop the GR Bullies website (which I’ve blogged about here), author James Austen took to Twitter to call blogger Kat Kennedy a loser and a retard. Not unsurprisingly, Kat and several other Twitter users, myself included, confronted Austen about his ableist language, throughout which exchange he repeatedly stated that not only had Kat called him a headcase on Goodreads, but had attacked him on a blog post where he’d revealed his own childhood sexual abuse. Kat, meanwhile, was baffled, having no idea at all who Austen was.

When asked to show evidence of the incidents in question, Austen linked first to the Stop the GR Bullies main page, and then to this Goodreads thread – neither of which show any connection whatever between himself and Kat Kennedy. It then became apparent that Austen had confused Kat with two other Goodreads users, Ridley and The Holy Terror – an extremely bizarre mistake to make, not only because even the STGRB website states clearly that these are three completely different women, but because Austen has actually been in Twitter contact with Ridley before. By this point, he’d called Kat a retard or retarded eight times by my count, including a comment where, even AFTER his error had been pointed out, he claimed to be applying the term with “laser-like precision”.

Austen then made some motions towards apology (though not for his ableist language), but also added that Kat “could win good pr now by playing this right” – meaning, presumably, that it was in her best interests not to tell people about his mistake. Now, even though we’d established that Kat wasn’t at fault, I was still concerned about Austen’s claim that someone – whoever they were – had attacked him on Goodreads for talking about his own childhood sexual abuse, because, dude, that is NOT COOL, and if someone has actually done that, they deserve to be called to account. With this in mind, I asked if he could link to that incident; he told me it had happened on one of three Goodreads blogs.

Now: possibly, this attack did take place, and for whatever reason, evidence of it has been removed from the site. But having checked the comments for every single one of Austen’s Goodreads blogposts – and further checked the comment threads attached to all the reviews/discussions about his novels – I can’t find anything which even vaguely resembles such an attack. What I can see is that in January this year, Austen blogged about his abuse, and in March, Ridley left a status update (the one linked above) mentioning that Austen had sent her an abusive private message, and that the two were arguing on Twitter. Whatever occurred in the body of that argument, I can’t find any record of it, but at this point, it does seem fairly clear that, at the very least, nobody – least of all Kat Kennedy – has attacked Austen in the comments section of his GR blogs.

As soon as this was pointed out, Austen not only quit the conversation, but locked his Twitter account. The progression of the argument as detailed below is as correct as I could manage by reconstructed it from screengrabs, though doubtless some tweets and responses are out of immediate chronological order (it being extremely difficult to follow the exact chronology of a multi-branching Twitter conversation, even after the fact). Given the length of the conversation, I’ve tried to include only relevant tweets, but for those who are interested in seeing a wider range of responses, they can be found by looking at the individual steams of the other participants, including mine. I’m aware that one tweet of Austen’s appears twice, which is unfortunate, but I couldn’t figure out how to easily remove it, and so it’s still there as a duplicate: any other errors are my fault, but hopefully don’t detract from the overall coherence (such as it is).

I’m posting this for three reasons:

  1. To establish on record that Kat Kennedy didn’t start the exchange with Austen, and has in fact never spoken to him before today;
  2. To point out that information posted on Stop the GR Bullies has directly contributed to a public instance of vile and abusive behaviour; and
  3. To stand as an example of exactly how fucked up ableism is, and why using the word retard as a pejorative is never, ever acceptable.

As for Austen: I’d ask of readers to please refrain from contacting him on Goodreads, messaging him on Twitter, or otherwise sending him negative, aggressive or abusive messages that detail his mistakes. Yes, he’s behaved appallingly, and that should definitely be noted, but further aggro isn’t going to help anyone – and if another Goodreads user really did attack him for sharing his own experiences of sexual abuse, then that needs to be brought to light and dealt with separately. Otherwise, let’s just acknowledge and learn from the fail, and move on with our lives.

Little more than a week ago, a website aimed at naming and shaming so-called Goodreads ‘bullies’ suddenly appeared online – called, appropriately enough, Stop the GR Bullies. Run by four concerned ‘readers and bloggers’ writing anonymously under the handles Athena, Peter Pan, Johnny Be Good and Stitch, the site thus far seems bent on punishing the creators of snide, snarky and negative book reviews by posting their handles, real names, locations and photos in one place, together with a warning about their supposed ‘level of toxicity’ and some (ironically) snide, snarky and negative commentary about them as people. There’s a lot here to unpack, but before I get started on why this is a horrifically bad idea, let’s start with some basic context.

As a website, Goodreads itself is something of a chimaera, being in roughly equal parts an online literary database, a social networking platform, a book review site, a promotional tool for bloggers, a promotional tool for authors, and a social forum for readers. This complexity is both its primary attraction and the single biggest source of contention among users, as the crowdsourced nature of much of the information available, in conjunction with the fact that the site itself has no in-house moderators – meaning that the majority of alleged violations of the terms of service must be manually referred to and assessed by Goodreads before they can possibly be removed – means that, to all intents and purposes, the site can and does frequently function like any large, unmoderated forum, viz: wildly. As the TOS is at pains to point out, Goodreads considers itself a third party where user content is concerned. To quote:

We are only acting as a passive conduit for your online distribution and publication of your User Content.

Of particular relevance in this case is the specific type of user content deemed inappropriate by the TOS. To quote again:

You agree not to post User Content that… (v) contains any information or content that we deem to be unlawful, harmful, abusive, racially or ethnically offensive, defamatory, infringing, invasive of personal privacy or publicity rights, harassing, humiliating to other people (publicly or otherwise), libelous, threatening, profane, or otherwise objectionable.

However, it’s also relevant to note the following caveats (emphasis mine) – namely, that:

Goodreads reserves the right, but is not obligated, to reject and/or remove any User Content that Goodreads believes, in its sole discretion, violates these provisions… 

You understand and acknowledge that you may be exposed to User Content that is inaccurate, offensive, indecent, or objectionable, and you agree that Goodreads shall not be liable for any damages you allege to incur as a result of such User Content. Goodreads may provide tools for you to remove some User Content, but does not guarantee that all or any User Content will be removable.

In other words: even if you can argue compellingly that another member has violated the TOS with regards to user content, Goodreads is under no obligation to agree, to listen, or in fact do anything at all: their commitment is to passive third party provision of a useful service, not to the active moderation of user content, and while that’s certainly their legal right, in practical terms, it means that the onus for modding conversational threads, forums, reviews and everything else rests squarely with the user in question. To quote again:

You are solely responsible for your interactions with other Goodreads Users. We reserve the right, but have no obligation, to monitor disputes between you and other Users. Goodreads shall have no liability for your interactions with other Users, or for any User’s action or inaction.

In keeping with the universally applicable logic of John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, every online community of sufficient size will inevitably attract trolls, harassment, bullying and all manner of accordant awfulness, with the level of active moderation being literally the only bulwark against anarchy. Not being a regular participant in Goodreads threads or forums – though I am an active user of the site as an author, reviewer and reader – I’m not in a position to comment on how often Goodreads actually steps in to ban abusive members, remove problematic comments or otherwise moderate user content either on demand or of their own volition: all I can note is that legally, they have no obligation to take any action at all. Clearly, though, a number of users feel that the lack of in-house moderation has lead to the creation of a negative, if not actively toxic, environment in some quarters, with the result that some members have now taken it upon themselves to lead a public campaign against those they deem to be the worst offenders.

One more piece of context, before we continue: both within Goodreads itself and throughout the wider book blogging community, the ongoing debate about niceness vs. snark in reviews is intensely relevant to the problem at hand. While the argument itself has many facets – should aspiring writers post negative reviews, or strive to embrace a ‘be nice’ attitude? are authors, editors, agents and publishers within their grounds to reject aspiring writers who’ve written negative reviews of authors they work with or know, or is this a form of discriminatory nepotism? is the primary purpose of book blogging to act as ‘cheerleaders’ for authors, or to give good consumer advice to readers? – what it frequently boils down to is a dispute over judgements of taste. Or, more specifically: at what volume or intensity does the presence of comedic snark in a book review see it go from being a professional opinion to unprofessional abuse?

It’s very much a your mileage may vary question, which is, I suspect, why Goodreads has the policy of passive non-interference that it does. By definition, not everyone is going to agree with a book review, and given that the utility of their service is predicated on people who love (or hate) books being free to discuss them, they’re naturally going to be loathe to police the tone of such conversations too heavily for fear of undermining their own purpose. However, it’s also important to note that, due to the Goodreads site layout, the usual handy metaphors for personal vs public pages – an intensely relevant distinction when it comes to questions of harassment, as it has the effect of dictating which party is the guest/invader, and which the host/native – don’t precisely apply. For instance: on a traditional internet forum, threads are analogous to public spaces, with the default authority resting either exclusively with the in-house moderators or creator/s, or jointly between the two. Abuse is, as elsewhere, defined as either vituperative ad hominem attacks or generic -ism-based slander; however, due to the clear distinction between attacking someone in a public thread and attacking them outside the context of the discussion – which is to say, on their user page, via email or, in instances where it’s not in direct response to something they’ve posted there, on their personal site – we don’t generally upgrade the abuse to bullying or harassment unless it makes that transition. To be clear: this doesn’t excuse abusive behaviour. Nonetheless, there is a relevant and meaningful distinction between saying, ‘I think Author X is a shit writer’ on a public thread, and going to their personal page to say, ‘I think you’re a shit writer’. On Goodreads, however, this distinction is blurred, because while reviews and their attendant conversational threads fall under the governance of the user-reviewer, they’re also attached to the relevant book and its author-governed page; meaning, in essence, that there’s an overlap between the author’s personal space (assuming the author in question is a member of the site) and the reviewer’s.

And, not surprisingly, this can cause major friction, not just between authors and negative reviewers, but between fans of authors and negative reviewers. In some instances, it’s analogous to carrying on a bitchy conversation within earshot of the person you’re talking about, with the added rider that, as this is also a professional space for the author, they’re not allowed to retaliate – or at least, they can do so, but regardless of the provocation, they’ll come off looking the worse. Which leads to fans – and, sometimes, friends – of authors leaping to their defense, often with disastrous results, and sometimes using language that’s on par with anything they’re actually objecting to.

But here’s the thing: any public figure, regardless of whether they’re an author, actor, sportsperson or journalist, must resign themselves to a certain amount of public criticism. Not everyone will like you, your work or even necessarily your profession, and nor will they be under any obligation to protect your sensibilities by being coy about it. A negative review might mean you lose sales, but that’s not a gross unfairness for which the reviewer should be punished, no matter how snarky they are: it is, rather, a legitimate reflection of the fact that, in their personal and professional estimation as a consumer of your work, they don’t believe that other people should buy it. And yes, you’re allowed to feel sad about that, but it’s still going to happen; it’s still going to be legal and normal. At times, your personal and public lives will blur, or else specific criticism will invite others to consider the relationship between your output and your private beliefs – and this will sometimes be relevant to discussions of your work and its themes, as per the fact that Stephanie Meyers’s Mormonism is relevant to the morality used in Twilight (for instance). Sometimes you’ll even be called names or find yourself on the receiving end of ad hominem attacks, where people say you’re a stupid, talentless hack as part of their review, and call into question both your morality and your convictions. And depending on the relevance of those accusations to your work and the problems the reviewer has with it, that can achieve anything from laying bare a deep-seated flaw in your worldview to highlighting nothing so much as the reviewer’s petty, vindictive ignorance.

But it isn’t bullying.

Because bullying is not a synonym for argument, disagreement or pejorative reactions. Bullying is not a synonym for disliking someone, or for thinking their work is rubbish. Bullying is not even a synonym for saying so, publicly and repeatedly, in a place where that person can hear it – although that’s certainly unpleasant. Bullying is when someone with a greater position of power and/or possessed of greater strength repeatedly and purposefully attacks, harasses, belittles and/or otherwise undermines someone in a position of lesser power and/or possessed of lesser strength. In the vast majority of circumstances, bullying trickles down; it does not travel up, and in instances where the author in question is a super-successful megastar, to say they’re being bullied by reviewers is to ignore the fundamental power-dynamics of bullying. Even on the Goodreads system, where authors can see exactly what readers and reviewers think of them, expressing a negative opinion is not the same as bullying, because although the conversation is visible, it’s not directed at the author; they are under no obligation to respond, or even to read it at all. Feeling sad and overwhelmed because people don’t like your book and have said so publicly might constitute a bad day, but it’s not the same as being bullied.

Cyberbullying among teenagers is a real and serious problem characterised by the sending of abusive messages by either single or multiple parties, the spreading of hurtful lies and rumours, the public display of information or images that were intended as private, and the confluence of systematic abuse both in the real world and online. Such attacks are vicious, personal, and often constitute criminal offenses; many have lead to suicide. What recently happened to Anita Sarkeesian was bullying of exactly this kind, where a number of individuals unknown to her engaged in an active attempt to publicly frighten, abuse and slander her – a situation which is demonstrably not the same as some snarky, unpaid reviewers slagging off a book. Similarly, when people leave vile, sexist comments on my blog, that’s not bullying: it’s offensive and abusive, yes, but all the power in the situation belongs to me, because I can delete the comments, ban the commenters, and publicly mock them for their opinions – and just as importantly, my posts are there because I want people to read and react to them. The fact that I’ve invited comment doesn’t mean abusive responses are justified, but it does mean I’m not being attacked or contacted in a vacuum: I have said a thing, and people are responding to it. That is not bullying. Obviously, it’s not impossible for authors to be bullied. An indie or self-published author without the support of an agency/publisher and their attendant legal teams, for instance – or, just as importantly, without hundreds of thousands of supportive fans – could easily be bullied by any sufficiently cruel individual who took it upon themselves to send regular hateful email, spam their site with negative criticism, leave abusive remarks on their personal profiles, and otherwise behave like a grade-A douche. But that’s not what we’re talking about here, because as far as I can make out, everything the Stop the GR Bullies crew objects to has happened either in a review, as part of a public comment thread, in response to a blog post, or in the course of personal conversations on Twitter.

Because – and I cannot stress this enough – simply disliking a book, no matter how publicly or how snarkily, is not the same as bullying. To say that getting a handful of mean reviews is even in the same ballpark as dealing with an ongoing campaign of personal abuse is insulting to everyone involved. If Athena and the Stop the GR Bullies mob had chosen any other word to describe the problem – if they’d stopped at calling it toxic and objected to it on those grounds – then I might be more sympathetic; after all, as stated above, Goodreads is a largely unmoderated site, and that doesn’t always lead to hugs and puppies. But conflating criticism with bullying is a serious problem – not just in this context, but as regards wider issues of social justice. Increasingly, ‘bullying’ is being bastardised into a go-to term to describe the actions of anyone who actively disagrees with you, to the point where some conservative politicians are now describing leftwingers who call them out on sexism and racism as bullies, or else have decided that ‘bully’ is just a meaningless epithet like ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’, which is arguably worse for suggesting that all three concepts are somehow mythical.

Which is why, in short, the Stop the GR Bullies website is an appalling idea on just about every level. Not only does it appropriate some actual bullying tactics – such as attempting to disseminate the real names and locations of its targets to strangers, then implicitly encouraging said strangers to engage in further harassment – while serving to further water down and confuse the actual, meaningful definition of bulling, but as a protest against the perceived abuse of the Goodreads TOS, it’s completely and utterly meaningless, because the whole site constitutes an active violation. Yes, you did read that right – because to quote again from the TOS (emphasis mine):

You agree not to engage in any of the following prohibited activities… (viii) using any information obtained from the Service in order to harass, abuse, or harm another person, or in order to contact, advertise to, solicit, or sell to any Member without their prior explicit consent.

And does Stop the GR Bullies use harassment as a tool? Oh, worse than that: some of what they say is actually libelous. Here’s a screengrab of their description of Kat Kennedy, a GR member and book blogger for Cuddlebuggery:

The inability of the poster, Athena, to distinguish between a reviewer speaking negatively about books in a professional capacity and the outright public slander of a private citizen by another private citizen is breathtaking, to say nothing of the fact that making a hate page is pretty much 101-grade material for how to be an internet bully. The rest of the site is in much the same vein, and where at least the original posters, whatever you think of them, have the excuse of (a) being in personal conversation with friends or (b) acting as reviewers, the site does not: its sole effect, despite its intended purpose, is to be vituperative in terms of language and downright sinister in its commitment to Googlestalking its targets, attempting to put up not only their names and photos, but details of their places of employment and personal circumstances.

I’m never gladdened to hear that some author or other has decided to quit Goodreads because of negative comments, reviews or any other reason. But Goodreads itself is an optional part of the author ecosystem – as, for that matter, is blogging, Tweeting, and every other type of social media. While Goodreads, as far as I know, lacks privacy controls (which is likely another contributing factor to the problem at hand: authors can’t opt out of seeing negative reviews or comments, while reviewers lack the ability to make the comment threads attached to their reviews private, both of which, if introduced as options, might go a long way towards easing the current tensions) other forms of social media do not. A blogger, for instance, has total control over whether or not to allow commenting on particular posts, while Twitter uses can lock their accounts so that only approved individuals can follow them. Anyone fearful of negative comments has the power to screen them out – and if, on the other hand, a reviewer or author blogs publicly with the intention of receiving responses, that doesn’t preclude them from encountering legitimately negative reactions. If someone writes a blog post and asks for comment, it’s not bullying to respond with strong disagreement: in the scientific world, that’s simply known as having an opinion. Similarly, if a comment makes you uncomfortable on your own blog, mod or ban away! It’s why the option exists. But don’t call it bullying when people show up and disagree with you – even if they’ve disagreed with you before – because that’s not what bullying means.

And as for the people who’ve created the website in question: you might want to stop and think about what you’re doing. As much as anyone you’ve taken issue with, you’re in violation of the Goodreads TOS, and hiding behind anonymity while attempting to strip it from others is a hypocrisy that seldom plays well on the internet. If you really want to change the culture at Goodreads, you’d be better off lobbying for the promotion of in-house or site-approved moderators, closed comment threads and a greater delineation of author and reviewer pages rather than engaging in essentially the same behaviour that’s got you so worked up in the first place. This whole situation may well get uglier before it gets better, and under the circumstances, it doesn’t seem like anyone is going to want to play nice.