Book review

Dubcon: Fanfiction, power, and sexual consent, by Milena Popova

Kelsey Entrikin

University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, United Kingdom

[0.1] Keywords—Hockey RPF; Omegaverse; Sexual wantedness; Thorki

Entrikin, Kelsey. 2023. "Dubcon: Fanfiction, Power, and Sexual Consent, by Milena Popova [book review]." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 40.

Milena Popova, Dubcon: Fanfiction, power, and sexual consent. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021, hardcover $30 (216 pp) ISBN 9780262045964.

[1] Milena Popova's Dubcon: Fanfiction, Power, and Sexual Consent examines the relationship between power and sexual consent in erotic fan fiction and the fan communities that circulate and consume it. Dubcon is a spectacularly timely fan studies publication that outlines the gray areas of sexual consent and problematic power dynamics that can affect the speculative genres and tropes of online fan fiction. Popova utilizes a "discursive resistance" (9) approach (that centers marginalized perspectives in debates surrounding social power dynamics) to follow various fan fiction tropes from their use within the online domain to their existence in other professionally published mediums or in reality, as the case may be. Using the fan fiction phrasing of "dubious consent" or "dubcon," Popova determines the usefulness of these concepts as points of entry into feminist debates surrounding consent and bodily autonomy, arguing that fan fiction can be a useful tool in cultural activism. As Popova notes, many feminist theories of sexual consent have primarily focused on the patriarchal power dynamics that disenfranchise many traditionally female partners (of men) and undermine someone's ability to offer meaningful sexual consent. As such, Popova uses Dubcon to explore what they term the "wantedness" (7) of sex and how it influences sexual consent within speculative fictional settings like those found in erotic fan fiction. Popova frames this desire for sex, despite unequal power dynamics, as a tool that can be used to contemplate power hierarchies in fictional sexual encounters and potentially impact perceptions of power and consent in reality—leading to activism that seeks to question these structures in reality. To quote Dubcon directly: "This book explores two key questions: How do erotic fanfiction and the communities around it engage with issues of sexual consent? And can this engagement be meaningfully viewed as a form of cultural activism?" (8). With these questions, the goals of Dubcon are laid out and the following chapters concisely and efficiently reach these goals with a very conversational and accessible tone—making this book a point of particular interest for those looking to fill out their syllabus with poignant readings on cultural activism or sexual power dynamics in Western cultures.

[2] Popova takes care to position themself as a fan scholar and their use of case studies from specific fan fiction communities continually supports this assertion. They note in each chapter that the case studies they have used from the popular fan fiction site, AO3, are selected from a pool of the most popular fics during the time frame they were researching and used with author permission—a common ethical concern in the broader field of fan studies, as public access does not necessarily mean open access for scholarship and academic critique. While the selected pool of works is small, Popova uses these examples to generalize about trends in the fan fiction community during the specific timeframe the preliminary work for this book was conducted—between 2015 and 2018. The book is thematically organized into five parts. The first section is an introduction to the concepts described above and definitions of terms and narrows the parameters of Dubcon down to a razor-fine point that Popova wields with surgical precision. Dubcon clearly and concisely describes sexual consent (and complex social powers that inform it) from a sex-positive and inclusive perspective. This positionality encompasses both the real-life situations that those in the fan fiction community are arguably familiar with, as well as describing how these circumstances might affect the sexual fantasies expressed through fiction. The three thematic sections that follow the introductory chapters present case studies of specific genres and/or tropes popular in slash fan fiction communities. These case studies illustrate the various components of dubious consent in fan fiction and how they speak to one another in ways that suggest an activist intent in fan fiction communities interested in explicitly sexual content. While there is a brief interlude that introduces fan fiction as a subject of study, there is a certain amount of insider knowledge required for the case studies presented. While those familiar with fan fiction will breeze through these case studies with relative ease, the lack of visual cues for readers unfamiliar with fan fiction (e.g., the picture example of what a fan fiction work looks like on sites like AO3 is presented on page 153) may present an issue for those hoping to use this book as a primer on the subject. However, despite the steeper learning curve for those unfamiliar with fan fiction, Popova's friendly tone does help in flattening that curve.

[3] The first case study uses sexual scripting theory from the social sciences, made popular by theorists like William Simon and John Gagnon, to describe various forms of sexual consent offered in the controversial Omegaverse subgenre of fan fiction (also called A/B/O). Omegaverse fan fiction uses popular Western media interpretations of wolf behavior to classify its fictional characters into categories of Alphas, Betas, and Omegas—a classification system that often allocates Alphas with the most and Omegas with the least amount of social and/or sexual power. This subgenre is categorized by strict power hierarchies and dubious consent as well as the eroticization of both of these concepts. Dubcon uses this power hierarchy to discuss the many parallels that Omegaverse readers and writers draw between patriarchal power structures in reality and the Alpha-centric structures of the genre. As the genre can be described as sex-forward, these power struggles are often illustrated in the context of sexual consent and whether or not it can be meaningfully negotiated given the animalistic tendencies of the Omegaverse. Using examples from Supernatural fandom (the most popular A/B/O fandom during the time when Popova was conducting preliminary research on this genre), Popova argues that the careful consideration of consent, particularly in fics with warnings for dubcon or noncon, suggests that many in the Omegaverse community are aware of the potential pitfalls of sexual consent in the genre and adhere to particular standards of care when describing these specific power fantasies to readers. What is particularly fascinating about this case study is the gaps presented by Popova's transparency regarding the parameters and limitations of this case study. Popova points to many areas of study that could potentially negate or complicate their own conclusions (i.e., works focused on Alpha/Alpha relationships, etc.), but in doing so, Popova helps navigate future scholars toward points of interest and contention.

[4] The second case study contrasts fan fiction's "arranged marriage AU" (alternate universe) trope with arranged marriages as presented in popular, professionally published romance novels. As both of these genres employ the arranged marriage trope using fictional romance narratives, there is an expectation that their deployment will be similar if not entirely the same. However, Popova uses popular critique of romance novels from the late 1980s and mid-aughts to argue that romance novels are historically less concerned with the unequal power dynamics presented through an arranged relationship than many more contemporary works of fan fiction using the same trope. (Popova focuses particularly on historical romance novels, though it's unclear whether their generalizations on the romance novel are exclusive to this variety.) Romance novels, particularly romance novels of the historical variety, seem unconcerned with the protagonist's ability to consent in various sexual situations. Fan fiction offers a standard of care for protagonists (within certain tagging parameters) that renegotiates power dynamics in order to afford the characters more agency in their arranged relationships and an approach to sexual consent that foregrounds wantedness. As Popova phrases it, arranged marriage AUs, and to a certain extent, the Omegaverse, present "negotiated inequality" (89), where authors and readers can parse through structural inequalities through fictional, sexual inequality that they have control over—unlike many unequal power dynamics in reality. One point of contention that could arise in this case study is Popova's use of qualitative versus quantitative evidence—and how this manifests for both romance novel critique and fan fiction selection in this chapter. For instance, Popova does not cite any particular romance novel (or selection of novels) to compare with the fan fiction arranged marriages in this chapter, instead relying on the more generalized work of romance novel theorists who have conducted their own research on adjacent romance novel tropes. Unfortunately, this leaves many of Popova's generalizations about romance novel arranged marriages open to debate. Additionally, this case study uses two fic examples from Marvel's Thor franchise—a popular fandom for arranged marriage AUs. Despite the comparisons drawn between the fics and Popova's generalizations regarding romance novels, the fact remains that there are only two examples used to supply conclusions for a trend in fan fiction and no specific examples of popular romance novels to compare these fics with. Given the breadth of both of these subgenres, two seems like too small a pool to draw accurate impressions from. Discussing the case studies, Popova notes that while their sample sizes are small, the conclusions drawn from them are grounded in Popova's preexisting knowledge as a fan scholar and represent a snapshot of fan fiction from 2015 to 2018 (the time frame in which the data was collected for this book). Regardless of the generalizations on these subjects, it does present an interesting debate for qualitative versus quantitative evidence, since two other popular "arranged marriage AU" fan fiction works (or two romance novels) could potentially provide very different conclusions to those offered by Popova.

[5] The final case study presented in Dubcon is arguably the most relevant for Popova's thesis of fan fiction as cultural activism. It uses hockey RPF (real person fiction) fan fiction focused on problematic hockey celebrities as a microcosm for fan responses to rape allegations. Hockey RPF, or fan fiction focused on the celebrity players of professional hockey teams, has a somewhat contentious history within fan fiction, as some real-life players have been charged with sexual misconduct, sexual assault, and/or rape. As such, some readers and writers in the hockey RPF community grapple with these real-world issues through the fan fiction they produce and consume regarding these individuals. In Dubcon, Popova uses examples from popular hockey RPF fiction hosted on AO3 from 2015 to 2018 involving controversial hockey player Patrick Kane to argue that fan fiction can be a form of activism for sex-positive education and a mechanism for discussing intersections between power and consent. Using the rape allegations against Patrick Kane as a case study for fandom engagement, Popova touches on the ethical concerns of RPF and differentiates between fan engagement versus fan endorsement in RPF fan fiction communities, as fan responses to rape allegations in hockey vary between removal of the real-life characters from their fictional work to public denouncement of the hockey player and, occasionally, denial of wrongdoing by the hockey player. Far from remaining an issue distanced from fan fiction, Dubcon asserts that rape culture, and the legal systems that often sustain it, are represented and oftentimes addressed in fan fiction communities. As Popova writes, "community members helped each other translate insights about sex, rape, and consent developed through fan fiction into insights about how these things operate in the real worlds" (116). This particular conclusion might lead some readers to expect that Popova is suggesting that fan fiction is an unproblematic sphere of critical thinking. However, in their final section, Popova addresses some of the more problematic responses to sexual consent and power in fan fiction communities, as well as noting some of the existing gaps in fan scholarship that would highlight some of the messier and menacing areas of the online genre.

[6] The last section of the book brings together the fan fiction case studies of the previous sections to speculate on the lived experiences of many peoples in fan fiction communities, based on fans' interactions with controversial topics and how they interpret media for their own purposes. In doing so, Popova establishes how and why fan fiction can be viewed as fan activism used to discuss complicated topics like sexual consent and power hierarchies in a speculative online space. Popova contemplates how fans often use Barthes's theory of "death of the author" as a tool to distance themselves from some objectionable material while still interacting with it in a useful and productive manner. While fan fiction and fan scholarship are still very much plagued by misogynist, racist, and queerphobic interpretations, I would suggest that Dubcon arguably provides evidence for marked improvement in how fan fiction and its community interact with and address sexual consent and the power dynamics therein. Using sexual fantasy, many fan fiction genres, tropes, and specific fandoms are able to interrogate existing power structures to renegotiate experiences of sexual consent both for their favored characters and for themselves. Many debates surrounding sexual consent whittle the notion down to a question with two possible outcomes. Popova uses Dubcon to add much-needed nuance to the subject of sexual consent and the hierarchies of power that complicate its acquisition.

[7] As with many publications dealing with the subject of fan fiction, much of the recorded data in this book is already out of date—particularly the use of popular fandoms or works, since trends change so quickly in online fan fiction communities—but presents an interesting snapshot of the time period it was collected in. Popova's arguments and assertions remain relevant to the fan fiction and fan studies communities, regardless of shifts in popularity. Dubcon adds much-needed nuance to the debates on the inclusion of explicit material in fan fiction, and the writing style is accessible and conversational. While a fan scholar might benefit the most from Dubcon, with its fandom-specific case studies, this book can and should be used as an educational resource for disciplines concerned with contemporary Western society and its sexual/power dynamics. Dubcon makes the complex power dynamics often found in fan fiction (and the situations of sexual coercion they oftentimes produce) accessible to those familiar and unfamiliar with fan fiction, and in doing so, provides a framework through which to discuss these issues inclusively and constructively.