"Consent" Is the Wrong Framework for Experiencing Art

Moral panic about fiction is a misguided outlet for anger about the real world

Gretchen Felker-Martin
safety

What do we mean when we talk about consenting to an experience? In the Western world, the term is most closely associated with sociopolitical analysis of sex acts and the willingness or unwillingness of the individuals involved. Since the mid to late 1990s, “consent” has been a prominent topic in mainstream discussions of sex, popularized by studies like researcher David S. Hall’s 1998 Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality submission "Consent for Sexual Behavior in a College Student Population.” Cut to 2021 and you might see the word deployed in contexts which could be generously described as “radically different” and less generously as “connected only by the most willfully wrongheaded and myopic conflation of experiences it is possible to imagine.”

The latest example is the perplexing furor surrounding Kitfox Studios’ (Dwarf Fortress, Lucifer Within Us) dating sim/dungeon crawl Boyfriend Dungeon, a cutesy self-described “shack-n’-slash” video game in which players date their personified weapons to increase their power between bouts of monster-slaying. Kitfox consists of nine people in total, two founders and seven employees, and has garnered a reputation as an ambitious and forward-thinking independent studio, especially since publishing Dwarf Fortress, an infamously complex and difficult simulator in which players take responsibility for the management of the titular settlement, overseeing everything from marriage to fungus cultivation. Boyfriend Dungeon, hotly anticipated since its announcement in 2017, seemed like a natural successor to that year’s hit indie dating sim Dream Daddy, another colorful, overtly queer title. Then it launched.

Within a day of Boyfriend Dungeon’s release, a flood of Twitter users took to the site to express their outrage over one of the game’s subplots, which involved a stalker relentlessly texting the player. One user’s thread on the subject begins with the claim that after playing Boyfriend Dungeon for fifteen minutes he became so distressed by the fictional behavior of the game’s stalker character, Eric (voiced by Alexander Gross), that he was “afraid to play any more than [he had].” He goes on to claim multiple times that he “did not consent” to being exposed to this plotline, referencing hostile and suggestive texts he is unable to block in-game and unwanted gifts delivered to his “in-game address.” The user claims the game’s content warnings, which mention stalking and unwanted advances specifically, were insufficient to prepare him for encountering those elements within the fiction of the game.

This user was not alone in his concerns. His thread racked up hundreds of likes and retweets as well as a significant volume of commiseration, and fantasy author Ana Mardoll’s multiple extensive threads on the same subject — as well as his opinion that the game was “unsafe” for aromantic and asexual players — attracted even more attention.

Any individual is, of course, entitled to their feelings about any given work of art, but the backlash against Boyfriend Dungeon’s mildly transgressive storyline as well as the accompanying demands leveled at the studio and the mobbing of at least one voice actor fit into a larger trend of fans and consumers treating a given work of art as both violent toward them on a personal level and as an explicit endorsement or even enactment of any upsetting content it may contain. There’s an almost theme park guest mentality to it, an attitude that consumers are entitled to a seamless and uniformly pleasurable experience from any art they purchase, and that when that art fails to satisfy it’s the artist who’s to blame.

More than one individual went so far as to angrily contact Gross, the stalker character’s voice actor, stating that it “reflect[ed] poorly on [him] to play a character like this,” presumably implying Gross might sympathize with or share his character’s inclinations. It betrays a total misapprehension of the nature of art as both labor and experience to treat it as a relationship chimera of sorts, both personal and public, in which anyone with a ticket to the show can and should dictate terms. Beyond betraying simple art illiteracy, though, these intensely personal, emotional complaints and appeals to public safety have a clear antecedent: religious and conservative opposition to “obscenity.” The centering of individual values and pain, the assumption that a universal moral standard exists which should guide all public or quasi-public art and behavior, and the belief that art can do material harm to both people and culture as a whole unite the two at first apparently disparate groups of angry indie gamers and religious fundamentalists.

The deployment of victimhood as an unimpeachable defense is an old tactic frequently used by hate groups like One Million Moms and its parent organization, the American Family Association, whose rallying cry “think of the children” now echoes through everything from intra-community Gay Pride discourse to the drearily predictable “there’s too much sex on TV” tweets that seem to sweep across the platform on a weekly basis. The function of complaints like this is to raise and radically alter the stakes of any interaction, transforming a disagreement on whether or not art about stalking should be permitted to exist to an assertion that someone seeing art about stalking, or even hearing about it, constitutes a moral wrong on the artist’s part. That this attitude seems to slide over perhaps the largest and most pernicious non-consensual experience of media — advertising, which pervades public spaces with no opportunity for citizens to avoid it — feels like a grim commentary on which parts of culture this demographic feels merit such extreme reactions, and why.

To paraphrase Patrick Califia’s introduction to the 1992 reprinting of his infamous erotica anthology Macho Sluts, nobody ever got beaten or raped by a book. This isn’t to say that someone cannot experience an intense emotional reaction to a video game like Boyfriend Dungeon, but such a reaction’s relationship to the social concept of consent is radically different than if such a feeling arose during an interpersonal interaction. A video game might upset you, it might remind you of traumatic experiences, it might have as its subject matter something you find fundamentally unpalatable or unapproachable, but at the end of the day you can turn it off, return it, or otherwise choose not to keep interacting with it. A video game does not have human agency and cannot inflict itself on players. It cannot violate consent any more than a dog can, or a rock. Similarly, regarding Mardoll’s claims that Boyfriend Dungeon is “unsafe” because it fails to conform to his idea of good aromantic and asexual representation, a story does not become dangerous when it isn’t exactly what any given segment of its audience wants or expects. To claim otherwise is to enter the realm of conservative-leaning publications like The Independent, which just this May published an article stating that seeing adults in fetish gear in public is a violation of consent.

What separates the people who spend their lives crusading against depictions of homosexuality in art and public life from those who spend theirs railing at independent creators for not perfectly protecting them from anything that might give them a negative emotion? For all that users posit that it’s an artist’s duty to provide trigger warnings as a matter of public safety and responsibility, allowing their audiences “avoid harm,” the very idea that art itself can cause harm either by victimizing someone engaging with it or by “normalizing” antisocial behavior pushes the conversation into reactionary territory. War and rape and interpersonal brutalization have been fixtures of human interaction since before history’s record began; the engines driving them are power, abuse, poverty, and other broad and tangible social forces. Depictions of morality in art offer only a pale reflection of these real-world horrors, and so function for many frustrated and powerless people as a safe arena in which to battle out ideas unrelated to art’s role in society.

Perhaps a movie reminds a viewer of abuse suffered in their childhood. Perhaps that viewer is then triggered, and must leave the theater in a state of severe agitation. Perhaps their day is ruined, their week thrown off, their compulsive behavior thrown into activation. The harm in this situation, the tangible damage to a human life, was done before the viewer ever bought a ticket. It was done between human beings, and no matter how terrible the effects of being brought back to this experience are, responsibility lies with the trauma’s original cause, not with art which coincidentally recalls it. As for the trigger warnings so often touted as a way for audiences to opt out of things which might cause these painful reactions, mounting evidence suggests that not only do they not work, they also cause those who see them to experience heightened anxiety about upcoming trauma-related material.

In a 2020 study in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, researchers found that trigger warnings also encouraged people to view trauma as an essential part of their personhood, a belief which correlates with increased symptom severity and poorer overall mental health outcomes. The trigger warning, a hot-button topic entrenched in liberal and progressive circles by years of sneering neoconservative mockery, has become a cudgel in the hands of people who view their own knee-jerk upset as a moral imperative for those around them, and even the people who make the art they engage with. That trigger warnings don’t work is beside the point, which is the exercise of power in a world where so much actual oppression is immovable. We know instinctively that we can’t oust a president or bring down an oil conglomerate, but we can sure as hell make a tiny video game studio pay for the fact that while playing their game — or listening to someone else talk about having played it — we felt something we didn’t want to feel. If you can’t make the world safe, at least you can punish the people who remind you it isn’t.