Note: before we get into this piece, note that I am coming from this position as a queer Black person who has, in the past, purposefully read and written stories of the kind I am talking about in this piece. I’ve also got experience in researching and writing about Blackness in history, media, and fandom.
Predominantly, the form of slavery I’m going to be talking about in this piece relates to the enslavement of Africans and their descendants because that’s the form of slavery that many of these stories build off of (and I’m Black), but I’m going to mention slavery in ancient cultures. Additionally, any links to my blog stitchmediamix on tumblr won’t work because I have the blog locked while I’m on hiatus.
Content Warning: This piece will talk in depth about slavery in romance work, fanfic, and in history in a way that highlights the violence of slavery. Many of the website links embedded in this piece will link to pages that contain images and/or descriptions of brutality related to slavery including lynching, rape, and whipping.
Right now, on the Archive of Our Own, there are currently 12,236 stories tagged with “Slavery”.
Almost half of the stories with that tag are rated “Explicit” – most likely for sexual content and/or violence – with “Rape/Non-Con” making up a third of the stories’ warnings. While the stories are too varied to stand out with one or more particular pairing having the lion’s share of stories, in the relationship tab for that tag, the top pairings (with under 400 stories each) are primarily M/M stories focusing on white characters.
This is just a small snapshot of what slavefic in fandom and how slavery is portrayed in fandom looks like.
In the wider romance genre, stories sexualizing slavery come in a couple of forms. You have the “Thomas Jefferson’s lover Sally Hemmings” stories, stories either set in or inspired by the slavery in cultures like Ancient Greece or Rome, all set alongside futuristic and/or fantastic stories where slavery is something that happens to a predominantly (white or white-presenting) marginalized species akin to the way werewolves were slaves to vampires in the canon of the Underworld series.
As with fandom, many (but not all) stories involving sexualized (and frequently romanticized) slavery in fiction are centered on the experience of white male characters who are oppressed because they’re mutants, alphas or omegas, or a supernatural being of some sort.
The work flowing between the slash fandom and the professional M/M fiction scene is kind of where we get whatever it was that Riptide Publishing was doing with their Belonging Verse back in 2014 or so.
What made the Belonging Verse so egregious, wasn’t just that this was a series about slavery that reframed a dehumanizing and humiliating experience against an eroticized backdrop that focused on romantic relationships between enslaved people and the people that owned them… It was the fact that this series came along with a website that favorably portrayed slavery in ways that glossed over the history of slavery as well as the realities of modern day sexual slavery and human trafficking.
The website even contained fake but realistic advertisements for people selling themselves into slavery in the context of the world and was generally in poor taste considering the fact that it was basically something torn from a Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode.
While Riptide Publishing has long since (poorly) apologized for the series and its website, and it appears as if most of the books are removed from publication, Kim Fieldings’ Staged, the third book in the Belonging Verse is still up, published via an imprint of Riptide Publishing, as is Rachel Haimowitz’s Anchored, another Belonging Novel. Additionally, “real” slavery is still listed as a kink that folks can search for – just underneath consensual slavery – and Haimowitz’s human trafficking/sexual slavery series (with forced incest) The Flesh Cartel series is on its third season with the company.
As many fandom writers look to the romance genre for ways to expand their audience and make money from their writing, many of the tropes that fandom finds fascinating and fantastic cross over as well.
While some of these tropes aren’t terrible, some others – like the use of “real” slavery and actual master/slave relationships in romance and erotica – are beyond frustrating considering that the same “Don’t Like? Don’t Read. Don’t Criticize.” arguments from similar fandom spaces carries over to the romance genre spaces.
I’ve seen many people argue against what they call “purity culture” and censorship in fandom whenever people bring up the fact that having an interest in a fiction-based kink isn’t a “Get Out of Criticism Free” space on a fandom monopoly board.
Others still talk about their own kink interest in non-con (rape) or power imbalances in these works in a way that makes it clear that any attempt to forge a discourse and talk about what it is about slavery in fiction that makes many Black fans uncomfortable is being seen as an attack against their own sexuality and right to sexual expression.
But what about Black readers and members of fandom who are deeply uncomfortable with the way these two spaces misrepresent something that is actually present in our histories? What about the sexuality of Black fans and how prevalent a major potential trigger for us is in fandom?
What about the fact that Black people talking critically (or angrily) about slavery in fandom and certain parts of the romance genre isn’t kink shaming… or the fact that even if it was, who gets to say that some kinks (and kinksters) should be free from critique?
What are you writing about?
Personally, I think that even if you write a sexy slavery story without even bothering to think or talk about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, you’re coming from a place still influenced by that brutal history.
Think about it:
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was so brutal and wide-spread that it literally changed the way that people were enslaved from the moment of its inception. It changed the way that people around the world thought of Africans and to this very day, Black people can be subject to violent and dehumanizing anti-Blackness that can actually be directly traced back to our ancestors’ enslavement and the messages about us/it that white people carried around the world.
And that history, that anti-Black racism that permeates societies worldwide, is going to make it into your work unless you work for it and well… most of the people writing sexy stories about “real” slavery?
They aren’t doing the work because it’s not about exploring life while enslaved, it’s about sexualizing slavery for their audience.
Many of those writers don’t seem to think that Black people even have the right to bring up their discomfort with how much folks like turning slavery into something sexy for commodification and consumption.
In conversations like this, many people like to bring up the way that other people were enslaved across history and that Black people weren’t the only slaves as a way to derail, but the enslavement of Africans and their descendants literally changed history. It changed the way that other human beings would be subjugated in the future and has influenced the continuing negative treatment of Black people in countries where they once were slaves.
It doesn’t matter how prevalent slavery around the world was prior to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade or how folks claim those masters of old were more compassionate in order to use it as a talking point, the enslavement of Africans and their descendants was some of the most horrific treatment ever documented in human history and it impacts how people see slavery around the world.
More often than not, works in fandom and the romance genre that attempt to tackle a very sexy form of slavery don’t detail the horrors of the experience. After all, it’s hard enough to get readers behind a slave-owner as a hero when he’s portrayed as a “good guy”. Imagine how little readers would enjoy sexy slavefic if it looked more like the experiences of enslaved Africans and their descendants – if the “Slavery (Real)” tag on Riptide’s website held more realistic and honest portrayals of slavery… without sexual content as a main focus.
So, what does “real” slavery look like?
It looks like pregnant Black women being whipped to death.
Like selling parents and children separately to cause the most pain.
It looks like partus sequitur ventrem.
It looks like white men raping Black women without any fear of punishment… while claiming that their poor, pure white wives were at risk of assault from Black brutes.
It looks like the scenes in Roots you were too uncomfortable to look at when you tried to watch it.
Like being chained into place inches apart from your nearest neighbors, lying in human waste for weeks or even months in darkness as you’re taken from your home.
It looks like the Zong Massacre and black bodies thrown overboard to save slavers’ profits.
It looks like the migratory patterns of sharks changing because they were fed good and well by the bodies of Black people who were thrown overboard or who jumped.
It looks like white women lying about being raped by Black men in order to get away with having satisfied their fetish for Black male bodies.
It looks like white men selling their Black children into slavery.
It looks like rape, like being legally only a fraction of a person, like never knowing if your great grandchildren would ever be free, like having slave catchers and their dogs chase you and your family until they catch you.
But slavery also looks like what came after the end of the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery.
It looks like the thousands of Black people lynched in front of white crowds across the United States because white US-ians couldn’t handle us being seen as more than three-fifths of a human being. (And only a small percentage of those murders-turned-entertainment actually being documented.)
Like pregnant mothers having their bellies cut open as they swing in front of a jeering crowd of hateful white people.
It looks like four little girls killed by a bomb set at their church.
It looks like assassinations and bombings and bricks thrown through windows.
It looks like the way Black people are still suffering from what seems like a perpetual subjugation.
It looks like the Klan burning crosses in the 30s/40s/50s/60s… and in 2018.
It also looks like non-Black people turning slavery, a dehumanizing and horrific aspect of recent history, into fodder for their sexy stories… and shutting down any attempts that we make to talk about why it’s so wrong for slavefic to be such a huge thing in fandom and in certain romance novel spaces.
When you write slavefic, even when the traumatic experiences of Black people aren’t even a blip on your mental radar, this is part of what you’re glossing over. This is only a part of what you’re romanticizing when you write a story about a slave falling in love with their master – or falling in love with someone that they think is their new master after rescuing them from slavery.
There’s lingering trauma there, even generations after the supposed end of slavery in the United States because well…
Slavery didn’t really end, did it?
Between the prison pipleline system, the hyperpolicing of Black people that lead to us being incarcerated at incredibly high rates (and forced to work for pennies an hour), and human trafficking for the purpose of forced labor that includes the sex work, beauty, and food service industries, slavery is alive and well in 2018 and it shouldn’t be sexualized and – dare I say, trivialized – by folks who believe that their desire trumps the very painful of reality of what slavery has always been like.
Back in 2017, after watching Raoul Peck’s James Baldwin documentary I am Not Your Negro, I wrote a passionate and painful post about how I felt observing the popularity of slavefic in fandom and the romance genre as a Black person. I wanted to vent about my feelings as someone who is Black and who, by virtue of my Blackness, finds it uncomfortable to see how much people in these spaces ignore any criticism of the trope/genre because it empowers them or whatever.
Within about an hour of making that post, I received an anonymous message that said:
“on ur post about slavery AU i get where youre coming from but at the same time i think its important for you to see that not everyone writing all these AUs is american. so like they dont have the same exeriences or know details about the history u clearly know that well. like obvs everyone knows it happened and its horrible but at the same time other people other than black people have been enslaved so when someone is writing something like that maybe they arent making the same connections u are”
If you know anything about me, you can probably tell that I didn’t handle that with anything even resembling grace. Of course, like I mentioned before, I know that every single sexy slavery story out there pulls from the experience of Black people across the diaspora and no shit, Black people weren’t the only ones enslaved.
However, this sort of rebuttal always comes up when Black people in fandom talk about the uncomfortable feeling of seeing sexualized violence and oppression replicated across their fandoms thanks to the fans of works like Captive Prince and the popular nature of slavery as a form of power-imbalance in fandom and the romance genre.
One of the things that makes slavefic and fandom’s clenched-fist grasping of sexualized slavery as a right or as a means to (white) female sexual exploration actually and actively racist is the reaction that people who like that kind of content have to Black people talking about how the sort of “prosthetic memory” of slavery as it impacted our ancestors and still impacts us.
When I have spoken about slavery in fanworks/fandom and in romance novels, I get several different and infuriating responses:
- “Other people (of color usually) were slaves too”
- “The Greeks/Romans/Aztecs had slavery too”
- “I’m Black (or a person of color whose people were enslaved) and I don’t think this is racist or problematic”
- “What about slavery in fiction where it’s not necessarily sexy but it is necessary?”
I call them “waste my time” comments because that’s all they do.
These comments, which are never made in good faith, almost always attempt to shut down some aspect of the argument that I’m making. They’re attempts at distracting from the subject at hand and delegitimizing the problems that I and other Black people have with the widespread usage of slavery as a sexy sidenote in many fandoms as well as in certain segments of the romance genre.
By bringing up that other people (either other people of color or ancient cultures) were slaves when Black people talk about how they feel about slavery as it’s frequently presented in fanworks and some parts of the romance genre, the person doing the talking is attempting to derail and dismiss the experiences of Black people having these conversations.
When you see a Black person talking about how slavery wasn’t sexy and that enslavement came with terrible trauma as a result of yet another person fawning over Captive Prince or one of the thousands of sexy slavery stories in fandom or in romance novels, why bring up that the Greeks had slavery or that it’s a foundation of many historical societies?
Why tell these Black people essentially, that since the story isn’t set in the Americas or that Black people aren’t present, that we shouldn’t have an opinion on fandom writing eroticized portrayals of slavery?
- First: how many ancient Greeks/Aztecs/etc are still around to deal with the effects of their ancestors being enslaved? Do they still suffer from the aftereffects of slavery? Not so much, eh?
- Second: Do people understand that the enslavement of Black people happened like… five hundred years ago and still impacts the way Black people around the word are (mis)treated by everyone?
- Third: I’m pretty sure, that as Black people, not only do we know very well how much of the world was shaped by slavery and the subjugation of other people. That’s kind of why so many of the people you see recoil from fandom’s fascination with not just slavery in fiction but sexualized and romanticized portrayals of slavery in fiction.
- Fourth: And yes, Captive Prince is set in an Ancient Greek-inspired fantasy world, but that doesn’t negate the frustration of actual Black people who’ve been frustrated and potentially triggered by fan art and fiction portraying the character of Damen as brown-skinned (typically darker than my complexion) or matter when we’re talking about the realities of slavery as the descendants of slaves.
Other Black people (or, people of color who have historical enslavement on the books) saying that they don’t find slavefic in fandom or romance books problematic serve the same purpose as the reductive references to ancient cultures that used slavery to make up their workforce or to subjugate enemies. The goal of these comments are to purposefully trying to delegitimize arguments made by Black people or distract from the validity of their emotions.
This is typical in fandom where, when people of color talk about racism they see in media or experience from fandom, other people of color rush in to shut them down because they don’t think the thing is racist. It’s a way to shore up the confidence of other fans – primarily but not only white fans – who also disagree. In invalidating the thoughts of Black people talking about fandom racism, this validates people who just don’t want to listen to them.
Lastly, the question about slavery that isn’t sexualized is a recent addition to my back catalog of “waste my time” comments. It’s not just another attempt at derailing. It’s an attempt at gaining a stamp of approval from a Black person to write about slavery “but not like that”.
Needless to say, when I didn’t just provide them with that stamp, it didn’t exactly end well…
The whole point of “waste my time” comments as a direct response to us talking about slavefic in fandom is to distract from the commentary and questions many Black people in fandom are making.
Shield of Empowerment
Something that the romance genre and fandom has in common is the way that the right to portray or express things they desire (kinks, tropes, and the like) in their works is seen as empowering across the board and something that can’t be critiqued.
Because fandom is seen as a lady-focused space where queer (and often kinky) women congregate, critical discussions about sexuality more nuanced than much of the current discourse fandom has decided to cling to isn’t happening on a wide scale.
Instead of folks thinking a little harder about why they like the things that they like – and why others don’t or can’t– attempts at bringing some much needed critical thinking to fandom discussions of sexuality have been frequently run up against what’s currently one of my most dreaded phrases to hear:
Imagine constantly brushing off critique of something that gets you off as “purity wank”.
Imagine accusing fellow fans of being puritanical, holier than thou, and the like even when some of them are literally only trying to have a discussion about the way people think that fandom/fan’s desire should never be critiqued or policed means that their sexuality and their desires get subsumed and erased.
I recently saw one of my Tumblr mutuals, a woman I’ve known for years, make a post about how she doesn’t want to see anyone tell people in fandom what they can/not create because “fandom is supposed to be free”. This idea that fandom is supposed to be free and the call back to the “good ole days” of fandom where people wrote what they want/what gets them off becomes a problem when you think of who gets shut out by this rhetoric.
When queer dudes talk about the way that how fandom focuses on M/M (primarily written by women – many of whom are straight and white) makes them feel uncomfortable and objectified, folks inevitably whip out the “many people use fandom to discover their sexual and gender identity” and declare this commentary misogynistic. The desire that these women have to understand themselves and their identities through a lens of male sexuality trumps any critical commentary from queer dudes… It’s wild.
(Because somehow, M/M isn’t for men, despite being about them (or a fantasy version of them) and we’re still not talking about that…)
Same goes for how, when people of color talk about the way that race and sexuality intertwine for the negative in these same spaces, folks trot out the fact that it’s their personal fantasy as a shield. So, what do the personal fantasies of women have to do with slavery and racism?
More than you probably realize considering how historically, while white women’s desire for Black flesh was just as harmful as white men’s during the period of slavery, much of the focus on sexuality during the period of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade makes an effort to whitewash their complicity in similar abuses.
In Thomas A. Foster’s “The Sexual Abuse of Black Men Under American Slavery”, he writes that:
“The traditional denial of white women’s sexual agency has contributed to our obscured view of those white women who sexually assaulted and exploited enslaved men. Indeed, the abuse of black men at the hands of white women stands on its head the traditional gendered views of racialized sexual assault. Yet as historians have demonstrated, despite the legal and cultural prohibitions against sex between black men and white women in early America, occurrences were far from rare.” (458)
Foster documents examples of white women who openly voiced their desire for Black men to the point of obvious objectification, forcing Black men to sleep with them under threat of claiming they were assaulted, and forcing enslaved men to service them. He also talks about an 1841 couple where a white woman and an enslaved Black man lived together as husband and wife where the woman constantly threatened to sell him despite appearing to care for him.
In this section Foster also points out that “even presumably affectionate and long-term relationships must be reconsidered given the context of slavery” because “the apparently affectionate relationships of enslaved women and white men took place within the context of absolute power over life and limb and therefore must not be viewed as consensual” (461).
Historically, white women’s desire has been just as harmful as that of white men even if we don’t really get to see it documented in this context because of the way white womanhood is seen as protected – as racist stereotypes about how Black men would rape women willy-nilly if left unchecked and unsubjugated abounded.
Think about who gets to use the shield of empowerment in times like this and who doesn’t. Fandom is seen as a space that’s supposed to be empowering for women and therefore, any critique of fandom (or a thing fandom likes) is presented as an attempt to remove or diminish that empowerment. Even if – really, though – the critiques are usually coming either from other women (usually “of color”) and queer dudes.
Think about whose desire isn’t seen as valid unless it butts up against or agrees with that of the (white) majority.
Think about whose experiences aren’t seen as valid, whose relationship with their history isn’t seen as worthy of respect, unless they’re using their experience and their history in a way that dovetails neatly with that #MakeFandomGreatAgain or #KeepFandomFree mentality I keep seeing.
Sometimes, it feels as though it’s more important to let fandom (and your fellow fans) do whatever they want instead of talking about the ways that many people are let down or even hurt by the mentality that everything fandom does with regard to fanworks and desire are A-OK.
It feels as though people think that there’s this automatic slippery slope where if you ban (or just talk about shutting down a problematic thing fandom likes), that the less/non-problematic stuff they like will also get banned so they have to protect the gross stuff in order to keep doing what they like.
I’ve been following along different people having conversations about the type of content on the AO3 (primarily with the way that the archive is full of erotic stories about underage fictional characters but I totally have made it about race from my POV because that’s what I do) and one thing that keeps coming up are people who write how disgusted they are by some of the content on the AO3 but that… the creator has the right to write whatever they want and that the person will defend that right and protect them from censorship.
Think about that, those are folks talking about stories centering underage (teen and child) characters in sexual experiences which are 99% of the time for erotic purposes (and I brought up racism in fandom/fanworks) and one consistent response has been that “well i don’t approve of the thing and in fact, it makes me sick, but i’m gonna fight for their right to write that”.
And I think it’s the same way here with slavefic and its prevalence in fandom spaces as well as in the romance genre. I know that if I went directly to the inboxes of some of the people I’ve seen write popular sexy slavery stories and gave them some of the links I’ve put forward in this post, they’d be horrified at the reality of slavery in history.
They don’t condone slavery in real life, they’d tell me.
And I’d believe them.
But what gets me is that these creators and consumers have ZERO interest in analysis, zero interest in reading up about the dark things present in their works and understanding why maybe it’s not great that erotic slavery is a thing super present in fandoms, and zero interest in thinking and talking about why certain things are so normal in fandom and fan spaces.
Folks out here appear to fear their removal will what… destroy the fragile tower all NSFW content in fandom is based off of? And of course, with that fear comes a sharp refusal to even entertain thoughts from people critical of the thing without snapping back.
And it’s tiring.
I’ve had a version of this post in progress for almost two years, with a draft stretching back to July 2016. Every time I go to do some work on the idea, I run up against one of the largest stumbling blocks that always gets in my way when I’m writing anything critical about an aspect of fandom that fans really don’t want to see criticized: the fact that I will have non-Black people lecture me about how sexy stories about slavery are integral to fandom functioning as normal.
(In fact, as of posting this: I’ve already been harassed for writing this post with folks referring to it as my “latest vendetta” and saying that I’m only criticizing slavery in fanworks/romance because I want to control what people create.)
I’ve had this experience with several other posts I’ve done about other examples of fandom racism and I’ve gotten some pretty harsh responses on top of that. It seems as though the forces that see fandom and the related romance genre as safe spaces for female exploration kind of just… stall when it comes time to acknowledge that not everyone that exists in fandom feels the same way about certain kinds of content…
And that folks need to be listening to them rather than writing them off or harassing them.
This is yet another thing about slavefic that renders it racist, that adds layers to the racism. I know so many women of color (including other Black women) on tumblr who’ve spoken critically about the fact that slavefic in fandom and romance is a non-issue and received snotty or racist reblogs whitesplaining slavery and kink and power imbalances to them. I know so many Black women who, after talking about how uncomfortable it is to see the overwhelming popularity of Captive Prince and all the sexy slavery fanworks that it spawned, were inundated with people lecturing them about the book and making excuses for the content.
Consistently, when people of color talk about how some of the sexy things fandom hypes up and accepts wind up being racist and upsetting, we get shut down because the desire and/or of white women (and that of the people of color who run full out to shut down other people of color talking critically about this content) is all that matters.
So what do I want y’all to do about this?
I don’t have the power to ban all sexy slavery stories from the internet.
I don’t know that I’d even want that ability.
But you know what I do want?
I want people to do their homework on what slavery has always been like across countries and time periods. I want people to internalize the fact that slavery – the act of enslaving people and being enslaved – is not and will never actually be sexy in history and it shouldn’t be sexy in fiction.
I want folks to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon.
I want them to watch I Am Not Your Negro and Ava Duvernay’s 13th and Roots. I want people to read slave narratives, not just of Black people, but of anyone that was enslaved in history.
I know it can be difficult to find slave narratives in history because enslaved people didn’t generally have access to communication, but like… If you’re going to write sexy slavefic, maybe you should do the work to find out what slavery was really like and why it’s never going to be something sexy.
I want people to stop making excuses.
It doesn’t matter if Romans had slaves or if you (erroneously) think that the Irish were slaves, that’s not relevant in 2018. I want folks to stop using other people of color to excuse their interest in slavefic – especially white people snatching at tokens.
I want people to interrogate their kneejerk reactions to people going “hey, that think that turns you on and/or helps you cope? It’s not actually that great and in fact is a bit fucked up” and stop rushing to use their desire or trauma or other people’s histories to shut them down.
I want them to think long and hard about why slavefic is so integral to their fannish or romance-reader/writer experience that they must defend its continued creation – especially to Black people who’ve talked about how stressful it makes them feel to see sexualized slavery being treated as a total non-issue by the people around them.
I want people to think about what they’re putting into the world with slavefic and decide, without being called out or snarked at, that maybe they don’t want to keep doing that anymore.
I want folks to take a bit more responsibility when it comes to creating and consuming media and fanworks.
To quote Roxane Gay in her opinion piece “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction”:
Creativity without constraint comes with responsibility. We do not make art in a vacuum isolated from sociopolitical context.
While Gay’s piece is about HBO’s now-scrapped alternate history series Confederate and not fandom, I think it’s something that we should keep in mind in fandon and beyond.
 I generally use “slavefic” not only to refer to stories that use slavery in any capacity that involves romanticizing, eroticizing, or fetishizing the experience of enslavement, but to also refer to stories that have slavery as a marked portion of their background and yet focus on the experience of slavers and saviors rather than the people being enslaved. For me, it’s a catch-all term but for others, their mileage and definitions may vary.