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The line between acceptable and unacceptable is often drawn at consent. However, consent can sometimes be questionable. How consensual was it, really?
There are two basic ways of portraying this, although they often blend into each other.
- Type A: Sure, there was consent... but how free was it, really?
- Type B, popularly known as Dub Con (dubious consent): The plot would have you think consent was granted -- but was it, really?
Type A applies to all kinds of situations, including sexual ones. However, many sexual examples of Type A fall under the subtrope Sexual Extortion. Type B is normally restricted to sexual situations.
Questionable Consent can be complicated. Lets say that Alice is very rich, while Bob is very poor with starving kids. Alice wants something from Bob. Something that he really doesn't want to give her. Maybe a kidney. Or maybe unprotected intercourse with no fatherhood rights for the resulting child. Bob very reluctantly agrees, because he is desperate for money for food and medicine for his kids. But how free was his choice, really?
The Sliding Scale Of Consent Versus Exploitation doesn't have to be about money. It can be about social status, intimacy, drugs, or any kind of MacGuffin.
It can also be a discussion about whether or not a certain character is able to consent to a certain thing in the first place. The character might be too young or inexperienced, drugged down, suffering from Stockholm Syndrome or similar.
- Girl Genius had "one rule" Dr. Beetle agreed on as a vassal of Baron Wulfenbach, very reasonable, but very no-nonsense overlord of the whole Europe.
- Of course, as noted, the rule wasn't exactly unreasonable, because Wulfenbach is trying to keep peace throughout all of Europe and protect it from a rather serious threat, and the rule (which Beetle blatantly broke) is more or less directly related to that goal. So even though Beetle tries to invoke this trope, he really comes across as childish and petulant rather than legitimately being coerced.
- In Never Let Me Go, the protagonists and others are getting exploited in the most brutal way, and they have all been conditioned to unquestioningly accept the system.
- In Caligula, pretty much everyone constantly makes sure to proclaim that they are okay with whatever the Emperor is doing. Hypothetically anyone that Caligula does his weird shit to could tell him to stop, but practically speaking, who's gonna say no to the Emperor? Even if it means allowing your wife to be whored out, getting anally fist-raped on your wedding day after he rapes your formerly virgin bride, or having your head chopped off by a giant lawnmower.
- Played with in the Slave World novels, with the slave hunters using psychological profiling to find people who will (after being given the right medical treatment) love the fact that they are getting exploited and only consider the fact that it's non-consensual to be an extra turn on.
- The fans of The Dresden Files are nigh-obsessed with the consent issues in the series and nailing down which were intended by the author and which were accidental.
- Anything involving The Fair Folk is almost certainly intended (the Winter Court in particular). There are only two hard-and-fast rules when dealing with fairies: any contract, verbal or otherwise, is 100% binding (and if you do not uphold your end, the other party is within their rights to come down on you like a ton of bricks, fatally if they should so desire), and there is no such thing as the spirit of the agreement, only the letter, (and if you can get away with it, you can be pretty flexible with the letter as well). The conditions under which the agreement were made are completely immaterial, and many of the less benevolent fairies like to actively exploit people who are between a rock and a hard place like this.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire princess Daenerys is married off to barbarian warlord Khal Drogo as part of an alliance between him and her brother. On their wedding night, her new husband asks her for sex, and it's implied that he really would have respected her decision had she said no. Her abusive brother, on the other hand, would have been less than pleased if he ever found out she had failed to live up to the duties of a proper wife.
- Drogo's actions on their wedding night are at odds with his later behaviour, however. Though he asks permission (apparently genuinely) and does try to make sure she enjoys it on their wedding night, in their day-to-day life he treats her much more roughly and coldly, and despite her never actually saying "no", there's not much choice involved for her. However, this might be because their wedding night was far away from his army, whereas normally there's only a flimsy tent wall between them and his Proud Warrior Race horde, and he has a reputation to maintain. In any case, there relationship does blossom into something more later, and the way he treated her at first isn't much of an issue after that.
- In Lost, Locke gives a kidney to his father, believing it was his own idea. However, his father has manipulated and maneuvered him from the start, and drops him like garbage as soon as he got what he needed.
- Frequently discussed on Law and Order SVU whenever a teenager below the age of consent is in a relationship with someone older, particularly when that is a teacher or an authority figure. However, the discussion is usually undermined by revelations that one person in the relationship is manipulating or exploiting the other in some way, making one party seem naive and the other villainous. In fact, the teenagers are the guilty party just as often as the older partners.
- In an episode of Night Gallery, a wealthy blind woman pays a desperate man for his eyes. He needs the money to satisfy his bookie.
- Invoked in an episode of Judging Amy, when Amy has a massive freakout on her wedding day and calls it off because she realizes her fiancee is a "really nice, really well-meaning bully" who's always pressuring her into things she inevitably ends up enjoying and being glad she was coerced, but the point is that he's coercing her at all, not really letting her choose.
- In Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, the Lawful Evil alignment often relies heavily on this trope, tricking or forcing people into agreements and then requiring them to hold up their end of the bargain.
- In Mass Effect 2, on Illium, 'Indentured Servitude' (which Shepard calls slavery) is an accepted form of employment, particularly for those who accrue large debts. A mini-quest involves a young quarian who is forced to sell herself into indentured servitude/slavery as the only way to escape her debts. Synthetic Insights refuses to hire her with that contract because they view it as immoral, but her contract holder seems to genuinely care for her and wants the quarian to land on her feet.
- The Feros colonists would also count. They signed a contract which contained a clause that would allow a company to experiment on them in exchange for medical treatment. Unlike the former quest, where no moral opinions on the matter are stated to be superior, the game strongly suggests that this is exploitation, using the colonists against their will.
- Slave Maker is big on Questionable Consent (Type A) while averting DubCon (Type B) with total clarity: The tutorial states that no, you can't rape your slaves, and if they refuse any act in-game they can't be forced - persuading them can take time, in theory you might never get there. So, no Dub Con there, it's clearly consensual on the surface. However, how well a slave submit to you determine her final fate, and low scores leads to A Fate Worse Than Death... So while the character never force the slave, the system that they are both a part of certainly does.
- The ending of Half-Life 1 presents the player with a choice of entering employment of a mysterious being of questionable intentions (and ending up in stasis for 20 years) or certain death.
- Occasionally parodied in the Rance Series. The protagonist may occasionally claim a certain sex scene is consensual, but the narration and the other characters in the series both know that it is obviously not.
- The first story arc of Collar 6 is about Mistress Sixx trying and, for the most part, failing to find a balance between forcing Laura and Ginger to do what she wants and "forcing" them to do what they want, too.
Examples, Type B only
- Absolutely rife in the Boys Love Genre. The Victim Falls For Rapist trope only really works when the consent is perceived as dubious because if it were considered straight up non-con it wouldn't be justifiable (not that it ever actually is, just that in fiction where you can have a bit of freedom from moral conventions if you choose, there are still limits).
- A depressingly large number of Eroge follow the general pattern of the protagonist pestering his or her love interest for sex or to do a particular sex act their love interest finds embarrassing, and the protagonist keeping up the pestering or just moving on to foreplay until their love interest finally gives in. Even when this goes straight into It's Not Rape If You Enjoyed It territory, this is still treated by the writers as loving and consensual sex. Values Dissonance applies, as the intended target audience seems to believe that this is the ultimate proof that My Girl Is Not a Slut.
- At one point in Haruhi Suzumiya, Mikuru's future self gives Kyon permission to kiss her unconscious younger self. Even he wonders if it's actually ok.