Imagine you live in a world where magic is real. Awesome, right? Now imagine that people can and regularly do use that magic to force you to do or believe or forget things you otherwise would never do, and we’re getting into more frightening territory. Unfortunately, this is the case in many magical worlds, where bodily autonomy and consent fall easily in the face of a well-cast spell.
I’ve been reading Holly Black’s Curse Workers series recently, which was what originally made me think hard about this issue. In the series, curse workers are people who can, with a touch of their bare hand, work a variety of magics on a person. There are luck workers and transformation workers and even death workers, but the scariest to me are the people who can work emotions. Without giving too much away, one of the series’s main characters gets emotion-worked at one point to be in love with someone else. Regardless of her feelings, the magic makes her act uncharacteristically, and she follows him around just to be near him. In several cases she even tries to initiate sexual contact, because the magic has made her want him.
In Harry Potter you have the Imperius curse, which steals away your free will and makes you do whatever the caster wishes. Love potions are cooked up by Hogwarts students and joked about, but they’re basically a date-rape drug. In the Wheel of Time series, evil channelers of the Power who know the right methods can use Compulsion for anything from convincing a guard to let them through a tightly guarded gate, to convincing a king that he’s a happy, doting slave boy.
The issue of magic being used to override consent is pretty obvious in the above situations, but the reality is that it’s much more insidious than the overtly rape-assisting cases I’ve mentioned. Facilitating sexual assault is one of the worst possible uses of magics like this, but it’s also just one consequence of magical worlds that don’t care much for bodily autonomy. Think about it.
In the Avatar: The Last Airbender world, for example, waterbenders can use the forbidden art of bloodbending to immobilize or control another person’s body, and even to remove a bender’s ability to bend at all. It’s clearly portrayed as a terrible act, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely off limits to the good guys—Katara bloodbends both to save her friends and in her search for vengeance against the man who killed her mother.
In Harry Potter, it’s made clear that the Imperius curse is a bad thing—Unforgivable, even. But smaller hexes that change a person’s features or physical form, take away their ability to move, or cause them to move in ways out of their control are used by people all the time throughout the books. Hell, Hermione casts Petrificus Totalus on a terrified eleven-year-old Neville and leaves him there, unable to move. James Potter hoists Snape into the air and shows the crowd his underwear. And those are just assaults on physical autonomy. The way the Wizarding World uses Memory charms as a panacea for secrecy problems is pretty damn problematic too—at the mercy of a witch or wizard’s morals, you can be made to do whatever they please, and then not even remember having done it later on.
All these things are troubling. Yes, bloodbending and the Imperius curse have been outlawed by their respective governments, but what about the Full Body Bind? What of channeling Air to pin a person in place, or bending water into ice to capture someone? What about Obliviate? When characters who are supposed to be our heroes are shown casually engaging in behaviors that disregard bodily autonomy, it implies for readers that a person’s control over their body is negotiable and that, if it’s for a “good cause”, it’s okay if you violate it. That sounds like a perpetuation of rape culture to me, and I’m very uncomfortable with the fact that most authors don’t seem to realize or engage with that fact.