Magical Mondays: Magic and Consent

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.

hermione obliviate gif

Red-GloveI’ve been reading Holly Black’s Curse Workers series recently, which was what originally made me think hard about this issue.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.

Katara_bloodbends_ship_captainIn 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.

neville petrificus totalusAll 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.

9 thoughts on “Magical Mondays: Magic and Consent

  1. My kids (young’uns) were recently laughing about the scene in whatever HP book where Gilderoy Lockhart accidentally hits himself with the Obliviate spell and dopily asks the kids who he is, where he is, etc. He’s pretty much lobotomized, and it’s shown to be funny. Yes, he did it to himself, and meant to do it to Ron, plus Lockhart’s a bad guy (not really a villian, though) and now he’s reduced to a blank slate.
    I want to revisit this with the littles as some point and ask them if they think that’s really okay, if anyone deserves to have that happen to them.

    But – how would you handle it differently? Have the heroes wrestle with the decision to use such magic? Or have it always called forbidden, under any circumstances? I don’t know what the answer is.

    • Lockhart not a villain? Maybe not to the heroes of the books, but given that he’s spent his life making great witches and wizards forget about entire periods of their lives (including their greatest accomplishments) in order to sell his own books, and that such major Obliviation is shown to cause irreparable brain damage, I think he counts as a villain. I agree something like that shouldn’t be played for laughs.

      Most of the examples in this post are cliches of action/adventure stories with or without magic–in another universe, the trio might’ve just gagged Neville and tied him to a chair. Any action/adventure story where the heroes use violence/force in any way whatsoever is showing that it’s okay to violate bodily autonomy when there’s an overriding concern.

      I once wrote a superhero story where the protagonist had sweeping mind-control abilities, but didn’t use them to their full extent, partially to save his skin (the government would not let a super with those abilities go free) but also because it was immoral. Instead he’d use them to immobilize people (in his case, people who’d taken drugs that triggered a transformation into an out-of-control violent monster). In a much less justifiable twist, he’d also use them on police officers and reporters at the scene to leave instructions (i.e. send his thoughts to someone taking notes). Taking feedback from this post, I could add a twist where he realizes that that’s going too far, or just not do that. (Originally, I didn’t have him talking since he’s a transgender teenager whose voice would be read as female.) I don’t think the primary use of the power–to stop people from doing damage when they’ve already lost their minds to a drug reaction–is actually immoral. But the character does have a clear line in his head, where he won’t compel his opponents to do or think anything, just stop them from moving physically, and only to prevent them from doing imminent damage. This was inspired by my own experience with a mental disability that often made it impossible for me to move my own body (I still have it, just not often). But now I’m wondering why I thought restraint was more justifiable for a fictional character to do, given that if I heard someone restrained someone else in real life, I would not be okay with that in almost any scenario.

      Some thoughts on how such things can be handled better:
      1. Don’t set up your magic system so that violations of bodily and mental autonomy are commonplace and easy. This will (a) stop you from moving the plot forward by having your protagonists do something like that for convenience and never grapple with the implications, (b) reduce the likelihood that these violations will be normalized in your fictional society, and (c) draw attention to the violation since there will be a struggle to commit it. If Petrificus Totalis didn’t exist, they would’ve needed to convince Neville to come along with them somehow, or else restrained him in a way that couldn’t have been dealt with so breezily.
      2. Don’t use an escalation of contrived reasons that your protagonist has to abandon perfectly reasonable morals in order to achieve their goals. I’ve seen it over and over again, where a pacifist character is forced to kill, or a character with a clear line about using their magic has to cross that line. (Or, in Harry Potter’s case, the protagonist apparently just starts using Unforgiveables because battle’s intense and confusing like that.) If you’re tempted to use this trope, think really hard about the cultural messages you’re reinforcing, and whether you’d have a better story if your protagonist achieved their goals on their own terms.
      3. If your teen characters cross a line, have an older, wise and powerful mentor character who calls them on it, and have this person turn out to be right. (Hey, tropes aren’t always bad.)
      4. Never play assault, harassment, or stalking for laughs. Or, make it a character development arc for a young protagonist to laugh at something of that sort… and then realize that they’re living a rape culture and that that was VERY effed up.
      5. Just don’t write that kind of plot. For instance, when the trio knocks Crabbe and Goyle out and leaves them in a closet to impersonate them… Why couldn’t they have had the house elves bake them a feast to keep them occupied instead? If you want your heroes to capture an enemy and carry them around in chains, why don’t you change that to the trope where they have to join forces temporarily because of an external threat? If you want mind-altering magic and potions, why not make it so that the person taking them does so autonomously, like someone in the real world might take a valium? If your character’s going on an adventure, instead of fighting and killing minions, why not have them get tangled up in intrigue, gathering knowledge to unravel a puzzle, running from danger, developing their skills (including their moral compass), meeting people and trying to assess their motivations, or basically anything that’s cool and exciting and not violating other people’s rights?

      Also, I think one thing that’s pretty important and underlooked in the writing process is that when you have your friends read your manuscript and give feedback, make sure you have at least a couple readers who are really into abuse prevention. For instance, the OP obviously could’ve pointed out that I’d given my superhero a pretty skin-crawling power, and I know I’ve given feedback to other writers on how their “romances” contained serious red flags in ways they didn’t know about. Sometimes the story isn’t salvageable and it’s just a lesson learned for next time, sometimes it is (for instance, I think Harry Potter could be the same story with the objectionable behavior of the protagonists either removed or treated as such).

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