Rule 34 and the Consent of Its Characters
Before I begin, a few words of clarification: I’m not arguing that rule 34 is “evil” or that it should not be created; I am merely explaining why it’s not consensual. For some, it may not matter if porn depicts consent or not, and for others, it may not matter at all what happens to fictional characters. Regardless, this argument may help explain why some (like myself) have such a strong reaction against it.
The equivalence of reality and fictional reality
In this argument, I am going to treat fictional characters as if they are real. This may seem strange at first, but it is derived from the fact that when we experience fiction, we treat the fictional world as if it were real. In essence, we let the fictitious become real (at least temporarily) in order to experience people, places, and events that we otherwise could not experience at all. This is the goal of fiction, and it is for this reason that I will dismiss any argument among the likes of “It isn’t real, therefore it doesn’t matter.” It might not be real, but treating fiction as if it is fake is contrary to the purpose of fiction.
Consequentially, we think of characters not as mere puppets to their creator’s will and intent, but as independent and autonomous beings. This autonomy gives them a similar claim to rights as it does for real humans; it is wrong for a fictional character to be harmed just as it is wrong for a human to be harmed. For the purposes of this essay, we will specifically focus on sexual consent, and as is the case with humans, fictional characters must freely consent to sexual acts.
The two interpretations of Rule 34
There are two ways we can interpret any work of rule 34 pornography: actual and portrayal.
With actual, we consider the work to be a continuation of its source material, and that the characters depicted are the same as depicted in their respective canons. Thus we think of the depicted events as actually occurring, hence the classification as actual.
With portrayal, we consider the work to be a reinterpretation of its source material, that is, the characters can be re-imagined and aren’t subject to act like their canonical selves. Thus, the work is a portrayal of events, a fiction of a fiction, not to be thought of as reality.
Why actual interpretations are sexually coercive
Under the actual interpretation, the rule 34 scene/narrative is a part of the same timeline as its parent works; the events depicted in it are as real as the events depicted in the canon, and the characters are the same characters.
This means that the characters have the same sexual behavior as in the original work; thus they consent to the same things.
The creator of the rule 34, however, is essentially a god. They can force the characters to do whatever regardless of whether the characters (as established in the canon) would actually do it.
With that in mind, if the characters (as established in the canon) have engaged in or showed desire for various sexual activities, it’s highly likely they’ll consent to these activities. When a creator then depicts these activities, it’s clear that the characters consent to them.
However, if the characters have not shown desire for or engagement with sexual activities, there’s no basis from which to conclude they consent to sex and the like. When a creator then depicts these activities, it’s not clear if the act is the result of the characters’ consent, or the result of the creator forcing them to act this way.
How do we know if the characters consent? The canonical work didn’t establish anything, and the porn’s creator cannot give consent for them; only the characters themselves can give their consent.
Thus, the only way consent can be achieved is if the pornography adequately explains why the characters (as established in the canon) consent to their sudden sexual behavior. Most porn does not do this.
In absence of this consent, the only reason why the characters are behaving sexually is because the creator made it so. This is coercive; the creator is forcing the characters to do sexual things when they otherwise wouldn’t.
Why portrayal interpretations are disrespectful
Under the portrayal interpretation, the rule 34 scene/narrative isn’t in line with the canon, or meant to be thought of as extending the original work. The characters in a portrayal aren’t the same characters as they are in their canon; this frees them to behave as differently as is needed.
This alleviates the problem of consent that actual interpretations face. In a portrayal, the creator is free to re-imagine that the characters consent, even if in reality they wouldn’t.
However, thinking of the porn as a portrayal introduces a new relationship between the actual characters (AC) and the characters they are portrayed as (PC). This relationship doesn’t exist in actual interpretations because AC and PC are one and the same in actual interpretations.
Thus, the question for portrayal interpretations is not what sexual activities AC and PC consent to, but whether AC consents to being portrayed as PC. The real world analogy to this is if Bob wants to make and distribute fictional porn about Alice, Bob needs Alice’s permission.
This makes rule 34 portrayals subject to the canonical attitudes of their characters. If the characters have voiced approval of themselves being depicted pornographically, then there’s no problem with it. However, most characters never voiced their thoughts on the subject, so to portray them this way is to do so without their consent, and this is disrespectful.
At this point, I think I have made it clear why rule 34 isn’t consensual. To recap:
- Fictional characters should be treated as if they are real.
- This means that it is necessary for fictional characters to consent.
- Rule 34 can be thought of either as actual or as portrayal.
- For actual rule 34, this means the characters as originally established must consent to the sexual actions depicted.
- For portrayal rule 34, this means the characters as originally established must be okay with others portraying them sexually.
- In absence of these (as is usually the case), rule 34 violates the consent of its characters.