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. Let's 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.
See also the Useful Notes page on Consent. This trope is not to be confused with the webcomic that's only one letter away, Questionable Content.
Examples, Type A and mixed.
open/close all folders
Anime & Manga
At least in the anime adaptation of Another, Mei is told that she has the option of refusing to become non-existent to everyone in her class. However, she's also told that if she does refuse any deaths that occur that year will be her fault.
The paramount example is the relationship between Akio and Anthy since the audience is led to believe at first that it's consensual and both parties seem happy with the relationship, but it's only after one scene in particular where Akio rapes Anthy when she hesitates to come to him does it become clear that it's really not, and in fact is practically a case study for Domestic Abuse.
This is also present in the infamous episode 33, where Akio takes Utena's virginity leading to an extremely uncomfortable scene.
And yet again with most of Akio's relationships due to the vast age differences between the parties, meaning that most of them would be considered statutory rape in real life.
The light novel also has Touga having sex with Miki, with extremely dubious consent present throughout the entire scene.
And in the first issue of the Catwoman relaunch, Selina and Bruce are shown going at it, but Bruce at first seems pretty reluctant, adding a layer of squick that was most likely not intended.
This was the cause of majorInternet Backlash when the first issue of Red Hood and the Outlaws showed Starfire as amnesiac and unable to remember individual humans' faces, which made the fact that she then slept with Roy Harper pretty iffy. Later in the series it was shown that this was an act, but it still means that Roy didn't come out looking good since he slept with her even while thinking that she was amnesiac.
Word of God confirms that Terra of Teen Titans was shown in a sexual relationship with the villain Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke, to shock readers and emphasize how evil she was by showing that she was a slut. This falls flat when one remembers that Terra is 16 at the time while Slade is significantly older, and Terra honestly seems to think he loves her, meaning that rather than showing how evil she is it instead comes off as her being a young, confused girl who's emotionally manipulated by anote possible, depending on the state statutory rapist.
Although it was stated on-panel that Deathstroke was terrified of Tara Markov and realized he really didn't have any control over her whatsoever, despite hiring her as The Mole. The sexual relationship may have been protecting him from her.
The cartoon version of this storyline, aside from being significantly sanitized for younger audiences, actually addresses this trope by showing their version of Terra as a confused, lonely girl who clearly is manipulated into evil actions, and just how freely she's committing those acts is actually discussed and used as a point of drama.
The infamous issue #200 of The Avengers, in which Ms. Marvel is written out of the book by being kidnapped, brainwashed, and raped, and then happily waltzing off with the guy who did it to her. That's not what was intended, of course, but somehow it slipped Jim Shooter's mind that the guy using a mind control machine on her meant her consent was nothing of the kind. The next time Carol appeared as written by Chris Claremont was an issue-long What the Hell, Hero? she directed at the Avengers for standing by while the guy who did that to her explained exactly what he had done.
In A Different Medius, Azurai's marriage to Iratu is definitely an example, the former making a sarcastic remark, and the latter thinking it's a proposal. Iratu also jokingly "threatens" to eat Azurai if he doesn't go through with it. Azurai can't tell whether it's a joke, and doesn't care to find out.
In An Anthem For Sheltered Bays the fifteen-year old Eren enters a romantic and sexual relationship with Levi but Eren depends on Levi for virtually everything since he can't get back home, forced to become human and Levi would not allow him to leave anyways. To Levi's credit, he actually does realize this and is repentant for it.
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 A Brother's Price, which is in many ways a Romance Novel with gender roles reversed, not-yet-sixteen-year-old Jerin Whistler is seduced by Princess Ren, who feels him up despite his inarticulate protests and stated desire to remain pure. She takes his arousal as more important than what he's saying; he even wonders how much force he can use to get away from a princess without getting in trouble, but soon rationalizes that this might be his only chance to be intimate with someone who's not a Brindle and participates happily. He says no and she backs off while he's still a Technical Virgin. When his sister learns about this she is initially furious with Ren for raping her brother but cools a little as he tries to explain.
"I don't hate you. Truly, it is easier to know you gave in to passion. It hurt to think you had been taken against your will in our very kitchen. I'm still angry with her. Making advances on you is akin to dangling candy before a child."
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, their relationship does blossom into something more later, and the way he treated her at first isn't much of an issue after that.
And a non-sexual example occurred in the backstory of Westeros itself, where the first Targaryens arrived with their dragons and essentially char broiled anyone who resisted their conquest. The King of the North and the other six kingdoms within Westeros all eventually submitted to Targaryen rule, officially under their own free will, but the decision had more to do with simple self-preservation than any real desire to be ruled by the Targaryens. In the present time of the series it's shown that it doesn't take much for those kingdoms to fracture into their own states again and spark a continent-wide civil war.
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.
Harry refuses to take advantage of Sarissa in Cold Days, since he points out that even if she's fine with it the power discrepancy in their positions creates potential problems.
In Fifty Shades of Grey, Ana is told that being Christian's sub is up to her, and that she can negotiate the terms of their contract if she wishes. When she sends him an e-mail, joking that she wants their deal to be off (before she even signed the contract), Grey goes to her apartment, ties her to the bed, and has sex with her until she changes her mind. Whenever she tries to renegotiate anything of the contract, he tries to talk her out of it.
Rampant throughout The Hunger Games, where District teenagers have the option to 'choose' the Games (by stepping in for another or increasing their chances in the lottery), but for those in the poorer Districts it is by no means a free choice.
In Heart In Hand, The first time Darryl and Alex have sex, Darryl is intoxicated, and felt that he had the obligation to fulfil the "bet" even though he really didn't want to. It's addressed in-universe in that Alex feels guilty about it afterwards and Darryl himself still feels unsure about whether it was consensual, long after the deed is done.
Nonsexual example in A Macabre Myth of a Moth-Man. Technically Brettdid consent to the procedure, but he was under the impression that it would cure his Melanoma and the condition that made him sunburn easily. Spending a year Strapped to an Operating Table, being genetically spliced with moth DNA, was never something he was informed of.
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.
Live Action TV
Degrassi: Holly J sleeps with Declan. It isn't discussed until a few weeks later when she said she felt really uncomfortable with him pressuring her, saying that was why she did it in the first place because she didn't want to sleep with him at the time.
The Actives of the Dollhouse all technically volunteered to allow their bodies to be imprinted with artificially designed personalities to be rented out for five years, with signed contracts to prove it. However, the volunteers range from an otherwise mentally sound veteran looking for a cure for his PTSD in exchange for work at the Dollhouse, to convicts promised a shortened prison sentence or newly accused criminals facing jail, to a paranoid schizophrenic who was actually being drugged by a jealous stalker to induce her mental illness. The circumstances meant that the people had little choice but to consent and that some of them might not be considered mentally fit to consent at all, making the voluntary nature of the Actives dubious.
Oh Glee and Quinn's pregnancy arc. It was already implied that Quinn's sexual encounter with Puck might not have been what she wanted, since she told him she only did so "because she was drunk and feeling fat that day". But then a flashback at the end of Season One reveals that she explicitly told Puck that she didn't want to have sex, but he turned her around by telling her that all her friends in the chastity club have had sex with him, she'll be forgotten by all of them in three years anyway, and then he lies about having protection. Not to mention the scene implies he's deliberately getting her drunk on wine coolers. And to top it off, it's allPlayed for Laughs.
One episode of House had Chase have sex with Cameron while she was high.
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 fiance 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 an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Logan and Rogers (the forensic examiner) are discussing whether a woman Logan was attracted to was raped and killed by her abusive ex-husband, who had been stalking her. Rogers says she could find no evidence of rape, but then (very sadly) adds that there's way to distinguish between consensual and forced consensual. In other words, the woman may have "consented" to sex with her ex simply to avoid a worse beating.
Frequently discussed on Law & 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 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.
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.
In Dungeons & 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.
The ending of Half-Life 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.
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.
Morrigan's ritual in Dragon Age: Origins falls into a very, very grey (no pun intended) area. Nobody involved in it is thrilled about being there—even a male Warden romancing Morrigan can express his doubts, and vice versa—and the premise, "You/Alistair/Loghain will die unless you/Alistair/Loghain sleep(s) with me", makes consent... well, questionable. Morrigan isn't the one responsible for the dying part—she's offering an out, in fact—and she simply leaves if the ritual is refused, but the whole situation is definitely uncomfortable.
In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, David Sarif (who is otherwise an Honest Corporate Executive and Benevolent Boss) took advantage of a clause in Adam Jensen's employment contract to augment him above and beyond what was needed to save Adam's life, turning him into a cyborg Super Soldier. Adam didn't really need to have both arms and his legs replaced with augments, and he certainly didn't need the prototype military grade ball bearing bomb implanted in his chest. David may have honestly thought he was doing Adam a favor since he has a very idealistic view of augmentation. Adam technically consented to all of this beforehand in his contract, but "[He] never asked for this."
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.
Present in Drowtales with the issue of tainting, aka intentionally merging a drow's aura with a "harmless" nether being, which is presented as being like a vaccine to prevent further demonic possession. In the Sharen clan almost everyone is tainted after a war 15 years ago resulted in heavy casualties among their untainted troops, and theoretically anyone could refuse to get tainted, as Vy'chriel, one such Sharen, did, but the pressure to be tainted is so heavy that it's hinted that Vy'chriel's sister Yami'ni did not want to be tainted but caved in under the pressure. And then cue the revelation that almost all but a select few Sharen have been unknowingly given intentionally faulty seeds that will kill them within 50 years as part of a Xanatos Gambit and it falls fully into this trope. There's also the fact that the headmistress of the local Wizarding School, who's also a Sharen and in fact the one responsible for said faulty seeds, not to mention a Manipulative Bitch par none, encourages tainting at the school, and again, while it's theoretically possible to refuse, one isn't allowed to participate in summoning classes, which are a mark of status, and this trope is directly discussed in a council meeting when the topic is broached.
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.
Dr. Beetle: A pledge made under duress is worthless, Wulfenbach! [...] You were in control then.
Dragon-aligned characters in The Secret World are, after a kidnapping by a mute monk and an infodump by an ex-professor, brought up to a hotel room and receive oral sex from a woman, regardless of gender and without your character saying a word. Not only does the orgasm lead to a flashback to someone else's memories of a Filth attack in London, which isn't terribly sexy, it's also uncomfortably rapey. Given that the Dragon's philosophy, that may even be the point.
This trope is discussed in Megatokyo where Kimiko, the voice actress for a character in an eroge light novel, brings up that the situation in the novel she's voicing comes off as being emotionally manipulative and taking advantage of a girl who's not in a right state of mind. Her concerns are pretty much dismissed as being part of the industry and what the audience wants from the game.