Questionable Consent

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 parental rights over 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.

Compare Leonine Contract. 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.

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    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.
  • This is played deliberately in Revolutionary Girl Utena several times, mostly for the purposes of Fan Disservice.
    • 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 almost literallynote  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 and awkward scene where they're never fully shown having sex (we only see Utena from the shoulders up, babbling and later moaning, but the results are rather obvious by the time it's all done.
    • And yet again with most of Akio's relationships due to the vast age differences between the parties, meaning that even with consent, most of them would be considered statutory rape in real life.
    • And in The Movie, Akio has a Freak Out when he realizes that Anthy who'd he'd thought was unconscious was awake for at least part of while he was raping her after slipping her drugs in her drink. Anthy tries to calm him down and tell him that she's okay with it, but he stabs her in the chest before throwing himself out the window.
    • The light novel also has Touga having sex with Miki, with extremely dubious consent present throughout the entire scene.
  • The Lunacy Of Duke Venomania is constructed around this—the woman in the titular duke's harem are happy to be there, thrilled to be having sex with him, and don't miss their families or friends or lovers one bit. This is because he has the power to instantly brainwash any woman that he fancies. Including a lesbian, who eventually dies from the strain on her sexuality. When he's killed at the end, all of the women run out of the mansion as fast they can. A less magic related case is Mikulia, who isn't brainwashed into the harem but has the emotional and mental maturity of a small child.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica has a non-sexual example. Kyubey only contracts children who agree to become magical girls. However, he does not tell them (all of) what being a magical girl entails, he uses emotional abuse to browbeat them into agreeing, and he often propositions girls who will die if they don't contract (such as a crash victim who is bleeding out on the highway).

     Comic Books 
  • 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 major Internet 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. Two later attempts at an Author's Saving Throw both failed for similar reasons: First 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. And then it was further clarified that Roy believed that if he left, then she'd forget him, which adds a whole other level of Squick, as it's essentially putting a very lonely person (in this case Roy) in the position where the only way to keep one of their two friends is to never leave them. It probably wouldn't have gone well if Roy had wanted to end the relationship but retain a friendship.
  • Word of God confirms that the reason 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 being played by anote  statutory rapist who wants to murder her teammates.
    • 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 the Ruggero Deodato movie Jungle Holocaust, this gets a sort of inversion: the protagonist, as he sinks deeper and deeper into savagery, rapes a native cannibal woman in a fit of rage in one scene after she tries to run away from him while he's employing her to help guide him through the jungle. As reviewer Nathan Shumate notes, however, her cannibal tribe is demonstrated throughout the film to be rather callous and amoral about sexuality and human life, so due to some serious Deliberate Values Dissonance, the woman doesn't exactly treat his raping her as being raped, but rather as his staking a legitimate claim to her the way any man in her tribe might (and as some are indicated to have tried to do elsewhere in the movie). As her tribe has basically raised her to see herself as belonging to anyone forceful enough to take her, she treats the protagonist as her new master from then on, and doesn't try to run away again.
  • 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.
  • The Matrix: As Cypher specifically complains, the whole "red pill vs. blue pill" choice was dishonest. Only the Matrix was explained in full, not the "real world", and many, like him, would reject it had they known the import of their decision.

  • 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."
  • A Song of Ice and Fire:
    • Daenerys is part of an arranged marriage with barbarian warlord Khal Drogo. On their wedding night, Drogo seeks her consent and she does verbally give it, but it's still problematic for a few reasons. She's far younger than any modern age of consent. It's not clear that he would have accepted a "no" had she given one. And even if he would have, her brother and (abusive) guardian since infancy, Viserys, makes it very clear that she would face terrible consequences for failing to please Drogo. After their wedding night, Drogo, who hails from a culture in which Marital Rape License is the standard, does not bother even going through the motions of seeking consent.
    • In the Backstory Lysa Tully's relationship with Petyr 'Littlefinger' Baelish has elements of this, as both times she slept with him, he was either passed out drunk or drugged, near-death, and hallucinating because of a nasty, feverish wound, and at least once believed that he was actually with Lysa's sister, Catelyn. It's unclear how aware Lysa was of just how out-of-it Petyr was on these occasions.
  • 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.
    • Lampshaded in Proven Guilty, when (in response to Molly explicitly trying to seduce him) Harry rejects her on the grounds that she's underage and recently had a very traumatic experience (being kidnapped and tortured by the Fae). Molly insisted that neither of these were relevant, but later concedes he was right to stop her. note 
    • 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 fulfill 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.
  • Lords Of The Underworld: Legion makes a deal with Lucifer: if she can seduce Aeron within a given period of time, she'll be able to keep the beautiful human body Lucifer gives her to do it with. However, Aeron does not love Legion romantically note  and only agrees to sleep with her because he knows she'll be sent back to Hell if he doesn't. The fact that this isn't truly consensual is often brought up.
  • Nonsexual example in A Macabre Myth of a Moth-Man. Technically Brett did 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.
  • In the Eyes of Crow books, Marek is turned into a Sex Slave by an Illion woman. Since her culture believes women cannot rape men, she threatens to kill his son if he does not share her bed.
  • In Elminster: The Making of a Mage, while he's a thief Elminster and his partner Farl hide a prostitute (unconscious at the time) in the bedroom of a cross-dressing baker from the wrath of her clients (whom they just robbed), stroking both of them so they'll have sex after waking up-just for laughs, apparently. The pair end up happily married, yes, but what the hell hero?
  • In Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Miriamele gives in to Aspitis when he comes to her bunk but she is vulnerable, drunk, and possibly drugged at the time.

     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.
    • Katie and Drew have sex at a party while Drew is visibly wasted and Katie is completely sober. This happens minutes after Drew tells Dallas that he wanted to lose his virginity to Bianca, and be sober for it. This is made even more alarming by the fact that Drew seemed to be only vaguely aware of his surroundings at the party, and doesn't even remember having slept with Katie when he wakes up the morning after. One can only wonder how aware he was when he was actually in the bedroom with her.
  • 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 all Played 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 no 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 the Supernatural episode "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here" (S09, Ep01), an angel gets permission to possess Sam by posing as his brother and asking to let him in and let him help, but Sam thought he was saying yes to his brother and did not know what the help entailed.

     Tabletop Games  
  • 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.

     Video Games  
  • The ending of HalfLife 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.
  • Dragon Age: Origins:
    • Morrigan's ritual 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. Dummied Out content that can be restored with mods on PC has it play out quite differently in the context of a romance, more like a traditional Pre-Climax Climax.
    • Mages apparently cannot be possessed unless they allow the demon/spirit to do it. However, said entity can force the issue by torturing the mage until they "consent". This is shown in gory detail in the Circle Tower when the Uldred abomination electrocutes a luckless mage until he agrees to become an abomination.
  • 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."

     Web Comics  
  • 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.
    Klaus: And now? (background has several of his clanks pointing at Beetle machineguns about the size of Beetle himself)
    Dr. Beetle: (reveals his hand) Now I am in control!

Examples, Type B only

  • At one point in Haruhi Suzumiya, Mikuru's future self gives Kyon permission to kiss her unconscious younger self. Even he wonders if that is ethical.

    Fan Fiction 

    Video Games 
  • 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.

    Visual Novels 
  • Comes up in Katawa Shoujo, in Hanako Ikezawa's route: after Hanako and Hisao have very awkward first-time sex, Hisao notices that Hanako never explicitly consented. Between that and Hanako's very meek personality, Hisao deeply worries that this trope is in effect, and believes that he actually raped Hanako. It's subverted when Hanako meets up with Hisao later confirms that the sex was, in fact, consensual - and there was quite the purpose behind it.
  • 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.

    Web Original 
  • This idea is the most common criticism of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" song and video, brought up here as well as among reviewers like Todd in the Shadows. In this case the "line" in question appears to be the line of consent.

Alternative Title(s):

Dub Con