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A few weeks ago, I got sucked into the vacuum that is the Avengers fandom, and, as I always do when entering a new fandom, started reading everything I could get my grubby little hands on that looked at all interesting. In the process, I stumbled over a rather new trope in fandom at large - Alpha/Beta/Omega Dynamics, or to paraphrase a very loose and incomprehensive description stated in feelschat, 'the application of wolf behavior to human beings by people who'd never studied wolf behavior.'

It's a trope that has the potential to be amazing when handled properly. It's also...been handled in such a manner that the collective fandom squee over it totally squicks me out.

In the five fandoms I've found on AO3 that regularly dip into it (Avengers, where I found it; X-Men: First Class; Teen Wolf; Sherlock Holmes (mostly tv versions); and SPN/J2), I've found exactly two pieces of fanfiction that don't make me want to hit the back button for one reason or another (usually multiple reasons) and I'm writing one of them. The other is borderline. Granted, I've only read Avengers (every piece posted on AO3 with the tag), a handful in X-Men, and some SPN/J2, but it's a large enough body of work, and I've talked to enough fans that read in the other fandoms, to be willing to guess at the rest.

This is why I’m deliberately choosing not to use the inclusive we when discussing fandom treatment of the trope. The vast majority of A/B/O fic out there right now is not something palatable to me, and I’ll explain why:

It's not that I don't find the trope compelling, or sexy, or whatever.

It's because the way it's being handled makes reading it feel like writing rape-for-entertainment just got a free pass.

What happened to informed consent? What happened to sober consent?

Yes, there are other tropes out there that involve fuck-or-die (or fuck-or-suffer) mechanics.

A/B/O Dynamics aren’t equivalent to sex pollen, or pon farr, or ardeur (a la Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake novels). But fandom slaps an A/B/O tag on a story and assumes it’s okay not to take into account the fact that there’s no underlying framework to build upon.

Sex pollen is a one-off, a single incident (however long that incident lasts). It’s canon in enough fandoms for there to be a collective understanding of what it is, and characters involved have the tools to deal with the fallout, whether it’s transferring, or counseling, or starting a relationship or continuing one - in situations where it’s used as a weapon, it can be prosecuted, or whatever. There are stories out there that deal with the issues of consent inherent to sex pollen (or the equivalent) and do it with a thoroughness and delicacy that blow my mind every time I read them.

Pon farr is arguably the closest in comparison to A/B/O dynamics, but here, it’s firmly based in a non-human population, and it’s given the foundation of a society that learned to deal with it. Likewise, shapeshifter populations evolved with Alpha dynamics and heat cycles as part and parcel of their society. A/B/O doesn’t have that foundation - if that foundation is there at all, it’s because the author builds them into the fabric of their story.

As for ardeur in the Anita Blake series...one of the reasons it’s palatable at all is because there IS a struggle with consent, not just in yes or no, but in consenting to what and to what degree and does she have the control to--? But there’s no pheromones involved in it, and the person(s) involved aren’t being effectively drugged into saying yes when legally speaking they’re unable to give consent at all.

The closest canon setup I’ve seen to A/B/O dynamics is in Patricia Briggs’ Alpha & Omega werewolf series, and even that is--not permission to have an omega effectively raped (or in some situations, gang-raped) by one or more friends/allies/lovers/whatever. The Alphas in that series are more or less what the trope uses, but the Omega in Briggs’ novels is, to paraphrase the heroine’s words, “a very zen Alpha,” as in, they are outside the dominance hierarchy and can mouth off to the Alpha(s) with impunity.

The consent issues inherent in the A/B/O trope go right back to my first essay on dub-con. The problems arise when we don't establish the boundaries in which our stories are set. And we aren’t establishing the boundaries for a trope that just plain does not exist in any canon (as of yet), so slapping an Alpha/Beta/Omega Dynamics tag on a fic is just plain not enough to excuse a lack of in-story background support for why someone who’s plainly impaired (because they’re in heat, or because they’re under the influence of pheromones given off by someone who is) is capable of giving consent at all. Social norms will be different. Laws will be different. HISTORY has to be different, because a human population subject to pheromones like those present in A/B/O fic is not going to be able to exist in dense populations without mechanisms to deal with them.

Let me repeat the important part of the last paragraph, because fandom just is not getting it:

Slapping an Alpha/Beta/Omega Dynamics tag on a fic is just plain not enough to excuse a lack of in-story background support for why someone who’s plainly impaired (because they’re in heat, or because they’re under the influence of pheromones given off by someone who is) is capable of giving consent at all.

Right now, there is no collective understanding of consent mechanisms in a population like our own, in modern-day society, given A/B/O tendencies. This is something that boggles my mind, because fandom collectively seems to think that it doesn’t matter, that appropriate consent mechanisms just plain aren’t needed, when fandom not only assumes but demands them in other tropes.

Okay, so we’ve established that there are consent issues with A/B/O.

What exactly are they?

I mentioned earlier that I wrote an essay on fandom tropes and consent issues; the following is taken from that essay.

These are based on my personal views, legal precedents, and Western social norms; your milage may vary.

Consent Issues:
  1. Orgasm is an involuntary reaction to direct stimulation - in both genders. Just because someone has an orgasm, doesn't mean the sex is consensual. Physical pleasure doesn't automatically equal the mental or emotional equivalent, and it can be playing with the victim's head, or using the victim's body against them.
  2. Characters A and B could have had consensual shower sex, or fluffy sex, or kinky sex this morning. That doesn't necessarily mean that the sex they have tonight will be consensual. Consent given in the past doesn't imply that it will be in the future. If one partner objects, and the other doesn't respect that? Noncon.
    1. In some jurisdictions, marriage contains the concept of 'implied consent'; however, many such cases of spousal rape have been successfully prosecuted as assault
  3. Consent given after the fact doesn't make noncon 'okay'. Any relationship that starts with noncon will remain noncon, because you can't start an equitable relationship without being able to draw boundaries and trust they'll be respected.
  4. Consent given under any kind of chemical influence or biological imperative - whether internal, as in pon farr, or external, as in sex pollen - is not valid.
    1. Do I really have to explain something that can be reduced to 'date-rape drug'?
    2. In the case of biological imperative, this goes for both partners, even if only character A is affected. In most situations, the more A is suffering from the condition/influence, the more guilty character B would probably feel, and the less likely to be willing to let it continue, even if A and B are not sexually attracted to one another. This is particularly true if A would die or come to serious harm if B doesn't give in (see #5).
  5. Consent given under duress is not valid. In its 1998 judgment, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda defined rape as: "a physical invasion of a sexual nature committed on a person under circumstances which are coercive." Whether this is through blackmail, threats of force against a person or persons (whether it's to the prospective partners, or their friends/loved ones/whomever), or some other pressure, any consent given can't be considered given freely.
  6. Characters have the right to change their mind, no matter how far the sexual situation has progressed.
  7. Lack of verbal protest (i.e. character A not saying "no") is not implied consent. I would include such things as: non-participation, fighting, being forcibly restrained, etc. Conversely, in the absence of other consent issues, consent can be implied through active participation/enthusiasm.
The problem with these is primarily a symptom of not worldbuilding enough to support the A/B/O trope. Civilization has to change in order to support it. A story doesn’t have to have everything, but it has to have enough for the reader to know that consent issues have been taken into account.

Here’s a breakdown of some things to think about:

Societal Issues

A human race subject to A/B/O dynamics is not going to have the freedom to develop the same way ours has. Simple population density is going to prevent it, either because of omegas going into heat in public, or because of too many alphas in a limited area. Without coping mechanisms (or extremely low percentages of alphas and/or omegas in the population), cities like New York City won’t be possible, much less the kind of massive populations that China and India now boast.

Will developed countries have classes dealing with cycles, a la sex ed or health class? Manners? Will dynamics and cycling be included in sexual harassment seminars, laws, discrimination?

Will Omegas be treated as equals, or treated as second-class citizens? How about Alphas?

Will there be human rights campaigns to educate third world countries? Equal rights campaigns in countries where Omegas or Alphas (or Betas for that matter) are treated as second class citizens? Political platforms including dynamic rights (or lack of same)? Are Omegas or Alphas be expected to act certain ways?

What happens when an Alpha is abusive? Are there mechanisms for an Omega to escape? To prosecute? Will third parties be allowed to intervene on the Omega’s behalf? What if it’s the Omega that’s abusive? What if the Alpha’s trying to ‘do the right thing and not take advantage’? What happens if lifebonds are possible and one partner’s abusive?

If an Omega is in public and they’re going into heat (see Biological/Medical Issues), do Alphas (or anyone else who might notice) have an obligation to say something? To the Omega, to authorities?

Does society develop ways to minimize the trauma of going into heat in public? Are large companies required to maintain properly equipped (ventilation, soundproofing, not just bed/lube/food/water) rooms for employees? Are there companies that build/maintain public rooms that people can rent in, say, strip malls/shopping malls/etc.?

What happens to the kind of prejudices we have? Homophobia doesn’t make sense in an A/B/O society. What about homodynamic relationships? Is there a stigma against Alpha/Alpha or Omega/Omega partners? Is there a broader acceptance of polyamory?

Will there be dynamic communities? Will Alphas have reputations among Omegas as someone that can be trusted during a heat cycle, or someone to be avoided?

Will there be a taboo on people going up to a stranger and saying, “Hey, I don’t know you, but you smell really good right now, and I’m getting a little uncomfortable. Just thought you might like to know.”?

How does society deal with puberty? Do high schools have facilities on campus? Do teachers/staff have a responsibility to pull students suspected of cycling out of class and send them home?

Biological and/or Medical Issues

I’m not going to be going into mpreg, self-lubing asses, or knotting in this essay, much less this section.

Most A/B/O fic I’ve read deals with an Omega going into heat unexpectedly because of a lack of some kind of suppressant, a fictional drug used to modify someone’s cycling schedule, suppress pheromone output, provide behavioral modification benefits, or, basically, to stop someone from cycling unexpectedly.

The problem with this is - why is it unexpected?

Why wouldn’t an Omega know they’re going to cycle? If their suppressants are stolen, or they’ve been kidnapped, they’re going to go into heat when the level of drug saturation in their bloodstream drops below a certain point (or, if they’ve recently had a cycle, the next time their body would have gone into heat naturally). If there’s a possibility of drug interaction that makes it ineffective, there’s going to be warnings to that effect. Even if it’s a brand new drug and the interactions aren’t known? Or if their suppressant stops working because some kind of biological compatibility?

Why wouldn’t an Omega know the signs they’re going into heat? Wouldn’t there be signs? There’s symptoms for PMS, pregnancy, menopause, puberty, disease, practically any and every metabolic function. Why wouldn’t there be symptoms when someone’s entering a heat cycle?

Why wouldn’t an Omega know their cycle? Most women I know know at least approximately when they’re going to have their period. Being forced to have sex or be really uncomfortable for a day or two is a lot more reason to know exactly when not to go to work or be around someone who’s particularly attractive. Once an Omega’s had a few cycles, their schedule should be known - and they should know their own pre-cycle symptoms well enough to prevent a cycle from being unexpected.

Why does an Omega go from 100% not in a heat cycle to 100% in heat instantly? (Hint: It doesn’t work that way.) Metabolic processes are just that - processes. It’s not flipping a switch. There is time for symptoms to develop, there is time for an Omega to notice they’re going into heat, and quite probably time for Alphas around them to notice a spike in airborne pheromones and say something. There is time for precautions to be taken.

On completely different topics:

What about STDs? Is the transfer of bodily fluids necessary or helpful enough in the cycling process that protected sex isn’t ideal? Is the loss of control enough to preclude safe sex at all?

How does a female Alpha get a male Omega pregnant?

Do gender roles affect Betas?

Personal Issues

What, exactly, can be considered consent in a society where everyone’s affected by A/B/O dynamics?

Would Omegas have a ‘permissions’ list of people and/or sexual acts they carry around just in case? Would Alphas? Would either have an emergency contact person to be called in case of...?

Is taking suppressants like getting a flu shot? Does the widespread use of them protect the handful that don’t?

Does Alpha dynamic mean Alpha personality? Does Omega mean submissive? A lot of stories I’ve read use A/B/O dynamics as an excuse to write characters acting very out of character.

If the worst does happen, who gets blamed? The Omega for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the Alpha/Beta/whoever for responding to pheromones?

I know, it’s a lot to think about, and a lot of roadblocks. But I’m hoping that fandom would rather be known for intelligent, thoughtful writing rather than perpetuate the image of ignorance and obliviousness that has been thus far painted with this trope.

The thing is, it doesn’t take much. Just enough to make it clear that the issues have been thought about, that consent hasn’t been hand-waved because of the existence of something new and sexy.

But there has to be some groundwork done in establishing the foundation of this trope - and that has to be done by the fanfic author. It’s not canon - fandom can’t point to a series, or a book, or a movie, and go “This is what it is.”

Think about it. And put that thought in your A/B/O fic.
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October 2013

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