A Court of Abuse and Violence - The Case of Pernicious Sexual Assault in ACOTAR
TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual violence, and domestic abuse.
SPOILER WARNING: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas.
All right, y'all, we need to talk about A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR) by Sarah J. Maas. I have seen so many positive reviews for this book, which is good because it is a good read, and Sarah J. Maas is an excellent author. But no one seems to be discussing the blatant lack of consent and instances of sexual violence between the main love interests. So let's take a moment now to deep dive into the pernicious sexual violence in ACOTAR.
Before we jump in, I want to make it clear that this discussion is not intended to suggest that ACOTAR is not a good read or that Sarah J. Maas is not a good author. It is also not intended to shame anyone who enjoys this series or ships these characters. We are all allowed to love the books we love. In the same breath, however, we need to host difficult discussions and address the fact that the relationships modelled in this book are nonconsensual and in any just definition of affirmative consent, would be considered sexual assault. Firstly, in the global #metoo era, we must be clear on what standards are acceptable in sexual relationships so that there can be no mistake when the line has been crossed. Secondly, and more importantly, I can't bear the potential that someone could be feeling unsettled by a sexual interaction but believe they may be overreacting because they saw a similar pattern portrayed in an acclaimed book that was defended and called love. Or that this accepted pattern leaves a survivor not believed by friends.
I also want to note that I will only be focusing on the events of the first book of the series. Any book depicting abusive relationships must be able to stand on its own thematically rather than risking a reader abandoning the series and being left with the wrong message. More importantly, no reason or blame could ever justify sexual violence, in fiction or reality, and no excuse absolves, or could ever absolve, either Tamlin or Rhysand, of their abuse in ACOTAR.
If you need a quick refresher on what affirmative consent is, check out my breakdown here! By sexual activity, we are referring to all forms of intimacy from a kiss to touching to penetrative intercourse.
For those who may not be familiar with ACOTAR, the book is a retelling of the classic story of Beauty and the Beast. Our heroine, Feyre, kills a wolf in the woods. She discovers that this wolf was actually a Fae, and the punishment for killing a Fae is forfeiting her life. Feyre is given the option of forfeiting her life by living with Tamlin, the High Lord of the Spring Court, at his palatial manor rather than immediate execution. Eventually, Feyre discovers that this was a ruse to lure her, someone with hatred for the Fae that is so deep it drove her to murder, to the Spring Court so that she might fall in love with Tamlin and break a curse set upon his Court. Feyre is, however, too late to break the curse, so she must instead complete the harrowing trials set by Amarantha in hopes of freeing Tamlin and his Court and restoring their powers. While imprisoned and tortured for three months as the trials take place, Feyre meets Rhysand, the High Lord of the Night Court, who attempts to help her through the trials.
From the most economical telling of the premise, we can say that Feyre has essentially been abducted and is later imprisoned and tortured, which in and of itself would count as a form of abuse. It would also render all other sexual interactions following this situation to be nonconsensual. Specifically, they would be nonconsensual for the same reason that relationships with dramatically uneven power dynamics are inherently nonconsensual under the law. While Feyre is being held indefinitely in the Faerie courts, she has no way of knowing if there would be negative ramifications for rejecting sexual advances and, if there are, what those ramifications might be. She is further in a vulnerable position in which she would not be able to protect herself, meaning that no might not be a safe option. For affirmative consent to be valid, both yes and no must be options that are equally accessible and safe. Under this premise, this is inherently not the case.
The case can also be made that, by lying about his circumstances and reasons for wanting to be with Feyre, Tamlin would have inherently invalidated her consent. For an interaction to be consensual, each partner has the right to be informed about information pertinent to the encounter. Most often, this situation arises in cases where someone lies about the method of birth control or protection they are using, when someone mispresents their intentions for the relationship, or when someone misrepresents their identity. By lying about his intentions for hosting and befriending Feyre, there is an argument to made here that any consent rendered by Feyre is void as the situation she agreed to and the reality of her case is not the same.
This is, however, a Beauty and the Beast retelling, so we will let the dicey consensual foundation slide. Unfortunately, the specifics of Feyre's relationships with both Rhysand and Tamlin are also examples of sexual violence. There are two key events I want to focus on in this discussion.
Our first key event takes place about halfway through the book. We learn that Tamlin must perform a Great Rite in which magic will force him to use his animalistic senses to find a Maiden and mate with her. For the sake of this conversation, I will consider the ritual itself a culturally significant practice. Therefore the ramifications of the ritual in terms of sexual violence are outside of the purview in this piece. The scene I want to talk about takes place immediately after when Tamlin has completed the ritual and encounters Feyre in the hallway.
"I was about to pass him when he grabbed me, so fast that I didn't see anything until he had me pinned against the wall. The cookie dropped from my hand as he grasped my wrists. 'I smelled you,' he breathed, his painted chest rising and falling so close to mine. 'I searched for you, and you weren't there.'
He reeked of magic. When I looked into his eyes, remnants of power flickered there. No kindness, none of the wry humor and gentle reprimands. The Tamlin I knew was gone.
'Let go,' I said evenly as I could, but his claws punched out, imbedding in the wood above my hands. Still riding the magic he was half wild... I couldn't escape. I wasn't entirely sure that I wanted to."
First things first - Feyre clearly says no by asking him to let her go. She is not consenting to this or any of the events that follow. While we, the reader, know that she has harboured feelings for Tamlin and some part of her likes the closeness, all Tamlin knows is that she has clearly verbally requested that he stop. He has chosen to ignore this request to physically detain her as he makes lewd comments regarding what he would like to do to her. This here is sexual violence full stop. This is not loving, this is an exertion of power used to intimidate.
It is also critical we note that the after-effects of the magic do not excuse his behaviour in this scene. We can easily replace the magic in this scene with the very real inebriating substance, alcohol. Alcohol facilitated sexual assault primarily takes one of two forms. First is when a perpetrator pressures the survivor into consuming alcohol to lower their ability to resist. We will discuss this form of sexual assault a little later. The second is when a perpetrator consumes alcohol themselves to reduce their own inhibitions and give themselves the confidence to sexually assault someone. This latter description is one of the most common ways alcohol is used in cases of sexual assault. This is also very clearly the case in this scene. Hopped up on magic, Tamlin is emboldened to assault and intimidate Feyre.
This quote alone is enough to qualify this interaction as sexual harassment and violence. The following scene is quite graphic, so I will not quote it here. Feyre attempts to push Tamlin away and he responds by firmly biting and licking her neck as he keeps her pinned, followed by him threatening her to never disobey him again. Feyre pushing him away further solidifies her rejection, and Tamlin responds with escalating sexual violence. His threat makes it abundantly clear that this interaction was not an expression of his love. It was an expression of him asserting dominance, power, and control forcefully. Neither Feyre's confusion about her feelings towards Tamlin nor her biological response to his touch condone his behaviour. None of her actions demonstrated enthusiastic consent, making this sexual assault.
Worst of all, the following morning Tamlin states that "If Feyre can't be bothered to listen to orders [to stay in her room], then I can't be held accountable for the consequences." This is textbook victim-blaming and is not acceptable. There is no situation, action, or behaviour that ever justifies sexual assault or makes it the fault of the survivor.
The other situation I want to analyze takes place when Feyre is being held in Amarantha's dungeons, completing the trials to try and free Tamlin. First, Feyre receives a fatal wound to her arm. She does not have access to help or medical care and is sure she is going to die. Rhysand, the High Lord of the Night Court comes to her and offers to heal her wound on the terms that "for two weeks every month, two weeks of [Rhysand's] choosing, [Feyre'll] live with [him] at the Night Court." This arrangement is brazenly human trafficking. Rhysand took advantage of her vulnerability and desperation to exert his control and power over her. Regardless of his plans for her while she stays at the Night Court, this agreement is inherently coercive and abusive. Moreover, Rhysand goes above their agreement to tattoo her entire arm with his symbol without her consent. This is abusive and controlling.
Unfortunately, this is the bare minimum of Rhysand's abuse. Following her second trial, Rhysand sends two of his servants to strip her naked and paint her entire body with his same blue mark. This alone is sexual violence and assault, as Feyre has been stripped and touched without "no" being an option. She is then made to wear a see-through gossamer "dress" that leaves her breasts and genitals exposed and discovers that her skin has been painted so that Rhysand will know if and where anyone touches her. Feyre expresses that she is not comfortable with this arrangement and is not given the option to say no. This, too, is sexual abuse as she is effectively forced into public nudity. Moreover, Rhysand drugs Feyre. Please consider the following passage concerning "fairy wine" - a fantasy stand-in for a date rape drug:
"'Wine?" he said, offering me a goblet...I shook my head.
He smiled and extended the goblet again. "Drink. You'll need it."
Drink, my mind echoed, and my fingers stirred, moving toward the goblet. No....'No,' I said, and some faeries who were watching us from a safe distance chuckled.
'Drink,' he said, and my traitorous fingers latched around the goblet."
The takeaway here is that Rhysand, every night for a month, drugs Feyre and leaves her unable to remember any of the events of the previous night. This is abuse and in context a form of sexual violence. I have seen some discussion about whether Rhysand uses his powers to force her to drink it or whether she took it willingly, but at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. Feyre says no twice and deserves to have that no respected the first time. His persistent asking amounts to coercion which invalidates consent as it makes no an unsafe or non-option.
There is one final element of Rhysand's actions that we need to discuss because it is representative of a more insidious form of sexual assault. All the ways Feyre is abused by Rhysand are not intended to assert power over her as the final goal. Rhysand's intention is to anger and humiliate Tamlin. This is representative of sexual assault as an act of war.
For more in-depth readings of sexual assault in combat situations, I would recommend reading the Conflict-Related Sexual Violence: Report of the Secretary-General S/2015/203, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (last amended 2010), and the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons.
In short, sexual assault is frequently used as a tactic of war in conflict situations. These patterns include forced marriage, sexual assault, and sexual slavery. There are three primary motivations that most frequently underscore this tactic: an attempt at ethnic cleansing that sees women of one ethnicity forcibly impregnated by those of another, as an attempt to terrorize civilians, and as an attempt to humiliate and dominate opposing forces by brutalizing their families. Rhysand's intention to enrage Tamlin by demonstrating his power over Feyre to achieve a military goal falls into this latter category. This means Rhysand's actions are not only sexual assault but a tactic of combat based sexual assault, which is a war crime and punishable in the International Criminal Court. Certainly, the events we see in the book are a scaled-down and far lass traumatic, violating, and horrific version of sexual violence in war zones and I do not make this comparison to lighten any true world events, only to delineate that this behaviour is heavily condemned and cannot be excused by any explanations in subsequent books.
We are allowed to love the books we love and ship the characters we ship. Sarah J. Maas is an excellent author, but as we declare her characters to be our "OTP," we also need to acknowledge that their behaviours cannot be condoned and that, in reality, relationships following these patterns are abusive and not desirable. No one should ever be left wondering what acceptable consent should look like because they have repeatedly seen assault played as love. We know, through the story, that Feyre is into it, which gives us, the reader, permission to be into it as well. At the end of the day, however, in any just sense of the words, their actions would at best be filed as domestic abuse and, at worst, be a crime against humanity. We need to at least be open to the discussion that the relationships represented in this book are not ideal and, should we see these patterns in our own lives, know we need to condemn them. Especially for a book that is marketed to young and new adults, these words contribute to a formative understanding of what love and sex look and feel like. This position cannot be taken lightly or used to glorify abuse. Books are allowed to show these relationship dynamics and we are allowed to be into them, but only so long as we are willing to host the discussion too.