Jenna Johanis answers tough questions about violence and rape in this very honest interview
I think by now it’s safe to say that I like to do interviews, be it with readers or authors. With readers, it helps me to understand what they read and why, with authors, like with Jenna Johanis, it helps me understand their writing, the motivation, what pushes them. Jenna writes dark erotic fiction, and while it is a genre that I don’t enjoy reading myself, I understand that it has a huge following. As you’ll see, I’ve asked her some pretty tough questions, to get a better sense of how some of the “tropes” in erotica are used and – more importantly – justified. I hope you’ll enjoy this as much as I have. This is a LONG post, take your time, it’s worth it.
Who is Jenna Johanis in her own words?
First of all, I’d like to thank you for this interview. To answer your question, I think J. Johanis is the real me. I still have to play along with everything in the real world, but when I’m at my computer and in my own universe, I can write and express my true self. As for my existence outside of writing, I’m a lover of history, foreign language, and cultures. I love to travel and I consider myself a lifelong student.
What is one thing you would like the world to remember you for?
Hmmm…Well, I think when I write, certain themes tend to pop up. It’s not something I do on purpose, but rather it’s something I realize after I’ve completed and published the book. So, I guess I would like to be known for things that are in the interpretation and not just for the sex, violence, and darkness. However, since the darkness is how I think, I understand those deeper themes will always be buried beneath a whole lot of craziness.
What got you into writing?
I had quite the imagination as a child and by the time I was a teen, I had developed the beginnings of my S-Gods series. One day I shared my stories with a friend, and she said I should be a writer. I loved the idea, and though things didn’t slow down in my life until years later, I never forgot my aspirations to write.
Are you a full-time author or do you have a day job as well, and if so, what do you do?
Well, with respect to day jobs, I’m trying to avoid those. I’ve had quite a lively career with lots of travel and insane work hours. Now that I’ve started writing, I really don’t want to look back. So, to answer your question, I’m a full-time writer and part-time student. Since school takes up so much time, I’m hoping when I finish my master’s degree I can just write and nothing else.
I’ve read a couple of your books, having just completed the second Toy Soldier story. I have to hand it to you, I could have never, not even in my wildest dreams, have imagined the combination of dragons, science-fiction and erotica (with a dash of romance) in one book. Where do you get your inspiration from?
Most of the time my inspiration comes from history and mythology, but I also have a lot of book ideas that just come to me—the spark being something as simple as an image or a current event. In those cases, I just write out the idea and file it for later. With my Toy Soldier series, this was based on a prompt in the Goodreads BDSM Group Bring Out Your Kink writing event. The prompt called for a lot of specific elements that happened to be my favorite things. Since I was racing the clock to claim the prompt, I brainstormed story ideas for about a half an hour and came up with the plot for Drago Star. I’m always thinking in series, so I developed the plots for book two and three shortly afterward.
There are several rape scenes in your stories. In fact, I’m struggling to recall any consensual sex in the Toy Soldier story, and rapes are also common in “Claimed by the order”. Enlighten me, what is the driving force behind what you call “non-con” scenes?
That’s a great question. I guess the simplest answer is that this is what comes to me when I formulate a story. I enjoy making my characters suffer and letting them fight for a way to make it. On another level, I’m an angst junkie and I tend to gravitate toward conflict. A lot of fiction has some instance of rape or non-con, but it’s rarely depicted. In a way, fade to black saves the reader from having to experience the stress of a traumatic scene. However, since angst is what I’m after, I tend to show more of this.
Out there, in the real world, people struggle to make sure that people get consent before engaging in any sexual activities. How do you justify writing rape? Are you not afraid this might “inspire” people to take this into the real world?
I guess there is always the fear of the wrong person picking up my books, and that’s why I put warnings in several places, including inside the book so readers know what to expect. However, the warnings are more to protect readers with possible triggers. Since my writing tends to have certain morals attached, I’m less concerned about the possibility of my work influencing people to engage in non-consensual activities. Reviewers often comment that the non-con in my books is an integral part of the story and is not gratuitous or used as a romantic device. I can’t say that this applies to all of my work or that I’ll stick to that moral, but this is the way I tend to write. With my S-Gods Series the perpetrators all face extreme retribution, whereas in my Toy Soldier Series, there had to be considerable healing, some evening of the score, and forgiveness before romance between the two MCs could be possible.
“Non-con”, “Dub-Con” sound so inconspicuous. Do you think they are used on purpose, as rape would be too blunt? Or what is the rationale?
I have two answers to this. Yes, rape is a loaded word. On the other hand, there is also a clear distinction between rape and non-con. In my own writing, I have both rape and non-con, but the rape scenes are almost always fade to black. In my opinion, the word rape applies to a violent rape where the victim is traumatized and has no psychological conflict when it comes to enjoyment. However, non-con is a word used in fiction to refer to a situation where consent is somehow taken away, but the victim gains some kind of pleasure from the act, even though his feelings are conflicted. Non-con can evolve into deep attraction or romance, whereas rape can only breed despair, hate, and resentment.
There are so many dynamics to consider, and I know everyone doesn’t make a distinction between non-con and rape; however, one way to separate the two is by analyzing the feelings of the victim. Non-con is usually written in a way that it is sexually arousing to read because the victim is getting off on what’s happening to him, whereas with rape, a reader should only feel angry and cold after reading it.
The sex (consensual or not) is extremely rough. I’m not very experienced in reading this, but from what I’ve read, it seems to me that the way gay sex is depicted in erotica is rougher than what I’ve seen in het erotica. Would you agree, and if you do, what do you think is the reason?
This is an awesome question and I think you are on to something. However, with respect to het erotica, there is a distinction between men’s erotica and women’s erotica. Since the majority of erotica is women’s erotica, it’s possible you haven’t encountered any men’s erotica. In fact if you had, I doubt you’d be making this generalization. Men’s erotica has a lot of rough sex, misogyny, and sometimes violence towards women. I think this has to do with het male readers (in general) being more okay with seeing a woman subjugated, whereas most women are uncomfortable with that. Since the readership for erotica is mostly women, the majority of het erotica won’t have a woman being treated roughly.
On the flip side, when it comes to m/m or gay erotica, women tend to be less objectionable about a man being treated roughly, so I believe that’s why we find more rough sex in m/m erotica.
We know that most readers of your books are women, just as most readers of almost any sort of book are women these days. On the topic of rape (or non-con, dub-con as you prefer to call it), do you think it is easier for women to read about rape when the victim is a man rather than a woman, and do you think that might somehow be an explanation for the success of dark erotica with the crowds, enabling women to see it as the fantasy it is rather than being reminded of the harsh realities?
I think I already partially answered your question, and I believe you are on the right track. I guess I’ll just speak from my own experience. I have written both men’s erotica (with depictions of violence against women) and women’s erotica (with depictions of violence against men.) In my men’s erotica book, I had a lot of female readers who had a problem with non-con scenes where a woman was the victim. However, I received great feedback from male readers. With my m/m which I consider women’s erotica, I receive the exact opposite response. Most of my negative feedback comes from men and most of my positive feedback comes from women. Since women are the majority of readers, I’ve stuck to what is more acceptable to women.
As for escapism and avoiding harsh realities, I’m sure that’s a factor, but I don’t think that’s exclusive to women. I just think that erotica might be the preferred porn for women, whether it’s dark erotica or vanilla, whereas something with an image may be the preferred porn for men.
One of the things that puzzle me in a lot of erotic novels / stories that I’ve read, well almost all actually, is the frequent use of drugs, e.g. Persuasion in Toy Soldier. What is your take on this? Is it part of the fantasy or is it a tool for the author to go rougher, explain rape and what not?
I look at drugging as an avenue to dubious consent or dub-con. In my Toy Soldier Series, no character asks to be given persuasion, but when they are given the drug, they NEED sex. Withholding sex from someone on Persuasion is akin to torture. So, by adding the drug this screws with the consent piece. Some consider the construction scene in Drago Star to be gang rape, because in my book, Persuasion is considered a rape drug. However, Gideon is begging to for sex, and only realizes how destroyed he is when the drug starts to wear off. If the same scene were to take place without the drug, Gideon wouldn’t be begging for sex and the whole thing would be a bit ugly. There would be nothing sexy about it. I wouldn’t write a scene like that since it would just piss people off and make them want revenge. Gideon would never be able to forgive Drago after something like that. Since that wasn’t the angle I was looking for, I added the drug, therefore making it dubious consent.
All the stories I’ve read from you also include a dash of romance. Is that a signature trait or part of the convention of erotica?
I mentioned this above, but I equate erotica to porn. However, most porn is without substance and in my opinion, boring. On the flip side, there are plenty of books and movies that have great plots, but they tease us by fading to black on the sex scenes. So, with my writing I try to be in between. I think I write too much sex for my work to be considered erotic romance, but I like my erotica to have much more than sex. How I view my writing is that I write action packed stories with lots of plot twists, but the sex scenes are fully exploited. As for romance, I believe that most great stories have at least some kind of romantic intrigue included.
You inflict physical harm on your characters, be it Drago, Gideon or your S-Gods like Marduk. And they all magically heal, either by virtue of their divinity or – no spoilers – another fashion. Help me understand, why inflict pain (and not just a little, my ass cringed at every ‘plunge’, every ‘tear’, each ‘breach’) in the first place?
Lol. Okay, well in real life if someone was the victim of such violence, there would certainly be a period of time needed for recovery. A lot of things I read with non-con have ways of easing the passage so the character can endure more punishment without inflicting lasting damage. So, the resilience of my characters is necessary in order to have harsher, more violent sex that doesn’t result in a trip to the hospital. If the magical healing wasn’t there, it would just be a one-time thing, which would be ugly and not really what I’m going for.
I’ve met you in person, and you are, and I hope I’m not giving away any deeply held secrets here, just about the exact opposite of what you write (not that I really would know what’s going on in your marital chambers), you’re funny, your compassionate and kind, and I have a hunch, given how excellently you write, and the depth of your imagination, you could write anything. And you write dark (very dark) erotica. Why? Do you have any plans for something else?
First of all, thank you for that assessment of me. I often think of adding more to my bio, but it always comes out sounding like I’m some sweet homemaker/homesteader, sewing dresses and baking pies. That’s partially true. On the other side, I’m crazy about learning cultures and I speak several foreign languages, but again none of it really has anything to do with my books, so I just leave the bio stuff out. The reason I write dark erotica is because this is what gets my heart beating. Yes, I have other book ideas, but I tend to put those aside in favor of darker things, since dark erotica is what calls to me the most.
One book idea that I’d like to write someday (under a different author name) is a Cold War era non-fiction novel about a Soviet officer who saved the world from nuclear annihilation. It’s a story of heroism; nothing sexual about it, but it’s something I’d love to see in the movies.
Finally, what can we expect and look forward from you in the future? Plug away…
I have many book outlines and many things I’ve researched, but these are the next three books that I have in line.
I’m currently working on a contemporary BDSM novella for the DSP States of Love line. I’m close to finishing the first draft, but I’m still deciding on the title. After this, I’ll be writing S-Gods #3 Wrath of Akad and Toy Soldier #3 Cyber Agent.
Thank you Jenna for taking the time to answer those questions so honestly. I may not like some of your answers, and I may not agree with you on some aspects, but heck, to each hir own… 🙂 This was certainly a most entertaining and enlightening interview.
Have a great hump day, see you Friday with another reader interview.