If you've made it past the title I'm assuming you don't need any further 'trigger warnings.' That title is there for a reason, and I trust you guys to be smart enough to figure out the implications. Okay? Are we good? Right then, with that said...
This is a blog post I never imagined I would write. I shied away from it for a long time before I finally bit the bullet and started writing it, and it's been one of the toughest I've ever written. But I pushed myself through it, because it felt important.
I can imagine there are some of you out there with hackles already up to your ear-tops right now. Judging from the numbers of comments on various other webpages on this subject, there's nothing more infuriating than some writer-person trying to make you feel bad about writing (or even reading) rape scenes. Relax, that's not my aim. Trying to eradicate or heavily censor them in fiction would do more harm than good in the long run - in fact I'll even say that there are not just valid but good reasons to include them in fiction. But... there are some very definite bad reasons to include them too.
And sometimes it's hard to pin down not only what those bad reasons are, but why they're so damaging and unhelpful. This is partly because certain assumptions are often made about people who have been unfortunate enough to go through any kind of sexual assault for real. It's assumed their objections to seeing it in fiction are to do with being 'triggered' - that any and all such scenes in fiction will make traumatic memories come flooding back and so they don't want it there because they 'can't handle it.'
As someone who - well, let's say 'can report from the trenches' - I can tell you that's not true. Far too simplistic to be true. But because it is so simplistic (and therefore quicker to trot out,) it's the accusation that often gets hurled at survivors by those feeling they're just being party poopers. And let's be clear that, while I'm obviously speaking from the perspective of a woman and will therefore be using the female victim as my default, I'm aware that men are victims too, and anything written here could equally apply to them, in fiction and in real life.
So the purpose of this post is to try and isolate those aforementioned bad reasons and define specifically why they're hurtful and insulting. And here they are:
1 - To Give The Hero A Reason To Hero.This one is obvious - so obvious it's already considered an unhealthy trope in fiction (see Fridging Female Characters.) Hero has thus far not engaged with the Big Bad Villain, but when said villain violates His Woman that's the thing that spurs him into action. Now it's personal - he's gonna step up to the plate and get his justice on!
Why is this so objectionable? Because all too often it paints the victim as being little more than the 'property' of the hero - "I wasn't gonna fight with you dude, but then you went and messed with my stuff and now I'm MAD! Grrrr!" Another unsavoury aspect of this plot device is that the effect of the assault on the woman - i.e. how she feels and copes with the aftermath - is barely even acknowledged, never mind discussed within the plot. That's because it's not about her and her feelings, it's all about Hero Dude. I mean, this is some traumatic shit he's going through, right? Think about his pride, his self-esteem, his reputation..!
Sorry, but here's the thing: no matter how badly her rape has pissed all over his day, he doesn't get to own it as the start of his Personal Journey to Awesomeness. Here are two little tests for you:
1) If you can replace the phrase "rape the hero's love interest" with "shave the hero's pet dog" does the plot stay pretty much the same because dogs don't talk much either? And 2) Do the details of the actual rape scene and the Hero's Rallying Revenge Speech take up more page space than any and all of the other text about this plot put together?
If you answer 'yes' to either of those questions for such a scene you've crafted, you are Fridging your Female Character. And, in spite of the trope name, that's not cool.
2 - To Remind The Smart, Capable Female Character She's Not So Smart And Capable After All. Temporarily.Strong female characters can be strong in different ways. Some are physically strong, built like Amazon ninjas and handy with a wide array of weapons and kick-ass fighting skills. Others are sneaky and stealthy and able to manipulate and charm their way to Winning At Life. Other others are super-smart and practical, able to out-talk and out-think most of their male peers. Strong female characters are fun to read and get us all cheering, but obviously for the purpose of plot we can't have them being strong and capable all the time, before the story's even ended, can we? Every now and then she needs to get a massive knock-down - something that completely knocks the wind out of her and makes her seem temporarily weak and powerless. Hmmm, what could we pick for that? Seeing as she's a woman and all...?
No, not that. Not again. Not if the reasoning behind it goes no further than "well she's a woman and that's the way your standard Evil Bloke would show her who's boss." For starters, why would that be the go-to 'punishment' if said woman was a highly-trained assassin, or a super-intelligent astrophysicist? Presumably she's dangerous to the bad guy in some way, so he'd just kill her and be done with it, wouldn't he? Y'know, like he would if she was a male? And even if he does decide to kill her in the end, why does he have to do that first?
It's alright, I already know what the counter-argument for this one is: "she needs to stay alive for plot reasons so the bad guy can't just kill her, but something pretty awful needs to happen to her to, y'know, kind of break her spirit for a bit." And that right there is where the second problem often occurs. Even for a woman trained in kung-fu and handy with a weapon, being raped would still be a traumatic and humiliating experience. In fact, I'd argue it would be even more so for a woman like that, because she would be used to the idea of being able to defend herself from any kind of attack and most likely suffer deep shame and self-loathing at her 'failure' to do so in that instance. That's going to mess up her head for a very long time.
Which is why those stories where such characters are stoic and cool-headed about it, are planning their counter-move from the start of the next scene and getting back to kicking ass again with a new-found determination by the end of the chapter are not realistic. And no, there is no 'training' a woman can undergo to deal with the psychological damage of rape, so there is no reason to suppose that, just because she's had combat training, she's somehow 'more equipped' to deal with it.
I'm not saying don't have this happen in your story; I accept that that it does happen in real life and therefore has every right to form part of your plot - if it's included for plausible reasons. But please don't reach for it as the first default for hurting a strong female character - writers are supposed to be more creative and innovative than that, aren't they? And if you do decide this belongs in your story, please do the courtesy of committing to it - which means not glossing over the aftermath and pretending she can shrug it off like a grazed knee.
3 - To Give The Story That Authentic Olde-Worlde-y Vibe.Want your world to look properly medieval-ish? Or Roman-ish? Or pretty much any historical-era-ish? Your women need to be getting raped left, right and centre then, because that's totally how it was back in the olden days. And nobody gave a monkeys, because it was just, like, so normal. A woman got raped for going outside and her husband, brothers and dad were like "yeah, whatevs, shit happens, doesn't it? Maybe she won't go making eye contact with people next time, eh?"
Except... no, it actually wasn't like that. Articles like this one state that, while it certainly happened, and likely as often then as it does now, when it did it was still considered a crime. So the male population of that era didn't consist of whole legions of knuckle-dragging sexual predators lumbering after every woman who dared to act all capable and sassy, and those women who were unlucky enough to be victims of an assault wouldn't have just shrugged it off as 'one of those things' and carried on with their day.
And if you're writing fantasy - even historical fantasy - you have even less leeway in claiming "I'm just making it feel authentic, man." Does your hero have yellowed or even rotten teeth, and terrible stink-breath? Does he get unsightly rashes and occasional pus-filled boils in sweaty places? He would if you were truly going for 'authentic' - but strangely, that piece of realism gets filtered out of historical and epic fantasy novels surprisingly often. Readers still read it though, so there you go - removing the ickier truths of 'history' can be done!
Think of it this way; if a rape is an inevitable part of the story you're telling, i.e. because of the characters involved and the dangers they find themselves in, fair enough. I'm not telling anyone to avoid it as a plot point if it makes sense for it to be there. But if it happens simply because the world you've built demands that it does, to fit in with the 'culture' - I'd argue you didn't work very hard on your worldbuilding. You grabbed a deeply unsavoury cliche and bolted it in like a LEGO brick.
4. To Help A Female Character Grow/Become A Better Person.NO. Just.... NO.
Rape is one of the most horrible experiences you can ever go through. It's traumatic, it leaves permanent mental scars and it kills a tiny piece of your soul forever; you are never the same person again afterwards. It is not a frigging Learning Experience, okay? No woman in the history of forever has ever said "Y'know, on reflection, being raped actually did me some good, because it helped me to become the well-adjusted individual I am today."
And yet this has happened in fiction. The fun-loving party girl who likes her drink and her casual hook-ups just a little too much, the uptight little mouse who keeps herself to herself, the little miss sassy-pants who just happens to smart-mouth the wrong dude...
Being raped is the bomb that gets thrown under her ass, but instead of blowing her to pieces (like in real life) it apparently prompts her to Take a Look at Herself and Then Make the Change. Party Girl, for example, might well decide to quit drinking and save herself for Mr. Right after the attack, but this should not be because she's realised she'd been Doing Life Wrong before then and now she's Seen The Light. In real life, that dramatic switch in behaviour would be a reaction born from mental trauma and the fear of something like that happening again - a negative and inhibiting response to a soul-crushing event. It should therefore not be painted in fiction as a harsh-but-fair wake-up call that inspires her to transform like a butterfly emerging from the chrysalis, because that's not only bloody insulting in the way it trivialises the aftermath of rape, but horribly judgemental.
And yes, there are many memoir-type books written by rape survivors - but they tell the story of how those people rebuilt their life afterwards in spite of what happened to them, not how they 'became stronger people as a result of it.' The difference is subtle, but it's important.
5. Because Sex Sells But You Don't Do That Romance Shit.Sex in fiction has become almost mainstream now - that's an inescapable fact in this modern media world, whether we like it or not. Obviously there are still genres where an absence of sex is an asset (most of the more traditional Romances and children's books for example,) but increasingly more and more genres are now moving toward embracing the raunchy stuff. You've probably heard the advice from various sources about adding a bit of sexy spice to make your story more 'marketable' - even if it's just a flash of rude bits or heated fumbling.
But what if your story can't accommodate a romance because you're writing a gritty sci-fi full of futuristic soldiers kicking ass, or super-brained scientists trying to create biological weapons? Or what if the idea of writing yucky kissy-makey-out-y scenes makes you want to hurl, because you don't even read books like that so there aint no way you're writing them? How can you get some genital-bumping in there without having to go all Bella and Edward on your readers?
Stop right there. Rape should hella not be considered the romance-free alternative to a 'sex scene' that allows you to avoid having to write about love and expressing mutual desires and changing relationships between characters. And if that is what you're trying to do, please please do not insult the intelligence of anyone by justifying it with any words or phrases resembling 'shocking plot twist.' News flash: that's not a 'twist,' of plot or any other kind - it's just a bastard move on the part of the rapist character.
If you really want to ride the raunch train to commercial success, there are lots of ways to sex things up in a non-Romance-with-a-capital-R way that don't require resorting to forced, non-consensual sex acts. There are lots of ways to include Shocking Plot Twists that don't involve some character morphing into Super-Douchebag and surprise-violating some unsuspecting victim to reveal his hitherto unknown Secret Dark Side (or alternatively, super-charging the Evil Factor to a thousand on a douchebag who was already hitting the high hundreds.) But of course, the other alternative is simply not selling out to the Sex Sells trend and instead being true to your own story - which was never meant to have sex in it in the first place. Now there's a thought...
6. Because Some Rapists Are Just Damaged And Misunderstood Souls. And Damn Hot, So... Y'know...I bet I can guess what you think I'm referencing now. A certain book based off another book that became insanely famous, gave birth to the genre of Mummy Porn and has since spawned a gazillion
Oh hell holy crap just NO. That is so goddamn NOT how it works.
I've already mentioned the permanent mental and emotional damage done by sexual assaults, haven't I? And yes, I accept there is such a thing as Stockholm Syndrome and this could feasibly account for a survivor character falling for a rapist character. But this is universally regarded as an unhealthy state of mind that requires therapy to fix. If instead you're selling this as the actual 'happy' ending to your story - because, you know, the guy did say sorry, and he's been a real sweetie ever since, and he only did it in the first place because his mother never loved him...
Let's look at it from another angle. There are plenty of men out there whose mothers were cold, cruel - even downright abusive to them. There are men who've been through the most horrible experiences that have left them scarred and unable to 'open up' to people. They still wouldn't rape another person. You know why? Because it involves forcing a part of their body into another person's body, knowing that person doesn't want it, that the person is terrified, that by doing what they're doing they're dehumanising that person and that (very often) they're causing them horrendous physical pain as well as mental anguish. You would have to know you were doing all of those things and still keep doing it anyway, because what you wanted was far more important to you than the pain and distress of another person.
So... brushing off the actions of a character who rapes another character as 'a reaction to their tortured past?' That's pretty damn insulting to those real-life damaged men who would never hurt others the way they were hurt - and there are far more of them around than the vengeful type. Who, by the way, no woman with a working brain is going to actually fall in love with anyway, because they're not the type to feel remorse, straight afterwards or ever. If their 'tortured past' is what's left them believing they're entitled to strike back in this way, aint no amount of crying and guilt-tripping gonna make them change their minds. They might be able to deliver an Oscar-winning performance of pretending they're sorry - but that'll last only until the next time they pull that crap again - and again, and again... And that's not how you define 'happy ending' in anyone's book.
I'm not saying you have to make sure any and all rapist characters are justiced to death by an angry mob of vengeful side-characters before burning in hell; that rarely happens in real life, so there's no reason it has to happen in your fiction either. But please don't betray your survivor character, real-life survivors and real-life damaged men by giving a rapist character a Charm Makeover.
Well, that's my list. I still can't quite believe I've actually written this post - I'll probably look back on it later and wonder if it was me, and not some other person. But it's done now, and I'm going to post it before I chicken out and hit the 'Delete' button instead. Have I left anything out? I'd be interested to know your thoughts.