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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Gratuitous Violation: Or, Why I Wish People Would Stop Writing About Rape For A While (Girlcember 9)

Hello, hello!

I'm going to stick an 'upsetting content' warning on this post. I hate the phrase 'trigger warning', but there are times when it's applicable, and this is one of them. I might get in trouble for this post, but I welcome a good dialogue. Feel free to post your thoughts and comments below.

In my experience as an editor and a reader, I've come across a fair bit of this in my day. I won't pretend to avoid sexual assault in my own writing--I can think of two stories of my canon that have involved rape. They won't be the last, either. There are times when writing about violation is necessary for a story. I'm also not opposed to making jokes about rape, actually. It's often tasteless, and needs to be done carefully, and gods help you if you threaten to rape a person or say they should be raped. However, that doesn't mean the subject can't be, say, subversively or even darkly funny. For example:

Obviously, this video belongs to Amanda fucking Palmer. 

And, perhaps in spite of or because of my fervent devotion to equality and multiculturalism, feminism, and general human betterment--I'm also very against censorship. Just saying everyone should stop talking about something makes people repress it and hide from their icky feelings. It also doesn't contribute to helping victims--it's just another way of sweeping something uncomfortable under the rug. That means that people are going to say awful shit, unfortunately, and that we'll probably always have tasteless arguments and bigotry. It's part of human nature, so all we can do is try to keep it in check.

Otherwise, though, I'm certainly not opposed to transgressive books. They have a place. I had shivering nightmares after reading the Wikipedia summary of De Sade's 12 Days of Sodom, also known as Salo (and no, I'm not linking it), but I'm not going to say it has no right to exist. I think it's probably the worst thing ever written, but it does exemplify ultimate evil pretty well, I think. And is there a point to retaining an absolute bottom of human achievement? Well, if we forget the lessons of the past, we're certainly doomed to repeat them. So, yes--there is a place for awfulness, but one ought to be aware of what they're talking about, and I am emphatically NOT condoning the horrid misogyny and racism that you hear on Call of Duty teams. Freedom ends where hate speech begins. This is a whole blog post, or several, in and of itself, so I'm going to skip ahead to my main topic.

So, now that you know where I'm coming from and what I stand for, I am going to say something apparently contradictory. Can we please stop writing about rape for a while?

Rape? What's with all the rape?

Specifically, it was editing and reading some really bad indie fiction that brought this to my attention. Names have been redacted to protect the well-intentioned, but trust me when I say that I have read some very messed-up things. Several of the absolute worst books I've ever read all involved gratuitous rape. A lot of people point at 'the patriarchy' (every time you use that word, a kitten dies) and make j'accuse noises, but I sure have seen a lot of female fans writing about the issue. And when I say 'a lot', I do mean a lot. Fan fiction, for instance, is infamous for its bizarre and improbable rape scenes.

Now, I'm not going to say that the multitude of sexualized rapes in fan fiction are contributing to the sexual assaults that female cosplayers have been subjected to. That's an unrelated issue, as far as I know, and given that so many writers of fan-fic are female, it would smack of victim-blaming. Part of me wonders, though, if the casual use of rape as character development/gratification/plot points is contributing to the misunderstandings of sexual assault in geek culture? It is true, unfortunately, that sexual assault figures worldwide are pretty horrifying. Isn't it kind of awful that we're fetishizing something that's a serious human rights concern?

Is there a good side to rape? Why is it so appealing?

I don't know if I would say there's an 'up side' to rape. It is worth writing about as a human experience, sure, and it presents a dark challenge, but this isn't what I'd call a really positive experience. Sure, characters grow from it, just as real people do, and scars become a part of us, but rape isn't usually treated like that in these contexts.

I asked Disarcade, AKA Andrey, for his thoughts, because I was stumped. He pointed out that rape gets around the problem of sexual desire if you're a 'good girl'. If your character is 'pure' and wants to have sex, but is forced to do so, she bears no responsibility for her desire. He was as disturbed by this as I was, but both of us agreed that it did make some sense of why rape has been so sexualised and so often used in fiction.

It also presents an easy solution to the issue of character development and conflict. Notice I say 'easy' rather than 'good'. However, with stunningly high rates of physical and sexual assault affecting people worldwide, there's the disturbing possibility that people write about rape partly because it helps them reframe their own experiences. It may even resound for other victims of assault. Myself, I've been lucky enough to escape that, so I'm just speculating.

 I also understand the appeal of this material to a certain extent. Blurred power lines and borderline coercion--in a safe environment, let me underline the word 'safe'--can be really sexy. There's no sense in denying that roleplay and controlled scenarios for this kind of thing appeal to a LOT of people. Is that necessarily wrong? Well, as long as no-one's getting hurt, far be it from me to judge someone for what they're into. Everyone has skeletons in their closet, and often a few leather harnesses and exotic devices as well.

So: consent play is fine. Fantasy scenarios are fine. But can we please stop relying on rape as cheap and easy character development? It makes one's writing worse, it numbs people to rape, and it's damned sloppy. There are better ways to traumatize a character--though really, if your character only has a personality defined by victimhood, maybe it's time to rethink the character. Even people who undergo severe abuse are still people, outside of and beyond their negative experiences.

How do we fix it? 

Do the right thing. If you find yourself relying on rape to advance a character, cut and paste the scene to your discard pile. If you're typing a one-handed coercive fantasy scene, do us all a favour and maybe keep that in your 'private enjoyment' files. I know this call to make the internet a better place might go unheeded. I'm not saying that we shouldn't write about sexual assault at all, but I am saying that people could stand to write about it less--or at the very least, more respectfully. Don't use it as a cheap plot device. Sympathize with the victim. Don't sexualize it.

Are we good? Good.

Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 


  1. I hope this post travels far and wide. Proliferation of such toxicity leads to acceptance and expectation in a desensitized mind. The entire 'suffering as character builder' trope is a bit tiresome (basically, suffer porn), wherein the only interesting thing about the character is the pain they endure. Lazy writing is unforgivable. It also shines a glaring light on how we view women: sex as the end all and be all of a woman's totality. When the idea that Lara Croft needed to be raped in her new video game to show how much of a badass the experience would make her, I gagged. When the idea that Wonder Woman needed to get raped in order for Superman to go into a totalitarian rage in one of DC's multiverse books became public, my little head popped. And I'm using the word "needed" intentionally. That word is the hidden justification because such assholery. "We need to show XYZ about these characters, their pain, their violence, their motivation. Woman involved? Rape scene as utility." I wrote a rape scene in one of my short stories. It wasn't about the rape from a woman's perspective. It wasn't about her later empowerment. It was about evil and acceptance & how acceptance of suffering cuts both victim and predator out of the stream of human relations. Rape should not be the spice of literature, life, or anyone's imagination, I don't care how many shades you think you're working with.

    1. Woah.

      Well, I'm glad it echoed for you! I heard a friend say you get one rape story and that is it.

      I feel like I should touch on male rape, but women and alt gendered people tend to be victims overwhelmingly, Any info on this is welcome though.

  2. Great post, Michelle. Very interesting (and unsettling) what Andrey said about rape being a way for a girl to have sex without losing her purity or innocence. That leads to a whole nother negative stereotype, in that a girl suddenly becomes "impure" if she consents to having sex for the first time. And yet, notice how that never seems to apply to boys. In fact, boys have it the opposite. They're seen as becoming a man when they do it for the first time, and they're even looked down upon for NOT wanting to have sex.

    Anyway, I quite enjoyed reading this, and I look forward to seeing more of these thoughtful commentary posts.


As always, be excellent unto others, and don't be a dick.