You’re writing a rape scene. A woman gets brutally raped by a monstrous male character in one scene in your book. It’s scandalizing. It’s disturbing. It’s graphic. People are going to talk about this.
Okay. Now substitute another sex crime in its place […] Now instead of raping a buxom, weeping young woman, your Extremely Bad Dude is now raping a terrified six year old boy.
Does it still feel like it deserves to be there?
To use the usual fictional rape apologist arguments, there’s no reason this scene shouldn’t exist. Child rape exists, and no doubt happens in times of war. It probably happens even more in third world countries that are at war. Historically speaking, I’m sure there have been thousands of child rapes since the dawn of humanity. Maybe millions.
Practically speaking, it would be remiss not to include a child rape scene or two, right? It happens. We must be truthful to reality. It’s our duty.
Or, wait – is it possible you’re using this horrific, degrading, monstrous act as window dressing?
–Robert Jackson Bennett on writing rape.
There’s something in here about an inverse correlation between the number of graphic rape scenes in a work versus whether or not that work actually deals with rape.
One of my favourite comics, for example, is The Maxx and The Maxx is all about rape. But The Maxx doesn’t actually ever, that I can recall, show any of these in any kind of detail (and yes, there are more than one). Instead, the violence is off-panel; either in the past or implied. What the story does show, is how survivors deal with what they’ve been through. And it is the characters who’ve been through sexual violence who deal with the sexual violence in the narrative; arguably the entire comic is about deconstructing the myth of the “male protector” (Maxx) who comes along after the fact to “avenge” the female rape victim (he… tries, but mostly doesn’t get very far).
The Maxx certainly isn’t perfect. But it was also a Formative Narrative for me–I first encountered it when I was in my mid-teens, and I’d never seen anything like it before–and one of the main things it formed is how I think about rape-in-fiction.
The other topical example is, of course, Mad Max: Fury Road;1 another narrative about not just rape, but endemic sex slavery, and one that refuses to titillate its audience. Instead, it focuses on its survivor characters healing and coming into their own.2
The grim reality is sexual violence is endemic in our society; about one in six women and one in twenty men will experience it. I think that’s important to remember, as a creator of media, because that tells you something like a little over 20%3 of you audience already knows sexual violence is terrible because they’ve experienced it firsthand. You don’t need to remind them, again and again and again and again, in graphic, leering detail. And this goes double if you yourself are fortunate enough not to be in that 20%.
That doesn’t mean I think no one should ever use rape in fiction. What it does mean is that I think there’s far more room in fiction for writing stories about survivors of sexual violence. Tell their stories for goddamn once. How did that experience shape them and, more importantly, how didn’t it? Not to mention that, too often in media, sexual violence is used to end a woman’s story and start a man’s. We need less of that (preferably 100% less of that) and more of… something else.
And if you aren’t sure what that “something else” should be?
Then don’t bloody well write about rape.
- I’m sensing a naming theme here… [↩]
- Something that, incidentally, is just as true for Max and, in particular, Nux as it is the Wives. The violence and violation the men have experienced isn’t rape, but it’s still violence and violation. And it’s their recovery from and desire to move past that that the movie focuses on. [↩]
- Er, I think? Assuming I’m doing my math right… [↩]