I’ve been a reading machine in the past eighteen days. In fact, I’ve read five novels, across five different genres. One was young adult literary, one was young adult genre, one was an adult literary, and two were adult contemporary fantasies.*
All five featured the main female character getting raped.
By the time I got to book number five, I was so weary, so emotionally drained, so angry. It took me quite awhile to calm down (even if the main character isn’t written as scarred by her experience, I sure as heck am) and parse the source of my rage.
I galloped over to Facebook and told the world how angry I was. I added that none of the male characters in these books had to undergo a sexually degrading experience in order to come of age or bulk up their character development or move the plot. Facebook replied with a host of suggestions for books with boys being raped in them, but that wasn’t really what I was after. I wasn’t really looking for equal-opportunity violation.
What I want is for there to be less gratuitous literary rape.
I’m not talking about books like Speak. I’m talking about novels where the rape scene could just as easily be any other sort of violent scene and it only becomes about sex because there’s a woman involved. If the genders were swapped, a rape scene wouldn’t have happened. The author would’ve come up with a different sort of scenario/ backstory/ defining moment for a male character. Really, this sort of rape is such a medieval, classical way to tell a story. Need to establish some stakes? Grab a secondary character and rape her. Possibly with a god or a mythological object if you have one handy.
And that starts to feel a lot less like realism and more like a malingering culture of women as victims. And it starts, especially when the author is male and the rape scene is graphic, to feel suspiciously like the goal is titillation. It starts to feel like the author believes the only interesting sort of GirlAngst is sexual abuse.
Yes. Having someone force themselves on us is pretty damn traumatic, folks. But guess what? Our personalities are formed by a whole host of experiences. Pretty much the same host of experiences that any man might encounter.
Now, on Facebook and Twitter, people said “but then you’d complain about rape and violence against women being under-represented in fiction.” First of all, no. I wouldn’t complain if there were no more gratuitous rape scenes. And second of all, the rape scenes I’m referring to are not scenes that are going to start dialog about rape. They’re scenes that enforce the woman’s role as Sidekick and Victim and Rescue Me! and I-Am-Only-The-Sum-Of-The-Places-On-My-Body-You-Can-Violate-Me.**
I want to know why this is an easy fall-back, rape. Some folks on Facebook said, “Because it’s the worst thing that can happen to a woman.”
Is it? Is rape then also the worst thing that can happen to a man? No? It’s different for women, you say? Why is it, then, that we as women should find having our sexual integrity robbed from us worse than torture and death? Is it because . . . I-Am-Only-The-Sum-Of-The-Places-On-My-Body-You-Can-Violate-Me?***
So what I’m saying is: yes, write about rape. I don’t believe in censoring fiction. But I do believe in writers knowing why they’re writing what they write. And if authors are writing a scene because they subconsciously believe that a woman’s sexual purity is the most important thing about her, they need to reconsider.
I can’t decide if a gratuitous rape scene offends me worse when it’s written by a man or a woman. One makes me angry because it feels like it’s selling rape culture. And the other makes me angry because I feel like women are buying it.
World, we need to talk.
*No, I’m not going to tell you what they were. A book that turns me off might be someone else’s favorite, so I try not to UNrecommend books. I prefer to just recommend the ones that I enjoy.
**Oh, wow. I am still very angry, it seems.
[recommended reading given to me by readers: Seanan McGuire’s blog post on rape, and Women in Refrigerators]