Gratuitous Rape in Fantasy novels

Discussion in 'General Writing Discussion' started by Hex, Jan 20, 2013.

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  1.  
    Hex

    Hex Mod in tooth and claw Staff Member

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    So, I was hi-jacking Glitch's thread (sorry, Glitch) ranting on about rape and virginity but it maybe deserves a whole thread of its own.

    Slightly coincidentally, Maggie Stiefvater posted this on livejournal on Friday, a post talking about reading five books in a row in which the main (female) character undergoes a gratuitous rape.

    I thought that was interesting because one of the points she makes is that rape has two sides to it:

    (1) the physical/ mental trauma of undergoing a terrible, violent experience against your will;

    (2) the underlying idea that a raped woman is a ruined woman -- that whole loss of purity/ virginity thing, which used to mean your only choice was to turn your face to the wall and die as quietly as possible.

    So there's the pitfall of having a rape in the story where the character bounces back apparently unbothered, but there's also the problem of rape being a shorthand for A-Fate-Worse-Than-Death for a woman (but not a man?) betraying the (possible?) underlying societal assumption that women are defined by sexual purity.

    What do you think?

    (I hope this makes sense. Scooby Doo is on in the background...)
  2.  
    Mouse

    Mouse roar

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    Which varies massively. Plus, not all rape is 'violent' exactly or a sort of... predatory thing.

    Which is bullplop.

    I think it's not 'a fate worse than death.' It's absolutely awful and different women will react differently. If you're going to write about it research it. And it is bad for a man too, just as bad.

    The 'apparently' unbothered... Apparently is the key word, definitely.
  3.  
    springs

    springs Juggling life

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    I will weigh in because I am one of those writers who has used rape, and I did a lot of thinking about it before I wrote about it.

    (Mine was about a male rape victim, but I think many of the same arguments apply.)

    I didn't set out to write about such a thing happening, but when the book took it's own way, as they do, the situation he was in made any other outcome difficult to imagine. As some of the poor people here know, having read early drafts and later drafts, and many emails, I spent months deciding on the approach not just to the act (that was easy enough, I did it off camera, and chose to only have it directly referred to by the main character once, in a very private conversation with his wife), but also the impact. I explored the sexual fall out, the fall out on relationships, the fallout on friendships, particularly those who were aware of the act and unable to help, and spent about 100000 words getting them to the place where they had in any way come to terms with it.

    I have no problem with rape as a storyline provided
    a. it is realistic in terms of the set up and is not done gratuitously
    b. it moves the story on either by telling us more about characters or events and
    c. the fall out is properly researched and explored.

    The research I did threw up, very clearly, that there are no quick fixes for a rape victim.

    I'm currently working on a new wip and it's looking at female pioneers in space, and harsh colonies, where, perhaps, there is a reversion to more traditional roles. As a passionate supporter of women, it was something I really wanted to explore, as I think in sff the female protagonist is often not written in a way I think either empowers her, or brings anything new to the traditional views. Rape is one such trope which continues the circle of cliche and tokenism. Domestic violence (which I think is on the radar in the one I'm writing, because it is another thing I am passionate about having done a lot of training with Women's Aid and seen the fall out it causes), is another. And one side of domestic violence is often silent rape ie rape that happens in relationships and is often not viewed as the same. If it comes up, and I am not sure it will, I'm not far enough into it yet, it will be done in a way that's researched, valid, and considers the long-term effects.

    If we write about these sorts of things, we need to be responsible for them, I think, and I'll put a book down when I don't think it is, or choose not to read the sequel, which is what I did with a book this year when I wasn't comfortable with its approach.
  4.  
    Victoria Silverwolf

    Victoria Silverwolf Vegetarian Werewolf

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    This is a very important and complex issue. Like any other form of violence, sexual assault can be used appropriately in fiction for its emotional impact. It can also be used in an inappropriate, exploitative way, of course.

    I can recall a time in the 1990's when The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction seemed to print a lot of stories in which child sexual abuse (often incest) was used as a theme. At times it seemed as if some of these stories were using this theme for its shock value only. I cannot be sure of this, of course, without reading the minds of the authors.

    My point is that one must judge each work of fiction on its own. No theme should be forbidden, but the reader is free to condemn a work which uses its themes in an inappropriate way.

    As far as the idea of a woman being "ruined" by a sexual assault, if such an attitude is appropriate to its setting (a historical one, perhaps, or a fictional patriarchal society), it could be part of an effective work of fiction. If I got the feeling that a modern author actually agrees with such a point of view, I would have a problem with that.
  5.  
    Mouse

    Mouse roar

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    Excellent post, springs.
  6.  
    Brian Turner

    Brian Turner Brian G. Turner Staff Member

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    I also think there's an additional option:

    (3) Rape used as a gratuitous plot device due to sloppy writing - especially committed by white male authors who never stop to question their own limited assumptions, and cannot write a female character as anything other than a sexualised object, or otherwise dependent on male validation, and have never heard of the Bechdel Test

    I still regularly read http://requireshate.wordpress.com/ which is a trollish and extreme place - but very good at calling out some of the outright stupid writing that gets published, specifically with regards to violent misogyny and racial ignorance.
  7.  
    The Judge

    The Judge Truth. Order. Moderation. Staff Member

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    Regarding the blog-post, without knowing the works to which she refers it's difficult to argue whether the rapes in them might be slightly more legitimate, as it were -- for instance, if rape is genuinely the worst thing that the female character fears, no matter how "wrong" that might seem looked at objectively, since it's the result of skewed societal norms, then having a man attempt to mug her and break her arm isn't going to push her into the same trauma, which trauma might be necessary for the novel. From what she says, it certainly doesn't appear that any of those novels could claim any such legitimacy, but it isn't the portrayal of rape which is the problem, it's the question of whether it is gratuitous, and whether the same plot point could be reached by different means.

    I also see that the adult fantasies she read were contemporary, and I don't think her arguments entirely hold water in the context of fantasies which aren't set wholly in the modern era, or even those which are contemporary but are set in some non-Western locales. True, even then gratuitous rape for the purpose of titillation is still highly objectionable, but if the society portrayed is one where the status of women is in part defined by their sexual nature, then again an assault which is non-sexual won't have the same repercussions for that character.
  8.  
    AnyaKimlin

    AnyaKimlin Active Member

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    I have also written about rape although not in my fantasy. (well technically I did but as part of the villain's back story, she was raped by her grandfather and went on to think the world owed her). Like Mouse says every case and every person is different.

    My story is about male rape which is just as appalling if not more so for the victim because there is a shame that they allowed it to happen. It is amazing how many people say to a man he must have wanted it or he wouldn't have got hard.

    It was my detectives and I opted not to write the rape itself but the story was about finding the rapist and how their relationship changed and mutated.

    I did it for NaNoWriMo and off the back of a my story I summary I received three beautiful, heartrending emails, two from men who had been raped and one from the wife of a man who had. They wanted me to write the story and offered me as much help as I needed.

    I think to portray rape you are always going to misrepresent some people but I think it is worth the effort to portray the effects as accurately and with as much care as possible.
  9.  
    allmywires

    allmywires not sure if...

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    springs, such an eloquent and well-thought out post.

    I have a problem with it. It seems to me that you can't get away from the issue of rape in a male-dominated, medieval fantasy setting. A lot of authors might claim that as an excuse for writing it in. Yet we don't write historical fiction. You are the author; you can bend the rules. Eliminating rape may be unrealistic but equally dwelling on it with the kind of fetishism some authors do is equally wrong, and in the end only perpetuates the kind of male-dominated sausage fests that epic fantasies often are, sprinkled occasionally with a fair damsel elf waif in distress for coital satisfaction or child rearing duties.

    Like springs, in my current WIP there is a prison situation. It's a mixed prison and there are mentions of rape (no description). One of my female MCs is well-renowned as a leader and revolutionary in the prison. She instigates a 'bartering' system where the male prisoners can take what they want from the females, with their consent and for a fair price. This isn't dwelled on but only mentioned. I haven't done any research on this, and now I'm wondering if it's a true representation or not. I don't think the subject of rape should be shied away from, but neither should it be used for cheap thrills, as it sadly often is. In other words, there's no right way of doing it, as Anya said.

    (With regards to male rape -- I don't agree it's not as bad, I think it's the same scale, just as awful but with the added stigma of the 'emasculation' of sodomy. Rape isn't about sexual attraction but sexual control and power. Which makes the old arguments of 'they were asking for it, they were leading me on...' etc even more pathetic and deplorable. But that's a conversation for another place and not on this board I don't think).
  10.  
    Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Active Member

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    What the hell has she been reading? That seems spectacularly unlucky to me. I've read a fair bit - admittedly, a lot of it is by pre-1960 writers - and I can think of one book beyond the "there was much rape and pillage that day". And even in the book I'm thinking of, it wasn't violent assault so much as sex brought on by blackmail (which counts but is probably not typical of what we're discussing here). Perhaps I'm just a bit behind the times.

    I suppose there is a technical problem where the plot requires a female character to be taken alive by villains. You would have to write around the problem somehow. At any rate, you shouldn't take on something that you can't depict properly, because it will result in unconvincing fiction. Also, writing about psychological damage takes a lot of pages as well as skill, which might well be better used moving the plot forward.

    As an aside, and for the avoidance of any doubt I say this in a completely neutral way, is this month devoted to "issues particularly involving women" in SF somewhere? I seem to be seeing a lot of discussion about the portrayal of women (and gay/bisexual characters) over the last couple of weeks.

    Sad to see that "Requires Hate" is still being written by a bigoted lolcat with Tourette's.
  11.  
    Mouse

    Mouse roar

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    Probably because women (and gay/bisexual characters) tend to get the pooey end of the stick more than straight male characters. I'm perfectly happy to talk about men being hard done by in fiction though, if the topic comes up.
  12.  
    Hex

    Hex Mod in tooth and claw Staff Member

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    Just briefly, I think she'd come across people on Facebook saying while rape was the worst thing (worse than death) for women, it wasn't the worst thing that could happen to a man.

    I was just thinking -- I've read a couple of books recently in which the main character (a man) gets raped (Sarah Monette has written a few) but I don't think I've read such a book written by a man. Odd. Also, perhaps also strangely, the male characters who are raped tend to be gay. I don't know what to make of that. It reminds me of the virgins argument. "Oh well, he was gay so he was asking for it." << That is not my opinion, in case it needs said.

    I don't have fixed views on this, by the way, except for the ones I'd hope were obvious. We do pick and choose from history for historical fantasy -- few mcs are pock-marked and toothless, for example -- so why do (some) writers so reliably choose rape?
  13.  
    allmywires

    allmywires not sure if...

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    Exactly.
  14.  
    Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Active Member

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    I meant over the last couple of weeks, as opposed to, say, the last month or season or not at all. Hence my wording.
  15.  
    Leisha

    Leisha Tennis-ball Robin

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    Just to get on my Robert Jordan bandwagon again...

    SPOILER ALERT!

    I see a lot of women here who gripe against the role women play in books. Well, one of the reasons I love The Wheel of Time (I'm only on book three, but near the end!) is that the women dominate. Men aren't on top, which is refreshing, and there are no rape scenes so far (and I can't believe Jordan would write explicit scenes of any nature. If any of you want a change from the norm, I'd deffo recommend it. :)

    You don't see much of the women on top in book one, though. In fact, I wasn't that hooked by book one, unlike others. But books 2 and 3... OMG!!!



    As for the topic... uh, I have very strong views about rape in books, and I don't enjoy reading scenes like that. I don't need rape to be described in detail, if it must happen at all. If the stats are right and 1 in 3 women are raped in my lifetime, a lot of women (and men) must have some horrid memories from reading scenes in books (and I think that makes books go far beyond mere "entertainment", when it has an effect on a person's life). And anyone who's suffered by knowing someone who's been violently raped will also not find reading certain scenes pleasant. That's one of the issues I have with Martin - too many scenes and too graphic, and I know some people will find them sickening.

    On a different note, one fairly well-known author once asked on Facebook if he should include the rape scene he was intending. One of the male posters suggested that he write it anyway, and if it didn't work once he'd written the book, he could simply remove it and there'd be no effect on the story. I said that you couldn't remove it, because if it was well-handled, the female protag would be scarred from it in one or more terrible ways, that it would define who she became, but the men ignored my post. And in the end the author said he'd just remove the rape if it didn't fit once the book was finished. :(
  16.  
    Mouse

    Mouse roar

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    Urgh, that'd drive me mad.

    I hate it when men think the woman actually enjoyed it, too. Makes me so angry.
  17.  
    Glitch

    Glitch #452

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    You're forgiven Hex.

    I have a near rape in a planned story. Even though the event is a minor part of the overall story it does play on the characters mind. She bottles up her experience which starts to alienate her love interest and her friends. She enrolls in self defence classes and eventually talks to her flatmate.

    The character starts off very self confident and believes she can handle anything. I do use the event to knock her down a few pegs. To make her realise she does need the help of those around her and isn't an invincible as she thought.
  18.  
    Leisha

    Leisha Tennis-ball Robin

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    I think that's the difference in well-handled rape (or near-rape), Glitch - if the rape is the core of the story and explores the effects it has on a person, as opposed to the Martin-types who are writing epic/whichever fantasy and just including those scenes to add drama on top of drama, without the time to explore its consequences in a realistic way. I know the argument - that it exists in the world so it can be written about - but I don't think it needs to be handled so excessively and so often (from what I've heard of Martin, since I never got past 1/4 of book two.... though I WILL, one day; the books are sitting on my shelves).
  19.  
    AnyaKimlin

    AnyaKimlin Active Member

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    My detectives are gay because they were that way for three stories before I wrote the story about the rape. It would kind of bugger up (pardon the expression) the series to change it.

    Like everyone else I don't mind a well-handled, sensitive and realistic rape story.
  20.  
    alchemist

    alchemist On holidays!

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    What springs said...

    Except I'd extend a and b to a sexual scene of any kind, rape or consensual. And I'd even extend it to violence of any kind.

    I'd read the blog in the OP earlier (thanks to Hex on Twitter - I'm learning how to use it) and was suspicious at first; five books in a row, all with rape. Regardless of whether this was accidental or by design, she's right to call out rape scenes which are poorly thought out. Stuff like that deserves to be handled with intelligence and sensitivity.
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