Rape as a Plot Point

While critiquing a manuscript, I told the writer that I felt uneasy about the multiple rapes that occur in his story (though they all occur “off camera”). I told him that if he’s going to include rape in his novel, he should probably elaborate a bit on the social and psychological ramifications rather than just use rape to drive the plot forward. Not long after that discussion, that same writer told me I probably wouldn’t like a certain movie simply because there’s a rape scene (he totally ignored the fact that my advice indicated that there may be exceptions to having rape in a narrative). Naturally, I then started Googling the issue and decided to write this post to tell that writer (and others) to be careful when writing about rape in fiction (it’s been said so many times by so many people, you’d think it’d be a given, but evidently it’s not).

Coincidentally, there’s an ongoing pseudo-movement of journalists, writers and other folks responding to the trend of using rape as plot in television, primarily in reaction to Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, Scandal, and House of Cards (disclaimer: of these series, I’ve seen only season one of House of Cards). These opinions overlap greatly and I think they reflect and reinforce my prior viewpoint on rape as a plot point.

Lazy Plot Device

Rape is too often a lazy plot device and it’s getting to be a cliche.

In her article, “Hey TV: Stop Raping Women,” Karen Valby notes that “it seems whenever a female character needs a juicy arc or humanizing touch, writers fall back on the easy, awful crime of rape,” despite the fact that “there are countless plot-generating life obstacles that don’t involve sexual assault.” Also see “Can We Stop Using Rape as a Plot Device” by Clementine Ford (noting “[s]exual violence has become the go-to plot device for writers looking to give their female characters substance despite having no apparent understanding or interest in the rounder complexities of women as equal participants”); and “‘Downton Abbey’ And the Problem of Rape as a Plot Point” by Lauren Duca (finding that “the [rape] scene [in Downton Abbey] functioned as an unsympathetically lazy plot point”).

If You “Must” Use It . . .

On “Rape in Fiction (Or: ‘Oh, Game of Thrones, Really?’),” Chuck Wendig makes a good point: “One of fiction’s chiefmost strengths is that it allows us to bring up these things and make us feel something about them.” However, he asserts that writers must be “mindful of consequence,” one of which being that “some of your audience will have been the victims of rape . . . and sexual assault against women in particular are very, very high.” Basically, if you are going to include rape in your writing you should have a very good reason beyond “a cheap-and-easy plot point.” Also see “Using Rape as a Plot Device” by Caity Goerke (criticizing works where “the women and the [sexual] violence against them are merely important to move the plot of the story forward,” usually for a male protagonist to seek revenge).

Caity Goerke states that using rape as a plot device in a manner that “erases the experience of the victim” ultimately serves to desensitize us to rape. Beyond mere desensitization, Clementine Ford points out that when rape in fictions occurs “in ways that border on titillation,” it sensationalizes rape and exploits the pain of its victims (e.g., the rape scene on Game of Thrones which Chuck Wendig describes as “drifting toward fetishistic and gratuitous”); also check out Maggie Stiefvatar’s blog post on “literary rape” written after having read five consecutive books unexpectedly involving the rape of a female character (stating that with the “gratuitous rape scene[s] . . . it feels like [the novels are] selling rape culture”).

To avoid presenting rape in a manner that desensitizes the audience and sensationalizes rape, it may be helpful to do as Lauren Duca suggests: make the victim the focal point of the rape story.

As an example of a show that does not follow her advice, Duca points out how Downton Abbey focuses on the victim’s husband (and “almost applaud[s] the fact that ‘[his] response is that he doesn’t love her less”). She contrasts this with Veronica Mars and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in which “the narrative not only shifts focus to the victim, but tells the story of how they deal with the assault.” Focusing on the perspective of the victim addresses the realities of rape which writers might make the mistake of ignoring, and helps to avoid the problems of desensitization and sensationalism by emphasizing the horrible repercussions of the crime (and not just showing the act of the crime).

Duca further suggests that if you must have rape in your plot, you should ensure the assault is not merely a means of characterization of the victim. She contrasts Scandal‘s use of rape simply to explain a character’s “general b–chiness” with House of Cards‘ which explains a character’s motivation for her current actions (not just her general disposition).

Another idea posited on a Goodreads post string is that the writer should understand the psychology and reasoning of rapists in order to portray circumstances realistically (rather than having a shallow bad-guy character who just shows up and sexually assaults other characters). In this way, the author could at least make some social commentary by shining a light on how and why rape occurs beyond lust.

Why Rape Deserves More Sensitivity

I’ve noticed people questioning why rape in fiction should be handled more carefully than murder and other heinous acts, and I think I can address that to some extent.

First, some statistics: Wikipedia (much more reliable than it was in its infancy), with numbers from multiple studies, estimates that 15 to 20% of all American women are raped at least once in their lifetime (some widely accepted studies say 1 of 4 women: 25%). So, even assuming no men are raped (which would be wrong), that’s 7.5 to 10% of all Americans who are raped at least once in their life. In comparison, the murder rate in the United States is 4.7%.

Now, keep those numbers in mind while you consider the fact that people are much more forthcoming when it comes to reporting murder and other violent acts. In contrast, there are much more societal pressures which shames and blames rape victims into not reporting their rape. Thus, a considerate writer should deal with rape more sensitively in their fiction so as not to carelessly add to the stigma (note: I’m not saying that rape deserves more careful handling merely because it occurs more often than other crimes, but more so because of the stigma of being a victim of sexual assault that causes victims not to report the crimes).

Conclusion

Rape should not be thrown into a story simply as a means to advance the plot. Writers should think carefully on how they portray rape, whether it’s necessary or gratuitous, and whether they add to the stigma of being a victim of rape.

Just stop and think it through.

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32 thoughts on “Rape as a Plot Point

  1. Pingback: Rape as a Plot Point | A.D. Martin | Bookish Lynx

  2. Great post! I’ve never even considered including this as a plot point tbh, but I’ve never written anything too gritty.

    I do wonder if the presentation of a male rape victim in media could be welcome, though, if presented tastefully (unlike Wedding Crashers, for example). But that all goes back to making the victim the centerpoint instead of their spouse or the rapist. As with female rape, I would loathe a story where a wife goes after her husband’s rapist, or rape used as some kind of throwaway “dark past” event that “explains” characterization.

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    • Yeah, I wouldn’t normally sit down with the intent to write about rape, this post being an exception. Of course, sexual assault crosses my mind inevitably when I’m writing and considering all the different reactions people might have to a given scenario. However, it’s one of many outcomes and I wouldn’t have a character commit sexual assault absent careful thinking.

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  3. Thank you for presenting an opinion that makes sense and is well researched. I agonized over writing about a factual rape and including it in my story. Then once I decided to include it, I agonized over how to tell it as the facts were too terrible. I never intended it to be enjoyable reading but to baseline the life long recovery it took and the dramatic change in a loved one’s life as she struggled to regain her sense of self and security. I received a heart breaking comment from another victim that attempted to read it. I’ve wondered what to do. Your post has provided good guidance.

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    • I’m glad I could be of some help. It sounds like the primary theme of your story is about the process of dealing with being a victim of sexual assault, which is likely one of the better reasons for including sexual assault in your plot. I’d be pretty hesitant to write an “on screen” rape. That sounds rather difficult.

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  4. Well done. However, the rape presented in Game of Thrones is done within a certain context of culture and history and not used as a device merely to advance the plot. I can understand why some might find this use of rape uncomfortable but to ignore that rape is part of the world that Martin has created would be dipping into Disney territory.
    If anyone is interested in reading some pretty horrific accounts of male rape then pick up a copy of Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption. Mama mia!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks.

      I think the recent backlash to rape on Game of Thrones is primarily in response to a particular occasion of rape, not the fact that rape exists in Westeros (and its neighboring countries). From what I understand, people are upset for a few reasons: it’s a deviation from the novel because the sexual act in the novel was clearly consensual; the change to make it into rape substantially alters the characters and their development (from the direction the show was going as well as the direction the novels go in); there is no apparent reason to change the consensual sex to rape aside from shock; and, well, probably some other stuff.

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  5. You said the right thing to this writer, but as I’ve learned, people will always do what they want in the end, regardless of whether or not it is right. I find rape in books disturbing (Not a fan of it on TV or in film either), but I am also a short woman who is well aware that a man could try to physically over-power me in such a way. For me, it’s a very violent thing, and if one is going to write about it, it shouldn’t be a plot point at all.

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  6. This is advice to be taken with serious thought, even more so because it’s applicable to other subject matters. Thanks for opening the discussion on this!

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    • Yeah, I suppose every piece of the plot should be considered carefully. Since authors should be editing their novels over and over, it’s hard to say anything was unintentional (except typographical errors, maybe).

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  7. Great article. I must say that, as a reader of so-called adult fiction, I’m appalled at the lack of sensitivity some women writers display in using rape and/or sexual molestation as an excuse to give “depth” to their characters. Not the mention the recurrent question “Was that rape or sex?” you are confronted with while reading some of these books. I wonder how the reading public would react if a man wrote something like that.

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    • Definitions definitely differ in as you go from place to place. There’s a policy (being considered in California) called “yes means yes.” Under this policy, there can be no consent for sex unless there’s an affirmative expression of consent ; the absence of a “no” cannot be consent under this policy. It’s pretty interesting.

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      • I’ve seen the postera for that campaign, and I must say that I think that’s a bit too simplistic. Does it mean if someone is drunk and says yes, that’s still consent? Or if unequivocal yes (or no) was not said then the guy is liable to be sued for rape?

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      • Without having read the proposed statutory language myself, I’m guessing the poster only had a summary of the effect of the new policy. It’s likely not a proper representation of the full effect of sexual assault law as it would be if the policy is enacted.

        Drunkenness is likely a factor to be considered. The law has ways of determining whether a person has the capacity required to give “consent.” Simply saying the word “yes” isn’t automatically consent; other factors for capacity will be considered.

        Also, the legislators changed the language so that a “yes” must be an “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” They took out the “unequivocal” language.

        Anyway, if anyone’s interested, a quick Google search will likely yield results of people competently discussing the matter (and some people discussing it without so much competence).

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      • I’ll have to look into the legislature here in Croatia. But unfortunately, so far we haven’t delved much into the issue. Regardless od the law, I think that raising the issue in the public through campaigns is important. On one occassion a Croatian judge described sexual assault as a “handshake” in his verdict. I think that speaks volumes.

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      • Ah, yeah, I’ve been thinking of the policy as it’s being implemented in California. I agree that it’s better to at least have it as part of the public discourse, in general.

        That’s a pretty interesting holding. I don’t think that would fly as “sexual assault” in California, though in certain circumstances, a handshake may be a different crime over here (probably regular “assault”).

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  8. Speaking of regarding your audiences point of view. As an audience member, I find it odd that writers would think sexually assaulting their characters gives them depth. Really? What an incredible lack of imagination. I appreciate your point that writers should consider whether including rape as a plot point contributes to desensitization and rape culture. A recent article I read called on colleges to treat rape more as a crime – maybe writers should too. (The statistic in that article points out that only 3% of rapes result in rapists being punished so writing rape scenes that have no consequences only reinforces this shameful reality.)

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  9. Pingback: 1st Anniversary Post: Top Posts and the State of the Novel | A.D. Martin

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