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).
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.