Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Rape in Fiction-- How Perceptions May Vary by Gender

Last week I put up a post about Literary Deal Breakers. I was inspired to put the post up due to a strong reaction I had as I tried to read Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence and the conversation that followed made me think of how men and women react to literary content differently-- especially when it comes to the delicate subject of rape.

Whenever this topic comes up, it's inevitable that someone will say something along the lines of murder is worse than rape and walk away from the subject as if that was some kind of conversational coup de grâce. End of discussion. I win. You lose.

Except it's not the end of the conversation if you're a woman.

Now, I'm not arguing that rape is worse than murder. But I am arguing that it is something that is, unfortunately, a real threat to most women-- more than it could ever be to most men. And that makes it harder to read about than most anything-- even murder.

When I read fantasy fiction, it's not unusual to read about murderers and thieves. Assassins are frequently main characters and, against all common sense, they can be written to be sympathetic characters. But rapists? They don't engender any sympathy in my opinion. So why the difference?

I can only answer that from a woman's perspective-- and one woman's at that. But something tells me I won't be alone in my thinking.

Where to start?

Being female means knowing that we have physical limitations when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex. This is something we become aware of very young. I had three older brothers and learned how to throw a good right-hook before I knew how to ride a bike. But I was never under the illusion that I was going to beat them at arm-wrestling. Your average feminist will hate me for saying it, but men are women are different. Simple as that. As I got older, gender differences became more pronounced for obvious reasons and I learned to be wary of men who exuded a certain aura. My caution has served me well. I've been stalked (before anyone knew the meaning of the word) by someone who called into my job and described what I was wearing on a daily basis-- but I've never been attacked. I'd be interested to know how many women out there have similar experiences-- and how many men really understand the feeling of vulnerability that comes so naturally to my gender.

So how does this translate to fiction?

When we read stories about murder and mayhem it's usually in some kind of hyper-reality. It might be in the context of a horror novel or an epic fantasy, or maybe a cable drama about a serial killer. But there are usually clear lines between fantasy and reality because most people have a natural aversion to casual criminality. If we are meant to sympathize with a killer, the set-up often includes a thread of vigilantism in which the 'victims' are the type of people we can tell ourselves have it coming. We also know that these are not scenarios we'd accept in the real world.

But rape cannot be introduced into a story as easily because it's impossible to say that a character deserves to brutalized in such a way. And no matter how repugnant a character is-- the person performing the act has to be worse in this situation. No way around it. So it's nearly impossible to make a rapist a sympathetic character. And seeing someone we like forced into the situation is so close to our own fears is extraordinarily hard to read. In the rare instance that a male character is similarly attacked it's often framed in the context of a prison-yard attack and, much like reality, it's about establishing a very ugly power structure and we're not likely to have any empathy for the instigators in that situation either.

Does that mean I think rape should never be addressed in literature? Of course not. But it's a minefield like no other. If it presented as almost a passing thought, a throwaway scene, it has a high likelihood to offend because it will appear to a female reader that the writer not only doesn't "get" the weight of this crime, but also that they don't care.

It's just a book...What's the big deal?

The thing with rape is that it is primarily a crime against women. There are still cultures that blame the woman if she is victimized. Even worse, there are societies that know women will be rejected by their family if they are raped, so it becomes a very effective tool of war. Women know that every man has the power to victimize her in a very particular way and that we cannot know when this threat will surface. We can't walk to our cars at night free of worry and we have different standards for safety when it comes to our sons and daughters because of it--how many sons have to be told to guard their drinks when going to a bar against date-rape drugs? This is the bogeyman of a lot of women's nightmares.

And the trickiness of the topic doesn't just end with the crime, it continues with the aftermath. How is it possible to convey the proper gravity or sympathy for the character? How long is the victim supposed to dwell on the act before the reader is satisfied? How long before we say get over it already? Or do we have the right to say that at all?

I'm not sure why anyone would want to tackle this monster.

I can understand the desire to stay true to the integrity of a story and include rape as part of the storyline if it is important to the narrative. But it's the kind of thing that can't be handled casually in my opinion. I do see it more in popular fiction as the popularity of urban fantasy increases along with the number of leading female characters who throw themselves in harm's way. But whether or not it's a wise decision to make it part of the story is debatable in my opinion.

Ultimately I think it's something that can't be viewed equally by men and women because it's going to resonate as a more realistic threat to women and no one likes to be reminded of their vulnerabilities--or worse, have them dismissed too easily.


Jamie (Mithril Wisdom) said...

An excellent and very well written argument. I get quite uncomfortable when reading rape scenes, quite often because they are gratuitous and just want to add 'shock factor' or to break down a strong female character in lieu of actual conflict. I think in order to fiction to represent the framework of reality, rape should be allowed to be included (turning a blind eye won't help) but I completely agree that if rape is ever used in literature then it needs to be highly specific to context and needs to have a very solid purpose.

SQT said...

Jamie-- Thank you! I agree that you can't ignore the subject and I'm sure that, if handled properly, some good can come from bringing it up. But it's so rare that the type of fiction I like-- the lighter, more adventurous stuff-- takes proper care to address in the right way. I hate to think we've become so desensitized to violence that we kind of lump it all in together and don't care who we offend. But it kind of seems that way.

ShadowFalcon said...

This is an almost impossible subject to handle in any genre. I have to agree with your points entirely. I can only hope that dealing with in fiction or cinema in the right way will bring the subject in a wider forum for discussion and openness. The shame and societal pressure associated with rape means most victims never come forward - hardly what you expect in a progressive/enlightened time

Blodeuedd said...

Great post. And you are right, women and men can't think about rape the same way. Of course men can be raped too and it's just as horrible. But they do not think about that when walking home alone at night.

I have had dates say the strangest things to me that have had my brain on high alert. That fear that will never leave.

I have read an UF with a rape scene, but there it wasn't as bad. I mean it was horrible and I cried while reading it. But she dealt with the emotions so good and I did feel like it was not there for shock value. It was there as a possibility what may happen, and does happen to many women. And how the aftermath can be shocking. She also never actually wrote about it. It began and was finished without actually mentioning it.

I just hope that one day it would not be something that is used in war to shame women, and men. And something that society looks upon as the women's fault for wearing a short dress. But then that will never happen. People will get into fights and use violence, just as rapes will happen.

And as a conclusion. Of course it should still be in books. It happens in real life, so it should happen in books too. Whether I can read it or not is the question in the end

Jessica ( frellathon ) said...

Great post. I agree men don't view the subject quite the same way. Mostly I think because while we all know men can also be raped woman are the ones who acknowledge that it could happen to them men think it never could.

Rape is torture plain and simple and while no one wants to die I think going from being alive one minute to dead is one thing but being tortured is something else. Anyone who says murder is worse never says I would prefer to be raped. No they even phrase it that murder is worse. Just try getting them to say I would rather be raped then they think differently.

It's not better it's not worse it's evil just in two different forms.

Cynnie said...

I was raped when I was 19, luckily I was shot and beaten too..
And it's sad that I say luckily..but it threw the attention on the shooting and beating instead of just on the violence of the rape.

Paul Anthony Shortt said...

I don't know if I could ever broach the subject of actual rape in anything I wrote. I don't believe I could handle it in an appropriate manner. More to the point, I've never written anything where I had even the slimmest notion that it would add to the story, let alone be essential to it.

I'm happy to stick to fantasy violence and leave real horror like that in the real world.

Stephanie M. Lorée said...

Brilliant post. Personally, I am so tired of seeing rape (either attempted, threatened, or otherwise) in my fiction. It always feels like a throw-away scene, unessential to the plot, and never totally dealt with by the main character. I tend to see a lot of it in speculative YA with female protagonists. And I am to the point now where I simply will put a book down.

SQT said...

Jesus Cynnie. I'm so sorry. Hope the got the bastard.

Sally Sapphire said...

I think, if you're going to cross that line as an author, you really need to have a good reason. Including a rape simply for the sake of spicing up the story and (artificially) making it a bit daring just doesn't cut it. When it's a throwaway scene, or something that has no relevance to the plot - and, more importantly, not lasting consequences - it can be a definite deal-breaker for me, as a reader.

I always remember being stopped dead in my tracks by the rape at the beginning of the Thomas Convenant saga. Donaldson takes a lot of flack for that scene, but there is an example of where the act has HUGE significance to the story, and definite consequences throughout the series. It's not in the least bit erotic, is supposed to be uncomfortable because, and is meant to distance you from the character.

M. McGriff said...

An awesome follow up post! You're points were dead on. Reading a rape scene is going to be different experience for men than it is for women. Women are more often than not the victims of it so it's going to hit closer to home for us and writers have to be aware of that. Like I said on the last post, if a rape scene is in a book, it better be an integral part of the story. Throwing it in for shock value will alienate a large chunk of readers - women.

Jessica Strider said...

Great post. You've addressed a difficult issue and really come to the point - that men and women will see it differently because of the threat factor to them.

I hate it when authors us rape as a plot device because they've done everything else to their female character, why not this? (Which I've seen done in a few urban fantasy series.) It seems little thought goes into it (the complexities of the issue, the high emotional cost to the readers, etc.).

And I can't sympathize with a rapist. I stopped reading the Thomas Covenant books by Stephen Donaldson because after he raped a girl I wanted him to fail in his quest and knew he wouldn't. I couldn't root for a 'hero' who would treat someone like that, 'dream' or not (his excuse what that this was a dream world so he could do whatever he wanted and he wanted to rape some girl who was nice to him. That's not my kind of hero).

The Ari | af | ya Universe said...

I was date raped at 19. No lucky. I was teased and ostracized. It was my fault--so my so called friends said. The guy has gone on to harm other women.

So I casually thought dealing with the humiliation through creative writing would help heal those wounds, the audience misconstrued it. Said I was writing a rape fantasy.

Fact: Rape is about power. Power over another person seen as vulnerable... It is NOT about sex.

Fact: 1 and 4 women have been raped. Many of them poor, uneducated, and women of color.

I do not care what my audience thinks, says or refuses to understand, it is not about the art of rape, but to bring to light an evil promulgated on the vulnerable. There is only one way of dealing with that in fiction and that is to write it!

Charles Gramlich said...

In Cold in the Light, there is a woman character who is dealing with having been raped as a teenager. The rape happens off scene and I don't think I could ever actually write such a scene. I think a problem is that male writers sometimes throw rape or the threat of rape in to a story without fully thinking it through. I've since only had one other story in which rape was a threat. I wonder if women writers throw in the threat of emasculation into stories without thinking fully about it at some point.

Budd said...

have you read way of the wolf from the Vampire Earth series. There is a brutal rape scene in it that everyone in my book club found uncomfortable and was a deal breaker for at least one person.

SQT said...

Thanks everyone for the comments. Usually I try to reply to each one. But I think these are the kind that need to stand on their own. The points of view expressed are so relevant in different ways and add so much to the discussion. No need for me to come wading in...

@The Ari-- I'm sorry for what happened to you.

Yona said...

interesting post!

i agree with you, it is a thin line to walk when you write about rape. but so is writing about murder, love, sex, friendship. see? you have to tackle the topic in a right way.

the text itself should never delight in telling a rape or a murder scene.

"But rape cannot be introduced into a story as easily because it's impossible to say that a character deserves to brutalized in such a way. And no matter how repugnant a character is-- the person performing the act has to be worse in this situation" - quote post

the logic here is flawed in my opinion. why should something be hard to introduce only because it makes a character seem cruel, evil, bad? that makes no sense.
still, why not have a character commit a rape that has been introduced as seemingly a good guy? won't that make you think about in what way you can see evil from the outside?

i would also be careful about victimizing women in general. that does not help in any such discussion, i think. and yes, i agree with you. man and woman are not the same.

SQT said...

Yona-- I was making the point that we can see a vigilante murder in a sympathetic way if the 'victim' is a bad person. But how can we set up a rape in the same way? I don't believe it's really possible.

It has been done though, as in the Luke and Laura storyline on General Hospital back in the early 80's, by making the character drunk when the rape occurred. But they fudged the storyline to fit the structure of a soap opera and changed it to suit themselves. In other words, it wasn't realistic and I still think it's disturbing that they sold it so well.

It's just my opinion. But a rapist can't be a sympathetic character. I killer can because there are so many ways to set up the story to make it about vengeance, revenge or protecting someone else. But rape can't be set up the same way.

Paul Anthony Shortt said...

I think the issue about how to view a character who is willing to commit a rape comes from a place of necessity.

To clarify, I believe that every writer is 100% responsible for what happens in their book. If they justify a character's actions by saying that it's what such a character would do, they are still responsible for creating that character, and setting him in that world. So including any act of violence is something a writer must be willing to back up in terms of narrative worth.

What is it you want to say about this character? That he's cruel? Vicious? Okay. So what makes one specific form of violence right for that character? What aspect of the character are you portraying? You might make a violent, rage-filled man hit someone who insults them. A general who kills a failed subordinate in an attempt to maintain control when all around him is turning to chaos. Each act a character performs must be a look into who they are, otherwise it has no place.

A seemingly good character might commit violent acts. He might kill to save another life, or for revenge. He might beat another person for information he needs to stop a greater threat. He may even resort to outright torture. Maybe he can justify that in his head. Maybe he can even do it in a fit of rage, losing rational thought.

If you feel that a character's decision to cross that line, to rape another person (man, woman or child), and that it's the most effective way to portray something about who that character is and what they stand for, then maybe you can make it work. The character's choice of action, and choice of victim, must be conscious, fully-aware and fully-informed decisions by the writer.

And any writer who goes to that place must be willing to accept that they will alienate some readers, particularly if the perpetrator is someone the reader is expected to sympathise with or root for.

SQT said...

Paul-- I think you hit on the crux of what I was trying to get across. If we're meant to empathize with a character, then rape is a deal breaker.

If we're meant to despise the character then I can deal with it. But I don't want to see a blow-by-blow description. It's enough to know it occurred.

mibreviews.com said...

My two cents: rape in fiction should be used only when the villain needs to be the most unrelatable, vile antagonist around that not one viewer wants to see succeed, and only if there is some intention of following up with the victim in a meaningful way.

I've written two characters that would rape somebody, and never did I actually write the rape, because it didn't come naturally in the story. One of the characters was described as graphically murdering a pregnant woman, and that pretty much gets the same point across. I never went on to write more about that character, or he would have met a gruesome end.

The other one was a character that demanded nothing other than unwavering control over anything and everything around him, and would have exercised such an act of brutality as part of a way to make himself the sole cause of pain or pleasure to a captive. I believe I wrote him considering this, but it didn't fit in the story for him to actually do such a thing- I wouldn't have written it for that audience, and it would have taken away any modicum of anti-hero that the character had. This was also probably the most evil and three dimensional character I've ever written (the other was a simple case of "raised evil, is evil").

Paul Anthony Shortt said...

I'm not sure I've written a character that needed to commit rape to be seen as the villain. But then, I tend to prefer writing villains that a reader can enjoy seeing in a scene, so while I have fairly heinous villains, I try not to overload the reader with too much graphic pain.

SQT said...

I think it ultimately comes down to why the rape is being included in the story. There are lots of ways to convey evil without using rape to do it. But I think it also has to be allowed that telling the story of a rape victim could be very important to tell. It just has to be presented in the right way. And that's tricky no matter how good the author is.

mibreviews.com said...

I don't think there are many ways that more effectively establish "this is a character that will only succeed in spite of your wishes, that you wish the worst possible punishments on, he is just that heinous".

Lightning Bug's Butt said...

Great post. I'd never thought about it that way. Eloquent explanation of women's dispositions.

You point out that women constantly live with the idea of being physically helpless around men. I can imagine that. It's unnerving. Insightful.