Thursday, May 17, 2012

Writing About Rape

I try to avoid anything controversial on here. I try to avoid saying anything more incendiary than, "This is my opinion." But today, I am beyond cranky, and well into ornery. So I'm going to wade into something I've danced around.

I don't like rape in stories. I don't like that it dwells on the woman's naked, heaving flesh. I don't like that it's a shortcut to character development, especially with female characters. I don't like how often it comes up. I don't like that it's shorthand for showing how evil the bad guy is.

But what I hate most about it is when a writer isn't setting out to write a rape scene. You say, "bodice ripper," I hear, "she gets raped and likes it." And it  freaks me out, how we're all okay with this. I recently skimmed through reviews for a book that left me shivering in disgust when the "hero" raped the heroine. I was looking for acknowledgment that it was creepy and gross. Out of hundreds of reviews, I found two that used the word, "rape," and one that danced around the concept without committing to the word. (I, myself, didn't describe it as such in my review, so I can't blame that third reviewer.)

I like the concept of enthusiastic consent. I like the idea that anything people do in bed is hotter if both people are all for it. I like the idea of people feeling safe, even if their fantasy is being pinned against a wall and taken.

When I read a scene where someone takes liberties not explicitly given in the text, it brings me crashing back to reality. It reminds me that this happens all the time, and it's given as a reason why "she was asking for it." And that's not sexy. It's nauseating.

I've read rape in narratives that I liked. I think Margaret Atwood, for instance, handles it exceptionally well. I've also read a hell of a lot of writers who are no Margaret Atwood. They use rape as titillation, they simplify its effect on the victim, they institute rape as a punishment, or a consequence for a relatively harmless decision, like drinking. In other words, they reinforce rape culture.

But I think it's even worse when writers didn't set out to write about rape, but they do. I don't care how much your heroine secretly wants it; if she says "No" or pushes him away and he does it, anyway, I'm not going to like him, and I might throw your book across the room. Or if she's too drunk or high or otherwise incapacitated to say yes or no.

I'm using the female pronoun throughout because it's most commonly happening to female characters (and women, out here in the real world), but it's just as gross if it happens to a male protagonist. I don't want to read about a guy punished with sodomy, I don't want to hear your otherwise-sympathetic characters laughing about prison rape, and I certainly don't want a woman winning over a guy by coercing him into bed with her.

If you think you can write about rape in a sensitive, enlightened way, stop. Do some research. Talk to some rape crisis counselors, as well as those who counsel survivors years after the fact. Then, think long and hard about whether you can capture the nuance of the horror they've been through, without traumatizing rape survivors who read your story, and without giving rapists reason to think it's normal.

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