*** Trigger warning: the following piece contains frank discussion of rape. I would ask any comments remain respectful, level headed and on topic. I respect your right to disagree with me, please respect my right to discuss sensitive subjects. ***
How the hell is a writer supposed to approach the subject of rape? There seems to be no good way to do it, no way that isn’t going to upset someone. It’s a problem particularly for adult fantasy fiction, a genre of which I am rather fond, but it’s a problem for anyone who decides to approach the subject in any form of fiction. Of course, arguably, it is a reasonable response for an artist to say; ‘to hell with it, I shall write what I will and be damned to the consequences,’ a writer’s prerogative in any circumstance. But there may also, again arguably, be a responsibility on the part of the writer to treat rape with the full weight of its awful reality. How then can it be done? How can this brutality be made a part of fiction? There are a number of possible approaches which I’ll detail below but first:
I have never had the misfortune to be a victim of rape. I have been groped, I have been the subject of what some people would consider to be sexual harassment, but I have never been the victim of rape. I self identify as male and I believe consent is paramount in sex. So far, so non-controversial.
I have written a play wherein the plot was primarily moved by a historical rape. I spent several years of my life working at a university and studying rape from a criminologist’s perspective. I am currently about to write a passage in a book I am working on in which there is an instance of male rape. * Game of Thrones Spoiler Warning, skip to next paragraph to avoid it * I did not think the latest episode of Game of Thrones was particularly problematic in terms of its representation of rape.
There, all cards on the table. On to the different methods of writing about rape in fiction:
Method 1: Ignore it.
This I find the worst possible option, especially in fantasy/historical fiction. To ignore it, by which I mean to never mention it and by extension make it not exist in the world of whichever work is being written, is to my mind a travesty. Women and men (though the latter more rarely) the world over are raped every day, every hour. It’s an ongoing problem and it’s not going to stop in my lifetime or the lifetime of anyone reading this.
If anything in fantasy or historical fiction it would be even worse. Fantasy fiction for adults is most often set in a pseudo-medieval world with a feudal power structure and unless the author has created a truly bizarre variant of the politics of those times then rape, particularly marital rape, was practically encouraged. If the setting goes back further towards antiquity (as in the novel containing the passage I’m about to write) then rape becomes a bigger problem along with pederasty and male rape and all the bizarre sexuality of ‘primitive’ cultures.
These things happened. A lot. To ignore rape in a setting where rape would be commonplace, where it would almost be an accepted part of the culture, is an insult to the women in our past who suffered through it.
That said there are some caveats: it is acceptable, of course, to make rape absent from young adult fiction and children’s fiction. It is probably best to make rape absent from anything even approaching comedy unless you’re really absolutely sure it won’t come across as part of the comedy. If it’s not relevant to the tone or plot it obviously needn’t come up.
Method 2: Suggest it.
This seems to be the most commonly used tool for addressing rape in fiction. It works reasonably well but is not always appropriate.
A good example of this might be HBO’s seminal Rome. Most often it came up casually in conversation, as it would have done amongst Roman soldiers, but did not often appear on screen. It worked fairly well, mostly because the series was largely concerned with back room politics. It also took care to establish the alien nature of the men and women depicted. They were creatures of two millenia ago in a culture steeped in tradition, militarism and classical ideas of honour and glory and in that context it managed to make even rapists sympathetic characters (for those who’ve seen it and are wondering who I’m talking about; it’s Titus Pullo, who had clearly indulged himself in the sacking of cities in Gaul and wold certainly have committed rape, probably many times).
There again there are examples where perhaps the depiction of rape need to be more open. Sometimes merely hinting at it isn’t enough, it loses impact and horror when it’s relegated to the same position as discussions of sex in Victorian England; dark mutterings in dark corners can make it an issue clouded in mystique. Rape should not have mystique, though the plot may be better served keeping it ambiguous.
Method 3: Show it.
Here is the nub. Many, many people are upset to their core by depictions of rape. Being upset is, of course, entirely human and reasonable under the circumstances. So are there ‘good’ depictions of rape? Is there a way to show rape that minimises the effect it might have on a traumatised reader/viewer? Is it the writer’s responsibility to tend to the mental wellbeing of a portion of their audience?
I can certainly talk about some really fucking awful, ham fisted and feckless depictions of rape. The otherwise excellent film ‘Straw Dogs,’ in which the heavy implication is that the victim, on some level, begins to enjoy her gang rape is utterly unacceptable in a modern context (which is a good thing, it means attitudes have changed). Series 1 of Game of Thrones sees Daenerys raped by her husband Kahl Drogo for some reason and then go on to have a loving relationship with him… I should point out here that I say ‘for some reason’ because in the books she quite confidently seduces him. DC comic’s ‘Identity Crisis’ tried heroically to deal with the issue in an adult way but fluffed it, mostly as a result of the larger than life characters of the Justice League being entirely ill equipped to deal with it. I would recommend Identity Crisis to anyone who read past the trigger warning at the beginning of this article, it’s a fascinating study of a writer showing precisely how to pave the road to hell with good intentions. Much like, I fear, this article might be. A final example of ham fisted rape imagery; the ‘tree rape’ scene from The Evil Dead. At the time it was considered extreme, though it has lost its impact with time and ageing special effects.
Once a writer has determined a character will be raped there are a fresh raft of difficulties. Do they dwell on it? Does it change them forever? Are they just fine? Are they angry? Depressed? Embarrassed? Misguidedly guilty? These are all possible reactions from people in real life (yes, there are plenty of people, some of whom are friends of mine, who have been raped and were just fine, though angry).
The truth is that there is no way to guess how someone will react to being raped. Some people break down, scarred and terrified by the ordeal they’ve been through, others hide, become depressed, drink, or use any number of an infinite variety of coping mechanisms. So what should a fictional character do when they suffer through rape?
It seems at the moment that we’re trying to have it both ways. There is an idea growing in society that rape is an unacceptable thing to depict in any way and this worries me. If we, westerners most often against censorship, find war crimes and infanticide acceptable things to depict in fiction can we really put limits on an artist’s decision to depict rape? I, of course, am against rape (as if that needed to be said) and I find some depictions of rape troubling but it has its place in fiction, like any other atrocity. I’m about to write a sequence in which someone is raped, it’s going to be hard for me to write and I’m going to find the experience uncomfortable but there’s no way out of it now and it serves a vital role in the story I’m trying to tell. How should the character come out the other side? I already know how I’m going to write it, my character will be traumatised, angry and have a touch of PTSD as a result, but should they? Should they retreat from the world? Fill up with hate? Should they remain unchanged and unruffled?
Context is king, as always, but if anyone is writing a story that needs a rape in order for it to be told and they decide not to write it for fear of the backlash then the world is a place with less art, and that can only be a bad thing. Just go carefully, I suppose, and know and understand the issue before you engage with it.
And in case it needed to be said: I do not intend to insult or upset anyone with this post. This was a discussion about rape as it pertains to fiction, in real life it is and always will be inexcusable and unacceptable without exception.