On Sexual Assault, and “Realism” in Popular Culture..
This essay discusses rape of both women and men throughout. No specific real-world cases are mentioned nor are any scenes described graphically, however as it’s about realism, it does necessarily shuttle rapidly between incidents in fairly silly texts and grim facts about the real world.
Spoilers for Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and minor spoilers for various older texts.
Last year, halfway through the second book of the series, I gave up reading A Song of Ice and Fire. I had enjoyed the first novel very much – I liked the sense that the fantastic elements were providing a different lens on the Middle Ages, removing the sense that there was something default or inevitable about mediaeval European culture, and re-revealing the fundamental strangeness of a world of knights and kings. I enjoyed the resonances with specific episodes in real history – the War of the Roses, the Jacobite rebellions. It reminded me of the songs by the Corries that I, a fake Scot, grew up on. I even enjoyed all the freaking heraldry and food.
That sense of history seemed to be dwindling away a bit in the second book, but in the end, that wasn’t what drove me away.
Instead, it was all the rape.
This surprised me. After all, I’d known going in that there was quite a lot of it, and though I was prepared to find its treatment at least somewhat problematic, I’d also expected to be able to handle it. I’m usually able to read fairly graphic scenes without getting more distressed than the story called for, and friends of mine who I thought were more readily upset by that sort of thing had read the books just fine. And, as it turns out, a lot of the rapes in A Song of Ice and Fire aren’t graphic at all.
And occasionally they are really graphic. But that they’re mostly not almost made it worse for me. That made it possible for the narrative to load that many more of them by the casual handful into chapter after chapter. Rape as backstory, as plot point, as motivation – however badly handled, I can usually cope with it.
I found I couldn’t cope with rape as wallpaper.
When there had been two rapes of children (one of whom was also murdered) within about twenty pages of each other, when I realised I was physically tensing up every time a male and female character were in the same scene as each other, because something always happened, even if it was “just” sexualised verbal abuse, it occurred to me I was no longer having any fun with this book.
This is where the fans, whether of G.R.R.M or Rapey Pop Culture in General say, “But! That’s the point! That horrible sense that sexual violence permeates everything — that’s realistic.”
Because it’s not only George R. R. Martin, of course. It’s comics and film and video games and TV. Buffy couldn’t get through her entire series without one drawn-out attempted rape scene and the eventual revelation that sexual violation was the ultimate source of all the Slayer’s powers. In this the series fell into line with a longstanding trend. When rape in fiction isn’t stage-dressing, as it is in so much of A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s frequently a Campbellian Call to Adventure. Your girlfriend was raped, (and probably murdered)? You were raped yourself, but at least you’re alive and the protagonist? Go forth and kick some ass! Recently it was decided that Lara Croft couldn’t get by any longer without some rape in her origin story, because her new incarnation was going to be all rough and dark and gritty.
Some feminists counter the “realism” defence with the argument that if your world is full of dragons and magic then it’s nonsense to complain about anything being unrealistic.
I see the point of this argument – it’s certainly true that a lot of readers, male and female, use even would-be “gritty” works for escapism and it’s fair to argue that female readers should get more chances to enjoy that without constantly being reminded of the miserable realities of the real world and, in many cases, their own lives.
But I’m not completely on board. Firstly, I don’t accept the implication that it’s silly to use the word “realism” in relation to SFF and other forms of genre fiction. That a text departs from reality in some way – by introducing magic, or impossible technology, or even just a very improbable premise – doesn’t mean the human characters should stop acting like humans. If it did, Fantasy would be only about escapism, ever, and could never have anything meaningful to say about, well, anything.
Secondly, to make the argument that fantasy is unrealistic anyway so why not extend that unrealism to the depiction of rape, is to accept that what we currently have is realistic, and that it cannot be changed without sacrificing that realism.
So first it should be said that it’s not a given that the Middle Ages were actually a wall-to-wall rape-fest. And while rape is appallingly prevalent in our modern world, it’s still something like a 25% chance a woman will be raped over the course of her life, not a 25% chance that she’ll be raped today. That’s still a majority of women not being raped, though nowhere near as overwhelming a majority as it damn well ought to be.
I think it is true that, sometimes, failing to acknowledge the risk of rape in circumstances where it would be particularly likely to be present can diminish the authenticity of a text. I remember a friend of mine coming home from a modern dance piece about the torture of political prisoners (yes, we were the sort of people who would go to see modern dance piece about political prisoners). The prisoner, in this case, was female; her captors were male. Even in a dance piece, from which “realism” might seem to be even more distant than from a fantasy novel, my friend found it jarringly unrealistic that there was no hint of a threat of sexual violence in the depicted torture, to the extent that it left the whole piece feeling superficial and slight to her, too afraid of its own subject matter to engage with it honestly. “Come on,” my friend said. “Really?”
I’ve been in the position of plotting out a novel, and suddenly realising I had placed not one but two female characters in circumstances that sexual violence seemed almost overwhelmingly likely. (One of them was, indeed, a political prisoner). Every time I thought hey it was my book and I could just wave my hands and declare that bad stuff would happen, but not that kind of bad stuff, I got an uneasy feeling I wasn’t being honest. It wasn’t true to either the characters or the power-structures I’d depicted. When I thought about having the rape actually happen, I got uneasy in another way again. So what the hell was I to do?
More of that later.
For now, though, let’s just agree that in so called Genre fiction, we love to strip away protection from our characters to give them an interesting job of coping on their own; parents are dead or absent or abusive, homesteads are burned down, authority figures are blinkered or oppressive; you can trust no one, for no one can hear you scream… And all these things will, in the real world, heighten a person’s vulnerability to all forms of violence, including sexual violence. So yes, realism does sometimes mean dealing with that vulnerability somehow or other.
But that heightened vulnerability to sexual violence applies to men too. So where are they, all the raped male characters? People say, it would be unrealistic if she wasn’t raped, but take it for granted that of course he wasn’t.
Why is that?
About one in every 33 men is raped. That’s much lower than the one in four chance that an American woman (sadly I only have US statistics for the most part) faces over the course of her life, but it’s still a significant number.
And that’s your statistically average, real life man. Despite all the privileges and protections of being male, he still faces a non-zero risk of rape.
He also doesn’t have a horde of enemies explicitly dedicated to destroying him. He doesn’t routinely get abducted, and tied up. Facing a megalomaniac psychopath gloating over causing him pain before taking over the world is not the average man’s average day at the office.
All of those things would surely raise one’s risk of being raped. And all of those things happen to fictional male heroes all the time. Not just once per character, but repeatedly.
My go-to example for this used to be James Bond. “Is it realistic that James Bond has never been raped?” I would say. How many times has he found himself utterly at the mercy of men who want to hurt, degrade and humiliate him before killing him? I will accept, on any one such occasion, the odds might be in his favour. I suppose it is plausible for many of his enemies – even most of them – not to think of raping him or having him raped by others, despite having captured him, tied him up and possibly removed some of his clothes. But all of them? Here we have scores of horrible, destructive, evil people, and not a single one of them is evil in that way? Now, all right –it might be unlikely we would actually see a completed rape on screen even if Bond were a woman, the rating system sees to that. But rape is suggested in PG or 12 rated movies all the time, which in practical terms means female characters get threatened with it a lot. Off the top of my head, there’s Marion in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, there’s Elizabeth in at least two of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Kristen Stewart’s Snow White, and even Jasmine in Aladdin (or shall we forget what forced marriage/ “enchant her to fall in love with me” means? )! So wouldn’t we expect a female James Bond to be, at least, tied to a chair at gunpoint while the villain unbuttoned her top and suggestively touched her thigh?
Then Skyfall came out. And the villain has Bond tied to a chair at gunpoint, while he unbuttons his top and suggestively touches his thigh.
I found reactions to that scene fascinating. I got the sense a lot of male viewers found it particularly unsettling. Some (and not only men) felt it was homophobic – suggesting the villain was that much more evil because he was “gay.” The fact that entering “Bond Silva” into Google prompts it instantly to offer “Bond Silva Gay” is a genuine concern, though for what it’s worth, the narrative does make clear the character has sex with women. Personally I didn’t think you could tell anything about Javier Bardem’s character’s orientation from the scene – that he got a sexual thrill from a dominating a helpless opponent, yes. But that he’d get the hots for a consenting Bond he met via a dating site for fucked up spies or that he wouldn’t have got that same thrill from dominating an unwilling female opponent… well, at least, I don’t see the film provides any evidence for it. Yet I did see a lot of men reading it as Silva “trying to turn Bond gay” or “seduce” him.
Erm. When you’re tied to a chair and there’s a gun at your head, unless you have very specific tastes and agreed to all this beforehand, that is not a seduction! It is something else, something quite specific. That scene is, to coin a phrase, not about sex, it’s about power. And it is the most literal way I have ever seen a male hero (and the ultra-masculine Bond at that) treated like a female character.
And it only took fifty years.
I was gobsmacked, and I wasn’t the only one. Because it was a man, this has been a Big Thing, even though what happens to Bond in that scene never goes past a few buttons undone and an unwelcomed caress of his thigh. In Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, Marion is subjected to a protracted assault with clothes-tearing and thrusting and gasping – you know, for kids! But that was just normal.
But Bond is far from the only male character who, going by the particularly brutal definition of “realism” we’re using for this post, realistically ought to have been raped by now. In the real world, your risk of becoming a male victim of rape rises dramatically if you go to prison. Again, I only have US figures, and I’d like to hope that here in the UK and elsewhere, the picture may not be quite so bleak, though I fear I may be too optimistic. In any case, in the US, the figure is thought to be somewhere around one in six. That’s much closer to the risk a woman runs over the course of her life. Can life as a superhero really be less dangerous than prison? Wow, imagine if you were a superhero and in prison! And if it was a really lawless, awful, violent prison… oh.
Here we have Batman, in a physical state that left him spectacularly unable to defend himself, at a phase in the story which was supposed to represent the lowest low from which he’d have to fight his way back… and no one, in what was supposed to be the most godforsaken horrific hellhole on the face of the world, thought to take advantage of the vulnerable newcomer? Are we supposed to believe all these men, who sometimes tear people’s faces off for fun, who never ever get out of the prison, are entirely chaste? Or is it that all the sex they are likely to be having with each other is completely consensual? I’m sorry, we were talking about realistic?
Everyone was quite nice to Batman, really.
To briefly return to A Song of Ice and Fire: The Black Watch, an all-male organisation that’s a bit like the Catholic church and a bit like the military, has a bit of a bullying problem. Some of the recruits are explicitly “rapers.” But none of the bullying turns sexual, not even from characters who have form as perpetrators of sexual violence. None of the boys suffers rape. Neither do any of the male peasants who are taken prisoner at various points by various factions. Despite being smaller and weaker than most of his male peers, Tyrion does not get raped, nor is he made to fear rape, either when captured by enemy noblemen or surrounded by hundreds of violent, volatile outlaws. They threaten to kill him, even to mutilate him, but not to rape him. Why not? Isn’t this supposed to be a grim, ruthless, realistic world?
Men, if you’re feeling a bit queasy at the idea of so many beloved characters suffering rape – if you’re feeling creeped out by someone enthusiastically arguing in favour of them being raped because it’s too bad if it upsets you, it’s realistic… Well, hi. Welcome to the world of women.
This is not, I promise, the opening of a ghoulish campaign to see more male characters get raped. Not exactly. Though I will confess that I appreciated that in the novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, when the male hero wanders like a little lamb in to the lair of a serial killer/serial rapist, and once he has been, to the surprise of no one but himself, overpowered and tied up, the villain immediately shares his plans to rape him before murdering him. Why? Because this man has a bloody dungeon for raping and killing people, and the hero is in it, why would anything else happen? Of course it actually doesn’t. Completed rape remains reserved for the female characters – but I liked that at least threatened rape wasn’t: that Blomqvist was almost raped, diminished a sense that being raped was part of what Lisbeth Salander was for. And I liked that a woman got to do the burst-in-and-save-the-love-interest routine, like Kevin Costner’s Robin did for Marion. I’d been waiting since the age of 12 to see it.
Noticeably, the Swedish film (I haven’t seen the English language one) omits this specific threat against Blomqvist. I’ve always wondered why that was – if it was just about pacing or length, or whether someone felt Blomqvist would be emasculated as a hero, if he were even threatened with what Lisbeth Salander actually undergoes.
But my point. I do have one – in fact, several. My first point is not that I am arguing for all this rape; it’s that if you are going to argue in favour of the current level of fictional rape of women and girls, you should be. You, if you care so much about realism, must demand the rape of Batman and James Bond. In fact, given not only that so many male fictional characters find themselves in such high-risk environments but that male fictional characters outnumber female ones about 2 to 1, we should be seeing nearly as many raped men in fiction as raped women.
But my other point is that there is another way. Even if “realism” does demand that your setting include a lot of rape, there is more than one way you can communicate that to the reader. I want to come back to the anecdote I started with – my friend, who found the dance piece inauthentic because it didn’t address the risk of rape. Two things about that.
1) The fact that I can tell that anecdote says that my friend lives, and I live, in a world where rape is fairly common, no? Look, worldbuilding, no hands. And no rape scene at all.
2) It doesn’t mean my friend wanted to see an explicit rape scene. She wanted to see the threat somehow addressed.
So how can that work?
You can have the victims and potential victims refer to it. Not necessarily at great length or in much detail – if it’s such a huge presence in their lives, a daily risk, they won’t need to. They’ll know what goes on. You can have characters who are less likely to be raped worry about the ones who are more vulnerable. We do not need to watch every rape that happens or can be assumed to have happened in the course of the story. And though from time to time, it may be interesting and revealing to show us how the rapists think about it, if you depict rape mainly from the view of the male perpetrator, the vengeful male lover of the victim, the male witness—and rarely or never from the perspective of the victim – there’s a strong risk you’re reinforcing a social narrative in which rape is fundamentally a power exchange between men (rapist and husband… male author and male reader).
Or, if you’re writing another kind of text, and you use rape as your motivating crisis for a female hero again… well, it can be done brilliantly, inspiringly — but as it has been done so often, you risk adding to a cumulative implication that women’s lives revolve in smaller, more sexualised orbits than men’s, that there’s only one kind of bad experience they can have, the whole rest of the world of potential risk and response is closed off to them. You risk implying that female lives are defined by the presence of rape; almost that an un-raped/unthreatened woman is a boring woman.
These things aren’t harmless.
In the course of writing this post it struck me that unlike Westeros, Romanitas-world has a whole class of people who can be raped with near impunity. “Realistically”, there must be at least an equivalent amount of rape going on, if not more. And yet it never occurred to me that unless I had a rape scene every ten pages or so, my portrayal of that world would be unrealistic.
So I decided I’d count the number of rape scenes that I’d put in my own trilogy and think about the way I treated rape in general. I’ve written up my findings in some detail but this post is already really long and I can summarise pretty easily:
Number of times completed rapes that actually happen on the page in the entire trilogy? One.
(It happens in the course of a short paragraph).
And I do not believe this was unrealistic.
That one rape is by a slave-owner, of a slave. It is plainly neither the first nor the last time; both victim and perpetrator treat it as routine. (though we will later discover that this does not mean the survivor is not profoundly angry about it). The story does not let you assume that that’s somehow the only rape to occur; an unquantifiable number of rapes are shown to have happened, in the way people behave, the situations in which some characters feel at risk, the signs they exhibit of trauma, the way they worry about each other, the assumptions that other characters make about why someone is present or how they can be treated, the language they use. One character outright states that a lot of rape is going on alongside other forms of violence against slaves. I want the reader to know that, to empathise with it. But that doesn’t mean I have to force an endless parade of rape into her brain without regard for what memories or daily fears may already be there.
That one scene is not, actually, the result of the small crisis I mentioned having at the start of this post — the one time I felt “realism” placed two female characters at particularly severe risk of rape, when I thought, “Now what do I do?”
Well, I continued thinking. I thought about it for ages. I talked about it to people. Because the answer wasn’t immediately obvious to me. I seriously wondered if I should have the risk realised, especially in case of one of the two women. But in the end I asked myself, “Is the rest of the story going to be about the repercussions of this rape? Is it going to be at least, an extremely significant narrative strand? No? Then I won’t put the reader through it.”
(The threat is made, the risk is not glossed over, it’s made clear it could have happened, but in the end in the end the women manage, partially, to protect each other. The rape would have been realistic, yes, but that doesn’t mean the way it’s averted is unrealistic.)
That question I asked myself, “Is a substantial part of the rest of the story going to be about the repercussions of this rape for the survivor” is a question I would like writers to ask themselves more often before writing rape. Because anything less than that, you might not be taking it seriously enough.
But here are some other questions:
“Do I need to put the reader through this?” Because you have as much as a duty to your reader as you do to “realism”— especially as you may find “realism” a far less solid and singular thing than you might imagine. Your readers are more real than “realism” and can be hurt much more easily.
“Would I ever write a story in which the male hero is raped as part of his origin story, or as the nadir he had to fight back from, or to inspire someone else to take revenge?”
And if you would, yes, I think perhaps you should go ahead and do it. If done very well, and respectfully, it could even help to destigmatise the experience of male survivors. It could help to diminish that sense that rape somehow defines female experience.
And if you would not, ask yourself why not. And if there’s any part of you that answers, that you wouldn’t find a male survivor of rape heroic, that it’s too humiliating to even think about – then, for everyone’s sakes, until you can honestly find a different answer within yourself, you need to not be writing about rape at all.
Update: If you want to point out an instance of male rape in fiction, please be sure you have something interesting to say about it and are not under the illusion that just noting it exists amounts to a demolition of the argument (also, please be sure you are not pointing to the same four movies as everyone else). I have never said that all fiction ignores male rape all the time. I have attempted to examine the “realism defence” of the rape of women in fiction and concluded that if “realism” is applied consistently, we should expect to see male characters raped or threatened with rape routinely, because fiction consistently places men in circumstances where the threat would be signifiantly raised above the baseline. I have also suggested that even when it really is realistic to expect a lot of rape to be happening in a setting, (whether mostly to women or not) there are more compassionate and nuanced ways to depict that reality than just to slam one rape scene after another in the audience’s face. That’s the argument, if you can’t engage with it or understand with it, go elsewhere.
Example: “I thought the rape of Male Character X in Work Y was surprising because it reversed audience expectations in such-and-such a way…” = fine.
“BUT THERE WAS MALE RAPE IN THIS ONE FILM THAT CAME OUT BEFORE YOU WERE BORN AND YOU DIDN’T MENTION IT SEE HOW CLEVERLY I HAVE DISMANTLED YOUR ARGUMENT” = just stupid, honestly.