(Needless to say, this post might have some triggers in it for those who are concerned about such things, and I apologize to anybody for that. But I think this merits comment.)
Game designer James Desborough recently wrote an article entitled “In Defence of Rape,” the gist of which is that using rape as a story device is, well, I suppose I’ll just quote him directly:
Rape or attempted rape is a fucking awesome plot element.
Now, granted, Desborough has a lot of experience with rape as a story element, given that he has designed a tentacle-rape card game and several sex-themed third-party D&D sourcebooks, one of which contained a spell which would let you sexually assault a dryad, merfolk, centaur or pureblood yuan-ti. However, I think it is fair to say that despite his experience in this area – which certainly trumps mine, to say the least – he is still wildly wrong.
A few points which particularly shout out at me:
Is it lazy writing?
Well, honestly, at this point in human history every plot device and story has been used to death over and over again. There’s whole genres that centre around murder and that’s objectively worse than rape. Shakespeare said there were only seven kinds of story, Tolstoy said there were only two, I’m tempted to say there’s only one and that’s ‘Shit happens’.
Rape is certainly some shit that can happen.
Here’s my issue with this statement: it is lazy thinking in order to justify lazy writing. Let us quickly catalogue the levels of laziness here:
1.) Assuming that a lack of originality re: plot devices equates to lazy writing. Which it doesn’t. I mean, I can go to something like, say, Sam Raimi’s Darkman as an example of how a dedicated creative individual or team can take the dross of half a dozen previous stories’ leavings and turn it into gold.1 Laziness and originality are not linked.
2.) Assuming that murder is objectively worse than rape as a given, which is arguable to say the least. Sexual assault is ultimately about the removal of agency from the victim, in the same way that murder is; to say that sexual assault is “better” than murder because the victim survives tends to ignore the beliefs of the victims in question.
3.) Taking some bullshit aphorisms from Shakespeare and Tolstoy and treating them as actual literary theory rather than a couple of great writers trying to sound clever.
4.) Expanding on said bullshit aphorisms and trying to trump them by reducing story to a sequence of events, which – no, that’s simply not true.
5.) Finally, using one’s own self-derived bullshit aphorism to justify using rape as a story element, which, in terms of logical reasoning, boils down to “It’s cool because I said so.”
Rape can place a character in jeopardy where the readers’ care about what happens, without necessarily taking the character out of the story. It’s a threat with implications, but not as final as death.
This is not a specific justification for rape. It’s a generic justification for all sorts of conflict, with the word “conflict” whited out and “rape” scribbled in on top of it. Just about anything can place a character in jeopardy. It doesn’t especially matter that rape has knock-on effects (as he goes on to describe in needless detail, in case it had not occurred to you that if someone is raped by their partner then the relationship – gasp! – might change somehow), because everything has knock-on effects. A butterfly flaps its wings, a man gets on the bus, an asteroid approaches the Earth – whatever.
Does the existence of rape stories, even as a cheap jab to get someone’s emotions involved, somehow trivialise or normalise rape?
I’m going to pin my colours to the mast pretty firmly on this one and say no it doesn’t.
How can I assert that with such confidence? Simply this. If rape were trivialised it would not have the power to move us, involve us and activate our emotions. If we had become inured to it, it would not work to establish a character’s evil credentials. If it had become normalised it wouldn’t serve its purpose in a narrative. It wouldn’t be a big deal. It wouldn’t upset the characters because it wouldn’t upset us.
When people say that using rape as a “cheap jab to get someone’s emotions involved” trivializes it, they’re not saying that having someone’s boring shitty character rape another boring shitty character in a boring shitty way2 makes them care less about rape. Their complaint is with the “cheap” part of that sentence. Sexual assault is – and I can’t believe I have to explain this – deeply traumatizing to its survivors, which is why I put that trigger warning up at the top of the damn post. Using it to generate some conflict in your boring shitty story trivializes it because you are making the statement in choosing to do so that what happened to them is unimportant, because your boring shitty story is unimportant.
And to say that sexual assault isn’t “normalized” when somebody does this is reductionist. The point is that if you treat sexual assault as a normal thing to happen to a character, then it will eventually be a normal thing that will happen to a character when it should be an exceptional and rare thing, just like murder (as opposed to killing badguys in an action story, which is not the same thing) should be exceptional and rare.3 But sexual assault in fiction is pointedly not exceptional and rare. John Perich just wrote an excellent post about that earlier today, pointing out how Bad/Dramatic Things That Happen to Women Characters almost inevitably fall into three categories: pregnancy, rape and kidnapping.4 Those who complain about the normalization of rape in fiction are working off established history. It’s not opinion.
And now that we’ve discussed all of that, let’s bring out the 500-pound gorilla in the room that Desborough doesn’t address, which is that the use of sexual assault to a relatively meaningless end can offend and even harm the viewer in a way that most other sources of conflict can’t. Therefore, any writer who takes into account the potential reactions of his audience – which is to say any writer worth a damn – should strongly consider not just whether depicting a rape will create reaction but if that reaction merits the inclusion in the first place. If you don’t address that issue, then what’s the point of talking about rape in fiction in the first place?
- Nobody better fucking slam Darkman or I will cut them. [↩]
- Of course, perhaps Mr. Desborough’s depictions of sexual assault are thrilling drama! Could be. I’m not going to bother checking that out, though. [↩]
- And the fact that murder is not exceptional and rare in fiction, despite the fact that Desborough claims it is objectively worse than rape, kind of makes the point. Murder has been normalized in fiction. [↩]
- It’s a bit reductionist, of course, because anybody can play the “well look at Buffy game” wherein they cite examples from their favorite teevee show where a female character did not have only those things happen to her – although of course Buffy was at various points both sexually assaulted and kidnapped. But as a general rule it’s not that inaccurate to say that Perich’s “Three Fates” hold up reasonably well. [↩]