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Rape in fiction: a rant

So I'm supposed to be fixing typos in Death and the Madwoman and I have No Time and, and, and...
But I am sick unto death of this notion that, in order to be 'helpful' or proper or decent or supportive to women, SFF Must Not Mention Rape.
Go and read it.
Okay? Read it?
I am mad as fire. Here's why
I understand where this idea comes from, I really do. There are far too many books out there where a rape is used lazily, slightly, harmfully, as a way of indicating villainy. There are far too many which use rape as a back-story, to explain and justify why a female character is strong or vengeful. Women, in our culture, aren't supposed to be tough or violent, there has to be a *reason*. Strong women are unnatural, odd, wrong, and thus we justify. And rape is an easy shorthand.
Let's be clear. Rape used this way: as a plot device, to excuse or prop up bad writing, lazy writing, poor characterisation, pandering to cultural discomfort -- is damaging and inappropriate. It's playing into rape culture, it dehumanises and exploits.
Let's be very clear. There is more than one way of writing about rape. And rape, however much we don't like it, is part of our daily cultural experience. It's real, it affects real people, men, women and children. It matters.
Calls for rape to be banished from fiction are no help whatsoever. When we remove rape from our writing, we silence women. When we say 'writing about this isn't helpful', we tell women that their experience must not be spoken off, must not be shared, must not be made public, must be discussed. When we banish rape from fiction, we banish female reality. When we banish rape from fiction, we silence women, tell them that what has happened, might happen to them is too shocking to mention, too shameful, too dirty and bad and wrong.
We uphold patriarchy. We uphold doctrines of shaming and blaming. We uphold male right to dominate public discourse. We uphold the status quo.
Rape must be talked about and written about. It must be discussed and debated and depicted. Women, in particular, must be allowed to write about what rape means, what it does, how it affects us, changes us, trammels and traps and frightens as shames us. Women must be allowed to write about rape, because rape is real.
Sometimes, what we write about rape makes uncomfortable reading. kateelliott's King's Dragon is a case in point. It's very hard to read about how a rape can reshape a woman's life. And that is what kateelliott does in that book. She puts the reader in that space and makes them think it through. She makes us live it. The rape is not an excuse or a justification, used to explain female 'abnormality'. It's about real experience.
We don't want to think about it, we don't want it to be true. And yet is *is* true, it does happen, globally, to millions. The easy option -- the option that makes us feel comfortable -- is to label things that make us uncomfortable as wrong and to forbid them.
There are different ways to write about rape. And, as I said above, using rape lazily, in place of thought and care and decent characterisation, is damaging and trivialising and unhelpful. But writing about rape with thought, with care, with attention to the very real experiences of very real women and men is the opposite.
Writing mindfully about rape is essential. If we don't write, we deny it altogether, we collude in rape culture, which undermines and denies female experience daily, which silences women daily, which props up, fosters and supports those who rape daily.
I don't care if reading about rape makes some people, male and female uncomfortable, when it's done well. It should do that. That's the point. Such writing is there to make us aware, to make us think, to make us confront the nasty areas of our culture, ourselves.
And, you know, when I see a man recommending that rape be banished from fiction, I don't see an ally, though I know he probably means to be such. I don't see someone who wants to help me. I see someone who doesn't want to be made uncomfortable and who has found what looks like a fix based on his lack of knowledge and experience. I see someone who wants women to make him feel safe. I see someone telling women what to write, what to think, what to feel.
I see yet another attempt to silence me, to silence my female friends and relative, to silence women on this subject which affects every single one of us, everyday.
I want to live in a world where my sever-year-old niece never, ever in her life has to say what I have heard myself say over and over: "I'm lucky. I've never been raped." It should not be a question of luck. It should be basic, it should be assumed. Rape should be unthinkable.
It isn't. It's everywhere.
And when we banish it from our books, we help keep it there.

ETA: Ian and I have discussed this elsewhere, and he has made it clear that he didn't intend to be silencing, and that he was not trying to lay down rules. Rather, he was targeting unthinking writing, that reaches for the easy option without contextualising or care or respect. And he's right to do that. I'd like to thank him for his patience with my short fuse.


( 53 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 30th, 2012 10:40 am (UTC)
The way I read it, Ian wasn't writing about not writing rape in sf/f but the way it's used in sf/f. Gah...maybe it's because I've just finished reading a story where rape is so obviously used a trope. I think the prevalence of rape in media has encouraged people to think that rape can be used as a plot tool--like "Oh, right. I'll have someone rape my character to make her stronger". And as you said, it's lazy writing which is really really hurtful and harmful.

The absence of thoughtfulness in approaching such a subject is harmful because it negates the devastating effects of such a deed on the lives of those who have been raped.

I do think, as you mentioned here, authors should be more thoughtful in their approach towards rape and it's good to not be silent about it and to break the taboo on talking about it.
Jul. 30th, 2012 10:53 am (UTC)
Oh, indeed. But Ian's approach here is very superficial, addressed only to men (women are in there as victims, not writers or active people) and steers close to labelling any reference to rape as 'rapey' and thus discountable. It's a sloppy piece of writing that is presented as advice and writing rules, and that isn't helpful.
(no subject) - rcloenen_ruiz - Jul. 30th, 2012 11:04 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 30th, 2012 12:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 30th, 2012 11:06 am (UTC)
Apologies. It wasn't my intent to cause upset but to rail against something I believe should not be trivialised through its use as lazy characterisation. I've amended my post to hopefully make this clearer. If not, I will make further edits.
Jul. 30th, 2012 12:04 pm (UTC)
Thank you, Ian.
I know you're one of the good guys.
(no subject) - penguineggs - Jul. 30th, 2012 08:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 30th, 2012 04:35 pm (UTC)
Indeed. Silence is the danger.
Jul. 30th, 2012 11:20 am (UTC)
Writing about rape is hard, but it has to be done, and it has to be done and with great care.
Jul. 30th, 2012 04:35 pm (UTC)
Yes, absolutely.
Jul. 30th, 2012 01:36 pm (UTC)
I think it should be done if it fits the plot, etc. I agree with you both on using it as a lazy trope.
Jul. 30th, 2012 04:33 pm (UTC)
Yes, precisely.
Jul. 30th, 2012 03:30 pm (UTC)
Kari, I agree with everything you've said. I also take issue strongly with the XXX who tried to include The Windup Girl in those categories. Paolo Baciagalupi has written a powerful, and thoughtful work on the environmental disaster facing the world through greed and misuse of technology. The events depicted are frequently gruesome and heart-rending, but NONE of his writing is lazy.
Jul. 30th, 2012 04:32 pm (UTC)
I haven't read it, I have to say. The marquis enjoyed it, though.
(no subject) - saare_snowqueen - Jul. 30th, 2012 05:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 30th, 2012 06:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 30th, 2012 03:47 pm (UTC)
I have often wondered what a world without rape would look like. I think I may figure it out someday-- will it be story? If I have the tools to write it, it will.
Jul. 30th, 2012 04:33 pm (UTC)
That would be well worth writing.
(no subject) - miintikwa - Jul. 30th, 2012 04:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 30th, 2012 05:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - saare_snowqueen - Jul. 30th, 2012 05:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - anef - Aug. 2nd, 2012 08:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 2nd, 2012 09:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 30th, 2012 05:57 pm (UTC)
::thunderous applause::
Jul. 30th, 2012 06:31 pm (UTC)
Jul. 30th, 2012 06:04 pm (UTC)
IIRC, the latest statistics are that one out of three women and one out of five men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. As a person as well as a writer, I'm very interested in how we recover, what this means in our lives, the devastating effects of shame and secrecy, and how we can make it unthinkable.
Jul. 30th, 2012 06:31 pm (UTC)
Yes. None of us can escape this. And we need to be allowed to talk about it.
Jul. 30th, 2012 06:53 pm (UTC)
I wholly agree with you, and thank you, as usual for articulating your reasons so well, posts like yours are needed.

The thing that made me pause and count my blessings, though is this:

>>I want to live in a world where my sever-year-old niece never, ever in her life has to say what I have heard myself say over and over: "I'm lucky. I've never been raped." It should not be a question of luck. It should be basic, it should be assumed. Rape should be unthinkable.<<

In my 46 years on this world I've *never* heard that sentence from anyone, none of the women I know has been raped, in 13 years of work with social services and hospitals I've never been called in relation to a rape, I wouldn't think twice about going out alone after dark to walk the dog (keeping on lighted streets, but that has more to do with the risk of purse-snatchers than anything else).

I'm always shocked when I realize how pre-eminent the risk of rape is in the minds of many of my online friends and aquaintances living elsewhere; what I want to say is don't believe that it is 'as things are'. It's not like that anywhere, it doesn't has to be, there are places where a rape is shocking enough to make the main national newscast, there are places where 'today I might be raped' isn't in our minds when we go out in the morning and 'it didn't happen today' isn't what we think when we get home.

I don't know what the main cause of the difference is, sadly, but 'women are fair game' is *not* a universal thing, it can be squashed.

Jul. 30th, 2012 08:24 pm (UTC)
It has different aspects in different places.

In poor neighborhoods (white as well as black, but poverty doesn't fall evenly across color lines in the USA), the odds of a woman being raped sometime in her life approach 100%. Most of the perpetrators will be very well known to the victims: family members, boyfriends, husbands. It's so prevalent in some places, that it's almost looked on as inevitable. It's usually part of a larger pattern of general abuse.

Whereas in the world of well-educated, middle-class folks it certainly happens, but the social setting makes a difference. A woman with more money or stronger social and family connections has a support network to draw on, and therefore is less likely to be targeted as a potential victim.
(no subject) - marina_bonomi - Jul. 30th, 2012 08:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 30th, 2012 08:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 30th, 2012 08:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - klwilliams - Jul. 30th, 2012 08:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marina_bonomi - Jul. 30th, 2012 09:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 30th, 2012 08:31 pm (UTC)
Actually, I'm pretty miffed about the abolition of the "tart with a heart", too. Here's what's said about that, for the avoidance of doubt (and ex post facto editing):
4. the tart with a heart
It’s not just that it’s a horrible cliché centuries past its sell-by date. Think what it says about your invented world. If prostitution exists, or even flourishes, then it is not an equal society. It is patriarchal. And that makes it sexist. Is the human race – one half of it, at least – doomed to be sexist until the heat death of the universe? Biological apologists are no better than creationists. Leave regressive crap like this where it belongs – in religious books.

So - either one has to leave out prostitution altogether or make everyone involved in it heartless? Unpersons? Because I can imagine prostitution - in one form or another - indeed existing until the heat death of the Universe. And you know what? I'd rather believe that than that the working girls I've known in one place or another, or the ones my mother knew or whose mother my mother knew - including the one killed by the Yorkshire Ripper (not an accredited death and none of the police could be arsed to investigate) have their stories written out of history as "centuries past their sell-by date."

Because, Mr Sales, when you tell me that the story of the tart with the heart is centuries past its sell-by date, and I turn round and say, "I see you outside for that" and you say, "You and who's army?" I say, "Empress Theodora's army, that's whose." Because the day stories like Theodora's stop being told, then that's the day to die.

Any other women's myths Sales has in his sights?
Jul. 30th, 2012 08:38 pm (UTC)
He means well, but I think he wrote the piece without thinking it through as deeply as he might.
And prostitution, as you say, seems to occur in most times and places. I think what he meant to say was that, if you write a character who's a prostitute, make her a real, fully-developed person, and not a lazy cliche. Because yes, viewing prostitution as a no go area elides another huge area of human -- and especially female -- experience.
(no subject) - penguineggs - Jul. 30th, 2012 08:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 30th, 2012 09:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - penguineggs - Jul. 30th, 2012 09:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - iansales - Jul. 30th, 2012 09:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - penguineggs - Jul. 30th, 2012 09:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - penguineggs - Jul. 30th, 2012 10:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - iansales - Jul. 31st, 2012 06:13 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 30th, 2012 10:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - penguineggs - Jul. 30th, 2012 10:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 30th, 2012 11:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - iansales - Jul. 31st, 2012 06:07 am (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - ms_cataclysm - Jul. 31st, 2012 10:50 am (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 31st, 2012 05:12 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the link.
And yes: thoughtful, thought-provoking writing that treats the subject seriously is precisely what we need.
Jul. 31st, 2012 05:12 pm (UTC)
Dropped you a line via LJ mail as I don't feel safe disussing what I wanted to say on an open forum. Please excuse me for this!
Jul. 31st, 2012 05:31 pm (UTC)
Of course.
I have things I don't put on open forums. The web isn't a 'safe space', whatever it may look like and what some people may think about it.
( 53 comments — Leave a comment )

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