Rape in Life and Fiction

Tarquinius and Lucretia
Tarquinius and Lucretia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now that’s not a pretentious blog post title or anything…..

As I write this, society (or at least social media) is still reeling with the verdict from the Stuebenville rape case, in which two high school athletes (illegally drinking) sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl (illegally drinking) and were convicted with minor sentences, possibly never carrying the sex offender label, with a warning from the judge to be careful “how you record things on social media that are so prevalent today.” That’s right, kids, if you’re going to rape, just be sure your friends don’t post incriminating evidence on YouTube.

My opinion’s clear enough in the above paragraph on that case, so I won’t spend any more time on that. But the trial prompted me to review a topic I’d been mulling occasionally already, on rape in fiction.

Rape is common in dramatic fiction. Sometimes it’s relevant to the plot, often motivating a revenge story (as in the merry gore-gy which Lavinia’s rape starts in Titus Andronicus). Quite often it’s just to tell us that we’re in a nasty place filled with dangerous people (as when in Game of Thrones Daenerys rides through the post-battle rape-fest). This is often called “realism in fiction,” and it’s been criticized often and by better critics than me.

I write fantasy, but I’m into realism. Yet while rape is unfortunately realistic in many scenarios, I don’t want to be writing about rape a lot, for so many reasons.

So I have to think about this, because I have written stories in which rape figures or could figure, and I need to know I’m doing this in a way which is respectful and realistic and avoiding any trivialization of the crime or promotion of rape as “normal.”

(Normally I don’t dissect my own writing on my own blog, which feels a bit too… self-absorbed. But I’m going to here, because I can’t muse on my own work without the work.)

"The Bulgarian Martyresses", 1877 pa...
“The Bulgarian Martyresses”, 1877 painting by the Russian painter Konstantin Makovsky. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rape as Setting

In Kitsune-Tsuki, the girl Murame is considered possessed by her village and tortured to drive out the fox-spirit. We see her for the first time when the protagonist Tsurugu takes her from the mob which has recaptured her.

“Bind her,” he ordered, “and give me the end of the rope. I will take her to a place where I may do what I can for her.”

The mother wailed and fell to the ground, no doubt guessing at what might lie ahead for her helpless daughter. Tsurugu felt sorry for her – another time, she might have been correct. But he truly sought only to help the girl; his taste did not run to half-mad, bloodied females.

Tsurugu has no sexual interest in the girl Murame, but the girl’s mother shows an awareness of sexual predation by higher classes. Rape is present in the world, as it was in this culture historically, without having been present in the story.

It will be present in the story, though, when Murame finally speaks.

“But I – when I said the traveling priest had – they said I….” Her voice faded, unable to finish.

“You are not mad,” he said gently. “Take your peace here. What is your name, girl?”

She swallowed. “Murame.”

That’s all of it. As author, I know Murame was raped by a traveling priest, and I’m going to assume that’s what most readers will pick up as well, especially given the mother’s concern a page or two before. But just as emphasized is that she is not only disbelieved, but punished when she names her attacker. It isn’t just about a rape, it’s about a victim.

Why keep the rape so far to the sideline? I had a number of reasons.

  • Murame is a very minor character in Kitsune-Tsuki, and dwelling on the rape would make her wholly defined by it.
  • It’s only a novelette, and spending words on the rape would sidetrack the main story, the search for the kitsune.
  • I didn’t really want to write about rape. As far as I can research, it was common to the historical setting, but I didn’t need to write it. Not fun, not relevant, not integral to the story.
Titus Andronicus: Act II, Scene 3: Tamora's cr...
Titus Andronicus: Act II, Scene 3: Tamora’s cruelty to Lavinia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And then the story got a sequel, the novel-length Kitsune-Mochi, and Murame became a more prominent character. And of course, I couldn’t just pretend the rape had never happened; it’s going to have affected her.

But in her world, a woman wouldn’t have discussed it much — and certainly Murame wouldn’t after what happened for bringing it up the first time. So it’s a subtle thing, referenced only rarely.

Tsurugu looked at her and raised an eyebrow. “Did you wish to? They can be very attractive.”

“No!” Murame answered, and she saw from his quick regret that he had only meant to tease her, forgetting. Ashamed, she quickly continued, “No, he only brought me some food and things, that’s all.”

It would be desperately unrealistic to avoid any reference to her experience or how it influences her, but equally unrealistic in the setting if she discussed it openly. So it has to be subtle, but it has to be there.

English: Rape of the negro girl, Christian van...
Rape of the negro girl, Christian van Couwenbergh, 1632. Oil on canvas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Later, it does serve as motivation for her to learn new skills, and then it allows her to empathize with and aid another character who has been abducted and abused (though not sexually).

While Murame is still a side character, she does have an arc — and no way were we going to see her “get over rape” by finding “true love.” That cliche is fortunately dying out now, maybe, and it should go happily extinct. Instead, Murame makes choices to (in our modern vernacular) empower herself and be a victim no longer: she learns rudimentary martial arts and, more importantly, she makes her own decisions about who she will be and whom she will serve, nearly unthinkable in a woman of her era, culture, and class.

My other work where rape is — must realistically be — implicit is Shard & Shield.

Rape as Backstory

So this was going to be tougher for several reasons, not least of which was that the victims are male (which, as Sophia McDougall points out in “The Rape of James Bond,” is comparatively rare in fiction and carries its own SmartCart of emotional baggage).

Two prominent characters are Shianan and Luca. Originally, both had rape in their backstory, nearly invisible in the narrative but present. Why? It was statistically likely and therefore arguably necessary for realism. (But not necessarily for the story, so hang on a bit.)

Peleus' face, detail from a scene representing...
Peleus’ face, detail from a scene representing Thetis raped by Peleus. Side A from an Attic red-figure pelike, ca. 510 BC–500 BC. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Luca is a slave, in a Greco-Roman style of slavery, which makes him exceptionally vulnerable even before we know he belonged to a sadistic cult leader. I didn’t need to go into detail; we can assume he suffered sexual abuse. He never speaks of it, and a casual reader might never consciously realize it happened, but it informs his decisions and how he views his world.

Our protagonist Shianan grew up in a military barracks (without family) from the age of four. While I certainly don’t subscribe to the idea that men are inherently rapists, it is statistically likely that in a closed, all-male, power-based hierarchy, someone would eventually assault the comparatively-helpless new guy. It would even be pretty easy for a displaced child with serious daddy issues to be groomed by a friendly predator, and in my mind, that’s exactly how it happened.

But only in my mind, because again, the reader didn’t need to see that for the story. It barely plays into current events. And as of last revision, it doesn’t play in at all; there was an oblique reference, but beta readers found it creepy and a bit jarring. I’d like to think that we all should find child abuse creepy! but we didn’t need jarring if it wasn’t significant to the plot, so the reference disappeared.

Rape as Story

And then there’s a rape in the plot. Again, with a male victim, but this time with a female attacker.

Guercino: Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, 1649
Guercino: Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, 1649 (Photo credit: euthman)

The victim is outclassed both socially (he’s a servant to her high rank) and physically (she’s a more powerful magic user than he is). While it’s no secret that rape is about power rather than sex, it’s especially true here, where she’s attacking him to get back at someone else she felt wronged her. And when I gave the story to beta readers, most found the scene arresting and disturbing. Except one person found it “sexy.”

And I must disagree. Yes, it’s nice not to have a woman being victimized, but not at the expense of a fresh victim. Raping a man is no less morally wrong than raping a woman!

But we don’t tend to think of men as being rape victims, which not only puts more at risk with lack of awareness but makes it harder for those who are victimized to find support. (I opted for other eras’ art to illustrate this post, because that’s more safe-for-work for some reason, and of course there wasn’t much to find on male victims until I specifically searched for Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. It’s just not in the cultural consciousness the same way.)

For the record, just to be ridiculously clear, rape is wrong, regardless of who plays what roles.

Reading and Writing Rape and the Aftermath

Rape can be a drama-crutch to lazy writing, and it’s often overused or misused.  Story needs more oomph? Drop in a rape! Girl needs to be in peril so a guy can save her? Quick, send in a rapist! I watched a film this week in which a girl — an inhuman predator we’d already seen kill twice, so we knew she was in no real danger — was threatened by two strangers, just so the plot could introduce her to another male character who tried to step in. Because, you know, there’s no other way two people could meet. Lazy, in an otherwise interesting story.

I don’t want to read a rape unless it’s integral to the story or the character. Don’t show me a rape unless you’re also going to give me its logical effects and, I hope, some recovery from them.

"The Rape of Polyxena", sculpture by...
“The Rape of Polyxena”, sculpture by Pio Fedi (1816-1892), in 1866 : Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, Italy. Photo by Thermos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just as murdering a character shouldn’t be done just for flavor — how many times have we seen the hero get an otherwise-useless love interest we know already is going to die just to, you know, make us have feels and stuff? — rape is not just a garnish to spice up a woman’s backstory or threaten her when there’s not enough plot. It’s serious, and it needs to be handled carefully.

Heck, that’s if you handle it at all. It’s possible to have a world full of gritty realism without putting it all on camera, so to speak, right in our immediate narrative.

And while I am quick to mention that not everything said by a character is actually meant by an author — a character might use a racial slur while the author holds no racist sentiment whatsoever, or a character might voice a political opinion the author isn’t willing to back — I do feel a compulsion here to, how shall we say, write responsibly. Consider the implications.

I read a book once in which the hero raped the heroine. She had wanted to have sex with him before, but then he got angry with her and raped her. But, he was quick to explain, he used a lubricant, so it wasn’t really rape.

That line might work coming from a villain, whose word is suspect already, but coming from our hero? The handsome love interest who ultimately saves the heroine from danger, so they can live happily ever after? No way. That’s as dangerous as writing a a romantic hero who routinely breaks into a girl’s room and forcibly controls her behavior, but justifies his stalker ways by saying he loves her. No way. No freakin’ way.

As a writer, I want to avoid contributing to the cultural feeling that rape is “normal,” or is even expected in some situations. Even if a character has somehow been put, by circumstance or decision, at greater risk, rape is an outrageous wrong, and it’s purely the fault of rapists.


Long post, so here’s the takeaway: I don’t want to use rape as a gimmick in my fiction. I don’t want to treat rape unrealistically or portray it as without effects or consequences. And when it must be written, I don’t want to be part of the social problem.

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One Comment

  1. I appreciate this post! I feel like so many of the things I’ve read/watched lately are throwing in gratuitous rape scenes (a natural progression fro gratuitous sex scenes?). I think in many instances it trivializes or tries to “normalize” the act; which is wrong, wrong, wrong! Thanks for saying something.

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