Thoughts on the Depiction of Rape in Fiction

[Originally posted on my blog.]


WARNING: this post is about rape in fiction, and considerations to bear in mind when including it.

Last week I posted some thoughts on Twitter about rape scenes in fiction — specifically, thinking about the possibility (the likelihood, sadly) that someone in your audience is a rape survivor, and contemplating what effect you want to have on that person. Those thoughts are the epiphany I arrived at while thinking through the larger issue; I want to write about that larger issue now.

If I felt like messing around with MS Paint, this would be a flowchart. It’s a sequence of questions I think you should ask yourself when you think about including rape in the story you’re telling, and points to consider depending on what answer you give. It should go without saying, but straw-man responses in the vein of “you want to ban people writing about rape!” will be summarily laughed out of the room. If I’m issuing any commands here, it’s don’t write about it blindly. Don’t make your decisions without thinking about them first.

Note: I’ll be speaking mostly of men raping women, rather than any other configuration. The rape of children is always, at least in my experience, treated as the horrific thing it is, rather than being titillating or background noise. The threat of men being raped (as opposed to the actual event) is often treated as comedy, which is appalling; some of the points below will apply to that, too. But mostly I’m talking about the problematic ways we depict men raping women.


Question the First: Why am I including this in my story? What purpose does it serve?

There are a lot of reasons you might have one of your characters be raped. Some of them are better than others; all of them are things you should think about.

1. I need to show that my villain is evil.

. . . okay. But why rape? Why is that your go-to method for showing he’s evil?

It’s one thing if you’re writing a mystery about a detective hunting down a serial rapist. In a story like that, the bad guy raping people is the entire point. But if your villain is a genocidal tyrant? Then I kind of give the side-eye to the notion that you need rape to convince me he’s bad. If that’s true, you haven’t done a very good job writing the “genocidal tyrant” part.

But maybe you’re writing about somebody who doesn’t look like a villain at first blush. He seems normal; then you throw in some heinous act to reverse the audience’s perceptions. I ask again: why rape? Does it have to be rape?

The recent Daredevil TV series demonstrates handily that the answer to that last question is “no.” For those who haven’t seen it: they spent a fair bit of time (several episodes, I think) building up Wilson Fisk as a person — one involved in crime, sure, but maybe not thaaaaat bad. Then somebody pisses him off . . . and he beats the guy to death, with the finale being when he smashes his victim’s head with a car door until it literally comes off his body.

No rape. In fact, Fisk is notably courteous to the women he interacts with in the show. It doesn’t make him a good person; it just shows that antagonists don’t have to be misogynists. Rapist villains exist, sure — but I’ve seen so many of them lately that Wilson Fisk not falling into that pattern made him substantially more interesting.

If you want to write about rape to show a character is evil, stop and ask yourself why. Consider whether you’re just being lazy, leaning on that crime to save yourself from having to explore how dreadful his other actions are.

2. I need to motivate one of my characters.

. . . okay. But why rape? Why is that your go-to motivation?

In one of the recent discussions of this topic online, someone in the comment thread went into detail about his plans for a book he’s working on. (I won’t name the blog or the commenter; I don’t want to start a dogpile.) This example was admittedly unusual, because the victim in the story is a boy, rather than a woman. But the gist of the commenter’s point was that he needed something really, really awful to happen to the character in backstory, to explain his actions later in life.

To which many other people in the comment thread said: “What part of him seeing his father murdered in front of him and then being sold into slavery isn’t awful enough already?”

This is the flip side of the point I raised above. There are nine and ninety ways to motivate a character; it doesn’t have to be rape. Other possibilities include, but are not limited to: kidnapping, imprisonment, enslavement, wrongful conviction of a crime, theft or destruction of an irreplaceable possession, public disgrace, physical or mental abuse, physical or mental torture, death of a loved one — and that’s before we get into the non-traumatic motivations like love, idealism, ambition, and so forth.

And yet, time and time again, we have female characters being motivated by rape, and male characters being motivated by the rape and murder of their wives/sisters/daughters.

Try harder. Think about the emotional impact of everything else this character has experienced, and what else you can use if the current material isn’t enough. Ask yourself why rape is the best answer to this question, when it’s about as fresh as having a Dark Lord with Armies of Monstrous Minions as your villain. Even people who have been raped would not necessarily point to that event as their defining moment, the thing that propelled them into action thereafter. (Unless the “action” in question is “becoming an anti-rape activist.”)

3. It’s realistic. This kind of thing happens all the time.

True. (Unfortunately.) But are you applying the “realism” yardstick equally?

Men get raped, too. Quite often, actually, in wartime or military/prison situations. And yet — to use George R.R. Martin as a convenient example of this point — I don’t recall any instances of male/male rape in the Night’s Watch. Even though they’re an all-male military unit, many of whom are rapists already, deprived of female company, operating under increasingly lax disciplinary conditions. Martin tells us in detail about how they risk punishment to sneak away and visit prostitutes, but he doesn’t tell us about the in-house rapes that would logically be happening back at the castle. (It doesn’t matter that most of the men there “aren’t gay.” Neither are most of the men who commit this kind of rape in the real world.)

I haven’t seen any of Martin’s defenders say “his commitment to realism in sexual assault is great, but I really wish he included scenes of Jon fighting off Ser Allister Thorne’s rape attempts or coming across Pyp huddled in a corner after he’s been sexually assaulted again by some of the bullies.” You’re five books into the series before the issue really comes up, and then it’s in the context of needing to show that one villain is Super Awful Extra Bad, against the background radiation of all those guys who rape women as a matter of course.

The realism argument only holds water if you apply it fairly. Otherwise, it looks a lot like you’re actually engaging in misogyny and/or voyeuristic enjoyment, and using “realism!” as your fig leaf.

Also, consider this: there is an extent to which the realism argument contributes to normalizing rape — treating it as an inevitable occurrence we can’t really prevent. The sun rises, rain falls, and men rape women. But rape isn’t weather, and there’s something to be said for presenting worlds in which men do not rape women at the drop of a hat.

4. I have something I want to say about the causes and effects of rape.

This? Is a good reason. If you know the subject and have a thematic point to make about it, then you aren’t tacking it on for shock value or including it out of reflex. Which really ought to be true of everything you put in the story . . . but it’s especially important when you’re writing about a trauma that’s often been handled so badly in fiction.


If you have decided that yes, you really do need this in your story, then you proceed to . . .


Question the Second: Does it need to be shown onstage?

It’s entirely possible to have one of your characters be raped, without showing the event itself to the reader/viewer. Ergo, if you have answered Question the First with “yes, I need to have rape in this story,” then the next thing to ask yourself is whether you’re going to show it happening, and if so, why.

1. I need my audience to know the rape happened.

If this is your answer, then I feel confident in saying that you are doing a shitty job of writing about rape.

Why? Because if the audience has no other way to know it took place, then ipso facto, the event itself has no fallout. Nobody’s traumatized by it; nobody suffers consequences for their crime. It’s context-free. So yeah: shitty job. Try harder.

2. I need the audience to understand how awful it is.

This can be a good reason. But because the depiction of rape has gotten so problematic (see Question the Third below), showing the rape itself may not be the best way to achieve your goal. In fact, it can be counterproductive.

What you can do instead — and too many writers cheese out on this — is show the aftereffects. And no, I don’t mean the thing where the woman goes on a psychotic rampage to avenge her violation, or the manpain where the male protagonist thinks about how traumatized he is by his wife’s trauma. I mean doing research into what actually happens with rape victims after the fact, both in terms of their own response, and that of the society they live in. That gives you the horror, without the risk of titillation — and it makes sure you don’t trivialize the event by skipping the fallout.

3. There’s something which happens during the event that’s really important to the story.

Above and beyond “the character gets raped,” of course.

Again, this can be a good reason. If something particularly revelatory or transformative of character occurs, or the victim sees something plot-important while pinned to the floor — then yes, you may need to show the event itself. I know reactions to this example have differed wildly, but this approach is why I’m okay with the depiction of Lisbet Salander’s rape in the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: we need to see her walk into that situation, and see her behavior during it, so that we understand the turnaround when we find out she recorded the whole thing and is using that recording as leverage against her rapist. This makes it clear that we’re dealing with a woman who values her financial and social freedom above her body, and will cold-bloodedly sacrifice the latter in order to gain the former. It would not be as clear if we didn’t see the setup and follow-through.

Just make sure you aren’t so focused on whatever happens during the scene that you forget to think about what happens after.


So you need this rape in the story, and yes, you need to show it onscreen or on the page. Now you ask yourself . . .


Question the Third: How am I going to depict this assault?

This is where things get difficult. The unpleasant truth is, we’ve gotten so inured to female victimization in media — especially sexualized victimization — that showing rape onstage, without it coming across as titillating, is not easily accomplished.

I can’t divide this point into a tidy list of potential answers and their pros and cons. Instead, you have to ask yourself more questions. Whose point of view are you using? Remember that point of view encourages the audience to empathize with the character whose head they’re in; if you use the villain’s pov, then you’re pushing them to empathize with the rapist and his enjoyment of the event. You’re on safer ground with the pov of the victim — and if she’s not actually a character who merits getting pov, if she’s just some random woman the villain is assaulting because it’s Thursday and why not — then there’s a high chance (though not a certain one) that the scene isn’t really worth including after all.

Ask yourself: what effect is this supposed to have, and on which characters? Are you focusing on the victim, or on someone else? The latter can work . . . but it falls verrrrrrry easily into the Manpain Trap, where we’re led to focus on how the hero is suffering because he saw/heard about someone else’s rape, instead of how the victim herself is suffering. (Cf. much of the outrage over the recent Game of Thrones scene. I will note that I haven’t seen it yet, much less subsequent episodes, so I can’t comment on that one in detail.) Think of it this way: rape is, among other things, about denying someone their agency. When you use that violation as a motivating force in someone else’s story, you are denying the victim agency again, by not allowing her to be the protagonist of her own tale.

And ask: where is my camera/language focused? Am I writing this like smut, with my attention on what the body parts are doing? Or am I looking at the psychological side, so that the reader will get the impact of the event rather than the mechanics of it? Even if you mean for the mechanics to be horrifying, some readers will not process it that way. And some of your readers will process you as being part of that aforementioned group, or at least as catering to them. It doesn’t matter whether this is fair: it is the unfortunate consequence of the fact that the rape of women has been fetishized to an appalling degree in our society. If you want to not contribute to that, you have to use different tools and approaches than the people who do.


It was round about this point that I had the epiphany I posted on Twitter, which is that a writer tackling this topic would be well-advised to imagine their audience includes one or more rape victims. If your audience consists of more than the half-dozen friends you’ve pressured into reading your story — and maybe even if it doesn’t — there may indeed be such a person in your audience.

How do you want them to feel, when they read this story?

When I say you shouldn’t make them feel like they’re being assaulted all over again, I don’t mean that you should soft-pedal what’s happening. I mean that there’s a difference between showing the horror in a fashion that is compassionate to those who have suffered it, and showing it in a fashion that is cruel to them all over again. But to know the difference, you have to understand what being raped is actually like, for Real Live People who have experienced it. You have to learn about when and how it happens; the ways different people process it, based on circumstances and individual psychology; and what happens afterward, physically, emotionally, and societally. Because you can’t be compassionate if you’re just making shit up.

If that sounds like hard work: then step the hell up. Or else don’t write about rape. If you screw up the realistic details of astronomy or tall-ship sailing, you’re going to annoy someone; but if you screw up the realistic details of rape, then you’re going to hurt someone. And we have enough people doing that already, thanks.