Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: Sexual Assault is Not a Good Narrative Device

Apparently, I need to write this post. You’d think at some point in the last few decades authors would’ve grown up and female characters would be allowed to go through some kind of life-defining trauma that doesn’t involve rape. My current protagonist is stabbed through the gut and slowly bleeds to unconsciousness while her arch-nemesis slaughters her entire family. There’s no sexual bent to this, she just gets mangled by in a melee. This scene would not have been improved by a sexual assault element. It would not have made things more jarring, at least not in the intended sense of the word. Even when there’s no actual rape involved, the way women are portrayed in fight scenes and treated through the narrative reminds the reader that they’re “supposed to be” weaker and more vulnerable. I fear that in trying to address the issue this way, most writers are just reinforcing it further instead.

Now, I understand that I’m speaking to something which deeply concerns women from a male perspective. If my female readers disagree with what I say, I need to hear it. You know where the comments are. But hear me out first, alright? I do have a reason for this.

Generic Tropey Fantasy Opening #1M: The male protagonist’s hometown/store/farm/forest is burned down/sacked/conquered/turned into a Jell-O factory by Lord Grimdark von Villainstein. He is likely knocked unconscious, horridly wounded, trapped in a burning building, taken prisoner, or some combination of these. He probably sees his parents die. The villains mock him for being dumb enough to think he can overthrow the most powerful empire ever (awed navel-gazing) and other things to belittle his attempted heroism.
GTFO #1F: The female protagonist experiences these same things, but is also raped, taken as a sex slave to be raped later, or some variation on this theme. Absolutely all villains (including female ones) will be totally incapable of addressing her in a way that does not concern her sex.
GTFO #2M: The protagonist leaves his hometown due to a feeling of otherness or a need for adventure. Maybe a feud in the town drives him away.
GTFO #2F: Someone tries to or succeeds in sexually assaulting the protagonist, driving her out of the town. Otherwise, she’s driven out by (again) expectations to do with her sex instead of her individual personality.

I can go on like this, but I won’t. There are legitimate reasons to include sexual assault in a story. If that was a core part of the narrative from the start, and it’s handled dead-on perfectly, that’d be one thing. If the story you’re writing has to address rape, then it has to. But so much of the time it’s painted as being the female version of the “hero’s trial.” Patriarchy, right?

Except that every example I’ve seen of this has been from a female speculative fiction author. Let me speak from experience (and possibly madness): near-death and pain can be reframed as ennobling. They represent something–maybe an enemy, maybe an outside force–that tried to destroy you and failed. That’s why male heroes are almost always written with an idyllic start shattered by violence. Near-death, pain and suffering prove the hero’s mettle. You’d think that would be enough for most authors, but it seems not. Rape and murder are not the same thing. They’re similar in severity, but they aren’t the same. To murder someone makes a statement about their personhood. It says that for whatever reason, they are something the killer won’t tolerate in the world. In the case of a hero or heroine, this usually serves to establish them as a threat. A threat which can’t be ignored, so it has to be destroyed.

Rape ignores personhood entirely. Rape is usually not about power. I’m sorry to burst the social justice bubble, but it just isn’t. Maybe that’s why the women who rape, do. But for men it’s often a matter of sexual appetite, nothing else. I know this because I’ve spent enough time around other men to know how they think, even though I’ve never been strictly adherent to masculinity myself. Most would never rape to begin with, but those who do aren’t interested in “putting women in their place.” That might be a secondary motivation in some cases, but mostly it’s about “getting laid” pure and simple. I know why it’s so tempting to talk about rape as a matter of power: that’s a more comfortable idea. The idea that it’s about “defeating” women sounds nicer than that women are just objects to be taken and discarded at will. But for rapists and those who far too often exonerate them, that seems to be exactly the case.

Quite aside from which, even in cases where rape is about power, what that says about women should be enormously troubling. When someone wants to break a man’s power, they beat him down. They silence him, isolate him, and make every effort to break him psychologically, or else they kill him. A man is considered a warrior, and beating him takes a battle. If rape were the primary means to break a woman’s power, that would mean that women only have power through sex in the first place.

Why the hell would anyone want to frame their female protagonists in that way? Especially in speculative fiction, where (how many times must I say it?) we’re trying to present alternate realities? We’ve probably got more invented wildlife than real wildlife at this point, so many dystopian futures and utopian Elven kingdoms and magic systems, and yet still protagonists go through gendered struggles. If the world features realistic sexual dimorphism and similar gender issues, you don’t have to show a rape. Invoking the risk is enough.

Male heroes aren’t confronted in combat constantly and beaten into the dirt because they’re male. They go through that because it’s, well, hero shit. These are the forms of feces a hero tackles to do their job. Being a female hero should mean the same thing. I know it’s important to allow female heroes to remain feminine, but that doesn’t mean their femininity must infuse everything they do. Their identity as a protagonist should come first. And when their role in defeating the Ancient Evil of the Week has nothing to do with their being women, then calling attention to their womanhood is a damn stupid move.

Again: why should readers believe men and women can ever be equals if we can’t even let it be true in fantasy?

Say something, darn it!

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