Rape, Art, Me

For the most part, my attitude can be found in a short-short I sold to Sword and Sorceress XXV.  Since it isn’t worth running out and buying the anthology just for that, I’ll state it here: For a long time now, I’ve been really tired of “strong female characters” who must have been raped in order to find their motivation to be strong.  I mean, c’mon.  Lazy much?  Or, for that matter, female characters who are raped only in order to inspire the male character to seek vengeance.  Stop making me vomit in my mouth and yawn at the same time; it’s messy.

So far, my opinions don’t challenge any orthodoxies, and you all know how much I hate that; let’s move on.

Have I ever depicted a rape in one of my stories? No.

Would I ever depict a rape in one of my stories? Maybe.  I’m unwilling to say that rape never belongs in a work of art.  Or even that it never belongs in a work of art created by a man.  For example, I think it’s pretty clear that the world would be poorer without Gimbologna’s “Rape of the Sabine Women.”

The thing is, whenever there is human suffering of any kind, you don’t want to make it cheap.  You don’t want to make it easy.  You don’t want to make it meaningless.  For fuck’s sake, there is enough meaningless suffering in the real world–one purpose of art is the struggle to find meaning in things around us that appear meaningless.

But, okay.  In my opinion, murder is a worse crime than rape.  There are people who have recovered from being raped; no one, so far, has managed to recover from being murdered.  I am willing to write about murder (in fact, a lot).  Why have I not been willing to write about rape?  Well, one answer is that it’s never come up; there has never been an occasion where I felt that the story called for it.  But that’s evading the question.

One of the things that most drives my work is a deep fascination for what’s happening in someone’s head in a moment of crisis, of danger.  In my arrogance, I believe I can successfully explore that when the danger is mortal.  My imagination runs free, and I put myself there, and I go, “what am I feeling, if I’m this person?”  One trouble with writing a rape scene, is that I’m not interested (or able? or willing?) to put myself into the head of the attacker or the victim deeply enough to do a competent job of it.

If I’m ever confronted with a situation where the story demands it, I don’t know what I’ll do.  I hope I won’t shy away from it.  I hope I’ll approach the subject honestly and respectfully, and not let myself be intimidated by a difficult subject, or by fear of social consequences from those who believe it ought never be written about, especially by a man.  On the other hand, if I never write a story that demands it, I’ll be just fine with that.

But I love the saying that, “Nothing human is foreign to me.” In my case, that is not a fact, but it is something of a goal (so long as it falls short of me having to be raped or murdered just for the experience; there are limits to what I’ll sacrifice for my craft).  In other words, I do not believe that rape, or anything else that is part of the human experience, is forbidden to anyone working in any of the arts.  I merely (merely!) demand that everything an artist explores be explored honestly, with all of the tools available, and that the artist avoid cheap, stupid tricks.

Now I’ll have to do another blog post about when and where I’m in favor of cheap, stupid tricks.  But let’s wait on that.


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22 thoughts on “Rape, Art, Me”

  1. All I can think about is someone from the house of Hawk getting raped in some seedy alley and then spending 15 minutes on the ground of the alleyway wondering about the way the stones are aligned on the pavement and if a more optimal placement is possible before moving on.


  2. SKZB, what brought this question to mind? I can imagine situations such as you mention (and worse) that I really don’t wish to think too deeply about. If you wrote realistically, it could be terrifying to both the writer and the reader. Certainly repugnant. One would need a really good reason, as you say, to explore that dark side.

  3. I few years ago I was reading a lot of ‘classics’ and I came to the conclusion that to be one or to just be critically acclaimed all you had to do was throw in a character who overcame rape or incest.

    As you said it’s just lazy. There are times when it works well but it just tends to be thrown in for shock value in my opinion.

  4. Yesterday I learned that Mark Millar, whose work I uniformly enjoy on at least a 4 out of 5 stars level, thinks that rape is just something you have a bad guy do to demonstrate that he’s bad. This is fucking depressing.

    Half the time, even the people who actually recognize that the person who is being raped exists and try to exercise some kind of empathy just screw it up worse when it turns out that their empathy is made up of self-serving gender-role constructions that add insult to injury.

    I appreciate that you regard the portrayal of the matter as a serious challenge not to be undertaken lightly.

  5. I’d like to second Chaosprime; it’s somewhat late on this side of the pond, so please forgive me if this looks like ‘me tooing’. After a delightful day at the hospital I’m just too tired to hit the keyboard any more…

  6. “In my opinion, murder is a worse crime than rape. There are people who have recovered from being raped; no one, so far, has managed to recover from being murdered.”

    The difference is more than the effect on the victim; it’s important to look at how society deals with the crime. Murders happen for a dozen reasons – anger, revenge, fear and envy being probably the most common – and they are all recognized as wrong and punishable. Rapes committed by men – and that’s 99+ percent of them – have two primary motivations, control and humiliation, and they are not uniformly condemned. “Boys will be boys” excuses a lot. “Eve teasing” is a cute little name used to cover it up in India. A man wearing a gold Rolex gets sympathy if it’s stolen, a woman wearing a pretty dress was asking for it if she’s raped. You can still find these attitudes in the courtroom, on TV and across the globe. At least, you can find them in places that acknowledge rape as a crime and not as a form of wooing or part of purchasing a wife.

    People get more angry, and are made more fearful, by reports of surging bicycle thefts or vandalism than they are by an increase in rapes. The basic attitude is that being brutalized is bad, but they’ll recover, and it’s just physical discomfort anyway, while property damage strikes at the heart of personal freedom. And, of course, rape tends to happen only to women, so as a women’s issue it doesn’t concern everyone.

    As long as a nation – the people, not the law codes – aren’t outraged by rape it’ll never be considered an offence against society the way murder and property violations are recognized to be. Authors who casually depict rape show they agree it’s just sex, maybe a little rougher than most women might prefer, but it’s nothing for other people to get bent out of shape about.

  7. L. Raymond: Thank you for your thoughtful remarks. The artists I’m objecting to use rape to motivate characters in a lazy, thoughtless way; but it seems to me they can only get away with it because of how horrendous a crime we see it as (“of course,” we go; “she was raped, naturally she’ll turn into a vengeance-seeking killing machine,” or, “that man committed rape or attempted rape, he is therefore Evil and anything done to him is justified.”) You say that rape is excused and dismissed by society. This seems contradictory to me; what am I missing?

  8. The hero of Alfred Bester’s _The Stars My Destination_ rapes a woman as part of his rise from nothingness or something. Later I think he gets the idea he isn’t supposed to do that. There are a lot of moral ambiguities in that story.

    Jack Vance used rape in a highly varied and nuanced variety of ways. Cugel often raped women given the opportunity, and sometimes they got vicious revenges on him. He was amoral. I can’t think of another Vance main character who ever raped anyone. In _The Green Pearl_, Aillas enslaves Tatzel, a Ska, and she expects him to rape her. He saves her from rape by others. He becomes certain that she would welcome sex with him, but her culture prevents her from saying so and so he waits for her to make the first move and eventually sells her back to her father.

    Various women get raped by bad guys with various result, when it fits the story.

    What makes it lazy and thoughtless in fiction is that almost always there is no attempt to think out the implications. People know what they think about the topic already. Those thoughts and feelings are touched on, and that’s all.

    As you say, it’s hard for men to write well about it when they cannot have direct experience, and women who write fiction about rape tend to do it as rape fantasy. Here’s something that might be a hint. Men in prison who get raped a lot, learn to adapt. They lubricate themselves through the day in case they get raped again, to reduce the pain. They learn to relax. They learn moves that can get their rapists to come and get it over with quicker. Sometimes the rapists might decide that all this means they really like it, or really want it. But it isn’t really important what fantasies the rapists make up.

    While women’s experiences getting raped are surely diverse, there could be some similar issues sometimes.

  9. “The artists I’m objecting to use rape to motivate characters in a lazy, thoughtless way; but it seems to me they can only get away with it because of how horrendous a crime we see it as (“of course,” we go; “she was raped, naturally she’ll turn into a vengeance-seeking killing machine,” or, “that man committed rape or attempted rape, he is therefore Evil and anything done to him is justified.”) You say that rape is excused and dismissed by society. This seems contradictory to me; what am I missing?”

    It’s two sides of the same coin. If rape is completely evil and only done by total monsters not regular fallible human beings then these fine upstanding pillars of society can’t have committed rape and she must have asked for it. In the words of Whoopi Goldberg, it can’t have been “rape rape”. Only the perfect victim can be considered the victim of a rape (and no perfect victim would wear a short skirt, or jeans, or go out to a bar, or stay at home with a friend), and only if their rapist is someone society is willing to shun as a horrible monster. Thus, for instance, students have faced suspension or expulsion for reporting or speaking about their sexual assault, because reputation is considered more important, and rape victims’ sexual histories are examined at length to discredit them. But, “boys will be boys”, or it’s just “Eve Teasing”. She should have known better than to put herself in the way, so she’s not a perfect victim. And if it wasn’t a fate worse than death that turned her into a vengeance-seeking killing machine, if she just tries to muddle through life and deal with it (maybe without even reporting it to people who probably won’t believe her because they know that guy and he isn’t a villainous, mustache-twirling monster who regularly breaks into song about how much he enjoys raping innocent girls), it can’t have been rape.

  10. I’ve read many a culturally historical based book (Fantasies set in pre-modern worlds) where rape is used to explain WHY a woman felt compelled to take on a non-traditional gender role. After all, if she hadn’t have been raped, she would have still been “pure” and would have been married off and making babies instead of hailing about the country-side doing all of those unfeminine things.

    In that, it may be artistically lazy, but it is, at least, plausible. In patriarchal cultures, at least those that do not automatically murder the victim for having the poor judgement to become a victim, being made “impure” and therefore unsuitable for traditional, female roles might be the only thing that would allow a woman to pursue the life of Righteous Justice.

    But still, it would be nice if just ONE author had Ms. Raped-and-Therefore-Militant hunt down her Evil Attacker and tell him, “By the way, I am going to kill you for being a malicious asshat, but I just want to thank you, because if you hadn’t been a malicious asshat, I’d probably be popping out my fifth child for an arrogant asshat right now.”

    Most of the “strong female characters who have been raped” assume the character would have PREFERRED to stay in her culturally assigned role, which at best is sexist. ~shrugs~

    For modern storytelling, seriously? It does not take being violently preyed upon to loathe violent predators. You do not have to have been molested as a child to be enraged at child molesters.

    And you don’t have to have recovered from rape to be a strong woman.

  11. @SKZB

    Not actually thoughtful remarks, just whipped off in a hurry. I confess I only tacked on the bit about authors’ being casual about rape so as to tie it in to your post; my real point of interest was your statement that “murder is a worse crime than rape” because of how it affects the victims. I don’t think victim impact is not the best way to categorize crimes. Most people would say terrorism is a much worse crime than drunk driving, but the most spectacular terrorist attack in history killed fewer than 3,200 people, while drunk driving kills three times that many every year. The overall effect on society strikes me as a better determinant of a crime’s ranking of bad to worse.

    SKZB: “You say that rape is excused and dismissed by society. This seems contradictory to me; what am I missing?”

    It wasn’t until 2005 that the last state did away with the marital exemption for rape. In the US Virgin Islands, it is still legal for a man to declare his unequivocal right to force his wife to have sex (14 V.I.C. § 1700: “Whoever perpetrates an act of sexual intercourse or sodomy with a person not the perpetrator’s spouse …”. cf. Castor 57 V.I. 482, a 2012 case using this defense). In California, despite having added language meant to make rape of any sort illegal, Sec. 261 still reads: “Rape is an act of sexual intercourse accomplished with a person not the spouse of the perpetrator, under any of the following circumstances…”. In Michigan, they felt the need to use the phrase, “even though the victim is his or her legal spouse” because they felt marriage still gives special conjugal rights.

    In Virginia, up until 2002 the penal code read, “If any person has sexual intercourse with his or her spouse and such act is accomplished against the spouse’s will by force, threat or intimidation of or against the spouse or another, he or she shall be guilty of rape.[…] However, no person shall be found guilty under this subsection unless, at the time of the alleged offense, (i) the spouses were living separate and apart, or (ii) the defendant caused bodily injury to the spouse by the use of force or violence. (§ 18.2-61)”

    In other words, it was only rape if the wife had declared her intention of divorcing the man by leaving his home, or if he caused her an injury. Scaring her with a threat so that she had sex wasn’t rape, it was foreplay. In 2002, they amended it to drop the bit about living apart, so a woman could be raped even if she hadn’t started divorce proceedings. Then in 2005 they amended it again, finally removing any suggestion married women were a separate class of citizen.

    Not even at the height of slavery was there a class of citizen who had the legal right to murder another class of citizen, but until 1976, when South Dakota first made marital rape illegal, there was a class of citizens, married women, who could be raped with near impunity by another class of citizens, married men. Thanks to the feminist movement, the male-dominated legislatures finally started adding laws against rape, but they still viewed it as a sexual matter, not as one of assault. Thus our law codes condemn it as an action while the average man on the street, and the proper woman who would certainly never be raped herself, still consider it to be the fault of the victim.

    So though we all have laws on the books condemning rape as a vile crime, we also have elected representatives talking about “legitimate rape” as people bemoan the blighted futures of two athletes in Steubenville, Ohio. We no longer have to tolerate courts who say that “it would always be competent for a party indicted to show, in defence of a charge of rape…that the woman on whom it was charged to have been committed was his wife. (74 Mass. 489, [1857])”, but we still have to put up with rape being seen as a form of rough sex play rather than a real crime. Social conservatives say, “Marital rape is difficult to define. Many wives see it as just a communication problem ” (Conservapedia) [*], and “By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don’t think you can call it rape,” (Phyllis Schlafly, 2007 speech at Bates College, Lewiston, Maine). Normally I discount the opinions of individuals when describing a society’s attitude, but the Schlaflys (the son founded Conservapedia) influence elected leaders and are respected by the right wing and thus deserve attention.

    Getting back to authors: With two exceptions, I’ve never read a book involving rape. If I’m reading something and a character is raped, it’s over right then, and usually it’s in the recycling bin. I’ve let Lovecraft get away with having his blasphemous travelers from beyond the nighted gulf perform their unspeakable deeds to skirling pipes so as to spawn a cursed generation because, well, he’s Lovecraft. And De Sade’s stuff isn’t even on my fiction shelf; it’s next to Rushdooney’s “Institute of Biblical Law” because that juxtaposition amuses me.

    [*] Rape as a communication problem? What’s that make murder, the logical conclusion to a bad hair day? Honestly, analogies fail me here.

  12. Of course, I’ve only just realized I should mention I left out all links etc. because I’ve noticed how HTML is stripped when posting. If this is a topic of interest, I’d be happy to provide a list of cites, URLs, pertinent extracts and/or legal opinions.

  13. I read this post with interest, particularly the statement:

    “Have I ever depicted a rape in one of my stories? No.”

    What was Agyar Janos was doing with Jill? I mean, I know what ELSE he was doing as a function of the story… but I always read it to imply there was intercourse involved as well. (“Jack not here where Susan might see, take me upstairs”) After all, if I recall, Agyar expresses pride / surprise / happiness that he was not bending Susan’s will with similar activity that is certainly intercourse unless I am failing Reading For Comprehension 101.

    Which I guess leads to the larger question of the definition of rape. After all, how else could you characterize what ELSE he is doing will Jill? Certainly it would fit this part of the definition of rape:

    “an act of plunder, violent seizure, or abuse; despoliation; violation: the rape of the countryside.”

    Anyway, was I misunderstanding what was happening with Jill by assuming that in addition to the main activity, that intercourse was involved?

  14. @skzb


    Yes, rape is dismissed as a crime. I’ve had long and lots of time painful discussions with otherwise smart and intelligent male friends, who do not see why I see rape as a worse crime than murder. In fact, they don’t see why rape is that bad a crime at all.

    Murder sucks, but at the end, you are dead. You are right, there is no recovery from it. Also no more suffering for the victim.

    But when someone is raped, it’s their most basic rights that is being violated: that of self-determination / free will. Their control over their body is taken away.

    And then, when it’s over they are lucky if they are not blamed for it, if they are not themselves punished for being raped OR for reporting it/the perpetrator. If you are curious about this, tumblrs have a lot of bitter things to say about rape culture.

  15. @Német Ágnes: I ran into a college friend a few years after she had begun working as a counsellor at the Texas State Prison, and she said she found it easier to work with a room full of murderers than a single rapist. The killers wouldn’t often express remorse, but they would acknowledge they did something wrong. However, she never met a rapist who agreed he had no right to do what he did.

    Although I focused on the marital rape exemption in an earlier post since it was an example of the law excusing a crime, I agree with you that rape in general has a worse effect on society than murder because too often the victim is revictimized over and over – in the media, at school, at work – and left with the knowledge that many people she thought were friends think she must have deserved whatever happened to her.

    Rape is the only form of assault that is more acceptable to inflict on someone than to suffer through.

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