May 20, 2015

Three things that shaped how I think about writing about sexual abuse

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I thought I’d post a followup essay to my post yesterday. Whereas yesterday I wrote about questions writers should ask themselves when considering writing a rape scene, today I’m going to talk about three things that have shaped how I think about writing scenes like that.

Trigger warning for rape and hate crimes.

1. Nah, actually, you don’t know

When I was first dating the woman who would eventually be my wife, she once asked me to do something I found very strange: “My sister needs to get gas,” she said. “Can you go with her to the gas station?”

This puzzled me. I was hanging out at her family’s place, and the idea that someone would need to assist her sister with going to get gas – the station was literally less than a quarter mile down the road – was strange to me.

“You mean, like, pay for it?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “I mean go with her. So she’s not alone.”

“Why wouldn’t she want to go pump gas by herself?”

“She didn’t ask for you to go,” she said, irritated. “I want you to go with her. And I want you to because she’s nineteen, it’s ten o’clock, and it’s a gas station.”

“What,” I said, laughing, “you think something’s going to happen? We’re out in the suburbs!”

She shook her head. “You’re such a boy. You don’t know anything about this. Just go.”

So I did. I sat in the car with her and stood with her while she pumped gas. It seemed an odd thing to do. But I started to wonder what it must be like: to be a small, young woman, alone, in the dark, with total strangers coming and going. I had never even considered such a place could be a threat to me. And, after all, it wasn’t quite the suburbs: her parents’ car had been broken into more than a few times.

Then, about three weeks later, there was a notice in the news: a young woman in Austin had been out jogging in an upscale, urban area, and someone had just snatched her off the street. They’d pulled up in a car, grabbed her, and drove off.

“See?” my wife said. “Do you still think I’m crazy to worry?”

I can’t remember if they ever found the woman.


It took me awhile to realize that not everyone lives the same way as me.

This seems like a vapid thing to say – we’re taught from day one that there are people different from you. But it’s another thing to realize that, for me, as a tall white dude, there are places I can go where other people can’t. There are situations I don’t worry about that other people absolutely have to. I can pump gas at 11:00 PM at night at nearly any gas station in the country and not feel anxious. I can walk down the street at night and feel just perfectly fine. I can go to a bar and drink away and feel quite certain I’ll wind up all right.

I’m not wanted. I’m not watched. I’m not sought after. I’m just some guy.

So yeah, I don’t actually know what it’s like to live under threat of sexual abuse or assault. To me it’s just some thing that happens in the papers or in the history books. It’s certainly not something that could ever happen to me.

I’ve never had to think about it. So I don’t really know.

So why is it showing up in books more and more these days?

2. Sexual abuse has been codified

When George RR Martin came out with Game of Thrones, his books were remarkable for three things, which every sucker on the planet stampeded to try and copy:

1. Lots and lots of characters, each with a chapter from their own POV, each tense and often ending on a cliffhanger. This is arguably the most-copied thing GRRM did: there are now plenty of books with 5, 6, or 7+ POVs where every other chapter moves to a different part of the action, always ending on a tense note. It creates a difficult-to-resist sense of tension and momentum where you just fall down through the pages and can’t stop.

2. The awareness that any character could die. No one was invincible because they were in the first opening pages. And there was a good chance they wouldn’t even die a meaningful death. Lots of main characters died miserably and pointlessly.

3. And the cherry on top of that last one – that anything could happen – would also mean that the plot would go places other books were too timid to attempt. Like, having a main character get castrated, or mutilated – or brutally sexually assaulted. Or having the main characters themselves commit sexual assault. There was a nihilistic grimness to his works that was sensational and lurid and shocking at the time – and still is.

But here’s the thing: now that GRRM’s stuff has become copied, codified, and has essentially become its own genre – the nebulous term known as “grimdark” – now, to a somewhat limited extent, sexual abuse is a standard of the genre. It’s expected. It’s almost like having a chase scene in a car movie, or sending a noir private eye to a bar. It’s a signal the writer sends to the reader telling them exactly what kind of literature this is that they’re reading.

And many writers and readers have become accustomed to it. “Rape exists in real life,” they say, “and it’s happened during times of war throughout history. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to write what we want to write, the way we want to write it?”

And yeah, absolutely, you’re allowed to write and read whatever you please. But I can’t bring myself to think of rape and sexual abuse as a genre standard.

3. I think about writing about rape the same way I would think about writing about a hate crime – like a lynching.

That is to say, very carefully.

Now, I’m not saying that rape is as horrific and damaging as slavery and the institutional racism and suffering America brought upon itself. I’m saying that there are some correlations between the two.

Both of these demographics – African Americans and women – have been the targets of incredible abuse. We know about the abysmal savagery of slavery and the Deep South (or maybe we just know the tip of the iceberg there, so we can sleep better at night), but it’s worth remembering that domestic violence and marital rape were just culturally accepted for decades, even centuries, throughout many levels of society. Remember how reluctant Elizabeth Bennet was to marry Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice? One reason for that might have been that marital rape was legal back then. Marrying someone you didn’t like, as a woman, came with a whole host of awful possibilities, all of them legal in the eyes of the law. And this went on for a long, long while.

Both of these demographics also lacked many basic human rights until just recently. Freed slaves got the right to vote in America before women did, though that’s not to say that those in power let them use it – if I recall my history classes correctly, the first black man who tried to vote in Texas got shot in the head before he could do so, in the town square, and his killer got off scot-free. But it makes you wonder about other parts of the country where racism wasn’t so virulent – did they just forget about women? And women today still aren’t guaranteed to make as much as their male counterparts, let alone the numerous reproductive issues still in debate, even mundane ones like maternity leave or pumping at work.

And today, members of both of these demographics are aware of everyday situations that make them fear for their safety – situations that I, personally, will never worry about. For women, it might be going on a blind date, going to a bar or a club, pumping gas at night, talking to a coworker alone in a room, or talking to a man on the internet. For African Americans, it could be a routine traffic stop, knocking on someone’s front door when they don’t expect it, or simply standing in a Walmart holding something that could be considered threatening.

For both of these demographics, our society isn’t completely safe – or, at least, not as safe as it is to a guy like me.

All of these histories, all of these anxieties, are all brought to a head when one brings up one of two acts that, historically, are entwined with oppression and systemic abuse – hate crimes or sex crimes. Both are expressions of superiority, those in power putting those that are powerless in their place.

So imagine writing a scene with a hate crime in it, like a lynching, and trying to explain to an African American colleague that, hey, this is in line with this character, with this world. “This is a really bad guy,” I’d say. “He’s a psychopath. So, you know. That’s why.”

I imagine that this colleague would say that to use an act so linked with a dreadful history, so entwined with a system of oppression that is still going on today, as just character-building or world-building is tone deaf at best, and morally irresponsible at worst. Actual human beings have and are suffering such fates right now, and to use this experience as a literary trope trivializes their suffering.

And then I’d feel like shit. Because I’d know that to be true.

I’d feel the same way about a rape scene.

If I were to write about such things, I would have to earn it. I’d have to think long and carefully about it. I’d have to be aware that I’m venturing into lives that I haven’t lived and probably have never even considered living.

Perhaps such subjects in fiction are a little like pumping gas at night. To some readers, it’s something expected, abstract, mundane. They read these things and they yawn. They’ve never really had to think about it. But to others, it’s fraught with horrendous and well-founded anxieties.


NOTE: Since yesterday my post on things you might want to consider before writing your rape scene got a lot of attention from A. Game of Thrones fans who thought I was disparaging the events of an episode I’d never even seen before, B. Internet people who had a lot of Todd-Akin-style questions about what does and does not count as legal rape, and C. some charming people who thought I should never write ever at all because I suggested people tread lightly when writing about raping a woman, I’m gonna go ahead and close the comments on this one. I take myself VERY seriously as an author THANK YOU VERY MUCH