May 19, 2015

Why are you writing a rape scene?

UPDATE: I don’t give a shit about the episode of Game of Thrones in question. Not even a quarter shit. This isn’t about that rape scene, but all rape scenes. I don’t want to hear about Theon or whoever the hell.

UPDATE 2: You know what, forget it. Comments closed. There are other, better places to be stupid online.

Though if you want to read how I, personally, think about sexual abuse scenes, you can read it here.

The title of this post isn’t an accusation. It’s a genuine question. And it’s also a subject that’s been on my mind just about since I got started writing.

Trigger warning for all kinds of bad shit.

Rape is a thing in books. It’s been a thing in books for awhile now, but in the past 10-20 years, this horrific taboo has become more explored and prominently used in literature and art. It feels like it’s come to a head recently, what with yet another brutal, degrading rape in last night’s Game of Thrones, a show I’ve only ever watched occasionally but increasingly feels like a conga line of sexual violence.

A lot of people are mad about it. Other people say, “Well, it’s that world. It’s also in history, and in war. It’s perfectly justified to feature rape in a story. And that character is a monster.”

So here’s a thought exercise I’d like you to try.

You’re writing a rape scene. A woman gets brutally raped by a monstrous male character in one scene in your book. It’s scandalizing. It’s disturbing. It’s graphic. People are going to talk about this.

Okay. Now substitute another sex crime in its place – say, homosexual pedophilia.

Now instead of raping a buxom, weeping young woman, your Extremely Bad Dude is now raping a terrified six year old boy.

Does it still feel like it deserves to be there?

To use the usual fictional rape apologist arguments, there’s no reason this scene shouldn’t exist. Child rape exists, and no doubt happens in times of war. It probably happens even more in third world countries that are at war. Historically speaking, I’m sure there have been thousands of child rapes since the dawn of humanity. Maybe millions.

Practically speaking, it would be remiss not to include a child rape scene or two, right? It happens. We must be truthful to reality. It’s our duty.

Or, wait – is it possible you’re using this horrific, degrading, monstrous act as window dressing?

That’s why a lot of people feature rape scenes, it seems. “This is a very bad dude,” a writer might say, “and I need to prove it to the audience.” And the audience might say, “Yes, that character WOULD do that. That’s absolutely in line with their nature.” And so they’re fine with it.

Or maybe the writer just wants to signal to the reader that this world is extra, super-duper grim and gritty. The audience would then say, “Well, that’s the world this story’s set in. It’s monstrous and brutal. But them’s the shakes.” And so they’re fine with it. (This is basically adding ambiance to the story. “Let’s throw a little rape in the background,” the writer thinks, “so folks get the picture.”)

But while audiences seem willing to sit and watch a young woman get raped to make these points, raping a six year old boy suddenly seems… excessive, right? It’s way over the line. No one wants to watch a sobbing child get sexually violated. So why are we willing to sit and watch one awful sex crime but not the other?

And if you go through rape-heavy books, and swap out all the rape victims with young boys, then, shit howdy, you’d probably start thinking, “Whoa, what’s the fucking deal here? Why does this writer keep featuring scenes with this awful shit? Are they getting off on it? Do they think that I’m getting off on it?”

And that’s a tough question. Are you getting off on it? Are you including this rape scene for titillation, to be sensational, to set tongues a wagging? Are you using rape as a tool, a signal, a way to tell the reader that you mean business?

And is there no other way for you to do that? Do you have to make someone get raped for your story to work? Or do you just want to see it happen?

So here’s the things you need to ask yourself if you’re writing a rape scene:

  1. What am I trying to do with this rape scene? What is its function?
  2. Is this necessary to the plot? Will this book fall apart if this rape scene is not included?
  3. Will this story focus more on the rapist than the victim? Will the victim essentially be forgotten?
  4. If I swap out this rape victim with a young child, will audiences still accept this scene? Or will they find this scene wholly unnecessary, and condemn me for it?

Rape gets trivialized in the real world. It’s frequently hushed up or waved off. The victims are forgotten. So think long and hard about why you’re including it in your book. To use such a monstrous act as window dressing is to trivialize it further.