May 11, 2015

Talking Shop: Rape as a Plot Point


I think there is a phenomena in romantic fiction where sexual assault and rape equal an immediate and easy plot device.

Unfortunately, I can't say I'm innocent of this. While reviewing and editing Lotus Petals, I realized I, too, had included a scene implying intended forcible rape. As I analyzed why I had written this scene, I determined it existed solely to allow the romantic hero to ride in, save the day, and be rewarded for her good timing.  This, at least in my mind, is not the right motivation for including rape, implied rape, or abuse in a romance. The scene was edited before the final book was published, and I found myself much more satisfied with the results. I just can't get behind the use of sexual assault for convenient plot twists--even when I do it myself.


Is that to say there is no legitimacy in scenes or backgrounds including rape? That's a very tough question.  I've read several opinions online that quite strongly state rape should never be used as a plot point, no matter the circumstance.  Is that true?  Do we trivialize or worse yet legitimize rape if we include it in our fiction and--very importantly--our romantic fiction?
  Most publishers of romantic fiction--at least the ones I've queried--list rape as one of their dealbreakers. This is done to avoid scenes of rape written to titillate, but I think it also serves to avoid the controversy of questionable sexual situations, or implications that the publisher may be insensitive to the problem of sexual assault. I never heard a complaint about the Lotus Petals scene, but perhaps that's because it squeaked by in the "almost-but-not-quite" category.  Either way, contemporary publishing trends in romance and erotica very strongly sanction against scenes of rape. 

This was perhaps not always true, and I think that its really only a  recent trend that society is beginning to be more condemning of "rape as a plot point". It seems to me that the bodice rippers of  twenty years ago were much more accepting of implications of rape, and scenes like mine where the lady love is placed in the hands of rapacious men--and you all know what terrible, lascivious acts those men intend--so that the hero can come riding in.  It was almost expected, I think; what better way to cement the heroism of the love interest, his virtue, his noble nature and his masculine strength?

I think the moment I became most aware of how disgusting this cliche was, was when a literary critic I follow on Tumblr pointed out an "added detail" in the Twilight unwritten companion, Midnight Sun:

In this scene, where Edward rescues Bella from the harassment of strangers in Port Angeles, adds a detail to the story that Twilight never gave us: one of the men harassing Bella is a serial rapist.

 I haven't bothered to read whatever portion of Midnight Sun is out there, but I've read Twilight (unfortunately), and this detail never comes up in the original. From both the point of view of an author and a reader, I think scene was just fine the way it was, without adding the element of rape to it.  The implications of danger and suspense didn't need to have any implications of sexual assault to make it clear to the reader that Bella was in trouble.  The men might have been gang members who would have robbed her, beat her up, kidnapped her... it didn't have to be rape.  That Stephenie Meyers had to add this detail in Midnight Sun to somehow heighten the intensity of it--or else just make Edward out to be so much more a hero--is something that really irritates me.  It's a cheap and easy way to ratchet up the drama, but that's all it is. And in that sense, it pays little respect to the true nature of rape and assault, by turning it into some kind of 'golden opportunity' for the hero to look good.

In a way, when we authors use rape in such a manner we are contributing to rape culture. We reflect an expectation of rape. This is exactly the reason I decided to change the scene in Lotus Petals.  I don't believe the plot needed to rely on the instant dramatics of a rape implication, and to do so would only normalize the incidence of assault.  As authors, we do have at least some social responsibility to be accurate and sensitive in our works, and if the assumption in romance writing is to throw in an assault whenever we need an excuse for the damsel to be rescued... well, that's pretty cheap.

That isn't to say rape is never an appropriate plot point, though.  I wouldn't rule out the legitimate use of assault in fiction.  To do that is almost just as damaging, I think, because then we avoid acknowledgment of the crime and violation altogether.

You can't say rape is never appropriate in a plot.  You just can't.  Rape happens, it is a terrible thing but it does happen.  It does inform the development of the people it happens to.  It does create complexities.  Exploring those complexities can not only make a story more faceted and impactful (if you do it right), but it can raise awareness in the readers. think one writer who often includes elements of sexual abuse and rape, in more genuine manner, is Stephen King.  Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne both deal with the effects of sexual abuse of children, but I think the story I most appreciate for its treatment of sex abuse is Rose Madder.  The lead character is a victim of spousal abuse and spousal rape, and the readers are taken through her journey of recovery. She isn't a damsel damaged by the experience who needs the love of a good man to make it all go away.  The villain--her husband--is a violent rapist, not just of his wife, and the characterization serves not just to depict him as 'the one who hurt her', but a complex psychological antagonist with myriad characteristics which classify him as thus, beyond merely the act of forcing women.  It also goes beyond the violent abuse of the rape itself, but explores the implications, repercussions, and facts of life for a woman who has had to find the courage to escape her abuser.   In this case, without the plot point of sexual assault, it would not be as powerful a story as I think it is.

If your fiction is to be honest, it must account for all things, including the emotional and psychological effects of assault, in an honest manner as well.  That doesn't make it some sort of literary allspice to be thrown into any situation where a female character is alone and vulnerable (and while I mention that, may I also point out the egregious stereotype that rape only occurs with female victims and in situations where they are alone or confronted with strange men).  It is abused, and less experienced creators may feel it is not only okay, but expected in their work or their character's backstory.

If we are to write good fiction, especially in romance, we must consider how we want to view rape as a point of conflict in our stories.  If it is an element we truly feel called to include, we need to learn more about the actual causes, circumstances, and consequences of sexual assault, and we must be willing to reflect those accurately.  If you don't want to deal with the mess of emotions your hero or heroine is going to have to work through after an incident of sexual assault, don't include it.  If you feel called to write a scene involving this type of violence, ask yourself, why am I including this?  Is this organic to the plot and the character's journey?  And am I representing it correctly? has come to my attention that along with a rise in popularity in "Consensual Non-Con" (or "Rape Fantasy") erotic fiction, there is additionally a demand for stories involving true, non-consensual sex. Let's not ignore the existence of this sub-genre. I can understand the legitimacy of non-consensual scenes appealing to different audiences, and I can accept the skill of certain erotic writers to present it well. I don't necessarily mean they'll go into the sorts of details I'm advocating here: fully developed reflection of an aftermath and psychological impacts. What I mean is that I expect skillful erotic authors tackling this to still do it in a deliberate, considered manner--as I expect authors should do with any complex subject. Even when we write scenes of rape to meet the demand of an audience that wants scenes of rape, strong writers must imbue it with a purpose and a reality, rather than tossing it in to a story like tossing julienne beets on a salad. Not all salads benefit from julienne beets. For some people, no salad benefits. And if I offend anyone by likening scenes of rape to a salad topping, please understand that my purpose is to say it should not be that simple. The subject should not be to authors part of a plot/conflict salad bar, to be added without a thought. Even in stories of rape, rape needs to be purposeful.

As a writer, I don't believe that rape is never a legitimate plot element in a story.  But rape introduced to create instant trauma and emotional tension is weak.  It is a weak representation of the author's commitment to honest and genuine work.  I don't mean to say I will never write a scene of sexual violence or assault, nor can I say I will never have a character whose background includes elements of abuse.  If I do, though, I'm going to do it right.  And in the meantime, if it isn't right--if it isn't honest, genuine and mindful--I'm going to trash it.  I hope other authors will too.  I call upon authors of romance and erotica especially to continue demanding better of our craft, and teach others in our genre to avoid complex subjects as a cheap play for drama.  A good writer will find ways to craft the intensity he or she needs without resorting to poorly-crafted tropes.

1 comment:

  1. I'm speechless. Thank you. Thank you for writing this.


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