A Useful Moment From a Mentor

(Warning for those who need it: discussion of rape scenes in storytelling)

So, many years ago, when I was still a very young writer, I made the acquaintance of Pamela Wallace, and she and I became friends. At the time I was a film critic, and she was a screenwriter — and not just a screenwriter, but one who had won an Oscar, for her work on Witness. She also wrote novels, which were at the time something I was thinking about doing at some point. So she and I talked a lot about movies and stories and the writing life. She was a very cool mentor for a young writer to have.

One day I was over at her house and I was talking to her about a story idea I had; I can’t specifically remember what the story idea was, but I vaguely recall it being some sort Silence of the Lambs-esque thriller, in which an investigator and a serial killer matched wits, you know, as they do. And at some point, I dragged the investigator’s wife into the story, because, as I was, like, 24 years old and didn’t know a whole hell of a lot, I thought it would be an interesting character note for the investigator, and a good plot development for the book, for the serial killer to basically rape and torture the wife —

— at which point Pamela immediately went from interested to disgusted, threw up her hands, and had them make motions that I immediately interpreted as oh God Oh God this horrible idea of yours get it off me right now.

Aaaaand that was really the last time I ever considered rape as an interesting character note or plot device. Because, I don’t know. If you’re a 24-year-old wannabe fiction writer and an Oscar-winning storyteller is physically repelled by your casual insertion of rape and violence against women in your story, mightn’t that be a sign of something? That maybe you should pay attention to? Perhaps?

Now, as I got older and became a more accomplished storyteller (and human), there turned out to be many other reasons for me to decide not to put those sorts of scenes willy-nilly into my books aside from “dude, you just disgusted your successful writer friend with your plot twist.” But I’m not going to lie and pretend that this very significant clue, dropped by my friend, did not in fact make a long-lasting impression.

Which continues to this day. I’ve written eleven novels now, most with lots of action, adventure, peril and danger to characters of several genders, and lots of tough scenes that show loss and violence (see: most of The Ghost Brigades). No rape scenes. They weren’t necessary for the narrative — and more concretely, as narratives to stories don’t just magically happen but are the result of the author’s intention, I chose not to make circumstances in my novels where they would be necessary.

Sadly, not every young male novice storyteller has a woman friend who is also an Oscar winner to set him straight on the errors of his shallow narrative ways. Would that they did! So for everyone else I would just say (and here I tip my hat to Robert Jackson Bennett, who wrote in more detail about this today) that while you can put these sorts of scenes into your work, maybe before you do, you should ask yourself why. Ask yourself what actual value they will bring to your work. Ask yourself if you are entirely sure about that value.

And while you’re asking yourself that, keep my friend Pamela’s reaction to my proposed rape scene in your head. She’s not alone in that reaction these scenes, nor was she wrong to have it. Neither are other people.

185 thoughts on “A Useful Moment From a Mentor

  1. I suspect discussion in this thread might be triggery for some folks. I ask everyone to tread lightly, please. Thanks in advance.

    Also, to be clear, I am not saying that I will never ever in the history of my writing write a scene with rape or sexual assault. I can’t imagine a particular incidence where I would, in the several projects I have lined out to the horizon, but I can’t say that I won’t ever. One day I might write a story where it makes sense to have one in there. But, again, the question, and the question I would ask myself, is why the scene is there. Again, narrative and plotting are authorial choices, not naturally occurring phenomena over which the writer has no control. If I ever put a scene like that in there, it’s going to damned well justified by the story. Otherwise, out it goes.

    Again, so far, 11 novels in, it’s not something I’ve ever needed to tell a story. And for the next several novels at least, I don’t see it being an issue, either.

    (I’m also not saying that such scenes always unnecessary in storytelling. Sometimes they are. But again: why is it there and what does it contribute to the story? If all it is, is cheap shorthand for loss, or a funride jolt, it’s worth asking if there’s not a better way to do things.)

  2. Is this at all related to the debate over the last scene of last Sunday’s Game of Thrones episode? I have to say, that scene filled me with disgust, and I’m not sure I am going to watch more episodes.

  3. People who pay attention to these things inform me also that it was added for the TV series, and not present in the books. (I have no idea; I tend not to read books where the major pitch from the fans is “it’s awesome, you hate all the characters, and then they die horribly.”)

  4. I believe it was Saturday Night Live that did a sketch in which a couple had gone through all of the available “How to Host a Murder” games, and decided to give “How to Host a Rape” a try, to the dismay of their guests.

  5. Here’s another thing you should never do in a novel – kill a dog or a cat. I don’t care how good the book is (or how fictional the pet is), if you kill a dog or a cat, you automatically lose a letter grade and I may never read you again, you heartless monster.

    But that’s just me.

  6. “People who pay attention to these things inform me also that it was added for the TV series, and not present in the books.”

    Um no … while the story changed who his wife was, Ramsay Bolton most certainly was a rapist and most certainly raped his wife.

    Was this scene needed for the book or the show? Maybe. The story is about depravity and despair, hope and redemption. Did they have to show it? Rather just pan out to the closed door leaving you to your imagination? Of course they could have. Was it wrong to include it? To some it was wrong, to others it was a powerful statement.

    Should we ban all rape scenes from books and movies? How do we determine what is gratuitous and what isnt?

  7. Would that they did, indeed.

    @Mike– but PATHOS! (Not that anybody but me gets that reference. Something about reading Craig Shaw Gardener after the entire Shannara series made that part stick with me.)

  8. Mike:

    You should avoid The Android’s Dream, then. And yeah, I am a heartless monster.

    Todd Stull:

    It’s only tangentially related, in that I did not see the episode (I stopped watching the series in the third season, for no particular reason), but it and some other things have cause people to be talking about the subject this week, which brought that particular incident to mind.

    I have no particular opinion on the latest GoT rape, with regard to whether it was necessary from a storytelling point of view; I don’t know. Many people have many opinions on the subject. Most of the people I know seem to be in the “WTF WHY” camp, but there are significant dissenting opinions as well.

    However, I would prefer this thread not be about that particular incident, so let’s not do a whole lot of GoT kvetching here, please.

  9. Kuroneko is the only movie I can think of that showed rape as a seedy, gross crime and not as “rough” sex or the “regrettable but understandable” assertion of dominance. The criminals are not super macho men. They are greedy, destructive thieves who take literally everything from the women in the house they pillage. You are left in no doubt why the incident would create hungry ghosts.

    Having a reverse/revenge rape in both versions of Girl with the Dragon Tatoo did not save them from being exploitative, stylized wank (violence wank in the American and sexual for the Swedish.)

  10. The single, most horrifying experience of my life, it’s been 46 years and I still remember the details. The next worst thing was reading the experience of Celie in “The Color Purple”. Understood the context in that novel, but still cannot read about it. Ms. Wallace’s reaction is the exact same one I would have had; I salute you for honoring her response as you have.

  11. Many, many moons ago I enjoyed the romantic potboilers of Andrew Greeley until I started noticing that his female leads almost always got raped or were threatened with rape. I don’t know if he simply couldn’t think of another element of danger/character development/what have you for a woman, but it was extremely off-putting. I stopped reading him after that.

    Do I think rape should never be included in fiction? Of course not — sometimes it’s necessary for the circumstances of the story. Hell, I just wrote a rape scene in a novel. Cringed while I was writing it, but it was part of the legend I was using and absolutely vital for both plot and character development. And I really, really hope I never have to write something like that again.

  12. Well, there’s also the example of Jay Presson Allen. I don’t think she ever won an Oscar, but she did write the screenplays for Cabaret and Funny Girl and a bunch of other really popular movies. Her first was Hitchcock’s Marnie, in which Sean Connery rapes his wife (Tippi Hedren), and he’s the good guy. Or at least he’s intended to be the good guy. On the dvd making-of feature it didn’t seem to bother her at all. But that was a while ago.

  13. Sady Doyle had a pretty good take on the whole Song of Ice and Fire world a while back, which the TV viewers just seem to be catching up to. In the books, the sexual violence is (fwiw) in a context of pretty unrelenting brutality and death to almost every character — which the TV series has not matched (and probably could not). The TV show lets Tyrion keep his nose, for example, but for some reason Sansa has to get at least a part of the Jeyne Poole treatment.

    FWIW, since I had a kid (who is now 4 years old), I find myself unable to watch any movie where violence happens to kids — unless the kids are the protagonists, as opposed to plot points.

    I just watched LEON (THE PROFESSIONAL), a movie I saw the weekend it came out in the States, and have rewatched more than a few times, but not in years. But I had forgotten that, in the first 20 minutes or so, a 4 year old kid is killed (by accident, but along with most of the rest of his family).

    When I was 25, that death was just another example of what a bad guy Gary Oldman’s villain was. Now at 45, it’s a reason to fast forward — after pausing and going to check on my sleeping son.

  14. I’m glad your mentor made such an impression and that you took her dismay to heart.

    “Female character needs drama? Oh, add rape.” is such a lazy freaking storyline. I’m sick of it even when it’s done with the story making clear that it’s a crime of violence and assault and Not A Sexy thing. So much of the time that’s not the case. Especially in comics. I love superheroes, but there is some skeezy freaking portrayal of women and especially violence against women.

    It’s the first thing most people think of to make a female character go dark or disempower her or break her OR to provide drama for an attached male character (woooo, she doesn’t even get her own pain…) and “the first thing I thought of” is LAZY and pretty much guaranteeing you’re telling a story that’s been told way too many times before. Dear writers, all of you, try to tread more original ground.

  15. Please pardon the GoT bits. Composed the post slow, before the initial thread rule of thumb.

  16. Back in the day, one of the most popular new fantasy series was the Thomas Covenant books. I enjoyed reading it until I got to the scene where the hero rapes the young woman who has been assigned to guide him in this new land to which he has been transported. I never read past that scene. Nor do I care to.

  17. I personally go out of my way to avoid reading books or watching films with rape in them; I just don’t want to spend my leisure time that way, you know? It’s kept me away from GoT (started reading the books, walked away) and a number of films that I was otherwise interested in.

  18. @Peter Cibulskis — Who said anything about banning all rape scenes from books and movies? Why make the leap from, “Ask if it’s necessary before adding it to your story” to “Ban it from all stories”?

    The end goal isn’t to ban ideas or censor writers, it’s to shine a light on how women are frequently treated in our stories and examine what that says about our culture, and hopefully make writers think more carefully about the decisions they make.

  19. As a writer I can’t stand the idea of rape as a plot device. I find it repulsive. I find other things repulsive as well so I won’t read any books with things that repulse me nor I will ever write one.

  20. I’ll second H. Savienien. Male (usually) writers trying to write about female characters sometimes don’t know what to do with them so they either have their characters face rape or pregnancy. Why? That’s what women do, right? It’s a good sign (to me) that the writer is out of good ideas and that my entertainment time could be better filled elsewhere.

  21. A very useful thing I was taught once was to take any plot points that punish women for being women (sexual violence, reproductive repercussions, violence to a woman’s child) and decide if you couldn’t do something more interesting and less cliched. What if the serial killer framed the wife (or the man) for some kind of crime that would completely undermine the man’s credibility? What if the stalker in the night embezzled all the pretty lady’s money, and that’s why she’s hell-bent on revenge? Actually write some story instead of dropping Because Rape in there as if that’s all you need to say. It makes for much more interesting results to stretch a little.

  22. I stopped reading Lisa Gardner novels for the same reason. Someone wasn’t raped in all of them but almost all. Way too many for my comfort. Way for many for me to continue supporting her works.

    Rape is a tragedy and not a topic that should be taken lightly. Personally, I will never write a rape scene into one of my novels, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be another form of sexual abuse or misconduct.

  23. MoxMas: Thank you for mentioning that about The Professional. It’s been a long time since I saw it, and I might have been tempted to watch it again. Now I think I’ll give it a pass.

  24. Should we ban all rape scenes from books and movies? How do we determine what is gratuitous and what isnt?

    *smh* Look, critiquing something as gratuitous is not a call to ban something.

    Stop. Stop with the censorship talk. You’re making this into something that isn’t.

  25. MoXmas: that’s exactly why I never watched GoT past the premiere, which ended with a child being defenestrated. I was enjoying it up to that point, but then “Nope, we’re done here!”

  26. I am really trying hard to think of a movie or book where a woman was raped, and it seemed like something that was necessary and integral to the piece. Maybe Jay Lake’s “Green”? I can’t remember if Green is raped. I do remember feeling like it was necessary for me to read about the violence in Green’s life to understand her and her reactions. Sad commentary considering how often women are raped in books, movies, and TV.

  27. @Mike regarding killing dogs/cats do you mean explicitly or implicitly? There was a short I read a long time ago, It was a post-apocalypse, or perhaps just a post-societal collapse, story where the MC reminisces about a girl he met in his youth while hunting “roof rabbit”. It is implied that these are cats, although there was not an outright description of the killing, as I recall. It was such a well-written story that it has stuck with me lo, these many years, even though I can’t remember title or author.

    One of my WIPs has a reversed, almost-rape scene (the male MC is drugged by a woman who is about to take advantage of him; the drug is a kind of advanced rufie.). It is interrupted by circumstances, and nothing too explicit is described, so is it really a rape? Is it still too much? I’ll have to re-evaluate it, but any comments?

  28. This discussion reminds me of something Stephen King wrote in his novel Bag of Bones, about novelist Mike Noonan. (a book which has both a gang rape and several murders in it). Mike, after the death of his wife, has a pretty visceral type of writer’s block. And, spoilers here, a main character dies later in the book and at the end of the book Mike is trying to come to grips with why he no longer writes. Here, it’s worth thinking about for any writer: “Some of it has to do with the way Mattie died. It occurred to me at some point this fall that I had written similar deaths in at least two of my books, and popular fiction is heaped with other examples of the same thing. Have you set up a moral dilemma you don’t know how to solve? Is the protagonist sexually attracted to a woman who is much too young for him, shall we say? Need a quick fix? Easiest thing in the world. “When the story starts going sour, bring on the man with the gun.” Raymond Chandler said that, or something like it—close enough for government work, kemo sabe.

    “Murder is the worst kind of pornography, murder is let me do what I want taken to its final extreme. I believe that even make-believe murders should be taken seriously; maybe that’s another idea I got last summer…. To think I might have written such a hellishly convenient death in a book, ever, sickens me.

  29. I recall reading an article by a person whose family member had been murdered and their reaction thereafter to how casually murder is inserted into stories and everyday life as entertainment (wish I could remember when and were so I could cite it properly). In particular they were upset by the idea of murder being the focal point of parlor games (Clue, Host a murder, Murder theater, etc.) and to drive their point home they asked the interviewer (and the readers) to substitute ‘murder’ with ‘rape’ to get a feel for how amusing they, as the survivor if you will, of a murder, reacted to this.
    I find it odd that violence that results in death or severe bodily harm is OK, in fact almost a necessary part of many movies, TV shows and novels, but not rape. Is this because victims of non-sexual violence are better able to recover from their trauma and thus receive less consideration? Or do they just keep quiet and suffer?
    I am not trying to be a troll here, but am trying to tease these strands of violence apart and how they are viewed by society vs. the victims.

  30. Mary Gordon (the novelist) was a professor of mine in college, and I remember (probably misremember) her once explaining why she liked Ford Madox Ford so much. It was because, alone among characters from major novels of the 1920s, the Valentine Wannop character in the PARADE’S END novels lived her life pretty much the way she wanted to, and was never punished for it by death or rape or other examples of the world destroying her choices.

    Gordon said, more or less, that it indicated how much Ford actually liked and understood women, compared to his contemporaries like Hemingway.

  31. Thank you for reiterating that using rape in fiction is always, always authorial choice. Always. It’s never demanded by anything the author has no control over — the author always chooses. You are god of what you write, and whatever narrative you construct, you construct it and can change it with a few keystrokes.

    If you use it, own up to it and take responsibility for it. Understand that the millions of people (women, men, and people outside that binary) who live every day with it in their actual pasts may be (legitimately) hurt by it. If you fail someone, learn from it.

    Nothing lands in our work that we don’t put there. Whether outright intention or unconscious bias, we don’t get to say it’s the work of anything but ourselves.

    In the couple years following my own rape, I wrote about it a lot (most of which never saw other eyes but mine). I was working through overcoming what had happened to me and finding some modicum of strength in characters who overcame, sometimes were able to stop it before it happened, and sometimes just get revenge. In my published books, there will likely never be an instance where I choose to put that out there. These days I think a lot about escapism, about how SFF is often exactly that, but how for those of us for whom rape has been a too-close reality that takes up residence when we never wanted it, that escapism is seldom extended to us. “Realism” matters insofar as it’s women’s bodily autonomy (because it’s seldom not women in fiction who experience it), but pay no attention to dragons or magic or FTL travel.

    I want my books to be a safe space in that regard. There are plenty of other forms of tension and conflict and character development. Nothing — ever — requires an author writing SFF to hold to the social structures and tragedies of this world when we’re making up entirely new ones. It’s always a choice to do so. And I can make the authorial choice to ensure that at least in the worlds I make up, rape will never be an inevitability and readers won’t have to watch my characters go through what they did.

  32. I have a detailed set of rules for whether I will or won’t read a rape scene:

    -Books only, Movies and Comics are too visual, too graphic, and really, really bad about getting in the victims head.
    -The POV character must be the victim.
    -The book must contain a realistic discussion of the recovery process the victim goes through. In other words, the victim is neither “destroyed” by the rape, nor is she (or he) simply fine afterwards (*cough *cough Heinlein). Destroyed in this case means the victim dies in the course of the rape, commits suicide, or the victim is no longer the main character after the scene.
    -The scene itself cannot be too graphically described

    This often limits the books I will read (Game of Thrones and much old school science fiction and fantasy are out) and it definitely limits the movies, tv, and comics I will consume.

  33. To echo the other post I remember the outrage years and years ago when Sandman 50 came out people were just horrified, horrified!, by the young “hairless” boys in the Sultan’s Harem. Oh sure, no worries about the women in the harem (presumably of a similar age in many cases) or the eunuchs standing guard. Sexual violence better come prepackaged and ready to eat in expected ways!

  34. I don’t remember any dogs or cats dying in Android’s Dream. What I do remember…

    SPOILER ALERT

    … is several POV characters being literally eaten alive WHILE THEY WERE ACTIVELY THE POV CHARACTER JESUS CHRIST I WILL NEVER GET THAT OUT OF MY HEAD.

    So, yeah, heartless monster. Still my favorite Scalzi book, tho.

  35. “an investigator and a serial killer matched wits,….I thought it would be an interesting character note for the investigator, and a good plot development for the book, for the serial killer to basically rape and torture the wife —”

    other than the rape, wasn’t this the plot of Seven?

  36. Peter @ May 19, 2015 at 3:58 pm:
    I find it odd that violence that results in death or severe bodily harm is OK, in fact almost a necessary part of many movies, TV shows and novels, but not rape. Is this because victims of non-sexual violence are better able to recover from their trauma and thus receive less consideration? Or do they just keep quiet and suffer?

    Two reasons for the difference that occur to me:

    A) There is a lot more uniformity in agreement about what counts as murder and agreement on just how bad a thing murder is.

    B) Being murdered is not something most people are really seriously worried about very often. Yeah it is horrible but it is extremely unlikely to ever actually happen to you or anyone you know.

    I wonder if attitudes about violence in fiction are different in populations where B isn’t true because of war, anarchy, or violently opressive governments.

  37. Todd: Robin McKinley’s Deerskin. Which is both a deeply powerful and deeply disturbing book about survival. And some of Anne Bishop’s work, which while I love, i wouldn’t recommend for anyone with violence or abuse triggers. …that’s about my complete list, though. In both cases, the violence serves a bigger story purpose rather than being a throwaway event or Token Bad Thing. (Anne Bishop is also the only author I can think of who’s got straight men with a survived-rape-and-lived-to-revenge-themselves-on-their-abusers story arc. Some of her work does go past the story necessity and into gratuitous cruelty, though.)

    Covenant is an… interesting case. The fact that the author gives you exactly what’s going on in his head at the time gives you zero illusions about just what an awful person this guy is, and not just in a “bad because rape!” way. I can’t decide if it’s gratuitous or not– but I certainly haven’t reread the series because that scene was so unpleasant.

  38. @nicoleandmaggie: The Cineverse Cycle! I was looking at that on my shelves just last night and wondering if anyone else knew it. Tripping over the subtitles, the jungle drums, the bunnies.

    On topic: yes. It’s lazy, hacky writing. Particularly when it’s only written to cause manpain. Seanan McGuire has vowed never to do it.

    I looked up a photo of Pamela Wallace just so I could have a better visual of her hand motions in this anecdote.

  39. Gah. Lost my comment. But, the gist: I also left Covenant never to return as a result of that scene (as a teenager, reading books from my parents’ shelves). It’s also why I wound up hating “The Sparrow” and certain episodes of Battlestar Galactica.

    But I wonder if my reasons for hating those things shouldn’t logically apply to all types of violence in entertainment. Why do rape scenes affect me so viscerally by comparison to murders? Is it because rape is so often “meant” specifically for women, so I take it more personally?

  40. I don’t spend much time on stories where torture produces more useful intel than bad. (torture produces far more haystacks than needles.) I don’t spend much time on stories that over-glorify war and try to show the “good guys” being better off going to war (War is, even in the best case scenario, the better of the shittiest possible paths, and even then both sides will suffer for it.). I don’t spend much time on revenge stories that show revenge as something sweet (Revenge just drags you down and destroys part of your humanity). I don’t spend much time on stories that show rape as some gratuitous way to get porn into the story (rape is a greedy bastard taking what they want by force from a completely unwilling victim who’s afraid for their life, and there’s nothing sexy about it)

    I will spend time on stories that involve war, torture, and rape, because war, torture, and rape is part of the shitty part of real life. And sometimes the only way to deal with shit is to put a spotlight on it. But if you’re going to lie to me about what war, torture, or rape is, then you’re pushing propaganda whether you know it or not, and I have no interest in wasting my time reading or watching propaganda.

    I didn’t like “Girl with the Dragon Tatoo” because the rape of the protagonist seemed to exist for no other reason than to give the protagonist a reason to get revenge-rape from her rapist. So, a triple-whammy: gratuitous rape and gratuitous revenge-rape and revenge that heals the person getting vengeance. Ugh.

  41. Oh, I agree with you absolutely on rape not being taken lightly. I didn’t want to write that scene — in fact, I stalled on the entire damn book for a month while I tried to figure out a way around it. In the end, however, I decided that glossing over it would weaken the story, so I just had to grit my teeth and write it. I fully expect to get hate mail for it, and I won’t blame the senders for that, but it had to be in there.

  42. For those wanting to discuss the Game of Thrones rape scene and all the ramifications, there’s a vigorous discussion on Metafilter: http://www.metafilter.com/149751/Yes-now-the-rains-weep-oer-his-halls-And-not-a-soul-to-hear#6054916 As for me, I gave up on the series last season for all the ridiculous deviations from the books but that’s also beside the point.

    I had a similar experience as John’s about fifteen years ago. There was a discussion about The Lovely Bones and a good friend of mine hated the book. “Why is it always RAPE? Why do women always have to be RAPED?” Now yes, the book was about far more than that but she did point out to me and a few other wannabe writers that rape as a plot device is both insensitive and pretty damn unimaginative. I’ve kept this in mind.

    This past fall I was finishing up my book and I had a chapter where a female protagonist was in a bit of trouble. I briefly considered the cruel fates I could imply or deliver. I like to think that I write women well, as characters with their own agency, never describing with the male gaze, etc. The notion of rape flickered across my options and I shook it off just as fast. I wasn’t going to go down that road.

    I’m not writing this to self-congratulate myself but I do wish more of my fellow males would have the awareness and sensitivity to do the same. D & D, I’ve given up on those guys.

  43. Does it make me a bad person that I want to write about rape? But I suppose even the way I ask the question is telling. I want to write *about* rape — I want to educate readers about it, I want to break down the stigma suffered by those who have been raped, I want to investigate what circumstances and upbringings and mindsets would lead to someone to commit such a heinous act against another human being. I do this as a near-middle-aged woman and as a parent and as someone whom has been entrusted with a story that begins “when I was raped”. I write for young adults, and I deeply admire the writers who have risked their careers writing about this dangerous topic for the benefit of young adults: Chris Lynch, author of Inexcusable; Patricia McCormic, author of Sold; Laurie Anderson, author of Speak, and others.

    I see someone above gave up on the Chronicals of Thomas Covenant at the rape scene. This amuses me greatly, as it is one of the examples of a rape that is definitely not just thrown into a story casually. It’s a brutal, awful read, but brilliantly done.

  44. Whenever I’m tempted to write a rape scene I blow up a densely populated planet instead.

  45. I think the word is “gratuitous,” and gratuitous anything in a story is a sign of poor writing skills. “The Fountainhead” springs to mind. But to make a despicable character even more despicable, or to tip him from sociopath to psychopath? Useful, if not essential to the story. In any case, I can’t imagine GRRM or JZ writing a gratuitous sentence, much less a whole scene.

  46. I think the link provides a perfect litmus test: Change the adult woman rape victim to a 6 year old boy, then answer this question: do you still want the rape in the story?

    The only reason I can figure people think its “ok” to have a woman being raped scene but not a six year old boy being raped scene is because a person in the audience might convince themselves that she secretly wanted it, she secretly enjoyed it, or afterwards she decided it was a good thing, or whatever, and then it makes it OK for that person in the audience to basically watch porn. Change the victim to a 6 year old boy, and all attempts at giving agency to the victim are utterly destroyed. He didn’t secretly want it, or like it, or enjoy it afterwards.

    The movie that had the rape of young boys at its center and managed to pull it off (in my opinion) was “Sleepers”. Oh god, it was horrible in showing the real damage that happens. And it did plug into the vengeance nonsense which I didn’t like, but at the same time, those getting vengeance weren’t “redeemed” as it were. I only saw it once (once was enough), but it was a powerful movie.

    So, yeah. Change the victim to a 6 year old boy and answer the question: do you still want the rape in the story?

  47. Echoing what Captain Button said in response to Peter – probably the reason why rape in media seems more incendiary is because so many people, mostly female, actually experience it. If we estimate that one in five females are going to be sexually assaulted in the US, that is just a staggeringly horrible situation. Increase that number by some large amount to estimate how many women are threatened with rape.

    It’s truly a massive problem that remains invisible to people who have never been threatened by that trauma, or that don’t know someone who has. Chances are, someone you know has been assaulted, they just might not have shared it with you.

    While I personally didn’t see a value in the GoT scene this weekend, we might see a net positive effect from it if it gets people talking about the constructive use of traumatic imagery in our media. We do need to engage with the issue somehow.

    Other types of violence that cause severe bodily harm are much much less likely to actually happen to the general public. However, you can look at veterans with combat experience, and people who grow up in violent neighborhoods, and you can see some of the same types of legitimate complaints about how these experiences are represented in media.

  48. Example of rape used in a book necessarily: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I would prefer that this were the standard.

  49. Peter @ May 19, 2015 at 3:58 pm:
    I find it odd that violence that results in death or severe bodily harm is OK, in fact almost a necessary part of many movies, TV shows and novels, but not rape. Is this because victims of non-sexual violence are better able to recover from their trauma and thus receive less consideration? Or do they just keep quiet and suffer?

    To put it bluntly, and to focus on whom the violence is actually committed upon — I, a survivor of sexual violence get to live with what happened, every day; every day I get to read that something “wasn’t a real rape-rape” or some other form of denial, victim-blaming, he-said-(she*N)-said, law cannot do shit about this, etc.

    This may have effects on people around me, but they’re not the person who went thru this experience.

    If, however, I’m murdered, I, the victim, stop living, and no longer feel anything about this whole thing; as a general rule of thumb, murder is seen awfulbadhorriblewickedevil (but even so, there are always those cases where people try to justify it, just keep your eyes open).

    Again, this has effect on people around the victim, and all sympathies there, but there are no “murder survivors” as there are “rape survivors”. Attempted murder survivors for sure, yes.

  50. @Almitra Clay. It sounds like you’re approaching it in a thoughtful way and as a way of talking about sexual assault and sexual assault survivors. It doesn’t sound like you’re planning on using rape as a vehicle for drama or punishment, but as a thing people deal with every day and this is why and how and so on. That’s very different than a lot of the examples that come to mind for me.

    @Captain Button. I agree in most particulars, but add the caveat that there are certain populations that have a much greater immediate worry about being murdered, but because of intersection, the times that characters like them are gratuitously murdered, it’s usually a symptom of – say – racism, transphobia, and similar evils. I personally am not a huge fan of the “Kill Your Gays” trope in fiction and do, in fact, take it personally when lots of minor characters with little characterization besides “the butch” or “the gay hairdresser” get bumped off to demonstrate that the Bad Guys are Bad.

  51. This is an interesting post with definitely good points that should be considered regularly. However, I also must confess that I fully and unhesitatingly classify Ghost Brigades as a book that contains a hauntingly brutal rape scene. To me, rape is all about horror, violation and power dynamics. It hasn’t stopped me from reading other books in the OMW series, but I will never read *that* book again…

  52. Should we ban all rape scenes from books and movies? How do we determine what is gratuitous and what isnt?

    *smh* Look, critiquing something as gratuitous is not a call to ban something.
    Stop. Stop with the censorship talk. You’re making this into something that isn’t.

    I wasnt. Was rhetorical.

  53. “The Android’s Dream”, especially the first chapter, is a triumph of modern literature and storytelling.

    Now, as for the topic at hand…

    My personal opinion is this: If you can avoid showing a rape scene, don’t show it. If you’ve got to include it in the story, don’t show it, just imply it and deal with the aftermath.

    Never, ever treat it lightly or show it as less than horrifically traumatic. Never, ever, EVER have a woman fighting to prevent herself from being raped while three men watch calmly (Star Trek: Voyager, episode “Blood Fever”) or treat any form of sexual assault as comedy (ST:Enterprise, episode “Unexpected”).

    Basically, treat it as the serious, intensely traumatic crime that it is. And don’t show rape or any other form of sexual assault in detail.

    My 2 cents.

  54. @sharon The definition of what is considered gratuitous is definitely subjective. Perhaps a better keyword would be trivializing. As in is this rape trivializing the experience of the rape victim? I also definitely find rapes that prove just how bad a bad guy is to be both gratuitous and trivializing.

    @Peter Cibulskis Rhetorical does not mean people can’t argue with you.

  55. Great post, I agree and appreciate that you wrote it. Thanks, John.

    (Trigger warning on my comment from here on out: rape/sexual assault and pedophilia)

    RE: Robert Jackson Bennett’s post, he suggests swapping out the attractive woman being raped with a child and see if the scene still has the same impact. He states that the intent of this was to divorce the desirability of the character from the act being performed–because we (hopefully) don’t find children being raped erotic.

    A lot of people seemed to get hung up on the premise because it was talking about children being raped, which I can understand since I was raped when I was ten years old. I can understand how people have feels about that particular topic.

    I think another way to achieve the same effect is to substitute a character who is portrayed as repulsive, like Judy from The IT Crowd (http://i.imgur.com/6aa24aS.png), the crone from The Princess Bride (http://24.media.tumblr.com/79foGQC8fnyxkzfdPr1OZkiFo1_500.jpg), or another character whose ugliness is played for laughs. Imagine that person in your scenario and see if you feel it has the same impact. After all, the idea is to choose a situation that is not in any way sexually titilating.

    If the scene is too repulsive, then stop: you should not include this scene in your book/movie/creative work.

    Because rape is not sexy and so if it’s suddenly grosser in your head when done to an unsexy character, then that is a red flag that indicates that on some level you are more okay with rape if it happens to someone sexually attractive. Ideally, in my mind, rape should be equally gross no matter who it happens to. I think this is an idea most people can get behind, no?

  56. I’m trying to imagine some sort of comparison (a la the Bechdel test) where you look at the characters played by major action actors, and find the number of times they are motivated by the death of their wife/girlfriend, and how often they are motivated by being personally raped.

    If rape was such a great motivation for fictional characters, it would be happening to men as much as to women.

  57. Very-far-off-to-the-side note: why is “woman” so often used as an adjective or modifier, as opposed to “female”? (“…not every young male novice storyteller has a woman friend…”) I’m not trying to copy edit in the comments here; I see similar constructions everywhere, and it always reads oddly to me. Thoughts?

  58. So are we opposed to females being raped only?
    There are books out there with males being raped (by other males) The Kite Runner was a classic, apparently. the Shawshank Redemption, the Norton Film about Neo-Nazis. All had males being raped.
    I can understand why people don’t like rape scenes in their entertainment. Having been there myself, I hate any sexual assault – particularly when it is shown from the POV of th attacker and it’s about their pleasure or power trip or whatever.
    When I have had rape or sexual assault scenes in my writing, it’s horror. And justice is done. For me that is cathartic.

  59. I wasnt. Was rhetorical.

    I don’t think this is a good place to wax overblownly rhetorical or go full Devil’s Advocate, mostly because lots of people who go thru this thing would like to have a serious discussion with serious answers, or even a place to vent unpleasantness that the world has thrown at them, up to our host’s limits.

    That sort of rhetorical questioning/DAing smacks very trivializing, mostly because this is one of those “poop is being piled on us already, and you just want to put a cherry on top” or “the world is already made out of lemon juice, my entire body is chafed raw and bleeding, and you are bringing salt to this” things.

    Something something is failure mode of something.

  60. Also, add me to the list of people who can no longer stand watching children be hurt or be in jeopardy in my media. Even infomercials about children/babies being seriously injured or killed (think being left in hot cars or kidnapped) squick me out, which I understand puts me at the extreme end of People Who Are A Bit Sensitive About Kids.

    @Alann Swann: Reads odd to me too, FWIW.

  61. @brokensea, I hate when male rape is played for laughs, which is what usually happens in these cases IMO. The IT Crowd has a bit of this a few times (mostly implied) and while my friends were laughing, I was intensely uncomfortable. I find that more often, the rape of women is used as “oh so edgy/gritty” while the rape of men is treated as “har har” material. I find that usually when graphic male rape is portrayed, it is portrayed with seriousness and treated as horrifying. But, usually it’s not graphically portrayed; it’s usually heavily implied and happens off-screen (all the better to facilitate the laughs, you see /s).

  62. Todd Stull: I think both rapes (one person, both as child and adult) in Spider Robinson’s “God Is An Iron” are critical to the story. (This was later reworked as part of the “Mindkiller” novel.) To me it was not gratuitous and not overly explicit. But it was still a very difficult read.

  63. Regarding terrible things of any sort happening to children as opposed to adults, I would think the two are not equivalent. Adults have the wisdom and experience and phisique to cope with things that children are not physically or mentally able yet to endure. This doesn’t make violence on adults somehow less awful. It makes violence on children worse.

  64. @Greg:

    Right now, I’m writing a historical novel that has been cooking in the back of my head for decades. One of the three protagonists is based on a real-life person: an escaped African slave in sixteenth century Ecuador who is now recognized as an official national hero. His actual background before the age of ten is unknown, as is anything about his personality other than he was a highly intelligent leader and negotiator.

    As I’ve been developing the character, I’ve known that something terrible happened to him that made him a passive accepter of whatever life handed him, until he was finally given a chance to see what he could make of himself. This past weekend, I was writing his backstory, which involved violent conflict among warlords of the West African Kaabu empire (the losers were often sold to Portuguese slavers).

    And then, as I was writing the scene where the boy’s father is on the losing side in a battle, I suddenly knew what the terrible something would be: the public rape of the boy by the victor to humiliate the father before his throat is cut. The child is then thrown away, sold into slavery with the other survivors.

    It was not an easy scene to write, and I say this as an old pro who has written all kinds of violent stuff, even a Wolverine novel. And I had to ask myself, “Is this what you want to do?” But the horror of it is necessary to drive the story and, far from being a casual fling of violence, it’s the essential event on which the character’s whole life turns.

    So, to answer your question, I didn’t want the rape in the story, but it has got to be there.

  65. @Almitra Clay “I see someone above gave up on the Chronicals of Thomas Covenant at the rape scene. This amuses me greatly, as it is one of the examples of a rape that is definitely not just thrown into a story casually. It’s a brutal, awful read, but brilliantly done.”

    It amuses you that someone was put off reading a series after a rape scene? I think it’s a legitimate choice to avoid portrayals of rape regardless of their literary quality. It’s not about whether it’s hacky, at least for me–it’s about not wanting to fill my brain with images of rape.

  66. John, a really good book that springs to mind that had a rape scene in it, that was germane to the plot, well written, sensitive to the female character and depicted with graphic violence: Friday by Robert Heinlein. As a professional courier, Friday is gang-raped by her kidnappers at the beginning of the book. She ends up forgiving the surviving rapist (the rest are killed by her companions) and saves his life. Now, R.H. did all sorts of strange things in his novels relating to sexual mores, and many of them are hard for some people to read, but in this novel, horrible as it was, it was necessary for it to happen. I do agree that an author needs to think long and hard about if a rape in their story is needed, but it isn’t right to say that all authors need to avoid depicting horrible things. Rape is horrible, but it does happen, and stories need to reflect that, if for no other reason than to reinforce a moral viewpoint. Thanks for the great essay here, it is being re-shared… -Matthew

  67. It’s really hard to avoid books that have rape. I’ve started mentioning it in my reviews on Goodreads but then you get the questions “is it really rape”. If some kind of “magical power” is used many people don’t see it as rape – Fae/vampire – it’s kinda sexy not really rape. Except no it’s rape if I haven’t consented. Whether I’m sleeping, drugged, magic is used, a gun is pointed at my head, a bunch of guys overpower me – rape is lack of consent. Or even lack of enthusiastic consent – you’ve worn me down until it’s easier to let you have sex than keep say no 100 more times for another 1-3 hours…

    When someone recommends a book I ask if it has rape – nope they say – unfortunately too many people don’t know rape when they read it. So I’d say authors know when they are doing super villain level rape but casual rape I’m not as sure of as too many Americans aren’t really clear on what is or isn’t rape.

    I’ve been told I’m overly sensitive to this issue due to being a survivor. But I’ve found that when I walk people through the rape scenes they missed most recognize that it’s “non-consensual sex” and it went over their head when they read it because it was so “normal”.

  68. I think there’s some distinction, too, to be made between a rape as a plot device and actually describing a rape. One may work for the story, the other can be — if one is not very, very careful — both prurient and awful.

    I seem to recall one of the aliens in OMW — having captured a human colony — then raised and ate human babies like veal, but there were no actual descriptions of the trauma of having your baby eaten in front of you or merely taken away to be raised and eaten later.

  69. Peter Cibulskis, Scalzi’s post isn’t about what “we” should do or what “we” consider gratuitous. He didn’t even use the term “gratuitous.” His post It is a request to writers–to each individual writer–to think deeply about their purposes if they find themselves considering writing about rape.

  70. Speaking as someone who’s been raped, I am very glad this conversation is happening.

    What’s glossed over by most people above, though, is the fact that rape subplots are often not used to add drama to female characters per se, but rather as a plot motivation for the male lead to Do Something Because Someone/Something He Cares About Has Been Hurt.

    Might as well have had a steamroller run over the dude’s Mustang.

    If you’re an author who’s using this device this way, please consider having your hero motivated by something completely different.

    I’m at that point where a rape scene is an automatic DNF (did not finish) for me. Not because I’ve been raped, just because it’s overused. See also: gay/trans/PoC being raped or killed.

    (Lest anyone say that “rape happens” as an excuse, well, we all take dumps, too, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be in a book.)

  71. @Emily “It amuses you that someone was put off reading a series after a rape scene?”

    Hmm. Reading what I wrote, that came off wrong. No, I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to put down a book when they get to a rape scene. I had meant that the Thomas Covenant book under discussion happens to be an unfortunate book to discard due to a rape scene, as the story does the polar opposite of glorifying or trivializing rape. The entire series hinges on a man’s hatred of himself for having raped someone.

  72. So, The Mary Sue (website) has just announced that they will no longer review anything related to the Game of Thrones show on HBO due to their constant depictions of sexual assault. Seanan McGuire has written a brilliant post on why she will never write a rape scene, thus making her novels a safe space for readers. Rape, especially of young women, is an over-used trope in all fiction. The reason I’m having trouble with that, as opposed to murder, is because this trope contributes to desensitization. And that really is the last thing we need right now seeing as we are already fighting the bogeyman that is rape culture. Rape culture is already so insidious that we have a hard time convincing people that it exists. We really don’t have any problem convincing our culture that murder is bad, however there tend to be all sorts of justifications about sexual assault. It pleases me that authors and website writes are acknowledging this and try know to contribute to it.

  73. @Tasha Turner: Exactly. I wonder if there might be a kind of parallel to people who are okay with “magic!” being an acceptable “excuse” being okay with “alcohol!” also being an acceptable excuse.

    I have no problem with two consenting adults getting together, saying “I sure would like to get drunk/use mind-altering magics and then get freaky with you.” I would be okay with this happening in media or in real life (assuming magic exists).

    I have a slight problem with people getting drunk and having sex without prior consent because that’s dangerous territory, in real life. This is because it is definitely positively rape if someone has sex with another person who is drunk and that person did not want to have sex. If it turns out okay, then I can make a face and be okay with it, but that’s pushing it and it squicks me.

    IN MEDIA, I have a problem with two people having drunken sex by accident, period. It supports the wrong people (rapists who operate under the cover of “but s/he was drunk!”) and is unrealistic. I know a lot more people who were not okay with unplanned drunken sex after the fact than people who were okay with unplanned drunken sex after the fact.

    (This slightly off-topic rant brought to you by, I’m hungry and also I’m sick of bullshit in my media.)

  74. Seconding The Pathetic Earthling. As with anything traumatic and evil, don’t show it in graphic detail.

    @Tasha Turner: Heh. People never get just how disgusting those awful vampire books and the fifty shades of drek ones are until I or one of my buddies spends twenty minutes explaining it.

    Starting with how I made it through something like 3 chapters of fifty shades of crap on a bet before I threw up all over my boots.

    Yeah. People can be pretty clueless.

  75. I do NOT consider Friday a sensitive portrayal of rape precisely because of the forgiveness bit. It implies that the rapist was right to do so in the first place.

  76. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, must shows not inspire disgust? That people have such an emotional reaction to a piece of work is more of a description rather than a criticism.

    It can certainly be controversial, but overused? I don’t think so. Of the horrible things that happen to people in books, rape is relatively rare in my reading, though I’m no expert on the subject. But compare just the awful things that occurred in that episode – Arya tricks a little girl to commit suicide, Tyrion is captured into slavery and supposedly destined to be sold for his penis, the Tyrells are imprisoned based on Loras being gay (BTW, the implicit rapes by Loras of his squires is a bit glossed over). Rape themes can certainly strike hard, but I don’t know that they are overused to any extent. IMO they are more glossed over, especially in motion picture media, because most teams really don’t want anything to do with the criticism this one inspired.

  77. This was what led to my abandoning Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson’s Dune books. They were terrible, particularly compared to Frank’s, but made abjectly worse by the insistence of rape and torture for no real reason other than “these are bad people”. We know they’re bad people. We’ve read Frank’s books – and while there was horrible behaviour there, it was earned, and it was handled with expertise, rather than exploitative and to make up for an absence of plot.
    (Sorry, was talking to a friend about Dune last night, and it re-opened old wounds…)

  78. Very-far-off-to-the-side note: why is “woman” so often used as an adjective or modifier, as opposed to “female”?

    Because “woman” means a person, and “female” doesn’t necessarily. “Female” is often seen as dehumanizing. “Woman doctor” sounds a lot better to me than “female doctor” (though I don’t actually object to the latter — what I really hate is “female” used as a noun where “woman” would do just fine — “a female can be a good doctor” has me screaming “A female WHAT?”).

  79. Dichotomy Hubris:

    Ah, I was waiting to see if that particular short story would come up.

    And nope, that was consensual, although the lead-up is intentionally right on the border. I gave a lot of thought to where the line was on that one, for obvious reasons. There was a lot going on in that particular scene. In the end, our protagonist decides he’s going to be a willing participant in events.

    So: startling, a bit kinky, but ultimately consensual. And not rape.

  80. Regarding women and female – I use female in my posts because it refers to sex, and not gender. There are people who, from a biological perspective, are born female, but may not self-identify as women.

  81. @Todd Stull

    I am really trying hard to think of a movie or book where a woman was raped, and it seemed like something that was necessary and integral to the piece.

    There’s not many. But as has been noted above, there are a few. One that comes to mind is the YA novel Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, and the movie based on it. It’s on a lot of 8th-9th grade summer reading lists, specifically because of the subject of the novel, high school rape. Peer pressure, reaction to trauma, even voicelessness are also subtopics. I don’t think you could write that novel without the rape. I don’t remember the rape being graphically violent, but the author was very explicit about how it felt to the main character. (Unfortunately, since reading about the trial in the town of Steubenville, the ending is almost too optimistic).

  82. RE: woman vs. female, that makes total sense. I’m going to start using “woman” instead of “female” from now on. Thanks for helping me (and others) understand!

  83. Matthew – Friday’s rape scene was done RIGHT? Ummm. No. It was done WEIRD. The point of the scene seems to me to be to emphasize how this main character may look like a human but if you attempt to model her as one you are doing it wrong.

    Jani – I wouldn’t go so far as to say that forgiving is the same as saying something is OK. It’s really not. But marrying the guy was a (very long) bridge too far for me, so I’m basically with you.

  84. @Todd Skull. honestly I think I prefer you use the term woman rather than female. Because anyone that identifies as a woman or is assumed to be a woman by society regardless of their chromosomes is subject to a lot of bullshit. Thank you.

  85. @Tenar Darrell, “Speak” is absolutely a book where rape was necessary to the plot and I’m glad every time I hear about it being on another reading list because it’s about rape culture and how it affects the protagonist. She’s bullied into silence because her assault is inconvenient.

  86. Covenant rape scene was intended to be the unforgivable crime. The whole series is about the power of guilt, whether innocence is in fact powerless to combat evil and whether the irredeemable can ever be redeemed. It’s hard to imagine telling that story any other way

    The Bolton character in GoT serves as an important indicator that the story has entered a new stage where society is completely breaking down, Monstors rule and even lip service morality is no longer worth bothering with. I don’t know whether the Sansa rape was necessary to serve that point but it was no worse then what Bolton did to Theon.

  87. I just had a discussion about this, actually. Listening to the audiobook of The Wise Man’s Fear, I found myself deeply uncomfortable with the scenes with Felurian, because while Kvothe more or less consented to follow Felurian knowing what she did to men, what happened next pretty much seems like rape to me (and when a fae with mind-controlling power is involved, the notion of consent goes right out the window, honestly) We do see Kvothe fight her afterwards, to the point where he could have killed her but didn’t, but the whole chapter made me feel uncomfortable. And the idea that he’d stay….I mean this is clearly more of a gray area because despite Kvothe’s alar, she is able to overcome it and does multiple times, and when that happens, despite Kvothe’s internal monologue, consent gets awfully ‘did he consent or is she mindwhammying him into it?’ And furthermore, she doesn’t really seem to care if he consents or not (which has its own unfortunate implications along the ‘men can’t be raped because what man would turn down sex with a beautiful woman?’ trope) I mean, I’m still going to read book 3 when it comes out, but I am going to also warn friends of mine who start the series that there is a situation of extremely dubious-verging-on-non-consent. And I might skip her chapters on future readings.

    It’s sort of a softer reason of why I had to stop reading the Dresden Files. The White Court are rapists. What they do cannot be considered consensual in the slightest, and I was just too uncomfortable to keep reading (plus the incest implied by Harry/Molly and the whole repeated fridgeing of women to cause more manpain, the constant deus ex asspulls at the end….it just wasn’t worth it for me anymore).

  88. It’s intriguing to me how common and graphic sexual assault has become in the arts today as opposed to how it was treated in the earlier days of the English novel, for example. (And I’m someone who can’t deal with graphic violence or sexual assault in literature and art at all, really.)

    I’d be very interested to know what you think about a book like “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” where whatever went on there was deliberately veiled, but where the horrible consequences and psychological effects are followed and described in vivid detail.

    For my part, I’d take it as an example of literature where both the crime and the veiling of the crime are necessary to the story. I’d add that reading it had a profound effect on me when I was in high school (by which I mean that it pretty much wrecked my sleep for a week), but at the same time as I found it hard to deal with, I was very conscious that it was beautiful. But I’m really curious to know what you think about it.

  89. I teach high school literature, and the notion of authorial choice is an essential one that gives students a lot of trouble. I have to keep reminding them that the characters are not real people and make no choices of their own, and instead force them to ask, “Why do you think the author chose to have this happen?” or “What purpose does this event serve in the story?”

    And that can be a tough question to answer, especially if the author didn’t give it all that much thought. Really, every event that happens in a story should serve a purpose, whether it’s something as jarring as a rape scene or as benign as a stroll through a field of daisies. It’s just that the more significant a choice you make, the greater the purpose it should serve. As has been said elsewhere here, if you’re going to have a character get raped, then that choice had better be absolutely essential. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a great example – without rape as part of the story, there is no story. Or at least, not the story that Atwood wanted to tell.

    (As an aside, if you want to experience a special strain of pure awkwardness, be a 40-something male teacher teaching “Handmaid” to a class of high school senior girls. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a 17 year-old girl ask you to explain what “crotch rot” is.)

    While the scene in the recent episode of GoT is by no means a surprise – sexual violence has been part of that show since day one – it doesn’t serve any significant purpose. It doesn’t illuminate character (we already knew Ramsay was a psychopath and that Sansa is perpetually helpless), it doesn’t further the plot (I’m pretty sure that whatever horrible fate awaits Ramsay would have happened to him regardless of what he did to Sansa), and it doesn’t build upon or introduce any kind of thematic element (terrible things happen to good people because life is unfair – again, that was made clear pretty much from the first episode.) The only way I can think of to make that scene the least bit useful would be if the camera had panned to the outside, where the servants of Winterfell were listening and resolving that the time to evict the Boltons had come. The North may remember, but that’s pretty much all it’s done to this point…

  90. The authorial choice around Bolton is actually more linked to Theon

    Theon represents the Everyman who, out of fear, is silent and compliant in the face of atrocity

  91. I went to a writing seminar for new authors some years ago and one of the speakers, a former reader for a major publishing house, said he could have retired years earlier if he’d had $10 for every manuscript that began with a woman being chased through the woods by a serial killer/rapist. Sometimes she escaped, many times she didn’t. He was at a loss to explain the prevalence of this kind of thing which he’d rarely come across earlier in his career when authors saved the really shocking stuff for later in the book.

  92. so @Chris Gladis, I’m curious. What do you say to those 17-yr-old girls about “The Handmaid’s Tale”? *hands underneath my chin, looking at you expectantly* BTW, I’m a 30-something science teacher…

  93. Allan Swan writes:

    Very-far-off-to-the-side note: why is “woman” so often used as an adjective or modifier, as opposed to “female”? (“…not every young male novice storyteller has a woman friend…”) I’m not trying to copy edit in the comments here; I see similar constructions everywhere, and it always reads oddly to me. Thoughts?

    and HellenS writes:

    Because “woman” means a person, and “female” doesn’t necessarily. “Female” is often seen as dehumanizing. “Woman doctor” sounds a lot better to me than “female doctor” (though I don’t actually object to the latter — what I really hate is “female” used as a noun where “woman” would do just fine — “a female can be a good doctor” has me screaming “A female WHAT?”).

    Hellen, I think I see your point about using female as a noun in the case that we know the female in question is a human, but I’m less convinced that woman sounds better as a modifier.

    “Did he see a woman doctor or a man doctor?” sounds more peculiar to me than “Did he see a female doctor or a male doctor?”.

    The one that mystifies me, which I brought up in a different comment thread earlier this month is, when using woman as a modifier for a plural noun, should you pluralize woman. I see it all the time, and it strikes me as strange. “Did they usually visit women doctors?” Does it work for other nouns? “Did they usually visit men doctors”. “Did they usually visit elves doctors?” Wouldn’t “female”, “male”, and “elven” work better?

  94. @brokensea I gave up on the Kite Runner after that scene. I was enjoying the book immensely, but that was a bridge too far. And when the protagonist failed to do anything at all – in fact, he turned away from his poor raped friend – I gave up on him. I put the book down and never picked it up again.

    There are two other books that come to mind where the protagonist’s action struck me as so beyond the pale that I put them down and never returned to them – Crime and Punishment is one, Native Son is the other. I probably will come back around to Crime and Punishment eventually. But I can’t see myself returning to the Kite Runner.

    As for an example of a needless killing of a dog, I would point to Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. Took a perfectly enjoyable book and stained the entire experience in the final chapter for really no payoff. Just unconscionable.

  95. @Catie – With things like that, I tend to start from really far off and take tiny steps to get there. So something like, “You know when you wear wooly socks or something, and your feet get all sweaty?” “Yeah,” “Okay, now what do you think would happen if you had to wear them all the time?” “My feet would stink.” “You betcha. Now, you know what ‘crotch’ means, right?” (shakes head) “… Okay…”

    (As a point of reference, by the way, I teach in Japan, so not knowing what “crotch” means isn’t really that surprising.)

    If I’m lucky, they’ll connect the last few pieces themselves. I have to do a lot of that with this book. Academically it’s because students need to learn to do that on their own in order to extract meaning from the text. Personally, it’s because it’s awkward for all involved, I imagine. It’s especially weird being the 40-something male who is aware of issues that plague women – issues of which these girls are as yet unaware. It’s like knowing unpleasant parts of their future and having to choose what to do with that knowledge.

    As a bonus, one of the girls has recently discovered the Social Justice wing of Tumblr, and is the first to bring up terms like “rape culture” and “victim-blaming.” Absolutely appropriate to our discussion, and it’s opened up interesting conversations, but my knee-jerk reaction to Tumblr as an agent of social change is not always a positive one.

  96. @Deb — Regarding “veiled” or otherwise subtle hints about sexual violence. The problem is that contemporary audiences aren’t good at deciphering such delicate hinting. I have had to explain to other intelligent adults, for example, that there was a rape in Laurence of Arabia. The main character! It went right over their heads, and right over mine, too, on my first viewing.

  97. I am certainly not a writing expert by any stretch, but shouldn’t questions like, “why is this here and what does this contribute to the story” be asked about every element of the story?

    At the risk of sounding argumentative, which I’m truly not trying to be, why does this have to be said specifically of rape scenes as opposed to murder scenes, psychological torture, physical torture, cruelty to animals, harm to children, profanity, blasphemy, and all things scatalogical? Doesn’t it always come down to how it is handled by the writer and how it serves the story?

  98. Fascinating post. For what it’s worth, I don’t do rape scenes in my stories. I do, however, have a slush novel that I work on from time to time, that makes me seriously question my sanity. It is about serial killers, but the way they go about doing it and the disturbing ease in which I can write this is what truly bothers me (plot idea was pulled from a two minute scene in an Australian crime movie called “Animal Kingdom”, that can really curl your hair. Similar scene was used in the movie “Lucky Sleverin” as well).

    So for the most part, this 60+ page slush novel stays buried in my slush pile.

  99. Folks:

    This isn’t actually the thread for a discussion of “female” vs. “woman.” It will take us far off course. Let’s wrap it up please.

    Also, and once again, let’s not turn this thread into yet another place online that’s rehashing the GoT episode. There are only about 18 million other places to do that.

    Verkisto:

    Without suggesting that you are being argumentative, it’s interesting to me that when one says “think about [x]” that people say “Why not also [y] and [z] and [q]?” The answer in these cases very often is “Because right now, [x] is under discussion and not these other things.”

  100. @Chris Gladis. Like you said, discovering Tumblr opened up some interesting conversations. Truly, I would have loved to have something like Tumblr when I was a teen, but I didn’t. I was alone with my weird self for so many years. I didn’t even discover terms like “rape-culture” or more importantly “victim-blaming” until my late twenties. So, maybe you need to re-think your knee-jerk reaction. I would have loved this resource as a young girl, even with it’s misinformation because a huge majority of us as young women are yelled at, assaulted, and minimized in so many ways and because of rape culture and we have normalized those experiences for many reasons. The web now (finally) backs us up and tells us those behaviors we excused are not okay. So, even now as a 30-something scientist/teacher, I love Tumblr. I love the fact that so many women are finally saying what I want to say.

    And, to bring this back to John Scalzi’s point we need to re-think rape as a plot point. All to often (and I think it’s because of rape culture) authors use this trope as a quick throwaway point to easily describe a bad character.

    PS. I lived in Japan while I was growing up. What city are you living in?

  101. @Catie Believe me, I am all in favor of social justice issues becoming open and available, and I think this girl is going to grow up better and stronger for knowing of them and being prepared to deal with them. I suppose I’ve run into too many of the darker corners of Tumblr – people who use social justice issues as an excuse for their own bullying – to come out undisturbed. But that can be said of anywhere on the internet really, and there are hateful people in every good movement. I hope she keeps to the positive, empowering aspect of Social Justice. I can already see in her class comments that it’s having a huge effect on how she sees the world.

    I have made sure to encourage such explorations when discussing literature, and I’m trying to find ways to bring these issues out in class discussion with the girls. It’s fascinating for me, and I hope they’re getting as much out of it, especially in terms of understanding the connection between literature and culture, what’s acceptable and what isn’t. I told them about the highly problematic sex scene from “Revenge of the Nerds,” and they were stunned that such a thing was acceptable. “The 80s were a different time,” I said, gritting my teeth…

    I’m teaching in Uji, by the way, just outside Kyoto. A truly lovely place.

  102. John:

    I am not suggesting that instead of discussing not writing rape scenes, we instead discuss not writing murder scenes. I’m not attempting to derail the discussion, I am trying to understand the discussion.

    Allow me to rephrase: For you as a writer, what sets rape scenes apart from other truly godawful aspects of human existence that could be represented in a story? Do you have any other types of scenes you typically try to avoid?

    (I don’t always do well with tone in written communication but I genuinely am curious and not trying to be a jackass…)

  103. @ Ariel

    Agree about Deerskin (by Robin McKinley). I have often puzzled about why I was able to enjoy that book despite being someone with an extremely low tolerance for sexual violence in media. I think some of it is the way the scene in question, seen through the fragmented memories of the protagonist, manages to be searing and heart-breaking (the dog!) and — graceful? Some of it is how McKinley does not dwell (IMO) on the horror, but also does not deny or trivialize it. And a lot of it is how despite a quite horrific rape being the inciting event of the story, the book itself is about the protagonist’s survival and her growing understanding of herself as strong and valuable (it’s also ruminating on other topics, like beauty and power and forgiveness). While there are parts of the book I feel ambivalent toward or conflicted about, it stands out for me as a much-more-thoughtful-than-average example of sexual violence in literature.

    @ matthughes

    I appreciate that your decision to include a (violent, public, child-) rape scene in your story feels justified and not at all gratuitous or casual to you, but your description of your reasoning troubles me. Why isn’t it “enough” for your character’s trajectory of behavior (compliant to rebellious) to be motivated by growing up in slavery? (I’m assuming your character is based on Alonso de Illescas) By surviving to become an accomplished right-hand-man who is nonetheless still a slave? Or by being shipwrecked in a rugged, inhospitable wilderness?

    I don’t mean to pick on you, and your story is yours to tell in your way. But I feel like too often, I see authors turn to sexual violence because they’re looking for “something really bad”, and a whole range of other experiences that are traumatic and life-changing for actual people somehow don’t sound “bad enough”. I’m much more interested as a reader in exploring the ways a character can be deeply affected by all sorts of life experiences. Lots of stuff is “bad enough”, even if it doesn’t sound as shocking in a one-sentence summary. We may have decided culturally that things like physical violence, emotional violence, or survival under extreme conditions aren’t shocking (or are even ennobling), but I consider it squarely within speculative fiction’s wheelhouse to tell stories that challenge unexamined cultural assumptions.

  104. @Chris Gladis So I’m trying to thing of a book that positively portrays a young woman’s sexuality and I can’t think of one? Other than Judy Blume and her positive portrayals of a young girl’s masturbation? So what literature do you suggest that shows realistic aspects of a young woman?

    PS. I used to live in Yokosuka. I’ve been to Kyoto several times. I agree, it’s a lovely place.

  105. @ H. Savinien
    I often wonder why it’s not required reading with gender specific discussion sections for every kid entering high school. I’m kind of serious about that. If only girls recommend and read the book how do boys go about learning about rape culture if they’re not taught? A book which boys never even know to read won’t open their minds, I think. And not everyone is going to get Josh Charles in an Amy Schumer sketch as their football coach in high school. /sarcasm

  106. I feel similarly about a number of the books mentioned here: Deerskin and Handmaid’s Tale, plus I think Shawshank Redemption does a decent job of using rape as a story element without being gratuitous and shocking.* Trying to isolate the common elements here: I think one is that the person being raped is one of the main characters, and another, related factor is that the rape is not a way to hurt the “real” protagonist, subtly pornographic, or a backstory excuse for being fragile/dysfunctional/otherwise broken.

    Also, all the characters in these books deal with it on their own, sometimes with divine aid, but never by having The Right Man come along and heal them, which always bugs me.

    I’m iffier about rape in eighties girl fantasy, a la Mercedes Lackey: it doesn’t come off like the examples here, but there’s something about the trope that just bugs, and I can’t put my finger on it quite at the moment, except to say that I was way more okay with it in the Vows & Honor books than in either the Arrows or the Mage Winds stuff.

    Re: Thomas Covenant: I heard about that, never picked up the books, and never will, though people I like tell me they’re good. For me, the problem here is…yes, he hates himself. He *should* hate himself. He should not stop hating himself. I hate him. And I don’t care if he learns and grows through a trilogy or gets eaten by bears in the next chapter.

    It’s a general problem I have with redemption arcs that start too low.

    More generally, I’d like to second or third or whatever the sentiment that, no, the author controls these things. You write a character a certain way, and that might limit your choices of what they do later on, but in most situations, they have several options besides sexual violence. (I have real problems with people who say “well, Character X can’t do anything else in this situation”, because…I’ve never met anyone in real life who was limited to one response per situation**, because we are not fucking flatworms.) You can find one, or make one up–or not, but don’t act like it’s not on you and the whole scene came from Mystic Novelspace.

    *I would say that this is generally true of 1980s-and-later King, but I’ve never experienced sexual assault, and YMMV.
    **At least to situations where they can think. If I drop a brick on my foot, it’s quite possible that I can’t do anything but swear at the top of my lungs; on the other hand, I’ve never dropped a brick on my foot at my grandmother’s funeral, or while hiding from ninjas.

  107. “Here’s another thing you should never do in a novel – kill a dog or a cat.”

    I actually wrote a scene in my novel Safe and Sound where the bad guy used a yowling cat locked in a car trunk to get people to open it, thus triggering the bomb that killed multiple humans–but the cat miraculously walked away, so no one should be offended. I ended up cutting that part out, because it was a bit much, but I hope you take my meaning.

  108. “I find it odd that violence that results in death or severe bodily harm is OK, in fact almost a necessary part of many movies, TV shows and novels, but not rape. Is this because victims of non-sexual violence are better able to recover from their trauma and thus receive less consideration? Or do they just keep quiet and suffer?”

    Honestly? It’s because TV and movie audiences are much more easily shocked (at least in certain countries) by gratuitous nudity or sexual activity than by gratuitous violence. Look at the reactions to Game of Thrones – Series 1 involved a seven-year-old being made to watch a public execution (of an innocent man! by his father! who was a sympathetic character!), and then pushed out of a window; it involved people being beheaded, crippled, maimed, dismembered, stabbed, shot, burned, and killed with molten metal. What attracted the most complaints? The nudity. TV audiences would probably be just fine with rape as long as the participants kept their clothes on throughout.

  109. I like Jim Wright’s take on it at https://www.facebook.com/Stonekettle/posts/839883872713684

    ” At this very moment, right now, a large fraction of this country is talking about rape – and a rather significant fraction of people outside of America are too. And here’s the funny thing: MANY of those people, maybe even a majority, haven’t even seen the show, let alone the episode in question.

    Think about that.

    No. Stop. Stop screaming. Stop reacting. Stop triggering. Stop. Just stop for a minute and think about that global conversation. NOT the show, the result.

    REALLY think about that.

    A TV show, one that plays to a limited audience via pay per view, based on an unfinished unwieldy series of novels by a Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror writer that most people outside of that very specialized genre have never heard of (and most inside it hadn’t either until Game of Thrones, despite the fact that Martin has been writing for more than 40 years and sold his first story in 1970), a show about some make-believe fantasyland filled with an endless parade of selfish squabbling jerks, that show, that one right there, suddenly and without warning has started A WORLDWIDE DIALOG ABOUT RAPE. “

  110. A bit over a decade ago, DC Comics published a nasty, ugly miniseries whose entire point was to retroactively make a rape a part of the backstory of the Elongated Man’s wife, Sue. It was brutal and stupid and exploitative and I am pretty sure Sue never actually had a line of dialogue in the miniseries since everything happened in flashbacks. It was the beginning of the end of my reading DC’s line of comics, and ever since I’ve been revolted by DC’s adopting that series as the defining moment for its publishing line, most of whose stars appear on lunchboxes and bedsheets and cartoons aimed at kids. Worst of all is all the fanboys who think the miniseries in question was the most awesome thing evar because it was, like, realistic and stuff. Gross.

  111. jamesbfranks: I would take issue with Wright’s overly dramatic “suddenly and without warning has started …” bit, since this is part of an ongoing dialog about rape. It boosts the signal, that’s for sure. Sometimes it takes a high-profile situation at the right point in the dialog to get even more people to pay attention. Certainly, the U.Va. controversy, the women in India, Cosby, et al. have also contributed in that way.

  112. Yes. An author whose work brings these issues into the center of her work in the genre of military sci fi (with aliens and pirates) is Karin Lowachee in Warchild. Critical to my ability to read this novel was that she wrote intelligently about trauma and recovery and how the experience of rape shaped characters’ identities, relationships, and worlds.
    More generally, I never made it through a Thomas Covenant book, was nauseated by Heinlein’s Friday, and never want to read another portrayal of rape as an easy way to raise the stakes, to titillate, or to characterize women as uniquely vulnerable. I am also disturbed by the apparent sense of some writers that men just want to rape or in other ways violently abuse others, and will do so whenever able. I suppose raising men’s sexual identities as a concern could make sense… But I would rather read fun books, with characters I care about.
    Bad things– violence, sexual violation, etc– can be basic to the shaping of character and events without being vividly depicted.
    I encourage writers to try for interesting rather than painful.

  113. I figure if a writer inflicts some sort of trauma or death on a character, it’s to advance the plot, and the development of that character, or of others who interact(ed) with that character.

    ‘Is this advancing the plot or characters, or just gratuitous?’ is always a valid question, as a reader and especially as a writer.

  114. @Catie:

    Jo Walton’s “Among Others” is not just a terrific novel in general, but it also has a positive portrayal of a teenage girl’s sexuality.

  115. matthughes: based on a real-life person: an escaped African slave in sixteenth century Ecuador who is now recognized as an official national hero. His actual background before the age of ten is unknown,

    I would probably tread lightly here. You’ve got a real person, who is a national hero, and you want to invent some story to fit into that ten year blank space to explain who he is.

    Imagine for a moment you’re reading a story about (insert your personal hero here) and the book invents some dark fiction about your hero that was a fabrication of the author added for effect.

    As I’ve been developing the character, I’ve known that something terrible happened to him that made him a passive accepter of whatever life handed him

    You mean like slavery: a total domination of an individual through force, violence, and torture, where just enough food and shelter is provided to keep you alive so that escaping means facing possible starvation or death from exposure as you’re alone with no infrastructure, not to mention the possibility of being recaptured and the horrible punishment that would come from that. At which point, you’re not a passive accepter of being a slave, you’ve just done the math and figured out that given the shitty circumstances, being a slave might just be the least-worst shitty circumstance you can choose from.

    But the horror of it is necessary to drive the story and, far from being a casual fling of violence, it’s the essential event on which the character’s whole life turns.

    I think sometimes it is difficult for people who haven’t been the victim of some particular horror to fully grasp the horror of that particular thing. I think the main point where rape in a story goes wrong is when the writer doesn’t fully understand the horror of it.

    I think that maybe, and this is a bit of observation combined with a heap of conjecture, that maybe you’re underestimating the horror of slavery. And if you’re going to write a story about a real historical national hero who was also a slave, then I think you’re going to have to wrap your mind around the real horror of slavery and how slavery would have affected him.

  116. @Catie, I would recommend Tamora Pierce’s books. Her main female characters make choices about their sex lives and, particularly in the case of Keladry of Mindelan, DISCUSS them with other women. Her books are the first ones I read where a young woman had sex with more than one person (before she got married!) and was not shamed or punished for it either by the narrative or other characters. There are female characters with active sex lives who don’t marry at all! The books are aimed at 10-15 year olds, so the sex isn’t described in any kind of detail, but that’s what’s going on.

    @Tenar Darell, absolutely. I wish it was. Rape culture isn’t a discussion we can only have with women and girls. Young men need to know the same things!

    @CG, I love Sue Dibny and categorically deny that that miniseries ever happened, because it was incredibly jarring compared to the ENTIRE REST OF THEIR STORY, which was silly and joyful and a direct challenge to all the grimdark. Nope. Didn’t happen. Sue and Ralph are running around being ridiculous detectives with Sue in fabulous hats and being amused by her boytoy husband forever and ever amen.

  117. I think my problem with a lot of rape scenes is that even when they’re condemned by the plot, they’re frequently portrayed in a titillating way–and this really only goes for the rape of female characters. There are male characters who are raped, but for one thing, it doesn’t tend to happen in the same kinds of fiction–male characters are raped in horror movies or serious dramas; you would never see something like ‘Taken’ with multiple men subjected to actual or threatened sexual violence in something that’s basically a shoot-em-up action film–and it doesn’t tend to be portrayed the same way. Look at the rape of Andy Dufresne in ‘Shawshank Redemption’, of Derek Vinyard in ‘American History X’, of Bobby Trippe in ‘Deliverance’; they’re all portrayed as acts of brutal violence, and there’s no suggestion that they should be read as sexy or visually appealling. Also, all of those are main characters who have significance to the plot; when they are raped, it is seen as an offense against *them*, not against their parents, spouses, or siblings. Female characters are frequently assaulted almost in the background, in order to provide a motivating event for the male character who is actually at the center of the story.

    Sophia McDougall wrote an interesting essay on this subject. It’s a few years old, but it seems relevent here: http://www.newstatesman.com/cultural-capital/2013/03/rape-james-bond

  118. I wanted to like Rjurik Davidson’s ‘Unwrapped Sky’, I really did…but the writing style was such a SLOG that I was looking for an excuse to bail. Guess what? Rape scene! And I think what bothered me was that it wasn’t described violently or brutally…it was described from the POV of a weak patsy of a figurehead character trying to prove to himself he was higher status than he actually was, which made it not just disgusting, but extremely depressing. Yep, filed that puppy in the DNF pile.

    I think as a writer, I’ve come to the conclusion that writing simply for the shock or the surprise twist is a sign of weak and lazy writing. Like you said–there’s got to be a good, viable reason behind it. If I want to put something utterly shocking in there, there’s got to be a damn good reason for it other than to wave a snot-drenched severed finger in someone’s face going “woogeddy-boogeddy”. There are certain horrible realities of life (war, rape, slavery, etc) that can of course be put into a story…but you’ve GOT to have that narrative reason.

    Oddly yet amusingly, John, I believe this is why I love how you started The Android’s Dream the way you did. You didn’t HAVE to start with that sentence. But you did, and you gave a brilliant, viable reason for doing so. A damn hilarious way to start a novel, but a brilliant one at that. :)

  119. The first book in George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman series (a series that I otherwise enjoyed) has a scene in which the first person narrator (an admitted cad, drunkard, womanizer and coward) recounts how he’s given a dancing girl by a local warlord in 1840’s Afghanistan. “Eventually,” he says casually, “I had to rape her. It has its points, but it’s not really for me. I prefer willing women.”

    Now, this actually does move the plot because it sets up a scene in which the woman and her husband (another warlord, as it turns out) capture Flashman and are about to castrate him for revenge before he gets rescued (after breaking down and blubbering like the coward he admits to being). And it’s probably not too far from how an actual British officer in 1842 might act towards a native woman given to him for the night. Still it was jarring. It took Flashman out of the realm of “charming rogue” into the realm of “imperialist monster.” As I’ve said, I loved the rest of the series (in which Flashy acts the cad on numerous occasions, but thankfully never goes that far again). But that scene does weigh on one’s mind a bit. It was a mistake for Fraser to put that in, IMHO.

  120. Ah yes, the infamous rape scene in The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. A few thoughts:
    1. The scene itself is short and brutal. A decent example of how to write a rape scene, actually.
    2. Donaldson shows in great detail how devastating rape can be–between guilt (over being raped/not stopping the rape) and desire for justice against someone who can’t be brought to justice, the girl and her family all suffer terribly.
    3. Covenant never does face justice or suffer any penalty for his crime. Sadly, this is all too realistic. Though unlike a lot of rapists he does kinda feel bad about it.
    4. Covenant is not in any way, shape, or form the hero of the trilogy, nor is the series a “redemption arc” for him–he is a redeemer, but he is not, himself, redeemed. In a way, he reminds me of Borges’ Three Versions of Judas.
    Anyway, not to criticize anyone for stopping at the rape–that’s certainly a fair reason not to read a book–but in the context of the thread, it’s actually not a bad example of how to depict rape, if an author feels its necessary.

  121. I wasnt. Was rhetorical.

    Which is precisely why you are getting your ass handed to you, Peter. A rhetorical question is one where you’re not, in fact, asking a question, but trying to make a point. Such as your “Should we ban all rape scenes from books and movies?” You weren’t, as you admit, actually asking with a straight face whether we really ought to ban all rape scenes in books and movies; the point of the rhetorical question was to attack the discussion about rape scenes being problematic.

    If you’re going to show your ass with a rookie-level logical fallacy, dude, at least have the grace not to huff when you’re called on it.

  122. I’m totally in agreement with the people above who said they were tired of women’s biology (rape, pregnancy, etc) being used as their main character development tool. For me, that’s the problem here. (Leaving aside the cases where rape is used to motivate the hero by taking his “toys” away and breaking them. I think people above have been really eloquent on why that’s problematic.)

    I feel like much of the time, rape is used as quickie character development: a way to explain why this girl has stepped outside her cultural norms and give her a reason to level up. (Somehow, boy shepherds or farmers who want to step out of their normal roles and level up do not require a rape to explain their motivations.) There are a whole lot of reasons why people choose to take on a new adventure, and there are a whole lot of terrible trials they have to overcome along the way. I have a problem with writers using rape as a plot device without thinking about other possibilities, especially if they would certainly think through those wider possibilities for a male character. It’s akin to the problems with gender in news articles or obituaries where a profile of a man will center on his career while a profile of a woman will often focus on her marriage and kids and how she balances those with her career. We need to take a step back and notice that we’re not asking women (either real or fictional) the same questions as men, and that imbalance warps our portrayal of them.

  123. @Greg and Julia:

    Agreed, I am taking liberties with the real-life Alonso Illescas, but his life as a slave was atypical. He was virtually adopted into the Illescas family, given the name of the pater familias, who stood as his godfather and gave him an education and a position in the family firm. He was the supercargo on the Illescas-owned ship that went aground and spilled the less fortunate Africans into the Ecuadorean jungle.

    But Alonso is only one of three protagonists. The others are a shaman of the Nigua people, whom the Africans conquered and mixed with, and Alonso de Espinosa, a Trinitarian friar who may have been in Ecuador to avoid the Inquisition and who ended up “going native” which led to his being arrested by the colonial authorities, who tried to send him back to Spain. Fortunately, he seems to have escaped and rejoined the new society that was developing in the jungle.

    All three of my characters have been alienated from their natural roots, wounded by life, and have to deal with circumstances that force them to develop new depths. That is really what the story is about.

  124. I never wrote a rape scene, but in two of my short stories, I explored what happened after (long after, not the immediate consequences) to the victim, her possible revenge solution or her lasting fear and negative attitude towards sex. And one of my novels starts with an attempted rape. The heroine is a magician, so she doesn’t feel threatened. She just thinks up the most appropriate magical retaliation and acts upon it, before the guy gets anywhere. Her actions have a domino reaction; they start the novel going, but I needed something really repulsive ALMOST done to her for her to react so strongly. I must admit though that many readers disliked that beginning and didn’t continue reading the story. It was a lesson, and I learned from it. I won’t do it again.

  125. matthughes, from your earlier comment: “The child is then [after his father’s throat was cut] thrown away, sold into slavery with the other survivors.” Why is being taken captive in that violent conflict and having witnessed his father’s throat being cut and then being sold into slavery not traumatic enough to make a young child a passive accepter of what happens to him?

  126. Scalzi, Thanks for not writing rape scenes, I find them disturbing.
    To the women who shared some of their stories.
    Thanks, I’m sorry there are so many men who are jerks.
    R.J. Bennet and the substitution of young boys for women in rape.
    Yes, that is also very disturbing. But it doesn’t affect me the same way. I guess deep down in the reptile part of my brain if I read/see a rape scene there is a voice back there that says, “Hey, I might like a little of that.” I have no such thoughts in regards to molesting minors, male on male rape (or murder). So though those are terrible things, they don’t punch as deeply. Maybe I’m just weird, are there any other men with a similar reaction?

  127. (frequent reader, very rare poster)

    Verkisto: When you asked your question, people in this thread had already mentioned animal abuse, trauma inflicted on children, war as anything but a nasty last resort, torture-as-successful-interrogation-technique (it isn’t, btw), and torture, period, as horrific things that take them out of books – and which, by implication, writers should consider carefully and tread warily about. Murder, a common act/motivator in fiction, was brought up, too. (at least, as a writer, I could certainly extrapolate that aspect from the discussion. YMMV, since few people talked about it bluntly with the words “a writer should think about…”)

    So I think your question was answered before it was asked. Unless you specifically and only want Scalzi’s take.

    matthughes: How exactly does “he’s one of three protagonists” justify throwing a rape into a scene which a) probably did not happen to your historic personage and b) already sounds traumatic enough a motivator? Especially since it seems like his own rape is just a tool to tiorture his father with before his father dies, and his own part in it is, well, unconsidered and gratuitous. He doesn’t know then that his slavery will be on the less horrific side, and moreover, people in the real world have the natural or accidental deaths of their parents as life altering motivators (especially if they’re kids when it happens), never mind their actual murders.

    I’ve had characters get raped in stories (I really hope it was never gratuitous; it certainly wasn’t meant to titillate.) and I know now that it sometimes is too easy to go down that road. I appreciate that you feel you thought long and hard. We’re just asking you to think a little more.

  128. aebhel: I do think male rape is often treated overly frivolously, too – it doesn’t get the equivalent to the gratuitous “hey, look, a sexy woman is being raped, let’s dwell on her hot looks” horrors, but it gets something worse in a way: It’s a JOKE. Especially female-on-male assault (think of the ” MAN!!!” scene on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, as an exaggerated but common version of the trope), but also “dropping the soap in prison” jokes, and gay guys being pushy at straight men in comedy flicks. The Shawshank Redemption felt like a bit of a relief for treating prison rape as a horrible thing.

  129. This reminds me of when I tried to read Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson back in the early 80’s. It was one of the very sparse offerings from my local bookstore in the fantasy genre, and I wanted something to keep the intellectual buzz going from LOTR. My friends who read it recommended it highly, so I picked it up. But after fifty pages of unrelenting moroseness, Thomas Covenant goes on to rape his guide. I threw the book into a corner.

    When I asked my friends about it, they all said “yeah, it’s rough, but it gets better after that”. But I just could not get past that scene. I would not give that character any sympathy whatsoever, and the suspension of disbelief was permanently off. I unbelieved the Unbeliever. To this date I have not read another book by Donaldson. So I guess Pamela Wallace’s advice is pretty good.

  130. What’s glossed over by most people above, though, is the fact that rape subplots are often not used to add drama to female characters per se, but rather as a plot motivation for the male lead to Do Something Because Someone/Something He Cares About Has Been Hurt.

    Might as well have had a steamroller run over the dude’s Mustang.

    Deirdre’s comment pretty much sums up why I could not get into the Thomas Covenant books, because in the end, it felt like Donaldson used that rape for the benefit of his main character, and regardless of the fact that the story explored somewhat how his crime affected others terribly, it was still ultimately about him and his feelings about having raped someone. Sure, he feels guilt over what he did, that’s something I suppose, but it’s not like he didn’t have plenty of reasons to hate himself already so was it really necessary to have him rape someone just so he could hate himself even more?

    The fact that he did it because he didn’t think anything he was experiencing was real was an additional squick factor – like really? It’s ok to rape someone *who was just helping you* because you don’t think they’re real and therefore no consequences?

    I get that Thomas wasn’t supposed to really be a *likable* character – he’s angry and prickly and arrogant, but it was just too much for me.

  131. Wow… So I read this post yesterday, the linked post & the discussions following both… I mulled the whole thing over for big chunks of last night and came back & read the rest of the discussion today… For starters I am hugely impressed with the level of discourse around what can be a really heated topic (I mean nobody has been compared to Hitler/called a moron/thrown up their hands in disgust @the whole thing and that’s a massive step up on most comment sections) As the conversation has progressed so far already I am just full of opinions on so many different things said, from the original post to the discussions it sparked but I will try to keep my thoughts in order….
    My thoughts on the initial post are thus: It’s well thought out, it’s really nice to see esp a male author (bonus points for it being one whose work I have really enjoyed for a while) speaking to this issue which is so often mislabeled as a “women’s” issue, a misnomer for @least a half dozen reasons I can think of offhand… I agree entirely with the assertion that rape is way too often thrown into a story as a go-to horrible thing to happen to a female in particular or to demonstrate just how “bad” the bad guy really is… I completely agree that an author should be extremely careful when & how they utilize it in a story…
    What I have found myself largely baffled by is the amount of respondents who immediately put books containing rape scenes in their “do not finish” pile… First off, I can count on my fingers the # of books I have ever put down w/out finishing & pretty much bar none the breaking point was terrible writing, with little or nothing to do with content… But if an author does present me with something which I find distasteful or which provokes some manner of visceral response in me I feel it is more so important to continue reading to see what the authors ultimate intent was… Sometimes it pans out that I don’t feel like whatever it was which provoked the reaction was necessary to the plot but often, given further reading the intent becomes clear in a way which it wouldn’t had I simply abandoned the work upon being made uncomfortable…
    Several people have mentioned the Thomas Covenant books and I feel these are an excellent example of this… Covenant is an anti-hero and is not only driven by his guilt and moral/physical decay but is constantly being reminded of it…. He is in no way let off the hook or his reprehensible behaviour ever apologized for… Those who stopped reading when they were made uncomfortable never got to see him dragged over the coals for 6 books (I stopped in the 7th, one of those rare dnf books, but again I stopped because the writing had gone straight downhill)
    I have also mused a bit on the respondents who seem so dead set against “grimdark” entertainment… I am all for escapist media, we all need some of that sometimes (myself I watch Marvel movies) but for some people, lots of people, life can be pretty grimdark… Personal disclosure : I spent most of my adult life in abusive relationships including a decade with a husband who beat me nearly to death, strangled me, continued to beat me through both of my pregnancies & raped me literally hundreds of times during our marriage through forcing my “consent” by putting me in such fear of the consequences of my refusal… I would call my life fairly “grimdark” & feel justified in doing so… I want authors to handle these subjects with respect and care but I also want to see my actual life experiences reflected in media, culture and entertainment… I want to feel that I am not alone in having suffered these things… I want to feel that my circumstances are understood (see the poster on the linked article who didn’t even believe that marital rape existed & the well meaning people who tried to correct him but still referred to it as “marital rape” in quotes still somehow distinguishing it from “actual rape”) I would crow praises to the rooftops for an author who managed to handle that realistically as I can’t think of a single instance…
    So I have gone on a bit I know but I suppose my ultimate crux is simply that rather than avoid these sorts of topics for fear of those who might be hurt by them considered & judicious use can reflect the reality of so many people’s lives… My word of warning would always be “handle with care” but I personally will always be drawn to a “darker” sort of entertainment and morally ambiguous characters which speak more deeply to my own life…

  132. > Ah, I was waiting to see if that particular short story would come up.

    Glad I could oblige. :-)

    > And nope, that was consensual, although the lead-up is intentionally right on the border.

    I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on where the border was on that one. To my reading of the story it was date rape. It was the alien equivalent of a male rapist saying, “I can pull out whenever you want, baby.” At the end our protagonist capitulated (which many a rapist could call a decision to “be a willing participant in events”) as it was the only option left to him to extricate himself from the situation.

    So: startling, a bit kinky (both of which are fine), but ultimately non-consensual. And thus, rape.

  133. matthughes:

    All three of my characters have been alienated from their natural roots, wounded by life, and have to deal with circumstances that force them to develop new depths. That is really what the story is about.

    that sounds like the basis for a really great story.

    The thing I’m trying to verbalize here is I’m having a memory stuck on loop in my head. An instructor for an improv acting class was noticing a pattern in that us students were trying to create conflict in our bits, but invariably, the conflict generally rose to the level of guns, fist fights, a couple fighting and on the verge of divorce. all very extreme and final conflicts. They were all valid, but taken as a whole, it showed that we students weren’t actually choosing from a whole list of all possible conflicts, we were choosing from a more comic-book level of conflict. The big ones. guns. cars. sex.

    The easy ones. It was a very young view of the world. cops and robbers. evil doers twirling their mustache. mom and dad fighting. rape.

    I’m not saying you are doing that. But I haven’t heard the thing that would clarify what is unique about the horror of this rape that distinguishes it from the horror of this slavery. To repeat myself:

    But what happened in that class was that we started getting the conflict and the tension without needing cartoon level bad guys to achieve it.

    I think sometimes it is difficult for people who haven’t been the victim of some particular horror to fully grasp the horror of that particular thing.

    It’s just that I’m not hearing from you the sense that you’re grokking the immense horror of a life of slavery, because it seems like you’re adding rape to get that horror.

    And it kind of reminds me of the improv instructor pointing out that we were all doing mustache twirling evil doers to get our conflict, when there is plenty of conflict already to be had in the real world. I think there is plenty of horror in slavery. And slavery might be …. mundane for some people, so maybe a person might add rape to get to that mustache twirling level of conflict, and that might be missing the horror in the mundane, and the reality, in the day to day.

    I’m not sure if I’m communicating this in any sensible level at all. so. if this isn’t making sense, maybe I should drop it.

  134. @Vertigo Vixen. I wish that all had never happened to you and I’m glad you survived it.

    You’ve got a good point about the actual help darker stories can be. They are, among other things, hugely important to people who have to deal with dark situations themselves.

    Background which is relevant: I’m a youth librarian and my SO is a youth counselor at a home for teen girls.

    I specifically look for books to add to our collection that I know will be relevant to their lives, so the library now has more books about teens whose lives include drug and alcohol use/abuse, rape and sexual abuse, mental illness, abuse of people with mental illness or physical disability, parental neglect, self harm, and more. There are people who live with those situations or their aftermath and need to know they’re not alone. There are other readers who need to understand that those are things that can and do happen and that the world isn’t necessarily a happy place, and that’s a valuable thing too.

    It’s absolutely something that should be handled with care, though, and I’m honestly glad that books exist that do so.

  135. Question: Would anyone here not recommend Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination* because one major character rapes another? To me this has never seemed gratuitous, and certainly it has major repercussions later in the story; moreover it’s barely described at all (“You don’t like my face, Miss Robin? There ain’t nothing you can do about that either.” Suddenly he picked her up and carried her to a deep couch. He threw her down on the couch. “Nothing,” he repeated. End of scene.) Gully includes rape as one the crimes he confesses to Regis Sheffield near the end of the story, but it’s never explicitly referred to otherwise.

    *For a really great edition, see the Library of America’s two-volume SF Novels of the 1950s from a couple of years ago.

  136. > I’m okay with that!

    Me too.

    Wanted to present my reasoning, but yeah don’t think this is the place for a protracted debate which would be tangential to the original article (and likely to use up more emotional reserves than I have at the moment.)

    Dic H

  137. @Greg & @Julia– you’re right. Both slavery and rape are crimes of taking away agency. Rape shouldn’t be a necessary add-on. Slavery is traumatic enough, and in a similar way. And I say that as a huuuuuge Henghis Hapthorn fan (who owns more Matthew Hughes books than John Scalzi books, and I own a lot of John Scalzi books).

  138. @H.Savinien Thank you.. I am very grateful to have survived & to be raising my now 9 year old daughter in a home where she doesn’t have to see her father treat her mother that way, learning the awful lessons that teaches…
    I think that your point about young adult literature is an extremely valid one… I cringe whenever I hear about books being removed from libraries or reading lists due to “objectionable” content such as drug use, sexual abuse or any number of controversial issues… I live in South Carolina so this comes up way more frequently than I would care to see…. My teen years were also pretty tough and I found a lot of solace in literature which spoke to me including a lifelong relationship with Vertigo Comics, the bastard step kid of the mainstream comics industry because I felt like my life was being addressed & additionally & so importantly for young people that I wasn’t being spoken down to… The world is not all happy endings, for some people it’s hardly ever so… In the brilliant Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor” the Doctor tells Vincent Van Gogh that in his experience there is always hope to which Vincent replies “Then your experience is incomplete..!” It is exactly because of this experience of life that I mistrust literature (& entertainment in general) which features 1.implausably happy endings 2. moral absolutes & 3. large numbers of characters who are either unforgivably evil or absolutely good & I remember as a teenager especially feeling respected & trusted by an author when I was treated as if I could handle these facts about life and not just pandered to…

  139. Deb has the best comment in the entire thread for anyone with a literary bent:

    I’d be very interested to know what you think about a book like “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” where whatever went on there was deliberately veiled, but where the horrible consequences and psychological effects are followed and described in vivid detail.

    I could give you a MA dissertation on why Tess is such a damaging book, but I won’t. Deb is a person who knows what they’re talking about.

    Which many posts don’t understand.

    Sigh, we’ll do this old style:

    You’re talking about power (CTRL+F = no returns, means you all have no idea) and extreme levels of sexual control (CTRL+F = no returns, means you all have no idea) and primitive notions of virginity (Ctr… you might be getting the point by now).

    Rape needs to be discussed / dissected / debated in art.

    Rape needs to be addressed / analyzed / approached in art.

    Because, you simpering fuckwits, otherwise you need to experience it first hand.

    That’s what ART IS FOR

    IT’S NOT HER FAULT. SHE SPENT TOO MUCH TIME IN COUNTRY WATCHING GENOCIDE, RAPE, DISEASE, STARVATION AND SO ON. OUR KIND AT LEAST HAVE A POINT: ONCE YOU’VE WITNESSED THE RANDOM CYCLE OF DEATH UP CLOSE, IT’S HARD.

  140. I want to start by thanking the people writing on this thread, because they made me see a couple of authorial choices I’d made regarding rape scenes in a story I was writing were unnecessary (I’d put in a couple of rape scenes which were largely there for “lazy writing” reasons). I’ve gone through the draft, and noted where to take things out and amend them. I’m pretty sure there’s a way of re-writing it which makes the rape references unnecessary. Either way, it’s going to be a challenge for me as a writer.

    So, activism on this matter (even such low-level activism as discussing it on the internet in the presence of other writers) does have an effect.

    One thing this whole thread has made me stop and think about is the way rape is used by authors – it’s used to “give permission” for female characters to level up; it’s used to add “extra evol speshul sauce” to evil characters; it’s used as a way to break male characters (especially homosexual male characters – there’s a strong element of punishment involved); it’s used against secondary characters as a motivating tool for primary characters; it’s a marker of just how degenerate an evil character has become; et cetera and very much so on. Most of the time, it’s used as quick and easy character development – something which can be used as a cheap and easy motivator with known effects and consequences, and which doesn’t have to be explored very much. In just such a way, kin-slaying was a staple of ballads and revenge tragedies for centuries.

    So maybe what’s needed is a list of alternative tropes – things to be using instead of good old rape.

  141. Vertigo Vixen: I’m glad you liked that webcomic; it was recommended on another forum some months back, and I bookmarked it because I knew that I was going to want to forward that recommendation on to others.

  142. So maybe what’s needed is a list of alternative tropes – things to be using instead of good old rape.

    If you want a serious answer, look towards the The Farseer Trilogy where the entire point is that the protagonist is lied to, tortured, kept in the dark, has his ‘power’ (skilling) deliberately destroyed, has an emotional link to an animal both result in social and physical torture and so on and so forth.

    That’s a woman author for the record.

    But, yes, there’s rape in there. Just not the purely sexual kind you’re trying to categorize this by.

    (I have a real need to start the ancient greek here)

  143. It’s almost as if they were tilting at windmills that no longer existed

    So much ignorance.

    It’s ok, I’m dying anyhow.

  144. @Chthulu (love your name (;,;) I adore those books and drew much the same conclusion as you… It really is about control, consent, de-personalization and social isolation (look @the way rape victims are treated both in society and media as so many have mentioned to see my last point)
    I am also absolutely on board with what @megpie71 said about these conversations making me think deeply about the use of rape in entertainment of all kinds, more so than I had already, and to think back on things I have read/watched previously and reevaluate them… Despite my pro darkside view it IS a pretty overused device and I don’t respect it very highly when it’s dropped in for most of the reasons which have been discussed here…
    Thinking back on instances where rape has been used in a story & thinking about things said here about it being used as a motivator for a male character to rise up & take vengeance for a woman I was reminded of an exchange in Hellblazer issue #80 by (the frankly brilliant comic author) Garth Ennis… The MC John Constantine, a classic morally ambiguous anti hero, has attempted to rescue an ex girlfriend who has fallen into drug addiction and prostitution… Her pimp has found her & beaten her so severely that she is hospitalized… When he finds her in the hospital he asks his current girlfriend if she was raped in the attack… She replies “Why..? Isn’t it bad enough for you yet..? You really are something you know that..? You want it that way so it’s really bad, so you can go out and commit whatever atrocity you have in mind for that guy… It won’t help Helen one bit but you don’t care because you know you can’t help her any way..! Cuz all you have left is your frigging revenge..! You’re like every other macho bastard I’ve known… You can’t think with anything but your dick or your fists..! You think this will make things better but it is just making things worse..! ”
    I love this sequence because it is not only well done as the rape itself is not at all graphic but entirely implied, completely realistic (the character is a runaway prostitute being taught a lesson by her pimp, there is literally no other way I can imagine that going down) and when the time comes for the standard trope of “male character rises up with justifiable rage & kicks some rapist ass” another character calls him on exactly that & tells him precisely why it’s bullshit… I know it’s a bit of a long quote & I apologize but I wanted to throw it in the mix as an example of a really well crafted scene (IMO) since the discussion brought it to mind…

  145. megpie: So maybe what’s needed is a list of alternative tropes – things to be using instead of good old rape.

    Well, the thing is, anything could be done well or poorly. The biggies for me are: torture, war, revenge, rape. They are often done gratuitously/poorly/cliche in fiction. But the same topics can be done well.

    I don’t know if there is a alternative that can NOT be cliche. It’s more likely that its an alternative that might be cliche but simply doesn”t bother as many people. I think the difference between torture, war, revenge, and rape is that rape is *way* more common in real life than any of the others. 1 in 5 women (20%) have been raped. about 7% of all americans have ever served in the military and an even smaller percentage have seen combat. A much smaller percentage of THEM have been tortured. The number of homocide victims per year in US peaked at 10 per 100,000, which is a fraction of a percent of people needing vengeance.

  146. BW:
    Thank you for the link to Bennett’s post. It was a great read- especially his third point. I definitely recommend that piece to others to check out.

    Lenora:
    I appreciate your point about my question having been answered previously in the thread. People definitely were speaking to other issues that need to be approached with discernment as well.

    I was (inarticulately) trying to get at the principle governing people’s decision-making processes regarding traumatic realities of life, because there are tons of them! (I was, as you wondered, looking for John to opine on that and possibly share other topics he is not inclined to include in his stories.)

    As some others have indicated, I believe very strongly that one of the primary purposes of art is to provide an arena to examine the harsh realities of our human existence. So even though I respect and acknowledge a writer’s (and reader’s) prerogative to not want [X] in their art, I do push back a little and hope we don’t get into territory where we have lists of approved topics for the creation and consumption of art.

    Like you indicated in your post, I also do more lurking than posting. For me it is largely because I find I I get tone wrong…

  147. I’ve lived through years of bullying in school – not on the level of rape, I suspect (not having personal experience with the latter), but certainly more than damaging enough from my point of view.

    And I strongly prefer not to have that (or rape, or torture, or …) in my entertainment, unless there’s a reason to expect it to get better … and not too long afterwards, either.

    Because there is already more than enough horror on the news, and similar places. Because I often read stuff to get away from the horror (and never to learn about how much shittier the world might be – I know about most of that already, thank you (not)).

    I can tolerate some amount of it as mostly distant background, or again, as something that is overcome after not too long time reading. But any more than that, and I fail to see why I need to punish myself that way.

    It seems some people feel the need for art to explore the shit they got in life. For me, it does not feel like being respected, it feels like piling on.

  148. This (describing the Flashman series) is interesting as well:

    Still it was jarring. It took Flashman out of the realm of “charming rogue” into the realm of “imperialist monster.” As I’ve said, I loved the rest of the series (in which Flashy acts the cad on numerous occasions, but thankfully never goes that far again).

    – because it implies that you could read the whole of the rest of the series, less that scene, and not realise Flashy is a monster.
    And he is a monster. He’s deliberately written as a monster. He murders – sometimes for advantage, sometimes just for fun. He tortures. He enslaves people, and enjoys it. He enjoys abusing them. He enjoys forcing them to sleep with him through blackmail or threat of violence (and it’s very interesting that you don’t see _that_ as rape). He steals, he lies, he betrays his friends and his country, he causes the deaths of hundreds of people, many on his own side, most of them better people than him, simply for his own gain or to settle a score. You’ve read the series; think what he does to Cleonie, or de Gautet. But that’s all just “charming rogue”?

  149. @Peter Cibulskis:

    Should we ban all rape scenes from books and movies?

    I don’t think so, but I don’t know whether it’s useful in this discussion to address a question I’ve heard precisely NOBODY ask, except as a half-arsed attempt to derail the discussion into a caricature of ‘uptight feminist prudes’ vs. ‘freedom-loving people on speaking terms with reality’.

  150. ajay: You’re right, Flashy is generally an awful person throughout the series. I think what makes him tolerable is that he points out that a lot of what was regarded as acceptable or even admirable amongst Victorian-era imperialists was awful as well. The allegedly “noble” characters get as many if not more people killed as he does, out of willful pride or more often just blockheaded stupidity (See his account of the Indian Mutiny and the Charge of the Light Brigade). It’s a very cynical series of books.

  151. Cthluhu: So far I don’t think anyone has argued that it doesn’t need to addressed by art. They’ve just talked about their level of comfort with it, and talked about what they see as bad examples of rape in fiction. I know you aren’t arguing for bad examples of rape in fiction. So I really don’t know why your coming onto a thread about such a sensitive topic and being so ridiculously hostile to anyone who disagrees with you. Especially since I’ve seen very few who actually have.

    On a less hostile note the Farseer trilogy is a great series for discussing this however it should be noted to anyone picking it up that there is actul purly sexul rape as well. It occurs in one characters backstory, as threat by the particularly vile main villain prince Regal (it is never actually carried out) and in a number of more minor scenes.

  152. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with seeking out dark content in fiction, but I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with avoiding it either. Life can be depressing and confusing enough; there’s a limit to how much of that I want in my entertainment. (And I feel like, between high school reading lists and majoring in English, I have eaten enough depressing lima beans for one lifetime, thanks.)

    It’s sort of the Requiem for a Dream/Trainspotting/etc principle: I recognize that there’s artistic value in those movies, and there are people I respect who like them a lot, but damn, I would not sit through five minutes of that if you paid me. (Well, maybe if you paid me. Depends. I’m a mercenary wench at heart, and a hundred bucks per viewing would buy me a lot of healing vodka.)

    In re: Covenant: Yeah, but that’s the thing. I don’t really want to see him dragged over the coals; I don’t care what happens to him; he sucks at that point, and I don’t want to spend more than five minutes with people who suck, let alone several hundred pages. That may get into “the place of unlikeable characters” more than it does rape in general, though.

    Interestingly, I’ve been rewatching/reading about Mad Men, for obvious reasons, and it occurs to me that I didn’t mind at all the way they presented the S2 rape there. I think it’s because a) it’s date rape, basically, and both it and its aftermath are played as…squalid and horrible, but in a normal, work-around-this-thing way that I hear is unfortunately common, b) the focus is on the female character in question and what this means to her, c) she is and remains the best character on the show, and doesn’t descend into Broken Bird Who Must Be Saved by Love mode*.

    *Which, now that I think about it, is what bugged me about the early!Lackey version of rape.

  153. Uh, Cthulhu, you realize that you are in fact addressing people in this thread who have experienced rape first-hand. So you can take your high-tentacled and wholly irrelevant What Is Art wankery and lectures about the value of rape scenes as Art and stick them where an Elder Sign won’t fit, ‘k?

    The question is not “should Art ever under any circumstances discuss rape or depict a rape scene?” And any time somebody pretends it is, that person is showing that they have no interest in a difficult but honest discussion. Erecting a strawman is so much easier than thinking about tough issues.

  154. Seconding Mythago here. Cthulhu, you lost any traces of my respect the moment you said that you were going to defend Stormfront.

  155. @isabelcooper:

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with seeking out dark content in fiction, but I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with avoiding it either.

    And that’s true for creators as well as consumers. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Hannibal show runner Bryan Fuller has repeatedly and unambiguously said on the record that he won’t be using rape as a plot device on his watch, I can’t think of many shows out there more rich in “dark content”, but it’s still consciously avoiding lazy use and abuse of rape tropes. (And I don’t think I’m the only Fannibal who’ll be holding Fuller accountable to that promise.) What’s everybody else’s excuse?

  156. verkisto: “, I do push back a little and hope we don’t get into territory where we have lists of approved topics for the creation and consumption of art.”

    I hope that too. In addition to rape, I’ve used any number of dark or horrible events. I am not a gentle writer. What I think matters, though, is that it needs to be thought through. Why is it there? Is it gratuitous? Is it necessary? Is its primary effect on the person it happens to or on some third party? (A la “fridging” a woman or family or sidekick so a male lead can have SADS) Basically, don’t do it just because. And definitely (Barring some very rare scenes negotiated beforehand, so to speak) don’t do it so it looks or reads as sexy.

  157. Uh, Cthulhu, you realize that you are in fact addressing people in this thread who have experienced rape first-hand.

    Yes, you might also be reading someone who has also experienced it first hand; I didn’t reference ‘The Farseer Trilogy‘ for fun. (And no, we’re not going to do a categorization or scale of damage here). I fully understand that ‘rape as a trope‘ is a lazy mechanic, and writing about it without actually thinking about it is pathetic, but we have to address these things to prevent them.

    You might also consider that writing in this style creates the very same sense of horror in the author, but there’s also other considerations at play. Aka, the peanut gallery, for whom translation needs to be a little bit brutal sometimes. All the time. Every. Day.

    The Horror, The Horror” is very real.

    Cthulhu, you lost any traces of my respect the moment you said that you were going to defend Stormfront.

    I stated I’d defend certain members of Storm Front as people who’d been lied to and whose life experiences were so bad that they were desperately attempting to make sense of the world. That’s a distinction you really should have noted – to not note it is to submit to the same type of trap. As stated, the trigger warning was an actual one, and not some kind of ironic snark.

    To wit: many of them have been ideologically destroyed, and if the best fit their minds can come up with to make the world make sense is Storm Front ideology, they deserve compassion, not hatred. American History X is a film reference, although I won’t post a youtube video because I’m not actually a monster; you could also probably put some time into De-Nazification processes and charities.

    ~

    Anyhow, I just caught Mad Max: Fury Road and although it’s not perfect, I’m happy I backed it and splashed everyone with the trailers. To wit: it’s a given that every one of the escaping women (barring perhaps Furiousa, but doubtful given the brand) has been raped.

    It’s not mentioned, but it’s there. The only thing that jarred was that the old woman (the original partner to Immortan Joe?) decided to monologue instead of just blowing him away right at the start. Nope, in a decent world, she’d just have double-barreled immediately.

    ~

    Rape can be removed from society, or made so vanishingly rare that it’s treated in the same kind of category as cannibalism. The how is what’s being debated. The mentor would have given better advice if she’d stated:

    Yes, you can write about it: but make it count towards it’s eradication, not for any other reason.

  158. “It’s” = “its”

    YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THIS HUMAN WENT THROUGH TO DEFEND YOUR RACE, EVEN SUBMITTING TO HER SOUL / MIND / BODY BEING TAKEN AND PROSTITUTED AND RAPED AGAIN AND AGAIN AGAIN TO DEFEND OUR KIND WHILE ALLOWING US TO SPREAD THE MYTH THAT SHE WAS RESPONSIBLE. AND AT THE END OF IT, SHE WILL FACE ETERNITY IN TORMENT JUST BECAUSE SHE LOVED YOUR KIND AND US.

    IT’S FAIRLY IMPRESSIVE, IF YOU THOUGHT WE CARED ABOUT YOUR SPECIES.

  159. Cthulhu, as David St. Hubbens told Derek Smalls, you cannot play free form jazz explorations for a festival crowd.

  160. but we have to address these things to prevent them

    I’d start a Spot the Strawman Drinking Game for this thread, but then we’d be dropping dead of liver failure in short order.

    For The Sake Of Art, approved topic lists, missing the real world – is there any reason these tired tropes keep getting trotted out other than a vague sense people aren’t disagreeing loudly enough?

  161. but we have to address these things to prevent them

    Literally no one but you and Peter Cibulskis have suggested we can’t talk about rape. If your going to be condescending and confrontational while building ridiculous strawmem you might consider targeting other people than rape survivors. If you are a survivor yourself I’m sorry something this horrible happened to you but it doesn’t give you a pass to treat other survivors like shit.Nothing does.

  162. I’d start a Spot the Strawman Drinking Game for this thread, but then we’d be dropping dead of liver failure in short order.

    For sure.

    The point is that it can be eradicated. If we can squeeze hope out of Mad Max becoming (somewhat) better, then.

    The why to the splurge:

    I guess deep down in the reptile part of my brain if I read/see a rape scene there is a voice back there that says, “Hey, I might like a little of that.”

    It doesn’t have to be this to be male / heterosexual; in fact, it’s possible for this to never happen. The most pernicious myth here is that rape is a universal or somehow part of human biology or ‘hardwired’ into the mind.

    There’s straw men, for sure, but there’s also the cowardly Lion. Not a single voice stating: We know that Elder Gods are hateful beings, but human qua human doesn’t have this as an intrinsic quality.

    Less examples, more analysis?

    Literally no one but you and Peter Cibulskis have suggested we can’t talk about rape.

    VP R&D at The Nielsen Company? I’m genuinely lost at this reference. Ah. It’s an old user here.

    Which, like talking about Storm Front, wasn’t what I was doing at all.

    Seconding The Pathetic Earthling. As with anything traumatic and evil, don’t show it in graphic detail.

    The Accused and less well known, Shame are fairly on point in changing perceptions. I’ve no idea if you were born then, or have seen them, but – they were. As an aside, I’d recommend Shame, it shows that Australian cinema is not all testosterone. (But, it’s not nice and it’s certainly not fun.)

    Without being too meta, the goal is to change the Joe’s into Maxes, which isn’t often a very nice process.

    David St. Hubbins: [talking about Nigel] I’m tired of sticking up for his intelligence.

    As John requested, I’ll take a break and probably ditch the schtick.

  163. Which, like talking about Storm Front, wasn’t what I was doing at all.

    What I mean is that the two of you are the only ones who have acted like people were suggesting we can’t portray rape. No one has said we can’t, you made that idea up.

  164. Thanks @H. Savinien for the book recommendations. I’ve read some of Tamora Pierce and she is generally awesome but I hadn’t read the books you mentioned. Yay for new books!! Hey, @John Scalzi maybe you should include some positive teen portrayals of sex in those new YA books that TOR just commissioned you for. :) Congratulations, BTW

  165. Oh and thank you @Beingveryquiethere too for the book recommendation! I love John Scalzi’s threads!!

  166. The movie The Accused has been mentioned once already, but it was definitely one of those stories that couldn’t be told without the precipitating rape. And it definitely (at least to me) didn’t show rape in a titillating way.

    Another movie that didn’t was The Prince Of Tides. (I can only assume that the original book was the same.)

    @Steve, “that’s exactly why I never watched GoT past the premiere, which ended with a child being defenestrated” — Yeah, my wife and I almost went the same route. We *did* go that route with Breaking Bad, after the episode where Walter watches his partner’s girlfriend choke to death in front of him. Nope, don’t need any more of this character in my brain. (We’re watching both on DVD, for the first time, which shows you how far behind we are. All this latter-day GoT stuff is pure spoiler to me; oh well.)

    Speaking of which: I haven’t seen the GoT episode in question, but is this the first rape from that show that’s set the web on fire? (This is not rhetorical.) It’s not like the Khaleesi’s first encounter with Khal Drogo wasn’t rape.

  167. @Larry: I think the annoyance with the way the show handles rape has been increasing. This is the loudest the outcry has been, but many fans who read the books were extremely upset with the way the show handled a scene between Jaime and Cersei. Before that, there were a smaller number of people upset with the way the show used the character Roz.

    I think people have been getting more frustrated with the show as incidents pile up, and also that they may be losing patience due to what some people would consider a drop in general quality and are more upset about flaws the show has always had.

  168. @Larry: Well I personally found that scene frustrating as well, particularly becouse the scene did not happen that way in the books (Dany’s consent was still ambiguous at best due to her age though.) I felt like it made the romance become about a rape survivor falling in love with her rapist. I feel like until a certain indecent which is a MAJOR spoiler last season A lot of people felt like the show handled a lot of issues regarding gender really well, but they’ve been becoming more and more disappointed since than. I feel the same way while also slowly losing patience about a lot of the changes to the book (although it sounds like that won’t be a problem for you.)

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