This is going to have a health warning on it.
If you are a young reader of this blog (say, under 15) or of a gentle disposition, then be advised that this entire entry is going to be about books and sexual violence, and you may want to pause before reading on….
So one of the judges on the Kitschies pointed out a recurring theme.
“The book is all very well,” he’d say, “But I wish people didn’t predicate so many narratives on sexual violence.”
His comment was made in response to a fairly average book on our submissions pile, and we all shared the sentiment. I had just finished reading one of the worst of the submissions to the award, a book whose publisher should have known better than to pretend that it was even remotely progressive. Ostensibly the tale of several feisty, strong women and how they support and affect the lives of the heroic strong men around them, it was a book in which it seemed not a single female character got away without being victims of sexual violence or subjugation to men.
First obvious point: it is vitally important, as a society, that we discuss and oppose sexual violence in all its forms, and books are an important medium to do this.
However, tragic caveat: a great deal of fantasy and science fiction books which do tackle sexual violence, tend to turn it to rather less salubrious, if not downright offensive purposes. By far and away the most repellant, the most abhorrent trope I have ever read in fantasy – and in a range of cases – is the tale of the woman who, having been assaulted, gradually falls in love with the Big Strong Man who first abused her. Because, you see, fantasy books seem to say, it’s not the man fault that he’s a rapist – it’s just the society he comes from. It doesn’t matter that this woman’s first encounter with the man was a brutal violation, because now she’s learning bringing out tenderness in him and he’s giving strength to her and…
… and it’s all too repulsive to really go further into. There is no redemption in this narrative. Absolutely none. It is vilely abhorrent in every possible way, and on every possible level.
Sometimes the initial assault is more (or not so more) subtle. Fantasy has a wide range of princess/bride figures who are sold to the Dark Yet Handsome Prince and who gradually learn, from their initial terror – please note, terror – of sexual encounters, come to learn to love the Strong Man and either grow submissive to his Strong Ways or evolve into queens of sexuality. Long and lurid descriptions unwind in which we learn every detail of every encounter, and the thought cannot help dawn in our minds: are we supposed to enjoy this? Is the reader supposed to be aroused by men ‘mastering’ the women? Are we supposed to prefer using the word ‘mastery’ to ‘assault’ is that the intention here? Because if that is the case, then I am frankly offended to think that trauma, the deep, unspeakable trauma of sexual assault, can be handled any way other than in a kind that leaves me wanting to scratch my eyes out and weep.
Let’s not kid ourselves here – hiding behind the words ‘yes, but it’s okay, because the princess belongs to the prince because of the society‘ does not justify a narrative arc where the female character is still forced to have sex. It’s still rape. And sure, if you took this as the starting off point for how this woman then develops and what the consequences of this society might be upon her, then great! Hurrah and huzzah, you have written an interesting book about the interaction between society and violence, congratulations. But if, instead, you then breeze over any consequences for this woman and have her evolve once again into a creature entirely defined by the Strong Man who’s bed she shares then uh-uh. Fail.
Another hugely offensive trope that manifests with possibly even more frequency, is that of the woman finding ‘sexual healing’. She’s been assaulted, traumatised, but now at last in the presence of the Big Strong Man Who Loves Her, she can, through his tender ministrations, be ‘cured’. Because that’s all it takes, isn’t it? Now that the woman is ‘fixed’ the rest of the story can trot along nicely, no harm, no foul. Any rage experienced by the readers… well, that’s their own problem, right?
Second obvious statement: in this very few cases in science fiction and fantasy where sexual violence is between people of the same gender, all of the above statements apply. Violence is violence, assault is assault, regardless of whether it’s men, women, women or men. Let’s not kid ourselves that any form of sexual abuse is progressive, guys. If you write sexual abuse, then you treat it with the horror it deserves, and you make sure not a single reader is left feeling anything other than mortally shaken by every word they’ve read.
This thoughts barely skim the surface of the problem, but I’m aware even writing about it here that I’m getting angry and upset, so will perhaps pull back to a more subtle final point. A lot of genres – and fantasy and science fiction are guilty here too – have a language in them which boils down to ‘men take charge’ and this includes sexually. Women yield, they melt, they dissolve, they may start a scene determined to resist but by the end of it they’re just so excited to be ‘mastered‘ by the Big Man who two pages ago they swore they’d rather kill than kiss, that nothing else matters. Or, on those occasions where women are completely in control of their sexuality, they’re femme fatales. Their strength now equates almost to evil, to over-sexed harpies manipulating men with their bodies. This language reduces relationships between the genders to power play, to control and subjugation, and it is an incredibly short hop from there, to giving the impression that sexual violence is ok really. And as writers, indeed as chatting members of society, this is surely a terrible, terrible sin.