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This is a Post About Literary Rape

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I’ve been a reading machine in the past eighteen days. In fact, I’ve read five novels, across five different genres. One was young adult literary, one was young adult genre, one was an adult literary, and two were adult contemporary fantasies.*

All five featured the main female character getting raped.

By the time I got to book number five, I was so weary, so emotionally drained, so angry. It took me quite awhile to calm down (even if the main character isn’t written as scarred by her experience, I sure as heck am) and parse the source of my rage.

I galloped over to Facebook and told the world how angry I was. I added that none of the male characters in these books had to undergo a sexually degrading experience in order to come of age or bulk up their character development or move the plot. Facebook replied with a host of suggestions for books with boys being raped in them, but that wasn’t really what I was after. I wasn’t really looking for equal-opportunity violation.

What I want is for there to be less gratuitous literary rape.

I’m not talking about books like Speak. I’m talking about novels where the rape scene could just as easily be any other sort of violent scene and it only becomes about sex because there’s a woman involved. If the genders were swapped, a rape scene wouldn’t have happened. The author would’ve come up with a different sort of scenario/ backstory/ defining moment for a male character. Really, this sort of rape is such a medieval, classical way to tell a story. Need to establish some stakes? Grab a secondary character and rape her. Possibly with a god or a mythological object if you have one handy.

And that starts to feel a lot less like realism and more like a malingering culture of women as victims. And it starts, especially when the author is male and the rape scene is graphic, to feel suspiciously like the goal is titillation. It starts to feel like the author believes the only interesting sort of GirlAngst is sexual abuse.

Yes. Having someone force themselves on us is pretty damn traumatic, folks. But guess what? Our personalities are formed by a whole host of experiences. Pretty much the same host of experiences that any man might encounter.

Now, on Facebook and Twitter, people said “but then you’d complain about rape and violence against women being under-represented in fiction.” First of all, no. I wouldn’t complain if there were no more gratuitous rape scenes. And second of all, the rape scenes I’m referring to are not scenes that are going to start dialog about rape. They’re scenes that enforce the woman’s role as Sidekick and Victim and Rescue Me! and I-Am-Only-The-Sum-Of-The-Places-On-My-Body-You-Can-Violate-Me.**

I want to know why this is an easy fall-back, rape. Some folks on Facebook said, “Because it’s the worst thing that can happen to a woman.”

Is it? Is rape then also the worst thing that can happen to a man? No? It’s different for women, you say? Why is it, then, that we as women should find having our sexual integrity robbed from us worse than torture and death? Is it because . . . I-Am-Only-The-Sum-Of-The-Places-On-My-Body-You-Can-Violate-Me?***

So what I’m saying is: yes, write about rape. I don’t believe in censoring fiction. But I do believe in writers knowing why they’re writing what they write. And if authors are writing a scene because they subconsciously believe that a woman’s sexual purity is the most important thing about her, they need to reconsider.

I can’t decide if a gratuitous rape scene offends me worse when it’s written by a man or a woman. One makes me angry because it feels like it’s selling rape culture. And the other makes me angry because I feel like women are buying it.

World, we need to talk.

*No, I’m not going to tell you what they were. A book that turns me off might be someone else’s favorite, so I try not to UNrecommend books. I prefer to just recommend the ones that I enjoy.

**Oh, wow. I am still very angry, it seems.

***Still angry.

[recommended reading given to me by readers: Seanan McGuire’s blog post on rape, and Women in Refrigerators]

  • John

    I agree completely!

    • Mannat

      I know it’s off topic (of writing) but do you know about the gang-rape that happened in Delhi on 16th Dec ? If not, do read about it…

      • lee

        Lol!! So funny

      • Novlette Myers

        I totally agree with Maggie. It bothers me that many authors treat rape as though it’s no big deal. I have just finished flipping though “The Goldfinch”. I was truly disgusted to find that the author wrote about drug abuse as though it was this happy, amusing past time that had no consequences.

        It was as though you could take hard drugs as though it were medication, a specific amount at prescribed intervals and you would never get addicted. You would function as well as your drug-free peers but be much happier and more witty.

        It also bothered me that the protagonist’s best friend admitted to drugging him and having anal sex with him when they were teens and he didn’t even acknowledge it. It was no bigger that if he had admitted a pen or a few unwanted dollars from his pocket.

        It is a criminal offence to rape someone – same sex or opposite sex. We are having a growing number of suicides in school because many girls can’t live with being raped. It’s a violent crime and should be treated as such.

        When girls – or boys – are drunk and incapacitated we have even more of a moral responsibility to take care of them. After all, they can’t take care of themselves. And in the same position, what would we want? To be raped, or to be taken care of?

        Those who argue that it’s no big deal, would they like to experiment? Get drunk, leave themselves careless, get raped, then tell the world, it’s no big deal and they found the experience fun?And if they happen to end up HIV positive o sterile from damage to their uterus, will they say it’s also pat of the fun?

        Thanks Maggie, for having the courage to speak out.

  • Interesting and – I agree- alarming. To move the action forward, writers are sometimes guilty of “blowing something up”. The bomb goes off, drama happens, action occurs and moves the story ahead. It’s a worry that we’re seeing a rape as the proverbial bomb with the kind of new frequency you describe. I hope writers see this as a battle cry for more profound backstories, a call to dig into their character’s baggage for some of the very relatable hurts we all carry with us. As a society, we are all walking wounded in some way or another…. our problems a treasure trove for the choosing for a creative writer.

  • This reminds me of a certain trilogy. The Main girl was raped, but she kills the guy and it’s all cool, but in the second and third book, a bunch of girls get raped, seeemingly to me, only so the main female could relate to them. It was a good series, but got pretty sick the consistancy of it.

    Anyways. Agreed.

    • Sarah

      I think I know the trilogy you are speaking of. If I remember correctly, in the second and third books it was even worse because it was rape and torture of young girls, like 12-15 age range. I got the impression that the author couldn’t think of another way to show just how absolutely evil the bad guy was. I liked the first, but not the others.

  • I read a series in which the main character was raped after two other characters in her family had been and I actually put the book down and yelled at it. Because it felt like a sort of “what else can I do to these poor people to REALLY keep them unhappy” thing, and that felt awful.

    Totally different is something like DEERSKIN by McKinley in which the entire book is a journey through a dark and awful place to the Light.

    Sigh. I’m too angry myself at other things this morning to be coherent.

  • This is why I love and respect you so much!
    I totally agree. I don’t understand why some author write rape scenes if they don’t go discuss appropriately this theme.

  • My friend wrote a blog post about this about six months ago. I knew what books she was talking about too, even though she didn’t say. Sometimes the rape scenes aren’t even pivotal to the plot. Did you use the word “gratuitous” in your post? Ah yes. You did. So I agree. I think that’s the bigger problem. The rape scene is “just another scene.”

  • Well said and I completely agree with you. It’s sad that so many women are buying into this crap. It’s very disturbing.

  • You’re right about the gratuitous part. I feel the same way about other “dark” topics in YA lit–when writers depict drug use or premarital sex or cutting, etc.–as something so commonplace and expected for teens that it’s not even commented on. It just is. Or worse it’s used in a lurid way because the writer is trying to be edgy and provocative.
    Please understand, I am not someone who believes that these subjects are inappropriate subjects for YA fiction. In fact it ticks me off in the other direction when critics imply that or try to censor and protect teens from reading about these subjects. I think it comes down to how it’s handled. Story and characters come first. Also, a respect and understanding of teen readers.

  • Saw your tweet last night an I’m glad you wrote this. Seems like writers and editors need to reconsider the purpose of violence especially sexual violence in novels.

  • Thank you. I’ve been trying to put my feelins about this topic into words for some time, and you just nailed it.

  • I wish I had written this post. It seems to me that many writers take the easy way out to create sensation and, yes, titillation. I read a book recently where in the first chapter the heroine was raped by her husband with a bottle – for real. This gave her the motive for revenge, the goal of the story. I had expected the book to be a softish romance and felt outraged as there had been no indication that such a “rape” would be the impetus for her campaign. The experience was made worse by the fact that I knew the author was a man using a female pen name. It read like misogyny and there’s enough of that in real life.

  • I am glad I am not alone in this feeling. I find it all distasteful & wish authors and mainstream society would as well. Anyone remember G.I. Jane? I always refer back to that & Speak when I debate over whether a sex scene (violent or not) was gratuitous or not.

    Thank you for sharing your honest opinion!

  • Thank you for saying this. I agree with it start to finish, and considering that I see the prevalence of sexual violence every single day (due to my job), I would really love it if I didn’t have to stumble across it unnecessarily in fiction. If the story needs a dreadful event as a catalyst for change, there are plenty of ways people (ALL people) can be traumatized, and they are just as horrific without reinforcing a narrative that is already too entrenched.

  • It’s not just you. I recently read two books in a futuristic series where the main character males in each book had been abandoned and abused and sexually assaulted as children. There was A LOT of talk about it, not graphically, but to the point of, OK we get it.
    Then one of the main character females admitted to being assaulted by a friend. It certainly seemed that the writer felt this was the worst thing that could happen to a person.
    It’s bad, there is no doubt, it’s bad but it doesn’t have to be the defining moment of a person or a story.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Saw your Tweet about this. DAMN GOOD article, Maggie! Infuriating and refreshing to read at the same time. Well done.

    True Story: I broke up with my boyfriend (of seven years) after he raved about Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and then took me to see the movie (although I hadn’t read the book at the time) and then “brushed off” the sodomy scene(s) and rape/brutality in general, saying, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad…” [sic] – that instant will forever live in my mind and there is NO GOING BACK from saying that. Never gonna marry into that bullshit.

  • Madeline Wetta

    I understand why you don’t want to name the books, but I don’t know if it’s UN-recommending them if it’s in the effort of dialogue. Honestly, I am particularly curious because I had a similar experience with at least 3 books in a row this fall, but I didn’t feel as if those were particularly gratuitous at the time. But now I’m starting to reconsider.

  • I agree completely. I love fantasy but I’m growing to hate how there seems to be an incredibly violent patriarchal rape culture in Every. Single. Book. I pick up lately. With Medieval fantasy I can get the rationale, but I don’t agree that something with dragons needs sexual violence to make it realistic, especially as they never seem to acknowledge the real fact that men get raped too.

    While it sounds counter intuitive I also really hate the shadow side of this, where female characters are repeatedly threatened with rape but always end up getting saved last second. Surely that’s less realistic than just not bringing it up to begin with? If they’re not going to talk about the issue in a well researched and sensitive way (as Speak does) then why bring it up at al?

  • while i agree with most points in this post, i disagree that writers need to understand what they are writing and that if the autor believes the woman’s sexual purity is the most improtant thing about her they need to not write it.

    i dont subscribe to the theory that there should be rules to writing. write what you feel. and if you change your believes or feelings later, write something different. people are ever changing and sometimes you might be at the beginning of some sort of self discovery that will open your eyes to new thoughts and knowledge.

    i dont think fiction books should have the responsiblility to educate the reader on female sexuality.

    but i love that you have this opinion and so many others are frusturated in the same way. that is why its so great to be able to find recommendations from people with similar tastes/beliefs.

  • Michelle

    I agree with where you are coming from, but I can’t help to comment that this is a very sensitive subject. When you said ” Why is it, then, that we as women should find having our sexual integrity robbed from us worse than torture and death?” I understand that you were making the comment that we are more than our sexuality, with which I totally agree! But I’ve talked to survivors of sexual abuse and they do talk about it as if it is the worst thing that could ever happen to them. Because it is such a personal violent act, I heard more than one describe it as if they were dying inside. Also, to the other commentators who say that books should focus on more realistic problems — 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted. That makes this a very common, very realistic, very horrible problem. But I know that you were not saying that we should censor books about rape, but that writers should not write about rape if they don’t know what they hell they are talking about, and I totally agree.

  • It’s the ‘rape culture’ that bothers me. It concerns me greatly too when speaking to youngsters, who use the word ‘rape’ as though it’s a synonym for kinky sex or BDSM…its not. Rape is not ‘filler’ and it should be a ‘go to tool’ for female character development. Let’s not ‘normalise’ something we oughtn’t.

  • Diana

    They write these books geared towards women, and then just throw that in there? How dare they!

    I just finished a book with an “almost” rape scene (she ends up killing him, which he’s deserved for two books now), but it still made me want to throw the book across the room.

    I prefer it when I don’t have to suffer literary gut punches from my favorite authors, and not be reminded that I’m the “weaker” sex.

    Everyone who has been brain violated with these should read the Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler. (one of my favorites ;))

  • Nicole Jakubowski

    I agree, Maggie. Gratuitous is the key word here. I sometimes feel like the world of women is slipping backwards. Girls are falling in love with characters who abuse and berate them and strong female leads can’t be strong female leads without a man (or being motivated by something that happened with a man). Where are the girls/women who are strong because they are confident in their own decisions and believe in themselves? Where are the girls who fight for what they believe in because it means something to THEM and not their boyfriends?
    I think about your previous post about pre-teen and early teen girls who wondered why you didn’t write that Sam and Grace from the SHIVER series were married and having babies at eighteen. Living through tough childhoods or hard knock life doesn’t have to be only about abuse. I agree with you, that there are plenty of other ways to show how strong women are.

  • Miranda

    Maggie, thank you so much for writing this. I have been so frustrated about this “phenomenon” (and you’re right, oftentimes these scenes are totally gratuitous and don’t add anything but shock value to the narrative) and it’s comforting to know that other people feel this way too.

  • Rape scenes bother me. Like, it’s okay (but not really), if it’s just discussed in the background. I’d rather not read a page or two about the actual encounter, you know? With Speak, that book was amazing. Everything about it, obviously not IT, as Melinda calls it.

    I agree with you, and I can see that, in most books, rape is not needed. I wouldn’t want to read a novel with a full on rape scene. I think I’d have to shut the book. And I know men can experience that too, but I feel like it’s so rare.

    Like you said, it the genders were reversed, the scene wouldn’t have happened.

    I just hope people realize that that type of scene does not make the book they’re reading what it is – though it would be a big part of it, I think the survival is the main point, and not having the character lose themselves because of it.

  • Kamie

    Yes! And this has been happening for far too long, I remember reading a series at least 10 years ago where it finally got to the point you KNEW if a female character hadn’t been raped yet, she was going to be soon. It was so predictable it was almost laughable. (If it hadn’t been so sick.)

  • Arion

    I agree with you. I read an alarming amount of books in last year with rape in them or some sort of sexual abuse on female lead and what scared me most was my reaction after the 15th(or whatever) book in which I was less compassionate, (this will sound awful) in some degree I was less moved by their pain than in the first one because it became norm. It seems like it is the easiest path to take when you have a female lead to give them more depth and it slowly makes me mad. There is nothing easy about it and it is not the only thing that can damage us as women, and it shouldn’t be cheap solution to give lead’s character more depth. It’s degrading to us as readers and as women.

    One book that surprised me with it’s take on traumatic life changing events on female lead was Sea of Tranquility, highly recommend it.

  • Wyldecat

    I found this blog via a retweet from Jeaniene Frost and I’m glad the subject is getting more of an airing as it has long been a passionate hatred of mine, both in mainstream literature and fan fiction. I hate the way that sexual abuse has become a hot “go to” whenever an author needs angst or a physical/emotional rescue scenario. I *especially* hate it when it is used as a tool to show how devastatingly sexy and irresistible the hero of the piece is and proved when the author’s victim quickly jumps chuff first into some angsty ‘sexual healing’ and multiple orgasms with him. While I accept and *know* that survivors can and do go on to enjoy full and fulfilling relationships the speed at which this often happens in books/FF is incredibly unrealistic and disrespectful to real survivors. At the other end of the scale I find it equally loathsome to encounter a character who’s entire being is defined by rape and constantly refers to it as the motivation or excuse for every thought and action that they engage in.

    This is now being applied to male characters as well, most notably the unlikeable Christian Grey. His dark, abusive and unpleasant nature is constantly excused and romanticised by the author via the character of Ana because he was abused by an older predatory female pedophile as a teen. This is equally dangerous (in my mind) as the trivialization of rape and sexual abuse, particularly in YA literature, as the whole FSOG series attempts to hammer home the notion that it’s ok for a man to stalk, abuse, beat, bruise and dominate every aspect of a woman’s life because he is obviously a damaged soul who only needs her to accept and love him more (and more and more and more and…) to ‘cure’ him into being the perfect lover and partner. And this is supposed to be a sexy and desirable relationship? Something we’re all supposed to aspire to? Yeah, right! As anyone who has ever being involved with a real-life Grey will know, it never, ever works out the way that EL James and her devotees would like us to believe.

    Thank you again for a thoughtful and interesting post. If only more authors would take a stand against this despicable trend.

  • Katie

    I have to say I haven’t run into this problem as much as everyone else seems to. I did recently read a book though where I was made really irritated by a female author using her female lead’s almost rape to build up her male character. Like her readers couldn’t have liked him and understood his horrible past without having this terrible thing happen to her first. Twice it happened in this book, where she was almost raped, but they never really got down to her dealing with it. Just that she could now relate to this guy she liked. Authors use it too much as a tool, the go to bad thing. Rape is a serious thing and it shouldn’t be thrown around to create excitement in a book

  • Nicole

    Great post! Rape shouldn’t be a plot point to just throw in a story. Fortunately I haven’t seen too much of this in my reading. However I also have to say that the paragraph in which you ask “Is it?” kind of gave me an icky feeling. I would never belittle another person’s traumatic experience and I don’t think people being violated are saying it is the wost thing to happen to them because of the belief that sexuality equals their worth but because it is a violation of their will and the ability to be in control of themselves. People lose that will as you also mentioned in torture or sometimes in death, which is why those are awful things as well. That loss of freedom of will can definitely be one of the worst things that can happen to a person.

  • Jon

    Not only do I totally agree, I’d like to single out prime-time television police dramas for their special awfulness. My wife and I play a sick game (because bemused horror is almost the only response one can muster in the face of this) in which we turn on LAPD Blue Vice Squad — I don’t know the difference between all of them — and see how long it will be before the horribly mutilated naked body of a young woman is shown or a detective says something like, “Then she was sodomized with a twelve-iron repeatedly.” Of course it’s titillation, and I think there’s something seriously sick in the head with our whole cultural fascination to sexual violence. When I first got serious about writing books, I promised myself that no book of mine would ever include gratuitous sexual violence against women.

  • Thanks for posting this Maggie. And I very much agree.

    In one of my undergrad creative writing courses about five girls (no joke) wrote stories in which a woman was raped. In the end it didn’t seem to serve as more than a scene to make people uncomfortable or to titillate or just for people to take notice. It really felt like it was inserted for the sake of violence and not as a larger piece of the story or to speak on the character’s growth from such a horrible incident or to talk about how we as a society look at rape. Nope, it was thrown in in the middle or end of a piece and people, except for my professor, were too nervous to speak on it in the realm of discussing fiction. But it does need to be talked about how violence against women is presented and what it means for the larger work!

    Violence in general shouldn’t just be added in to make a reader take notice or a viewer see purty lights blow up and such. What does it do for the larger story so we don’t get desensitized and can route for what is going on and what is presented.

    Anywho, thanks for the post, sorry you’ve been inundated with such heavy stuff and hope you can read something with warm fuzzies now.

  • MelanieL

    Eek, Maggie! What the heck books are you finding?! I can honestly say that I’ve only read two books in my entire life that featured a rape scene. One would be a V. C. Andrews book (read at 14 years old!). I can forgive that one. The other was recent (I’m now a mother of Things 1-5), a series that I love, love, love. I still don’t know what to think/feel about the author going that direction with the story. The main character did have to deal with it on an emotional level but it still left me wondering why the author had to go this direction. The story was an UF.

    When it comes right down to it, I didn’t enjoy reading it at all. I think I feel it could have been written different if the author wanted something to happen to MC to make her break down but come out of it stronger. I don’t know…

    I think there are stories that need to be told, even rape stories but I’d prefer to keep them out of my UF, Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Paranormal, mmm-kay.

  • I agree. I recently read a book written by someone I know. It was not poorly written, but I found myself, unfortunately, unable to recommend the book to others because the gratuitous rape scene in it (and other things like it) made me upset with the story. I was very disturbed by the book, rather than being enraptured with a riveting storyline (which is what I had hoped would be the case instead).

  • Your comment about the only coming-of-age/crucible moment is what got me thinking. Of my gang of childhood friends, a couple of us had sexual assault experiences, most of us had sexual harrassments, but the crucible experiences, the ones that radically changed paths and group dynamics, were deaths (car accidents and a suicide). Parental things were also still big: moves, radical job changes, new stepparents. Whatever else is going on, it’s a failure of imagination to default to rape as the thing that will alter a female’s world. Does it speak to how poorly some are supported in the aftermath, that it does become the defining experience?

  • It’s lazy writing. Funny, I just read a post from Kristin Lamb about novel structure, and she does this whole thing about how the new writers she works with often throw in a rape scene to keep the action going. (!) I don’t really understand the impulse. I’ve been writing for some time and the idea never occurred to me – although lots of other bad ones have. Here’s the link in case you’re curious:

  • Marla

    I think it’s because often in literature, women have been portrayed as one- or two-dimensional characters, and especially for men (because they don’t know the experiences and more often than not can’t relate), forget that we have more to us than something as flat and static as the victim, the stupid one, or the smart girl. Girls aren’t written as those with really deep, defining backgrounds. And I agree with you.
    I’ve read multiple books with girls being raped, and that was what shifted everything in their point of view, and it disgusts me, because I feel that women can be deeper than that. It’s unrealistic to think that all girls worth including in a book have been raped, even if that’s a little blunt.

  • Yes. THIS.

  • I read a book that was part of a series in which the woman gets raped to save the world or something (I blocked most of this book out). What I didn’t get was even why! The story was one where both were attracted to one another and all it would have done was to ask her! ASK! He was mortified having to do it, but did it anyway. ??? What killed me is that she was fine with it because the explanation was fine with her. Uh, WHAT?! I didn’t go on with the series and haven’t picked up a book by this author again. I really wish I could have unread that whole book…

  • Interesting and apt post, Maggie! I couldn’t agree more!

  • I feel the same way about film, but I’ve never been able to express it as clearly as this. Next time I find myself in a “rape as entertainment” debate I will draw back on this for support. Thank you.

    (I finished reading Scorpio Races earlier today. You’re bloody great at writing books!)

  • Ananya

    Recently, in New Delhi, India, there was a case of a 23-year-old girl on a bus getting gangraped (she lived for ten days afterwards, then died in a hospital in Singapore). People were taking to the streets and protesting it actively — yet every day the newspapers came out with a new story of minor rape, as though people weren’t learning anything. Women were running around with signs like “I can walk around naked, and you still don’t have a right to rape me” yet every single day, I would open up the newspapers and find at least four new rape cases a day. Weren’t people learning ANYTHING, I wondered? It was as though rape was nothing — just something they could do, just a way to victimize women that wouldn’t linger at all, an easy violent crime, and yes, if it was a crime on a man, it wouldn’t be rape. We all know that. It was just like rape was the go-to crime for women just because they were women, and I think that’s what people were taking to the streets to say most. It was pretty heavy protesting, like half of Delhi was shut down. Women shouldn’t be victimized like that because they’re women, because if it were a man, it would be murder or something, which is entirely unfair. And rape isn’t all there is to everything. Women aren’t just biologically women, like you said. Other things shape us, and that’s also what people on the streets were saying. That, “I’m not just a rape-able person, I’m a real, important person.” So, just my two cents.

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  • Chi

    Right now, I’m in the middle of writing a sort-of rape scene in my book. The rape is about to happen, but it doesn’t really because the character stops it… I don’t know, still in the middle of thinking it out. Reading this post and all these comments make me feel so unoriginal and cruel and so on, but the thing is that the character getting raped is a male, so…. Aaaaugh, I don’t feel good using gender to justify my decision, but it’s a crucial part of the book (why wouldn’t it be?) and yeah, just my thoughts.
    The only book I remember reading with a plot involving rape was “Speak”, as you mentioned, Maggie. I can’t seem to think up any others right now, but it is sad that is seems to be occurring a lot for other people, especially with the female characters. =( Oh, and yes, rape was also involved in Lauren Myracle’s “Shine”! And the girl was so affected (effected?) by it, although I think it was resolved sort of “messily”…

  • It’s kind of like the people who swear because they can’t think of anything more intelligent to say. I think my general dislike of the gratuitous sex (or rape) scene is one of the biggest reasons I steer towards YA.

    My first thought when you tweeted about this was DEERSKIN. Like Heather said, it’s about healing and a journey out of darkness . What I appreciate most about it is that the Terrible Event was not salacious. I own the book and love it, but it’s still a hard one to read. As it should be.

    (Who knows – maybe this was one of the books on your private UN-recommended list. I hope not!)

  • Thank you for writing this article. I wish I could have been this articulate when I was saying something similar about a book I read for a class for my MFA. Alas, I was less eloquent and didn’t get the kind of agreement I expected from other women in the class. It horrified me that they had no problem with the kind of degradation to women in general produced by the gratuitous rape scene in the book.

  • Thank you for writing this. I am so glad to read so many supportive comments as well. Obviously, this is something that needs to be discussed. I especially appreciate how you identified the genres of the novels you read. Readers, of course, want writers to become as emotionally invested in the creation of characters as we are in sharing their stories with them. But it might be harder for writers to remember that the genre they write in is not the same as the audience they write for. Writers of young adult novels are not writing “for young adults;” their audience is composed of individual human beings with complex, varied histories. There is a level of responsibility involved in sending a message out to a captive audience. And what a powerful a message if it tells women (and men!) that: (a) you should expect to be raped, and (b) you cannot fully develop strength of character if you are not raped. So yes, when we come across these scenes, we should definitely ask “who is the author of this scene?” and “what are his personal and professional motivations for including this scene?”

  • ephrielle

    I agree. Lately I have found far too many rape scenes as well. It is a turn off. Almost certain death to a story for me. Thanks for voicing your opinion. I am angry too.

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  • Candice

    It’s strange because just last weekend I think TBS or some other channel was having a Clint Eastwood marathon. My husband brought up that Sondra Locke (main female character and Eastwood’s gal IRL) is raped or almost raped in every movie she is in with him. We then started talking about the rest of Eastwood movies and how most include rape or attempted rape. My guy also brought up that he directed most and even included his IRL daughter in a movie where she is raped (luckily offscreen) I can’t imagine a father directing a scene like that but still he did with his girlfriend Locke. I started joking around that women are just here to be raped and the reason for revenge. It definitely isn’t just movies. I myself was raped as a child and unfortunately know a great number of women who were as well. Yes, I am a little sensitive when it comes up but if it is done correctly and not gratuitously but the fact that I have to type WHEN IT COMES UP is a little disturbing. I guess I have trained myself to disconnect when it is gratuitous but when it is intrinsic I do stop and let it register. It stings and I feel moved and then I move on. Damn I even like Girl W/ Dragon Tattoo but because of the intrigue and it sickens me that some people may use those passages as sick fantasy fodder. With historical fiction like Game of Thrones I get it because it was a tool of war but I would prefer if they weren’t such drawn out scenes. I think I see it a bunch more in dystopian novels just because that unfortunately the most likely scenario for women if society as it is were to crumble just look at India at this moment. I know this is a Rampling comment please forgive.

  • This is a topic I’ve been discussing a lot lately, as gratuitous rape is my number-one literary pet-peeve. You inspired me to write a list of 100 things an author could have happen to a female character, other than rape: for those authors whose creativity is broken! Which is obviously not a category into which you fall.

  • I wrote a short story once that involved a rape. It wasn’t about the rape so much as it was about broken trust and forgiveness, but anyway, I got a lot of good feedback from people who really understood what I was trying to say with it, but their were some people who really ticked me off with phrases like, ‘Oh, she was drunk’ or, even worse, ‘she shouldn’t have been hanging out with a guy who wasn’t her boyfriend’. First, she wasn’t drinking alcohol, and second, the guy she was hanging out with, while waiting for her boyfriend, was a trusted friend of hers.

    Those comments made me so mad because I could practically see them shaking their heads and saying, ‘well, when a girl behaves like that she is asking for it’. Behaves like what? Going to a party and having a soda with a friend? Ugh.

    So, while I may have wandered a bit off-topic in my rant, I just wanted to say that I agree with your post. I hate how so many people, writers and readers alike, consider women to be victims just because they walk around without constant protection and there are bad people in the world.

    Oh, have you ever read the Outlander series? Great characters, interesting premise of time travel and history, but over the course of the series the author has had maybe five of her characters raped, a mix of male and female, and for the most part these attacks were completely unnecessary plot devices. Grr.

    • Elisabeth

      I’ve never read the Outlander series for precisely that reason.

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  • Liz

    I could not agree with this more. Lately it seems as if “rape” is the new “bully” — a serious issue dumbed down to a buzzword that can be tossed around or made into a hashtag or a Facebook page or worn like a ribbon on a blog or whatever.

    (I’m not lumping everyone into that classification, by the way. Just that with technology and society the way they are today, it’s easy to “support” a cause without actually giving a crap about it.)

    Rape books bother me. A lot. There are several reasons for this, but the short reason would be that it hits too close to home. If they’re done poorly or gratuitously, it makes me angry. If they’re done well, it’s just too disturbing. I mean, the whole idea of “doing rape well” is kind of an oxymoron in my book. It isn’t so much that I want to scrub literature of any and all mentions of rape or sexual abuse. It’s that, as a reader, being witness to a scene like that, no matter how it’s executed, is violating. And even if that was the point–especially if that was the point–I don’t like feeling that way.

    Ten years ago, when I first started writing, I was writing mysteries, because I loved them. I love thrillers and detective stories and having these characters who are, on a daily basis, put up against these extreme circumstances. But somewhere around the mid-2000’s, perhaps in response to the big boom of female amateur detectives and cozy mysteries, that “rape culture” bled into the genre. You couldn’t pick up a book without that underlying theme of sexual abuse towards women.

    Even the female-driven cozy mysteries that were light on violence exploited the idea of rape for entertainment. One book (circa 2008, so not that long ago), written by a very successful and prolific author, featured the female protagonist being tied to a chair while the would-be rapist cuts her clothes off of her, while telling her all of the things he’s going to do to her if he can figure out how to do them.

    That’s right–the only thing that saved her from being raped was that the virgin rapist was too much a virgin to know how to do it.

    When the main character finally got away and related the story to the men in her life, they all laughed about it. They laughed about how funny it was for her to be almost-raped.

    I’m all for free speech. But rape for entertainment takes a serious issue and turns it into a plot device. Or worse–the butt of a bad joke.

  • Going out on a limb to say that maybe the authors of these books haven’t worked with rape and molestation victims on a regular/daily basis. I do and find that for those people it’s not a coming of age event but more a psychologically traumatizing event that some never recover from.

  • I’ve been mulling over this topic ever since you posted about it. Recently, friends of mine lent me a graphic novel from last year that they said I would absolutely love, considering I loved this author’s other work. That being said, while the art is absolutely entrancing, I am not sure that I can finish reading it. I’ve come to the following conclusion: Rape is not a relevant replacement for real PLOT. It’s incredible, really, how there is NOTHING to the main female character except her innocence corrupted by the endless defiling of her body.

  • AGREEMENT FOREVER AND EVER. I find it very frustrating, too. I mean, come on. You could just as easily torture them in some other way.

    … I mean, there are lots of other ways of character development. Which don’t necessary have to involve pain.

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  • As a survivor of sexual assault and abuse, I take issue with your idea that rape is not the most terrible thing that can happen to a woman. For me, at the time, it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me, and it’s something I don’t think I will ever fully recover from, although I am a lot better off now than I was back then. When I was stuck in an abusive relationship and couldn’t see a way out of it, I wanted to die. Leaving that abusive relationship was a coming-of-age moment for me, and my history as a survivor of sexual abuse is definitely a very important part of me. I don’t know, I guess I just think that it’s wrong for someone who hasn’t been in that situation to tell a survivor that it’s not the worst thing that could happen, when for that survivor, maybe it is. I understand that you meant that women are more than just our sexuality and that rape should not merely be just a plot device to give female characters more depth, but I don’t think that was worded very thoughtfully. However I agree that authors who don’t deal with rape appropriately and sensitively probably should not write about rape at all. Writing rape scenes just to give female characters depth without really dealing with rape and its aftermath is lazy writing and poor storytelling.

    • I appreciate your comment, but I take issue with this:

      ” I don’t know, I guess I just think that it’s wrong for someone who hasn’t been in that situation to tell a survivor that it’s not the worst thing that could happen, when for that survivor, maybe it is. ”

      As you cannot assume what sort of situations I have been in.

      Also, I think there is a huge difference between what is the worst thing that has happened to you to this point versus the worst thing that COULD happen to you or to all women or humans. I can argue the details of the second, but not the first.

      I can point to terrible things in my life and say “this is the worst thing that has ever happened to me,” and be absolutely right, but I’m well aware that there are worse things out there, too.

      • Lento

        During the war human beings cut away other human beings arms and legs and used their living torsos growing different types of bacteria. I don’t want to sound cold, but as a woman, I would prefer to face rape over both that and dying.

        During the war in third world countries, almost 100% of war prisoners are raped.

        Luckily, in these part of the world we live in peace, rape stats have grown lower and lower during last couple of hundred years. Considering that, using rape as a main motif of female character actions, is even more unmoral. On the other hand, I can see sexual innuendo in that, and I don’t mean the exact misogynist part of the rape culture, but a that part, which make us feel, that we are forced to forced or being abused because of some cultural tendencies. Those emotions – like raping fantasies of women – are something we have to accept as a part of personal sphere. How ever, it’s not politically and socially very wise to use them widely as motives in fiction, but of course as the same role, as they are in real life – as personal fantasies.

      • Pranjal Rawat

        erm, even the world wars (between first world countries) had a lot of rape. Both soviet and US soldiers rape a hell lotta German women at the end of WW2.

      • Pranjal Rawat

        erm, also US has the largest statistics of rape. Partially because the govt. accounting is better, partly because that the reality of a repressed nation in general.

        So please lets not “first world” each other. Everyone’s in similar shit piles.

  • Heidi

    Thanks for this post. Here, here.

  • lee

    you lot are the reason we men run the world. get a grip, you’re talking about books

    • Daniel Harvey

      I hate you.

  • Kellie

    Hi, Maggie. Just saw this post. Oh, so much I’d love to say on the subject! Let’s see …

    (1) I was struck by Louis CK’s followup comments on his part in a recent controversy. He said something like, Until this happened I didn’t realize the extent to which women feel the threat of rape limits and constricts their lives. They think about it a lot and I didn’t realize that. I got educated on the issue and now I understand. [no quotation marks as I don’t recall his exact words.]

    For me personally, rape as plot point (whether m or f) takes the book out of the realm of fun diversionary fantasy reading and puts it into the heavy category. A lot of times the rest of the book doesn’t support that change in gravity, and that’s a problem.

    Interestingly, there are all kinds of terrible things that can happen to characters (torture by electric shock, forced to fight in the Hunger Games, buried alive, life as a serf on a mining asteroid, etc.) that don’t have the same effect. I was always happy to read Dick Francis mysteries where the hero is brutally beaten, stoically endures the abuse, but comes out on top at the end. They would not have been fun for me if Sid was being brutally gang-raped instead of brutally beaten.

    I assume that, if I felt being tortured by electric shock or conscripted to a mining colony might actually happen to me, those plot points would also take the fun out of the book for me (as opposed to giving the mc a chance to overcome adversity in a thrilling fashion).

    (2) Why are there so dang many books like this? >> “Rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman” is such a common belief (on the part of both m and f) that it’s an easy plank for authors to build with. We find an analog in child sex abuse. (“Sexual abuse as a child will screw a person up more than anything else.”) I love mysteries, and I cannot COUNT the number of books I’ve read where by chapter 2 I conclude, “Oh the dad raped him/her and that’s the backstory bit that explains everything that happens later on.”

    I think skilled authors can build their plot points from more nuanced materials. But it’s the belief that sexual violation is so horrible–so shaming, so destructive in so many ways, so fundamentally dehumanizing, etc etc–and also the lousy fact that it is so common in real life that makes authors turn to it so readily.

    Achieving a similar “Oh, that’s so terrible …” effect from other material–either fresh ideas like Sophie’s Choice or really intricate descriptions of the ways nature and nurture can screw a person up (see JD Salinger)–is much harder than .
    So: I agree it’s terrible, I abhor the fact that it’s so common IRL, and I STILL want to see other things happen to the characters I read about–as you do.
    (2a) Another view of why these plot points are so common: read “The Murderer Next Door” for a great account of just how fundamentally human an activity murder is, and why we tend to be so fascinated with it. I personally find a mystery novel without a murder at its core to be less than satisfying. Someone else could make the argument that sexual violation falls into the same category, but since I want less of it (not more of it) in my books, I’ll leave that argument to someone else.

    (3) This was a long paragraph on how people are different from one another with references to fictional and nonfictional accounts of sexual violation where the character’s response veers from the path we see so often.
    (4) This is a paragraph I could write on fictional treatments of castration.
    But I would want to be careful with my phrasing in 3 & 4 and I’ve already been on here for a while so I’ll just sign off.

  • Kate Robotham Conway

    I write YA (upper YA) and I have an attempted rape due to drunken stupidity, but I used it as a vehicle to show the main MC’s strength. She fends off her attacker (who is drunk beyond words) until her guard can get to her, but what seemed to resonate with the readers is that the guard was the one who was haunted by the incident. The girl is strong, defiant, and determined to put it behind her. She doesn’t let it consume her. The guard, however, is angry and would love nothing better than to damage the offending boy. I think the contrast – a feisty, but breakable girl as the strong one versus a powerful, dangerous but now damaged boy, makes for a fabulous heroine. More importantly, the assault is a very small part of a much bigger story, defining the characters’ spirit.

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  • brittania

    As a woman being raped is different than a man being raped because you try like hell to fight back. Your spirit is strong and willing to fight but unfortunately your little 5’4 body can’t defend its self against a muscular Persian who lifts weights. You almost feel helpless, because u tried everything to stop it…but you failed..unless your a ufc, boxing Amazon woman. Each person is different how we cope….as authors or writers, involving a rape scenes in your book, you need to involve the tremendous mental problems…and crappy psych hospitals..and psychologists who just throw pills at you.that don’t work. Don’t forget the awesome flashbacks too! There’s a whole bees nest of I could get into. Rape isn’t sexy. Anne prince’s novel the claiming of sleeping beauty made me sick. After 5 pages I was done. Rape is a traumatic horrifying event that no one should go through. Men suffer as well. And sometimes the rape victim grows up to be the rapist.

  • me4maine

    After watching the most recent HTGAWM in which the main characater is revealed to have a tragic rape backstory, I agree with this 1000%.

  • if a person is found guilty in the act of rape, he will have to undergo
    some serious penalties. Sometimes a defendant can claim that the sexual
    act was consensual. Only one of the good rape defense lawyers can minimize the penalty involved in a rape case.

  • Daniel Harvey

    I love you so much for writing this. I have actually abandoned four, maybe more, books over the course of a year because I have simply been too tired and angry to go on. I am so sick of this coming up alllll the time. I don’t have to go into the specifics of why I hate gratuitous rape scenes, but let’s just say that even a white male who has never been raped can find it disgusting and traumatic simply because someone they love has.

  • Daniel Harvey

    Seems like my first post didn’t make it for some reason. Anyways, thank you so much for writing this, you echo my own thoughts. Much love from a fan!

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  • Bruce Taylor

    Hi,Thank you for your thoughts. I just wrote a review on Audible about Michael Robotham. I gave him the minimum 1 star.Like you I finally just had it with writers, with in this case child rape and murder stories. It seems that a lot of authors reach for this easy device to further their careers.I don’t know if Audible will publish my review or not.but I am gonna put it right here too.The review is called Thoughts become deeds, enough , push back.

    This guy is an excellent
    writer. I really enjoyed the first book of his that I read and
    thought I had found a great new author who would be an anecdote for
    my long commutes. I love stories about people in tough situations
    getting strong and handling the danger. I listen to maybe 100 books a

    But in this book he goes into
    great detail about sexual abuse of children. It is of course a
    legitimate topic. In an academic or law enforcement or physiological
    point of view,or to briefly mention it as a crime in a novel.

    But this is a person who makes
    money from writing for people to read for pleasure, or to escape
    boredom or to make the day pass better while doing some mindless
    task. He writes for so long and in such detail about these crimes
    that it was almost physically sicking to me, it was a while ago that
    I read it ,but I think one of the girl characters was killed in some
    gruesome way..I put him down ,didn’t finish. Enough. This lowest
    common denominator for shock value.

    Really his words and thoughts are
    a product he is selling he chooses to create from his imagination; a
    young girl kidnapped and killed .There is no need for all the detail.
    How can he stay separate from his imagination ? When he lies in his
    bed before sleeping thinking these details up, he is smearing the
    foulest excrement overall over his talent and his soul.

    It was some months back when I put
    his book down but what made me write this review was the following
    headline torn from todays news. “Woman
    kept in wooden box by ex-boyfriend is killed after fleeing “ from
    June 20, 2015. Enough.

    refuse to give this guy any credit for redeeming social value. He is
    really just a pornagrapher. A film could not legally be made of the
    images he presented and I allowed to be put into my head, except for
    documents for a law enforcement purpose. Again he uses his
    imagination to create these word pictures to make money.

    its becoming a trend I have had to put down other authors books at
    similar points.

    On of the most harmful acts, and
    easiest to do, abusing children. Depicting terrorized children is
    this guys stock in trade. It is how he makes a living. Shame. Shame
    on him.

    I hope he has some kind of
    personal revelation that enables him to create a way out for himself.
    To make amends for these ideas he has sent out into the universe.

    the Buddha said more than 2500 years ago: ‘We are what we think.
    All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make
    the world.’

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  • This. All this. I’m a firm believer that violence (sexual or otherwise) should never be used as the stick with which we start a character on their journey. It adds tension, yeah, but if it’s always this spark, this defining moment, this instigator of a a coming-of-age story…aren’t we kind of glorifying it?

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  • Quinn Strohl

    Maggie, I have personally read your Shiver series and have absolutely adored this book. I also am using this article in one of my college papers to bring awareness about rape. I think rape is down played in some scenes of books and an author cannot truly understand rape unless it has happened to them. Personally I love your thoughts on rape and how it should be put into books but in a more carefully placed structure. Thank you for writing amazing books and for commenting on a serious issue. I hope your day is going well and i hope to read more of your books in the future.

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Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

How I Write

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Copyright 2012