Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The "Go-To Trauma": Is Writing about Rape Humanitarian, or Just Voyeuristic?

Brace yourselves, Writer Friends, because this week’s topic is a heavy one. I’ve been shifting these thoughts around in my head since I was in college, and when I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a few months ago they resurfaced. But even if you haven’t read the book, keep reading this post; I’m not going to talk about Larsson’s book yet. I’ll elaborate on that in next week’s follow-up post, but for now I want to talk broadly about one of the issues that this book brought to the forefront of my mind.

When I was young, I gravitated towards books about broken and wounded women, spurred by a teenage precociousness, even a certain morbidity. I think a lot of young readers today—particularly young girls—do the same; books like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, Sarah Littman’s Purge, and Gayle Forman’s If I Stay are today’s version of the books I read, like Patricia McCormick’s Cut and Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted.

Broken women aren’t new to fiction at all, and I see a lot of beginning writers gravitate towards these subjects. I think we all have at least a side of our personalities that is fascinated by dark subjects. And I think our society considers rape to be just about the darkest subject, the worst crime, and possibly the most traumatic event one can experience. So it’s no surprise to me that I’ve yet to have a writing course in which my class didn’t workshop at least one piece about a rape. More often there are three or four in a semester.

Years of reading queries as an intern—and, of course, books as a general consumer—have taught me that the fascination doesn’t die down for writers after college. I recently had a conversation with a friend and coworker who called rape the “go-to trauma” in books and movies, and I think that’s spot-on. It’s easy to elicit a reaction to a rape—it’s clear who the victim is, it’s impossible to rationalize or justify the act, and it still carries a lot of the shock value that violence has begun to lose since we’ve been deluged with it in TV shows, movies and video games. Rape scenes are horrifying and compelling—and I think, on top of that, there’s something about them that makes both writers and readers feel like activists, at least in spreading awareness of that issue.

But are we always spreading awareness in a good way? When we write about rape, could there be something voyeuristic about it?

See, these scenes always get me asking questions. Do we have the same responsibilities toward fictional characters that we have toward fellow human beings? If we’re riveted by a scene about rape, is that even in some small way like being fascinated by an actual rape? What are the social implications of one reader’s—or of one writer’s—fascination with one rape scene? What are the social implications of thousands of readers’ and writers’ fascination with thousands of rape scenes?

I was once drawn to books about wounded women out of teenage morbidity, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve been drawn towards those books more out of concern for a society that I see as flawed in its treatment of women. Now, each time I read a book that features rape, I find myself wondering if it’s undermining or supporting a culture of rape and violence against women.

Some books bring female characters from rape or violence to redemption, and seem to have the power to spread awareness and spur action. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye opened the eyes of readers to the everyday horrors of violence against women by offering us whole, complex stories that could have been (and are) those of real women. And as the many powerful responses to recent attempts to ban Speak have demonstrated, these books are needed as much by the victims of such crimes as they are by those to whom they bring awareness.

In that respect, I stand strongly behind a lot of writers who choose to write about rape. It wasn’t that long ago that rape wasn’t even talked about. Truly, the fact that women’s voices are starting to be heard about rape is an accomplishment. That the media acknowledges, in any degree, the epidemic of violence against women in our society is a triumph. So it’s immensely important that there be books about rape and violence against women, and their crippling effects on women’s happiness and mental health.

But is there a wrong way to write a rape scene? What do you think? Have you read any books that involved rape or violence? How did you feel after reading them? Why?

Next week, I’ll dig into this issue further with some thoughts on The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. Until then, leave your thoughts in the comments!


  1. What a weighty and meaty topic - and one that's been on my mind recently as a character I'm considering developing a character for a role playing game who is a survivor of rape.

    I can't think of any examples off hand in traditionally published sources, but I know in a lot of the fan fiction I've read, rape has been done *extremely* poorly. It's a quick way to establish a villain as truly villainous without actually putting in real character development. The same can be said for developing the victim as well - she (and sometimes he) automatically has our sympathies without having to be written as an actually sympathetic character. I've also seen it used as a quick way to bring a character down a couple of pegs, reducing her to a shell of herself so someone else can come in to be Prince Charming. All of these definitely feel to me like contributing to the culture of violence against women, and sometimes even reducing one of the most violent acts imaginable to a simple plot point.

    However, when done with sensitivity and awareness, rape stories are necessary, as part of the healing process for survivors and as a method of awareness-raising. Because rape is such an intimate violation, each survivor has a different story to tell, and the more stories that are out there, hopefully we can begin to dispell myths about who rapists are (they're not always the scary stranger in a dark alley), who is a victim (no one "asks for it"), and what a survivor looks like (rape cases at trial often being dismissed because the survivor isn't acting the way a victim "should" act).

  2. I think the simplest answer is that whether a rape scene is written in a voyeuristical or humanitarian way is in the treatment. I have written several stories that include or examine rape in varying degrees. There are several general questions I usually ask myself when I consider how to handle the section and nine times out of ten, the questions I ask myself about a rape scene are the same I ask about any scene. Is this necessary to the plot/character development? What do I gain by writing it in? What do I gain by leaving it out? Would it carry more weight as an implication than a statement?

    I do think that unfortunately rape is frequently viewed as pornographic and is increasingly treated as a benign fetish. (See rape simulation video games primarily from Japan.) I can honestly say I have nothing against what people choose to do in their sexual lives between consenting adults but I think it's important to distinguish fantasy from reality and that a large number of rape scenes I've read are reminiscent of bodice rippers from the Victorian era.

  3. It won't let me edit that comment but that was supposed to voyeuristic in the first sentence. For some reason my browser decided to auto-correct an already correct word. =P

  4. I know what you mean about rape as a "go-to" subject for writers. I've also never had a writing workshop class without at least one rape story. (I've also seen far too many domestic abuse, child abuse, suicide and "mental illness" stories, but that's a rant for another day.)

    And I think there's a more banal reason for this. I may sound really cynical and snobbish when I say this, but I think you may be giving some writers too much credit. Yes, plenty of writing about rape is intended to be "humanitarian" and "awareness raising" and "empowering" - but I think there's an even larger subset of writing about rape that doesn't have such a high-minded intention. From what I've seen, people tend to write about rape because it's *easy.*

    It's counter intuitive - wouldn't such a heavy subject be difficult to write about? - but I see people adding rape into their stories all the time in a misguided attempt to add gravitas and drama and sympathy. Writing about rape, people think, makes their work seem Important and Interesting and Edgy and Risky and Deep. Really, though, it's cheap and manipulative. It makes readers instantly react with a pretty predictable response. Instead of working through more nuanced traumas and characters, writers just throw in a rape to avoid having to do any more characterization or work up more complex drama. And characters are much easier to write when they are Rape Victims than when they are complete, human characters. Watch a couple of episodes of L&O:SVU, read a few articles on PTSD, and bam, you can write a Disturbing But Sensitive Rape Scene and a Traumatized Victim.

    I have very little patience with rape in stories, because I rarely see it serving a real literary purpose. It needs to be, like Robyn said, completely necessary and not in any way gratuitous. Too many writers make it the only focus of the story: "I want to write about RAPE!" or they make it some deus ex machina: "My character is this way because RAPE!" and those are completely insensitive and inappropriate ways to write about this topic.

    Well-intentioned and well-done writing about rape does exist, and the examples you cited are all beautifully done and have given voice to a topic that does need to be talked about. Unfortunately, though, I see rape too often used as a crutch for lazy plot work and characterization, and that's just disrespectful, ignorant and cringe-inducing for the reader, plus it prevents the development of far more unique and interesting plots/characters, so everyone loses.