I recently began working as a book editor, so some of the books I have read lately have not been my choice but were assigned to me. This can be a good and bad thing. I am getting to read some great books for free, but I am also have to suffer through some not-so-great books as well. One issue that really stood out to me this week is how authors deal with rape and whether or not the handling of it differs depending on the gender of the author.
Two of the four books I have edited recently have had rape scenes. One was written by a man and one was written by a woman. One I felt was authentic and handled responsibly, the other I don’t think the author even knows he wrote a rape scene. Here are the two for comparison:
Strong hands grip me wrists and pull me arms behind me back. Oh, no. God, no. Is this what I think? I struggle as hard as I can, but they hold me in a grip like a vise. “Take your hands off me,” I yell at the top of me lungs, pulling with every bit of strength in me body.
“Bart, hold her firm,” Seamus says. “She’s skinny but wily, I wager.” Bart pulls me arms up above me head.
Seamus stands before me. He runs his hands down me body. I begin to shake uncontrollably. “Don’t do that!” I scream.
“Relax. Maybe you’ll like it. Bess did.”
“But she was a lady to the queen,” I stammer.
He roars with laughter. “You believed that? She’s a corker, that one. Could bluff the spots off dice.”
“I trusted her.”
“No wonder you Catholics are starving to death. You’re too stupid to live.”
I kick him in the leg.
“Owww,” he yells. “Those boots are hard.” He checks his shin. “I’ll have a bruise the size of me fist. You’ll pay double for that, Miss Mary. Jack, grab her ankles.”
Jack jumps toward me, dodging me feet as I wildly thrash them. He clutches around me right ankle and pulls me off balance. Then he grabs the other ankle and lifts me off the ground.
Seamus gestures toward the deck and the two men slam me down on it, one pinning me arms and the other, me legs. “Spread her out.”
The wind is knocked out of me and, gasping for air, I try to scream, “Let me go.” The grips on me ankles and wrists do not loosen. I fight furiously.
“Gag her,” Seamus screams. “The captain’ll hear.” A rag jams into me mouth as Seamus kneels down. “Mary, this will go better if you relax,” he says. He unbuttons the top button of me dress.
“God, please help me!” I vomit into the gag. He slaps me face to the side and the vomit rolls down me cheek to the floor.
God does not listen.
“No, Isa, this is not death. This is the beginning of life for you.”
“I do not understand.”
“Nor will I take the time to explain much of it to you.” He held out his hand for her to take.
When she did, he led her up the stairs to the recliner. His grip was strong, yet tender. He wore one golden bracelet the length of his forearm on both wrists and a chain of gold with a strange design hung from his neck. Tolth asked the wisps of wind, “Is she purified?” Only an odd shrill was his answer. “Then leave us.”
Confused, Isa asked, “My lord?”
“No, not you.” Tolth turned to her and placed his hands on her face. His mouth consumed hers.He moved her toward the recliner and unfastened her gown.
Isa stood naked before Tolth.
He removed his cloak and sarong and eased Isa back to the recliner. “I am Tolth. You are my vessel, and through your line my sins against God and man will be forgiven.” Tolth moved over her as Isa closed her eyes…
Isa woke up on the altar, now clean. The High Priest laid dead. She took his staff and struck the ground with it. The staff shone brightly in her hand and turned to gold. She walked out to face her subjects.
The temple was adorned in white and gold and shone as if freshly painted by the newly risen sun.
The hooded priests of the temple died at the sight of her.
Isa stood before her village in her white garb, round and fully large with child.
I case you couldn’t figure it out, example 1 was written by a woman and example 2 by a man, though I’m not going to tell you what books they are from to avoid any conflicts of interest.
In the second example, the scene is written more as a seduction, it is written to scandalize and scintillate but not to inflict horror or fear. In fact, the rapist in the second scene up to this point was considered one of “the good guys.” Words like “tender” and “ease” lull the reader into a sense of “this isn’t so bad.” However, this is a rape scene because Isa never consents to the intercourse. She doesn’t even know what is happening. She asks what is going on, but Tolth says, ‘I’m too busy to explain this to you’ as he rips her clothes off. Also, this rape scene comes after Isa is murdered. Isa experiences two forms of violence in as many pages.
When writing rape scenes, how they are written is vitally important. Rape is not easy, it is not simple, it is not a joke and it is not pleasurable or enjoyable.
Another thing to consider about rape scenes is how they are handled in the aftermath. While characters can certainly heal and move on with their life after a rape, it will always be with them. Trauma doesn’t just go away. In the first example, Mary’s rape stays with her throughout the book, clouding her relationships and influencing her decisions. In the second example, Isa’s rape appears to have no influence on her life, even though a child is born of her rape. She never considers it again and it is never mentioned again. It doesn’t have any impact on her emotional psyche and has no impact on the story. This is what leads me to think that the author doesn’t even realize he wrote a rape scene. To him, the effect on Isa wasn’t important.
I also want to point out that the target for both of these books are young women – these are both young adult novels that feature female protagonists. You have to ask yourself what kind of message about rape would you want to be feeding your daughter – one that acknowledges the trauma and helps the character deal with it as she moves through her life or one that doesn’t even acknowledge the violence happens and is used as a sexual trope to move the story along?
Earlier this year, Game of Thrones made the news (again) for its disturbing portrayal of rape on television. One critic made an excellent point when she said, “Rape here, like in all instances, is not a necessary story-driving device.” As a writer, you choose every single thing your characters (good or evil) do. If you find yourself writing a rape scene, you really need to ask yourself: 1) Why? and 2) Am I giving this subject the treatment it deserves?
It is interesting to note that for the episodes in which rapes occur on Game of Thrones, they have never had a woman behind the camera as a writer or director. However, if you want to see how women handle rape and attempted rape scenes, you should check out Outlander. The last two episodes are horrific and may be impossible to watch by some people, but from a storyteller’s perspective, I think the show (especially in comparison to GoT) is a good case-study.
The last point I want to make is that when women complain about rape on television, in books, or in movies, it is both about the quantity of rapes we are subjected to in media but also how it is depicted. I actually really enjoyed the book from example 1 above but have not enjoyed the second book (even excluding the rape). Rape can be included in a story as long as it is handled appropriately.
What do you think? Have you read examples of rape that were handled appropriately? Inappropriately? Have you written a rape scene? Tell me about it in the comments!