Warnings: Mentions of rape, violence against women, objectification, and domestic abuse. Description of a rape scene.
As some of you know, I do some unpaid work proofreading. I love it, because I’ve been able to work on some incredible pieces. I’ve also met some terrific authors (and even got a signed copy of a book out of the deal–win!). It’s a way for me not only to make connections like that, but to improve my own writing as I learn what’s good–and what’s not.
Over the weekend, I had the misfortune to have a chapter land in my lap that made me feel sick and violated. The writer sent what, on the surface, appeared to be an interesting combination of mystery and either urban fantasy or science fiction (this was the first chapter; it was hard to tell). It turned out to be some kind of erotica, supposedly with “BDSM” themes. Yeah, not quite.
After the first two pages, I started to feel uncomfortable, though I couldn’t pinpoint why. At first, it just sounded like the main character was imagining what it would be like as a dom. I’ve seen that before, but this just read…differently. After a second read-through, I figured it out. This guy wasn’t just thinking about being a dom in a particular relationship, he seemed to be applying this fantasy to all women. That is, he liked the idea of women–not exclusively a partner–being incapable of movement and unable to speak.
I set that thought aside, though, because I’m not well-versed in BDSM lifestyle/culture and figured perhaps the writer was expressing things badly. It’s been known to happen (ahem, Fifty Shades, anyone?). That is, until I read further. A strange woman appears at his door, looking for someone else. In the process of “comforting” her, he begins to fantasize about what he wants to do with her. Again, this made me uncomfortable, that a man would be incapable of meeting a woman without sexual interest. Clearly this is a person who sees women as existing solely for the purpose of fulfilling his sexual fantasies.
In the last scene of the chapter, the main character is waiting in a reception area and begins fantasizing about the secretary (of course). He imagines himself hauling her across her desk and assaulting her with a knife, slicing her nipples, and forcing her to have sex with him. The way the scene is written, it’s clearly intended to be erotic rather than terrifying. Let me tell you, it absolutely scares the shit out of me to think that a strange man would come into my workplace and imagine himself brutally assaulting me.
There are a number of people who will probably tell me that it’s “just fantasy” or that it’s okay because it’s fictional and no one’s really going to imitate that behavior just because they read it in a book. I’ve heard the same arguments about Fifty Shades, and they don’t hold any water for the same reason.
Stories like Fifty Shades or the rapey fiction I read last weekend are not cultural influencers. It’s probably true that no one’s going to first read the book and then act in the same fashion. Rather, these books are a reflection of what’s already happening. Women are already in abusive relationships, being manipulated and led to believe their partners love them or that they can “fix” their partners if they do all the right things. Women are already being objectified and raped. These are not things that are caused by reading a book.
The real problem is that books like these condone the behavior; they make it seem acceptable under certain circumstances. When abuse is sold as romance, it makes the abuse appear to be acceptable. Domestic abuse is okay, as long as a woman understands it’s because her partner only did it because he loved her. When rape is sold as eroticism, it justifies a view of women that we are playthings. It’s all right to fantasize about tying up and raping strangers at knife point, as long as one doesn’t actually do that in real life. It isn’t a matter of life imitating art, it’s the other way around–and not in a way that points to the behavior and says, “This needs to stop.”
If either of these stories were clearly defining the abuse and fantasy-rape as Very Bad Things, I would champion them and demand everyone read them. It’s entirely possible to point out societal ills in a manner that condemns the behavior, while still allowing the characters to see things differently than the readers. To Kill a Mockingbird does this perfectly in the narrative of the rape trial woven throughout the story. We can see the racism, but many of the town’s residents are incapable of such insight. The important thing is that we’re not supposed to side with them. We’re not supposed to see them as the heroes of the story, and we’re rightly indignant when people in real life also fail to understand why it’s wrong.
It’s a far, far different thing entirely to create characters who enforce violent, abusive behavior. What a difference it would make in both of the stories I mentioned if the end result were for the abusers to be recognized for what they are. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and the consequence of both is reinforcement of a culture that is violent towards women.
Writers, this is my challenge to you: Don’t fall into the trap of believing your words have no subtext. Words mean things, and not just individually. Collectively, we can send messages that perhaps we don’t consciously intend. Be purposeful with your words; examine yourself and your work for ways in which you’ve upheld stereotypes or reflected cultural norms that might be best left in the trash where they belong. You, writers, are better than the ugly violence that some are selling as acceptable.