Let us make no bones about just how common rape is. The numbers reported by the Department of Justice (and found at the homepage for Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network here) estimate that at least 1 in 6 women are victims of rape or attempted rape in America today. That rough 16% is based off the reported numbers, and common wisdom says the numbers are even higher than that because of the number of rapes that go unreported. Additionally, 3% of American men are also victims of rape, with the same caveat that rape is a severely under-reported crime. So yeah, including rape in a story does inject an element of horrid realism. That isn't the problem. The problems are some of these other things.
Problem #1: Making Rape Sexy
Rape is a total violation. It is the use of someone's body without their consent, often through violence. It leaves scars that can damage someone's psyche for life, and it represents a complete betrayal of someone's trust. I don't know why someone would try to put a glossy coat of sexy on this, but apparently there are writers out there who have. It is for that reason that even the most salacious erotica publishers have in big, red neon "No rape for titillation" on their submission guidelines.
|Under. No. Circumstances.|
On the one hand, yes, there is a marked appeal of rape as a fantasy. According to Psychology Today's entry here surveys of women's sexual fantasies consistently turn up at least a 40% of women who regularly have rape fantasies. On the other hand, I would personally be willing to wager that none of the women surveyed who are of sound mind and body would like to be raped in real life. That's the difference between fantasy and reality.
But isn't my story just a fantasy? some writers might ask. Yes and no. On the one hand if you're writing a piece of fiction, then yes, you are creating events that did not happen. On the other hand, authors have a responsibility to create a real, believable world. The depiction of that world is important, and by attempting to make rape into something sensual, by focusing on the pleasure the rapist feels or paying an inordinate amount of attention to the victim's body and reactions, authors are sure to snap the suspension of disbelief. Or worse they'll create a world in which raping someone is considered the sexiest thing one person can do to another, thus giving it the social rubber stamp that normalizes it.
Problem #2: Definition by Rape
This is perhaps the simplest example of lazy writing I can think of, and it is given a pass time, and time again. I'm looking at you Nora Roberts, and at least the first few books of your "In Death" series. A female character (sometimes a male character, but that's very rare) is raped. Maybe it was a random man at a bar, maybe it was her father, maybe it was even multiple persons, but whoever it was the rape changed her. It made her what she is today... and that's the problem.
|Something's missing... I can feel it...|
There's one last, important note on this section as well. Defining a character through the short hand of the rape survivor is used almost exclusively for female characters. On the one hand, yes, women are victims of rape more often than men. Don't be fooled though; this insidious bit of sexism is used to create an optical illusion that a shallow character with a single, defining trait actually has depth. There are no shortcuts to making a rounded character, including a horrible back story.
Problem #3: Trauma Drama
If you were to ask an average person-on-the-street what the worst thing one human being could do to another was, rape would be near the top of the list.
|Because average people lack twisted imaginations.|
Rape has become the knee-jerk reaction when lazy writers want to do something terrible to characters without killing them off in order to keep the plot interesting. Just shop around for a little bit and read how often this happens. Ask yourself why? Why rape? Why not having someone's good looks permanently ruined with a scar and missing teeth? Why not having their house broken into and a cherished family heirloom stolen? Why not losing a limb in a car wreck, or developing a mental condition that makes the character struggle just to get through the day? If it isn't crucial to your story, cut it out and move on.
Problem #4: Making the Victim a Means
One of the worst things about rape as an act is that it turns someone from a person into an object. They are acted upon, and thus they were stripped of identity, of meaning, and in a real sense of their personhood. With that said, why would a writer do that accidentally by making rape in a story about anything other than the rape itself?
|There are better ways to make villains evil.|
Don't. Just don't. If you're including rape in your story, then take a long, hard look at what that rape is doing. If it's only purpose is to make the bad guy twirl his mustache, or the hero step up to protect a nameless, faceless woman, then you are doing it wrong. If you want to make better bad guys, look here instead.
Problem #5: Not Doing Your Research
Writers are consistently hammered with the idiom "write what you know". However, a more useful maxim is "know what you're writing". If you're going to include rape in your story then take that second one to heart. Write it on your wall. Tattoo it on the back of your eyelids. Carve it into the skulls of your enemies.
|Whatever you need to do.|
It's your world, and it's your story. If your character is one of the remarkably few cases of stranger rape (most rapes are committed by persons known to the victim), and if that rapist is an angry, recalcitrant thug unable to approach women (it's much more common for rapists to be normal people, or even highly charismatic ones), then that's your business. But if you're going to take on the task of portraying rape as part of your story, then don't shirk at your due diligence.
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