Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Explicit Sexual Violence is NOT Acceptable in Mainstream Fiction

So, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed the other day when a post from a writing group caught my attention. I'm not going to name names, link the post, or call anyone out. However, the writer in question was writing a book with several scenes of explicit sexual violence. In layman's terms, the book had onscreen rape, where the reader was going to watch the violation happen. The author's question was how many such scenes could they put in before general audiences would be turned off.

Let that sink in for a moment.
Now, the reason I decided to devote today's post to this subject is not because I think that sexual violence is a topic that should be scrubbed from fiction. However, the sheer, cavalier attitude that some writers, and particularly unpublished or new writers, treat it with makes me feel like this needs to be said. So I'm going to put it plainly, to ensure there's no misunderstanding.

Explicit sexual violence is NOT acceptable in mainstream fiction. There is no faster way to get your book rejected by agents, editors, and readers.

This is How You Send Yourself a Rejection Letter

I can already hear the keyboards of commenters who have come across this citing all the famous works of fiction that have rape in them (because, let's be honest, that IS what we're talking about). Some of them were even written by big-name authors, for big-name publishers, which puts the lie to my above admonition.

However, let me ask you this. How often does the act happen onscreen? How many times is the audience forced to see it happen, shot by shot, the same way horror movies linger on gore?

Because that's the major difference, here. You can bring up rape all you want without causing too much of an editorial ruckus in a mainstream title. You can have victims give full accounts after the fact, in courtroom scenes or police interviews. You can intimate all you want. As soon as you whip back the curtain and show the act, though, that is when the red REJECTION stamp comes down, and you can look forward to the form email in your inbox wishing you luck placing your project elsewhere.

Don't take my word for it, though, go read the submission guidelines for publishers out there. Most publishers, even those who cater to niche horror markets, will reject manuscripts for explicit sexual violence. Especially if said violence either serves no purpose, or is there for the express purpose of titillation. Even if the guidelines don't spell it out (which they do in most reputable publishers' guidelines), shoot them an email and ask if a book with multiple, explicit rape scenes would be rejected on that criteria alone.

Most publishers will answer that yes, they would be rejected that manuscript on the instant.

The Keyword Here is "Mainstream"

As someone who has spent time in a lot of ghost writing markets, and read countless calls for novels and short stories alike, I know there is literally a market for everything out there. There is an entire series of books whose whole premise is people being raped by bigfoot, for fuck's sake. No I won't link it here.

So yes, there is an audience out there who will have no problem with rape scenes that advance your plot. There is also an audience out there who will seek out your story expressly because of those scenes.

And like it or not, those people are YOUR people.
Anytime mainstream publishers refuse to put out stories that fill a need, self-publishing and niche publishers will pick up the slack. However, it's important to remember that they are niche publishers. If your dream is mass-market appeal with your story, and to one day have it put out through a publisher like Random House, Tor, Baen, or any of the other big names, then you need to remember that if you write for the big boys, you play by their rules. And one of those explicit rules is for you to tone down sexualized violence.

Can you get away with some of it? Sure. If you're particularly skillful, and the scene is integral to the plot, you may even manage to get a single, explicit scene into a mainstream book. But if you don't have a long track record and a big following, I wouldn't risk it.

Ask Yourself Why

This bit is completely aside from the chess game of intriguing an editor, or an agent. People who, by the way, have seen every iteration of rape scenes, and generally are not favorably impressed by one more round of the same. This is about you, the writer who has decided to put explicit scenes of sexual violence in your story. First off, don't make excuses for realism, or for tone, or because, "it's a horror/thriller/grimdark/etc." novel. Your story has those scenes in them because you chose to put them there. The same reason every part of your story exists the way it does. Unless you're working on commission, and you are told you must include certain types of scenes in your plot, then all of this is on you.

And you likely had plenty of time to think about it.
So, I'd like to ask a question. Why does your story need to have explicit sexual violence in it?

While you ponder that, I'm going to relate an incident that occurred to author Seanan McGuire (I'm paraphrasing, but the original is here). She was contacted by a fan who asked when some of her female protagonists were going to be raped. Not if, or do you think, but when. As if it was just some required stage of development that came along with being a strong female character. She was both disgusted, and incensed by this kind of assumption.

She made the point that, in fiction, rape is never just rape. It makes a statement. It exists for a purpose... unless it doesn't. So the questions you need to ask yourself is does this scene serve a purpose in my story? Is it a purpose that can be served in no other way? Or am I just going down a checklist and including elements that I think a story like this should have?

Also, while you're chewing over that, you might want to take a gander at an older post of mine titled The Big R: How To Deal With Rape in Your Fiction.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Apologies for those who had trouble reaching the end of it, but I've had this bug in my bonnet for a week or so now, and I needed to get it out. If you'd like to help support me and my blog, you should hop over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 per month to get yourself some sweet swag, and my everlasting gratitude. And, finally, if you're not following me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, why not start today?


  1. If sexual violence is not mainstream, does that mean regular, good old-fashioned violence…you know, the kind that impacts mostly males…is mainstream and therefore perfectly acceptable? Plenty of folks have a problem with women coming home in body bags after war, but don’t think anything of men who return home the same way. People who recoil in horror at the thought of drug-addicted prostitutes falling into the hands of serial killers don’t say anything about infant and toddler boys having their legs spread and part of their penises removed because of some idiotic religious tradition or aesthetic sensibilities. During last year’s Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences (Oscar) ceremonies, Vice-President Joe Biden arrived to give a speech about stopping violence against women on college campuses. This address was to an industry that has produced some of the most violent forms of entertainment, films that often been lauded as masterpieces and bestowed with innumerable awards. But, despite that, violence against college girls is where they drew the line. At what point did sexual violence against adult females – and only sexual violence against adult females – suddenly become taboo?

    1. Since you ask, I believe that is a completely separate topic. While they're related by the subject of violence, it's like asking, "but what about men who are raped?" when we're discussing sexual assault against women. That other issue is still important, but it is not the discussion we're having.

      Since you asked the question, though, I believe this is a cultural thing we are still struggling with in America. We believe that violence is often the correct course of action, and so we enshrine it. Uncompromising murderers like the Punisher, or bare-fisted vigilantes like Batman, are the figures we idolize, and who we make our heroes. Sex, even in the context of a healthy, consensual relationship, gives your film an R or higher, but fist-fights and shootouts are PG-13 if choreographed properly.

      Is that an issue? Yes it is. That issue is not, however, what we're talking about here, and will likely be the subject of a completely separate post.