Taboo Topics

Recently on a reviewer site, a book was reviewed (go figure). But this particular review caught my attention because of its discussion of “hot button” issues. Specifically, a woman had been raped in the book and the reviewer was not happy about it. Before we go further, some context: First, I’ve read the book in question. Second, the reviewer was very open about the fact that rape of women in books is a particularly hot button issue for her. Third, I’m not telling you the book simply because it is a major spoiler and it’s not that important for this particular discussion.

Okay, I think we can go on now. The problem with rape of women in books for the reviewer is several. She believes that rape is often a short hand or lazy way of generating conflict–an easy way of showing a woman’s vulnerability, rather than the writer actually developing the character and plot. She does not like that women usually get raped and men rarely do. She doesn’t like that this trope is typically presented in fantasy as the ‘rape and revenge’ trope, where the woman is raped and then becomes a badass of some sort and gets revenge and then voila! The rape no longer impacts her. She also doesn’t like the narrative where rape often serves as a punishment for women encroaching into male spheres (i.e. women being uppity).

The reviewer argues that often the rape is not organic or necessary to the plot, but that it is a convenient plot device that once used, is forgotten as if it’s that easy for anyone to get over or forget.

In many ways I agree with this reviewer. It is easy to use rape (and many other things) as a short cut to say lookie! Here’s what motivates my character to be this way! And then not really deal with the baggage that comes with that experience. I think if you decide to use rape in your writing, it has to be very carefully considered–is it really integral to the character and plot? How are you going to deal with it after it happens? And you should learn how women really do respond to rape. Part of the problem here is that the rape may turn out to be very inconvenient to the development of the story you planned. So instead of dealing with the ongoing baggage, you simple efface it from the rest of the story. Which simply doesn’t work. Then you’ve just used it exactly as the reviewer fears and she’s right–it makes for bad story.

But here’s the thing. Rape happens often to women. You would probably be surprised to know how many women you know who’ve been raped. Which means it is an issue that we can’t really ignore because it is part of life and it can’t be taken for granted as just something that happens and then it’s over. In a story, it’s fairly natural that the rape should just come out of nowhere (instead of being foreshadowed). That’s because it really does happen that way. Most women don’t know they are about to be attacked–it’s hard to be a writer and show a rape about to happen, unless it’s date rape. And for many of these rapes, the man disappears, is never caught, and the woman is stuck with it. For many women, they pretend it didn’t happen, trying to preserve normalcy. So at first, you don’t really see it. But usually it leaves deep fractures in her psyche that eventually she has to address or shatter. But that can be a very difficult thing to portray.

I blogged about this recently on my LJ blog to get a sense of what other people were thinking and to help me consider this more deeply. (You can go read it if you want, but be warned, spoilers abound. They abound!) One thing that was pointed out, and I agree, that in the novel the reviewer is speaking of, rape is almost the only thing that could really “crack [the main character's] hard shell of emotional self-reliance.” I agree. I think that at this point in the series, it was necessary to come at the character from a different point. And the rape was handled very well. And what I mean by that is just this–it was emotionally ripping for the reader, it was presented in such a way that it really attacked the central core of the character in a way she’d never suffered before, and the aftermath of her emotions and ‘handling’ of it was very real.

But rape is a difficult subject. And to write it means you have to get into the victim’s head and the rapist’s head and that is incredibly hard. So some writers simply will go with the cliched version, because they cannot bring themselves to emotionally invest in the scene. This is when the rape won’t work in the story. It’s true that rape happens so often that it can seem like a cliche in our culture. But it is not. It’s personal and individual and the writer has to capture that or find a different kind of scene.

I was thinking about what my personal hot button issues are and the main one that I could think of is related to rape or often includes a rape. I rarely TBAR (throw book across room) but I will if in the book the woman is raped or abused or held captive by the man and then falls desperately in love with him because the rape/abuse/captivity shows his manly strength and she at last discovers her femininity and is desperately eager to please him in any way because he’s so freaking manly and dominant and she knows this because he’s raped/abused/captured her– Okay, I just had to go throw up. Actually, such books deserve burning in my opinion. But there you go. My hot button.

What do you think? And do you have a hot button issue?

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  1. 1. SMD

    I almost thought you were talking about one of my reviews where I pointed out something similar, then I read further and realized that the review you read went a little deeper into the rape.
    For me rape can be a really big button. But I’m one person. I read a book recently where a character I felt very connected with gets raped. For me it was more that the character was a virgin, was not 18, was still a kid (I think 14), and it wasn’t just a rape by some random person or even a friend…it was an especially brutal rape that isn’t described but is very easily hinted at. This bothered me so much and the author was somewhat lucky that she decided to put this scene at the end because I might have stopped reading if this had been in the middle of the book.
    I personally just really don’t like rape scenes. I’m not like the review though; I’m a guy. It just really really really bugs me. There was only one book I read where I found it really helped the book because it created a great conflict for one of the main characters (Shadowfall by James Clemens). But the scene still bugged me.
    I think that some of us are just more sensitive to it than others.

    I think my buttons are rape (obviously), pedophilia, necrophilia and things gross like that…

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    One of my students put it into her first story this semester, and yeah, it felt too much like “she’s a female character, therefore this is how you victimize her.” As I pointed out to the student, I didn’t think it made sense for the rapist to engage in that act; it ran counter to several things we knew about him already. But I think I also reacted against it because it DOES seem to be the easy route to hurting women, and too many writers default to it, which pisses me off.

  3. 3. Mike Brotherton

    In general, I object to any reviewers telling any writers that something isn’t allowed. The marketplace can do that if they’re not doing interesting, quality work that fails to find an audience. Otherwise, everyone out there has their hot button issues and you can’t have a long list of particular acts or villains of any minority. Only the bottom line should matter: does the story work. All the PC crap and other taboos shouldn’t enter. Does the story work?

    Way too often people want to criticize the world through their own filters rather than the world as it is. I know I’m guilty of that, and try to watch for it, and will backtrack when called out.

    But there’s a lot more people out there ready to tell you what you can’t write, or shouldn’t write, than there are people to celebrate a meaningful tale that touches its readers.

    Let’s try to stick to criticism based on what works, what doesn’t, and forget the politics and biases as much as we can. Otherwise we’re just big talking head pundits who haven’t really thought very deeply, aren’t we?

  4. 4. Mike Brotherton

    P.S. And my hot button issue tends to be the abuse or misuse of science. Get it right if you’re going to use it. And it isn’t a belief system and the fact that it changes isn’t a negative.

  5. 5. Sam

    “So instead of dealing with the ongoing baggage, you simple efface it from the rest of the story.”

    I’ve found that this is all-too-often the case with “trauma” in most sci-fi and fantasy.

    It does apply particularly to rape of female lead characters, but how often have you also read stories where the lead character (male or female) has been orphaned by a brutal murder of their entire family, or their mentor, etc? Then they happily get on with their lives pretty much unaffected other than the obligatory half-hearted revenge plot/sub-plot.

    Both are “in reality” horrific and highly personal crimes against the victim (or the survivor), and both are common in sci-fi and fantasy to the point of being cliche, yet seldom are the consequences of the trauma dealt with other than to provide revenge motivation.

    Rape seems more obnoxious when used in that way because it’s a lot easier (especially for a woman) to identify with it happening to you, because rape is hugely more likely to happen to you than having your entire family murdered before your eyes.

    I expect if I was a reader who lived in one of the many countries where such atrocities commonly occur, I’d find casual mass-murder of families just to provide the character with reason to leave their farm and eventually kill the evil king at the end of the book equally trite and trivialising.

  6. 6. Laura Castelli

    It is easy to trivialize any trauma or violence in any medium.

    And being a survivor of trauma, I can say reading a book with it used as a story plot has about a 50-50 chance of me putting it down.

    If it is well written I am curious to see how the character handles it. This is because I have literally cried with the character and I am emotionally invested. And I will cheer or wither with the character depending on how it works out.

    However, the one guarantee of a put down, is one where children under the age of 12 are used as victims. It doesn’t matter the scenario.

    I am a mother and books are a way to escape into someone else’s world. However, to deal with an all too real world of children being victimized, is my extremely hot button issue.

  7. 7. S.C. Butler

    Burning is too good for such books. (Says the father of three daughters who hopes he’s helped raise them not to define themselves through men, violent or otherwise.)

  8. 8. Karen Wester Newton

    Ideas about rape have certainly changed over the years. Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, first published in 1956, is often cited as a science fiction classic. I read it for the first time recently and was horrified to find that the “hero” Gully Foyle rapes a woman almost in passing—basically because he can. Now admittedly, Foyle had been brutalized himself, but not by his victim. Bester doesn’t spend much time on the rape, or treat it any differently than the other nasty things the protagonist does. Most people I mentioned this to read the book decades ago and don’t even remember that detail.

    I like to think if someone published a similar book today it would either not have the protagonist become a rapist or it would make it something he was truly ashamed of later. I think Bester was using the rape to demonstrate how low Gully Folye had sunk, but it also killed any sympathy I might have felt for the character. I couldn’t see his . In 1956 it must not have the same effect on everyone because the book became a classic.

  9. 9. S.L. Farrell

    I’m with Mike on this one: nothing is taboo as long as it works within the context of the story. I’ve done pretty much everything to my characters over the years… because it seemed necessary for the story and the character arcs.

    If it causes a reader to put the book down, well, that’s the chance the writer takes. But better to take that chance than to worry that — oh my gosh — some potential reader might be offended.

  10. 10. Alexandra

    I believe I know which book your talking about, and while agree with many of the reviewer’s (and yours) arguments, in this case the rape did not bother me (and the book is one of my favorites). I am extremely sensitive about rape, especially when it comes to books, because I have most often read it in romances where the hero rapes the heroine. In that case, it is DEFINITELY a hot-button issue. Rape is not romance–it is physical and psychological trauma that happens far too often.

    In this book (whether or not we’re talking about the same one, it’s still the same circumstances), however, I believe it did serve the plot, and while rape makes me uncomfortable it “worked” (for lack of a better word) in this story, and wasn’t a glossed-over occurrence.

  11. 11. Radish

    If the rape act genuinely serves the story and isn’t included for mere thrill or shock value [or as a lazy writer's way to motivate a character], great.

    I’m in agreement with Diana, though, that I get ticked off when the consequences and repercussions of the act — to its target and to its perpetrator — get swept away and forgotten. Particularly when it can make for a much richer character.

    Lazy writing — that’s my hot button.

  12. 12. Mike

    In my latest book, an alien cuts off and eats a woman’s arm. The arm immediately exacts its revenge, and later, after going through the various stages of trauma, she does too.

    I believe I made it work…

  13. 13. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Okay, this is sort of a mass reply. I’ve been doing 70 Days of Sweat and writing a whole lot today. Yay me!

    So on we go . . .

    SMD: necrophilia . . . I like it. Well, you know. I like that it creeps you out. I hadn’t really considered it much. Except, are vampire romances necrophilia?

    Marie: What’s interesting is that in my mind, if you consider the individual character, usually there are things to be done to those characters that for them, is so much worse than a rape would be. So the ‘easy route’ not only fails the reader but the character.

    Mike: Don’t kill the dog. Or cat. Seriously though, I agree. I just think every writer should consider it seriously and do it right. Like science. Which I don’t do because I”m pretty certain I’ll screw it up. Though I did always want to write the story of a girl who lost gravity . . .

    Laura: Yep I totally agree in the kid thing. Not that people should write it or read it, but simply that I can’t handle it.

    S.C.: uh huh.

    Karen: Wow, I hadn’t thought about that one in awhile. But that also goes back to a lot of romance novels from the 70 and 80s where romance is equated with male control and borderline rape, if not rape. Yech. Movies have that same manhandling of women too. It’s definitely a changing cultural more.

    S.L.: Yeah, that’s a biggie. Not to consider offending readers while writing. Not to worry about reviews, not to think about perceptions, but to entertain and to tell the story that needs to be told. That’s why I think sometimes the writer can’t stand the subject and shies away from really considering the depth and ramifications because they don’t like it as much as some readers don’t. Which is bad. If the writer can’t stand it, then the writer should probably write something else.

    Alexandra: Don’t mistake me. I do think it worked. I just am interested in the reviewers ideas about it. Because I think it’s such a loaded plot weapon.

    Radish: Yes Lazy writing. Or as a friend told me once, shabby thinking makes for lazy writing.

    Mike: You totally had me at “the arm immediately exacts its revenge.” I love it.

    Di

  14. 14. Mike Brotherton

    Di, if you want to get the science right, you can. I agree that touchy subjects should be approached with caution, but they shouldn’t be avoided when they’re appropriate.

    And it might be possible to construct a gravity shield…

  15. 15. Mike Brotherton

    And I’m doing a crappy job on my 70 days so far. I believe I have some extenuating circumstances, but I know that writers write and that there’s always an excuse. I’ll be getting to it.

  16. 16. Nancy Lebovitz

    Thanks for bringing this up again. I read _Iron Kissed_, didn’t think it was problematic, and then when I read the extremely negative discussions, I wondered if there was something wrong with me.

    Anyway, maybe part of the problem is having characters who are *so* self-assured that rape is a somewhat obvious choice by the author.

    One of the complaints that earlier discussion was that the rapist was the only fan in the story. (Possibly the only fan in that universe.) I’ve talked with someone who was sexually assaulted in fandom, and one of the worst things was the fans who couldn’t believe it happened in their beloved sub-culture.

    As for The Stars My Destination, Bester gets points from me for having the woman who was raped show up later in the novel. She’s very angry at Gully Foyle.

    Now that the world has had a bit more experience with terrorism, how does rape compare to tossing slugs of PyrE into crowds so that people will learn how to teleport across space and wake up to their lives? Until someone pointed out hints from the narration, I wasn’t sure the human race survived, and it’s a reasonable implication that many people died.

    If you haven’t read the book, PyrE is a total conversion explosive (much more powerful than nuclear explosives) which is set off by thought.

    It is interesting that unless the author underlines a rape, a lot of readers may not notice it.

    As for hot buttons, a big one for me is a woman forcing herself to have sex she doesn’t want.

  17. 17. Ann

    Diana,
    I agree that this is a difficult subject. However, I agree that no author should be told there’s a subject he/she can’t include. Where’s our freedom of speech then?

    I definitely think that ANYONE risks offending women –and some men– if they don’t research what effect that kind of trauma really has on a person. I’d throw the book across the room, too, if they had the woman later fall in love with her abuser. However, stranger things have happened, unfortunately. The relationship, for example, between abuser and abused in an incestuous situation. It’s not love exactly. But it can be there. I’ve done a bit of reading on the subject since I have a loved one who is a victim of incest.

    And what’s a hot button for me? That would be twisting my religious beliefs in such a way as to fool readers into thinking it’s how all adherents to that faith believe. Same thing. Do the research or piss people off. And maybe some writers are okay with pissing some people off for the sake of a sensational story. Certainly brought in the bucks for Dan Brown. But it also annoyed me that people took it as other than fiction. It’s a novel! Dumb sheep annoy me, too.

    I don’t know if this is a hot button or just an annoyance, but stereotyping is way up there for me. I talk to my tv quite often. Especially when the women are running from the bad guy in heels. They’re much better as weapons than get away shoes. I love the character Sarah Connor of the new Terminator series. We need more smart women. The Earth is full of them. Why can’t we find them on the screen?

  18. 18. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Mike: I don’t want a gravity shield. I want her to lose gravity. See . . . I like fantasy. Heh.

    I so far have manage my personal word quota on 70 Days of Sweat. But then, my deadline is June and I know I need to get in high gear. But I’m already tired (that was just a little whine).

    Di

  19. 19. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Nancy: I haven’t read PyrE but it sounds like I should.

    Ann: I agree. We can all be offended by someone and being a writer means you *can’t* let that fear get in the way of the story. It’s that aftermath that means so much and gets ignored sometimes. I liked the premise of the DaVinci Code, in so much as it took a really cool fictional approach to actual objects in the world. But damn, it is fiction and the characters were sticks and all that, but I liked the idea of it. The stereotype thing is I think close to what my feelings about the rape issue are. If you make the rape a stereotype, you don’t have to dig into the individual reactions of the characters. If you make a character a stereotype, you don’t have to dig into his/her quirks and fears and issues. In a lot of ways, it amounts to the same thing.

    Dumb sheep . . . I agree. And heels. I watched a CSI Miami where the blonde CSI chick was in twelve inch heels at a crime scene. I was telling my TV a thing or two. You might be interested in this: http://sqt-fantasy-sci-fi-girl.blogspot.com/
    It’s a blog about action women. She didn’t include, but I added in comments, Yancy Butler in Witchblade, Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movies, Linda Hamilton in T2, Grace Jones in Conan the Destroyer, and Cote de Pablo (Ziva) in NCIS. Smart, physical, action-hero women. More of those. Yes.

    Di

  20. 20. SMD

    Diana: I don’t think you could consider vampire romances necrophilia. I mean, technically it is. They are sorta dead right? But I think that since they are also alive in a way that you just can’t count it as taboo.

    And just for the record, I don’t think writers shouldn’t write about the issues that bug me, but writers should be aware that some topics are not going to sit well with people and if you write about such topics you can expect that some readers won’t ever read your work again if they are gravely offended. Does that mean you should not put it in? Not at all. If you think it belongs, then do it. Just don’t expect everybody to jump up and down in magical love with your rape scene or necrophilia scene :P

  21. 21. D. Moonfire

    That can be a pretty big issue. I know my wife will refusing to read a book or watch a movie if there is rape or anyone hurts/kills a pet. Those are two hot buttons, she almost ripped off my hand in Payback and got up to leave the theater before she found out the dog survived. She almost stopped watching Futurama because of that one dog episode. :(

  22. 22. Andrea

    This was a great post. Thanks for writing it.

    I agree on the rape issue–I’d extend that to any situation where hte author can only think of how to humanize a woman by victimizing her, in any way–as if victimization is the basis of being female. One ought to be able to write strong, interesting female characters who act and feel real without turning them into lumps of blubbering goo. And ditto on the “victim falls in love with rapist” scenario–used way too often, completely unrealistic.

    I don’t know if I have any other hot buttons. No, wait–when a character who is “different” is stuck in the plot only to demonstrate the evils of prejudice and to educate the main characters. That bugs me. The black character who’s only there to suffer racism, the female character who’s only there to struggle valiantly against sexism, the disabled character who’s only there so that the main character can have an epiphany about the meaning of life…. It’s like the author is trying earnestly to make some point about equality, which is lovely, but they don’t quite believe it themselves, or at least not enough to conceive of characters unlike themselves as full human beings with their own stories to tell that don’t completely revolve around their differences.

  23. 23. Lucy

    I agree

  24. 24. SmatKakylal

    Nothing seems to be easier than seeing someone whom you can help but not helping.
    I suggest we start giving it a try. Give love to the ones that need it.
    God will appreciate it.

  25. 25. Cessemutt

    I’m the only one in this world. Can please someone join me in this life? Or maybe death…

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Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.

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