I watched the most recent episode of Game of Thrones yesterday. Those who say the rape of Sansa Stark was gratuitous and unnecessary are only partly right.
All rape is gratuitous and unnecessary.
I have written one story about the aftermath of a rape/murder; the rape was over before the story began. I wrote one song about a woman who foils an attempted rape. Both were written thirty years ago. It was a good story and an okay song. But I’d do it differently today. Particularly the song.
I can’t issue prescriptions or proscriptions for others’ work. I can tell you my own thoughts on the matter: rape is gratuitous, unnecessary, and wrong, in life and in art.
More thoughts below.
ETA 2: I’ve edited the comment below, brought it up here, and made a couple of additions:
In my opinion, women and men in our culture know rape* is wrong—morally and legally. No one needs to experience rape, in person or through art, to be aware of this. The law is very clear. Potential abusers don’t need to understand it on a visceral level, they need to fucking behave.
That rape is physically and emotionally harmful is no more a secret than the horrors of child rape or animal torture. We don’t show child rape or animal torture in art and/or entertainment. Why? Because many acknowledge that it’s not suitable for entertainment.
The constant experience of rape in art and/or entertainment does not, in my opinion, prevent or reduce rape. On the contrary, it increases its weight and effectiveness as a tool of intimidation.
I am not saying we should stop talking about rape, I am saying we should stop showing it. I’m not entirely sure, yet, regarding showing (i.e. giving the art consumer the experience of) the consequences of rape.
Every artist must make up their own mind. But I will no longer be an audience for rape.
* For the sake of argument: “Our culture” = those who are most likely to be an audience for my writing or Game of Thrones. “Rape” = non-consensual sex mostly of women by men (common in all art and entertainment), sometimes of men by men (rare in art or entertainment, particularly visual media), and very rarely of women or men by women (very, very rare in any art or entertainment).
15 thoughts on “Unnecessary rape”
I disagree. Some people simply cannot, will not understand something unless you make them feel it. How can we make people (most men, but some women too) understand how damaging and harrowing rape is if we can’t show it to them?
By all means don’t write rape badly, or lightly, or poorly, or for a bad reason, but it absolutely MUST be written about, especially at this zeitgeist moment when a real dialogue is taking place.
I hear what you’re saying but I disagree with your premise.
In my opinion women and men in our culture* know rape is wrong—morally and legally. No one needs to experience rape, in person or through art, to be aware of this. They don’t need to understand it on a visceral level. The law is very clear. That rape is physically and emotionally harmful is no more a secret than child rape or animal torture. We don’t show child rape or animal torture in art and/or entertainment because we all know it’s considered damaging enough to land perpetrators in jail.
The constant experience of rape in art and/or entertainment does not reinforce a culture’s prohibition against rape. On the contrary, it’s my belief that the portrayal of rape increases its presence, weight, and effectiveness as a tool of intimidation and control.
I am not saying we should stop talking about rape; I am saying we should stop showing it. In my opinion, experiencing rape does no one any good; it can and does do a lot of harm.
Every artist must make up their own mind. But I will no longer be an audience for rape.
* Those who are most likely to be an audience for our work or Game of Thrones
I understand and respect your point of view, but I have a different perspective. I am male and a special operations soldier that served in Africa and East Asia. How you expressed general views of rape may be limited. I am not arguing for more depictions of rape in art (lord knows I have seen the after math too many times), but there are many that truly do not comprehend the damage it inflicts. Maybe through art more people (both men and women) will come to understand the damage. The rape in GOT was gratuitous because of our affection for the character. The scene itself, although very powerful, went out of its way to not be gratuitous. Powerful imagery is an amazing tool that can illicit emotions necessary to change ones behaviors and opinions. I am not suggesting you start writing on the subject; I just hope that you judge the way the material is expressed and not dismiss the material because of its content. (Disclaimer: George is a family friend)
I honestly don’t agree that everyone knows rape is bad. I think many people don’t even know what rape is. The fact that people are calling Fifty Shades of Grey a book about rape just illustrates that. Rape is so common, much more so than child abuse or animal torture. And not too long ago, people didn’t know child abuse or animal torture was bad either. But it was portrayed in so many books in the earlier part of the twentieth century.
Just wanted to say I agree with you, Nicola. Sad that this seems to be a minority opinion.
I partly agree and partly disagree. (This is not unusual for me. In fact, I’m notorious for always taking the third side to yes/no questions.)
As much as I hate to say it or think it, I think the people who’ve commented that there are plenty of people in our society who *don’t* know that rape is wrong are correct. Oh, they know there’s a word spelled R-A-P-E and that it stands for something that one shouldn’t do; but what they think it means, and what it actually does mean, are leagues apart. Not just men, either. I cringe at the number of feminist blogs I’ve read recently in which women wrote:
“I didn’t realize I’d been raped until years later — because what I’d always thought of as a rape was a violent physical assault by a stranger in a deserted parking lot at night, and what happened to me was done by my friend/ my date/ someone I’d chosen to make out with/ someone I’d had sex with willingly before/ my stepdad/ my husband/ my wife, or because it was done when I was asleep/ when I was too drunk to resist/ by drugging me/ by threatening to hurt me, without physically doing so/ by threatening to do it to my baby sister instead/ by simply ignoring me when I said I wanted to stop. I knew I hadn’t liked it, but I didn’t know what to call what had happened to me, or explain to my friends why I was depressed and anxious and not able to cope with very much that year.”
We need to make sure people understand rape a lot better than most of us do now, and sometimes, art can reach where data can’t make inroads. So I can’t be 100% against all uses of rape in fiction, even though I totally understand and respect your decision that you will not be a part of it either as a writer or as a reader/viewer/etc.
I also think that a *huge* part of what has caused this culture to be as horribly messed-up about rape and sexual objectification and DV and harassment and all the other forms of entitled mistreatment committed by humans upon other humans whom the first lot think of as being their property. stems from the use of fiction — especially video fiction: movies, TV and music videos — as training demos. The ways in which consent is trivialized; the ways in which “love” is seen to be synonymous with crazy, stalkerish attempts to persuade someone who has told a person to leave them the hell alone; the ways in which DV is is seen as an act of “passion” rather than coldblooded choice to control; the ways in which “getting the girl” is set up as the inevitable reward for heroics by a male in film, whether or not the girl showed any interest — as a matter of her own character — in being involved with him; and on and on and on — these things are the societal way of showing young people how their elders think, on an unconscious level, the world works. Even when they aren’t help up as examples to approve of, per se, they’re still examples from which we learn that this is what to expect out of life, and anything the protagonist of a show does (no matter how jerklike, or even criminal) is tacitly recognized as being not entirely enough to qualify someone as social garbage.
So I think we need to be really, REALLY careful about what we do with rape in fiction. I don’t think I can accept *any* reason why it would be done by a protagonist and still be acceptable to me. I can think of ways in which it could be done *to* a protagonist and be powerful and useful… but it would need to be done to a real protagonist, meaning the main agent in the storyline. Being done or attempted against the protagonist’s love interest so the that the (male) real protagonist can go get revenge for, or protect her from, the rapist, is worse than useless, since it reinforces the tropes that a woman belongs to a man; that rape is a crime against that man for using his woman who was supposed to be reserved for his exclusive use; and that women should be passive and submissive even when violently attacked.
In some ways, I guess I feel about rape in fiction the way I feel about capital punishment (in real life): it isn’t so much that I think there are no possible circumstances under which I’d find it acceptable. It’s that right now, I don’t see us as a society as mature enough to be able to use it properly. And if/when we ever get to the point where we *are* mature enough to use it properly. we’ll probably no longer have a reason to wish to use it.
Meantime, that’s enough to get it off my reading list for the foreseeable future.
By all means, choose not to be an audience for it. We all make informed and passionate choices about what we consume and what we create.
I disagree with your premise, too. Many people — the majority — understand rape very poorly. They don’t understand the many forms it takes, how badly authorities deal with it, the psychological reasons behind the low rate of reporting, the fact that it’s not about sex for the rapist, etc. etc. etc. I could give hundreds of examples of how badly people understand (used to be a rape counselor), but that would be depressing. And anecdotal evidence never wins anyone over, anyway.
If you and I can’t agree on the level of ignorance or what it takes to break through it, we don’t really have any common ground for discussion. I should stop right here.
But I won’t because I believe we can change the world with our stories by making people understand things they have never experienced. I know you believe this, Nicola. Now, maybe we can or maybe we can’t. But the reactions I’ve received from men about my recent story containing very brutal sexual violence leads me to believe I was right to not pull my punches.
You don’t have to read it — nobody has to read it — but I had to write it. I was not wrong to do so.
At risk of going off topic, and also at risk of expressing myself too strongly in your living room when you’ve already clearly said you’re not prescribing behaviour, I deplore the current wave of orthodoxy about what’s right and wrong to portray in fiction.
Christopher, rape can kill and physically maim, yes. And to be clear, I’m not complaining about the Song of Ice and Fire books here but Game of Thrones, the show. IIRC (and am perfectly willing to be corrected) the episodes he has written are lower on sexual violence than just plain violence. (Which is a whole other topic!) I also have no quarrel with powerful imagery eliciting powerful emotion. I just don’t think we need to show rape.
Helene and Naomi, no, not everyone understands rape. Making them experience it through art is probably not the best way to fix that.
Kelly, we do disagree, very possibly on a fundamental level. Though I’ve found that deeper exploration of some topics leads to an understanding of similarities rather than divergence. So this is a conversation I’d be happy to continue in person. I’d love to figure out what we both really mean or are trying to get at. And I’m with you completely regarding people saying what others Must or Must Not write about it. Every writer has to tell their own story in their own way.
Nicola, maybe they don’t have to experience it through art in order to understand it. I hope they don’t. But I fear that they may need to experience it through art in order to *care* enough to bother learning, at least unless they are forced to experience it in real life, which is something I don’t wish on anybody.
Usually, people learn about a topic pretty much by happenstance — they know somebody who’s already passionate about the topic, or it’s a school requirement, or something — and come to care about it afterward. In order to get them to care beforehand and therefore choose to dive into learning about it, something has to spark their attention. Jim Wright (Stonekettle Station) wrote that, whatever any of our opinions about the use of rape in the GoT episode, *it got the entire country talking about rape* — even people like me, who didn’t watch the show — and that means that many of them will be learning.
There are only two things I’ve ever heard of which can spark the kind of engagement and passion which will cause most people to dive into a subject and start learning about it, in advance of that learning: knowing someone personally for whom the topic is critically important, and art. We use the first method to change minds all the time… that’s why we keep hearing that the one frequently successful way to change a homophobe to an ally is for someone they already know and admire to come out to them; or that the fastest way for a man to become a feminist is to be the father of a girl who wants something. But we can’t use that for everything. Sometimes, some people will just not happen to care about anybody for whom a generally important issue is *personally* important; sometimes they will, but that person doesn’t care to hold themselves up as a political example, and shouldn’t have to. That’s why art is such an important tool for sparking the interest which will cause people to learn the truth behind the myths they’ve been fed.
I’m wary of using rape in art because I fear that the myths about rape are so pervasive a psychosocial soup around us that there may be *no* way to portray it which actually subverts rather than reinforcing the myths and the patriarchal structure which uses them. But I’m also wary of losing one of our greatest tools for inducing engagement with a subject, among people who may not happen to have someone local to get them engaged with it. If you have thoughts about how to engage people with the topic instead; how to get currently badly-taught and disinterested people to want to learn about rape culture and then help teach others, I’d be very interested in hearing them.
I was arguing with a guy in the comments section of Alyssa Rosenberg’s Washington Post piece about the rape of Sansa. The guy denied that it actually was rape. I don’t know whether this supports Nicola’s side or Kelly’s side. I guess you could say it was a chance to point out what consent is and is not. (The guy said that Sansa’s agreeing to marry Bolton and then slowly undoing her sleeves counted as consent.) But he didn’t seem to get it even after I and another commenter explained it to him, and then another commenter agreed with him at the end of the exchange. So point for Nicola, I think. I had even more trouble with the English movie version of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. That rape scene was horrific, and there just had to be pervs in the audience getting off on it, even though that was the exact opposite of Stiig Larsson’s intent when he wrote the books.
On the other hand, what about when you’re writing about a historical period when women were the property of men? A lot of what passed for sexual relations between married couples in the 18th and 19th centuries might count as rape today. I’m thinking of the movie The Duchess, not just the one explicit rape scene, but all the times the Duke was rough with the Duchess from the wedding night on. (The movie was based on a biography, but I’m not sure how historically accurate those scenes were.) In the movie, those scenes seemed to be used to motivate Georgiana to have an affair with Earl Grey.
At the risk of sounding offensive and argumentative — I really don’t mean to be — I can’t help pointing out that there is a rape scene in Hild. It happens to a character we never see, but the screams are described pretty horrifically, and the person was “fucked to death.” Then Hild unleashes her retribution on the group of bandits who did it. I took this as both a depiction of how life was in a lawless period, and also as fuel for Hild behaving heroically in protection of her people. But the same points could be made about Sansa’s rape. (I’m guessing in a future episode Brienne will behave heroically in avenging her – or maybe not, maybe it will be Theon, maybe she’ll get her own revenge, or, this being the ASoIaF world, maybe Bolton will just carry on.)
I’m wondering if there’s a difference between print versions and film versions. Certainly it was easier to read Girl with the Dragon Tattoo than to watch it. If there were a movie of Hild, would you want that rape scene included, or would it be inevitably too graphic?
Of course now I see that was a whole story and a whole song you wrote about rape 30 years ago, and this one scene is just a tiny bit of Hild.
No. I very deliberately did not show rape in Hild. When Hild was Butcherbird she heard a rape, but the reader does not; we don’t see or hear it in real time.
Rape is, to me, simply about power and fear. In Shakespeare’s plays, all violence occurs off stage, and that’s the way it should be in art. Our own nightmares will provide the proper scenario. People have been talking about rape for eons, but nobody actually does anything!
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