A Rant on Misrepresentation and Rape in Literature
I use Grammarly for proofreading because rants aren’t always very well written, grammatically speaking, so a “second set of eyes” is always helpful.*
While I read a fair amount, I don’t consider myself truly well-read. There are too many books out there, and too many new books coming out on a regular basis, and I can read but a small number of them; and rarely do I choose the ‘cannon’ books or the best-sellers. That being said, in what reading I’ve done, I’ve become more and more aware of certain trends around rape in literature. In this regard, it seems that books featuring rape follow one of three different paths.
- Stranger Rape, Done Well: This category of books contains such non-fiction as Lucky by Alice Sebold, Rape New York by Jana Leo, Jane Doe No More by M. William Phelps and Donna M. Palomba. It consists of such fiction as Rape: A Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. These books take rape seriously; they delve into the ramifications on the life of the survivor and those around her. They tackle head on a difficult subject. The act also generally takes place in a dark alley, by someone or some group not intimately known by the protagonist.
- Stranger Rape, Done Poorly: In this category, we find authors in need of a dark twist, or an explanation for the heroine’s anger and hate, or perhaps just a dark and dangerous atmosphere. Rape here is an easy stand-in for ‘something that causes fear and a sense of danger’. Good job author, on taking the easy route instead of using any number of plot points and twists that happen to male protagonists in similar stories. As with the category I consider to be done well, this also generally occurs somewhere dark and scary where, come on, the protagonist shouldn’t really have been at that hour by herself etc.
- Non-Stranger Rape: Are we sure this is an actual thing? According to most authors who feature this type of event, it’s not. Rape or sexual violence by a boyfriend, a husband, a potential love interest, is generally a way to further the romance. It is supposed to be read, I get the impression, as actually sexy and lovely. The protagonist, obviously, comes to the realization that she did want it, and that she actually loves this person.
Now, I know this is rather generalized based on the small sampling of books that I’ve read in my lifetime (a notable exception that springs to mind is Daughters Who Walk This Path by Yejide Kilanko). But it is still quite common for books to fall into categories 2 and 3. And even category 1, in many ways, can be problematic. You may not want to know why, but I will share anyway.
The most prevalent type of rape in fiction is stranger rape, especially in non-fiction. This type of rape occurs the least frequently in real life. According to RAINN, 73% of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. 38% are friends or acquaintances. 28% are someone intimate. 11% involve a weapon of some kind. 84% involve physical force. Why is it that this type of rape is not addressed in non-fiction? Why can we still not acknowledge that it happens? Why are we so fixated on the idea that rape is rape only when it is a stranger in an alley? Why do we insist on silencing the other, much larger, group of survivors?
Related to this, why do we keep seeing authors use sexual assault as a point to further a relationship? If we’re going to discuss silencing survivors, here is a great way to do it. And lastly, it’s a slap in the face to be reading along and come across something so violent and painful and raw be used as a plot point: especially an unnecessary plot point.
I understand, really, I do. It is terrifying to think that all the things we’re told we can do – behaving properly, not walking alone after dark, avoiding that alley, not drinking too much, etc. – that none of these things will actually help. That in many cases, it’s the friend or partner or acquaintance whom you trusted, who was your ‘protection’ from walking alone at night. It’s terrifying to have to acknowledge that this narrative is a lie. It’s easier to go with it, to keep using the stranger danger as a plot point for fear and character growth, and pretend that is the world that we live in, that is the fear that we must try to avoid.
I just started reading Alberto Manguel’s The Traveler, The Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor and in the introduction is a line that really struck me. On page 4 he says:
But if we are gregarious animals who must follow the dictates of society, we are nevertheless individuals who learn about the world by reimagining it, by putting words to it, by reenacting through those words our experience.
It makes me wonder: what does it mean that we ignore the experiences of so many? What do we learn, or not learn, by not putting those experiences to words?
*Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Grammarly, after having the opportunity to try their service out for myself, but all opinions and ideas within are clearly my own.