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A Rant on Misrepresentation and Rape in Literature

February 25, 2014

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 literature 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.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. trish422 permalink
    February 25, 2014 8:01 pm

    Back in high school, I had a tendency to read “trashy” romance novels; I can still remember the story that made me stop reading this particular brand of book. In the book, our heroine is married off to the hero against her will. On their wedding night, he rapes her. She “feels something special” despite her fear and pain. Then they fall in love and have fantastic, consensual (entirely male controlled) sex. That was the end of my stint with that particular brand of romance novel.

    • March 10, 2014 7:12 pm

      So romantic!! Bleh. This is why I’m scared of a lot of book genres Trish… :)

  2. February 25, 2014 11:53 pm

    I’ve reached a point now where I can’t deal with rape scenes in books at all. It isn’t even a question of their being represented truthfully or exploitatively; I just can’t read them anymore. I’ll put a book down rather than read one more damn rape scene.

    Which is to say: I haven’t thought about how books represent rape in ages. I can’t think of what sort of methodology would be required to do a proper study of rape as depicted in fiction, to see whether your experience of finding stranger rape much more commonly depicted in fiction than non-stranger rape.

    One exception that springs to my mind is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak — the girl in Speak is raped by a guy she’s been flirting and dancing with up to that point. It’s depicted in a way that I thought was honest and not at all sensationalized.

    For “romantic” depictions of rape, yeah, those are unfortunately all too common, although I think (I hope!) they are becoming less so. I didn’t read romance novels until last year because I thought they would have lots of rapey plotlines, but in fact I’m finding there are tons of not at all rapey romance novels. Hooray!

    • March 10, 2014 7:12 pm

      I can certainly understand your point about just avoiding it completely Jenny. I just get so pissed off and almost feel let down when they come up in novels.

      Speak is another great exception – thanks for reminding me of it! I know there are probably a lot of books out there that deal with it really well and in a way that doesn’t minimize or re-victimize but… sometimes I just can’t deal with the crap to try to find the good stuff. Ugh.

      The non-rapey romance novel thing is awesome! I haven’t read a ton for that reason – I’m just scared to risk it you know?

  3. February 26, 2014 6:35 am

    Thanks for the post Amy, it came at the right moment, I am actually writing a review on “The Rape of Sita” and I will direct readers to your blog as well, I hope it is all right.

    • March 10, 2014 7:10 pm

      Thanks so much Mary – that is definitely okay. I will have to check out your review as well!

  4. aartichapati permalink
    March 2, 2014 2:33 am

    Ugh, I completely agree. The casual way he treats rape is one of the reasons I refuse to read any more George RR Martin novels and why it makes me queasy when people refer to it as one of the best TV shows ever when so much of it is about men being disgustingly turned on by the thought of doing violence to women they know or who have “wronged” them.

    • March 10, 2014 7:09 pm

      OMG THANK YOU for saying that Aarti. I always had trouble with his series too and only read the first two, but no one else seemed to really believe me! Everyone seems to love them. Annoying.

  5. March 11, 2014 7:23 am

    I’m almost in Jenny’s camp. I’m so tired of reading a book, even a beautifully written book by an author I love, and bam! there’s a rape. Even when it’s handled well. I want some kind of sticker on the cover, so that I’ll know going in whether to keep my guard up or down. I wouldn’t always avoid those books, but I would be more cautious (aka not reading them when I was already feeling down or not reading them before bedtime). With that being said, I agree very strongly with your desire to see more good books depicting non-stranger rape; the right kind of book can be incredibly eye opening and therapeutic.

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that falls into category 3, in the romancing date rape bit anyway. Thank God. I actually just read an excellent mystery book in which one of the major issues in the plot is acquaintance rape (by a high ranking police officer of other, lower ranking, female police officers). The rapes all happen ‘off stage’ so to speak, so the book’s interest is in dealing with the consequences. In case you’re interested, it’s No Mark upon Her by Deborah Crombie; it can be read as a stand-alone but it’s also the 12th in a series, so you’ll find out a lot of spoilers about the detectives’ lives in case that matters to you.

    What Aarti said about Game of Thrones is what has made me never want to pick up the books or watch the show, as I’ve seen similar objections raised elsewhere. It always creeps me out when people fall in love with something that’s SO rape culture perpetuating and can’t even see the problems with it. Although that was probably me ten years ago, before I’d heard of phrases like rape culture, so I try to put it down to ignorance.

    • March 11, 2014 11:01 am

      Yes Eva, a note on the cover would make me SO HAPPY! Because I do find that they can be incredibly therapeutic and they can make me think about how others perceive it and etc, and I love that… but I like knowing that’s what I’m going to get. I like being prepared.

      That mystery sounds pretty interesting – I think I’ll read it and if I love it, maybe go back through the series, despite the spoilers!

      The love story rape is the worst. Thankfully I haven’t read much of it lately, but I remember back when I was reading too much bad YA, especially, coming across it way too often.

      True what you say about ignorance. I understand, or at least I try to understand… but at the same time it makes me angry that people don’t want to or try to educate themselves about something you know? But either way, I ignore, and let people love it.

  6. March 11, 2014 7:24 am

    Oh I forgot to add, since you mentioned grammarly, this sentence confused me:
    “The most prevalent type of rape in fiction is stranger rape, especially in non-fiction.”

    Did you mean especially in novels? Or the most prevalent type in books, especially nonfiction?

    • March 11, 2014 10:56 am

      Heh, good catch Eva – thank you. As they say, a second set of eyes still isn’t as good as a real editor! I was impressed with their service, it caught a lot of minor issues and made me tighten up a few sections, but no machine is perfect. I meant in literature – oops. Updated now.

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