Six Rape Tropes and How to Replace Them

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Unless your story is specifically about sexual assault, you should probably remove any rape, attempted rape, or even mention of rape from your story. This is because these depictions normalize sexual assault and are often hurtful to survivors. Let’s go over how rape ends up in our stories, why these patterns are hurtful, and how storytellers can accomplish their goals without it.

Content Notice: This article doesn’t include anything graphic, though it does have one abstract description of a rape scene.

1. Rape as a Woman’s Dark Backstory

Red Sonja and Conan from the Red Sonja movie

Many stories prominently featuring a heroine add rape as part of her tragic past. In the classic Red Sonja comic and its 1985 movie, Sonja’s family is killed and she is raped at the hands of mercenaries. She then becomes a warrior to exact revenge. While a goddess who demands chastity from her is involved in the original story, her past with sexual assault is also used as a plot device to make her mistrust men. This is in service to a male audience, who can then enjoy watching Conan earn Sonja’s rare affection.

While this version of Red Sonja is pretty old now, it’s not so different from Sansa’s arc in the Game of Thrones TV show. Sansa is raped by Ramsay Bolton, driving her to exact bloody revenge against him. Like for Red Sonja, the rape is designed to disempower Sansa so she can grow in power and take control.

Storytellers using this trope probably think they are telling a compelling story that honors the female character involved. However, a gender comparison is incredibly revealing. When male characters are disempowered at the beginning of their arc, they are almost never raped. And most of these rapes of women are written by men. The fact remains that sexual assault is not something people want for characters they identify with, even during the low points of a character’s journey. It ruins the wish-fulfillment the story would otherwise offer, making these depictions exploitative at best.

How to Replace This Trope

This one’s simple. Depictions of male heroes offer all sorts of dark backstories that don’t include sexual assault. In fact, when Gail Simone rebooted Red Sonja in 2013, she just took out the rape in the backstory and otherwise left most of the event the same. Having your family murdered is enough reason for revenge, don’t you think?

Sansa’s arc didn’t need rape any more than Sonja’s did. She spent much of her time at King’s Landing at the mercy of her family’s enemies, keeping her head down and doing whatever necessary to survive. That was disempowering enough without adding sexual assault.

2. Rape as an Act Too Far

A man with glowing eye cries out in pain as a hand glows on his chest

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer season six, the show writers started working on a romance between Buffy and the vampire Spike. Many fans wanted these two characters to get together, but since Spike was soulless and therefore inherently evil, a healthy romance between them seemed impossible. The writers decided to make the pair antagonistic lovers in season six and then to give Spike a soul for a more healthy relationship in season seven.

But how could Spike be motivated to get himself a soul? He’d already killed countless people in his past and had no qualms about this. To push him toward redemption, the writers decided he would attempt to rape Buffy, and then he would feel so remorseful about it that he would be motivated to change.*

Arcs in which a man rapes or attempts to rape a woman and then feels sorry enough that he becomes a better person all share a serious problem: they prioritize the rapist over the victim. These events happen to develop an arc for the rapist, and so they by necessity focus on his feelings and how the rape affects him. And in many of these stories, completing this arc requires the survivor to forgive him. This means the survivor doesn’t get justice; their feelings and needs are pushed aside. This pattern is all too common in real life. We should not encourage it in our stories.

Since the attempted rape in Buffy season six was to redeem Spike in preparation for a romance arc, he then ends up in a relationship with his victim. For many alienated fans, this felt like an endorsement of his rape attempt. Instead of strengthening the romance, the attempted rape tainted it. In stories, rape is an act that’s over the moral event horizon – a character should not be redeemed after that, because many audience members will never like them again.

How to Replace This Trope

Motivating a happily immoral character to change his ways isn’t the easiest task, but it doesn’t require sexual assault. What you choose may depend on what your character’s already done, but let’s look at several likely contenders.

  • Hurting the people he cares about in other ways. Since Spike at least loved Buffy, doing something that was hurtful to Buffy was a good choice; it just shouldn’t have been sexual assault. Instead, he could have done something immoral that unintentionally had negative consequences for her. For instance, in the episode As You Were he was caught dealing in dangerous demon eggs. Those eggs could have hatched and led to her becoming severely injured.
  • Being uncomfortably caught between good and evil. Instead of hurting loved ones on Team Good, a character can also reform because he realizes he doesn’t fit in with Team Evil anymore. Finding out that he’s already changed can cause an identity crisis that makes him realize he’d be better off if he reforms the rest of the way. Alternately, all of his evil dreams could come true, only for him to realize they don’t make him happy. This is the method used for Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
  • Losing control and doing more damage than intended. Depending on where his previous boundaries were, losing control and directly injuring or killing someone could be motivating enough. To keep this behavior away from the moral event horizon, the killing can be an accident caused by his recklessness, or he can get overly enthusiastic when fighting someone who deserved a bad time, but maybe not that bad.

3. Rape as a Threat in a Gritty World

Sansa and Daenerys sit across a table, clasping hands

Unlike the other rape tropes, which stem from decisions about the characters, this one is rooted in how storytellers approach settings. Many storytellers aim for a gritty atmosphere for their stories – one that is filled with real world problems. This is a common choice in settings that are post-apocalyptic, historical, or other-world fantasy.

Even when storytellers are creating a completely fictional world, they often insist that they must include sexual assault because it somehow makes their work historically accurate. As one example, George RR Martin has stated he included rape in The Song of Ice and Fire books because he wanted his books to be “strongly grounded in history and to show what medieval society was like.” Similarly, storytellers who include rape threats in post-apocalyptic settings are aiming to pull no punches in showing the breakdown of human society.

But the truth is that historical accuracy does not exist in fiction, nor can we know what the future would be like after a cataclysm. Everything in a fictional story has been manufactured by the storyteller, and accuracy is never a storyteller’s highest priority. How often do heroes throw the contents of their chamber pots out onto the street? How often do we make our pretty actors look like they have rotting teeth? When a character is sick, how often does the hero summon a doctor to bleed them?

We don’t see those things because the actual goal of storytellers is to create the impression that their story is realistic or historical while creating an enjoyable experience. Accordingly, historical settings are always sanitized for a modern audience, and futuristic settings are always designed to be compelling to people today. A storyteller that defends the sexual violence in their setting with the real-world fallacy is trying to hide that they used rape to build atmosphere.

This defense tells us just how harmful the practice is. Putting rape in a story to make the world gritty, and defending that practice as the only realistic choice, communicates that rape is an inevitable part of human existence, not a specific choice made by a person who could have chosen otherwise. Real people use this idea to argue against holding rapists accountable for their actions. With the responsibility for rape taken away from the perpetrator, instead victims are held responsible for failing to prevent it.

How to Replace This Trope

If you want a gritty setting, you have many realistic-feeling problems to choose from. Drugs. Violence. Poverty. Illness. If your heroes are struggling to gather enough food for the winter, fighting with their neighbors over which lands belong to whom, tending to a sick family member with the plague, and are drowning their sorrows in laudanum, it’ll be gritty enough. Anyone who complains that there isn’t sexual violence as icing on the cake is not someone you want to cater to.

Is it possible for omitting sexual assault to feel like erasure of the crimes in history? It’s possible, but only for specific historical events, not fictional scenarios. If you are depicting real historical events with real groups of people where sexual assault occurred, consult with the people closest to the survivors about your depiction.

4. Rape as a Comparison Between Mr. Wrong and Mr. Right

An Englishman and Scotsman fighting in battle

In the Outlander TV series, Claire is a World War II nurse suddenly transported back to 18th-century Scotland. There, she is kidnapped by a bunch of Scotsmen, including her Scottish love interest, Jamie. But the Scotsmen keeping her prisoner and treating her terribly are supposed to be sympathetic good guys, so to make them look that way, they have an enemy designed to be even worse. They are fighting oppressive English troops led by Captain Randall, who rapes everyone he can get his hands on. Randall is actually the ancestor of Claire’s husband in the World War II era, and he looks exactly like him. In this way, the story sets up a direct comparison between Randall and Jamie.

This is not an uncommon pattern in heterosexual romances. It might feature a male hero who saves a love interest from being raped and receives her gratitude, or it might be about a woman being pursued by multiple men – one of whom tries to rape her. Regardless of whether the story was written for men or women, including rape serves the same purpose: making Mr. Right look virtuous by comparing him to a rapist.

Sometimes this is done without even introducing a rapist into the story. Instead, a woman offers sex while she is under the influence of magic and therefore unable to consent, and a male protagonist shows his virtue by choosing not to rape her. This happened for Venkman in the original Ghost Busters and for Xander in season two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Regardless of how it’s done, this trope sets the bar way too low! It should be taken for granted that a male hero won’t rape someone; they don’t deserve kudos for refusing to do it. Using rape as the line between bad and good behavior not only normalizes rape, but completely excuses discrimination, intimidation, and sexual harassment – like, for instance, the sexual harassment that both Venkman and Xander engage in.

How to Replace This Trope

Since the issue with this trope is that standards for men are set too low, the key to replacing it is to raise them higher. Mr. Wrong shouldn’t be a rapist, but he can engage in other bad behavior that sets him apart from Mr. Right.

If subversive commentary is to your taste, you can use some of the inappropriate male behaviors that are currently played straight in many love stories today:

  • Mr. Wrong can attempt to control the heroine. He can tell her what to do and make choices for her life that he insists are in her best interest.
  • Mr. Wrong can be a persistent suitor, continually asking the heroine on a date after she’s turned him down, perhaps even harassing her at her workplace.
  • Mr. Wrong can give her a surprise kiss.

If you’re up for a deeper look at character motivations, consider comparisons between men that love the heroine selfishly or selflessly. Is he trying to get her to do whatever makes him happy, or is he is concerned about her happiness?

5. Rape as Relationship Drama

A woman leans against a man inside a spaceship

In the 2004 Battlestar Galactica series, many of the cylons look human. However, there are about twelve models of human-looking cylons, so that means many of them appear identical. This gives the writers an opportunity to have an antagonistic cylon named Boomer sub in for her look-alike, Athena. Boomer ties Athena up and puts her in the closet, and then out of spite, she has sex with Athena’s husband where Athena can watch through the cracks in the doors. Afterward, instead of recognizing that her husband was raped, Athena gets mad at him because he didn’t magically know the identical impostor wasn’t her.

Consent requires being informed. If someone only consents because they were lied to or tricked, it’s rape. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since the infamous glorified rape scene in Revenge of the Nerds. These days, big budget studios seem to get that when a man puts on a mask and has sex with a woman pretending to be her partner, it’s rape. But as soon as it’s a woman pretending to be a man’s partner, they’re suddenly confused. Similar rapes to the one in Battlestar happen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Orphan Black. Orphan Black even has the hero of the story do the raping.

The Orville uses a similar device for relationship drama in its first season. The victim this time is a woman, Grayson. Instead of a switcheroo, an alien slips her a hormonal date-rape drug. Neither she nor her husband know a mind-altering substance was used on her, so she is blamed for cheating and they get a divorce. This all happens prior to the start of the show, and a large portion of The Orville’s first season is spent shaming her for the incident. When the true nature of the encounter is revealed, she and her ex have a whole conversation about how the sex “wasn’t her fault” while simultaneously refusing to recognize that she was raped.

The rapes in Battlestar Galactica and The Orville seem pretty different, but the storytelling reasons for them are the same.

  • The show writers wanted to create drama in an existing relationship.
  • They wanted both people to ultimately be blameless for the drama.
  • They didn’t want to do the work to find an issue that two people would reasonably disagree about.
  • They clearly thought either the titillation of the scene or the crude jokes that could be made about it afterward were a bonus.

Of course, what’s ironic is that if the writers weren’t willing to think up a genuine disagreement, they were definitely not ready to handle the implications of rape in their story. That was probably a contributing factor in their choice to pretend rape didn’t happen.

Regardless, these stories spread false ideas about consent and, in doing so, only make rape in the real world more likely.

How to Replace This Trope

For a source of conflict between a couple, a dip into the real world reveals plenty of choices. However, many storytellers will want something more fun than stressing over the family finances. Ideally, the disagreement will also be something that connects to the external conflict of the story. Try these:

  • Arguments over risky behavior. One of them wants to go on a dangerous mission, and the other is not okay with that.
  • Divided loyalties. They’re on different sides of a political conflict.
  • Incompatible ways of resolving problems. One of them wants to shoot first, whereas the other insists on trying diplomacy.

The impersonation examples I listed were also used to let one woman get revenge on another. But if she can impersonate her enemy that thoroughly, there are a ridiculous number of other ways she could do damage. What about committing crimes as the other person? Selling her stuff? Getting fired at her job? Instead of raping her partner, what about breaking up with him?

Then, of course, these storytellers are just looking for a way to add a raunchy scene to an interpersonal conflict. I’m not even going to suggest a replacement for that. Titillating scenes are not an essential part of most stories, and rape should definitely not be used for titillation.

6. Rape as an Explanation for an Unusual Bloodline

Vin from Mistborn.

In the novel Mistborn, Vin is a part of an oppressed group called the skaa. However, she has superpowers that only nobles are supposed to have. That’s because to prevent the skaa from getting powers, nobles are forbidden from interbreeding with them. Instead of leaving it there, author Brandon Sanderson establishes that noblemen regularly rape skaa women and then kill them afterward to prevent babies. Even the love interest, a noble, apparently engaged in this practice once. Since he was young and his father arranged it, the love interest didn’t realize his victim would be killed. However, she wouldn’t have consented to sex with a noble for obvious reasons. Thankfully, the book skips over that part.

Welcome to the most pointless rape trope of all – wherein storytellers use rape to explain something that doesn’t need explaining. Nobles being forbidden by the Emperor is sufficient explanation for why Vin is one of only a few skaa with powers, the rape murder is excessive. Sanderson could also have established that nobles use some kind of contraceptive or hire infertile sex workers. You’d think some nobles would want to see a favorite prostitute more than once.

Similarly, rape is often used as the background for rare interbreeding, as though that requires an explanation. In the novel Spinning Silver, the character Irina can do magic with fairy silver because a fairy raped her great-grandmother. In the Narnia books, CS Lewis explains that existence of Telmarines in Narnia by saying they’re descended from a bunch of pirates who “stole” native women before accidentally crossing into another world. I wish today’s writers all understood women are not possessions, but alas.

How to Replace This Trope

In these instances, mentions of rape can usually be removed without a replacement. It isn’t necessary to explain why an unusual pair of people shook the bed just once. If you think consensual sex seems unlikely in a particular case, just don’t mention how it happened.

In Mistborn, the explanation was why there aren’t more babies. In that effort, lots of rape was counterproductive. I’m guessing Sanderson thought he needed something shocking to show why the oppression of skaa was bad. He did not.

Even if your story is about rape, you might still leave sexual assault out. The movie Maleficent uses the theft of the protagonist’s wings as an analogy for rape, and it works beautifully. In Mad Max: Fury Road, the protagonists are helping victims escape their rapist as part of the movie’s central message: people are not possessions. Even so, sexual assault is never shown on screen or directly discussed. That’s because part of taking this issue seriously is being respectful to survivors.

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  1. uschi

    I recently came across a particularly baffling example of #3. (I have to mention that I wasn’t paying a lot of attention, so I’m fuzzy on the details.) In World War Z, the family visits a supermarket filled with panicky people trying to get the last of the supplies (I don’t think there are zombies around yet at this point). And as soon as the wife is on her own for a few seconds, some guy tries to sexually assault her. This makes no sense other than to enhance the gritty feeling, but can it get any bleaker than diseased zombies and mass panic? Why would scared people fighting for provisions to increase their chance of survival take the time to rape someone? Why would they even want to? This was so superfluous it made me actually angry – even in a generally terrible movie this moment is the worst for me.

    • Cay Reet

      In such a situation, nobody would think about sex – survival ranks higher than reproduction for humans. First survive, then reproduce, because it makes no sense the other way around, given human babies need someone to raise them (unlike snakes, sharks, and many, many other species, where the parent can technically die right after laying eggs or giving birth).

      • uschi

        Right?? Priorities, people!

      • Purplemama

        Rape isn’t sex, it’s violence. It’s a show of domination.

        • Cay Reet

          Which makes even less sense in that situation.

        • Sarah

          Thank you.

  2. N

    In some romances rape is treated as just another tragically unfortunate marital problem. Empress Ki (historical fiction) does this. Towards the end of the show the heroine’s marriage comes under tremendous strain because she is keeping her husband in the dark about her political maneuvering, making him feel like he’s been used and cast aside. So **naturally** he gets drunk and rapes her. It’s treated as rape, too, not something that she consents to halfway through, or is okay with after the fact. But then the show never actually resolves that. He just promises never to drink again (and breaks that promise soon) and then it’s never brought up again. It was honestly the lowest point in an otherwise good show. (They already had healthier marital problems! Why couldn’t the writers have stuck with that?!)
    What was particularly upsetting, in hindsight, is that the husband *knows* how horrible it is to be forced to have sex with someone, because he’s been coerced into sex *twice* with different women for political reasons, once by someone he trusted and looked up to, and the other time by someone he was afraid of. And he turned around and raped the love of his life anyway. I feel like the writers really didn’t understand the actual real-life seriousness of domestic abuse *or* sexual violence.

  3. LeeEsq

    Since even professional writers and authors really can’t seem to help themselves in using these rape tropes, I think the best piece of advice is you really shouldn’t put sexual assault into your story at all unless it is absolutely necessary. This means that theme of the story itself is sexual assault. If sexual assault is merely a plot point and your overall theme is something else like how monarchal politics are bad or a woman’s time traveling romantic adventures, don’t put it in there.

    • Sarah

      Yes, that’s exactly what the article said.

    • Forest Wells

      I don’t know about that. While I agree it should probably be used less than it is, if used well and properly, it can still work in some instances.

      An example just of the top of my head without any thought at all; someone who greatly mistrusts the other gender because of such an instance.

      While even that could be done other ways, the point remains; Be careful not to go too far the other way. You could miss out on a chance to use it where it would be the best thing for a given story/character.

      • Kris

        Yes, but just like the article said multiple times, there are OTHER ways to get a character to feel mistrustful of another gender besides sexual assault. S/He could have been lied to over and over by members of that gender. Manipulated. Injured. If one instance of rape could make someone not trust all members of that gender, then a single instance of something else that’s damaging would serve the same plot/character purpose.

  4. LeeEsq

    I could never get into Outlander because I emphasized too much with Claire’s 20th century husband, who I thought got a raw deal.

  5. BW

    I don’t know if this sort of thing is mentioned in the relationship drama section, because I need to not think about that episode.
    Anyway, Fire Logic. Karis and Zanja. It falls under the “this story isn’t about assault at all, but includes it anyway”. The author unintentionally doubled down on some of the worst fears of survivors and centered on Zanja’s feelings and actions surrounding the whole thing. It does plenty of stuff to show Karis has lasting intimacy issues and trauma, talks about her fears etc… Then went ahead and very graphically depicted the first time they have sex, which is also the first time Karis ever has consensual sex. All while in Zanja’s head. Best was that it was right at the end as some sort of “happy ending”. It was also not long after a scene where they kiss, Karis freezes, but Zanja assures us that Karis is strong enough to push her away if she felt like it. That scene on its own was deeply upsetting and problematic.
    When they first meet Karis flinches back when Zanja touches her, Zanja realizes why and we get a moment in Zanja’s head talking about just how easy it would be to assault Karis and how easily people must have done in the past.
    The moments I related to Karis’s intimacy problems and relationship worries made the way it was handled that much more painful.
    There’s more, but this is already kind of long and I don’t actually like thinking about their relationship. I also would never suggest a fellow assault survivor read it. Maybe some wouldn’t be badly hurt, but I know I was. I know some of the stuff doubles down on the fears of every assault survivor I have ever spoken to.

  6. Katie

    Using things like rape are cheap because they carry so much weight, but honestly… a woman can just be harassed and not full on raped to carry that darkness with her (paranoia, fear, depression, etc) and be traumatized for life. (Just watch Marisha Ray’s Between the Sheets interview to get an idea)

    I’ve actually started just putting down literature and media that mention rape in an offhand way or as backstory for that cheap depth, especially if it’s a man writing and it feels like twisted fantasy fulfillment rather than properly handed trauma for the woman.

  7. Sam Victors

    Can this also replace the rape trope? by having the Heroine ‘agree’ to have sex with the man to avoid being raped. Though consensual, its unenthusiastic and unwanted but its a survival tactic.

    I say this because I always read that rape is treated as a fate worse than death, and her honor is destroyed. And even when the woman agrees to have sex with the evil man, her love interest would treat it like an ultimate betrayal rather than sympathize with, because he treats her as his sexual property and not a person.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I addressed this on FB, but I’ll repost here: Consent given under duress isn’t real consent, so the scenario you’re describing would still be rape. It’s true that there are a lot of issues around how we imagine the consequences of rape, and some authors do explore that, but it’s not something that can be done without a lot of consideration and care.

    • Will Harvey

      You can’t force consent. Consent given under duress is not consent, and thus you cannot have consensual sex under duress. The situation you described is rape as well. It may appear less physically violent from a bystanders point of view but it is still a violent assault on the victim by the perpetrator.

  8. Julia

    One source I like to turn to for relationship conflict ideas are advice columns. You can get some over-the-top stories that are great jumping off points for drama.

  9. Amaryllis

    Thanks for the article. I also would like to talk about female-on-male rape being no big deal trope. I’ve seen it a lot of times, mostly it wouldn’t even recognized at rape. And in at lest one anime, the female character had the in-universe justification for rape.

  10. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s Note: I’ve deleted a comment for claiming that men can’t be raped. That is both inaccurate and disrespectful to survivors.

    • Will Harvey

      And yet I see people make the claim all the time. It baffles me how many people seem to be incapable of wrapping their minds around such a scenario. It doesn’t help that so often when such topics are discussed the roles are given gendered pronouns. I can’t even count the number of articles I’ve read that call hypothetical victims a she or her, and hypothetical perpetrators a he or him. It’s certainly true that women are more likely to be raped than men, but that doesn’t mean men can’t be victims and doesn’t mean women can’t be rapists. Unfortunately even legal language in the United States doesn’t reflect this, as as a woman raping a man is legally defined as “forced to penetrate” not rape. Then there are the legal codes that force men to pay for child support for children that they never consented to conceive. Imagine how traumatizing it would be as a victim of such an act to be told years later that you have a child born out of that. And that you now have to give money monthly, potentially to the perpetrator of that crime, so that that child can be raised.

      • Rose

        “Then there are the legal codes that force men to pay for child support for children that they never consented to conceive.”

        Yeah, well, that’s the US for you. They also give male rapists paternal rights over the child of their victim, and thus a convenient leash to keep the victim from moving to another state, et cetera.

        I can’t get too upset about the legal language. Rape is an euphemism, and “forced to penetrate” is actually clearer.

        (Did you know a lot of male rapists say they wouldn’t rape, but readily admit that they penetrate women without consent?)

  11. Aaron

    One of my least favorite of these (#2) has a corollary when the victim is associated with a protective character, almost always male. Movies like Rob Roy, or S4 of Downton Abbey – the rape is just there to give the male character motivation to go do violence on behalf of the victim, whether she’s asked him to or not. Her arc is left behind, in tatters, and the cis-het male-centric narrative is perpetuated ad nauseum.

    These are all disgusting tropes, and the alternatives you provide are bloody brilliant. Thank you for this!

    • Tony

      As Anita Sarkeesian put it: “In the game of patriarchy, women are not the opposing team; they are the ball.”

  12. Tony

    Along with Fury Road, another good example of dealing with rape without directly depicting it is the first season of Jessica Jones.

    As an analogy to another heavy topic, the tactful approach that Fury Road and Jessica Jones took is a bit like how Mel Brooks has repeatedly mocked Nazis without showing the Holocaust on screen.

  13. Laura Ess

    When it comes to “Rape as an Act Too Far”, I think LORD FOUL’S BANE has a notorious example.

    Thomas Covenant is a leper in our world and though he’s managed it as well as he can, there were several complications including impotence. Covenant gets transported to “The Land”, To quote the Wikipedia synopsis:

    `Covenant is transported… [to] …Kevin’s Watch, a tall finger of rock attached to a mountain overlooking the Land’s southernmost region. He meets a girl named Lena, who uses a special mud called hurtloam to heal the injuries from his fall. Covenant is shocked to discover that the hurtloam has also cured his leprosy. This is only the first example Covenant will see of the Earthpower: a rich source of healing energy present throughout the Land. Believing that he is unconscious from his collision with the police car, and therefore experiencing a fantastical dream or delusion, Covenant refuses to accept the reality of the Land. Appalled and indignant at the expectations the people of the Land have for him as their new-found saviour, he gives himself the title of “Unbeliever.” He is also unprepared for the sudden restoration of his health, which cures the impotence brought on by his leprosy. This, and his mental turmoil over the reality he feels but does not believe, drives him into a frenzy, causing him to rape Lena, an act which will be pivotal to all that follows.`

    So the author sets up a scenario where the protagonist thought he was in a dream and hence his actions there had no consequences. However, the rest of the trilogy shows that isn’t the case, and the consequences of his act haunt him both socially and physically within the Land. I had friends who wouldn’t read any of the books because of the rape scene in the first volume, because they couldn’t stomach a rapist as a hero. In fact Covenant is an anti-hero, someone who saves the Land despite himself, someone who’d considered himself irremediable and yet wins out in the end.

    For me though, that was to link that got me reading the first two trilogies. I’d had a childhood full of epilepsy and the consequences of its treatment, and felt like I had a monster inside of me. I felt both irremediable and dead inside. That changed over time. But I think the choice of using rape to make Covenant a pariah was done because it was an act that COULDN’T be forgiven. I’m not sure what Donaldson could have substituted instead.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      It was a long time since I read those books, but… I was gonna give up after the rape scene. I was like WTF? What is this? They throw in a rape scene as mere… character development, for the male hero/rapist? I’m done with this!
      Husband then convinced me to continue and said it was dealt with in more depth later. I did, and it was. Ultimately, I really liked the Covenant series (or, like, up to Runes of the Earth – the series suffered this problem where descriptions of environment etc took up progressively more space until I gave up for THAT reason in book seven, but that’s a completely separate issue).

      However, I’ve talked to LOTS of women who just put the book down at that point and never continued the series. As I said, it was a long time since I read it, and I can’t come up with suggestions for what Donaldson should have done instead. But still.

      (Also, even though I think the Covenant series ultimately dealt with the rape okay, Donaldson wrote the Gap series as well. Sci-fi series where book one really WALLOWS in rape and abuse, like you think Donaldson was trying out for the misogyny world championships or something.)

      • Leona

        The whole facing Lenna towards the end includes her never having stopped loving him.

        I think the Covenant series handles rape terribly. I say this as a writer and as a survivor. You two are free to your opinions but having a victim be I love with her rapist after the fact is sick and wrong.

        • Dvärghundspossen

          It was a long time since I read it, but as I recall, she had developed some kind of almost psychotic delusion in which he never raped her, instead they had had a consensual romance… in response to a trauma that was so bad she couldn’t quite handle it. (I’m not a rape survivor but I have had psychosis and delusions, so that might have coloured my own reading. I’m not gonna defend it as “the right one”, in particular since it was so long since I read it.)

    • Rose

      “That changed over time. But I think the choice of using rape to make Covenant a pariah was done because it was an act that COULDN’T be forgiven. I’m not sure what Donaldson could have substituted instead.”

      What about cannibalism? Murdering a child? There are plenty things that are considered much more unforgivable than rape in our society, and would have been a better choice for exactly that reason.

  14. FluxVortex

    The Orville is so vile, the idea that there are people who find it funny terrifies me.

    • John story

      I would agree, if it was true. It wasnt. The character did not put a date rape drug into her drink. In fact, there was no mention or rape. That she merely cheated on him in a CONSENUAL encounter in season 2, The character played by rob lowe, went through a “heat cycle” and let off pheremones, which opened up the character to sleep, consensually with the captain.

      Everything was spot on but the orville

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Editor’s Hat: The reason we included the Orville as an example is because the alien in question deliberately denied Grayson the ability to consent, which qualifies as rape no matter the specifics of how it’s accomplished. I talk more about that specifically in this post.

        John, if you would like to discuss this issue further, please do so in the main comments rather than a reply here, as I’m closing this thread.

  15. Dvärghundspossen

    For me, it makes a huge difference whether a book goes into detail or not. I can see your point with Mistborn, but I was fine with those books mostly because we’re just TOLD that this is a thing that happens; we don’t watch rape+murder scenes in lurid detail. Also, we learn later on that the Lord Ruler has specific reasons for making it SEEM like he is super serious with forbidding nobles to make babies with skaa women, although in reality he depends on people breaking the rules now and then.

    By the way… I was in this discussion a while back with male fantasy fans who argued that
    a) good people can stomach reading about horrible stuff. If you don’t wanna do that, it just goes to show that you’re sheltered, and wanna pretend like the world is already perfect instead of improving it.
    b), also, realism: Since the real world has rape in it, books must too.

    I spent some time arguing against the incredibly stupid point a, but eventually just got tired and attacked point b by going:
    – Well how about tax evasion? It’s a really common crime in the real world! Why do fantasy authors don’t wanna deal with tax evasion? There’s hardly any tax evasion in any books whatsoever, that’s SO unrealistic!

    IDK why I used that as an example, but I was getting tired and it was the first thing that popped up.

    • Chris Winkle

      Yeah, point b comes up in a lot of storytelling discussions. So we just gave it a name (real-world fallacy) so we could just reference that whenever it comes up.

    • Cay Reet

      Another good question in such cases: what about going to the toilet? We all have to pee and to poop (including, I would guess, alien or fantasy races). Yet there’s hardy a book which deals with that.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        I’ve seen this in response to George Martin’s supposedly realistic rape-filled Westeros: There are times where loads of people in the story should be sick with serious diarrea if we’re gonna be historically accurate, and yet no mention of this in the books!

        (Also, re the same author, I’ve actually seen people who seem to know their medeival history argue that Westeros is MORE misogynistic than real medeival Europe was.)

        • tenereamir

          Wrong. Read closely the descriptions of the Pale Mare again. In fact, read closely how Tywin Lannister is killed.

          • Leigh

            Agreed, George talks about poop. A lot. And bad teeth and stinks and all sorts of gross stuff.

          • Dvärghundspossen

            Well I’ll happily retract the diarrhea comment then!

    • LeeEsq

      I’d totally read a story about a government revenue agency having to collect taxes from Vampiric lords and other powerful monsters.

      • Cay Reet

        Which would totally give them a reason to treat magic users well, because they’d be needed to enforce that tax collection.

        Yes, I’d absolutely read a story about that, too.

        • LeeEsq

          The temptation would be to create an elite, bad-ass division of the revenue agency to do this. My tastes would run in the opposite direction. I’d make them just as nebbish as everybody else dealing with more ordinary citizens. Pencil-pushers vs. mages, vampires, and dragons.

          • Cay Reet

            “Look, sir, as long as your hoard is on US territory, you are required to file your taxes for all the gold you have acquired this year to make it bigger. There’s no need to fill your fuel reservoire, if you incinerate me, my successor will be here next week again to remind you of your duties. You may not need our roads, but that’s our cows you’re eating regularly and you have yet to make a payment to the nearest farms to make it legal.”

          • Cay Reet

            You actually got me to write a quick flash piece. How to get the taxes from a vampire.


          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Oh my god Cay I love it!

          • Cay Reet

            I’m glad you like it. It was going through my mind since LeeEsq said they wanted an ordinary human gathering taxes from vampires etc.

        • Will Harvey

          I love the piece, it even inspired me to create a D and D character. Harrison the bard tax collector.

        • Odd visitor

          I apologise if the following input is not within the preferred scope of a more, let’s say, verbose literature based community, but I though it to be fitting and hopefully providing some actually pleasant entertainment for the ones above and around here, albeit be it a bit late:

          There is a manga called “The Dragon, the Hero, and the Courier”(“Ryuu to Yuusha to Haitatsunin”/”竜と勇者と配達人”), which quite nicely goes to tackle something like that—how does one get (land) taxes from a wizard. Or from a bandit group. Or what economic impact the slaying of a dragon may have. Or how hard it is to set up street name signs… And so on.
          Not entirely sure if it will please You or anyone around here, but it is a very nice treat I wished to share, that instantly came to mind reading this specific comment.

          (I can’t believe I’m in a thread about the abusage of rape in media as a trope and trying to provide someone with a post office and tax accountant medieval fantasy story. I hope it does not come of as disrespectful.)

    • Rose

      “For me, it makes a huge difference whether a book goes into detail or not. I can see your point with Mistborn, but I was fine with those books mostly because we’re just TOLD that this is a thing that happens; we don’t watch rape+murder scenes in lurid detail. Also, we learn later on that the Lord Ruler has specific reasons for making it SEEM like he is super serious with forbidding nobles to make babies with skaa women, although in reality he depends on people breaking the rules now and then.”

      Why not just ban raping them, then?
      He could have totally relied on the male nobles breaking that rule once in a while. No need for that creepy rape and murder thing. I mean, you could have deduced that that’s what the men who really, really, really want to rape will do (that or just … kill the baby? Actually, why wasn’t that considered an option? Are magical babies unkillable?) but there’s no need to state it.

      I don’t need to be told that in a world with slavery, the male masters will rape the female slaves. If the worldbuilding doesn’t make clear that those men are better than the regular earth man (Tolkien couldn’t really decide whether elvish men did rape or not, but he was at least toying with the idea of making it close to impossible) then I am going to assume that they rape in the same numbers.

      So just stating “Oh yes, magic dudes aren’t allowed to have sex with skaa women” would have implied that there is a bit less rape than usually without even mentioning rape.

  16. bradfilippone

    I haven’t seen Downton Abbey, but the scene you mention in Rob Roy I felt was needlessly graphic. It simply didn’t need to go that far.

  17. JohnnyW

    This was a great read. Very educational with plenty to think about, with great solutions. (Solutions so obvious it makes you wonder why the tropes exist in the first place.)

    Side note (which doesn’t change this article at all): Buffy Season 6 was the first season not run by Joss Whedon, but by Marti Noxon. It definitely had a lot of problems.

  18. tenereamir

    See, as a survivor of sexual assault, I don’t want this ignored in fiction. I don’t want it there “to make the female character interesting”, but I also don’t want it ignored as something that never ever should ever happen to any character.
    I have a male character who was sexually abused in his youth.
    Likewise, I have a female character who was raped in her marriage prior to the opening of the story.

    Neither plays a huge role in the plot and are only mentioned in passing once or twice, but they have played a role in how those characters perceive others around them.

    To pretend rape doesn’t exist and should never be written about is a slap in the fact to every victim every bit as much as “cheapening” it on page to be a lazy trope.

    • Chandra


    • Percival Quinn

      This… is exactly the comment I wanted to read.

      Tropes are tools. While the substitutes mentioned can be helpful depending on the tone of the story, some stories accept no substitutes.

      Plus, stories centered around the victim and how they deal with the trauma and the stigma can be some extremely compelling stuff in the right hands.

      I don’t just want to know the substitutes, I want to know how to retool and write tropes such as these respectfully, or at least as respectfully as possible.

    • Sarah

      It sounds like you have the knowledge and tools to represent sexual assault responsibly, so your story doesn’t fall under these tropes.

    • kirsten

      as a rape survivor… i WRITE rape into my fiction…. because its common.
      right now, almost every woman i know has been raped, coerced, harassed, etc. if i am writing a modern day story? and not any of the characters deal with that or have dealt with that?
      also i write consent issues, and men being assaulted… at least in part because so many of my male friends had no idea they were even at risk in a bar!
      i have had characters NOT understand that what happened to them is unacceptable… not understand that it was rape… even if they were unhappy about it…
      because internalized victim blaming is a real thing.

      so i find the “pretend it never ever happens” to be a very bad idea. i read and write fiction to explore consent ideas, trauma, and survival sometimes.
      rape shouldnt be in every single story, but banning something that happens to at LEAST 1 in 6 women and 1 in 15 men? thats unrealistic

    • Trish

      Yes, this!

    • Tuttle

      Thank you for your perspective. I’ve written and deleted a scene (four times now) of an attempted sexual assault in which the victim fights off the attacker. I wrote this as a demonstration of agency as well as a transfer of power dynamics. Even scrubbing the scene of anything remotely titillating, I still worry for exploitation. Still don’t know if the scene will make the final draft. I’m so sorry for your experience and I sincerely appreciate your commentary.

    • Rose

      Oh, I agree with you. Rape should not be ignored in fiction.

      The thing is just that … it is very hard to pinpoint, but I can tell whether a woman doesn’t ignore rape in her writing, or whether a man uses it as wallpaper.

      (There are rare cases where women write about rape creepy, but it is rare.)

      So I do generally agree with telling men to not write about rape. They tend to get it wrong.

      My own stories are full of abusive rapey husbands, date rapists and the occasional cliche rapist in a dark alley, even. As a woman, there are situations where I would be afraid of rapists, and thus, it feels natural to put rapists in. Mostly just so they can be swiftly disposed of, but, you know. Fears we have will naturally play a role in writing. (Terry Pratchett gets it right with the scene where Granny Weatherwax insists they put a chair under the doorhandle to prevent any men from entering during the night. Then he gets it wrong by Nanny Ogg stating that they can hardly hope for that to happen at their age. Though I have to concede that Nanny Ogg is a kind of person that probably exists in real life and really behaves like this. Not all women have the same fears about rape.)

      Men are usually not afraid of rape. That means that if they do think about rape, it is statistically much more likely to be for the wrong reasons. (Like the wish to be lauded as hero for just refraining from raping a drunk woman.)

      I would say that it is okay for men two write about rape if they are doing it right, but that sort of policy is most likely to result in the worst offenders assuming they are the ones who get it right.

      • Elessar

        I do agree with your general stance that rape shouldn’t be ignored in fiction. Especially so in fiction that does not center around it. However, I disagree that men shouldn’t touch it. As a man, and as a writer, foremost, being told that something is represent respectfully just makes me want to do it justice. I also think you disregard how many female authors write it offensively as well. No matter the gender, everyone should just strive to give it the best depiction.

        I don’t know whether it’s statistically more likely for men to think about rape in the wrong light, but regardless I think the scenario you portrayed is too unlikely in the first place to be argued as a point.

  19. Jenni

    I understand not normalizing sexual assault. But somehow it’s ok to normalize men trying to control women’s lives? ? If portraying the negative things that villians do is normalizing the behavior, then *every* time you write a villianous character, you normalize *all of their behavior.*

    I agree that rape shouldn’t exist in fiction just for the sake of it. But not talking about rape in literature just makes the subject taboo. Taboos make victims feel more shame when it happens to them (like miscarriage). If it’s relevant to your characters and plot, don’t let anyone tell you not to include it. Instead, make sure it’s there for the right reasons and gives victims a voice (and as mentioned above, isn’t there just for the sake of the male hero looking better).

    • Cay Reet

      I agree that it shouldn’t be a taboo. The problem is that rape is often seen as the easy way out if you have to motivate a character (female one = rape survivor, male one = relative of a raped person), a quick thrill and shock moment, or just a ‘look how gritty my world is’ flavour.

      The article also says ‘look if it’s necessary for the story.’ If rape is the main topic of the story, it should be treated well and stay in there, but if you can exchange rape for another kind of abuse, one that would also happen to men with the same frequency, then it might be a good idea to choose that instead of the rape. In the instances I mention above, rape could easily be exchanged for something else. If rape is intrinsic for your story, it can’t be.

      • Sarah

        But why is rape worse than other abuse in this context? Is avoiding these tropes out of respect for survivors or is it something else? Because survivors of child abuse, torture, emotional abuse, etc., are just as deserving of their traumas being depicted in a meaningful and respectful way, and those tragedies are also often depicted poorly and used lazily.

        • Bubbles

          Hmm… That’s actually a fascinating (if disturbing) question. A lot of people do think of rape as something that is particularly horrible in ways that other serious crimes aren’t exactly. A couple of reasons have been proposed for why people believe this, but I don’t know which one is true – or whether the belief itself is at all justified. This pattern is even mentioned in TVTropes I believe, with the “Rape is a Special Kind of Evil” article. And to be fair, the Mythcreants articles are at least consistent on this. While not mentioned in this article, there are other articles that discuss the topics you mentioned.

          There’s a whole article on torture, as well as a few other mentions in other articles about the topic, arguing that it also shouldn’t just be thrown into any kind of story because that also runs the risk of promoting myths about torture, normalizing it, and putting many people off the story.

          I believe the article about normalization itself (unless I remembered incorrectly) mentions that showing emotional abuse in a story is dangerous because it can cause many people to sympathize with the abuser. Now, I definitely don’t know whether that is true or whether it justifies censorship, but I’m just reporting what someone else said here. At least it proves that the topic has been mentioned here as a serious subject as well.

          Now, I will admit I am not sure whether child abuse has ever been mentioned here beyond brief mentions, or whether the authors here have ever suggested that this topic, in particular, should not be included in the average story, but the mentions do show they consider it a problem.

        • Cay Reet

          One problem is male authors just using the rape of a woman as a flavour or quick solution without realizing what being raped means. Often, you find people considering rape ‘less bad’ than other forms of trauma such as the ones you’ve listed. That might be, because it happens more often (but not only, mind) to women.

          Lazily using any kind of trauma is bad, no question, and there are several articles on the site about using things like abuse or torture without thinking about it (and especially about depicting torture as a valid way of gaining information, which it is not).

        • Sedivak


          Also I’m slightly repeating myself but murder and other kinds of violent killing of a human being are in the same category.

          We cannot pretend these things don’t happen in human society and we cannot prohibit authors to write about them. We should just urge the authors not to use these topics lightly or cheaply.

    • Leigh

      Brilliant comment. Totally agree.

  20. Bitchard Pryor

    Do better research please. If you’re going to use the Buffy/Spike thing at least get the story right.

    1) No, it was NOT done in preparation for a romance story and Buffy and Spike NEVER got back together.

    2) Spike didn’t get his soul back to redeem himself or become someone Buffy could love. He did it to be the kind of man who would never again TRY to do that. It wasn’t about redemption, it was about PUNISHMENT. He believed only with a soul could he feel guilt for what he did.

    3) He was never absolved of what he tried to do. Buffy never truly fully trusted or forgave him. In fact when she learned he willingly got his soul back she was horrified. She kept him around only because she needed him in the coming fight, and ONLY told him she loved him right before he sacrificed himself as a kindness. Even Spike knew she didn’t mean it, and thanked her for saying it anyway right before he died.

    4) NOT ONCE EVER did anyone act like what he did was magically okay because he had a soul now. Not even he himself.

    All the other entries on this list make sense, but the Buffy/Spike plot? No, that one doesn’t fit here and you clearly failed to research the story properly, or pay attention when watching, because you got SO much blatantly wrong. Buffy and Spike were NEVER meant to be a Luke & Laura. The entire point of their story was to show the harm an unhealthy aggressive sexual relationship can cause and that rapists CANNOT be magically redeemed. The exact OPPOSITE of what you’re suggesting.

    • Leigh

      Thank you, I thought the same thing reading the article above… things kind of start lacking credibility when you know the author is wrong. There was never any great pure love between Spike and Buffy, it was always toxic. I get where the author is coming from, but they suggest instead of rape just upping the violence? Is it better to be raped, or tortured, or dead? (Rhetorical question and would depend on the individual)
      I don’t think their solutions offered are clear cut or really the best way through. I don’t like rape used as a plot point for shock factor or to lazily show how bad and gritty the world is that the author is presenting, as other commenters have already said. I hated the rape in the Outlander series (books) and in my mind it was definitely over used to move the story.
      But I don’t think we can ignore this evil aspect of humanity altogether; good writers are inherently interested in exploring many sides of the human condition, whether through their own real life past experiences or ones they don’t understand.
      Rape is a terrible violation of another’s body and mind, and to deny it happens in fiction could give the message of silencing victims in the real world… tv GOT Sansa is terribly violated. She has the opportunity to have her attacker eaten by dogs. Many viewers may disagree with an eye for an eye – some may feel satisfaction. Every reader or viewer will come to the text with their own feelings and experiences to agree or disagree, but I think to remove the discussion altogether is probably not the answer.

  21. AT

    There are lots of reasons to look for story alternatives to sexual assault in addition to concerns about normalization and being upsetting to people who have previously been victims of it. I honestly don’t think either of those are a sufficient reason to declare something taboo for storytelling – as I don’t think anything should be declared taboo for storytelling – but I do think there are reasons to avoid it. It’s lazy, for a start. It also, as it’s usually executed, casually perpetuates negative male stereotypes. I saw a movie tonight where the otherwise entirely non-sexual bad guy suddenly pinned a woman down and made random sexually explicit comments… it was just lazy shorthand for “this man is bad!”, was neither in character nor germane to the narrative, and was never revisited. Just thirty utterly random seconds. While I don’t think it should be taboo, it should at least be used with due circumspection for the sake of good writing.

  22. Samuel

    I’d appreciate peoples weigh in on this and whether they think a character in a story I’m partway through qualifies as number (1), dark backstory.

    About 40,000 words into the book we find out that the primary female character who the main male protagonist has known since about 10,000 words in was raped at 12 and later the twins that resulted from that rape when she was 17. They meet when she is 19.

    It doesn’t come up until that point because she possesses a kind of soul magic that she used on herself to surgically remove the trauma and grief of both experiences from her mind, retaining only her outrage at the unfairness of life, which is her primary motivation for trying to make the world a better place. So that the many others who do not have the ability ‘magic away’ their problems don’t have to. Despite this pseudo-solution, it is clear she has never properly recovered from these events and in some ways is addicted to her magic as a solution for recurring problems it causes.
    Throughout the story we explore the constant struggle that rape survives face, their successes and failures in trying to move on and the compromises that sometimes need to be made to return to a somewhat normal life.

    (It is not stated in the story, but their story mirrors events in my own life and rape experience. Readers will naturally not know this though)

    • Tripo

      The rape is one thing, but the childbirth as a result is one trauma too far. For a lot of women readers, the idea of being raped and then forced to give birth will be too much. Rape is something we have to aware of at all times, add onto that childbirth as a result, and it can cause enough distress to ruin the story for a lot of people.

      What is added to her story by being forced to give birth?

      • Liz

        “What is added to her story by being forced to give birth?”

        Just speaking in general, I’d say it depends on the story. But I think having and rearing the child of rape could become a very interesting opportunity to explore the consequences of that decision. Fiction, even fantastical fiction, should still reflect the human condition, in all its contradictions, ugliness, and glory. The best and the worst and everything in between.

        Writers shouldn’t shy away from reality in order to protect readers. If some event in your story is considered a lazy trope, turn it into something that matters. Show us the complexities and uniqueness of that particular event, involving those particular people. Be honest in portraying it. Maybe that’s what people are objecting to most: the lack of honesty and the lack of consequences, or believable consequences. Or the fact that rape is often treated as a monolithic crime, in which all rapes are the same in terms of moral weight and all victims react the same (or are supposed to react the same) as other victims. But that doesn’t reflect reality. Each act of rape is unique and the persons involved, both perpetrator and victim, are also unique in their motivations and reactions. Writers should take that into account.

        And personally, I think it would be fine to write a story about what happens to the psyche of a person who commits a rape. That’s a legitimate angle to explore and needn’t diminish the cost to the victim in any way.

        • Samuel

          Love it Liz,

          And yes, as someone who continued to know my abuser for years after the fact, I also intend to write a story one day exploring what I came to understand of their psyche.

      • Samuel

        Through her children we explore the conflicting emotions those who choose to keep the children of rape face. Namely finding themselves having to defend their own children from the judgement of those that feel they should not exist, the conflict of the love they have for the children existing alongside the memory of who their father was.
        (She was not forced to give birth, she simply blindly accepted the pregnancy as her fate as the concept of abortion does not exist as an idea within her culture and thus was not a consideration)

        It also forms a key development in her character as although she pulled herself up from the brutality of her own past, watching her children also begin to encounter and be harmed by the harsh realities of life, drove her to change her own course to build a world where they would not have to.

  23. Bubbles

    I think the problem with this article is that, ultimately, it is advocating that stuff that *happens in real life* should never appear in fiction, and the argument it uses to do so is fallacious. The claim is that realism is never an actual priority in fiction, and the idea that tax evasion, chamber pots, and disfiguring diseases never or almost never show up in fantasy fiction. However, A. I know that the last two things *do* often appear in fantasy fiction (although they aren’t always used realistically), and the first one appears in some fiction at least, and B. Just because some or even most authors don’t strive for realism doesn’t mean it’s a bad goal that should never be done.

    So, with that out of the way, this article is just arguing for censorship of things in pretty much all fiction that actually occur in real life, which, if anything, also hurts survivors of these horrific acts by suggesting those things don’t exist, in a way. The real issue is when rape/sexual assault are portrayed *inaccurately*, such as the disgusting claims that someone would like those things to happen to them. That is what you should be speaking against. But claiming they can’t appear unless the *whole story* is about those topics is too limiting.

    • Cay Reet

      The way I see it is more akin to ‘don’t use an event as traumatic as being raped as a cheap thrill to spice up your story,’ because that is how rape often is depicted by authors. A well-done, deep, and carefully crafted story about a rape survivor is something completely different than ‘let’s put more rape scenes into the TV show than the books already had’ or ‘we need a badass female character and she needs motivation, so let’s say she’s been raped before the book start – or even better, start the book with her being raped.’

      Rape has been overused in the media in recent years and so authors really should think about whether they want to use it – that’s my personal opinion. If your whole story is focused on the rape and what follows and you have the skills to do the topic justice, go for it. But if you’re just looking for a shortcut to ‘motivated character’ or ‘gritty realism in fantasy,’ there’s other tools than to throw in a rape or two or ten.

      Another problem is that, while men can be raped (and it’s no ‘easier’ for them than for women), rape is usually depicted as something which happens to a woman for story reasons and when men are raped in media, it’s often played down, played for laughs, used to humiliate the man to an even higher degree, or covered up with ‘men always want sex, so you can’t rape them.’

      GRR Martin, for instance, incorportated a lot from history, not just rape, but also such things as his Red Wedding (which is based on things which really happened in Medieval England). While one could argue that he could have put a little less rape in his books, quite some of the sexual encounters which the TV series played out as clear rape were actually consentual in the books, so while they feature a lot of sex and some scenes which could have been different, he’s not the one only playing the rape card for cheap thrills. The TV series, on the other hand, dived into that trope head-first and found it so useful to draw audiences that they even rewrote some consentual sex as rape.

      • Sedivak

        These are all good points, Cay Reet.

        The way I see it the argument in point 3 of the article is motivated by a good ideal (don’t use cheap depictions of traumatizing events just for added flavor) but it trully is written in a fallacious way.

        You cannot on one hand claim that the world is dark and gritty and on the other describe it as squeaky clean. As horrible and traumatizing as rape is, it is arguably not worse than murder (source: my country’s criminal code, also seems somewhat logical) or war. In a dark and gritty mediaval-styled or postapocalyptic world (or even some todays cities) both rape and murder and sometimes war would be expected to happen. Depending on the work the author would strain the suspension of disbelief by pretending otherwise.

        The important statement would be that these things should not be described lightly.

        • Cay Reet

          Your gritty world can have many forms of violence which are not mostly centred on one gender – rape use is unbalanced, much more likely to happen to a female than to a male character, just as in real life.

          A gritty world can, as mentioned in the article, have a lot of brutal violence, serious diseases which kill in slow and painful ways, famines, or severe poverty just as well as rape around every other corner. All of those will leave a trauma and define the character of your characters.

          Your gritty fantasy world can be dirty and derelict, full of ruined houses, with the poor populace living in hovels which hardly keep them from freezing in winter. It can be full of nobles to whom the life of a commoner is worth less than that of their favourite dog. You can have brutal punishments for the least misdemeanours. You can have medicine which has as high a chance to fatally fail than to heal. You can have people forced to beg in the streets, because this is the only way they can survive. All of this will make your world dark and gritty, but with one difference from rape: it will affect men and women equally.

    • SunlessNick

      I think the problem with this article is that, ultimately, it is advocating that stuff that *happens in real life* should never appear in fiction

      No it’s not.

      • Bubbles

        Very sorry about that unclear phrasing. I think I changed the way I worded my comment while writing it, but I forgot to change that part. My sincere apologies.

  24. Barbara Jungbauer

    Black Jack Randall in Outlander isn’t a rapist to be compared against Jamie in order to make Jamie more appealing.
    Randall is a sadist. We find out again and again, he only gets off when his victim is terrified and in pain. Male or female, he doesn’t care about his victim’s gender, only their pain.
    Claire’s insistence on keeping Randall alive causes strain between her and Jamie – Claire does this because she believes without Black Jack, her Frank will never come to be. Jamie agrees although he wants nothing more than to kill Randall – and also because without Frank, Claire never would have been in Scotland to fall through the stones.
    Eventually, Randall gets what is coming to him.

  25. Hetty Cary

    Barbara Jungbauer
    Thank you.
    “Black Jack Randall in Outlander isn’t a rapist to be compared against Jamie in order to make Jamie more appealing.”

    I get so tired of this argument.

    I’ve been on the AOL Lit forum, Compuserve Lit forum, and now the Litforum in all its iterations for decades and follows these myriad discussions about Diana’s books including more discussions about rape than anyone can imagine.

    What very, very few people who rail against Diana and the Outlander books realize are how many people thank her for these scenes. They are survivors. They needed to know it was all right to feel the way they did.

    I’m writing a Civil War historical now. People will die. Lots of people. Some horribly. The country will be laid waste, but by all that is holy, I better not write a rape in all that destruction because it’s just too much. Give me a break.

  26. Stewart Baker

    Thanks for this article. You make some great points–even if, sadly and stereotypically, many people in the comments seem to be ignoring them. :eyeroll:

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      On Chris’ behalf, thank you!

      It’s been interesting to watch the patterns of comments. When this article first came out, it was mostly our regulars commenting, and they mostly liked it or else they wouldn’t be regulars.

      Then it started getting shared by other sites and pages. Most of the shares are still positive, but at this point the people who feel the need to comment are the angry ones.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        Mythcreants: We don’t think people should use rape in a lazy and sloppy way in stories, that’s disrespectful.

        Many of the commenters: Who are you to decide that rape is 100 % taboo, must never be discussed at all, and everyone ought to pretend as if it doesn’t even exist?

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Yeah there’s a little bit of strawmaning going on, but at the same time we really do think rape should be left out of most stories, and that most existing stories which have rape would be better without it.

          Of course, the argument that this equates to “pretending it doesn’t exist” is just silly.

          • Sarah

            I’d agree that it’s a strawman.

  27. Alden Loveshade

    I appreciate your wanting to treat rape and sexual assault as serious issues instead of just background noise. And I have not been a big fan of “I fell in love with my rapist” story lines such as the classic Luke and Laura love story on the soap opera “General Hospital.”

    However, I think things can go too far the other way as well, where rape and sexual assault can be swept under the carpet so we can pretend they aren’t there.

    One thing that particularly stood out to me in this article was this:

    “The fact remains that sexual assault is not something people want for characters they identify with, even during the low points of a character’s journey.”

    First, where is your documentation for this “fact?” This seems perilously close to “We all know everybody is uncomfortable with sexual assault victims so we don’t want to hear about it or hear about them.”

    Second, I think many people are actually more likely to identify with a character who has a similar background to theirs. While this has nothing to do with sexual assault, the amazing popularity of Spider-Man after one appearance in a magazine scheduled to be very soon discontinued showed this. Many fans could identify with the nerdy, geeky young man who was nervous around girls.

    As a #MeToo victim of sexual assault (yes, it can happen to males too), my tendency is to relate more to another victim, whether real or fictional. So if I write a story that uses a character inspired by my own life experiences, as many if not all authors do, should I pretend that never happened?

    I don’t believe avoiding discussing and describing sexual assault and rape in stories will help those abuses go away.

    • Sarah West

      No, you don’t pretend it never happened, if you don’t want to. As is explained in the article, your personal experience makes you qualified to story-tell with elements derived from that experience.

  28. Leon

    Is this problematic?

    The idea came from 2 soldiers who were interrogated in the Balkans. They were hand cuffed together and the woman was raped until the man revealed the pass words. She didn’t let him. And many kids got to go home to their families. They are married now.

    The two characters who want a place in my book were interrogated in a similar situation.
    Nitroboy and Nitrogirl are Jack Troopers (similar to Jaeger pilots) and a hacker uses their link to their gunships A.I. to hijack their bodies (they’re full of cybernetic goodies).
    She tells him that they can’t hurt her if they make it good. They don’t get married. They’re brother and sister. So they spend the rest of the story trying to leave eachother alone and help eachother form healthy relationships with other people.

    A lot of the inspiration also came from when i fell in love with a girl who I later learnt was my cousin. Fortunately she is Baptist, but it was still difficult learning to think of each other as family and not lovers. Again, nothing physical happened (but her mum made sure the doors were always open when we were together which we both thought was hilarious).

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I strongly recommend against using a plot device like that in your story. First, it’s an unnecessary depiction of rape, since the “I’ll torture your friend until you tell me” strategy can work with any kind of torture. Second, it reinforces the idea that torture is a reliable means of extracting information unless the victim has some kind of iron will. In reality, such a strategy is just as likely to produce lies, especially if the victim doesn’t actually know the info their torturer is after.

      As for a romance where the characters then find out they’re related, that’s an entirely separate issue. It doesn’t sound inherently problematic to me, though it could come across as a bit awkward, so I’d be sure that’s the mood you want from your story.

      • Leon

        The character’s have always known that they are brother and sister. I really liked Nitrogirl’s pragmatic mindset, I guess she’s equal parts Valentine Wiggin and Tank Girl.

        Rape as torture is a real thing that does happen in the real world. Normal people survive torture and keep their secrets – it helps that the lives of friends and family are at stake.
        wouldn’t it be a good thing to show that torture is ineffective and to show it with ordinary people?

      • Leon

        I just realized the problem with showing that torture doesn’t work. It makes the villain look incompetent and ruins the story.

        What if the torturer was not the antagonist, but a nasty piece of work who is somehow aligned with team good (I just remembered the guy with the tentacle monster in rogue one – and suddenly were on topic again).

      • Leon

        I just noticed that my description of the event is in present tense. There is no scene, and my intention is to do what Tom SIddell does, and give clues that reveal to the reader what happened.

        For the record, the inspiration for the torture came from a seminar on surviving interrogation and torture.
        the idea of the two people being siblings came from a friend and her sister who then stopped complaining that they were posted to different battalion (we were telecommunications operators, if we were ever captured we were going to be interrogated).
        the body hijacking idea obviously came from Jaegers.

        This is all stuff I have come across in life and literature, none of it came from me. And none of it is my Deal.

  29. Chloe J

    I need to share this post with everyone ever.

    99.99% of the time: Rape = Bad.Story.Telling.

    The only time I’ve seen rape done and handled well is Jessica Jones season one. And I legit had to stop the show mid-season for a few months because I was nervous that it was going to be handled poorly and didn’t know if I wanted to deal with it.

  30. Dave L

    You didn’t mention Rape as Humor, though you alluded to it in discussing the Orville

    I saw some good quotes in Yellowbeard, but I won’t post them here, because I think it might be in poor taste. In Family Guy (created by the same guy who made The Orville) Quagmire is basically a rapist, at least once tying a woman up and holding her prisoner in “Jerome is the New Black”, and this is played for laughs

  31. Rakka

    While the article has a valid point of “don’t make rape a cheap plot device” I think it errs too far in the “only use rape if your story is specifically about sexual abuse” statement. A story doesn’t need to be 100% about that particular trauma to include it (and it would make a very narrow story, I feel). It just needs to be handled with full weight of the issue and not as a cheap plot device or InstantEdginess(tm).

    • Bubbles

      I will just say that I agree with you. Now, the authors have made it clear that they are not advocating to *never* mention the topic, and now I understand that. I apologize if I have made incorrect statements about what they were saying before. With that said, you are definitely correct that treating a subject with seriousness and doing research does not always mean that the *entire* story must be about that subject alone. Also, I think that the authors of the original article may (I am not sure) still be advocating for a bit too much censorship. Oren suggested that the commenter “Leon” above not use a certain scenario – even though Leon has said that the scenario is literally based on things that happen in real life.

      Incidentally, I’m not sure why Oren said that a romance in which the involved characters later find out that they’re related is not inherently problematic, given that it has happened to many people in real life and has caused serious issues, including mental ones, to them. Many people would find the mere depiction of such a scenario extremely taboo and problematic as well. Certainly I am not advocating for censoring it either. But I think this proves the point that while not entirely arbitrary, what is considered a “problematic” topic that should rarely or never be mentioned does vary to some extent. I believe that as a *general* rule (with exceptions of course), authors should feel free to include whatever they want in their stories, as long as they do research and portray serious topics seriously.

      • Rakka

        My teeth get mostly set on edge by point 3 and the insistence that fiction doesn’t need to be realistic in this particular manner. Especially this: “It’s possible, but only for specific historical events, not fictional scenarios.” Historical events were done by human beings. The vast evidence of history shows human beings in general are pretty keen to rape if they can get away with it.

        Like AV says, rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power over others, and using and/or enjoying that power. Omitting (threat of) rape in fiction in situations where in real life (threat of) rape is present is making the characters human with this trait removed. It quite stretches suspension of disbelief that no one in position of power – especially in a situation where people have chosen a career which grants of power over others – will abuse that power. Insisting that since something you write isn’t a REAL historical event, even if it mirrors centuries of similar events in real history, thus the choise to include threat of rape is “real world fallacy” is… well. Not buying it. Is it a story you want to tell? Is it a story you can tell well? Those are different questions and depend on the audiencence of the story.

        • SunlessNick

          The point about #3 is that “realism” tends to be very selectively sought after, and the people who demand rape be prevalent for the sake of realism are almost always happy to gloss over plenty of other historical inaccuracies (such as it happening to men too).

  32. AV

    If an author is going to play the “historic reality” card, or the “rape happens during war” a la George Martin, they’d better be prepared to show BOTH men & women / all sorts of people being raped, not JUST women.
    Because guess What? Researching history, you will discover men get raped as much, if not more, than women during war.
    Cause It’s not about sex, It’s about power & control & dominance.
    See, The Rape of James Bond for further details.

    • guest

      basically this. I’ve had several times where the author’s/creator’s insistence on depicting sexual violence against women – even when including those scenes was blatantly derailing/delaying the core plot in a few cases – ended up destroying my suspension of disbelief because “….oh right: all this and not one single man, ever, anywhere, in all this hell on earth ‘gritty realism’ was ever subjected to equivalent violence/torture? Bull.”
      and then I got angry that it was covering up a very, very serious real life issue that absolutely needs more recognition; and/or started wondering just WTF the author’s hangup was with sexual / sexualized violence against women. because again: if the intent was ‘realism’ there were obvious situations where men should have suffered similarly but somehow THAT never happened.

      • guest

        oh, and I should have added: if the justification for repeatedly including sexual violence on a large scale is “realism” then sexual violence against men should be dealt with in similar detail. I’m not buying it if the scenes of sexual violence against women invariably get a paragraph of graphic detail, whereas anything similar happening to men is only ever alluded to obliquely, off-screen.
        (again: obviously, this is a matter of scale, one work that has limited narrative scope is a separate matter. but the large-scale inclusion of sexual violence that shows a glaring double-standard is common enough to have REALLY started to piss me off for so. many. reasons)

  33. Pan Tograf

    If this article proves anything, it is that rape is not easily replaced as a storytelling device. Presented alternatives are either vague and/or “smaller caliber”. My players won’t be fazed by divided loyalties, poverty or armed conflict. They will however shudder when confronted with rape, even if it’s only hinted at or happens off-screen, just as any sane person would. Which brings me to another thing: I don’t belive in “normalization”. If narrative art can provoke what it depicts, then all narrative art should be banned because narrative art depicts NOTHING BUT conflict and violence. Luckily sane human beings don’t work that way, no one goes gunning people down after reading Sharpe novels.

    • Cay Reet

      Yet, a lot more people (mostly men) seem to think that sexual harrassment is acceptable and ‘rape jokes’ are a very common thing these days. There’s no iron-clad way to prove that the regular depiction of rape is a reason for that, but it’s safe to say that depictions, sometimes very graphic, both in pictures and words, have become much more common.

      As to ‘nothing brings a shiver to my players the way rape does (even when it’s off-screen)’: Try brutal, uncommon forms of murder (read up on serial killers, they’re usually more ‘inventive’ when it comes to killing) and you will get the same reaction. The question is also, why do you need rape to motivate your players to act? There are any number of more personal reasons, from gain to revenge, which will accomplish the same, if you’re a good storyteller.

    • Rose

      ” My players won’t be fazed by divided loyalties, poverty or armed conflict. They will however shudder when confronted with rape, even if it’s only hinted at or happens off-screen, just as any sane person would.”

      Players? I sure hope they are all male.
      I have never seen rape handled well in a pen&paper roleplaying game. Never. Even the one time where a woman handled the game, she wasn’t able to stop male players from making female players uncomfortable after introducing an opportunity for sexual harrassment. Just an opportunity, that the male players did not need to take! (But did. And we are not talking teens here. They were in their early twenties or older.)

      It could be handled well in an all female group who decided they want to kick some rapist ass for catharsis, but if you are male want to use it for cheap thrills … don’t. Just don’t.

      (And don’t fool yourself into believing that anyone who doesn’t complain is fine with it. I didn’t complain to the guy who sprung rape on me in a game … because he was twice my weight and I was not quite sure what is views on physical violence against women were after he so blithely disregarded my psychological comfort.)

  34. Kate

    I’m not sure why brutal forms of murder like serial killer murders are somehow less problematic than rape; both are extremely disturbing, and murder even more so. Although I agree that rape narratives have too often been used as a lazy storytelling device rather than being given the serious treatment they deserve, it is just as nonsensical to say that rape should never (or almost never) be depicted, or to single out rape in such a way. I tend to agree with Rakka and Pan’s comments.

    Rape is an aspect of human history and human nature (one of the most monstrous aspects). Pretending it doesn’t exist, as some of the points in the article would seem to argue for, does a disservice to both art (in the form of censorship) and to people who consume art who want the worlds they read about to feel as authentic as possible. It’s one thing to want rape to be dealt with in a more sensitive way, or with more emotional depth, and quite another to start saying “you need to replace your rape narrative with this, that, or the other no matter what” – which seems to be the tone the article is taking.

    • Cay Reet

      First of all, authors (male ones more so than female ones, but female ones, too) recognize the traumatic aspect of brutal murders much more clearly. They pay more attention to the murder and find much better reasons to include it. Rape is often just part of the background story (she was raped, so she’s badass now, or she was raped, so her boyfriend/husband is now avenging her). The horrors of a brutal murder are acknowledged, the horrors of rape often are not. Even though there’s absolutes here, what is most important about the article is not to use rape as a lazy trope to make characters badass or give them motivation. If you depict it well and respectfully when it comes to the victim and if it serves an important function in your story, you can use it. It has been used too often and too lightly for a while now, hence this article.

      Rape is an aspect of human history and nature, yes, but it is not an aspect which should just be thrown in to titillate people. That rape is more likely to happen to women (and male rape victim have to fear being ridiculed in addition to all the other aspects they face) makes it a worse topic, because it’s often not taken as seriously as it should be (unlike the murder, which happens to men as well and about as often). With many producers of TV series or movies it seems as if they say ‘throw in a rape or two, so we get to show sex and we can shock the audience’ and that’s not a way to use rape in the narrative (GoT not only used the rape scenes from the books, but turned several scenes of consentual sex into rape scenes, for instance). If nobody speaks out against this trend (and it has been a trend for a while), it will continue, doing a huge disservice to people in real life. That’s what this article is for – to remind you to use the tool carefully and sparingly and be aware of its gravity and power.

  35. Bubbles

    I’m not even totally sure why I keep coming back here… I think that there’s still a difference between using something solely or mostly for titillation/treating it lightly and having the whole story not necessarily focus on it.The latter aspect of the original article (that the whole story needs to focus specifically on sexual assault if it is included at all) is what bothers me the most and seems most like censorship. Rakka above is the most recent person to have some very good points above. What I would add is that if you use a historical/realism justification, particularly with such serious topics, then absolutely *everything* in the story must be as realistic as possible (and what I mean is that even if it is, for instance, fantasy with magic, everything must still follow logically from the setting details). The authors on this blog have frequently pointed out double standards with regards to what is often included under the guise of “realism” and what is not, and I believe we need to avoid this inconsistency.

    I also have a lot of questions on how what the article suggests could even be done in practice. What counts as focusing specifically on one thing, given that complex narratives have multiple elements? Also, what is a single work? If it’s a series, does the whole series have to focus on the topic? If it’s a collaborative work of fiction, does every writer or every piece in the collaboration have to focus on the topic? A real example is the SCP Foundation, in which rape does occasionally come up, but it’s not the focus of the whole body of work. With that said, I believe that it is treated extremely seriously and there are guidelines (I’m not sure whether they’re outright written down or not, but I think they do exist in some form) that it needs to be used rarely and not just thrown in. Is this still problematic?

    • Bubbles

      Sorry, this was meant to be a reply to Cay Reet’s comment above. I accidentally posted it in the wrong place.

    • Cay Reet

      Treating it seriously is already a good thing and so is not to throw it in, because you have no better idea.

      I don’t think a whole novel has to be about rape and rape alone, but the way it is used in many stories (not just written) has basically degraded the horrible deed of rape to a quick fix for if you think you story needs more drama and/or sex (brutal murder seems to be rarer than that in recent years). It should be important for the narrative if you bring up that a character (or person close to them) has been raped. It should not just be a background for a character to explain why she is badass or he has travelled from the other end of the continent.

      As far as realism goes, there will always a point where people make a cut to how realistic everything has to be and I might even be prepared to give an author like G.R.R. Martin, who also has a lot of serious deaths in his books, leeway when it comes to frequent use of rape. For him, clearly both murder and rape are part of his idea of how the middle ages were and he incorporates both. Whether that’s realistic is another question, but none of us was present during the middle ages…

      Yet, realism is often bandied about just as an excuse for not using diverse characters and for making light of topics like rape. ‘I’m being realistic and because of that I need to put this rape scene in here, it has nothing to do with selling through sex or with not having another idea for motivating my lead.’ It should be noted in that aspect that rape (especially of people who were not enslaved or imprisoned for other reasons) usually had ramfications for the rapist – from fines to upright being murdered by the relatives of the victim. Rape in marriage was, unfortunately, legal in most parts, but is relatively rare in fiction (yes, there are cases in GoT).

      • justalonestranger

        Agreed. Amen, sister (or brother, I can’t tell for sure. Sorry if I’m wrong:).
        As for the diverse characters in historical films, my thoughts are mixed but a general “undecided.” I’d say as long as it fits with the story and doesn’t take away from the character, ok. That’s why I appreciate it when recent biblical films (or miniseries) casts ethnically fitting people in the appropriate roles. Even though I’m indifferent either way when it comes to “whitewashing,” caucassion actors make it difficult for modern audiences to appreciate the movie and its story when it has been whitewashed. So if casting ethnically fitting actors is will help people- and me- invest even more in the story, go ahead.

        • Cay Reet

          My name (which is also my pen name) is abiguous by design. It’s sister, if you wish to know.

          The problem with ‘my film can’t have any PoC, because the European Middle Ages were all white, and it can’t have any woman in an important position, because the Middle Ages were all white men’ is that it’s actually not historically true. There have been Poc in Europe since the time of the Romans and that never changed during all of the Middle Ages. They were never the majority, but they were there and a dark-skinned person or two would fit perfectly fine with the narrative. There also were women in power (sometimes even WoC like Theophanu, who ruled the Holy German Empire for a while after her husband had died and was from the Byzanthine Empire herself), even if they never were a majority.

          Diversity is a question of the setting. It’s unlikely a Norse village will have a lot of PoC in it, but a group of Norsemen can include women (female warriors among the Viking are scientifically proven), people with disabilities (injuries which cost people a limb or an eye were common), or people who were more into their own sex than that of someone else (homosexuality was present in our species since before we became that species). Not all hero groups have to be filled with only straight, white men.

    • justalonestranger

      Agreed, Bubbles. Strongly agreed, actually. While rape should be taken seriously and not lightly, I really don’t think the answer is to remove it entirely. I agree- don’t include it unless it’s absolutely necessary, and even so tread carefully- but the way to solve an issue is not to avoid it. Imagine if people never wrote about racism, slavery, murder, terrorism, or religion because those are (or can be) upsetting topics. If the rape is treated with tact and is absolutely necessary to the story, then the end result might make victims feel better and empower them.

  36. Kathy Ferguson

    This is an excellent article. Thank you.

  37. Dernhelm

    I want to say thank you for writing this article.

  38. Maria

    Articles like this are why I have so much respect for you all at Mythcreants. I wish every storyteller on earth would read this one in particular. So many works have been ruined for me, and I’m sure many others, by needlessly including rape. Sansa was one in particular, especially paired with the explanation it made the story “more realistic.” Thank you for clearly explaining why that’s just bologna. Outlander was another one. I got to maybe the third episode of the show before I called it quits purely because I did not want to see another woman be raped, almost raped, or threatened with rape. Fantasy is my favorite genre, but it will be even better if writers take your advice and stop adding rape for no justifiable reason.

  39. justalonestranger

    I understand the dilemma. I am working with my writer’s group- one member especially who is very sensitive to rape- to avoid similar mistakes in my project. I respect your opinion.
    However, I respectfully disagree. I agree that rape should not be used lightly in writing (i.e.: he robbed banks, he jaywalked, he raped people, he shoplifted…), but I do not think we should avoid it altogether. If writers avoided (or even avoided mentioning) every subject that made people uncomfortable (racism, slavery, murder, religion, terrorism, etc.), there would be nothing good written out there. It sounds like dismissing the victim’s feelings, but quite the opposite actually. In the red Sonya example you used, I feel like the message is that as terrible as her rape was, she did not let it define who she is. For victims, if they identify with her, it’s a good message to them that they can overcome tragedies of their past. In the “Rape is an Act Too Far” bit, I agree that by-and-large it should be avoided unless it is pivotal to the character/theme. You mentioned that it creates sympathy for the rapist instead of the victim. True and I understand that , but A) there is nothing saying you cannot equally focus on both for people who can identify with having done something so wrong you believe you are hopeless, it is a good message that no matter what you’ve done, everyone has a chance for redemption. They don’t have to let any mistake, no matter how terrible, define who they are C) Just because they are redeemed does not mean they get a get out of jail free card. They may still have to face the consequences of what they have done. Overall, I agree that we should limit and sensitively supervise the use of rape in storytelling ( I pretty much agree on points 3-6), but I don’t feel the best course of action is to pretend it doesn’t exist.
    Even if I disagree, we agree on the same thing: we want these people (victims) to be empowered and not feel enslaved to their past experience (which in your article’s case means that they should not be constantly reminded of it, and I my case means they should now they can rise above it like an athlete recovering from a severe injury).
    Anyway, happy writing!

    • Dernhelm

      The big problem with rape backstories for “Strong Female Characters” is that it still perpetuates that rape will change who you are, and often implies that the victim would have lived happy normal lives if not for the trauma and only became fighters because they had been “damaged goods” unable to live a normal life.

      This is a big problem because so many rape victims are still disbelieved by society today exactly because they behaved too “normal”, and things like the victim going back to work or initially putting up a happy face towards the people around them are held up as evidence that they couldn’t have been raped, because they didn’t act “damaged” or upset enough, and stories where a female warrior who becomes a warrior because a rape backstory only helps perpetuate that myth.

      This trope also carries the really troubling implication of rape making the victim stronger, and that the perpetrator in a twisted way “helped” them become fighters.

      And then there’s the problem with the trope being used specifically on “strong” women in a typically male domain, where it basically sends the message that women can’t be naturally drawn to war or adventure without some trauma changing them. Because if the prevalence of this trope was all about helping survivors feel better, why is it so damn rare to see women in fiction undergo this trauma and successfully be able to return to their own life they had before? Centuries ago, rape victims were obliged to kill themselves to save their honor, and whilst seemingly progressive on the surface, the “rape made her a warrior” trope feels a lot like asking the victim to symbolically kill the person they were before their trauma by remodeling their life and personality from it.

      Also, the “we shouldn’t pretend rape doesn’t exist or ban people from talking about it” is a strawman so big that the director of The Wickerman called to ask for his film prop back.

  40. Jeppsson

    Re women with tragic backstories that aren’t rape: Main character Laurène of French police drama Blackspot (Zone Blanche) was the victim of a traumatizing crime twenty years before the start of the show.

    Someone (whom she never got a good look on) kidnapped her and dragged her far out into the woods, where her left hand was shackled to a cliff side. She ended up sitting there for days. Every day the mysterious kidnapper would toss a can of baked beans or the like to her (while remaining hidden). After a few days, she escaped by amputating her pinkie and ring finger on the shackled hand with a make-shift knife she created out of one of the cans, enabling her to pull out the hand, and then run back to civilisation.

    This is really traumatic but also VERY MYSTERIOUS. It’s like a background mystery throughout the show, while Laurène solves individual cases. And it really sets her and the show apart from many other heroines with tragic backstories.

    • Cay Reet

      Sounds like a very good tragic backstory.

      It might have been enough to dislocate her thumb, though. Human hands don’t fit through cuffs, because the thumb sticks out at the side. Dislocate it and you can pull a hand through a cuff.

  41. Amanda

    I am a rape survivor I was a small child the first time and preteen the other times. I can talk about rape all I want.
    I disagree. I’m writing a torture/rape scene in my book a few actually.
    Each one has a purpose just like the love scenes. You said murder can have the same shock value well what if I don’t want to kill off my main character?
    This event is a turning point for her character. She describes it as a death and her recovery is important to the story. It was healing to write this and a form of therapy. No one has a right to tell another survivor how to feel about her rape.
    There are a lot of bad things that happen to my time traveling character. She has to assume someone else’s Identity. She puts herself in dangerous situations because she is not careful and feels like she’s invincible. Even after suffering beatings, 18th century punishment. Because of her skills and ability to fight she plays the role of the huntress. Until this happens. It changes everything and those changes stop her from doing something that could get her killed later.
    Facts in the past women were property. To eliminate this fact really whitewashes what my ancestors went through. Like the witch trials and other dark parts of our history. Rape was more common place than it is now. It’s fact. And women had those babies and were shunned by society.
    If rape makes people uncomfortable it should. That’s the point.

    • Amanda

      Adding to my comment one of the reasons he finally rapes her is because he was in love with her and her “double” was in love with him. So as a jilted lover he does this deed. But it’s not as effective as he hoped since he’s not well endowed and she is so angry that adrenaline takes over. How she handles it is also nothing I’ve seen. So I want to show an old trope in a new light.

      • Bubbles

        I believe (although maybe I’m misremembering) that it was mentioned somewhere here that the advice in the article was largely for people who aren’t survivors themselves, which fits in with the advice given elsewhere on this blog about generally not using other people’s personal trauma (at least unless you’re a very good writer who has respect and does a lot of research, which can be hard to judge personally), as it can be easy for people who haven’t experienced something to get it wrong, which can be particularly hurtful. To be clear, I don’t necessarily support absolutely everything in the article, and I don’t know what you would think of this – this was just something I remembered someone here saying in the comments section.

      • Dernhelm

        First and foremost, NO ONE here has said survivors don’t have the right to talk about their experiences or draw from them when writing fiction, the article was specifically about people who’ve never experienced sexual abuse, or been legitimately afraid that they’d fall victim to it, adding in a gratuitous rape scene just for the sake of it, people like the ones Seannan McGuire writes about in her post here:

        Also, not all women in the past were property, and it would be massively dishonest to pretend that a powerful noblewoman would have no more protections than a serf or slave, and the prevalence of rape in other eras and cultures have repeatedly been used as a way to silence modern women from calling out their abuse; arguments like “be glad you don’t live in the middle ages/middle east/somewhere worse”, and paint rape and abuse as things of the past. Not to mention that this view of history erases the strong women who managed to become powerful in spite of the patriarchal society around them, and rape has been seen as a serious crime in most cultures for nearly all of history.
        I’d recommend reading this by another survivor:

        Finally, you act as if the only reason people are uncomfortable with it is because they want to pretend it doesn’t exist, it’s because to a great deal of people it’s all too real, and while it may be therapeutic for some survivors, for the vast majority it could trigger PTSD and anxiety attacks to randomly come across a depiction of rape when they aren’t prepared for it. Why do you think it’s so common for men to resort to graphic threats of rape when they want to silence a woman and make her leave the forum?

        Rapists want society to think rape is normal, they want society to think it’s a natural conclusion of male frustration, they want people to believe it’s a result of the victim being too careless and they want the world to believe that this is how it’s always been and always will be.

        How could we ever build a society that respects women’s right to their own boundaries if we can’t even respect a woman’s right not to be forced to see depictions of rape when she doesn’t want to? I respect your wish to write about the subject to heal yourself and for others to read as far as you can respect the right of me and countless others to avoid gratuitous depictions of it for the sake of our mental health.

  42. Andrew

    Thank you for that. It’s incredibly disrespectful (and somewhat disgusting) when someone comes out with the attitude/perspective that men can’t be raped by either gender.

    I think my only complaint about this article is that it comes across as having the attitude of “if your story is not specifically about sexual assault, find something else to use.” (I repeat – It comes across as this, not that this was the intention).

    There’s a line between writing that normalises sexual assault and making it seem like something that’s not that big a deal, and writing which attempts to treat it with the gravitas the subject deserves while also admitting it happens/could happen a lot more often than it should. And the way this article is written makes it sound like the author doesn’t believe in that line or doesn’t want it in fiction.

    1, 3 and 6 are all situations where the concept of sexual assault and rape might just be real things. Now I know the counter-argument is to rewrite the world so this isn’t a factor, but that brings up an even bigger problem; namely, pushing rape into the shadows and pretending it doesn’t happen unless the story is entirely about the topic.

    Let me take it away from rape and bring up abusive relationships (not a difficult logical leap). Fiction can have scenes where abusive relationships are a known thing and show the different ways characters react to the situation. This doesn’t mean that the fiction is normalising it. This isn’t saying “abusive relationships are okay,” it’s bringing the subject into the light so that it can be thought about and talked about.

    Because in reply to trope 3, I could ask why the author wants to trivialise drugs and addiction in the “how to avoid this trope” section considering just how much of a life-impacting/destroying thing they can be.

    I’m in no way looking to combative here. But I think the article went from past the “If you’re going to use rape then treat it with the respect and personal horror it deserves” attitude and straight into the “don’t use rape at all because doing so means you’re not respecting it.”

    • Dernhelm

      “I think my only complaint about this article is that it comes across as having the attitude of “if your story is not specifically about sexual assault, find something else to use.” (I repeat – It comes across as this, not that this was the intention).”

      I think you can draw a parallell between discouraging the use of rape as a plot device in stories not focused on it as a theme and the fact that Holocaust dramas are treated as a largely separate genre from other WW2 films; it’s a subject matter so painful and heavy that it wold be greatly distracting from the rest of the plot in many regular war movies, and it would be straight up distasteful to include graphic scenes of entire families including children being murdered in a light-hearted adventure movie like Indiana Jones or Captain America, and thus most story writers tend to avoid the holocaust or keep it in brief mentions in films that aren’t directly focused on the subject. And as for the films that do handle the subject, most wold agree that it’s hard to watch and most viewers will only want to watch it when they are mentally prepared to deal with something as tragic and terrifying.

      And for a lot of women, stories about rape is a lot similar to holocaust stories in the sense that they can leave you feeling bad and terrified for days if it’s bad and they don’t want to watch it if they aren’t certain the subject is treated with respect. Lots of women have experienced sexual abuse, but even more have spent nearly their entire lives being taught to be afraid of rape, and to be constantly vigilant least they end up as yet another headline in the news of yet another woman raped and abused, and this vigilance isn’t something you can magically turn off just because you’re reading or watching something, and for this reason being allowed to have an escape and be able to freely take part in stories knowing wanton depictions of your worst fear isn’t on the table is so important.

      For me, Unconsenting Media has been a life-saver to be able to look up media beforehand, but the statistics on their homepage paint a sad picture when (as of writing) less than half of all films and less than a third of all TV series doesn’t feature sexual assault in some form:

      As for normalization, a big problem is that even if much media doesn’t depict rape as good, it does depict it as something normal and inevitable, and I find it frightening how many of the arguments used to defend depictions of rape are so similar to those belittling real-life sexual violence, here are just a few examples I’ve seen in comment fields and discussions of media with rape in it;

      “This is how people act in war”
      “Of course they’d want to do that to a woman at their mercy”
      “Well, these things happen, it’s how the world is”
      “It would be ridiculous to not expect something like that happen”
      “She chose to get into an unsafe situation, what did you expect?”
      “That’s what happens to women in war/travelling alone/trusting strangers”
      “Rape is always going to be a part of human behavior”
      “Women need to learn that this is what happens in the real world and they shouldn’t think they are safe”
      “I don’t think it was rape, she chose not to fight back”
      (and this is just a few examples)
      This is also why I think all this talk of “pushing rape into the shadows” by not including it in fictional stories is a pretty bad argument, because you so often see insecure men push for it’s inclusion in stories, not because they want to see an empathetic depiction of trauma, but as a way for women to “know their place” and not being able to enjoy fantasy and adventure stories like men do without the constant reminder that they face risks men doesn’t, even in their fantasies and entertainment. Of course men face rape in war and lawless places too, but I’ve yet to see anyone demanding Nathan Drake get assaulted for the sake of realism (if anything, it’d be considered offensive to do it to a beloved male character and make male fans uncomfortable), meanwhile Lara Croft faced the threat of sexual assault in the reboot (albeit toned down in the finished game) and it was deemed a logical step for her character, despite Lara being famous for being able to kill full on dinosaurs in the previous games. I strongly recommend reading this article and it’s comments:

      Lastly, I want to share to everyone here a scientific study I found showing connections between seeing sexualized violence in films and being more accepting of real-life violence against women, and if this isn’t definite proof of why the subject needs to be handle with great care and empathy, I don’t know what is:
      Malamuth and Check, 1981.

  43. r0bin

    Hi ho. Gonna give some thoughts, particularly regarding point #3 and #6. I’m not trying to needlessly be inconsiderate or offensive. Aenglish is not my first language and I wrote all of this on my phone, so probably lots of grammar/spelling mistakes.

    #3 I agree that using “historical accuracy” as the main, or only argument, to have sexual assault in a fictional story is dishonest if they disregard accuracy in other context. But on the example of not having characters throwing out their chamber pots it is pretty much a standard trope of any story that characters don’t visit the bathroom. You don’t write modern stories of people visiting the bathroom every day either and so I don’t think this point strengthens any argument that omitting them makes something less historically accurate. I would assume fiction at the time also didn’t write about throwing out their chamber pots.

    “A storyteller that defends the sexual violence in their setting with the real-world fallacy…”. I tried to google the fallacy but I didn’t really find anything related to fiction writing. Is this your own defined fallacy? If so how are they defending their work by using YOUR fallacy unless they specifically visits your site? You can obviously use a fallacy without knowing about it, strawman, for instance, but you specifically say that they are defending their work by USING the fallacy. I tried reading your definition, but I am still not quite sure exactly what you mean. What is it that makes writing sexist lycanthropy biology or badly written villains a “fallacy”?

    You end that section by saying “Our audience will expect a story that’s more novel, just, and exciting than their daily lives.” Who is “our audience?” I don’t agree that any of those three have to be correct. GoT, as you mention in this article rarely cares about being “just”. I am also sure that plenty have read stories that they like because they are NOT trying to be more novel and exiting than everyday life. I kinda get what you are saying, but I sometimes love stories that are just about everyday people doing everyday things without needing to be this larger than life thing.

    Now for some of the things that actually related to the main topic of the article. “Putting rape in a story to make the world gritty, and defending that practice as the only realistic choice, communicates that rape is an inevitable part of human existence” and your solution is to focus on other forms of drama, such as “Drugs. Violence. Poverty. Illness” Doesn’t that do the exact same thing to any of those mentioned problem? You can remove rape from the first quote and input any of your other suggestion and have the exact same criticism. And GoT as you mention, pretty much have all of the drama that you mention as alternatives, plenty of violence, drugs poverty etc. Why is rape special so that all alternatives are better and it is a fallacy If it includes rape as well?

    An unfortunate reality is that all of these things actually seem to be.. well I don’t agree that we can make the leap to “human existence” but at least to pretty much all thought history INCLUDING today. An author doesn’t have to imagine some gritty medieval world for sexual assault, drugs or violence to be something that affects a significant part of the society, as that is what is still going on today.

    “Is it possible for omitting sexual assault to feel like erasure of the crimes in history? It’s possible, but only for specific historical events, not fictional scenarios.” What if the fiction is set during an historical period, like The Nightingale, for instance? I don’t think this has sexual assault but just as an exampl of a fictional scenario in an historical time period.

    #6 I am probably biased because I do like Brandon Sanderson’s books. Mistborn series is probably my least favorite, however (but for other reasons than those mentioned in the article).

    “Welcome to the most pointless rape trope of all – wherein storytellers use rape to explain something that doesn’t need explaining. Nobles being forbidden by the Emperor is sufficient explanation for why Vin is one of only a few skaa with powers, the rape murder is excessive.” Does it need an explanation or not?

    The author could just say that Vin has powers without any explanation, or that she was secretly of noble birth from both parents. The story doesn’t need to explain anything but I sure hope it still does. Which fact is it that doesn’t need explaining? If the emperor fears skaa interbreeding why wouldn’t he kill them? It is not like he or the nobles are painted as being the good guys seeing as they kill skaa indiscriminately for being a slight inconvenience. I assume it is to make them be extra villainous, so yes, it is just a plot point used for dramatic effect, but so is the violence and murder that doesn’t include rape. I didn’t feel like Brandon was trying to paint either as being moral, instead clearly very immoral.

    “pointless rape trope of all – wherein storytellers use rape to explain something that doesn’t need explaining” I would assume that it is always pointless to explain things that doesn’t need explaining.

    “Sanderson could also have established that nobles use some kind of contraceptive or hire infertile sex workers”. Is this any better? Skaa are slaves that the nobles sees as sub-human who can be killed for sport. Your suggestion seem contradictory to your point unless being a sex worker in this world as a skaa would still not pretty much be rape. I don’t disagree with the suggestion though, just seemed like an odd point given the context. Actually, to give more credit to your point, Brandon could have established that all sex workers have been castrated as an alternative method to prevent interbreeding. But that doesn’t really make it any less dark than it already is, if levity is what you are going for by removing the rape murder.

    “If you think consensual sex seems unlikely in a particular case, just don’t mention how it happened” Does this really make it any better?

    “That’s because part of taking this issue seriously is being respectful to survivors.” Agree, but why not the same for previously mentioned issues like poverty/drugs/violence/sickness? I assume you don’t mean that these issues are not important, but when all of these are seen as ok alternatives to rape that doesn’t need any consideration to be included in the story, even if these also have massive consequences for real people who may also be suffering from, for instance, physical abuse or ptsd from war or deaths caused by substance abuse or illness.

    I agree with most other points though, and do agree that rape is usually handled with little care and only serves as a quick way for “character” development. However, saying that it pretty much is off limit, even if it is clearly not meant to be glorified while all other ways for drama is A ok.

    Plenty of stories are just there to enjoy your suffering, however (so it would seem anyway).
    “rape murder is excessive” But excessive in what way? Kinda feels like rape is put on this no-go pedistol because it is just extra depressing to read about (again “If you think consensual sex seems unlikely in a particular case, just don’t mention how it happened”) so in this case, is rape warranted but giving details are not?

    I read a story not too long ago called The Cry of the Mer, this one doesn’t mention anything regarding sexual abuse, yet it is probably the most depressing (fictional) story I have ever read, because it was pretty clear the author just loves to make her audience suffer in depravity. The point? That I would assume some authors use rape for no other reason than that. You could use violence, or drugs or w/e but why is one ok and the other is not? (As long as you are not saying/hinting that rape and abuse is actually ok, which some stories, (Twilight/Fifty Shades of Grey) actually do).

    • Cay Reet

      To answer the question of ‘why not to use rape’, there’s two answers to that.

      1.) in current years, rape has been overused in storytelling. TV shows and movies use it to titillate (you get naked people on screen and you get sex, even if it is non-consenting), a lot of books seem to think rape or the threat of rape is a shortcut to dark and gritty settings. When a trope gets overused, it’s a good idea to drop it for a while, because it loses power and meaning.

      2.) unlike murder, drug abuse, or general violence, rape is a very gendered crime. While there are men who get raped (and it’s just as bad for them – even worse in some ways, because they get ridiculed by society for it quite often), the overwhelming majority of all rape victims is female. It’s a crime most often committed on women by men. This makes it a more difficult topic than other severe sources of trauma, especially when used by male writers for the reasons listed in 1.).

    • A Perspiring Writer

      And there’s actually another article on Mythcreants to help answer some of the other questions you have (relating to why subjects like murder are considered appropriate for most stories but rape isn’t): Why Some Dark Topics Are More Sensitive Than Others.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Thanks for pointing that out, Perspiring. Here’s the article in case anyone is curious:

        • r0bin

          So I have had a few more days to think of this issue and have come to this opinion (currently anyway). When the author includes rape without necessarily considering or knowing any of the points made in this article, they probably found that it made their story ‘better’ in creating the world in-line with their vision. As many of these stories that are referenced are pretty darn popular, a pretty big audience either doesn’t mind the inclusion or at least does not find it a dealbreaker (by having similar thoughts to that of the author, perhaps). This in itself does not necessarily defend it, but complaining about some tropes can be done because the audience, in general, doesn’t actually like them, while other complaints can be done to tropes just because they are overused.

          The way I can come to agree against relying on rape as character development/worldbuilding is due to what Cay pointed out above, that it mostly is a gendered issue and usually any argument/counter-argument kinda assumes you are talking about male->female rape. I have read a few stories that deal with pretty long torture/abuse scenes (non-sexual) such as Wheel of Time, Sword of Truth, and Red Rising towards MALE characters. If those scenes would have extended with male rape/castration, would a male audience ‘enjoy’ that inclusion or would they be disturbed by it to the point that they’d prefer if it was left out, even if having no problems with flogging/beating/bone-breaking/nail-pulling, etc? If having a preference for omitting those scenes, it might be about extending the same courtesy to a female readership. (This assumes it is a very gendered argument, but I don’t think that is a stretch to be made). This only considers what is ‘enjoyable’ for both/all genders, and not necessarily about any real-world implications, but this is probably how I would argue the point anyway.

          About GoT specifically, that has a male character being castrated, at least. Perhaps odd to say this makes it ‘better’ but it did not seem to stop the author from writing it even if a male audience may be particularly disturbed by it :-).

          • Dernhelm

            While I agree that many male readers find castration unpleasant to read about, it’s not really a real world fear on par with rape. Very few men today has been castrated or legitematly feared they would be, but according to RAINN, about 1 of 6 women have faced sexual assault, and nearly all women are taught to fear it as a real risk that can happen to them. Meanwhile, Martin has consistently avoided any scenes of men being violently raped (despite many of his male characters would face that risk if he was consistent with his own logic regarding female characters).

            I also question the inclusion of a smiley in such a serious and painful topic.

            I’ve already written a lot of comments detailing the risks of perpetuating harmful stereotypes with these tropes above, but just how many people still fail to understand it even after all the explanations always remains disheartening. I personally would strongly suggest that all guys thinking of commenting further here ought to read all comments and replies before posting a comment, as well as reading this essay by a male author on what changed his outlook on how he wrote scenes of sexual abuse;

  44. Kittikat

    This article makes it sound as if it was condemnable to use sexual assault as a plot device and as if it was only appropriate if it’s in focus.

    This is ridiculous. While I agree that many of the tropes you mentioned are overused and the examples you mention are subpar, it always depends on _how_ it is used.

    Take #3 for instance. In a gritty world rape is l actually a pretty realistic threat. After all, there are many places in real life where it is not advisable to travel alone due to threats of sexual assaults. Of course, there is a problem when authors portray rape in a fetishey way and include rape only for the sake of including rape. But this is a different issue.

    • Cay Reet

      No story is realistic in and of itself, all take their liberties with real-world settings. As far as gritty worlds go: the threat of rape might be there, but so is the threat of violence, which is not a gendered threat. Violence can happen to a female and a male character equally.

      Using a gendered threat like rape should be considered very carefully. It’s rarely done well and more often than not comes across as ‘I want naked bodies in my story’ or ‘I can’t think of anything else to convey my grimdark setting, so here’s this woman getting horribly raped, so the hero has some motivation later on.’

  45. Violet

    You know what my BIGGEST problem was with the Brandon Sanderson thing?

    Just do anal! Do people not move bowels in Mistborn? One of the characters enjoy raping just because he loves that the woman will die soon after but it’s like… It could have been done so so much better. People defend it saying “But mistborn might overthrow the king if they exist”
    And yet he lets nobles have as many mistborn with other nobles as they want? My dude. Nobles can, will, and HAVE betrayed you already. Killing is over the top and, also, there is no payoff. It isn’t ‘necessary’ to the plot! If you take it out, literally everything stays the same! And you’d THINK, in a thousand years of rule, someone who just wants to sleep with a Skaa would invent the condom. Thank you for this piece, fans of Mistborn literally NEVER bring up the rape and I was beginning to think I read the wrong book.

  46. SunlessNick

    While this version of Red Sonja is pretty old now, it’s not so different from Sansa’s arc in the Game of Thrones TV show.

    It is however very different from Robert E Howard’s original Red Sonya. Because Howard could manage fine without rapey backstories.

    For many alienated fans, this felt like an endorsement of his rape attempt. Instead of strengthening the romance, the attempted rape tainted it.

    On the fan site I was on when this happened, I don’t remember a single person who changed their mind about Spike because of the attempted rape. Everyone who wasn’t already on board with him being evil just decided Buffy deserved it and were hoping the next season would be about *her* making it up to *him.* So using rape as a “crime too far” isn’t just gross, you can’t even count on it being accepted as such by an audience who like the rapist character.

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