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
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
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
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
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
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
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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