The Damage of Rape in Literature

Rape has been talked about a lot lately, and it’s slowly fading from the front page of every news source. I know a lot of you are tired of the topic and I wish I could move on, but I can’t because I’ve long had strong views on how rape is used in stories. Or to be more accurate, the lack of impact it has on so many stories after it’s happened to one or more characters in the book.

Let me back up. I think the first time I read a rape scene was in Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Price. Now, I think it’s overall great book, and I have so much respect for her as an author (I own something like 30 of her books and have read another 15), but I never liked the way it was done or felt that it was consistent with the story* in Magic’s Price. In large part because I felt that the main character was raped near the end of the book to show 1) How evil the bad guys were, and 2) How much the hero had to overcome to defeat the evil. What I didn’t see was the enough enough time spent of the horrible things rape does to its victims.

Since reading Magic’s Price I’ve read a lot of books with rape in them. Over time I noticed that rape was often used as a cheap plot device. Need something horrible an unspeakable to happen to a character? Rape, sodomy, torture – to the page!

What I almost never saw in these books were scenes where the rape survivor had any lingering effects from the rape. In fact in one book the main character was brutally raped and then went about her life the next day like nothing had happened. I never read other book by that author. If she couldn’t give something as serious as rape the page time it deserved it shouldn’t have been in the book.

Off-hand I can only name three authors (I think?) who have given any attention to what happens after the rape. One of these authors wrote a character that not only suffered depression and isolation immediately after, but later experienced flashbacks, trouble being touched, and trouble being intimate after the rape. These issues cropped up from time to time in subsequent books. That seems a lot more realistic than getting up the next day and saving the world.

Rape, sodomy, torture, or anything related should not be used lightly in literature. Books are often an escape for people; some of which have survived those very experiences. Before any author writes rape into a book they need to really think about what they’re doing. That character must deal with that incident for the rest of its life. Anything less is doing a disservice to the people who have survived rape and trivializing a horrible life-altering experience that never goes away. And that’s true if it happens to the character on the page, off the page, or in their “tragic past.”

If what I just said isn’t enough of a reason to really think about using rape, sodomy, or torture casually, let me give you a couple more. Books communicate knowledge and morals. Even books intended for adults end up being read by children, small people still developing their moral center. Reading is a way they learn, and they need to learn that rape isn’t trivial. It’s a giant, horrible, terrible thing that destroys lives.

As an author, having a character that bounces back from rape or any other horrible thing like it never happened indicates that you made the wrong choice. To me, someone who is both an author and a reader, it feels like you needed some type of action that would thrill the reader and fill pages but not impact the rest of the story. Rape was the wrong choice. Any type of sexual assault is the wrong choice.

I want to see changes in the way rape, sodomy, and torture are handled in books. While the hero of any story is often asked to do the extraordinary, that shouldn’t include a truly unbelievable recovery from one of those things. A hero is often the character the readers relate to, or see themselves as, when they read the book. That means that what happens to that character needs to be relatable and meaningful to the overall arc of the story. Rape that only serves to fill a chapter or two and nothing more is none of those things.

There are millions of people reading our books and every time we use rape that way we lose their trust. Every time we skip over what happens after the rape we send a message to all the people that have lived through those horrors that it isn’t worth handling as a serious topic. We tell them they aren’t important, that their experiences don’t matter, and that they should stay quiet because no one wants to hear about that part of their lives. We tell them rape is so normal, so common, that it’s unremarkable. We show them how little we think of their pain and how little we understand.

As authors we can do better.

We need to do better.

There are millions of people of every gender, orientation, race, and walk of life that need us to do better. They need us to handle rape as a serious topic or leave it alone. They need to know that we see how devastating rape is to a person. They need us to create characters that have relatable post-rape experiences.

As authors we have a plethora of choices as to how things happen in our books and we owe it to every person who’s been a victim to do our best to handle serious issues as serious issues.

Do Better. Rape isn’t entertaining.




*If you’ve read Magic’s Price, maybe you agree with me, and maybe you don’t (to be fair, the main character died so quickly he didn’t have much time to deal with the post-rape trauma). Either way is fine, and we could talk about that book at length, but that book isn’t the problem. It’s how common the issues are in literature.

2 thoughts on “The Damage of Rape in Literature

  1. Mia

    Wow. I am deeply moved by your honest words. I must admit, I never gave this topic much thought, but now that I do I realize that you are absolutely right. I do read quite a lot and there was a time when I read lots of history-related novels. As women were often more flesh than human in former times, there were many rapes… But now I realize what big pile of rubbish that was. I always wondered why I never read these books twice as I often do. Perhaps now I know. The only exception is the non-history-Stieg-Larsson-series. But they are mostly about violence against women, anyway.
    So, thank you very much for these insights!
    Greetings from Germany,


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