As IsToday's Tune:
Serious post from me today, uh oh. I hope you'll indulge me, as it's an issue I feel pretty strongly about.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. All this month, it's likely there are events happening in your area focused around sexual assault awareness and prevention, such as Take Back The Night and others. The prevalence of sexual assault, harassment, rape, abuse, molestation and incest continues to be very real and very harmful, and we can all do our part to help make the world a safer and healthier place for all sexes, genders, and sexualities.
In one of my posts last week, I touched on the subject of rape (or attempted rape) of a character as a cheap trick intended to illicit sympathy for said character. I'd like to expand on that in this post.
First, I'd like to go over exactly the sort of scene I'm talking about. Every portrayal of rape, attempted rape, molestation, or other sexual abuse is not created equal. There are stories where the inclusion of such topics is handled beautifully and is integral to the plot. There are other instances where a very deep, personal, potentially hurtful topic is treated with a sort of blasé nonchalance. It is the latter instance that I'll be discussing here.
These are the scenes where a (usually female) character is cornered by a man (or group of men) that intend to rape her, but she's saved at the last minute by another (usually male) character. Or a scene where a character who's known to be moody, depressed, or unusually angry casually mentions that sometime in their past they were raped or molested, thus explaining away their "weird" behavior. Or any scene where a character's rape is treated with a one-or-two sentence sidebar and then never mentioned again. Essentially, it is any scene that fits into the Rape as Drama, Attempted Rape, or Rape Is The New Dead Parents tropes.
Here is where I feel the need to state that sexual abuse is not a character builder. It's not a plot point. It's not titillation in preparation for a Rescue Romance. It's not a parlor trick to keep up your sleeve when you think a character needs a little bit of extra love and sympathy. It's not a miracle explanation for moodiness. It's not something you can just throw on the table and then forget about.
Sexual abuse is a real, damaging, difficult topic that more of your readers than you'd care to imagine have had some experience with. If you are going to include it, you absolutely must do so with the right research and care. Survivors of sexual abuse react in a multitude of ways. There is no one reaction to abuse, there's no one way to deal with it, there's no one way to heal from it. But there is one common thread: if a person is a survivor of sexual abuse, it will affect them for the rest of their lives. Even the act of consciously deciding NOT to let it affect one's behavior is a mark of how it's changed them.
This is what is so grating and upsetting about the casual use of rape as drama, as a plot point, as a sympathy-maker. There IS no "casual" mention of rape. Rape is not an explanation for behavior. It may be a catalyst for a host of other physical and mental issues the character has had to struggle with, but you can't say, "Oh, by the way, she was raped, that's why she hates men so much." It's this offhand, "by the way" treatment of rape that is the issue here. When a person is raped, it becomes part of their daily existence. Part of who they are. It is so much deeper and more complex than a brief mention can give credit to.
All that said, survivors of rape live with it every day without letting it define them. If you walk down a busy street, odds are you are walking by dozens of sexual abuse survivors who are going about their daily lives. They are not all angry, or depressed, or hateful, or broken. They also don't go around casually tossing around the fact that they're a sex abuse survivor. That's just not how it works.
So, as with anything, do your research. If you find yourself mentioning a character's rape only in passing, just don't do it. Don't use it as a shortcut for character development. Don't use attempted rape for the sole purpose of allowing a heroine to be saved and then leave her completely unaffected by the trauma because she's with the hero now. Do not talk about averted or completed rape with gross metaphors about purity, virginity, and wholeness.
Does this mean you have to turn your work into a morality lesson about The Horror of Rape, or dedicate swaths to exploring the Secret Hidden Pain of a character? No, it doesn't. But it does mean you need to treat the subject with the respect it deserves and not like a monkey wrench you tossed in to raise some stakes. If your character has been raped, then it is part of who they are, but it's not all of who they are. Don't forget that.