The other day there was a guy in a public writer's group, and he bluntly told us, the members, about his idea for a novella. The outline was that someone does some horrible things to a girl and burns her to death, and the Devil allows her to return to take revenge. The details of what happens to the girl were described in the title. Yes, his choice of title plainly expressed that she got raped.
Needless to say, this raised a lot of hell in the group.
There were a lot of reasons for members to hate the idea and the title.
The most common objection was that the way the idea was presented was too triggering for members of the group but also for writer’s potential target audience. Keep in mind, the writer mentioned that the protagonist was a teenager. It begged the question of who he expected his target audience to be.
Is this is the kind of theme you want to expose to young adults or even teens? Did he consider what kind of effect this could have? Did he consider the fact that teenagers are impressionable, easily obsessed and tend to relate nearly anything to themselves? Why this theme in particular?
You can already tell that this post opened a whole can of worms. The writer’s counter-argument was that other themes are “objectively” (his words) more horrific, and he specifically names murder.
Yes, you could sit down and wonder what’s worse, rape or murder? But we are much quicker to pull a sour face at the word rape than we do at murder in fiction.
Why is that? Is it okay to talk about sexual abuse in fiction? What did the author do wrong in this case? And how common is sexual abuse truly in fiction?
Subtlety vs. Bluntness. During this discussion, the first story that came to my mind was “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold. The plot of The Lovely Bones is not that far off from the idea that this writer has, but it has a different theme and goes about sexual abuse in a different way.
For starters, while he puts the forbidden word in the title, The Lovely Bones did not make it the focus.
Second, the story plays in 1973 and addresses something that was a serious problem in the ’70s. With that, the sexual assault doesn't become a plot device, instead including it paints the full picture of what kind of hellish scenarios occurred during that time.
I think most importantly, the mention of it was so subtle, it feels respectful, careful, and almost apologetic. It is so subtle that in the film adaptation, you can barely pick it up if you don’t know that it's there.
Blatantly shouting “Hey, she’s getting raped” makes it feel like it’s all about the shock factor, instead of making it an element of the story that colours what the protagonist went through. There is a reason that we are careful to confront each other with difficult topics. We know if it’s done right, it doesn’t scare the other off and makes the topic more accessible.
This response was obvious in the writer’s group as well, just reading the title was enough for the readers to decide to not give it another look. It was too confronting.
Like a member pointed out, King’s classic is called “Carrie”, not “hysterical religious menstruating outcast”.
I think another example that comes to a lot of people’s mind are the scenes from “13 reasons why”, which to this day I have very mixed feelings about. On one hand the director and writer did a great job of showing how horrific it truly is, and how awful of an effect it has. Effects that were overdue to be addressed, and I’d say it helped people, who were otherwise ignorant about it, to understand the effects of sexual assault. But I can also see the other side, the balance between respectful subtlety and a cruel messenger is an art on its own.
Realism and authenticity.
The second aspect that is important for sexual abuse in fiction is realism.
A few members of the group argued that going after their revenge is not what most victims would do. Without statistics it’s hard to argue what the most common response of sexual abuse victims truly is, but the follow-up argument is that the writer didn’t seem to understand what happens to a victim when they’ve been abused, which in turn completely disconnected the story.
Romanticizing is a too commonly used option. We’ve all seen them, the semi-erotic “romance” stories that inject an element of force, or sometimes it is very plain and straight forward abuse. These stories are designed to recreate sexual fantasies the writer and readers might have. They raise a lot of eyebrows, and considering the recent efforts to abolish sexual assault, it feels counter-intuitive to write or read them.
Why does sexual assault seem more confronting than murder in fiction?
There are a lot of possible reasons why we’ve become a little more desensitised to murder in books and movies, but my theory is very simple.
Unlike murder victims, sexual assault victims go on with their lives and have to deal with the aftermath. They are confronted with their trauma every time sexual assault or abuse is used as a plot device. And every victim responds differently as well, making addressing it in fiction a complicated puzzle.
This makes it so important that sexual assault in fiction is addressed with care, with consideration of the complexity around those situations, and that using the subject has a meaning, a message, a reason, and isn’t just a way to “King” yourself.
Hence the invention of a trigger warning that people love to make fun of.
So, should you use sexual assault in fiction?
Rape, sexual abuse, illegal sex trades, they’re all touchy subjects, but excluding them from creative processes altogether could end up solidifying any taboos still lingering. It is a part of reality that writers can choose to reflect in their work, and if done right it enables people to talk about it, which is a powerful tool in fighting against it.
And any writer will tell you that the best way to make sure you’re incorporating this topic with dignity, is with research, research, and more research. Once you understand the topic and the experience, then you’ll see that not every creative idea that you can have with it, is okay.