Rape: does writing about it contribute to rape culture?
Recently I reviewed Heliotrope by JC Miller, a wonderful book set in the Seventies. But it started me thinking about my own life as a young woman back then. Our older sisters and brothers had militantly fought gender and racial equality’s battles, so we were pretty sure that all we had to do was reap the benefits. We would be the first truly equal generation—earning equal pay, respect, and opportunity. We wouldn’t have to hold back or miss any opportunities because they might not be “safe”. Oh, and we’d finish passing the Equal Rights Amendment, and have control of our bodies, our lives, and our flying cars.
I had four children and wanted those things for them. Forty years later, my brand new grandchild is still waiting. As I wrote last year (This time I knew it was going to hurt), few of us have escaped some form of these power crimes. My daughters live in a rape culture which not only treats rape as a facet of normal life, but messages that victims bear responsibility if they are assaulted—because of how they dress, where they go, and what they drink.
Today my guest blogger, Alison Williams, points out that women through the ages have been the victims of power crimes like rape. The question she asks as a writer, is how or even if she should encompass that reality in her historical fiction.
This is a darker subject than many, but one which is so timely. We’ve got very dark roast coffee and an incredibly dense chocolate Guinness cake, so I hope you’ll all grab a plate and a cup and sit over by me. I’d love to know your thoughts.
Rape: A Mother, Wife, and Feminist Writes
Guest Post By Alison Williams
I was very flattered when Barb asked me to write a guest post for her blog. Flattered and a bit intimidated to be honest. I’ve been following the blog for a while now and always look forward to reading new posts – they are usually guaranteed to make me laugh out loud and have, on several occasions, caused me to spit my morning coffee over the keyboard. I’ve also been lucky enough to spend a weekend with Barb and she’s as entertaining in real life as she is on her blog. So I’m not even going to try and be funny. It would be pointless. In fact my subject matter is very dark, but it is something I feel needs to be addressed. So if you’re looking to Barb’s blog for a bit of humour today, I can only apologise.
If I was going to describe myself in three words (and I’m not talking occupation here) they would be – mother, wife, feminist. Feminism is incredibly important to me. Being a feminist is incredibly important to me. Women’s continuing battle for equality is incredibly important to me. My feminism is part of my life. And so it’s important to me when I write too.
My novel ‘The Black Hours’ deals with a very dark time in women’s history. Although men were also falsely accused of witchcraft, it was women who bore the brunt of the hate, the superstition, the vileness that brought terror, torture and death to so many. As part of my research I read some horrific things, things that I can’t now not know. And I wanted to do these women justice, to remember them in my own small way.
The book has been out a while now and I’ve been delighted with the mostly positive response. The main character in my novel, Alice, is raped. I was very worried about writing this scene; I wanted to handle it very carefully, not to sensationalise it in any way. In the end, I wrote a scene that I am very proud of. It isn’t graphic, but it leaves the reader aware, I hope, of how devastating rape is. So I was shocked and surprised when I saw a comment from a reader saying that she found the rape scene ‘tasteless’ and lamented the fact that women always end up as rape victims.
Now, I know that everyone is entitled to their opinions and to express those opinions. I’m a firm believer in the fact that if you put a book out there, then you do so accepting that you will get criticism, and that that’s part of the deal. And I’m not for one minute complaining about this lady’s opinion; because I actually agree with her – to an extent. I too am sick and tired of rape being the default fate for women in many books. If a woman is kidnapped, or robbed, or there is a break in at her apartment in a book I’m reading, I always heave a sigh, waiting for the inevitable rape and I always breathe a sigh of relief when it doesn’t happen. It’s the same in a lot of films too. So why do writers and filmmakers do this? And why did I?
I think there are several different issues here. ‘The Black Hours’ is historical fiction. It is set in the seventeenth century. Alice is a young woman; she is poor, vulnerable. She lives alone with her grandmother. Her parents are dead. She has no male protector; no husband, brother, father to look out for her. I wanted to portray something realistic, something authentic. Young, vulnerable girls have always been the victims of crimes like this. It would have been unrealistic and doing history and women a disservice not to have portrayed what, in reality, would most likely have happened to her. This is what happened to women – what still happens to women. And while I respect every reader’s opinion, I stand by what I wrote. Alice suffers, because women suffered. The rape has devastating consequences for her; realistic consequences.
I have read quite a lot of historical fiction in which women behave in ways that are just not historically accurate. In reality, they had very limited freedom, even those that were well off. Women were essentially the property of men, and dreadful things happened to them. To portray them as feisty heroines, shrugging off danger, having freedom, is unrealistic and gives a false view of history. Yes, there are exceptions to this, but even queens were expected to marry and reproduce, to defer to their husbands. What do we think life was like for ordinary women?
However, while I feel that historical fiction has a duty to be realistic, to be authentic and to show the way women have been treated, other types of fiction have a different role to play. If we portray rape as inevitable, then we add to the cycle. Rape happens far too often. According to Rape Crisis, approximately 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year. One in five women aged 16-59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of sixteen. I know this is a contentious issue, and there will be some who don’t agree with me, but I do think the repeated portrayal of rape in films, on TV and in books normalises it. It becomes the expected, the inevitable. Although the issues surrounding rape are obviously very complex, our culture and society does have a role to play and a responsibility. If young men see rape on the screen, read about it in books, then surely they are at risk of becoming desensitised – surely there is a risk that rape becomes something that just happens? Yes, there is a place in fiction for the portrayal of rape, but when it becomes matter of course, when women are repeatedly portrayed as potential rape victims, then writers are adding to the problem.
There is another issue to throw into the mix. Hiding rape, hiding sexual violence, not discussing it, pretending it doesn’t happen, does women no service either. Fiction can help in bringing the issue out into the open, giving women someone to identify with, helping women to tell their own stories.
So, for me, the answer is context. I do understand that reader’s point. And while I believe the rape scene was necessary in that context, I do think that writers need to think extremely carefully about how they portray rape in fiction, and to ask themselves if they really need to include it. Rape shouldn’t be ignored or avoided, but neither should it be the inevitable fate of female characters.
NOTE from Barb: Thanks so much Alison for the thoughtful and sensitive way you’ve treated this topic. I’d like to think that it was only a historical question from truly dark ages, but sadly in so many ways we’re still coping with these issues. I can only hope that my new granddaughter grows up to a world where “feminism” is as outmoded a concept as “votes for women”.
(And I hope she gets those flying cars too.)
Alison Williams lives in Hampshire with her husband, two teenage children, and a variety of pets including a mad cocker spaniel, a rescue Labrador, a psychotic cat and two of the most unsociable rabbits in existence. She is an independent novelist, freelance editor and writer. As an editor, Alison works mainly with independent authors and has edited everything from erotica, memoirs and poetry to children’s books and fantasy. When she has any time left at all, she enjoys blogging, reading, going to the gym and listening to music (she has an obsession with Johnny Marr), and watching The Sopranos (again). From 2011-2012 she studied for a Masters in Creative Writing with the University of Glasgow. As part of her studies, Alison wrote her first novel ‘The Black Hours’ – available now from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Sony and the Apple Store. ‘Blackwater’, the prequel to ‘The Black Hours’ is available free as an eBook from all the above outlets. Both can be read as standalones.
NOTE: my review of The Black Hours is here‘Look upon this wretch, all of you! Look upon her and thank God for his love and his mercy. Thank God that he has sent me to rid the world of such filth as this.’ 1647 and England is in the grip of civil war. In the ensuing chaos, fear and suspicion are rife and anyone on the fringes of society can find themselves under suspicion. Matthew Hopkins, self -styled Witchfinder General, scours the countryside, seeking out those he believes to be in league with the Devil. In the small village of Coggeshall, 17–year-old Alice Pendle finds herself at the centre of gossip and speculation. Will she survive when the Witchfinder himself is summoned? A tale of persecution, superstition, hate and love, ‘The Black Hours’ mixes fact with fiction in a gripping fast-paced drama that follows the story of Alice as she is thrown into a world of fear and confusion, and of Matthew, a man driven by his beliefs to commit dreadful acts in the name of religion. Purchase Links: Amazon US | Amazon UK