Book Discussion,  Reading

When Reading Makes You Uncomfortable – Rape

I don’t like reading about rape in fiction.  Recently though I found myself reading a few books almost back to back that had rape story lines.  That got me wondering about the different ways this topic can be covered and if that changes the reading experience.

Gender of the author

I don’t think that I would be willing to read a female rape story line in a fiction book written by a man.  Even if it was written from the point of view of a woman, there is still the fact that it was imagined in the mind of a potential perpetrator instead of a victim that adds a layer of disgust to it for me.  It feels too voyeuristic even if that isn’t the intent.

Surprise or Anticipated

In the synopsis of The Hollow Girl it says that the main character is raped so you know going into the book that this is a major part of the plot and can decide whether or not that is a book for you.

In another series I read recently, it was not discussed in the synopsis so it felt like being blind sided by it.

Purpose

There has been a lot written about “fridging”.  That’s the trope of having something horrible, like rape or murder, happen to a secondary female character in order to inspire the main character(s) to do something heroic.  But what if that rape happens to the main character?

In The Hollow Girl the main character is a Romani girl who is learning magic.  She is attacked and raped and the boy who comes to her defense is murdered.  In order to bring him back to life she needs to collect body parts.  She decides to collect them from the boys who raped her and those whose inaction allowed the attack to happen.   The rape here sets up a horror revenge fantasy.

I don’t like stories that use rape of a main character to humble or humilate a strong woman.  That felt more like what happened in The Godkindred Saga series.  This is a fantasy series featuring a female general who is anticipating retirement but is instead sent to a newly captured territory to be its governor.  She is a great character – complex, competent, just – but then along the way she is suddenly raped while confronting a horde of half-feral men.  These men had been keeping women in fear in the area.  The danger from them and need to subdue them was explained well in the book but having the main character raped seemed like an odd choice.  It wasn’t absolutely necessary for the story. 

As the story progresses there are other rapes of high ranking females in this Army.  None of them seemed to serve any real purpose in the story but to belittle them. 

I love this author but I do have an issue with her use of rape in her books.  She writes beautiful pastoral books and then she writes books that feature a lot of violence and rape.  There are series of hers that I won’t read because they are specifically labeled as featuring a lot of sexual violence.  The attitude towards this in her books is basically, “Suck it up and deal.  This is what women have had to deal with from the beginning of time.”  It is off putting to me.

In Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, the main character is the offspring of military strategy of raping women.  The attitude there is that she is going to make sure that this ends when she brings down the bad guy.  It has the same kind of violence but somehow it is more hopeful (despite it being a much darker book) because they aren’t just putting up with it. 

On page or Off

I have no interest in reading the details.  In all these examples euphemisms are used and then the scene fades to black.  In fact, in Flight of the Godkin Griffith, I didn’t realize that there had been a rape until the character references it later.  I had to go back and look at the scene again to realize that was what that euphemism meant. 

Genre

All of these examples I’m citing are fantasy.  I think for me that gives a distance that makes it a bit easier to accept these story lines.  I find books like Stained, which is a contemporary story about a rape to be much harder. 

I find nonfiction accounts easier to read.  Some people may find that strange but to me it is an account of something that happened and needs to be faced.  It is not something that someone sat down and imagined because they thought it would be entertaining. 

 

Do you avoid rape plots in books?  What standards do you have for what you will or won’t read?

8 Comments

  • Fanna

    This discussion is so insightful. I definitely agree that rape can a pretty hard topic to read about and sometimes too much violence of any form can be a bit difficult too. The fact that a male author is writing a rape scene from the perspective of a female can take a wrong way and the scene might instead come across as something else than what was intended because well, at the end of the day, the characters do and say what the author wants them to. I haven’t come across a rape scene in books written by a male author (yet) that would seem voyeuristic but I’m sure I know where you’re coming from on this. Basically, a woman can speak best for a woman.

    I agree with your point about belittling females, too! It’s weird how a strong female character is suddenly going downhill in a book (and not doing anything about it) after something horrifying happens to her. It’s kinda frustrating because the character isn’t the same anymore and the personality has fluctuated so badly that the rape sequence seems absolutely unnecessary.

    True, I don’t like many details either. Especially not in this context. And of course, there’s nothing better than a trigger warning being included in the synopsis itself. Reading non fiction is definitely easier since it’s necessary to read it and might act as an eye opener to realistic issues but sometimes contemporaries would be too difficult for me, too. Great post! 🙂

  • Jean @ Howling Frog

    I agree so much with your last paragraph. I will read anything in non-fiction, because I feel like it’s a real thing that I ought to know about. While reading about awful events in fiction tends to make me feel like it’s being used as entertainment.

  • Carrie @ Cat on the Bookshelf

    I don’t like reading rape stories, either. Rape changes the victim of it, but I don’t like it when it’s there just to do it to her (I use this pronoun because women are the most talked about as victims of rape), to make her do something heroic, or to put her in her place (and have it succeed in that goal). Authors need to really think about how necessary it is for one of the characters to be raped, and then they need to think about how much detail needs to go into it.

  • Daniela Ark

    I agree rape is a hard topic to read. I do read quite some books that include it because gender equality/women”s rights is a dear topic to me and unfortunately there is quite some violence against women included in this topic. However, I rather see it in memoirs/Ownvoices and contemporary fiction that wants to bring awareness to the topic than in speculative fiction. The gender of the author definitely matters to me! A lot of controversy around My Little Darling Because of that! I decided not to read it.

  • Jane Lawson

    You make great points! I wouldn’t mind reading books about rape here and there, if only because I read certain books for research purposes (I’m a writer). I do think rape written about is a bit saturated, however. It’s either portrayed as something with a political stance and feels like the entirety of the plot is external (created solely to drive the book, not the character). But I think it should be written as something respectful. Not everyone wants to read about the details.

    A book I read that included rape was Hot Toddy. It was a great book despite the few issues I took with it, but when the main character was raped by one of her friends, she brushed it aside like it wasn’t that big a deal. Like, this character was raped…but it didn’t continuously affect her? And she chose not to go to the authorities and was fine? I have a hard time believing that.

    • Carrie @ Cat on the Bookshelf

      Wouldn’t it especially affect the character because the perpetrator was one of her friends? I’m not sure if the character would go to the authorities, but I do hate it when the characters are unaffected by the rape. That just wouldn’t happen.

  • Aj @ Read All The Things!

    I also avoid books about rape. I especially don’t like it when rape is used as a plot twist or as a big reveal at the end. I think it’s a topic that’s often handled poorly in fiction, so I’d rather not read about it.

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