Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Sensitive Topic

At the risk of looking like a fangirl since I make mention of these ladies so often (okay, I *do* really enjoy their site), there is an absolutely fascinating discussion of rape as portrayed in old-school romance novels - and some new-school ones as well - over at Smart Bitches.

I've spoken my mind on the topic various times within the comments section, so you can read what I think over there rather than me repeating it here. Generally, the question raised seems to be why writers in the past or even now feel it is in any way acceptable to portray a situation in which the hero rapes the heroine. Of course, a huge debate has ensued over what constitutes rape in such a scenario or if what has occured is actually forced seduction. Because the idea that a woman could fall in love with a man who raped her is pretty hard to acccept, yet it seems to be what happened time and time again in those old bodice rippers. Again, head over there for some brilliant insights on the topic posted in the comments section.

However, I'd like to bring up another aspect of rape in the romance novel that Candy and Sarah have left for future discussion. When I started writing romance novels, I heard/read/something somewhere that depictions of any rape in a romance novel were pretty much taboo these days. I took that to mean not only scenarios when a hero rapes a reluctant heroine but even when a villian rapes a character in the real sense of the word.

This kind of blindsided me. Not that I make a habit of depicting villains raping characters left and right, but in my mind, rape is a pretty heinous crime, and anyone who engages in it is a pretty heinous person. And since some of my villains are heinous people, it does not go beyond the pale that they might do such a despicable thing.

In fact, in my very first manuscript the heroine is raped by her step-cousin, the villain of the story. I wrote the scene in detail, from the heroine's point of view, and it is horrible. Afterwards she is devastated. It in no way glorifies rape. It's ugly and it's real and it's the act of a truly evil man who gets his just deserts by the end of the story.

But once I learned of the "all rape is taboo" guideline, I was in a predicament. This attack on the heroine is a critical aspect of the story. Because of this attack, many things happen that drive the rest of the story. I tried to imagine what might happen if the villain only almost rapes her, but that doesn't work. I tried to imagine how the story might read if I closed the door on the rape; didn't describe it in any detail. But again, the brutality of the attack is key to the rest of the story, and I feel I'd be doing the reader a disservice by not showing it. If I simply left it at As Roderick shut and locked the door, Betty felt a scream of terror rising out of her throat. Next Chapter it would be awfully hard to convince the reader that how Betty reacted was reasonable because the reader would not know how awful the attack was and what it meant to Betty.

So I'm going to ignore the rumor (or truth) that a publisher will not buy a manuscript that describes any rape scenario. Since this attack is not gratuitous but integral to the story, I'm going to go with my gut. Could mean I might never sell this particular story. But I'm thinking I'd rather tell it my way than dilute the impact simply for a sale.

Real rape is horrible and ugly and evil. I think people who depict it in fiction have a responsibility to keep from using it expoitively and certainly to avoid glorifying it in any way.

But I don't think they should be restricted from depicting it at all.


AE Rought said...


I too have a manuscript with rape by the villain as a heinous crime.

The scene is ugly and raw, but I stand by it because it is part of what makes the reader hate the villain. It also shapes the heroine's character and drives her decisions. If an editor requested that the graphic nature of the scene be scaled back, I would because I am amenable to what makes my work stronger, but I will not remove it completely.

Likewise, I cannot see rape between a hero and heroine as forced seduction, or in any other way 'glorified.' Love should not be at the end of a road that begins with rape, unless it is the heroine learning to love herself again.

Best of luck in your pursuit of publication!

MaryF said...

The heroine in my WIP is a rape survivor, and while it's backstory and not shown, it colors every aspect of her life. I can only hope I did her justice.

Lynn M said...

Thanks, AE and Mary, for letting me know I'm not alone.

Honestly, I would never include a rape in a story if it absolutely wasn't necessary to either establish the character's current state of mind (as in Mary's story) or as something the villain would do (as in AE's). In my instance, the attack affects the heroine in a particular way because she is an extremely strong character, and not only is the violation something she has to handle but also the feeling of having lost her ability to defend herself. That's almost what pushes her over the edge.

I do understand the reluctance of readers and/or publishers to accept rapes even by the villain if the rape is just another dastardly dead inflicted on poor sweet Victim CindyLoo. As in "He took mah farm, killed mah dog, and pushe ol' granny down the well. And then he raped me!"

Along those lines, I don't think it should become standard stock in trade for a villain to be a rapist as if it is simply another prop that makes him eeevil. Like, along with twirling his mustache and drowning kittens, he's also a rapist. I think the villain needs some motivation for doing it, even if it is not any sort of motivation that any sane person could ever truly understand. But something other than I am bad therefore I rape.

Such an intersting topic!

AE Roght said...

Well said! Very "cloak and *snicker* dagger" kind of stuff. (my attempt at humor) Rape certainly should not be part and parcel to villainy, like saying a cough is a symptom of every ailment. It is an ultimately vicious, controlling, penetrative crime, and should only be shown as such.

With my ms, is it demonstrative of the characters OCD complex over the heroine. His need/desire to control her with pain and fear.