Sexual violence and abuse as a plot point in fantasy novels.
A brief critique of the overuse of sexual violence towards women in fantasy. Because we can do better. Strong language.
When I was reading up on the topic in preparation for this post, I read a post by Maggie Steifvater, author of The Raven Cycle, who clearly pointed out the problem – sexual violence and abuse towards women in literature (and especially fantasy) is used as a coming-of-age thing, or to move the plot along. And painting sexual violence as a rite of passage for the young women in these books to be able to progress is wrong. Sure, shit things have to happen to the protagonist but it doesn’t have to be rape for the sake of rape. In fact, it shouldn’t be.
Which is why I removed it from my WIP. Years ago, when I was writing the first draft, I knew I needed something traumatic to happen to my main character and having read countless fantasy books where the heroine is raped to dramatic purpose, I threw it in. I mean, what better way to point out the villain than to make him a rapist, right? Wrong. So wrong. It was cliché and insensitive. And there are enough depictions of sexual violence in popular media. More than enough.
Now, the MC is poisoned which although not much fun for her, refuses to play into the persistent idea that female characters need to go through some sort of sexual trauma in order to develop. Fuck that notion. There was also a second reason I changed that scene– at the end of the book, the MCs assault is revealed and her boyfriend (for want of a better word) brushes her aside and deals with the villain himself. He removes her agency and undermines everything that she has done previously. He ‘rescues’ her, but she sure as hell can rescue herself. And now she will have the chance.
The argument that rape of women is ‘realistic’ because it happened ‘historically’ and still happens today needs to be quashed. Yes, the threat is real. Every day as a woman I am keenly aware of that threat. But to validate the idea that women should be fearful of sexual abuse by repeatedly using it in fiction helps nobody. Fantasy is a genre which begs you to take flights of fancy, to try things that can never happen in the real world, to deal with situations that we can never experience firsthand. There is so much scope and possibility and for fucks sake, dragons. So why the hell should the lack of sexual violence in a work be questioned for realism when dragons aren’t?