No Brain Bleach Needed Here

Trigger warning: mild description of the circumstances of rape

I sat down with a fantasy book for adults that I wanted to like (I’m being discreet here, I won’t tell you the title). The prose was lovely, the young heroine interesting. About 70 pages in, the first niggling suspicions started up: She’s not going to get raped, right? She’s going to do something clever or one of those bystanders will step in… Right up until the heroine was gang-raped (yes, gang-raped) I didn’t believe it would actually happen. And then she was raped again. The description was not graphic; the rape wasn’t particularly violent, except, of course, it was rape. And it was enough to make me feel claustrophobic and sick and to wish that I had never read that and to put down the book never to pick it up again.

When I went to my YA book club and told my book club-friends I didn’t have enough brain bleach to remove the memory of that fictional rape, I realized that one of the reasons I enjoy YA is that bad things don’t happen to the main characters  just because they are female.

Sure, bad things happen. The main character might have to choose between saving her dad and saving her city; she might get locked away on the other side of a portal in Prague and separated from all her family; she might have to go kill other teenagers in a staged fight to the death; but none of these things happen to the characters merely because they are female. And for the most part, rape is not a part of most fantasy YA or really most YA at all. There are exceptions, but usually they are in contemporary YA, as backstory (i.e. not on the page) or issue YA (which I don’t read). Occasionally it comes up under the revolting pretense of romantic relationships that the author does not see as abusive and sex that is not identified within the story as rape but which I do see as abusive and as rape. (That’s a whole other post.) Usually my friends or the internet or my own good sense warn me away from those.

Getting back to why there isn’t that much rape in YA, it might be a rape-isn’t-suitable-for-the-childrenz thing or it might be because a lot of YA is written by women and most women don’t think writing about rape is fun. Not that being a woman means you automatically won’t commit rape as backstory, rape as character development or rape because it’s “realistic.” But it seems slightly less common. It might be any number of things, but thank god for it.

It’s no surprise that rape is normalized in fiction; after all rape and violence against women and children is normalized in our society. Lots of people have posted much more articulate posts about rape culture, so I’m not going to. I already have those rape culture paradigms installed in my head, thank you very much, however much I fight against the passive assimilation of them. I have my own firsthand experiences of violence and many, many women have confided in me their own stories of violence and rape–and those are just my friends, I’m not even counting the stories I heard while working at the District Attorney’s office as a domestic violence victim/witness advocate.

So why would I want to read stories that continue to normalize that experience and the expectation of violence? I don’t. Especially given the new studies coming out showing that read experience is, to some extent, lived experience.

I want to read stories that normalize equality and about worlds where women socialize safely with men without the ever-present worry about rape and violence hanging around like a third wheel. (If you think that makes for boring stories, you haven’t read Sherwood Smith‘s Sartorias-deles books where the urge for sexual violence has been eliminated from humanity.) And if not, then I want to read about worlds where the women beat the hell out anyone who tries to hurt them–whether physically or through quick thinking and intelligence. Or worlds where our own rape culture expectations are not imported whole scale and uncritically and where sexualized violence is not seen as expected or realistic.

YA, more often than not, gives me that reading experience.

And as a total PS, I now have to go read all of Seanan McGuire‘s books after her post Things I will not do to my characters. Ever.

PPS Off the top of my head, Malinda Lo has some posts about YA and normalization with regard to LGBTQ people/characters.

PPPS The photos automatically recommended by Word Press for this post were triggerific themselves.

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6 thoughts on “No Brain Bleach Needed Here

  1. I’m with you. There are some people who are able to write about rape with proper sensitivity and actually explore the implications, but those are far and few, compared to those who as you say consider it a normal expectation of a pseudo-fantasy world. Rape != realism.

    Reminds me of once when I went to a RPG session, and being the only female at the table, a bad roll ended up with me getting captured by the enemy and “you know what happens next”. Rape was the foregone conclusion, because female prisoner, in a prison camp full of men? The GM was kind enough to not go into the details, but it was just so matter of fact, I was rather stunned. I didn’t go back.

  2. Nicole Lisa says:

    Wow. Just wow. Talk about not creating a female friendly environment. I knew video games were bad for this reason, but if I’d thought about it, I would have thought RPGs would be better because there’s more control.

    And yes, it takes a lot of trust in the author, for me, to read anything with rape in it. That trust is hard to build up and easy to lose. I can only recall maybe one book in the last 5 years with a rape in it that I finished. And I’m still ambivalent about that one.

    On a positive note, recently Scalzi had a post inviting people to name childhood favorites and whether the suck fairy had visited them or not (or something to that effect). At least one man, maybe more, said they could no longer read Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books because of the rape at the beginning of the very first one.

  3. D.M. Bonanno says:

    That’s why I write about people dying. It’s much more interesting to see how someone is going to die or recover from a loved one’s death than to see how someone is going to get raped or see how they’re going to recover from rape. Yep. Seriously.

  4. […] on the heels of my No Brain Bleach Needed Here post I read the Book Smugglers’ review of Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor. Love […]

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