Saturday, November 22, 2008
I was going to write a blog post about all kinds of character abuse in a story – physical, mental, sexual – but this one turned out to be the longest. So it got its own blog post. Yay, I guess.
Sexual abuse, whether it’s part of a character’s backstory or occurring in the present, can have a powerful effect on readers. Unfortunately it’s also prone to being misused in a few ways.
1. Sexual abuse is a defining part of a character
I’m burned out on the backstory where a woman (it’s always a woman) is a survivor of rape or incest that was so bad she cannot feel any physical pleasure and hates to be touched. That is, until her love interest provides Sexual Healing. I’ve read this so often that it’s lost any emotional appeal it might once have had.
The problem with this concept is that the woman’s sexuality and sexual expression is too often defined by what men do to her or have done to her. I don’t think I’ve ever read about a woman who worked through the pain on her own, who realized she could still give herself pleasure despite what had happened to her. This might be great for the romance, but it slots the character into a stereotype from which she’s unlikely to emerge.
I especially don’t want to come across yet another tough, hard-nosed professional who’s fragile as spun sugar on the inside because she was raped. Giving an Action Barbie a stereotypical trauma doesn’t make her any more dimensional than she already is.*
The other issue I have with this is that different people react to sexual abuse in different ways. A woman could, for instance, graciously acquiesce to sex with any man who wants her, but shut off her emotions during the process. Yet in so many novels, she becomes the Ice Maiden instead.
2. Sexual abuse is rarely inventive
If if’s something very traumatic that happened in a heroine’s past, it’s often rape or incest. This can get a little dull after a while. I’m not asking for spectacularly inventive abuse – I can barely stand to read that kind of thing – but a little originality wouldn’t hurt.
For instance, I once read a romance novel where the heroine’s ex-husband often forced her to tell him that she loved him as he was abusing her. As a result, she can’t say those words to the hero. It’s not the most psychologically complex detail, but it’s something I remember even while I’ve forgotten the names of the book, the author and the characters.
3. Sexual abuse is recovered from too easily
This can be a difficult line to walk. On the one hand, writers often need the heroine to play some major role in the story other than working through and recovering from the abuse. On the other hand, romance is not a universal panacea, and having the hero in her life shouldn't easily erase the abuse.
Different heroines should recover in different ways, too. I’ve read the scene where the woman breaks down and cries in the hero's arms once too many times. Also, if her relationship with the hero is the diametric opposite of her relationship with the evil ex, if the hero always treats her like an ailing butterfly and never disagrees with her on anything important… well, that’s not so much fun to read.
Some day, I’d love to have a character who became pregnant as a result of rape, gave her child to her brother’s family to raise, went on to have a career and didn’t feel guilty or have a tearful bonding session with the child later. I think she would contribute financially to the child’s support – but she just would not feel like a mother and no one would punish her for this.
4. Sexual abuse disparately affects one gender
I don't know how legitimate this concern is, given that sexual abuse also disparately affects one gender in real life, but it seems to be even more skewed in fiction. Of everything I've read, I could count the number of books in which a male character is sexually abused on one hand.
I was going to say “one finger”, but then I realized I'd actually read two such books – Sharon Baker’s Quarrelling, they met the dragon, where the main character is a male prostitute who is gang-raped and Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers, which features a prison rape.
Romances where the heroine forces herself on the hero don't count, because in the few of those I’ve read, the hero doesn’t behave as though he’s been abused. His goal afterwards is usually to repay the heroine in kind (i.e. have more sex, except with him on top), not to get away from the person who ignored his freedom of choice.
*That’s one reason I like Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Three of the four female characters were very comfortable with their sexuality and the expression thereof. They could conduct business/kick ass and enjoy themselves in bed.