Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sexual abuse




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.

10 comments:

December/Stacia said...

Thanks for these last two posts, especially. My UNHOLY GHOSTS heroine is a drug addict, and grew up in abusive foster homes; it's very much a part of her character (and very much why she's a drug addict). But she's promiscuous, rather than scared; sex means very little to her and she's never had a real sense of her body/her sexuality as being something special. She doesn't really respect or like herself, in other words. But she's capable of enjoying sex, certainly. The abuse colored how she sees herself but not her ability to be an adult, if you know what I mean. And I hope I haven't been gratuituous or unrealistic with her past, or her future. :-) It's just something there, part of her character, but it's not what the book is about, if you know what I mean.

gypsyscarlett said...

"*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."

That was one of the things I loved so much about Farscape- and now Battlestar Gallactica. No female sex guilt crap. And no frigging punishment for enjoying sex without the guilt crap... (don't get me started!)

Speaking of sexual abuse in novels- I certainly don't mind if an author wants to explore the subject. But unfortunately, instead, I've come across too many novels of late where it's just thrown in as an afterthought. "Oh, how do I make my two-dimensional character more interesting? Oh, I know! She'll be a rape survivor!" Same thing with alcoholic characters. It's become a clutch.

colbymarshall said...

My last novel dealt with this subject in what I feel is an interesting way. I agree it can be done very poorly if not used in deeper context than just to give the character a "haunting past."

Marian said...

December: I have a character who's a bit like that. She's a woman kept for the use of the nobility in a medieval world, but although she doesn't have a choice about which man asks for her, they haven't all been selfish or abusive. As a result, she knows that sex can be pleasurable and knows how her body works (I can't stand those scenes where the heroine has her very first orgasm ever with the hero and looks at him with wide-eyed surprise).

Her problem is that when she's interested in a man (rather than vice versa) she's unsure how to convey her interest. And since the hero is both sexually inexperienced and conservative, he finds it very difficult to show her that he's very attracted to her, so they tend to sidestep around each other.

I thought that was a more interesting situation than the heroine being frigid. And the heroine of Unholy Ghosts sounds original and realistic. She's reacting in a way that seems in keeping with her personality, rather than because the plot requires her to be untouched in some way for the hero.

Marian said...

That was one of the things I loved so much about Farscape- and now Battlestar Gallactica.

Hey Tasha,

I've heard some good things about those shows. The next time I have a long vacation I'll see if I can find them on YouTube. The different races of Farscape are interesting too.

About a character being a rape survivor, I once read a review of a Western film featuring a gang of runaway prostitutes taking on a gang of bandits (yes, it was more cheesy than an explosion in a Velveeta factory). But there's one scene where it's implied that the bandits have just raped one of the women. The reviewer said,

"...rape is not an issue you play with in a film. In an era where it’s still a huge problem and a subject that raises powerful emotions, you either handle it very carefully and you handle it right, or you don’t handle it at all. You can’t just juggle it like it’s some vaguely interesting concept."

Those be wise words.

Marian said...

My last novel dealt with this subject in what I feel is an interesting way.

Hey colby,

That sounds interesting! What's the title of the novel, and what's it about?

Spartezda said...

Of everything I've read, I could count the number of books in which a male character is sexually abused on one hand.

This is one facet of Sarah Monette's Doctrine of Labyrinths quartet I really enjoy; both male MCs suffered serious sexual abuse in youth, but in very different ways, and both are very differently shaped by it. It's fascinating to watch the psychological effects and complications play out.

December/Stacia said...

Thanks Marian. I hope it works; I tried very hard not to use it as window-dressing, but to make it clear that all of the choices she makes relate back to that experience; but also not to make it overpowering so it's just heavy-handed and depressing. So we'll see (oh, and there is a male character who was abused as well, though that hasn't been delved into yet.)

But yes, your character sounds a lot like mine, in that they don't know how to handle actual emotion/a real emotional connection with a man. Mine runs from it and sabotages it, sadly.

And I too hate books where it feels gratuitous and just there to make the character "interesting". Like I said, I just hope readers agree that I haven't done that. :-)

Marian said...

Hey Spartezda, thanks for commenting! I like your blog, by the way.

I checked Doctribne of Labyrinths out on Wikipedia and it sounds interesting. I'll see if I can find the first book in the library.

Marian said...

Hey December,

But yes, your character sounds a lot like mine, in that they don't know how to handle actual emotion/a real emotional connection with a man.

Yes, that would be it. I like novels where the characters have realistic hangups and issues; not so keen on ones where the heroine is still a virgin in some way (never had good sex, never had oral sex, etc).

And I too hate books where it feels gratuitous and just there to make the character "interesting".

I just thought of another reason some authors use sexual abuse. I've read a few Danielle Steel novels where the beautiful, innocent young heroine is raped early on in the story, but since she never becomes pregnant, contracts an STD or has any difficulty relating to the hero, the rape seems to be intended to make her more sympathetic to the readers.