The Necessity of Well-Written Sexual Assault in Fiction
Jessica Jones walks with purpose down a hotel hallway. Her mission is to rescue a young woman from a mind-controlling villain who has imprisoned her in his luxury suite. Inside the room, the woman is nearly catatonic. For the past five hours, she’s been lying in bed waiting for her paramour. She explains how he told her not to move. Jessica warns her that the man is dangerous and that her survival depends on her leaving that hotel, but the woman refuses to go. She claws the bed sheets. She fights back. She’s unable to walk away.
It doesn’t take tangling with a villain from the Marvel Universe to understand that the first episode of Jessica Jones is about manipulation and emotional abuse. Since the Netflix series premiered on November 20, the blogosphere has been buzzing with praise for the way the series handles trauma, abuse and rape. Though sexual assault and emotional abuse are integral to the plot, there isn’t a rape scene in Jessica Jones (at least not in the first season). Writer Kwame Opam points out on The Verge , that this approach is “unique, and in effect makes the show a powerful, nuanced meditation on not only rape, but also on the nature of consent.”
Jessica Jones is one program that handles rape well, partly because there are no visual depictions of assault. But what about programs and literature that do portray sexual assault? Is it possible to write a graphic rape scene that’s not gratuitous? If so, how can writers responsibly portray such painful, nuanced acts of violence?
At last month’s BinderCon conference, some of these questions were addressed during the panel discussion, “Education or Exploitation? The Tricky Business of Sexual Assault in Fiction.” This panel featured speakers Kaitlyn Greenidge (We Love You, Charlie Freeman), Helen Benedict (Sand Queen and The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq), and Jada Yuan (New York Magazine). Lux Alptraum, writer and sex educator, was the moderator.
I was eager to attend this panel because I’ve found that scenes depicting sexual assault and emotional abuse have been creeping into my own fiction. We live in a world where one in three women are victims of sexual or physical violence. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence , a woman is assaulted or beaten every nine seconds in the US. One in five women and one in 71 men are victims of attempted or completed rape. And that’s not to mention the pervasiveness of sexual harassment. It’s no coincidence that in Jessica Jones, the villain tells female victims to smile.
Considering the prevalence of violence—in all its forms—against women, I think it’s crucial to explore this reality through art, film, and literature. In my opinion, a well- written assault scene functions like a form of journalism: it exposes the horror of this kind of violence and opens up a space for discussion in national conversation. The danger however, is that if handled the wrong way, sexual assault can easily become a cheap plot device, or worse, veer into erotica both on the screen and the page. In other words, I think there’s a right and a wrong way to write about sexual assault. So, I attended the panel to hear what some of the pros had to say.
Lux Alptraum opened up the conversation by asking the participants why they thought an author or screenwriter would make the choice to include sexual assault in a character’s back-story.
“Hopefully, a writer chooses to include sexual assault because it’s part of the human experience,” said Kaitlyn Greenidge. “Writing about it, thinking about it, and figuring out how to depict it is a way to work through and bear witness to it. ”
We Love You, Charlie Freeman is a story that addresses race, family and history as well as the detrimental affects of the eugenics movement. During the panel, Greenidge explained that one of the principal characters in her novel is an African American woman who was assaulted by a white scientist.
“Part of the point of view of that character is that she experiences sexual assault and on a certain level, continues to identify with her assaulter. That was a difficult thing to write, but I thought it was an important thing to talk about,” said Greenidge.
Helen Benedict’s novel, The Sand Queen, explores the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. Her novel is about two young women in Iraq in 2003. One is an Iraqi refugee and the other is an American Army Specialist. Benedict said her novel was informed by her work as a journalist.
“You may be [writing about sexual assault] for political reasons, or for realism, but just don’t do it causally,” Benedict said. “And you better understand what sexual assault does to its victims, as well as the motivations from the perpetrator’s point of view so you don’t fall into harmful clichés.”
Benedict continued. “I’ve covered this subject as both a journalist and a novelist and I found myself thinking that I have very different standards for the two things,” she said. “I’ve always encouraged my [journalism] students and other reporters to be quite graphic when covering nonfiction sexual assault—graphic in a clinical way, not using eroticized words, like stripped, touched, or caressed.
But when it comes to fiction, I feel that the most responsible thing to do is pay attention to the affect on the victim and how he or she is suffering from this attack. To get over the eroticism, to get over anything that sounds like porn, perhaps its best not to describe what happened, but concentrate on the fear, pain, trauma, degradation, and the annihilation one feels when being assaulted,” Benedict said.
Of course, it didn’t take long for Game of Thrones to come up in the discussion. If you follow the HBO series, you’ll know I’m referring to the scene from last season in which Sansa Stark is raped on her wedding night. During the panel, I was surprised when writers Lux Alptraum and Jada Yuan took opposing views on the now-notorious scene.
“I saw some reactions that seemed to indicate that just the presence of rape on Game of Thrones was bad,” said Alptraum. “That gave me pause because I’m a woman who has experience with sexual assault…and to create art that has no sexual assault, to me, is not an authentic representation of really significant experiences in the life of myself and other women that I know.”
Alptraum defended the scene because the camera pans away from Sansa—the victim—then focuses on her adoptive brother who is forced to watch.
“I know some people objected to it for making the scene about him, but personally, I thought if they kept the camera on her it would have potentially eroticized it because we’d be seeing it in a voyeuristic way. By seeing the horror of a third party, it’s clear that this isn’t sex.”
Jada Yuan disagreed and argued that the scene wasn’t essential to the plotline. She pointed out that Ned Stark’s death moved entire seasons. However, Sansa was raped and then the season ended.
My own opinion on this scene is the more unpopular one, and I actually got into a couple of squabbles with friends about it over the summer: I actually thought it scene felt pretty authentic. As Alptraum said during the panel, what else would you expect in a highly patriarchal society? That said, I expect this scene to affect the plotline next season. If the writers never return to this moment to explore the long term affects on the characters and chain of events in the upcoming season, I will be disappointed in the show.
Overall, the panel discussion reinforced my opinion that sexual assault has a place in authentic storytelling. But even when written with the best of intentions, depictions of rape and abuse will undoubtedly be painful for many people to read or observe if your medium is film. Therefore, these scenes must be treated with purpose and respect.
“I hope you do write about sexual assault,” said Alptraum. “Write about it in a way that’s honest, and remember that there is no one rape experience. Sometimes people love or convince themselves that they love the person who assaulted them. And that’s something we don’t see… write about that.”
Lauren Johnson is a contributing writer for Café Américain and a second-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.