As a reader, I have encountered many rapey books that make me weep. Here are some tips to see if you're perpetuating rape culture in your books.
First, what is rape culture?
Wikipedia actually has a good, simple definition: Rape culture is a concept used to describe a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape.
When you hear people blame the victim, that is rape culture. When rape is so normal people fail to recognize it as rape, that is rape culture. So let's stop perpetuating it in fiction.
Next, what is rape/sexual assault?
Legal definitions can vary from country to country and even state to state. So I'm not going to get into those. We're going to talk morally. Sexual assault is any kind of sexual contact where one party does not give consent.
Okay, that seems simple and obvious. But books start to get rapey when the authors seem to be fuzzy on consent*, usually with regards to sex between acquaintances or intimate partners. Rape can be the stranger in an alley wearing a mask, but there are many non-violent ways intercourse occurs without consent.
(As an aside, this post is phrased in a heteronormative way, but sexual assault occurs between same sex partners as well as by women against men.)
|Just because she isn't saying no...|
doesn't mean she's saying yes.
- You are drunk/drugged.
Yes, yes, I know--alcohol loosens inhibitions. A lot of people engage in alcohol consumption and then sexual acts. And that's totes okay. But there is a common trope where the heroine drinks a lot, sleeps with someone (the hero usually in romance or romantic comedy), and wakes up unable to remember anything. If your character is getting black out drunk and waking up to not know who she slept with (or if sex occurred), I am concerned. If you choose to do this in your novel, showing her enthusiastically consenting and engaging in the sex act with her partner in the text (ie no fade to black or sudden "the next morning..." scene change) will help it seem less rapey, otherwise readers are left to assume the worst.
I recently read a book by Krista D. Ball where the heroine's long time crush showed up at her home needed to be consoled, quite drunk, and there was a moment where they easily could've fallen in bed together. Instead, the heroine made the conscious choice not to do this, insisting he be sober and in his right mind before it went further. It was an unexpected twist on a common trope and made me root for the couple even more.
And in a similar vein, you cannot give consent if...
- You are asleep.
In real life, this SHOULD be pretty obvious: do not engage in intercourse with someone who is asleep. In fiction, it's another common trope (often in comedy) that makes me facepalm. A woman (or man) is in bed asleep. Someone fondles him or her. Said person wakes up and is all "OMG what?" and it's treated as funny or not rapey.
I'm sorry but this is rapey.
Once again, this is a trope that CAN be effectively turned around but it requires a little extra work on the part of the author. I read one romance where the heroine and hero had engaged in sex throughout the book (obvs) and the hero at one point decides to wake the heroine up with intercourse. This was in his POV and it worked because he spent time pondering the act and her reaction to it--the author addressed the fact that it could be perceived as rapey. And the heroine enthusiastically enjoyed her wake-up call.
You cannot give consent if...
- You are being tricked/deceived into thinking it's someone else.
I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I strongly disliked Riley. But the one time I felt genuinely bad for him was in the fourth season: bad girl slayer Faith switched bodies with Buffy and then banged her boyfriend.
Wait, no, she didn't bang him. She raped him.
Yes, it seems fuzzy, it was Buffy's body, etc. But the fact remains that he thought he was having sex with his girlfriend but it wasn't her--it was someone pretending to be her and she fooled him. This is rape.
Like, seriously even legally this is rape. Sometimes these cases get tossed out or the perpetrators are acquitted, so you will find it different from state to state. Morally? Rapey McRapeson does this kind of thing, folks.
Again, if you choose to use this trope, a) don't do it for laughs, b) have real consequences for it. It was treated on Buffy like relationship drama and ignored the fact that Riley did not give consent to do those things with Faith.
You cannot give consent if...
- You are saying no.**
This seems like a no-brainer. But I know a lot of the time characters in all genres like to fight their attraction and show reluctance, especially in love-hate relationships. So they kiss, someone says no, the other someone kisses them anyway, etc etc.
Okay, we need to please stop doing this.
|"It's not sex...when he changes is mind."|
Also? If a character withdraws consent and the other party continues, that is also rape.
There was another book I read a while back where the hero and heroine were having intercourse and at one point she asked him to stop. He said "too late" and continued until he finished.
I just...what the what?
That is rape. Please do not do this in your book.
Okay, so those are some common non-consent things. What DOES consent look like?
Consent is when both parties say yes enthusiastically.
Not when someone "doesn't say no." Not when someone is physically UNABLE to say no. But when everyone is all like, "YEAH, let's take off our clothes! Woohoo! Sexy times!" while in their right mind. Yes means yes.
It's classic show vs tell, my friends, combined with an awareness on your (and hopefully the characters') part about what consent looks like and how it differs from rape.
The most important thing to remember is that no one--in fiction or in real life--should be treated as though their default position is "yes" to sex. Yes cannot be assumed. Yes must be given. Ignoring this = perpetuating rape culture. Even in fiction.
But, but, but...
Don't "but" the Bitchstress.
Note that there is a difference between depicting behavior realistically and still not condoning it. I'm not saying you can't have your heroine abused or raped*** or not show victim blaming afterward. Victim blaming happens all the time, so of course it makes sense to include it in the book. But there's a difference between showing the victim and/or others blaming her for what happened to her but explicitly NOT condoning it in the text. There is a difference between showing a destructive, abusive relationship and not romanticizing/idealizing it.
Why does this matter? You have power, writers. You have the opportunity to go all Inception on the reader and plant a seed of an idea. You have the power to reinforce for the women reading your books that consent matters and sex should be a positive, welcome experience. You have the power to show victims that what happened to them was not okay and to stand up to a culture where rape is the norm.
Take that power and use it.
Why should you? Why care about this power? Because the odds are, if you're reading this, a quarter of the women you know have been victims of sexual assault. Whether they were molested as children or raped on a date in college or assaulted by their spouse as adults, rape is a reality women live with. A reality that tells them it's their fault or that it didn't even occur or is some kind of "gray" area or that it is somehow romantic. You damn well SHOULD fucking care about that. These are your friends, your family, and your readers.
Next time, we're going to discuss victim blaming and reactions to sexual assault, as well as when it should/shouldn't be used in fiction.
* There is an erotica niche called "dubious consent" which is like "no means yes." Usually one partner says no but physically reacts in a way that enjoys the sexual act. This skeeves a lot of readers out and many publishers do not take this genre. But rape fantasy is an actual thing (which we are not going to debate here, so don't start) and it doesn't involve ACTUALLY wanting to be raped but to control a fantasy where one gives up control. So in this discussion, I want to make it clear I do understand this niche exists and it is not what I'm referring to.
** Unless you have a safe word! But this post is not about How to Talk About Consent in BDSM. It's just general. If someone more knowledgeable than me about the lifestyle would like to write that post, please have at it.
*** In my last book, the heroine engaged in sex with the enthusiastic consent of a partner who was not in his right mind and she knew it. The scene was in character and had to be written, but both she and I were aware of the fact that he couldn't legally consent, and there was text directly discussing this fact, so I did try to be responsible about it.
ETA: Okay, we are getting some great traffic and great comments. Please remember, I carry a mighty banstick. I am very aware of the fact that survivors can be triggered by these sorts of discussions and, guess what? I'd rather a safe comment section for thoughtful replies than worry about butthurt misogynist feelings. So watch your fucking self.
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Finally, because I cannot in good conscience waste the opportunity to do so, if you're reading this post as a survivor of sexual violence, read this article.