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The Romance of Rape December 16, 2012

There's a terrible disconnect between societal attitudes towards rape in the real world and rape in fiction. In the real world, rape is always bad (unless it happens to men in prison, but that's another story). But in fiction—particularly romances—rape can either be good or bad. And there's a very delicate difference between them: When the rapist is handsome and cool, rape is good. When he's not, rape is bad.

I stumbled on an amusing comedy routine the other day by the late Bill Hicks.

I tell you, Satan's gonna have no trouble taking over here 'cause all the women are gonna say, "What a cute butt."

"He's Satan!"

"You don't know him like I do."

"He's the Prince of Darkness!"

"I can change him."

As long as a character has a gorgeous face and a manly figure, readers will cling to the belief that he has a heart of gold deep down, and only the heroine can dig it out and polish it up if she perseveres. In one of the Anne of Green Gables books, Anne writes a short story. Everyone loves it. Except...they wanted the heroine to end up with the villain. The hero was boring. Anne is shocked—the villain was a horrible, horrible person. Why on earth would you wish the poor girl a fate like that? But her friends look at her earnestly and say, "She could change him!"

Here we've muddied the waters with one of the unfortunate rules of gender roles: Men Act, Women Are. A male character who is good and noble but does nothing exciting is "lame." A male character who's mean and selfish but does something, even if it's malicious and sadistic, automatically wins a boat full of shippers for being a Sexy Badass. I've talked before about how the standard is flipped for females, who can whine and cry and be as useless as they want. As long as they're "nice," they're beloved.

This is how we end up with Rape Is Fun stories. Admirable heroines are sweet and virginal martyrs; admirable heroes are rough and bold leaders who take what they want by force. And when you throw in visuals of heartthrob actors...hoo boy.

I watched a Korean miniseries once in which the heroine was torn between two love interests (as they always are). One was a sweet childhood friend working hard to support his family and achieve his dream of becoming a major league baseball player. He took her in when she needed a home, helped her avenge her parents' murder, and endured all kinds of abuse for her sake. The other was a spoiled heir who sent mobsters to beat up the hero and kidnap the heroine. But! He was played by a popular pop star with trendy hair—the ultimate redeeming feature. She married the baseball player in the end, thank goodness, but the fans were livid. "Nooo! She was supposed to end up with the man who humiliated her repeatedly and treated her like his personal slave! He's so much prettier than the other guy!"

This is what TV Tropes calls "Draco in Leather Pants" syndrome. Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter books is small, mean, and arrogant. Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies, played by Tom Felton, is hot-t-t-t-t. From the perspective of thousands of posters on fan fiction websites, he clearly deserves Hermione more than Ron, by virtue of his actor's superior hotness.

Speaking of fan fiction, let's talk about Fifty Shades of Grey. E. L. James was recently named the Publisher's Weekly "Publishing Person of the Year." Her erotic trilogy is hailed the Western world over for empowering women to celebrate their hidden kinkiness. And what, exactly, are her books about? A cold, ruthless business tycoon with a thirst for the "S" half of S&M taking advantage of a naïve college girl with low self-esteem. So empowering!

But oh, it isn't glorifying rape. He just likes to play at rape for the rush. And it's all cool 'cause she likes it and he really loves her. He just won't admit it!

Here's where writers and readers get confused: rape has nothing to do with love. It doesn't even have anything to do with sexual arousal. It's about pure power. It's about domination and feeling superior by manipulating victims and inflicting pain. But somehow, somewhere along the course of the 20th century, we managed to turn it into an act inspired by "uncontrollable desire."

I get that women like to feel wanted. Our desirability largely determines our social value among both sexes. According to this review article in The Observer, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science, "Mothers give more affection to attractive babies. Teachers favor more attractive students and judge them as smarter. Attractive adults get paid more for their work and have better success in dating and mating. And juries are less likely to find attractive people guilty and recommend lighter punishments when they do."

So we all want to be attractive and well-liked, with all of the benefits attached. And that's fine, until we take it as far as coming up with fantasies in which we're so lovely that we drive wealthy, handsome men to do crazy rape us. I don't think I need to explain why rape isn't nearly as fun in real life as it sounds in Sweet Savage Love, or why being beaten with a belt by a man who treats you like a blow-up doll isn't nearly as romantic as E. L. James seems to think.

And you see it discussed less often, but women forcing themselves on men is just as big a problem in fiction. Raunchy comedies like Wedding Crashers and 40 Days and 40 Nights play rape for laughs; both have scenes of attractive women tying unwilling men to beds as if it's (a) funny and (b) no big deal. Even in the youth-oriented Harry Potter, teenage girls slip date rape drugs—um, I mean "love potions"—into boys' drinks with oh-so-hilarious consequences.

"But what's the big deal?" you ask. "Everyone can tell the difference between fiction and reality. The world isn't crawling with vampires and billionaire bachelors and CIA agents with psychic abilities, either, but I don't see you complaining about it."

The problem is that the "happy happy rape" dynamic is so prevalent in our fiction that it's bled into real-life attitudes and behaviors. Studies by feminists have shown that more than fifty percent of women have said "no" when they really meant "yes." And when men report being raped or harassed by women, they're guaranteed to get one or all of the following responses from loving friends and family:

  • "But she's hot! What's the problem?"
  • "What are you, gay?"
  • "Let's be honest—you're never gonna get that lucky again."
  • "Liar. That's physically impossible. You must have wanted it."

In some of my early stories, I too had unknowingly exhibited the same "rape is exciting" attitude. I'd absorbed it over a lifetime of consuming scenes in books and movies that celebrate it, like the hero's rape of Dominique "by engraved invitation" in The Fountainhead, or Mr. Rochester forcing kisses on Jane while telling her to "be still; don't struggle so, like a wild frantic bird that is rending its own plumage in its desperation." But now I make an effort to keep the tiniest hints of endorsing it out of everything I write and say. And everyone else should as well.


Cathy Yardley (December 22, 2012 5:20 am)

Just found your blog via your comment on WU. First: I loved your comment! I'm afraid I would be what Porter would consider a "tripe" writer. I don't particularly care, but I know that my grammar is probably atrocious and any comment I made would either look like sour grapes or be dismissed out of hand: I make up words, I use slang (in dialogue and exposition) and I'm not well versed in the niceties. Your response was thoughtful, and you're right -- the chorus of "you're right, you're brilliant!" would probably garner some sort of backlash. Bravely done.

Second, I'm glad I've found your blog. From what I've read, you actually look at all sides of an issue, you back up your arguments, and you're reasonable. I'm very glad to "meet" you!

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