I don’t exactly keep it a secret that I am an enthusiastic fan of strong female characters. Whether they’re high-powered businesswomen, vampires, mothers, superheroes, sorceresses, or commanding armadas of interstellar warships, I love these characters. I love identifying with them (the vast majority of my favorite fictional characters tend to be women) and watching their stories unfold.
Unfortunately, part of the grim reality of our world is sexual assault. It happens and, unfortunately, not everyone who commits sexual assault is immediately fed to sharks and/or set on fire (if I were running for office, changing that would be one of my campaign platforms, though).
Sometimes, to create drama, to help readers or viewers to sympathize with one character (or to detest another), or as a part of character development, storytellers will put a sexual assault (successful or otherwise) into a story. A character’s backstory may involve being a survivor of sexual assault, or having witnessed it (especially happening to a family member). Or, a sexual assault may happen during the course of a story.
There can be very good reasons for having this as an element of your plot—I understand that. But I think that it is completely valid and usually preferable to have a female character be in physical danger that is not inherently sexual.
There are a few rules that I would like for everyone to please, please follow if this happens in a story (whether it’s a book, a show, a film, a video game):
1) Sexual assault is not sexy. It should not be sexy. It should not be titillating in the least. No one, including a preteen for whom anything related to sex is potentially exciting, who follows your story should find anything about the scenario appealing.
2) Why is the sexual assault happening? I mean this from the perspective of character-driven storytelling (why does this person want to rape this other person?), but I also want to know how and why this serves the story. If it’s purpose is to provide motivation for a male character to rescue and/or avenge the female character, then please stop being an ass and maybe stop writing. That may sound like I am overreacting, but that kind of story in which female characters lack agency and seem to exist only to provide various types of motivations and goals for male characters is not only overdone—it is toxic.
3) I hate to even mention this one, but it needs to be mentioned—please look at what sorts of people are involved. If you are having, for example, a black man sexually assault a white woman (literally or symbolically—though the use of certain alien species or fantasy races to represent different human ethnicities is a rant for another day), you probably should not. That kind of scenario obtains a gut reaction from certain readers or viewers because it plays into some disgusting racist beliefs and fears.
Beyond those three rules, there are a few things to consider when you wonder if you should write that into your story:
1) It is almost inevitable that sexual assault survivors will be exposed to this story. If this is going to be a widely-consumed work (like a major motion picture), millions of survivors will be exposed to it. Trigger warnings exist online for a reason. Do you really want to do that to your readers? Even if you include the event in your story, there are ways of including a rape in a story that will be easier on certain readers.
2) Is this going to change the way that viewers see the character who is sexually assaulted? I do not mean readers or viewers who will victim-blame or see the survivor as “dirty;” those people can go jump into a volcano. But will readers, viewers, and even other characters see this character in a new way, possibly wanting to baby her, or seeing her as less powerful because they have also seen her in such a vulnerable state? Is that really something that you want?
It is important to note, however, that a storyteller who has a sexual assault, even one that is not handled as well as I would like for it to be, is not necessarily a bad person. At all, even.
In fact, have you guys seen Hansel And Gretel: Witch-Hunters? It’s not the best film in the world, but it’s a thrilling and goofy film with a lot of easy gore (some films are gore films and undesirable, but I did not once cringe or wince at the blood and guts in this film—it was pretty fun).
There’s an unsuccessful sexual assault during the film. It was completely unnecessary and decreased my enjoyment of the film.
But it was not a remotely titillating scene. It’s a really upsetting and violent one.
However, and I won’t spoil who or how, but the way that the sexual assault is interrupted is the best. And I honestly think that that was a big part of why the scene was written into the screenplay. Because we get to see a bunch of rapists get beaten up and killed in various ways, including one whose head just gets crushed.
That I could watch all day long.
And a lot of writers will put people who commit horrible acts into stories with the intention of destroying those people within the story. Sometimes it’s a little unsophisticated and juvenile, but unlike a rape depiction, a scene of revenge against a rapist is always a treat to read or watch.