Writing rape: Where do you draw the line?

Is it literature or romantic fantasy or voyeurism or porn when rape happens in a novel? If you’re the writer, presumably you know what you want it to be. But wanting doesn’t always make it so. I keep thinking about this as I read the Outlander books.

There was a lot of outrage recently when the Starz television show of the first book dramatized the rape of comely young hero Jamie Fraser by another man. Some thought it was just plain out of bounds.

I don’t get Starz, but perhaps because one of the strongest complaints came from a friend who also had serious difficulty with my most recent novel, I was intrigued. Just that a woman writing a romance (okay, historical/time travel/romance/adventure) novel made the rape of her leading man a plot point intrigued me. I’d never seen rape of a male addressed in fiction outside of Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” and, of course, “Deliverance.” But males do get raped. Our prisons are so notorious for it that we make nervous jokes about it. (And why isn’t that a national scandal?)

OutlandercoverSo when a copy of “Outlander” showed up under my nose while I was organizing the book section at the thrift store, I bought it. (This is perhaps an illustration that even bad publicity is good publicity.) It didn’t hurt that it had the actors on the cover and the fellow playing Jamie is rather fetching.

No doubt the TV version of this rape, which I haven’t seen, shows this actually happening in real time. Gabaldon gets away with it in her book at least partly because it is told after the fact, not happening right there in front of us. There’s a lot of that in that first novel, quite expertly done. Whenever point-of-view (POV) character Claire Randall is not on the scene for key plot turns, Jamie can be counted on to become an incredibly gifted storyteller, even about things you’d expect most traumatized young fellows to keep quiet.

(Yes, I can just hear myself in a writing group telling Gabaldon she should make Jamie another POV character so we could see these scenes happening in real time, and her smiling and quietly thinking, “No, thank you, I’ll just wait a decade or two for the TV version.” But I do notice that she is branching out in her POV as the books go along.)

But since Jamie is such an excellent storyteller, we get quite a lot of vivid detail. I found myself admiring Gabaldon’s daring. In the same situation, I backed way, way off. I’m not sure anyone who has read “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire” even realizes that Molly and Stephen have something in common after that party at Gina’s house, because I couldn’t see Stephen ever telling Molly about it. Molly does wonder about it, and wonders why it would be so much more unspeakable than what happened to her — but that’s it. Stephen is no Jamie Fraser. He just wants to get the hell out of town.

I backed off with Molly, too. Most of the rape scene ended up cut out, mostly because I ultimately decided that if I wasn’t willing to read it out loud to my writing group, maybe it shouldn’t be there. Maybe the point would be better made without quite so much horrifying detail. Most of all, I was afraid that someone would get off on it for all the wrong reasons, a tension that comes up explicitly in regard to Molly’s mother’s art later in the book.

And that’s the most discomforting issue with writing about rape, to my mind. There’s a whole ton of romance and erotica, especially after “Fifty Shades of Grey,” that glories in submission, and rape fantasies are part of that. I won’t claim to be immune to its charms, either, which is a pretty embarrassing admission for a feminist. “Outlander” at least skirts the border of this phenomenon. Is this what makes the books so popular?

According to Daniel Bergner’s fascinating New York Times Magazine article “What Do Women Want?” there’s research that shows women are almost always turned on by sexual imagery, and not too fussy about what it is (men on men, men on women, women on women, bonobos on bonobos). Women SAY they’re not aroused by the non-hetero (and non-human) pairings, but measuring devices show they are. Some women, the article notes, even admit to getting aroused while being raped (which generally intensifies their sense of shame).

Meredith Chivers, the scientist whose work is the focus of the article, theorizes that this has been bestowed on females by evolution: the average cave woman was presumably  at pretty decent risk of being raped. Arousal during an assault provides protection against injury, infection, and death, and thus increases the likelihood that a woman will at least live long enough to bear and raise children. Chivers also theorizes that it may be more a physiological reflex than a matter of actual lust.

If so, I’m thinking that physiological reflex seems to inform a hell of a lot of dubious romance. How else do we explain the success of Luke and Laura? And why are the loudest objections to “Outlander”  over Jamie’s rape and not some really questionable interactions between Jamie and Claire?

There has been controversy over a beating — and, yes, it gave me pause. I was willing to accept it in that historical context, but I had a hard time forgiving the author for making a kind of saucy joke out of it, with Jamie happily confessing to enjoying it.

But maybe it was because I’d been forewarned about those last two scenes that I actually had much more trouble with a later scene. Jamie warns Claire that he won’t be able to be gentle, and although he does give her a chance to get the hell out while she can, he doesn’t oblige later when she says, “Stop, please! It’s hurting me.” And we’re meant to believe she then continues to have passionate, flesh-tearing, screaming, ridiculously violent sex with him that turns into a moment of great emotional completion.

Really? Okay, so maybe the bonobo/lizard brain in me is getting turned on by that despite myself, but the feminist me thinks: Seriously? Are we going to allow a romantic hero to make the excuse of rapists everywhere? He can’t help it? Under emotional duress, even a man as heroic and intelligent and affectionate as Jamie can’t control himself? Once a man’s in bed with you, all bets are off? How could you not feel betrayed when he can’t listen to what you’re saying at that most basic level?

So I call bullshit on that scene. I don’t believe it of those characters, and I also don’t think it should ever be an excuse for any man anywhere. And I’m a little alarmed that this sort of thing seems to sell so well.

The other scene that really bugged me arrives a little later, when Jamie freaks out that his sister has named a kid he thinks was the product of rape for him (yeah, rape is a constant threat in those books — if that bothers you, don’t even pick them up), and that she married his best friend after becoming defiled.

Seriously? Jamie was pretty inconsistent there. He’s an earthy Highlander who’s quite happy to marry a widow who isn’t a virgin, but freaks out because his own sister wants to marry a man after being (apparently, but not actually) raped? What the hell is that sudden patriarchal squeamishness about? So what if she was raped? It wasn’t her choice if she was. At that point in the book I honestly wished she had been, just so Jamie could learn that that he was being a complete clot-heid about it. Instead, he was simply corrected about the status of her virginity prior to marriage.

Yes, his reaction might have been historically accurate. And presumably he has to re-think that as the plot moves along. (He does react better in a similar situation later.) God save us all from the expectation of female purity. Women get honor-killed and beaten and ruined and ostracized for that all the time even today. Enough, already.

I’m really hoping that the popularity of these novels is more because of interesting characters and fast-paced, intriguing plots than the sex. Or that if it is the sex, that women  realize it’s fantasy sex, not real sex.

And meanwhile, of course, I’m still reading.

The writing life: Should we risk offending people, or not?

Last month, an article in the Romance Writers of America newsletter Romance Writers Report by Jennifer Fusco caused quite a bit of controversy by recommending that authors avoid controversy. It gave specific examples in telling authors what to avoid comment on: “…religion. Gay marriage. The ruling in Ferguson, Missouri. Politics.”

Screen cap from Sean Munger: https://seanmunger.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/rwr-advice.jpg

Screen cap from Sean Munger: https://seanmunger.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/rwr-advice.jpg

And thus, ironically, Fusco did exactly what she was advising authors not to do.

The response apparently began with Racheline Maltese, who writes LGBTQ romances and was understandably offended by the idea that she should shut up about a matter of basic civil rights.

Sean Munger took it a step further, noting that the kind of author who would avoid any comment on matters like this is just plain boring. I think it’s a brilliant analysis.

Then again, it’s convenient for me to think that, because I find I just can’t shut up about this stuff. I did try. One of the first things I did before starting out into social media was read M.J. Rose and Randy Susan Meyer’s What to Do Before Your Book Launch (which is quite useful, yet oddly costs at minimum $115 new at Amazon right now — and, I’m sorry, but it’s not THAT useful — the first link up above is the ebook for Nook at $5.99). It essentially offered the same advice, without the specifics to rile people up.

It was advice that resonated for me at that point, because at the time I had just taken my son’s computer for fixing to a local guy whose shop turned out to be full of rabidly anti-Obama stuff. While this was still arguably better than going to get some high school kid to work on it at the national chain where I’d bought the machine, I swore that I was never going back to that guy again. (Incidentally, his web site gave me no clue of what I was getting into.)

It’s not that I boycott businesses owned by Republicans — I have a number of Republican friends. I occasionally even vote Republican in local elections. But I felt practically assaulted by all the vitriol in his shop — and I couldn’t help but conclude that anyone THAT rudely in-my-face about his politics didn’t really deserve my business.

And in social media there’s often no mediating personal relationship. I may not know that you are at heart a kindly fellow who will go out of his way to help the poor at the local food pantry. I only know that you are spreading what I consider racist propaganda. CLICK! You’re unfollowed.

This works both ways, of course. I notice that if I get specifically down on, say, the GOP’s attitude towards what they call “entitlement” programs, I immediately lose some Twitter followers.

Of course, it doesn’t pay to be too fast in our judgments, especially in an age of irony. Is this guy joking or is he serious?

The thing is that while I do indeed try to employ what Mary Maddox describes as “a benign detachment that leaves room for readers to draw their own conclusions,” anyone who reads my books with a keen eye may notice a strong point of view about feeding the hungry and marriage equality (and other aspects of inclusiveness in the Episcopal Church) in The Awful Mess, and about women’s rights and justice issues surrounding rape in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.

So if I’m going to anger people who disagree with me on those issues anyway, why should I hold back before they buy the book? Is it my job to try to fool people into thinking they’re going to read something else?

Of course, after teaching college English for some years, I have also noticed that people will read pretty much whatever they want to believe into any given book. Seriously. So … yeah, if I didn’t want to chase away any potential readers, I suppose I could keep my views hidden and they might never even notice that I disagree with them.

But I still can’t do it. These views matter, or I wouldn’t have written in the books in the first place! I didn’t write the books to be able to say, “Hey, look, I wrote some books! Aren’t they shiny?” I wrote them to say something. It’s all working towards the same end. It’s all living out loud.

So I’m just going to be as obnoxiously opinionated as I feel called to be by my concept of the truth. Yours may well vary from mine. We can still respect each other’s right to speak. You never know, the world might even benefit from our discussion.

Rules for dating my daughter

Some time ago this t-shirt made the rounds of Facebook and Twitter, and met with general approval from the wild-eyed feminists I tend to hang out with:

feminist dad t-shirt

From https://www.facebook.com/rhrealitycheck














I certainly approved of it as an antidote to some other much more macho versions I’ve seen, like this one:

rules for dating my daughter -- macho version

Via Anna Eaton on Pinterest


Talk about being hostile and possessive. (Though I totally agree with the doorbell thing.) It all seems to amount to this, really:

Rules for dating my daughter you can't

Via Anna Eaton on Pinterest
















And that’s just about as patriarchal as it gets. Also, I’m the mother of a teenage son, and I don’t really appreciate these sentiments being directed at him. It’s as if these guys were all such sleazes in their own dating days that they expect the worst from every other young man.

Not that I’m going to suggest typical young men — and quite a few older men — are not highly, highly motivated to get some.

Which is, of course why there are risks out here for young women who are dating (or just trying to get a meeting with Bill Cosby). And my novel The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire demonstrates at least one of those risks fairly dramatically.

But how many people would really be willing to apply “She makes the rules. Her body, her rules” to their own teenage daughters?

The heroine’s arguably wacko feminist mother in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire DOES hold this philosophy and actually puts it into practice at a key moment …. and plenty of women I consider feminists react to that moment by saying “WHAT? She said WHAT?”

Not without reason. The 17-year-old may be legally of age (in Massachusetts) and unusually mature, but she’s recently survived a harrowing ordeal. And the fellow she wants to make her own rules with is a much older man who is messed up in his own way, though I don’t consider him a predator.

And perhaps it’s easy for me to try to support the idea that SHE makes the rules, because I don’t have a biological daughter, and my stepdaughter is now safely grown up (though we had plenty of nail-biting moments), and I myself avoided most of the dangers of immature sexual experimentation by being a total nerd for a long, long time.

But I was a daughter. And while my childhood was thankfully not much like Molly’s, I do remember how I felt about being protected from my own opportunities to grow up: I resented it.

My old Clearwater High School friend Gayle recently posted on Facebook about how I had a “purity of purpose” in high school, whereas she was obsessed with boys. The reality was that I just kept my obsessions quieter. Yes, I campaigned for Jimmy Carter at age sixteen. And yes, I was enthralled by him (a Southern liberal! It was such a refreshing concept!). But a lot of that effort had to do with the fact that I was canvassing with the lovely young Michael Billiris. (He never laid a finger on me, I’m sad to say, though I’m not sure I would have had the slightest idea what to do if he had.)

When Carter won, Michael and I were of course invited to the local campaign party to celebrate, and that was when my dad said no. My father was a local journalist and he knew what those parties were like — probably not at all a safe place for a naive 16-year-old. Even though I know this now, that “no” still rankles all these decades later. I worked on that campaign, damn it! And Michael Billiris was going to that party!

Maybe Dad saved me from some horrible trauma. But as far as I was concerned, when it came to all that stuff I was always waaaaay behind my peers.

The thing is, learning how to handle sex is part of growing up. For girls as well as boys. There’s fumbling around and figuring out what the deal is, especially since everybody has been trying so hard to keep you from learning it.

There’s learning how to cope with people who want it from you — perhaps especially if you don’t want it with them — or to cope with people who don’t want it with you when you desperately want it with them.

There’s crappy beginner sex, getting-better-with-practice sex, and, hopefully, some really great sex. Maybe you’re lucky and it’s all with the one great love of your life. Most of us aren’t that lucky. (And do people that lucky actually know how lucky they are?)

The thing is, you can’t ever just check sex off your bucket list as something you’ve done. All your life, you’ll be affected by your own and your partner’s (or partners’) libido. You are going to have to cope with the sometimes heartbreaking difference between sex and love, between sex and actual emotional intimacy, between sex and commitment. You may be faced with betrayal or boredom or disability. You may be one of those sad people who compulsively pursue sex even against your own best interest (see Bill Clinton, or Arthur in The Awful Mess).

As parents, we’d love to make sure this area of life always goes well for our kids, along with everything else. Hopefully, we teach our sons and daughters to respect themselves enough that they won’t do things they don’t really want to do just to be accepted. Hopefully, we teach them to respect others enough that they won’t wreak horror on someone just because they can.

And perhaps fortunately, there’s a sort of natural limit after which it becomes creepy to the rest of the world if we don’t let go and let our children make their own decisions about it.

Their bodies. Their rules.

But, oh Lord, please help them get them through it safely.

As I told a reader at the Sand Lake Town Library this weekend, if reading The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire keeps just one young woman (or young man, for that matter) from getting drunk at a party and paying the price for it, it will have been worth everything I put into it.

And if it prevents even one person from judging someone harshly for a youthful misstep in this area, that will make me happy, too.

What about you? When do you think “her body, her rules” kicks in?