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.