I’m Sick of Rape in Fiction

There was recently an article in the Washington post about how many TV shows have female characters who are raped, and the importance of showing the reaction and power of survivors. Media representation is important, and it is true that many women experience sexual assault. But what is so frustrating about media portrayals of sexual assault is that it’s rarely used to explore sexual agency, the feelings of violation for the survivor, or the ways that survivors can put themselves back together. In fact, sexual assault in media often happens in settings utterly unlike our own: on Game of Thrones, where women have no power, or on Mad Men, at a time when sexual assault wasn’t even a crime, and even in cop shows in which women are abducted (not a particular common circumstance for rape).

Now I’m the first to point out that fiction, and even fiction that does not directly parallel everyday experiences can do amazing things to help people understand their experiences and feel represented, inspired, or connected. However I have a hard time buying that most of the portrayals of rape on TV today have been placed there for these reasons. Instead, the rape narratives that seem to saturate media are so far from representative of the actual lived experiences of survivors that I have a hard time seeing them as anything but plot points. And that’s simply lazy storytelling. A friend of mine pinpointed exactly what feels off about them: assault is often thrown into a show for no reason as a set piece or window dressing. Sexual assault becomes a setting.

This becomes more obvious when we look at the fact that many of the TV shows that include sexual assault regularly are those that have created a world in which women have no power. Things have been rigged, because the creators chose to place the assault in times and places in which there are obvious, overwhelming, systematic ways of oppressing women as a way to further illustrate the ways that men dominate women.

This is not only lazy storytelling, but it so deeply trivializes the actual experience of being sexually assaulted that oftentimes I can’t even watch the shows anymore. It turns rape into something that happened in bad times when things were so unequal that women couldn’t own property or marry who they wanted. And they’re almost always forceful. They’re not the cajoling, wheedling “I’m not sure if I get to label this rape but it feels so violating” kind of sexual assault that often happens in partner rape, or the slightly drunken moments that someone takes advantage of. They imply that rape is a thing of the past, that happened when women were disempowered by powerful, vicious men who took what they wanted through their strength. Things aren’t like that anymore, right guyz?

These aren’t real stories about what it feels like to be raped, about how you scramble to put your life back together. These are plot points, plain and simple. They linger sometimes, but more often than not they’re forgotten or used to redeem or condemn. They’re about painting the man in certain ways, about punishing the woman or giving her an excuse to hate. Rape isn’t like that. Oftentimes rape is the only backstory that women get and it’s the backstory that every woman gets  (especially strong women because how else would a strong woman exist if she weren’t just getting uppity about her ladyparts).

In real life rape isn’t the delineation between “he’s my boyfriend” and “I hate him, he’s a bad man”. It isn’t the delineation between ‘bitch” and “sympathetic character”. Rape is pain and trauma. Rape is often the breaking of a relationship, or the terror of trying to understand how someone you love can do something like that to you, or flashbacks, or distrust, or guilt.

Most of these plotlines don’t give us an insight into what it’s like to be a woman dealing with rape because of the way the world is set up, the pervasiveness of sexism, and how quickly the rape is generally forgotten. They don’t show what it’s like not to be believed, they don’t show what it’s like not to be sure if it was rape, they don’t often show the wide variety of types of rape, they don’t show an average woman being raped, they show a queen or a KGB agent. This isn’t representation, this is a sick kind of idealization that underscores the general societal beliefs that rape doesn’t really happen that much and when it does it’s because a very evil misogynistic man wanted to abuse a woman.

There are good ways to write stories about rape. In fact there is a serious dearth of realistic, meaningful stories that include rape. But what we’ve got now just isn’t cutting it.


Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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  1. I absolutely agree – this is just a lazy way to pack emotion into a short time frame and has no relation to reality. I feel the same way about the gratuitous use of the death of a child (or children) when it used merely to evoke an emotional response – especially since I became a father 21 years ago. I have a rule that I will not watch anything that does that (I am not looking at you, “In Bruges”), and maybe now I have another rule.

  2. You didn’t mention this, but it’s also important to note the frequency with which the rape (usually, but not always, paired with the murder) of a woman is used to give backstory and motivation to a male character. Her husband, her lover, her brother, her father … these are the characters framed as important, and the woman is only important insofar as her victimization gives impetus to the man’s story.

  3. I agree very much about this being a trope. Cell phone = self-centered person with priorities out of whack; rape (in any period pieces) = men were very sexually assaulty in olden times. It’s a great point to make. The solution of exploring these issues from the victim’s perspective might be hard in TV and movies, though. A book can easily go into depth about thoughts and feelings created by such a crime. TVs and movies are more reluctant to show internal monologues, and it is probably in character for many of these women to internalize the crime and not speak about it to others. Plus, the victims are usually not the character driving the story, but bit players to begin with. I guess, start with making women the center of some stories, and maybe we’ll get around to addressing this issue with some depth.

  4. Don’t forget–the closer that a portrayal of rape is to real-world modern rapes (the drunken rape, the relationship rape), the more likely it is for this to be played as sexy and a source of arousal, rather than as an act of violation and criminality. It’s the more disturving version of Slap Slap Kiss, where the momentary struggle turns into a seemingly consensual encounter.

  5. Quite often rape of women is reduced to a motivation for the male hero to go on adventuring. Damsel in a refrigerator. It still isn’t portrayed as a horrible crime against a woman, but as a crime against a man. They are raped to punish a man, making it not about her, but about him. Torture him by making him watch how she is raped… Again it is no longer about the assault of the woman herself but all about him, he becomes the real victim, she becomes a prop.
    Hardly ever are the consequences for the woman dealt with in a realistic fashion. It’s either the plot device that explains why she’s such a hateful person, or she is broken for all times, no longer wa person dealing with the many facetts. Either way her life is ruled by the assault.

    1. You know, in addition to trivializing rape and abuse, the women in refrigerators trope also trivializes grief. Grief isn’t a motivational fuel source. It’s not a plot point you can resolve. It doesn’t round out your personality. Grief is agony. It’s not the least bit romantic.

      We don’t talk much about grief as a culture, because we don’t talk much about death. It seems the only time we come together and discuss the effects of loss on these childish revenge fantasies, and I can’t imagine that’s healthy.

      This kind of lazy storytelling really needs to go. We’re better than this as a species.

    2. I liked the way Anita Sarkeesian put it: “In the game of patriarchy, we’re not players. We’re the ball!”

      Traditional attitudes are that rape is horrible for the wrong reasons, that it’s all about one dude using another dude’s property without permission. You still see some of this when people inquire as to a victim’s sexual history.

  6. Just for the record, as a counterpoint, can anyone point of specific notable examples of fiction where sexual assault is portrayed in a way that doesn’t have the effect Olivia is talking about in this blog post?

    1. The only one I can think of is Jodi Foster’s Oscar winning performance in The Accused. It deals with a woman who was already strong before but after was not only strong but also afraid, vulnerable, angry, and any number of other things, almost like she was a person. It’s sad that it’s so rare to have that of women in media in general much less one that looked at sexual assault in such an unblinking manner. At least I thought it was, but I’ve not been assaulted.

  7. Yes! to all of this. Even beyond the whole triggery issue rape scenes are incredibly distressing. As you’ve all said, she’s either destroyed by the rape because it’s really about advancing a male-centric plot, or she’s turned into a “strong” woman by it, in which case a man’s actions still define the female character. Occasionally she overcomes it all to carry on and it seemingly never haunts or troubles her once she’s “faced” it. What doesn’t happen is that she gets on with her life, but it becomes one piece of how she interacts with the world. Because she is a human being who has had an experience that she will interpret as an individual, according to her individual situation and life. It doesn’t seem to occur to writers that her story might be worth exploring for more than just what has happened to her body.

  8. The HBO Game of Thrones series added in a rape that wasn’t in the books. The sex with Jamie next to the body of her dead son is entirely consensual in the books.

    GRRM does have rapes in the books but not for the purpose of casual ‘character development’. There are multiple principal female characters: Cersei, Brienne, Arya, Sansa, Catlyn, Margery, Asha, none get raped that I recall. Even Dannerys who is sold to Ghenghis Khan as a bride does not get raped (though her brother says he would let here be raped by all 1000 of his followers and their horses to sit on the Iron Throne).

    The rapes that do occur are part of the general carnage of war and are mentioned rather than being made into scenes. The main point of the books is that the elites are playing at war over family honor and are completely careless of the deaths and other effects on the ‘smallfolk’. They are prattling on about chivalry when their actions are completely contrary to any code. Meanwhile winter is coming (climate change?).

    1. Yes, it’s extremely unfortunate that much of the subtlety and the important messages of the books are being sliced clean out of the show. It’s bloody frustrating.

    2. Correction: they added two rapes that weren’t in the book. The first was Dany and Drogo’s consummation.

      1. Correction: they added one rape. I don’t care how “nicely” he did it, I don’t care that there’s no statuatory rape law in that world. An adult male having sex with a child (lets not forget that she’s under 16 in the books) is still rape to me.

        Not to mention all the times after that night when she has to bite into her pillow to hide the tears. Sounds like consensual sex to me.

        1. I thought of Dany being 13. It’s kind of weird, since per GRRM, the Dothraki are a hodgepodge of plains Indians and Mongols. Which makes me wonder why Drogo’s a bachelor. His rank would indicate he’s in his late 20s at least, but the fact that he’s single, at least for plains Indians, means he can’t be over 16 or 17. Or, if we use the Pawnee (since Momoa claims a Pawnee ancestor) about 13, since Pawnee boys entered a polyandrous marriage shortly after puberty; at the end of that marriage, the young man’s wife would arrange his second marriage.

          1. It is unclear. Most of the artwork produced by fans shows him to be much older, but his age is never actually stated and isn’t listed. He could have been an Alexander, gaining his power and position at a very young age, or he could have been in his twenties or even thirties.

            I won’t lie, though. Dany’s entire experience was all sorts of disturbing.

          2. Well, a 13-year-old having sex is always disturbing. But it is weird that he’s single at that age, all things considered.

            (As an aside, there’s a Lakota story about the north wind coming south to steal the south wind’s bride every year. The north wind is also associated with wolves and crows.)

    3. Daenerys was 13 when she married Drogo. Sansa is *almost* raped many times, though, and I imagine Littlefinger will do something, since to him, she’s Catelyn 2.0 and nothing else. It just happens she’s lucky her husband is Tyrion, who has plenty of experience with sexual abuse.

      Oddly, most of the principal Game of Thrones characters who are forced into sex are dudes. Ygritte tells Jon that if he doesn’t sleep with her, her friends will kill him. Tyrion…Tywin Lannister has an unusual way of telling jokes. He tells one son half the joke, and the other son the other half. The more traditional rape is almost always minor characters.

      The books add another moment to it. Only Robert actually accuses Rhaegar of raping Lyanna. I don’t think they loved each other; honestly, I know nothing about their motives. But you’d think the last person to see her alive would have mentioned if his sister had been raped. But remember, Robert…is a bad king, so he needs Lyanna’s rape to cast himself as the hero.

      So, you have it: GRRM totally deconstructed the disposable woman trope!

      1. You have to dig in a bit to puzzle it out, but it seems pretty clearly implied that Rhaegar and Lyanna fell in love when she entered the Tournament of Harrenhall as a Mystery Knight to defend Howland Reed’s honor. Rhaegar was one of the people tracking down her identity and could have easily found her.

        Also, the nature of Lyanna’s promise to Ned is unclear, but Ned found her “in a bed of blood” after defeating three of the greatest Kingsguard members who defended her to their deaths. Why would they do this, unless they genuinely believed they were defending Rhaegar’s heir?

        And Lyanna herself was no wilting flower. She was a horse rider, probably secretly trained with weapons, and had ample time when Rhaegar wasn’t there to plan an escape. She couldn’t have been injured that entire time, and I have a hard time believing the Kingsguard allowed her to be chained up.

        No telling, though, until we see Howland Reed in the books, though.

        1. You’re bad at teasing. You know that? See, I just posted what was germane, dropped subtle hints with deliberate ambiguity worthy of a fortune teller (“I know nothing.”), but didn’t outright state Jon was Rhaegar’s son.

          But what I was getting at is, GRRM deconstructing the disposable woman. Robert needs “Rhaegar raped and murdered the only woman I loved” to salve his conscience about ending the Targaryen regime. (Even though, of course, Aerys was an even worse king, just on the grounds that Robert doesn’t get his jollies burning people alive.)

  9. Things have been rigged, because the creators chose to place the assault in times and places in which there are obvious, overwhelming, systematic ways of oppressing women as a way to further illustrate the ways that men dominate women.

    I’ve been chewing over this bit of phrasing for a while.

    Now, I don’t disagree with your article here in the slightest. Everything you’ve said is spot on and I applaud it – the way rape is handled in television and film and most literature is awful.

    This specific sentence though kind of seems backwards, though. Cart before the horse, as it were.
    When and where a show is set depends on a great many factors. What genre it is (high fantasy? Science fiction? Historical fiction?) and what specifically inspired the creator. Whether or not it references specific events in some fashion. Game of Thrones, for instance, is set in a pseudo medieval Europe (for the most part) because it’s based heavily on the War of the Roses and English dynastic conflicts.

    I can’t think of any specific work out there that chooses a setting -because- it is oppressive to women. (One might exist, in order to demonstrate the oppression towards women, but I personally am unfamiliar with any.) Egalitarianism towards women is not a facet of the Song of Ice and Fire setting – but in the books at least, this is because the real heroes are the oppressed, be they dwarfs or bastards or women struggling for recognition in a cis male world.
    The show, sadly, has bungled this. It’s turned many a consensual sexual encounter into flagrant rape and for every character it ennobles or makes more nuanced, it slashes ten more into a cheap cardboard cutout.

    ~ I might be misinterpreting your comment, of course. I can see another way to read it which suggests that you’re saying that it’s unfortunate that creators keep setting their series in these oppressive worlds and don’t explore egalitarian societies sufficiently, in which case, I retract my previous criticism and agree wholeheartedly.

    I would ABSOLUTELY like to see more shows set in periods or fantasy worlds where women aren’t oppressed, though. We need some quality future-set science fiction, or egalitarian fantasy worlds.
    Even in the worlds where women are oppressed, we need to see better representations – essentially, everything you pointed out in the article.

    I have whole shelves of fantasy and science fiction literature which give women an equal voice and equal opportunity. Why can’t we see stuff about that?
    Oh right – because so many media executives are cis white males and the cis white male preference is embedded hard into advertising assumptions.


    1. Sorry that was unclear, I absolutely meant it in the second way you list. Part of my frustration with that is that it seems as if (particularly male) creators can imagine all sorts of fantasy and magic and amazing worlds but they can’t imagine a world with any equality.
      I also don’t have any evidence for this, but I often get the sense that many writers/creators seem to have a bit of a fetish with women’s oppression. They choose nasty settings over and over and then focus gratuitously on the violence and oppression of women in such a way that I can’t see their choice of the setting as an accident. It seems like there’s a perverse satisfaction there. Again, no evidence except a gut feeling.

      1. In science fictiona nd fantasy at least, a lot of it has to do with the history of the thud and blunder genre. (Think Conan as portrayed by everyone whose name isn’t Robert E Howard.) While it’s generally derided as puerile, unoriginal wish fulfillment (In fact, it derives its name from an essay by Poul Anderson calling it puerile, unoriginal wish fulfillment.), thud and blunder had a huge impact on fantasy at large, even if full of What Not To Do. (Do they still have contests to see who can read farthest into The Eye of Argon with a straight face?) So you see things like harem girls almost as a default.

        But seriously, I’m surprised Gor clones remain what people think of when they think of fantasy.

  10. I wanted to add, with Mad Men, as a male victim myself, I remember a few years ago, they said a boy was ‘lucky’ because the woman taking care of him while he was sick (a prostitute) initiated him into manhood. Can’t remember the name, and I can’t stand Mad Men in general. But it’s more evidence that society hates rape for all the wrong reasons. (See also, again, questioning a victim as to her sexual history.)

  11. I really have nothing to add, except that I absolutely agree with everything in the article.

  12. I’m using IMDB to pre-screen everything I watch these days. I end up already having spoilers for basically every minute of anything I see, but I’m a survivor myself, and I don’t sit down to watch tv or movies in order to feel gut punched or angry, so it’s basically either spoilers for everything so I can choose what I watch carefully or don’t watch anything at all.

    1. IMDB can also be unintentionally funny, though. Mostly because you get people who minimize what’s bad about it, movies that should be obvious to anyone, people complaining about movies they don’t watch, and people who have seen the movie and…are almost creepy in their description of it.

      In short, typical internet. LOL

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