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The Ethics of Portraying Sexual Violence in Media

Trigger warning for extensive discussion of sexual violence and rape.

Quick question for you: name me something in common between Louie, Game of Thrones, Outlander, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Battlestar Galactica, Orange is the New Black, The Walking Dead, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Jessica Jones, and A Song of Ice and Fire. You can say they’re all well-known fictional stories, popular with both critics and fans, relevant to their genre/media, and contain explicit or implied sexual violence.

I chose stories I’m familiar with, but it’s not hard to find other examples. Sexual violence is common in the media we consume, particularly in certain genres or channels, and creators are feeling more comfortable depicting it. So we need to have an honest conversation about this, specifically about the ethics of said depiction.

When people complain about the portrayal of sexual violence in media, there seems to be a common misunderstanding that they don’t want sexual violence to be portrayed at all. That simply isn’t true, at least not for us here at The Fandomentals. This is a serious topic and to say we can’t explore it in fiction is to silence an important cultural dialogue, even more so because how we choose to represent things in media impacts our lives.

So we’re not telling people to stop writing about it. Quite the contrary: a story that explores the topic with the attention and care it deserves has meaningful repercussions for the audience and can help inform our cultural conversation about it. After all, it’s easier to discuss sensitive themes when we distance ourselves from them.

But what about stories that don’t explore the topic sensibly? Is every depiction of sexual violence automatically meaningful or contributing to our understanding of the subject? Or it can trivialize the act and dehumanize its victims? What marks the distinction between one and the other? What are potentially problematic depictions? How can writers make sure they’re approaching the subject responsibly? What happens if they don’t? What should we, as the audience, do?

My goal with this piece is to examine those questions and their potential repercussions, even if your mileage may vary. This is still a complex issue, so what may be gratuitous for one may be justified for other; fans may disagree whether or not a certain situation was consensual, and so on. Ultimately, you don’t have to agree with me on everything, and I’m not here to tell you what to think. I just want you to think.

Stories Matter

Like I said, you don’t have to agree with me on everything—but there two points about which there should be some agreement before we move on. Without those two points, anything else I have to say will mean very little.

First point: stories matter. That’s something we kind of insist a lot around here, but I’ll reiterate again because it’s central to understanding the impact of sexual violence in fiction. I’ve seen people dismissing the concern with fictional sexual violence because it’s not ‘the real world’, it’s ‘just a character’, it’s ‘just fiction’, or even because real-life sexual violence is more important. So I’m here to tell you that stories affect and reflect the real world more than you think and this topic is no exception. Also, watch me being able to care about multiple problems at the same time, like a social justice octopus embracing as many relevant social issues as I can.

This brings me to the second point: sexual violence is a serious and widespread problem and needs to be recognized as such. I won’t delve into details because this deserves a separate discussion of its own, but we have to admit that the situation is critical. From perpetrators walking away free to people being willing to rape as long as you don’t use the word ‘rape’, our culture encourages and facilitates sexual violence.

Everybody is a potential victim, and being a potential victim is a condition that lasts forever. The statistics may be kinder to you if you’re male, white, cis, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical, and so on, but start changing those identities for marginalized ones and you’ll see a frightening increase in your vulnerability. Damn, I’m doing fairly well in the privilege scale and the threat of sexual violence is a constant in my life, ingrained in every little thing that I do.

So when people wonder why do we focus on the depictions of sexual violence in particular, as opposed to, say, other forms of violence, here’s your answer. How many people do you know that have been beheaded, hanged, flayed, eaten alive by zombies, etc…? Or that fear the possibility on a daily basis? And now how many people you know that have been victims of sexual violence, of sexual assault, of child sexual abuse, of sexual harassment, etc? Or fear the possibility on a daily basis?

This also means that every time a piece of media depicts an act of sexual violence, several people in the audience will be survivors. For instance, the ratings for “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”, the infamous episode of Game of Thrones depicting the rape of Sansa Stark, indicate 6.24 million viewers in US. If we’re using Rainn’s statistics of 1 in every 6 women being victim of a completed or attempted rape and consider that 42% of Game of Thrones viewers are women, that would gives us 436,800 survivors watching Sansa re-enacting one of the worst experiences of their lives. And that’s in one country alone, and assuming that all cases are reported and make it to the statistics, and not counting HBO Go, illegal downloads, and so on.

Considering this, the way we choose to portray and acknowledge sexual violence matters. For instance, sexual violence against male victims is under-reported and under-recognized, despite being frightfully common. What happens when media depicts sexual violence against men as played for laughs? Or as the man in question being ‘lucky’ that a woman wants to have sex with him so much that she’s willing to force him or manipulate him? That doesn’t help male victims acknowledge that what happened to them was a serious issue, right? Stories are a powerful tool to shape our perception, and if we keep using them to dismiss male victimhood as a unimportant or nonexistent, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when society agrees with that.

In other words, sexual violence and it’s media depiction is serious. It can and does affect millions of people around the world. Dismissing sexual violence in media as “just a story” does a disservice both to survivors and those who live under threat of it every day .

On Intent and Responsibility

Another common misconception is that when we criticize the use of sexual violence in stories we’re attacking the creators of those stories. So let’s be clear: we don’t think that authors that depict sexual violence are people who support it. Depiction is not endorsement, and even well-intentioned writers can fail when dealing with a subject this complex.

We’re also not saying that audiences who don’t notice this pattern or don’t feel affected by it are terrible people. To quote Kylie and Julia,

“We’re just saying to please not silence the voices of those who have noticed it, and who don’t find it acceptable. Because really, why should it be?”

Lack of intention, however, doesn’t mean lack of responsibility. You don’t need intention to do actual harm; you can accidentally step on somebody else’s foot and their foot will hurt just the same. We’re responsible for ourselves and for what we put out there in the world. Regardless of intent, creators are responsible for the things they create. Regardless of intent, we as an audience are responsible for the stories we demand and consume.

Unless someone is coercing an author into writing a story (hopefully not) or their characters come to life when nobody’s looking like a macabre version of Toy Story, the author put those scenes there of their own free will. The author chose to depict sexual violence. In visual media this goes even further because more people are involved: somebody had to draw that scene, or an actor had to be hired and instructed to portray it, etc. Scripts went through an editing process, a director and producer had to sign off on it and translate it from script to screen. There was an active effort from everyone involved to insert sexual violence in a story, so the audience has the right to question if that was actually necessary or what it accomplishes.

The audience is responsible too. Without us, there’s no one to hear a story and the story gets lost. Many of us create or want to create our own content, and the way we engage with existing stories will influence that creation. We can choose to support a story with our money and enthusiasm, or not. We can, and we should, demand better stories. We should stop demanding more sexual violence and we should stop defending creators when they use sexual violence as a cheap narrative tool.

Depicting Sexual Violence in Media

When you depict sexual violence in a story, you force a significant part of your audience to confront their traumas. Some of their worst fears come true in the shape of characters or actors they love. They revisit some of the worst moments of their lives. Maybe they’re still haunted by it. Maybe it happened more than once. Maybe it was someone they trusted and loved. Maybe they never told anyone. Maybe they think it was their fault. Every survivor has a different experience and a different recovery, which is why we should listen to what survivors have to say.

Sexual violence in media isn’t something to be done lightly. You can’t just pretend that this is a scene like any other, that it’s not real, because the repercussions for the audience will be very real. They won’t be over when the credits roll.

How, when and why you depict sexual violence matters. A thoughtful depiction can raise awareness, can help us discuss the subject more easily. It can comfort the victims, can let them know it wasn’t their fault and they’re not alone. It can make their voices heard and help them examine their experiences in a safe environment. Likewise, it can send the perpetrators a message that we, as a society, won’t tolerate their actions.

A gratuitous depiction has consequences too. It means you’re using someone else’s pain as a plot device when you could be writing tons of other situations. It comes at a great emotional cost for the audience, not just victims but also potential victims. Portraying sexual violence as a gimmick or set dressing can desensitize the audience to it, which is the opposite of what we want. Rape culture, after all, comes from the trivialization and normalization of sexual violence and rape.

It’s worth noting that you don’t even have to depict sexual violence if you want to discuss it—Jessica Jones and Mad Max: Fury Road prove it. So ask yourself if you must show the act itself to include the repercussions in your story.

The next logical question, then, is how do we know if a certain depiction is gratuitous?

Problematic Tropes and Where to Find Them

Unfortunately, there’s no objective way to tell if a depiction of sexual violence is meaningful for the audience and justified in the story or not, especially since the outcome can be different for each of us. To make matters more complicated, the same story can have both meaningful and flawed depictions, as well as exceptions on a base-by-case basis.

Still, if you contest poor depictions of sexual violence in media for long enough, you’ll notice a pattern in how authors and audiences justify their inclusion. We can (dare I say should?) question this justification, and point at potentially problematic tropes where depictions may feel unnecessary or do more harm than good.

You’ll notice all of these examples have exceptions. You’ll also notice everyone thinks they’re that exception.

When sexual violence isn’t acknowledged

Sometimes writers don’t know they wrote sexual violence. This means they automatically won’t treat it with the gravity it deserves because they don’t even realize it’s there. This is notably more frequent in depictions of statutory rape, or when the victim is male and/or when the perpetrator is female. We have excellent pieces on the subject so I won’t go into details here, but I want to emphasize how important it is that we acknowledge sexual violence and its victims.

Media has a strong tendency to romanticize acts that are actually sexual assault, especially when it’s one of the ‘good’ characters doing them. This is relevant because our understanding of consent is central to eradicate sexual violence and rape culture. We’re not doing any favors to that understanding when we play sexual violence for laughs, or portray men as perpetually interested in sex, or reward characters that force themselves on their love interests.

Such depictions send a twisted message to both perpetrators and victims. It may even encourage someone to think that what they committed or suffered wasn’t actually sexual violence when it was. It’s all in how you frame it.

Sexual violence because of ‘historical accuracy’

You know the thing, when authors and audience defend the inclusion of a scene with sexual violence on the grounds that “it was just like that back then”. This is more frequent in historical-ish fantasy and comes from a fundamental misunderstanding and exaggeration of actual History. (This is a topic that deserves its own separate piece, but for a start, you can see the final comment on this post that points out actual historical evidence that many cultures were actually far harsher in their view of rape than we are today.)

Oh boy. This has got to be one of my least favorite justifications for the inclusion of sexual violence in media, especially when my favorite authors do it. What I truly hate about this excuse is how much it tries to remove authorial choices from the process, as if sexual violence in a story was an imperative and there was nothing the poor author could do about it.

This is bullshit, of course. Unless you’re a historian writing about historical facts and people, your choices are deliberate. More than deliberate, they’re very telling. If you can’t depict body hair or medieval hygiene because that’s ‘gross’ but background rape must be there, that’s very telling. If your story has ice zombies or dragons or time-travelling but less rape scenes is what would break your suspension of disbelief, that’s very telling.

Fantasy and historical fiction work best when they resemble the real world, but we should question why for some people that ‘realism’ always means sexual violence. Historical fiction is not carte blanche for it, especially if your ‘historical accuracy’ is not that historical and not that accurate. So if I don’t see a better reason for sexual violence to be in your story, I’ll question its inclusion.

Sexual violence as a shortcut for evil or grimdark

These are actually two separate situations that I merged on a single topic because the reasoning behind them is very similar, as are the potential problems.

Sometimes the writer wants a fast way to convey how evil or immoral the villain is. Alternatively, the writer is dealing with a grimdark setting and wants to convey that the characters live in a Crapsack World. Enter sexual violence and there you have it:

“Because rape is widely acknowledged as a Very Serious Topic, there’s also a tendency to treat rape scenes as a means to be edgy or shocking. You know, as a way of creating really serious, mature content. […] One of the reasons that creators of media like to include rape in their work is specifically because it elicits strong feelings, even when divorced from all context and consequences. Think of it as a recipe for cheap drama: Take a story, add one rape, stir vigorously, and presto—instant emotional reaction! This is both incredibly lazy and incredibly callous, but it works, so people keep doing it.” (Laura Hudson for Wired)

There are a few potential problems with that approach. One, if the sole reason for including sexual violence is to convey the grimdarkness of the setting, then the creator is using it as set dressing. This will cause emotional responses on the audience, yes, but it won’t necessarily be meaningful unless the setting is actively criticizing sexual violence or patriarchy or rape culture.

Second, even when the purpose of the narrative and setting is to provide this criticism, not all scenes are automatically meaningful. There comes a point when we get it already. We don’t need, say, 200 rape scenes to understand that we’re dealing with a patriarchal and gritty setting, and we don’t need another background rape to understand that an obviously evil guy is evil.

Third, sometimes this takes the focus from the victim. In those cases the sexual violence is about the setting or the villain. It’s a matter of making a point, instead of being about those affected by it. The victim is often nameless and silent, or soon to be forgotten. How can we have a meaningful conversation about the consequences of sexual violence if we take the focus away from the people who suffer those consequences?

We can illustrate this point with two movies from the Mad Max franchise. In Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, the titular character witnesses a woman being raped… and that’s it. It doesn’t affect the plot or characters and doesn’t really inform setting. It’s just there. Several years later, Mad Max: Fury Road centers on a group of women trying to escape sex slavery. We don’t actually see the sexual violence, but we follow the victims and their motivations and not for one second do we doubt that the setting is heavily patriarchal or that the villains are bad.

Sexual violence for manpain

Don’t. Just don’t.

Manpain is not simply a man in pain, but when you harm, rape, or kill a (most of the time) female character only to give something for your male (and usually white) character to be angsty or revengeful or brooding about. Fridging is awfully common in fiction and has its own set of problems, but it’s even worst when there’s gratuitous sexual violence involved.

I’m not talking about cases when the sexual violence affects a male character too. A character is not an island and it’s likely that something traumatic happening to them will affect those around them. I’m talking about when the purpose of sexual violence in a story is to motivate or develop a male character full stop. The victim is only relevant as someone’s lover, someone’s daughter, someone’s mother. Her perspective is not important, even when she’s right there.

Once more the victim is a footnote, a prop, a detail in someone else’s story. And then you go to real life and see guys saying that only after they had a daughter they understood how bad sexual violence was, or saying you shouldn’t rape someone because the victim is somebody’s sister or mother or daughter. The victims is their own person, they have their own story. The victim matters apart from her relationship to a man.

Sexual violence as empowerment

Trauma isn’t a cheap plot device, or at least it shouldn’t be. Victims of sexual violence are important and deserve to have their stories told, but we should ask ourselves why this is sometimes the go-to conflict for female characters.

Rape-as-empowerment and rape-and-revenge narratives are especially common and bring their own set of unfortunate implications. When you present sexual violence as the only way to empower a female character, it communicates that this act was ‘necessary’ for them to grow. Rape ‘taught’ them, turned them from weak to strong, from a silly and naive girl into a hardened woman. So there’s this mixed message that, yes, rape is bad, but it was for a ‘good’ reason.

“And through it all, there is the strong implication that “strong” and “feminine” don’t go together, and that such a female character cannot empower herself. She must first be deconstructed by trauma, her innocence ripped away, so that she can be rebuilt as someone “strong” — someone not just with resilience, but a different woman than before.” (Rhiannon Thomas for Feminist Fiction)

Don’t get me wrong, of course survivors can find strength after sexual violence. But they find that strength in themselves, despite the violence and not because of it. And if you’re a survivor of sexual violence and you feel good with those narratives, that’s great for you. Whatever helps you is valid, and I don’t mean to say otherwise. My only question is that I see this happening a lot, and it may paint an inaccurate picture of the impact that sexual violence can have in a person’s life.

Rape-and-revenge narratives have the additional problem of reinforcing the fallacy of violence as empowerment, which is a harmful trope on its own. There are other sources of conflict for female characters and other answers than murder and violence, you know.

Of course you can use those elements to a create a meaningful narrative that challenges the audience on their conceptions of sexual violence. Jessica Jones has rape-and-revenge elements. But notice how the narrative centers on Jessica and never shies away from the devastating consequences of sexual violence in her life. Notice how we never see the violence, just the aftermath. Or how it’s a story about recovery more than revenge. Or how Jessica confronting Kilgrave means confronting her trauma more than the joy of murdering him. In fact, her main motivation against him is to stop him from hurting other people, since she’s the only one who can do it. She finds her strength in herself and the supportive people around her, not in violence. And even that violence has consequences.

Now contrast this to Sansa Stark’s arc in the last two seasons of Game of Thrones and you’ll understand that you can have similar elements and very different results.

So what should we do?

We should try harder and do better. We should approach the topic of sexual violence with the care and respect it deserves. We should question the depictions we see or write. Sexual violence can’t be something that we sprinkle on a story to add flavor.

Authors and artists can ask themselves: why is there sexual violence in this story? Am I willing to explore the consequences of this act? From the victim’s perspective? Is the sexual violence important for *their* arc? Could this story be told without this element or this specific scene? Is this character interesting for me without it? Does the sexual violence have to be depicted to make the point I’m trying to make or it can be just implied? Should I just imply it? Am I acknowledging the sexual violence in the narrative? Am I reproducing harmful myths and misconceptions? Am I eroticizing the act? Am I victim-blaming? Am I using this to punish a character, especially a female character? Would this sexual violence still happen if the character was a man? Or an old woman? Or a child?

When media depicts sexual violence, survivors are forced to confront traumatic events. We’re appropriating their experiences, but what are we giving them in return? Are we acknowledging what they’ve been through? Are we amplifying their voices? Are we denouncing the causes of sexual violence and rape culture? Are we tearing down common misconceptions that harm the dialogue on the theme? Are we inviting the audience to think about this? Are we generating a meaningful discussion? Or are we just using it as a plot device?

There’s no correct answer, but if you start noticing that your sexual violence scene is more shocking and edgy than something that contributes to discussing a bigger issue, that sexual violence wasn’t really something you thought about before inserting it in a scene… then perhaps you shouldn’t do it. Similar questions should be asked for every act of sexual violence in a story, and if that sounds too exhaustive then you’re probably over-using this tool.

I know it’s hard to stop reproducing patterns, but it’s a creator’s job to make this effort. It’s an ethical responsibility. No, not everything in a story needs to be deeply rooted in social issues, but not everything in a story touches something so intimate and traumatic for so many people. Far too many people don’t have the privilege to say that sexual violence is just a story. So, you know, it’s worth at least thinking about it.

We, as audience, are responsible, too. We should question our own preconceptions of sexual violence in stories. We should wonder why we expect it to happen and why we’re so defensive about it. We should demand better stories, and better answers from creators and other fans. We should question the media we consume and what we’re absorbing from it.

And if you see someone complaining about the portrayal of sexual violence, especially portrayals you were involved with, listen. Just listen. Nobody is born a perfect and socially-aware creator, but if you refuse to listen that’s on you. So listen. Even if you disagree, even if the depiction made sense in your head. Listen. Think. Take the blame if you must. And do better.


Images Courtesy of HBO, The CW, Warner Bros, and Summit Entertainment

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Priscilla is a Brazilian writer, art student, psychologist, feminist and fangirl. Sometimes too passionate about stuff.

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