Shall I start with the controversial or the validating? I don't know where to begin. I suppose the beginning -- why am I interested in this? Why do I feel so strongly about it?
The Ethics of Examining in Fiction the Erotics of RapeI was date-raped in college. I hesitated before writing that here. Some of you may have figured this out before, by implication from stories or poetry. Some may have put it down to a vivid imagination. Nonetheless, I doubt that I would normally mention it, and I'm not going to go into the details of the situation. It's something I don't talk about much, yet I feel it is relevant to this discussion, and I think it's an important discussion.
It is relevant, because if I had not been raped, I would run the risk of having people accuse me of not knowing whereof I speak. And in fact, I'm not so sure that having been through it really 'qualifies' me to speak in that sense. The experience can be so different, so individual. I learned that from the accounts of friends who have been raped, from the year I worked as a crisis counselor, listening to people who had been assaulted in their homes and on the street. I've talked to people who have committed rape, and people who have considered committing it. I *cannot* claim to speak for any of these people. Yet if my admission/exposure (and both of those terms sound so biased in themselves) will be of any help in persuading you to listen to my words a little longer, then they are worth saying. So there it is. I have been raped.
This is an important subject, because rape can have such a profound effect on both victim and perpetrator. This is an important discussion, because it is one that is so rarely held.
I think our society is afraid to really talk about rape, to react in other than knee-jerk, good-liberal ways. I am a good liberal, you know. A very good liberal, as bleeding-heart as they come. But that doesn't mean that I can stop talking about things, or assume that they're settled and the answers are clear. When I do, I'm usually being intellectually lazy. Either that or too upset or scared to face the issues.
Why would I want to write about rape in fiction? Well, that's an easy one, right? It's a complex and important subject, and I think it deserves to be treated with complexity and seriousness, as we attempt to find the truth(s) of the situation(s). Art can be a sharp lens for discovering truth, or facets of truth. The discussion of rape deserves that critical look. It is a fascinating study, the way a study of a mass murderer is fascinating. It can also be repulsive, disgusting, infuriating, or pitiful. It's still worth doing, in my opinion, because it exposes part of humanity.
Why would I want to write about the erotic aspects of rape? Ah, here we're on trickier ground. I imagine most of you were with me until now; that many of you were nodding your heads. And now some turn away, some are repulsed or upset -- and I don't blame you. Rape is always a brutal act; rape is always violent, in an emotional sense or otherwise. It is difficult for a healthy, sane person to imagine a conjunction of eroticism with nonconsensual violence -- and I'm glad of that.
Yet rape is not always simple brutality, and I'm asking you to look closer at what it can be composed of. An ugly study, I know, but again, one I think is important.
Let us take the simplest case, one of an assailant who is simply violent, and uses rape to express that violence. The victim is a stranger to him or her, and there are no other emotional complexities between them. One would think, in this situation, that the victim's only responses would be negative -- would be anger, or fear, or numbness, or withdrawal, or despair, etc. These are all common responses. Yet I will tell you, from my work and my research on this subject, that arousal is also a common response. And this causes no end of grief.
Such a victim, brutalized, battered, almost killed, still has a body trained to respond sexually. And whatever one's mind is doing, the body's impulses continue. Victims of violent assault do sometimes find themselves responding to their assailants sexually, becoming aroused. This is well-documented. The typical response is one of guilt and/or denial. The victim feels doubly betrayed -- by the society/stranger, and by his/her own body. This can cause a horrible spiraling downwards of despair, especially if they feel they can't admit this response to anyone, if they feel that it must be something wrong with them. It even makes it hard to admit that one was raped -- the faulty reasoning goes, "If I was aroused, then I liked it, then I must have wanted it, then it wasn't rape." Which is of course fallacious, since the response was involuntary, yet it can be a very powerful and painful cycle to go through. We (especially women) often have a strong tendency to take all the blame on ourselves.
Why would I want to write about this? Because it's very human. Because I want to communicate that this happens, so people don't feel alone. Because it makes me sad. Because I feel such empathy for these people, and I want others to understand their situation. I wrote a short story on this theme, "Mint in your Throat." Rather than try to sell it, I will append it here, and let you judge my handling of the situation (a true situation, as it happens, though not my own) for yourself.
As we move towards the date rape end of the spectrum, the situation becomes even more complex. The victim knows the assailant. The icons of consent become more liable to be misinterpreted (which does not excuse the assailant, but may explain their actions, or the victim's assumption of responsibility). The victim may love the assailant. The assailant may love the victim. I wrote a rape story in "Chantelle". Again, you can judge for yourself whether it was an effective/useful/true handling. And again, the same reasons apply for wanting to write about it.
Writing about it as erotica? Well, that's not ever really been what I wanted. I don't want to eroticize a situation that isn't already erotic. I do want to expose and examine the erotic elements of such a situation, and how they affect the mental states of the victim and the assailant, both before, during and after the event. My purpose is not really to arouse, although if you become aroused in reading such a piece, then perhaps you will be able to empathize, to understand a little more the complexity of what actually goes on.
This may be too upsetting for some readers. I don't watch horror movies myself, and rarely read horror fiction because it gives me nightmares. "Schindler's List" gave me the shakes. I don't want to understand a mass murderer's mind. It is deeply upsetting. Yet is that a reason for an artist to shy away?
Many great works of literature attempt to give us insight into the minds of both villains and victims (and show us how blurred those categories really are). That is part of the power and strength of art, that it deals with the difficult, the upsetting, the dark side of human nature as well as the bright. Not to glorify it, but to perceive it. Perhaps so that in perceiving, we may begin to heal it.