Jodie Foster made a brilliant and much-needed statement recently about the over-reliance male writers/directors have on rape as a plot device and explanation for female motivation. I agreed with her, but then I felt uncomfortable, since I’ve used sexual assault themes in my own writing more than once.
In one of my current plays, a character reveals in the second half that she had been raped. I was very careful as to the context and the handling of this revelation. First, I wanted to explore the subject of marital rape and coercive non-violent rape within a romantic relationship, as this is something I think is overlooked. The character does not even realise what happened to her was rape until many years later. I wanted to write a non-stereotypical portrayal of domestic violence, where the woman is neither put upon victim nor plucky survivor. And more than that, I wanted to write a character whose rape was only a small part of herself and her history. My character is in her 60s, and was raped at 19. It’s something bad that happened to her, but it’s something in the long-past that hasn’t haunted her and doesn’t define her. I wanted to show that rape survivors can and do go on to have long lives, and are not defined by having been raped. The play sets up a situation where the character’s doctors are looking for a black and white explanation for her mental health issues, and her teenage rape is dangled as a potential cause and then swerved. Because her mental health problems aren’t because she was raped 40 years ago, they’re for a whole mix of societal, familial, personal, possibly biological, and unknown reasons. It’s important to show that. I wanted to subvert the “character goes crazy because Bad Touching happened when she was young” trope. Is that a good reason? Does writing need a good reason?
There’s a minor subplot about a psychiatric hospital porter being sexually inappropriate around female patients (stealing their underwear, saying inappropriate things, and masturbating secretly when he thinks they can’t see him). Now this is in the play because it’s actually based on a real event, but it’s surprising how many people have complained that he’s not more overtly abusive to them. “It would raise the stakes if he actually tried to rape them!” Well yes, but that would make it A Play About Rape, and I don’t want to write A Play About Rape. I don’t think we need one. Because it’s not A Play About Rape, it’s a play about the myriad ways in which the patriarchy controls women. The female psychiatric patents in the play have their agency removed and are put on constant display/monitoring ‘for their own protection.’ To be blunt, I don’t need to rape them. The fact that a man is looking at vulnerable women in his care in a sexually objectifying way is enough. And actually it’s really fucked up to act like rape is somehow the only thing that counts, like our culture puts such a high price on the value of the hymen and the importance of penile penetration that only forced P-in-V sex is considered rape and only penetrative rape is considered significant, like the billion minor acts of sexual aggression women experience daily don’t collectively cause just as much damage?
I fundamentally am not willing to deal with anyone who claims I need to rape my characters to make the stakes high enough or the sexual abuse real enough, because the entire point is: none of this is okay. No form of sexual abuse or exploitation is minor enough or mild enough or “excusable” enough to make it okay. If a man working in mental health care masturbating over his female patients isn’t ‘bad’ enough for you to consider high stakes (of which, more on that later), you need to address your own issues.
I have something else in development about a girl who’s held prisoner for a long time (a la ‘Room’) — but a crucial part is that she is never raped during it. The kidnapper is a sexual predator, and she is essentially an abuse survivor, but at no time does he penetrate her. I don’t know if it’s going to work or not but I really want to write something about the themes of abuse, power and domination that’s not about the physical act of rape. I don’t think it’s a cop-out.
I’m not sure if this entire post isn’t just a self-indulgent “but it’s okay when I write about sexual assault because…” but I think it is food for thought. Is it more permissible to write about rape if you’re a woman? If you’re a sexual abuse survivor? Is it more about your reasons for doing it, or how you do it? How do we establish ownership over stories – our own and other people’s? What is the line between exploitation and exploration?