Sexual Assault (in comics) Awareness Month: Writing Sexual Violence, Part 1

This is the second installment of a series about sexual assault and comics. You can find the introduction here and the first installment here.
I previously discussed some of the more common trends in the portrayal of sexual assault in comics and came to the conclusion that the most problematic instances stem from a combination of ignorance and laziness: writers who use rape as a shortcut to add depth to characters without concerning themselves with the depth of the stories themselves. As a result, they end up relying on tired tropes and stereotypes, and their stories in turn perpetuate some of the most harmful and misogynistic myths about sexual violence.
What follows is a writers’ guide to portraying sexual assault. I’m going to break this down into two sections. The first will have to do with general story decisions, and the second (which I’lll post later in the week) will address some specifics. This guide is written with comicsparticularly superhero comicsin mind, so if you’re not a comics writer, adapt as necessary to your form of choice.
So, without further ado, I present Rachel’s Guide to Writing About Sexual Assault:

  1. Don’t.
    Sexual assault, particularly retconned sexual assault, is overused to the point that even the most sensitive and respectful depictions are met with groans of ‘Oh, no, not again.’
    Take a good look at your story. Why do you think a rape is what you need for it to progress? Is there something else that could fill the same function? Unless you have a damn good reason to include rape in a story, you probably shouldn’t. Using sexual assault as a motivation-in-a-box or an equivalent trope will do nothing but steal credibility and respect from a really serious, really important subject. Plus, you’ll look like a twit.
  2. Here are some questions to ask yourself if you’re considering including a sexual assault in a story:
    -Why do I want to write a story involving sexual assault? If it’s because you think it’ll raise ratings, make your story more ‘mature,’ or identify you as sensitive to women’s issues, think again. If you are an assault survivor writing to exorcize inner demons, seriously consider whether this particular story is the best context in which to work out your issues. I don’t say this to discourage any survivors from telling their storiessomething I think is vitally importantbut I do want to stress that a fiction story may not be the most appropriate context for doing so, particularly if it involves other people’s characters or plotlines (as in a shared-universe superhero comic).
    Some of the worst stories out there come from genuinely concerned individuals who want to raise readers’ awareness of sexual assault issues. Remember that something that you care passionately about or that has affected you deeply and personally may not be the best subject for a fictional story, since it’ll be very hard to separate yourself from your work enough to get a decent perspective.
    -How will it affect the development of my characters? Even though sexual assault is a big deal, it’s rarely the single defining experience of a survivor’s life. Using it as a shortcut to character development is a cheap and ultimately ineffective trick, and it’ll come back to haunt you later.
    -How will it affect continuity? Will it matter? Why, or why not? ‘Because rape is a big deal’ is not a good enough reason.
    -How much do you actually know about sexual assault? Are you a sexual assault survivor? Do you have close friends who are? Have you ever sat in on a rape trial? Have you ever spoken with a perpetrator? If not, odds are pretty good that you have a flawed understanding of the factors surrounding sexual assault, and you’re going to need to do some serious research to write about it without falling into stereotypes.
  3. If you’re considering writing sexual assault into a character’s backstory, you should ask yourself a few more:
    -What about this character makes me think that she or he is a sexual assault survivor? Why is a history of sexual assault the best explanation for those traits? Not all women who are touch-shy, tough, misandrist, obsessively self-reliant, or paranoid are assault survivors. In fact, most probably aren’t. It goes the other way, too: a confident, caring, and generally well-adjusted individual has as much chance of being a rape survivor as the basket case to her left. Be very wary of less obvious stereotypes, here, too: to assume that a man who is raped or rapes another man is gay, or that a lesbian must have had at least one bad sexual experience with a man is every bit as offensive asif not more offensive thanmaking similarly broad assumptions about any other group.
    -Why has the issue not come up before? Why is it coming up now? ‘Because I just thought of it’ is not a good enough reason.
    -What effect will disclosure of the character’s history have on the story? Will it be a major plot event? How will it affect other characters?
    Later this week, I’ll discuss how to handle specific issues and avoid falling into stereotypes when writing about sexual assault. In the meantime, you can discuss this column, ask questions, and make comments here.