I’m going to try to keep this brief and succinct as possible, as I’d like to generate a discussion, but we’ll see.
I write a lot of different things, but I lean toward writing strange fiction, which inevitably leads down the path of horror. I would have to go back and read everything I’ve ever written to state this with 100% confidence, but I’d like to think that I have endeavoured to be conscious of the sadist/victim dynamic (whenever it has come up — and to be honest, I generally avoid it altogether for reasons that will become clearer as we discuss…) and how it can be sexually exploitative.
To define — I think we are all on the same page, but perhaps not. I refer to the motif or trope of the damsel in distress, being leered over by a psycho with a hard-on. It’s rape fantasy without the rape. (Or, sometimes with all the rape included…)
I’m not talking about the current trend of so-called sexy BDSM writing, and so, if you don’t mind, let’s not discuss that here. I don’t understand it. I have strong opinions about it, and we may or may not agree about it, but suffice to say, that type of story is not what I have in mind.
I am here to ask the question: is all violence between a man and a woman sexual violence, or can sadism be its own reward, so to speak? At what point does a writer cross the line between terror and exploitation?
For instance: in Singularity, I wrote a story about the sexual exploitation that occurred in mental hospitals in the early 1900’s. I did not glorify it; I showed it as horribly as possible without turning it into torture porn, and the characters got their revenge.
But even revenge can be exploitative. Who among us hasn’t fantasized about taking horrible revenge on someone. And how often is that revenge disproportionate to the original offence? In Kill Bill (arguably one of my favourite movies, but still…) Bill and his crew kill The Bride’s wedding party and leave her for dead. She responds by killing dozens, and maiming dozens more. It’s an amazing revenge flick. I am just not sure if it is not a bit much. I remember watching the first 15 minutes of Robocop when I was a kid, and when Peter Weller gets killed (or at least blown to pieces), my dad shut the movie off. Let’s not get into a discussion about guns, except to say that I abhor guns and the violence they bring. I think back at my stories, and I can’t think of a single instance when a character reaches for a gun. It just doesn’t even occur to me. I’m far too Canadian. But my dad shut off the movie and said this: “If that’s what was done to him, how much worse will his vengeance be?”
Something I’ve carried with me. When I take revenge on my characters, is it in a gleeful, pornographic way? I don’t know how far is too far, and where the line is. We stand in judgement over our characters, and decide what they deserve. I am currently writing a scene where Jessica, my evil doppelganger, has been captured by sadists, who have her bound to a chair, and blinded in the dark. I am very cognizant of the potential for this to become a sexually sadistic situation. But to be fair, a man in this situation would be equally afraid of rape. However, I have decided to not even go there. Instead, I focus on the fear. The claustrophobic nature of being unable to move, unable to see, and hearing all sorts of frightening sounds around you. In fact, I have gone one step further and taken the possibility of rape right off the table. This isn’t about sex or degradation, it is pure sadistic madness.
So again, I ask the question, is all violence against women sexual violence?
I write with an equal mix of male and female characters (to be honest, most of my protagonists are female, or if not, there are major female characters who contribute to the plot with more than their bodies or as victims) and so, when I am putting my protagonist in danger, I’ll be honest, I don’t often think about their gender, nor do I set them up to be molested in a sexual way. But perhaps that is my blind spot. Perhaps that is my elephant, and I try to be careful and remember my audience.
That is not to say I will use trigger warnings. Don’t get me started on trigger warnings. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why they exist, but I think that they are not dissimilar to the Parental Advisory stickers that began showing up on records in the late ’80s, in that they will sell more books than they prevent. Also, if you as an author have written something so terrible that you feel the need to warn people about it — well, shit. Maybe you shouldn’t have written it.
I would like to think that I have integrity as an author, in that I stand behind my stories unapologetically, because I know that my intention is not to cause undue distress. I write horror. I want to scare you. If you don’t want to be scared, then don’t read horror. I’m not going to apologize for freaking you out.
That being said, I don’t believe in exploitation. Not of children, not of women, not in any racial way. But do think that you can document a horrible act, declare it horrible, and use it as part of the story. Horrible things happen, but when a writer glorifies it, or attempts to fill the reader with a sense of glee due to the violence, then I think a line has been crossed.