The Elephant in the Room (is tied up in the corner)

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.

Your thoughts?

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21 responses to “The Elephant in the Room (is tied up in the corner)

  1. I don’t think all violence between a man and woman has to be sexual. Sometimes violence is done for the sake of violence…. This makes me think of the start of the movie Backdraft, where the arsonist is being interviewed, he didn’t care who the flames hurt, he just wanted to watch the world burn. Some just like to see blood flow…

    • Curiously, though: what is more important — the intent of the writer, or the perception of the reader? Me, I feel like I don’t bear the responsibility of the readers’ baggage. How can I? I guess at the end of the day I am not deliberately out to hurt anybody. And more so I try not to do so accidentally.

      • I think you are on the right path. I’ve never seen anything in your writing that I felt was harming the reader… making them feel, yes, of course, but not trying to damage them.

      • Oh, and to your question: the perception of the reader is more important, because most of the time as authors aren’t we writing for them more than for ourselves?

      • Interesting… but you have the least control over others’ perceptions. I know more than many how things can be misconstrued, and how the disconnect between “What I said” and “What you heard” can be.

  2. In this day and age, one can hardly switch on the TV or open a book without sexual violence against women or children not being part of the plot. I think because these things tent to happen so frequently and it being openly discussed these days it is just normal it appears in our fiction too.
    And I’ll be honest, reading your scene in Singularity in the mental health hospital, was a bit hard to chew.
    But, I tend to prefer my monsters in the paranormal variety. At one point I’d only read Urban fantasy, Gothic type stuff, that while these things have a definite horror element, it’s all very unrealistic. One could say that reading your books have broadened my horizons.

    Back to point, my preferred genre does not usually contain sexual exploitation in the sadistic sense. I can’t stomach that stuff. At one point I wanted to scream at authors to stop writing about rape. As said perhaps it says more about our society … where rape becomes exploitation – it’s a thin line.

    • It was really grim, that scene, and difficult to write as well. It’s really the only time I’ve written on that subject, so viscerally. But I’m 100% with you about rape… there should be no such thing as “Rape Fiction” as a horror genre.

  3. For me, there is nothing less sexual than violence. They are opposite ends of the spectrum of human interaction. I don’t understand rape or sexual violence. I know that it happens, but it’s not something that I can imagine. I’ve never tried to write a rape scene for that reason.

    It’s not an issue of morality for me, but simple mechanics. To have sex, you have to be vulnerable, and being vulnerable to someone that you’re fighting with doesn’t make any sense to me.

    There is nothing sexy about combat. It’s scary and painful and something that I want to get over with as soon as possible. I don’t like hurting people, but if it’s the only way to keep someone from hurting me I want to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible, with a minimum of risk.

    • “For me, there is nothing less sexual than violence. ” Brilliant, sir. What a brilliant, quotable phrase. By extension, your second paragraph could be extrapolated upon by saying that sex requires two people (at least) involved in and invested in the act. Rape does not fit this definition, and cannot be categorized as sex.

  4. I would not categorize your words as harmful in any way. Raw? Provoking? Yes and yes. But I don’t see exploitation at all. I’ve not yet read all of your work – maybe at half by this point. But I can tell you that Singularity was one of the most difficult – and perhaps best – things I’ve ever read. What is literature’s purpose if not to make us think, feel, experience something outside our own personal norm? Terrible acts can be part of art without being exploitative. For crying out loud, they are part of history – part of our present – and we can’t just purge and whitewash the world. That’s bullshit. Sorry. For example, when we do things like remove the word “ni—-” from Huck Finn (or whatever other title you want to sub in here), we take away the entire effect and purpose of the book, which is to make us examine our flawed human selves and see where we screwed up, to see how we can grow and change and maybe do better in the future.

    • Ani Difranco once sang: “We used to make records, as in the record of an event or people playing music in the same room…”
      I know that a writer has all the control over the worlds that they create. Some choose a fantasy world, others choose to try to reflect society; or augment society or satirize. I tend toward either gritty realism or, hyperbolic realism, in that sometimes you have to hit someone over the head if you really want them to listen. Your last lines are fantastic — only those trying to rewrite history to cover their shame burn books because they have gone out of fashion philosophically. I am not of the opinion that the human race is becoming more enlightened or evolved. What we consider polite, civilized, open-minded, and human today, we consider barbaric tomorrow. So, I tend to take all the “We are right and have the monopoly on the truth” crowd with a big box of salt. Holy shit, I’m turning into an Objectivist. Someone hit me over the head with a giant copy of Atlas Shrugged.

  5. I think violence of this sort is exploitative if it is there for nothing more to it than shock value and stimulation. It’s a tactic of lazy writers and filmmakers who, instead of invoking deeper emotions, simply fall back on triggering the audience’s primitive reactions. If the sexual violence is part of the story on a more profound level, raises or answers some moral questions, or is part of the dilemma or development of the characters, I think it ceases to be exploitive.

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