My social media accounts have been genuinely depressing this weekend. It seems that almost everyone I’ve ever met has been posting #MeToo to say that they have been subjected to sexual harassment and assault.
It’s horrifying. Before this, I’d known of several friends who had been assaulted. Those were simply the people who confided in me–I knew the likelihood was that more of my friends and acquaintances had suffered from various forms of sexual violence and had not talked about it to me. Now I know.
I have stories of being made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe, of course, but I have been luckier than most women of my acquaintance. In fact, that’s the only difference between the women saying #MeToo and me. That’s it.
Nobody should have to say #MeToo. Assault shouldn’t happen to anyone. Harassment shouldn’t happen to anyone. Which means we need to change the culture that accepts this as a part of life.
And going full Amazon on creeps isn’t really doable
There have been a lot of people talking about how to change the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies. This article calling on men to picture “The Rock” in situations with women in the office was funny, but the apparent need for it is disturbing in the extreme. Why is it so hard to realize that women are human?
…with few possible exceptions
Since fiction is part of our culture, our fiction needs to change too.
3 Places to Start
#1 Create worlds without violence towards women
Game of Thrones has long been accused of gratuitous violence, particularly violence towards women. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is even worse in that regard. I started reading the series my senior year and stopped once I realized how much rape was involved. (Seriously, my thesis was less depressing.) He’s tried to defend its inclusion by saying the story is based on The War of the Roses.
Yep, 100% historical accuracy
Particularly if you are making a historical drama with fantasy elements, why include rape and assault at all? There are many historical terrors you can pull on to show that life is awful if that’s what you’re going for: disease, famine, war, terrifying medical care, dangerous traveling conditions, ice ages, natural disasters….
#2 Don’t use sexual violence as a plot device
Outlander is the name of an enormously popular series of books and a very popular series.
I have a few theories why….
While it flips some of the more overused tropes in romance novels–the man is the virgin in this one when they meet instead of the woman and it shows that woman can also instigate/want/enjoy sex–it does have a serious stumbling block.
Although the problem definitely isn’t chemistry
Rape, or the threat of rape, is virtually ever-present. Sexual assault is trotted out as a way to show that people are bad, that the main characters are desirable, gives characters a chance to be heroic, or is used to drive the story forward. (There are also some very strange and disturbing homophobic undertones as well, with gay men frequently serving as villains.) It is used so often that it becomes repetitive, which is disturbing all on its own.
Yes, sexual violence was even more prevalent and entrenched in “ye olden days,” but that isn’t an excuse to use it as a plot device.
#3 Remember the rules of consent
Romance novels, particularly of the historical variety, often depict a virginal female character meeting some hyper-masculine character who sweeps away her protests and introduces her to multiple orgasms. (Oh, and she’ll probably be pregnant by the end, because he almost never introduces her to contraception.)
This is one of the tamest covers I’ve seen
It’s easy to make fun of historical romances. They’re derided as “bodice rippers” and have ridiculous covers 9 times out of 10. The disturbing tropes aren’t limited to that part of the genre:
Here’s looking at you, kid
Now, romance novels are primarily written by women, for women, so what’s with the horrible message? No doesn’t mean “convince me.” No doesn’t mean “yes.” No quite literally means no. It’s one of the first words most children learn. It really doesn’t have multiple meanings.
The idea of romance novels is a healthy one. At their best, they provide a safe space to explore fantasies. But reinforcing the idea that women have to be the voice of sexual restraint and never say yes is not even remotely healthy for anyone.
There has been pushback against some of those major tropes and consent is being more widely discussed in romance novels. To recap:
Changing our fiction is one small step in our battle to change the world, but it is important and it does matter. We know sexual violence is a problem–let’s stamp it out wherever it appears. Nobody should have to say #MeToo.