I ran a panel at a feminist science fiction convention a few weeks ago. The entire panel deserves a writeup - it went wonderfully, we covered so much, and we got to go beyond 101, which is a thing I don’t get to do nearly enough. It brought up a bunch of topics that I’ll be parceling out here over the next few weeks. What I wanted to talk about first, though, since it stuck in my head, was an audience member’s description of one book in particular. I don’t remember the title - we had over 50 titles flying around the room, I think! But the audience member described the rape-specific part of the plot as being that the female protagonist was raped by a male acquaintance (or friend, I don’t know how well she knew him). When describing it to her friends, who automatically responded with “that’s rape and we’re going to kick his ass”, she said that she didn’t know if it was really rape. So essentially: It is clearly rape in the text and her friends, upon hearing what happened, are instantly convinced that it was rape, but the survivor herself is saying she’s not sure.
Several audience members felt that that was full of fail, was the author trying to get around it being actual rape. But. You guys. That response? Is actually pretty normal. And by painting it as wrong, we silence survivors who are struggling to deal with their assaults but aren’t ready to say That Word yet.
Let’s face it: rape is a big word. It’s a life-changing word. It’s a word that can rearrange your entire sense of self. And it is normal for a survivor - particularly one who knew the perpetrator - to go through a period of “that couldn’t really have been rape.” Because if it was rape, you have been raped. You are a rape victim or rape survivor. (I prefer survivor, but people have the right to self-identify.)
And your friend is a rapist.
And nothing will ever be quite the same. Not for you, not for the rapist, not for your community. Standing up and saying “I was raped”, especially for the first time, can be abjectly terrifying.
So it’s normal. It’s normal to try to tell yourself that that can’t be what that was. It’s normal to shove it aside and try to go back to your previous normal. Is it the healthiest thing ever? Probably not. But there’s no one true way to deal with the emotional fallout of a sexual assault. If you’re dealing in a way that doesn’t involve immediate reporting to the police and going to court, you’re not doing it wrong. When people are in shock, denial is a natural response.
So I have problems with this exactly as I have problems with the cultural narrative that if you’re just tough enough, rape won’t really affect you. And the ones that say that consensual sex with your one true love will magically heal you. Et cetera. The truth is always more complicated than that, and therefore more complicated to write - which is why many writers don’t bother. But we should. Because, dear writer, you don’t know how many people reading your book are rape survivors. And I don’t think you want to tell them they’re doing it wrong.