Sexual Violence in THE SHADOWED SUN

This one’s going to be a toughie, for me and some of you reading. Please take heed of the subject line, and avoid if you need to.

As You (probably) Know Internets, in my day job life I’m a career counselor. When I went to graduate school, however, I originally intended to be a personal/social counselor. That’s the classic sort of therapist most people think of, sans the ability to administer drugs. I would’ve been either working with people who had non-organic issues (e.g., issues not caused/triggered by physical dysfunction), or with folks who needed a little “talking cure” to supplement the help they were already getting on the pharmaceutical end. This was back when I was in my mid-twenties, and hooooly crap was I a clueless idealist then. So anyway, I got my first apprenticeship in the university’s counseling center — a choice apprenticeship, for which I’d had to compete hard. I was so proud of myself for getting it, and I was absolutely certain I could handle it. After all, I’d been a resident advisor and crisis hotline volunteer back in college*; I’d dealt with everything from substance abuse to grief counseling, albeit in an amateur fashion. If I could handle those, I could handle anything, right?

You can guess where this is going. I’ve foreshadowed it enough. The case that broke me involved an undergraduate who confessed after several weeks that her father had been molesting her for years. The whole family knew and did nothing. She’d gotten pregnant by him earlier in her adolescence and had an abortion with her mother’s help. She would not report him because he was the sole earner for the family and paying for her education — and as a first-generation college student, she believed education was her lifeline for escaping not only him, but the whole situation (poverty, her family, some other stuff). I knew my duty — which was not to report this man, note. She was an adult. The decision had to be hers to make. Anything else, any attempt to “rescue” her, would only have stripped more power from her — and this was a powerful woman, I could tell. Probably why her father did it. There was none of that “blaming herself” stuff that all abuse survivors are popularly assumed to feel; she knew exactly who was responsible for her suffering. What she didn’t understand was why, and in particular why her other relatives enabled it, so that’s what we discussed. More than anything else she needed someone to listen to her, because for years the people around her simply hadn’t wanted to hear it. That much I could do, and did.

But just before Thanksgiving, she said to me**: “I’ll have to go home this weekend. He said he’s looking forward to seeing me.” And then she just smiled. I can only approximate a description of this smile with words. Layers upon layers of bitterness, resignation, gallows humor, absolute rage. More.

I fucked up then. Counselors are supposed to be blank slates, absorbing some of what our clients share with us, reflecting the rest. No facial expressions and neutral body language, emotional detachment. We’re supposed to empathize, not sympathize. Instead, I flinched. I’m pretty sure my face showed all the horror that I was feeling in that moment, too. I got hold of myself pretty quickly, but she saw my initial reaction. She laughed. And after Thanksgiving, she didn’t come back. She was physically OK; I talked to her on the phone (trying to convince her to return), though we didn’t discuss her visit home. She said she felt like she’d gotten all the help she needed from me. But I think she was being kind. I think she knew, somehow, that I’d gone home that evening, called up my boyfriend of the time, and bawled my eyes out. I think she pitied me, because I clearly wasn’t strong enough to help her without hurting myself.

I stuck out the rest of the apprenticeship. After that I changed my orientation from personal/social to career. Ironically, I’ve dealt with even more issues related to sexual violence since; these issues are everywhere if you know what to look for. The man who can’t negotiate a workplace conflict because his obnoxious boss gives him flashbacks on a childhood abuser. The woman who can’t keep a job because her husband demands that she wear sexy clothing at all times, then shows up at her office to loudly accuse her male co-workers of “eyeballing” her. The young woman who just got a prestigious internship and may lose it because her jealous boyfriend sabotaged the birth control. Most of the people going through this stuff don’t want to talk about it; they just need to find a way to survive until they can get themselves free of the situation. That’s what I help them do.

So.

Lots of people have written about rape culture. I’m not interested in debating whether it exists. I’m a black woman who talks about politics and media and bigotry; of course it exists. I screen comments and track IP addresses on this blog because it exists. (Someday I’ll show you my death threats.) I wore a sexy corset for the launch party I did at Wiscon this past weekend; Wiscon is the only con at which I would ever feel relatively safe wearing something like that, because rape culture exists.

And rape culture exists throughout SF/F. Hoo boy, does it. It’s especially prevalent in fantasy, along with white supremacy and the fetishization of feudalism and colonialism and all the other glorified trappings of the “good old days” that were only good for a few people, and aren’t all that old either. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. (One of the biggest lies we SF/F lovers have told ourselves over the years is that we are progressive.) This is why I’m cautious about what SF/F media I consume, because sometimes after dealing with this stuff in the real world, the last place I feel like engaging with it is in my entertainment. I was all gung-ho to go and see Ridley Scott’s Prometheus until one of the actors described it as “every woman’s worst nightmare.” No one says that when a person is burned to death, or if he’s about to lose his family, or if she faces political embarrassment. No one says that to men, except in jokes about prison. In a rape culture, a woman’s worst nightmare is always supposed to be rape. And sometimes I just don’t feel like dealing with that shit.

But.

There’s only one way to get rid of rape culture: acknowledge it. Discuss it. Subvert it. Don’t stop talking about or even depicting sexual violence — just try to do these things in a way that does not at the same time perpetuate it.

Most of you have read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which was my first attempt to examine rape culture in my long fiction. For all the Amn’s flaws, theirs is not a culture in which the first thing an enemy does to intimidate or control another person is to threaten them with reproductive or sexual violence. This is not the case in Yeine’s home culture, the Darre. Still, I showed the Darre merely for contrast; the story was primarily set in societies — the gods’, the Arameri microculture in Sky — in which rape could and did happen, but mostly as a consequence of something else (like slavery), and was not targeted specifically at women. (And the Amn will at least call a spade a spade. Among the Darre, rape is so normalized that they don’t even use the word.)

In The Shadowed Sun, which comes out on June 12th in the US, I wanted to think about rape culture again, though not through contrast this time. Neither the Gujaareen nor the Banbarra — a desert culture based on no particular ethnic group but borrowing some bits and pieces from the Berbers and the Wodaabe — normalize sexual violence. Nobody jokes about it, punishes the victims of it, or encourages the perpetrators. Both societies regard rape as a capital offense under ordinary circumstances… and yet it exists in both cultures. The Banbarra are willing to use rape as a weapon against enemies; the Gujaareen are not. But even in Gujaareh there are people who look the other way when someone needs help.

These things are not the focus of the story, of course. I explore gender and sexuality in my fiction for the same reasons that I explore bigotry and religion — because this is how human society works. Depicting societies realistically is part of good worldbuilding. But in the end, this is entertainment. I know that some of you will not read this book now that I’ve written this post, because you don’t feel like dealing with that shit in your entertainment. I totally understand.

The rest of you will read it and decide whether I handled it well or poorly. I welcome that. I won’t see all of it (Google Alerts are not omnipotent), and I’ll refrain from commenting because not all reviewers like it when the author sticks her nose in — but where I see critique, I’ll read it. Where I’ve succeeded, I’ll take note. Where I’ve failed, I’ll do better. I’m a big girl now. I don’t flinch anymore.


* This was back when universities allowed barely-educated, barely-legal unpaid undergrads to talk people out of killing themselves. Thank every god and non-god in the human imagination that no school does this anymore. I hope.

** I am paraphrasing her exact words, because I can’t discuss sessions in identifiable detail. But I remember her exact words. I have never forgotten.

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21 Responses »

  1. Frankly, I like the way you handle the issue of rape; it never feels normal in your stories even though it may be normal for a specific culture. It never feels exploitative or glamourised.

    And I read everything you write that you let me read, and deal with my own issues apart from it ;) (besides, you know my greatest fear, and it’s not rape).

  2. That part of The Shadowed Sun broke my heart. I thought it was not exploitative and I think the way it was the underpinning of a good deal of what’s going on in the story (trying to avoid spoilers) was especially thought-provoking.

  3. I just felt so emotional while I read this. I’ve never suffered anything at all like the things you’ve described, and thank dear god, but I know that they happen. They sicken me, but they happen. Throughout the first bit I kept thinking ‘How could he DO that to her? His own daughter? Why did any of them put up with it?’

    But, as you said, they did. They felt they had to. But they SHOULDN’T have to. And all the people who suffer from abuse shouldn’t have to either, and it’s harrowing to know how many people are suffering in such a way.

    And it carries on into fantasy and films, as you say. Such as female warriors constantly having to guard themselves against being raped, as if that’s not the worst thing that could happen to them. I’ve gotten so tired of the constant need to address rape and sexual inequality that I’m sorely tempted to write a fantasy world where the genders are equal, which is a possible cop-out. Because there will always be people who use sexual intimidation and exploitation, and there will always be rape.

    And, as you say, this whole issue needs to be addressed and confronted. And I WILL read The Shadowed Sun when it comes over here, and I know I will enjoy it just as much as all your other wonderful books – because, however horrible it might be, and however sad it will make me, it will challenge me to think and confront the culture I’ve been fortunate not to be a victim of but which so many others have suffered from, and you will have achieved your goal.

  4. Thank you for such a thoughtful column. I have stopped reading several mystery series because of the sexual violence against women and children.

    I can set your mind at ease about one thing. According to the British Board of Film Classification, there is no sexual violence in “Prometheus.” The movie gets a 15 rating– “contains strong violence, gore, threat and horror.” There is a more detailed description of what that means at http://www.bbfc.co.uk/DFF286710/

  5. Well… I’m not a woman, but for whatever it’s worth, I thought the subject was covered well enough in Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. At no time did I ever have the impression that rape was not considered a monstrous act… At least, not by Yeine. The Arameri at large were demonstrated to be fairly nasty, and the description of Yeine’s ceremony was barbaric, so…

    I felt sexual violence was given the weight it deserved. Not endorsed, not glossed over, not played down. It was simply there, and it was presented for what it is.

    So I look forward to Shadowed Sun.

  6. I read and reviewed The Killing Moon and was so blown away by the density of ideas and themes that I hardly knew where to begin to write about it.

    It’s difficult out here on the island to get access to new fiction, but I plan to buy The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms when I am in Finland in July, and will be eagerly looking forward to The Shadowed Sun when it gets over here.

    Don’t stop writing and don’t start pulling your punches – please.

  7. I think that the way you write about rape culture, here and in your books, is incredibly refreshing. I had been many years largely away from the fantasy genre, because I was annoyed with rehashes of the same old white cismale pseudo-Euro medievalism. I had begun to feel, as my own feminist identity evolved, that there was very little there for me.

    A friend of mine recommended Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and I’ve never looked back. The Killing Moon was amazing, and I’ve already pre-ordered The Shadowed Sun.

    In my humble opinion, it is changing the genre.

  8. Wow..this blog is uncanny. I’ve been thinking about this subject all weekend. For the past year, I’ve been debating whether or not to buy GRRM’s A Dance with Dragons. Even though I want to finish ASOFAI, I just can’t stomach the violence anymore. It’s just too much. And sometimes, I get the feeling that GRRM gets off on writing it… and secretly hates women…

    I’ve read all of your novels and the difference is I’ve never felt sick after reading any of them.

  9. Folks have been telling me for years that I should go into psych and therapy, because I am really good at being there for people, listening to them, and giving suggestions. I don’t really let on to my friends, though, how much it takes out of me to do that for them, and honestly, something like your experience is part of why I haven’t gone into it. I have a ton of respect for people who can do it, and sympathy, because I can’t imagine listening to all these things and have it not affect you in some way.

    FWIW, I have thought you handled a lot of sensitive issues incredibly well, with thought and compassion. I expect no less from The Shadowed Sun. :)

  10. Great meeting you yesterday at the NYRSF reading. What a great night! Your story was super-enjoyable, but I understand your concerns. I bought The Killing Moon yesterday and look into delving into it soon!

    Warm Regards,
    Camille (Leonard Richardson’s friend)

  11. In light of this, I’m curious how you feel about something that occurred last night.

    I don’t know if you watched the Tony Awards (I tend to presume everyone does, but my therapist would say that’s transference), but Audra McDonald won the award for Best Actress in a Musical (her first leading award, her fifth overall). In her speech, she talked about being proud to be a member of the company of Porgy and Bess (and here I paraphrase), “getting to make out with Norm Lewis every night, getting to be raped by Philip Boykin every night, getting to snort cocaine with David Alan Grier every night.”

    There was discussion on a theatre message board that I frequent where a number of people (who all seemed to be male, incidentally) were seriously offended that Audra would make these comments, particularly in front of her 11-year-old daughter in the audience (said daughter was sitting with Audra’s fiance and soon-to-be-stepsons).

    Your thoughts?

  12. Seth,

    I didn’t see the incident. I don’t watch much TV. And I’m not remotely involved in the theater community — although I’m an eager consumer — so I’m not sure why the opinion of an SFF writer who’s never even heard of this woman matters to you. Why did you ask me?

    Anyway, I’m also not sure what you want me to respond to — the words said (rape joke, drug joke), or the circumstance (in front of children). The latter might not be an issue; we don’t know what the family is like. Maybe they love each other by telling horribly inappropriate jokes and understanding that it’s not serious. So I’ll ignore the circumstances and focus on the content of what she said.

    Rape jokes aren’t funny. Cocaine-snorting jokes aren’t particularly funny, either, but at least people who do cocaine are choosing to do it to themselves (usually; I’m aware that sometimes drugs are used to coerce) so there’s some moral balance in joking about them. But given that she probably wasn’t referring to actual rape — most rape jokes aren’t — maybe she wasn’t actually trying to be funny. Maybe she was referring to the play itself, in which Bess is involved with an abusive boyfriend (so relationship rape was likely involved) and a drug dealer. So maybe she wasn’t really trying to be funny, just reminding everyone of what the play is actually about. Usually people exclaim over the beautiful music without considering that this beautiful music is about rape and violence. (“Don’t let him handle me with his hot hands.”) So maybe she just meant to remind them of that. If so, she wasn’t trying to be funny, she was trying to be satirical, and doing a good job of it, IMO. That joke probably made the whole audience squirm — and then think.

    But that’s total speculation.

  13. Diane S, a character isn’t raped, but the woman’s worst nightmare comment undoubtedly refers to this bit from your link: “One scene features some gory surgical detail that exceeds the type of ‘occasional gory moments'”

    SPOILERS

    It involves a woman getting pregnant with a alien (via her infected boyfriend), and having to perform a caesarean on herself without pain meds to get the alien out. And then having to try to get away from it and others after having that major bodily trauma.
    Although I think the way the aliens infect people through the mouth with phallic looking tentacles could count as a form of sexual violence.

  14. I just finished reading The Shadowed Sun yesterday, and I hadn’t thought to check your blog or anything before then, so I had no idea how central a theme it was to the book.

    It was wrenching, and difficult to read at times, but not because it left me with the sullied feeling I get when such actions are used for character motivation or character development, as if (paraphrasing a friend of mine) there’s some magical body count which will banish the pain and trauma. It was wrenching and difficult because you communicated well just how it affected the victims, without invoking the slightest hint of all the fucked-up ways rape is used as a plot device by (primarily) white, heterosexual, cisgendered male writers.

  15. @de Pizan

    As I understand it, the aliens’ reproduction is meant in exactly that way, at least in the original movie concept, and they purposely put male characters as the targets to unsettle the men in the audience.

  16. I have no idea whether or not GRRM hates women, or what his motivation is in writing the violence he does. But I do think that we need more stories that remind us that the violence of war often includes sexual violence. Not because it’s more entertaining that way, but because too often we teach a history of wars that features men fighting other men in an asexual battlefield. We don’t hear about, for example, the hundreds of thousands of German women raped by Allied soldiers during WWII, because that’s not part of the narrative.

    We need to put systems in place that ensure that women in conflict regions have as much protection as possible, and that starts with acknowledging that this is a problem, that’s it’s been a problem for a long, long, time, and that the fact that an army is fighting for a good cause doesn’t make that problem go away. And part of acknowledging happens in the stories we tell and read about war.

    I appreciate that that’s not what everyone wants to read when they pick up a fantasy novel, and that’s more than fine. If you want your battles clean and honourable, more power to you. But, to me, thinking you are getting a “realist” perspective on war, while ignoring any sexual violence, is helping to perpetuate one of the least heralded causes of suffering in our world.

  17. I’ve read all of your books and just finished the Shadowed Sun. I think I like the Dreamblood series more than the first, although they are both excellent. I’m curious, is Dreamblood a trilogy?

    As regards sexual violence, incest, rape in your fiction – I never once felt it was over the top or there for titillation. Another commenter mentioned GRRM and his use of violence in the Song of Ice and Fire series – much of the violence in this series can sometimes veer towards being pointless.

    Anyway, I have really enjoyed your books and recommend them widely (I’m a librarian).

    Looking forward to your next title!

  18. I very much appreciate this post (sorry i’m so late reading it). ‘The Killing Moon’ is easily my favorite book this year, I love the world I really like the characters and I was really eager to jump into ‘The Shadowed Sun’. Unfortunately I’m one of those people who just doesn’t like stories that involve sexual violence (I’m avoiding the new Tomb Raider game for the same reason) and I don’t know if I want to jump into this story knowing that it’s an element. I still love your writing and I like your reasons for wanting to put this into ‘The Shadowed Sun’, it’s just not what I want to read. Again, thank you for writing this post and I look forward to your next book :)

  19. Late post… I’m not a woman, but I am young and have experienced sexual violence in my life. I recently saw Prometheus and I think the “woman’s worst nightmare” reference is slightly misleading. Maybe it’s something you just have to watch yourself or maybe (quite quite possibly) I don’t understand a woman’s fears.

    ***Spoilers***
    A woman has consensual sex with her diseased boyfriend. The boyfriend unintentionally impregnates her with a hostile, hybrid alien creature. The woman wants to abort the intensely/painfully growing alien fetus without question (which is really reminiscent of Phoebe being impregnated with demon spawn from Charmed). And she does (which is also really traumatic but it’s the future and she projects this “it’s the future, this medical procedure is common and scientific” vibe …) It’s also possible she felt like this because she thought she was infertile..
    ***End of Spoilers***

    How did other people interpret this part of the movie?

  20. hey all –
    I read all of the HTK trilogy and liked it very much. finished the Killing Moon (which I absolutely loved even more than HTK!) and am reading as much of the Shadowed Sun as taking 4 college classes in a 7 week summer semester will allow (which is not as much as I would like…believe me). i grew up being molested and raped by a family member and it’s something I have to deal with one way or another every day of my life. I’ve just finished that part of the story and I feel you handled it well. I had read most of the above posts before I even bought the books so I was forewarned but trusted your writing enough to not feel apprehensive about it. I know I can’t speak for everyone who has gone through this type of thing since everyone has their own tolerance (can’t think of a better word at the moment) level but I would highly recommend both books to anyone (except for minors). I have a neice who would love your books but her parents are very selective (and rightly so) about what she reads…so I will probably have to wait until she’s out of high school to pass them on to her. the books are very good and I’m on edge because I can’t finish the Shadowed Sun right now! thanks for your work. you are becoming one of the writers whose work I will purchase without knowing anything about what’s inside and that’s saying a lot.
    peace to all

  21. Sexual violence – and the emotional manipulation and control that’s so often a part of it – are [i]so[/i] difficult to talk about.

    Especially when writers like GRRM seem (to me) to revel in battle-type violence (no rape, but devastating wounds and tons of killing) sexual violence *and* physical/emotional torture with no obvious sexual component. (That last plays a big part in most recent installment of ASOIAF.)

    I’m not sure how I’ve gotten through all of his books, but at certain points (in every single novel) my stomach has been in knots.

    So… I really appreciate your willingness to take on the topics of rape and the sexual molestation of children. And all the ways in which those who have experienced these things are written off; their suffering minimized and rationalized away by most people around them.

    As for your reaction to the client’s statement about going home for Thanksgiving, I seriously doubt that a far more experienced counselor would have been able to keep from reacting in some way or other. I feel for you, but hope that you do *not* blame yourself for reacting … normally.

    That statement of your client’s is chilling.

Dreamblood Book One:

The Killing Moon

The Killing Moon

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