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.
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.
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.