Saturday, August 11, 2012

Dear Book Readers

Discussion of sexual assault and rape culture to follow.

Dear Book Readers,

Long story short, I've found myself with stacks of books to read that I wouldn't necessarily have picked up on my own.

Some of them are romance novels.  Within those romance novels, I'm noticing a trend.

The scenario runs like this: the man touches the woman without her permission and against her will.  Sometimes she squirms and pushes at him and protests, and he backs off.  Sometimes they have a long and physical struggle over it with the writer communicating the woman's sincere distress clearly.

The man is the hero of the novel.  By the end of the book, she's proclaiming her love for him and they're strolling off into their happy future together.

The scene describes sexual assault very frankly but never names it as such.  It's like a step-by-step description of how to make a sandwich without ever saying the word sandwich, only with way more danger and misogyny.

Elsewhere in the book, later, someone will bring up rape.  In one book, for example, some other guy tries to rape the heroine.  In another, the heroine protests against the hero's sexual aggression, and he points out that kissing her against her will and groping her breasts despite her protests isn't rape, so what is she so upset about?*

It seems as if the author's trying to set up the threat of rape as a counterpoint to the hero's aggressive sexuality.  He's controlling and forceful, he takes without asking, he victimizes her for his own amusement, sure, but he's not a rapist!

Okay, no.  He doesn't rape her.  He does sexually assault her.

Consent matters.  It's not as if going so far but not too far is okay.  It's not as if overriding someone's consent and continuing despite someone's distress is okay as long as there's no PIV penetration.

Setting it up as "good guys" versus "rapists" is a false dichotomy.  There are all sorts of people somewhere in the middle who may not rape anyone but are still hostile to consent.  It's not as if in the absence of rape, someone's automatically a good guy.  He might be an entitled douche.  He might be a molesting asshole.  He might do all sorts of things to people against their will or without their consent.  "At least I didn't rape you!" is not a defense of negative behavior and does not deserve cookies.

Rapist versus good guy is another way the rape culture pressures us to accept the crossing of boundaries.  It encourages us to brush away sexual assault and unwanted touching and violations of space as "not that bad."  They are bad.  They're unacceptable.  They can range from annoying to criminal.  It's not romantic to violate boundaries, and if someone doesn't know where the boundaries are, he should ask.

Once upon a time, I might have read those scenes and not thought very much about them.  They're awfully common, in popular culture and in real life.  If you enjoy reading a book with these themes, I hope that you consider the message it sends.  If you share similar books with someone else, I hope that you'll have a conversation about it.  The more closely we examine rape culture, the better we can dismantle it.

With love,
Frank Lee

*This point is usually followed by the hero saying something like, "Don't tell me that you didn't enjoy it!"  As if that's relevant.  First, how good is this guy at picking up on signals and reading body language to begin with, that I should trust his interpretation of events as opposed to the panicked, frightened response I read?  Second, sometimes the body responds one way while the mind responds in a different way, so "your nipples were hard and your skin was flushed" does not mean "you wanted it."  That idea needs to be annihilated.  Third, I don't care if she wanted it or not.  Her desires have nothing to do with anything.  She can want it all day long, but she didn't consent to it.  End of argument.

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