Thursday, March 17, 2011

10 Observations on Male Sexual Violence in the Contemporary Novel

I'm not sure if I've never noticed it or if my recent reading is somehow skewed, but I am struck by the number of rapes and/or kidnappings of women by men in contemporary fiction. Of the last twenty contemporary novels I've read, ten have some such incident. This strikes me as a remarkable number.

I'm just beginning to consider why this might be and what it might mean, but here are a few preliminary observations about how sexual assault seems to be represented in mainstream literary fiction:

1. Kidnapping (recently encountered in Bloodroot, Room, Savages and The Fates Will Find Their Way) has clear narrative uses. Savages is a ransom situation, but the rest are sexually motivated (at least presumptively so in The Fates Will Find Their Way).

2. Sexual kidnappers get almost no description, motivation, or detail. They are white, middle-aged, and drive automobiles of no recent vintage. They prefer white, teenage girls.

3. There also seems to be a rise in rape as back-story--that is, female characters who have been raped, but that experience is outside the main time of the novel. Patty Berglund's high-school sexual assault is presented this way, even though one might reasonably argue that it was the crucial incident of the novel.

4. There is also, perhaps understandably, an aversion to narrating the actual sexual assault. Much like the identity of most of the rapists, the rape act is usually left undescribed. Except in Imperial Bedrooms (which could go for all of these actually.)

5. The excruciating emotional work of recovering from an assault happens outside the scope of the text, if it happens at all.

6. According to novels, rapes result in pregnancy exponentially more often than does consensual sex.

7. Likewise, 0% of women who have children by their rapists feel any ambivalence at all about the child.

8. Even in novels without a sexual assault, there often is a specter of male sexual violence, depicted either in untoward advances, menacing stares, dangerous situations, or second-hand stories.

9. Men are almost never the object of sexual violence. And never adult men.

10. Teenage boys are either sexually inhibited or future sex offenders.

I'm going to be thinking about how male sexual violence is portrayed in contemporary fiction, so if you have other examples or additional thoughts on the subject, I'm eager to hear them


  1. Skippy Dies offers sexual violence/dominance perpetrated by and toward adolescent males.

  2. Doubleword-
    Right, thanks for jogging my memory there. Have to incorporate that for the next iteration of this thinking.

  3. very interesting observations. i'm eager to read what other people have to say about this!

  4. Fascinating, as always. I'm trying to imagine how to depict sexual assault against adult man.

    I can, but it's twisted as fuck. Will keep it off your comment section.

  5. Interesting discussion - I'll be checking in frequently to see comments. It's not a new release - but "Lovely Bones" is another one to add to the list.

  6. Look, I know the books were utterly terrible, and in no way can be considered literary fiction, but it terms of sexual violence towards women; of a woman to a man, etc. It's hard not to think the white elephant in the room is the Dragon Tattoo trilogy.

  7. I hadn't really thought of it before but there really is a lot of sexual assault in literature today. That is why I like books where the males are great guys, even virgins. one of favorite YA titles is Tales of the Madman Underground and the male protagonist isn't sexually aggressive.

    Hey, I'm stopping by on the hop. I usually read a bunch of books at once.


    My Head is Full of Books

  8. Just wanted to let you know I linked this post in my "Friday Five" over at Kate's Library. Have a great weekend!

  9. Interesting observations. I'm currently reading Bolano's 2666 and the biggest section of the book is about dead women who have frequently been raped. It's taking me forever to get through this section because one can only take so much. I am hoping that there is a reason for this in the book but so far I don't know what the reason is.

  10. An additional thought on #2 - it seems like in fiction (and not just literature but also movies, tv, etc) are sexually assaulted by a stranger. In actuality most sexual assualts are committed by a person known to the victim, but I have a hard time thinking of an instance I've come across lately of a woman being assaulted by anyone other than a stranger in fiction.

  11. Interesting post. It's not a new release, but many people read the last scene in McCarthy's Blood Meridian to be a description of the sexual assault of Judge Holden on The Kid.

  12. Read Cara Hoffman's new novel 'So Much Pretty' for a really engrossing look at how small-town and rural America turns a blind eye to sexual violence. I picked it up yesterday and read the whole thing.

  13. That's not necessarily true. There is a rape that figures prominently in my novel Among Women and is crucial to the story. It is described in detail. The rapist is a black male and the the woman he rapes is also black.

    I've noticed a reluctance to make rape lyrical or to disguise it by innuendo or misdirection. No doubt that is because rape is an uncomfortable subject in anyone's universe.

    J M Cornwell
    Among Women

  14. I popped over to suggest So Much Pretty but see that someone has already mentioned it, so I'll second that emotion. It is the book THE LOVELY BONES wanted to be and then some.

  15. Maybe this comes ad goes in phases? Many of the earliest books to be considered novels have sexual aggression towards women as a major plot point (Clarissa by Samuel Richardson being a big one that includes kidnapping and drugged rape, also his novel Pamela which has a stockholm syndrome thing going on)

    There's also Tess D'Ubbervilles, Dangerous Liaisons, I could go on, but won't (oh, and a number of operas that came from novels too.)

  16. For a book about the Russian rape of German women at the end of WWII, there’s the memoir “A Woman in Berlin” by Anonymous. Oddly, the author did not seem to be terribly traumatized by multiple rape, nor did her friend/landlady, who thought it hilarious that her rapist mimed a description of her private parts comparing her parts favorably to Russian women. The distinguished historian who wrote the introduction tied himself in knots trying to explain it all; and the author herself said it wouldn’t have happened without alcohol - during the day the Russian soldiers were model gentlemen. And as the commentator above mentioned, you could go on and on with books containing stories of sexual assault - whether or not with all of the attributes listed. Perhaps it’s like life - one survey said something like 87% of American women reported themselves to be victims of sexual assault (however that was defined) at some time in their lives.

  17. Many thanks for all of the comments here. I'm going to write a follow-up that will include my responses to many of the points made here, rather than try to reply to them here in the comments. Again, much appreciated

  18. Just wanted to add Margaret Atwood's novel 'Bodily Harm' and Joyce Carol Oates novel 'Rape: A Love Story' to any list of books about rape you might consider giving a go. I think the most interesting point on your list for me is the idea that the act of dealing with being raped and the rape often takes place outside of the text. I know 'Rape' places all this inside the text which is what you'd expect a book with such a title to do)and seem to remember 'Bodily Harm' doesn't but it was a loooong time ago when I read that, but there's a pretty decent general pattern of these approaches to be found in literature I think.

    Or at least I'd def say that about rape taking place outside of the text. If we were looking at areas other than lit fic (womens fic for example) I might expect that the emotional work of dealing with rape would be more likely to take place within the text. But then if we looked at genres like sci-fi I suspect there would also be a pattern of the emotional dealing taking place outside of the text.