On Rape and Repugnance

While I was offline, Janelle Asselin, one of my former editors at DC Comics, wrote an article for CBR critiquing the T&A aspects of the cover to the forthcoming Teen Titans #1. Some readers liked the article. Some didn’t. And some of those who didn’t decided to anonymously threaten her with rape.

Think about that for a minute. Multiple individuals were so incensed over an article pointing out the sexual objectification of a teenage female superhero that they felt their only recourse was to threaten the writer of the article with rape. Sadly, this isn’t the first time this has happened in the comic book section of publishing, nor is it only in comic books that it happens. I know of it happening in both the horror fiction and science fiction sectors, as well.

Too often, this is brushed aside or excused or ignored. In our own section of the industry, Nickolaus Pacione regularly threatens to rape various females, but too many of our peers shrug and say, “Well, he’s mentally ill so it’s okay” and then continue to follow him on Twitter for the comedic value of watching a train wreck.

Or we often hear the excuse, “Well, it was probably just some dumb kid making a dumb joke.” That’s horseshit. My oldest son is 24, and while I love him and am immensely proud of him, there are times he is the living embodiment of “all-the-dumb-things-we-all-did-at-24″ (and I can’t holler at him for it because I did many of the same things at that age). But no matter how many times he acts without thinking, he’s not out threatening to rape people. It’s disingenuous to excuse such transgressions as simply youth saying something stupid.

Another excuse I often see thrown around is “well, even if they threaten it, they’ll never act on it”. Which is, again, horseshit. Here’s a shining example of this type of misanthropic idiocy. During my time offline, I was so incensed by what had happened to Janelle that I hopped online via my ex-wife’s computer and posted to Facebook about it, promising that this essay you’re now reading would be forthcoming once I’d finished my move. Loyal reader Thomas Clark shared the post on his wall. And then, something that calls itself Tim Bruzdzinski (I say ‘something’ because the individual in question is certainly not a man, and in my opinion, doesn’t qualify as human) offers pearls of wisdom in the comments like “idiot threats don’t matter. Nobody is getting raped, this happens eleventy billion times every day and nothing ever comes of it.” (Incidentally, Little Timmy is the front-man for a Syracuse-based bar band called Nails In The Pulpit, so yeah, fuck them).

I’ve always had more female friends than male friends. Looking back, I’d say three out of every five women I’ve known has been directly impacted in some way by rape. I also know men who have been impacted by it, and not just indirectly. Rape happens. It’s not a sexual crime. It’s a violent crime — a crime of force and will and blood and pain and control. It is absolutely one of the most repugnant, heinous things a human being can perpetrate on another human being, and it leaves scars that never wholly heal no matter how much therapy you undergo or how much vodka you drink. To threaten another human being with rape┬ámakes you just as repugnant as the act itself.

We have spoken up about this within the horror fiction section of the industry before, and now, as a result of what has happened to Janelle, we see comic professionals beginning to speak out against it, as well. But that is not enough. I encourage professionals from ALL sectors and ghettos of publishing to speak up. Let your audience know that this type of behavior is unacceptable, regardless of race, creed, or gender. Whether you read comics or horror novels or science-fiction tie-ins or true crime or westerns, whether you’re a socialist, libertarian, conservative, progressive, liberal, anarchist, or apolitical — you should agree that people should be treated equally and not threatened with fucking violence just because they wrote something you disagree with. If you can’t agree to that, then quite frankly, I don’t want you as a fan, or a reader, and I don’t want you in my genre (and since they’re giving me the Grand Master Award in Portland next week, it is my fucking genre).

And if you’re a fellow professional, don’t think “Well, my fans would never do this” or “I don’t have an audience as large as Brian Keene or Joe Hill or Jeff Lemire or John Scalzi or Greg Rucka or Chuck Wendig so it’s not worth it for me to speak up”. Because that’s horseshit, too. This is a problem that impacts us all, and it is your duty to speak up. If you make art, if you create entertainment, if you examine the world via words or pictures and offer folks a few hours of escapism and release, then you have a responsibility to get involved.

Which brings me to part two of this rant.

Amid the legitimate and justified outcry I’ve seen over this issue, I’ve also seen a secondary narrative decrying the usage of rape in comic books, television, horror novels, and other forms of the medium, and the suggestion that such works should be banned, and that there is something wrong with the people who create them or read them. This is also horseshit.

I’m a horror novelist. Just as it is a science-fiction writer’s job to invoke a sense of wonder (or perhaps dread) about the future, it is my job to invoke unease and fear. All writers, regardless of what genre they work in, act as a mirror of sorts. We examine life and humanity and we write about those things. You may remember your first kiss, but do you really remember the actual emotions that came with it? Can you still articulate how it felt the first time you encountered death or love? How it felt the first time you realized your parents weren’t infallible? What it was actually like to be six-years old, and the unique worldview that comes with that age? You may think you do, but you don’t. Not really. Memories dim over time, leaving us with impressions, but nothing more. A writer’s job is to make you feel those things again. We observe the world around us and we mine our observations into prose, and thus, make the reader feel them once again. As a horror writer, I’m meant to make you feel scared, uneasy, horrified, uncomfortable, etc. I’m supposed to examine what’s out there in the darkness. There’s nothing wrong with that. People have been examining the darkness since primitive man first drew comic books on cave walls. The Bible, the Koran, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Vedas — all of our earliest texts contained elements of horror.

Rape is a horrific act. But to call for banning it from film or literature (and when I say literature, I’m including comics) is chilling, as well. Instead, perhaps a call should go out to use it responsibly, rather than gratuitously, but even then, that’s a slippery slope. One person’s porn is another person’s art. One person reads an Edward Lee novel and is repulsed by the grotesqueness within. Another reads an Edward Lee novel and sees the clever social commentary nestled between the excess bodily fluids.┬áSome people think Crossed is vile. Others think it is delightfully horrific. Personally, I’m repulsed by the so-called “rape porn”, in which adult film stars act out scenes of rape, but as long as nothing illegal is occurring, I’m not going to tell someone else they can’t watch it. There’s a difference between two actors and a film crew in a studio following a fantasy script versus a victim and group of thugs armed with a cell phone camera in a back alley somewhere. Comics, film, and books have featured murder, cannibalism, and other atrocities (and not just in the horror genre). Why should rape be an exception?

An example I see offered again and again is The Killing Joke, a Batman graphic novel written by Alan Moore. There is a scene in which the Joker shoots and seemingly rapes Batgirl. The shooting is shown. The rape is suggested. But there’s no doubt in the minds of most readers that it happened. Putting aside for the moment that Alan Moore is a horror writer (even his non-horror work such as Watchmen and V For Vendetta contain elements of the horror genre and influence from Lovecraft, Machen, Hodgson, and others) let’s examine what Moore, as a writer, intended to do with that scene. He wanted to show just how violent and dangerously unhinged the Joker was. Furthermore, he wanted to shock and terrify the reader. As someone who read The Killing Joke upon its initial release in 1988, I can tell you he succeeded. Before that, the Joker has always been sort of a neat villain. With The Killing Joke, and specifically that particular scene, he became absolutely terrifying. Moore used rape to a similar effect in the pages of Swamp Thing, when Abby Holland has sex with a man who she thinks is her husband, but in reality is her husband’s corpse, possessed and reanimated by her uncle, Anton Arcane. Disgusting? Sure. Horrifying? Absolutely. Gratuitous? No, not in my opinion. Moore’s goal in Swamp Thing was to scare the reader, and that scene was scary to the point that I remember it clearly, some three decades later.

I don’t think the problem is using rape (or murder or cannibalism). I think it’s how you use rape (or murder or cannibalism). And I think that awareness only comes with time, because you see others discussing it and then you look back and examine your own work.

I have two friends named Amanda and Eryn. If I ever had daughters, I’d want my daughters to be like Amanda and Eryn. They are very much involved in geek culture, and unapologetic in their fight for equal standing at the comic book shop. They make me so proud and fill me with hope for this next generation (and I’ve never told them that before now). A few years ago, I signed a copy of CASTAWAYS for Amanda at a convention. Admittedly, she doesn’t read much horror, preferring superheroes and sci-fi instead, but she read CASTAWAYS, and when she was finished, I asked her what she thought.

“It was okay,” she responded, “but have you written anything without giant rape monsters in it?”

I explained my stance that rape made sense in the context of the book — the tribe of cryptids are dying out because of inbreeding, and they need new mates, and I pointed out the afterword I’d included at the book’s conclusion, discussing rape and its usage and how it made me uncomfortable but it was necessary for the plot. But because I respect Amanda, and because her and Eryn teach me things without them even knowing it, I went back and examined the rest of my books. I’ve written a lot of them. I can happily say that not all of them include rape. But some do. In the case of GHOUL and DARK HOLLOW, I’d argue that it was as necessary as it was in CASTAWAYS. But THE RISING? Gratuitous. I didn’t think so at the time. The man who wrote THE RISING was a much younger man, and not as well-informed, and he thought he was showing how cruel humanity could be to one another after society collapses, but in going back and re-reading that old manuscript a decade later in advance of the publication of the anniversary edition? I cringed. I cringed and I thought, “Jesus fucking Christ, Brian. What the fuck were thinking?” I was tempted to edit the scene down, but ultimately I didn’t, because there are a bazillion other copies out there already. But I can tell you this — I don’t like that scene, and I wish I’d written it differently.

And if we’d been having this discussion back in 1998, I probably would have written it differently, because I would have been more aware.

And that, in a nutshell, is why it’s important for creators to speak up now. I’ve done my part.

Now it’s your turn.

Discuss. And not just here, in the comments below. You have your own Blogs and social media outlets. It is not okay to threaten people with rape, and that shit stops now, but it only stops if you do your part.

32 thoughts on “On Rape and Repugnance

  1. Scott M. Baker

    This is probably the most passionate thing you’ve written, Brian, and spot on. Rape and violence against women is prevalent in real life, but rarely talked about. Someone very dear to me was molested as a young girl, and the scars she carries are with her forty years later, and still cause her emotional hardship and pain. Calls to ban rape from entertainment are misguided at best — it just buries the issue behind a veil of secrecy and allows these monsters to continue prowling with immunity.

    1. TJ Swoboda

      This is meant in reply to Brian’s original post, but I’m an idiot and can’t find where to add a comment to the main thread… But anyway: Pretty much spot-on. Rape is usually motivated by a desire to control other people, and along with everyone else who can’t mesh with society I’d like to see rapists dropped on a desert island to fend amongst themselves.

      However, what Tim Bruzdzinski is naive. He’s wrong; a good number of the “men” sending these threats would act on them, I’m sure, given the opportunity. But at the risk of sounding naive myself, we should be trying to educate people like Bruzdzinski, not demonizing them. What you quoted is hardly a cheering on of rapists; that would be worthy of demonization; but an underestimation of evil. Is this really a shortcoming that renders someone inhuman?

      1. Brian Post author

        That’s a fair point, TJ, and one I didn’t consider (though I do see where some folks in that thread did try to educate/enlighten Bruzdinski, only to see their efforts smash against the wall).

  2. Anke

    The critique of rape in media I’ve seen recently was mostly sparked by the Game of Thrones adaptation(s), and the points of contention included the following:
    – If you turn a consensual act from the books into a rape scene in the adaptation, but do not show the consequences, it… well, it’s fucked up. Because it should damn well make a difference for a relationship if one partner raped the other at some point or not, because it makes a difference if the narrative later asks us to root for a rapist or someone who had consensual sex… I’m probably forgetting things.
    – Producers claiming that a scene involving a woman going some variation of “no, stop!”, but a guy forcing himself on her until she gave in was “consensual at the end”, rather than rape.
    – Making rape look “sexy” for the presumed heterosexual male viewer – focusing on the woman, lots of skin, that kind of thing.

    So, yeah, my impression was, people being sick of gratuitous rape, and the kind of apologist “it’s not real rape” shit that keeps real women in the real world from reporting having been target of a violent crime.

    1. rambert

      This. Thank you for saying everything I was thinking. Dubious consent, and consent that somehow changes from explicit no to explicit yes in a very short period of time, is very eroticized and made appealing in many movies nowadays, but Game of Thrones especially. It basically is telling men, “You can keep trying, she’ll probably say yes eventually.”

  3. scturnbull

    Thanks for the viewpoints Brian.
    For me ‘You deserve to be raped’ sits right alongside ‘They’re only Jews/Gypsies/Homosexuals/Jehovah’s Witnesses’
    The mind set that led to the acceptance of people being carted off to concentration camps started with not having an explicit respect for someone else as a human being. Rape goes the same way.

  4. S. Cat

    As a woman close to 40 from a professional background where I have worked with competitive men most of my life, I am astounded no man EVER threatened to rape me, and I never overhead someone threaten to rape someone else-UNTIL social media came around. The slightest perceived insult (or blow to their ego) and deranged men express hope women get raped. Sometimes their buddies join in on talking about the fun or how the woman has it coming. It’s disturbing, and all too often it’s accepted. How anyone finds that funnny or a good comeback baffles me.

  5. Mallory A-M. Forbes (@M_Heart_Reviews)

    Mr. Keene, I want to hug you! This is perfect! I think there must be “eleventy billion” EVENTS of rape, molestation, abuse of children, women, and men, daily__real occurrences, not “threats,” and those who find threatening a joke, and those who say, “Awww, they”‘ll get over it,” ought to try for themselves what it’ll to be victimized. (No, I am not threatening.) Each of us must stand up on this or it will never cease.

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  8. Jan

    Given the statistical likelihood that a very large number of any audience may have been raped, this should be in the mind of any author or creator. Is your inclusion of rape so important to the story that you are willing to traumatize those members of your audience? Perhaps the answer is legitimately yes. But I think that in many cases, it is really no.

    1. Brian Post author

      But I think the same can be said of other valid traumas, Jan. For example, because of some real life instances, I have a problem with scenes regarding dead children. If I’m watching a program or reading a book and a child dies within it, I often have a strong, adverse emotional reaction to such scenes. But that isn’t the fault of the writer, nor do I hold them responsible for it, nor do I expect them to keep my reaction in mind when they are telling their story.

      I’m not belittling or lessening anyone’s past trauma — but I do think it’s unreasonable to expect an artist to account for all of those things in advance. Quite simply, an artist can’t. If someone has an emotional reaction to a Depeche Mode tune or a Trent Reznor lyric or a Stephen King sentence or a visual in Sons of Anarchy or a panel in a Warren Ellis comic book, that’s unfortunate, but we can’t hold the artist responsible for those reactions.

      I mentioned my own trigger issue above. That hasn’t stopped me from writing about it when the story called for it. As far as the topic of this essay, I know horror novelists (of both genders) who have been victims of rape, but have used it in their work when the need arose. For some, that’s therapeutic. For others, it’s a trigger. But it’s an individual issue, because we’re all individuals.

      1. Amanda (@eruditechick)

        This. We lost a very young member of my family some years back, and watching those ads for that new network show about people returning from the dead, one of whom is a small child, is just really miserable. But you can’t expect things to simply not be made for those reasons, no matter how much you might wish they wouldn’t be. JFC, we can’t even have a Superman movie that isn’t trying to cash in on the trauma of 9/11. Terrible real life things need to explored through art, and all mediums of it, at that- but you would hope that the worst of those things aren’t being used cheaply.

        1. Jan

          Thank you for your gracious reply, Brian. And I think Amanda expressed herself better than me. Please don’t use these things cheaply, indeed.

          It’s interesting to me that in fan fiction, an arena mostly engaged in by women and young people, the use of trigger warnings is nearly universal across hundreds of fandoms and hundreds of thousands of stories. I’m not prescribing this at all but it is an observation of how people within a community have chosen to treat each other.

          As a librarian, I’ve spent a long time serving young people and their interests in science fiction, fantasy, horror, anime and other graphic media. And a long time defending these materials and young people’s interest in them. And yet I self censor myself in suggesting that young people seek out online venues for their interests since the reception that might find there is so problematical.

  9. lornareid

    I found this piece to be incredibly well reasoned and wanted to say thank you. My home is more in the gaming industry and it is just as bad there. Pathetic, brainless morons think it is okay to spew this type of vitriol, whether in comment threads or over Xbox Live, etc. If more would or could be done about it, legally, then perhaps we would see the trend slow down and halt. You are right, however. If more people speak out, especially those with any sort of fanbase, then perhaps it would make a difference. That said, I fear that you may well be preaching to the choir, rather than those who need to hear and understand it.

  10. abuzzinid

    Agreeable on all counts. Anyone who dismisses rape and its impact has never been physically vulnerable. Never been helpless in the presence of a stronger or better-armed person. Try it. You won’t like it.

    I agree it is a valuable tool in art and like any tool can be inappropriately used. Thank you for your honest self-appraisal about your work. You are a true Grand Master.

  11. Joe Augustyn

    Everyone should just write books about velvety sweet vampire boys and the starry-eyed girls who love them instead of all this bloody edgy horror and all will be right with society.

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  13. garrettcook

    There are occasions where rape to show that someone is awful works but I think we need to move away from it being the equivalent of a goatee or a handlebar mustache and a tophat. It also reduces the agency of female characters. I read the Green Lantern with the fridge girl panel as a kid and it taught me some bad things about exceptionalness and intimacy. It taught a generation of geeks that intimacy was dangerous and that women are just sitting around waiting to get written out of the planet or raped. As for threats of rape, this relates back to it being the black leather jacket of violent crime. To a fucked up psyche, it’s what power looks like and what dangerous badasses with no moral compass do. Maybe we might want to show people a new barometer for bastard.

  14. CherokeeWriter

    Thank you Brian for this great post. I’ve shared it on Twitter and hope my followers will read it as well.

    This is really an issue and many people don’t take it seriously. Thank you for doing your part and speaking up.

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  16. Federico

    I love seeing about how authors respond to their own works years down the track. It’s fascinating to read your react to the rape scene in The Rising, and that you even considered editing it down! Thanks for sharing, and glad to see this essay getting so much positive recognition.

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  19. monkeycat

    As a son of a mother, brother of a sister, a husband of a wife and most importantly, a father of a daughter, I don’t think I’ve ever casually or callously stated that a woman should be raped. I just can’t wrap my mind around that ill-informed comment. I think I read the other day that 1 in 4 female college students are raped during their time there. This is unfathomable to me and makes me afraid for my daughter.


  20. Tonia Marie Houston

    Thank you for this. I went from being a victim to survivor to warrior. One of the hardest things, even still, to endure is this need many still have to look the other way. To laugh off the threats or pretend these things don’t happen. I live in a small community and though there are many things I love about it, any forced silence is repugnant to me. Maybe this is why I write horror. Someone has to examine the darkness, as you mentioned. You’re doing an amazing job and that you are willing to admit your mistakes- wow, I have mad respect for you.

  21. leemillerwrites

    It has become so gratuitous in the horror genre (my favorite) that I can hardly watch them anymore. The use doesn’t seem to be to create dread or horror but to titillate lately. I think banning it would only cause any honest dialogue to disappear, however. Art imitates life imitates art but the real problem is how lightly we treat people who threaten it – they should be taken as seriously as someone threatening suicide or mass murder. We are teaching our youth that rape is okay if you follow any cases perpetrated by young men. If you want to know how bad it is, read up on the Cleveland, TX or the Steubenville, OH cases and see how the perpetrators were defended by the communities. Even the strangers who tweeted their support of them, as far as I’m concerned, are guilty of promoting a rape culture.
    I’m with Tonia Houston but in a different way – I sometimes follow these cases closely and on the surface it seems morbid but after some self examination I’ve realized that my motivation is to honor those girls, to not look away, and to let myself feel rage and pain in solidarity with them.

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