Portrayal of sexual violence in one of my short stories (Trigger warning!)

In my short story collection “If the World Ended, Would I Notice?” I have one story called “Ardent,” which is set in the same world as our science-fiction novel “Kea’s Flight.”

As warned in the mini-introduction on the page preceding it, “Ardent” is a dark story, portraying the descent into madness of one of the villains of “Kea’s Flight.” And it may bother some readers that it contains what appears to be a scene of attempted rape, from the point of view of the aggressor, who is undergoing a mental breakdown and losing control of his actions.

Even as a woman with openly liberal political views, I know I’m taking a risk by having a scene like that in a story. Every day I see more and more articles online complaining about rape being used as a plot device, giving the impression that many people don’t find any fictional depiction of rape or attempted rape acceptable.

And because of the nature of my story’s depiction, I’ve been feeling some concern about the possibility that people might interpret the story as an expression of support for rapists, a sympathetic account of what it’s like from the rapist’s perspective, or a statement that rapists “just can’t control themselves” and are “driven” to commit the crime.

This is obviously not what I intended, but I understand the complaint, and I’d like to do what I can to explain why I wrote the scene as I did. First, a clarification of exactly what the scene entails. (Possible triggers and spoilers after the cut.)

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The point-of-view character, Charles Arden, who is emotionally unstable and has been on the verge of a breakdown for some time now, is about to have consensual sex with his girlfriend Kelsey. She is on birth control, but as they get ready to make love, something apparently harmless in their conversation triggers the breakdown Charles was doomed to have. As he snaps, he becomes obsessively convinced that they should be having reproductive sex instead. In his insanity, he sees failing to conceive a child as a worse crime than murdering a child, because it robs a child of its entire life, not just all but the first few years or months.

In a sort of haze, he holds Kelsey down and sticks his finger in her mouth, attempting to make her vomit up her birth control meds. She fights back, biting him, which shocks him back into semi-sanity for the moment, and she leaves shortly afterwards.

As he did this, he was not thinking at all clearly about her wishes. But one assumes that if she had not bitten him, he would have made her vomit and then proceeded to try and have sex with her– and by that point she would undoubtedly have changed her mind about having consensual sex with him.

So yes, this scene can be accurately viewed as a scene of attempted rape, even though it is not as explicit in that regard as some scenes in other books.

And yes, it does portray the would-be rapist as someone who “cannot control himself.” My intention was not to say that most rapists are like this. I was exploring the fact that some people who commit violent crimes– not just rape, but also murder, robbery and battery– are so mentally ill that they have lost control of themselves.

I grew up with severe, sometimes violent behavior problems linked to Asperger’s and Tourette’s. I was schooled in special ed programs along with many other students with even worse problems. I have intimate knowledge of uncontrollable violent behavior among the mentally unstable. However terrible violent crimes are, I can’t deny the fact that criminals are not always in control of their actions.

I do not believe this exonerates them, or that those found “not guilty by reason of insanity” should just go free. If a mentally ill criminal’s insanity drives him to kill, rape or otherwise harm people, he should be stopped by whatever means necessary, for the safety of others. He may want to be free, and because of his lack of control he may not “deserve” to be locked up, but one person’s right to do as he pleases is overruled by the rights of many other people to be safe from death or injury.

That said, it doesn’t negate the fact that such a loss of control is tragic, both for the criminal and for his victims. There’s a reason so many great tragedies are written about descent into madness. Macbeth and Hamlet murdered innocent people as they went insane; the suffering of their victims doesn’t reduce the power of the story, even as the story focuses mostly on the suffering of the mentally ill perpetrators. In fact, a tragedy about a violent madman is most effective when the madman himself is aware of his victims’ suffering and deeply tormented by it. The scenes of remorse in “Crime and Punishment” are the parts of that book that have stuck the longest in my memory.

In “Ardent,” I don’t believe I’ve dehumanized Kelsey by making her Charles’ potential victim. To me, she reads as more human and relatable than Lizaveta in “Crime and Punishment,” or Polonius in “Hamlet,” or Macduff’s wife and children in “Macbeth.” Her story is not as tragic as those, of course, because she was not actually killed, or even raped, but I put a lot of work into making her a character and not just a prop.

In the few scenes I wrote to introduce her, I gave her many facets of a complex character: a rebellious anger at the society she’s been raised in; a mature self-awareness of her anger and its causes; a sardonic sense of humor in ridiculing the things that anger her; a realistic and rational understanding of people’s motives, and thus an abundance of empathy for everyone, even the oppressors she resents; a deep understanding of how Charles’ mind works; a protective concern for Charles; and a creative mind capable of thinking up very original ways to take revenge, even if they’re so ridiculous (and she’s so kind and peaceful) that she would never act on them.

If the objection to fictional scenes of attempted rape is that it dehumanizes the victims, I don’t think that objection applies here. Kelsey is strong, intelligent and sympathetic even when being attacked. Even Charles, the villain of the scene, doesn’t directly think of her in degrading ways; his thoughts of her are at best worshipful, and at worst, respectfully critical of her viewpoints (although during the deepest moments of insanity he could be accused of objectifying her as a means to the end of making a baby). Of course different people’s reactions to the story will vary, but that’s my own take on it.

Personally, I see the story as a statement in support of women’s reproductive rights. What has kept Charles on the verge of a breakdown for so long is the oppressive, dystopian society in which he lives, a hypocritically “pro-life” society that would rather abandon unwanted embryos in outer space than abort them.

He rebels against that society, but its values have been drummed into him from birth, and he can’t help being influenced by that. It is partly due to this upbringing that when he finally snaps, he jumps to the conclusion that his not-yet-conceived child’s right to live is more important than his girlfriend’s right to refuse sex.

That is, after all, just an extreme pro-life view taken to its natural conclusion. If a sperm and egg that have just joined have all the rights of a person, then logically so would a sperm and egg that have not joined yet– they contain all the same matter, and have the same potential to become human life. Choosing not to have sex destroys that potential life.

From a pro-life perspective taken to its logical extreme, the right to say no to sex is a right to commit murder. Rape culture may be the inevitable result of the anti-abortion viewpoint, and that is one of the many ideas that “Ardent” is exploring.

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