Opinion

Women writers on writing rape and sexual violence 

Eimear McBride, Caroline Kepnes, Jan McVerry and Florence Vincent on the portrayal of rape in our art and media 

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By Lynn Enright on

Game Of Thrones. Orange Is The New Black. Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. EastEnders. Depictions of rape pervade our artistic and popular culture, causing uproar, igniting debate and reassuring survivors. Here, four women writers tell The Pool why they write about rape and sexual violence, and why it’s necessary and important to do that in our culture.  

Eimear McBride won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction for A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, a novel that explores sexual abuse, rape and masochism 

 

On rape in art going “too far”...

"Too far" for whom, I wonder. I think there's an increasing tendency for society to hide behind the infantalising mask of "appropriacy" in order to spare itself from having to meaningfully connect with the deep and dreadful impact of sexual violence upon its victims and survivors.

However, if "too far" refers to "graphic", this is something which needs to be handled with great care. It's my opinion that graphic portrayals of rape and sexual violation are a necessary and important recognition of a still-too-taboo subject. However, such portrayals must never allow themselves to become disengaged from the emotional, psychological and physical state of the victim. This is the only way to prevent the pornographisation of rape.

On why writers are drawn to sexual violence...

Because, until relatively recently, it was mostly swept under the carpet or referred to only in the most generic, shame-filled language. Given that many cultures – and frequently our own – still hold victims of sexual violence responsible for the crimes perpetrated against them, there is a great deal of work still to be done in terms of understanding and recognising the many forms rape, and its impact, has.

On writing scenes of sexual violence...

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing has several graphic scenes of sexual abuse and sexual violence which I found extremely difficult and upsetting to write but, given that the premise of the book was to give the reader complete access to the innermost life and experience of the girl, I knew it would be dishonest to flinch from those descriptions.

Jan McVerry is a television writer, working on Coronation Street amongST others


On rape on television going “too far”...

Practically, on TV, we can never go "too far" where rape is concerned, as scenes of sexual or violent content are so strictly monitored, particularly pre-watershed, but I've certainly seen portrayals in film and in novels which have pushed me close to the edge of tolerance. I'm thinking particularly of Gaspar Noe's Irreversible and Irvine Welsh's "Marabou Stork Nightmares", both of which depict rapes in such harrowing detail that it's tempting to walk away – and yet I'd defend both artists against accusations of exploitation or gratuitousness because the gruelling nature of these scenes are the very point: the viewers and readers are made to feel a fraction of the exhaustion and horror felt by the victim. Far more offensive are the dramas which treat rape glibly, where the act is filmed in such a way that it borders on titillation, or where the emotional and legal repercussions are too easily glossed over.  

On why writers are drawn to sexual violence...

Artists choose to tackle it because they know audiences will always be fascinated and moved by injustice, cruelty, abuses of power. From the writer's point of view, it's always easier to write when you feel genuinely fired up about a subject. Rape survivors, for so many years, have suffered twice over: at the hands of their abusers and then again by a cynical establishment and legal system. The more you talk to Rape Crisis Counsellors, who manage to run a year-round service on the sort of money some execs flash on corporate hospitality, the more you meet survivors of acquaintance rape who've never learnt to trust again. The more you sit in court and hear a slick barrister asking a 14-year-old girl – a virgin at the time of the attack – whether she regularly masturbates, the more fired up you become to tell these stories and, hopefully, to challenge lazy thinking or prejudice.  

Caroline Kepnes is the author of You, a novel featuring a sexually violent predator

 

On sexual violence in popular culture... 
I like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit because it’s taut storytelling that also happens to be empowering for viewers, informative and encouraging. I admire them for exploring the dark side of humanity. And the bad guys don’t always get put away. The justice system is flawed. Just like humans. Every episode isn't a Murder, She Wrote kind of happy ending. There are characters crying and they're going to keep crying. And that's important. Video games bother me. I'm biased. I just don't understand them.

On why writers are drawn to sexual violence...

You want to understand why people do what they do. Not to justify it or prevent it or influence it, but to feel what it's like inside of a mind. I think of that shortest horror story in the world, where the last man on earth sits alone in a room and hears a knock at the door. For me, most storytelling starts with some element of that loneliness, that despair. And it’s about sinking. And then there’s the knock at the door. And that's the blueprint of story: the idea that you’re alone, safe and someone is trying to get in. Who is the person at the door? The worst it could be: that person is here to rape and kill. Rape is the ultimate violation of your personal space. 

On how it feels for women to read about and watch rape scenes...  

There’s nothing more terrifying than the end of the Joyce Carol Oates short story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, when there is no escape. We know that Arnold Friend is going to come into the house. We can surmise what he’s going to do. And then the story ends and you’re haunted by the horror of what didn’t happen yet, what was just about to happen – the idea of this young girl having this life-altering experience. It struck me so deeply that we didn’t see that scene. We only saw what might be. And isn’t that the most disturbing thing about rape? Infinite possibilities every day around every corner.

Florence Vincent wrote for the teen web drama, EastEnders: E20, which addressed issues including rape and consent 


On rape on television going “too far”...

Certainly, a particular kind of unpleasant film or TV show can set out to deliberately titillate through rape (eg revenge thrillers, such as I Spit On Your Grave), by focusing upon the naked flesh of a powerless woman. But I believe that an artist has the right to depict anything in their work, as long as it is done so with a clear purpose towards the character in mind. Having said that, I also believe that the camera or the gaze of the audience being closely focused upon a graphic and violent rape scene is not usually necessary. I think we're all aware, as audience members, that rape is a repugnant, brutal and damaging act, so I think that going "too far" in terms of a very visceral, graphic representation is not only repellent – it's also unnecessary. 

On portraying rape and sexual violence while remaining sensitive to an audience...

Rape is not about sex – it's about power. Sensitivity towards visuals, when it comes to brutality or violence in a text, allows for the words to do their work. It also allows the actors to access their roles through an emotional connection to the character, and not simply by exposing their bodies. In Orange Is The New Black, Taryn Manning's acting was allowed to shine through because, during the rape scenes, the camera avoided wide shots of the assault and instead closed in on her face.

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women in the media
Sexual assault
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