A couple years ago, I bought a highly praised NA book that caught me by surprise a little over halfway through. In the book, the main character was dealing with trauma after a horrific accident that took her parents’ and boyfriend’s lives. She takes her little sister and runs away from their uncle’s creepy advances, and settles down out of state. On the surface, her handsome neighbor appears to be the man of her dreams—until she finds out that he was in the passenger seat of the car that killed her loved ones, and he stalked her across the country because he wanted to get to know her in an attempt to make up for the loss. When the twist is revealed, she continues to pursue a relationship with this man instead of being horrified.
Never mind his sick guilt and the coercive relationship and sex. That is No Big Deal. She’s in love and everything is happily ever after, thank you very much.
In another beloved series, the main character is almost raped at every turn when she first arrives in a strange place. Later on her beau is raped in exchange for her safety. Every book in the series continues to use rape as a plot device—even later when their daughter is raped. The only time the trauma is addressed is when her lover is tortured by the demons of the act and she must rescue him.
Today I started reading another popular book. There was no mention of the heroine being sexually assaulted in the blurb, nor a warning in the front matter, yet in the prologue she discovers in detail that she has been date raped.
I would’ve slammed the book shut if it weren’t on my iPad.
I’ve also read countless books where the heroine is almost raped by some guy and the hero rescues her, the event bringing them closer together and serving as a warm and fuzzy catalyst for their relationship. It happens so often, I should be desensitized to it. Instead, I’m pissed.
There are so many other ways to advance plot, kick off a romance, or highlight human evil. Yet so many storytellers rely on sexual assault as a crutch. I guess it’s no big deal if you’ve never been raped or attacked, but when it comes out of nowhere, with no warning, it can be extremely triggering for the 1 in 4 women who have been sexually assaulted (not to mention the countless women and men who never report).
When used cheaply and disposed of, it contributes directly to rape culture.
If it absolutely must happen in your book, give victims a one-line heads up somewhere in your blurb:
Still recovering from date rape on her prom night, years later Bettie is determined not to let anyone in.
Or stick a bold or highlighted trigger warning in your foreword or in the product description:
Please note that this story contains graphic depictions of sexual assault. Read at your own discretion.
Some people get really nasty about trigger warnings, griping that they shouldn’t have to be “PC” and “cater to everyone.”
Look, there are just some things that are universally triggering. Rape is one of them. I wish I’d known that the rape scene in I Spit On Your Grave was extremely violent, detailed, and lasted about 20 minutes. Since it’s a revenge thriller, I was willing to deal with a short scene knowing that the main character was going to make those motherfuckers pay. But I had no idea it was going to be so excruciating and intense.
Nor did I realize that the Outlander series had so much damn rape stuffed into it. Plenty of people I know read that book before I did. Some of them even knew about my history. But not a single person said to me, “Hey, just so you’re aware…”
People who have lost loved ones to murder can choose to avoid murder mysteries, horror, and thriller entertainment because those are genres widely understood to contain at least a mention of violence. Exactly nothing about romance implies “Hey, this probably has rape in it because it’s a love story.”
If sexual assault is essential to your story—like the #ownvoices standalone I’ve been working on—have a fucking heart. At least mention it somewhere in your blurb so that every 1 in 4 of your readers isn’t taken by surprise and sent into a downward spiral of flashbacks. If it’s a small part of the story—such as a brief mention—a short trigger warning at the beginning is plenty.
When in doubt, stick to the do no harm rule.