Rape myths, rape culture, and the damage done

 Under this cut are spoilers for City of Lost Souls, but also an in-depth discussion of sexual assault as it pertains to books in general and The Mortal Instruments in specific, with a discussion of rape culture and rape myths. There is also an excerpt from a scene that contains a violent physical assault. 

alittlemoreanonymous asked you:

ugh this whole blog that shall not be named thing is getting so frustrating. I wrote to one tumblr defending the use of incest in books and now I’m getting all of this hate mail saying I condone “trigger” topics, and rape, etc. People are saying that the only reason the attempted rape in CoLS happened was to show how desirable Clary is & had no real point. Idk if I’m read it correctly, but I felt as if it showed just how inhumane Seb is. How is writing incest glorifying it?!”

Well first, I am sorry to hear people are sending hate mail. I know how awful that is to get.

Secondly, this is one of those things that I wasn’t sure if I should address. I haven’t actually gotten hate mail, just messages like yours, a lot of really upset and panicky mail, and one other question, which I will reproduce below. 

As for being told you condone “triggering topics” — probably the most important point to be made here is that to depict something is not to condone it. This is a mistake that is made all the time by people who you would think would know better. Megan Cox Gurdon in the Wall Street Journal, for instance, excoriated YA books for being too dark, zoning in specifically on Suzanne Collins’s hyper-violent, best-selling “Hunger Games” trilogy” and Lauren Myracle’s Shine, which depicts a hate crime against a gay teenager. Anyone paying any attention, of course, can tell that while violence is depicted in the Hunger Games, it is hardly endorsed. It is, in fact, a treatise against violence and war, just as Shine is a treatise against violence and hate crimes. Gurdon notes only the content of the books and ignores the context, which is a unfortunate mistake for a book reviewer. If the only people in the book who approve of something are the villains (nobody but the bad guys thinks the Hunger Games are anything but a moral evil) then it is a fair bet the book is about how that thing is bad.

The incestuous sexual assault in City of Lost Souls is committed by the villain, a child murderer who is planning genocide and is obsessed with control and power. While the scene is certainly upsetting and could be triggering, it is there to show that this character is beyond sympathy or redemption, and for the most part, that’s the reaction I’ve seen – “I tried to like Sebastian but then he tried to rape Clary and I hate his guts now.” 

[For those completely confused, a definition of “triggers” :  “A trigger is something that evokes survived trauma or ongoing disorder. For example, a person who was raped may be “triggered,” i.e. reminded of hir rape, by a graphic description of sexual assault, and that reminder may, especially if the survivor has post-traumatic stress disorder, be accompanied by anxiety, manifesting as anything ranging from mild agitation to self-mutilation to a serious panic attack.”]

For the reasons listed above, I do believe in trigger warnings for, say, internet posts. That’s what I put this post under a read more tag and added a trigger warning. Books, however, do not and never have come with trigger warnings. When you’re writing books, it’s part of your job to write about things like rape, like sexual assault, like self-mutilation, like torture, like war crimes. Because it’s your job as a writer, even if you’re writing fantasy, to reflect reality. (No one who believes in trigger warnings believes you shouldn’t be able to write about those things on the Internet either; they just think they should be tagged. This seems fair: netiquette is part of making the internet, which is otherwise, unlike published books, totally unpoliced, bearable.) Once you stop being allowed to write about those things, you erase the ability of art to say anything meaningful about them. And that is a great cultural harm.

We read to know that we are not alone. So said CS Lewis. We read because shared experience is more bearable. We read to know that even if we don’t know people like ourselves in real life, they are out there in the world. We read to be in the heads of those people. We read, if we love books, because there is no one among us who hasn’t had a book or a character in a book pick up the fragmented pieces of our broken hearts and glue them back together just by being like us.

From my email:

The main thing I want to thank you for is the character Alec. I too am gay and I love how you created a person. Not a character in the book to add something different, but you created a person in him. In “City of Lost Souls,” the part where he talks about how it is painful like a million paper cuts every day nearly brought me to tears. I love the fact you created someone real and not a caricature of what people want to see.

[I place this letter here not because I am equating homosexuality and sexual assault, as they could not be more different. I am only underlining the point that to see ourselves and our experience, even our painful experience, reflected in art, is meaningful and can be healing.] To say rape shouldn’t be written about, that sexual assault shouldn’t be written about, it is to say that people who are survivors of sexual assault and rape shouldn’t see representations of people like them in books. It is also to say that books should represent a world in which those things don’t happen. This is extremely dangerous thinking. If the reality that rape and sexual abuse exist are wiped from the pages of books, where do the people who have those experiences go to find context for the thing that has happened to them? (Yes, there are rape and abuse hotlines, there are places you can go for help, but if all traces of what just happened to you have been erased from the media, how do you even know to go and look for help? How do you know that you’re not the lone freak this has ever happened to rather than one of the one out of four women who will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime?)

I suppose what I’m saying here is this: it’s okay to find the sexual assault scene in City of Lost Souls triggering. But it’s also okay that it’s in there. Books don’t come with trigger warnings because as a society we’ve decided that placing warning labels on art is a cultural wrong. From the American Library Association’s Freedom To Read statement: “We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. We do not believe they are prepared to sacrifice their heritage of a free press in order to be “protected” against what others think may be bad for them. We believe they still favor free enterprise in ideas and expression.”

That means books can hurt you. Because as a society we’ve decided that is a price we will pay for freedom of expression. This isn’t a treatise on censorship, though I could certainly write one, so I’ll move on.

Now if this was the whole discussion, if it was a discussion about how the scene in which Sebastian sexually assaults Clary was disgusting and upsetting, I would stay out of the discussion. I agree that it’s disgusting and upsetting, and while I think it’s very important that people be allowed to write that which is upsetting and disgusting, I think that’s an argument that is had all the time, is had around many different books, and will always be had. 

What troubles me is to see people mocking Clary for having been sexually assaulted, and this sort of rhetoric: “the only reason the attempted rape in CoLS happened was to show how desirable Clary is.

I was also emailed this as a description of what one person had decided Clary was thinking after she was assaulted: “OMG I’M SO HOT.” The reader who emailed me that (and the post goes on, in detail, about Clary’s delight that her brother “wants to get in her pants”) said that they found the post itself so triggering that they threw up. Other posts have slammed Clary as a slut because after being sexually assaulted she is comfortable kissing her boyfriend, and even discussing with him the idea that someday in the future, they might have safe, consensual sex (with, as discussed in City of Fallen Angels, condoms — I can’t count the amount of letters I’ve gotten telling me I put a mention of condoms into my book for “shock value”! The persistent myth that “shock value” is something that benefits authors a lot, especially children’s book authors, really has to go, but that’s another post.)

And that’s why I decided to make this post: because it is upsetting to think even one of my readers would come across that and imagine that rape is regarded by anyone as a proof of desirability. It is upsetting because it promulgates terrible, really damaging ideas about rape. The last thing rape is, is a proof of desirability. Rape is not even about sex. (That is one of a particularly damaging set of “rape myths” that are part of overall “rape culture” — a set of assumptions about rape and sexual assault that are designed to reduce empathy for the survivor of it, to paint it as a “crime of passion”, and to shift the blame to the survivor.) I’m just going to say it again: Rape is not about sex. Rape is about violence. Rape is about control. Rape is violent assault carried out with sex as a weapon. It is not sexy and it is certainly not about the assaulted individual’s sexiness. 

Rape is a crime of violence, not an expression of desire. Look at the language used to describe Sebastian’s sexual assault of Clary.

He snarled and sprang at her. It was like being slammed by a wrecking ball — Clary flew backward, smashing through the glass tabletop, and hit the ground in an explosion of shards and agony. She screamed as Sebastian landed on top of her, driving her body down into the shattered glass, his lips drawn back in a snarl. He brought his arm down backhanded, cracking her across the face.  

There is nothing sexy here. There is nothing about desire. Nothing about love. Nothing about her being attractive. Clary is in the wrong place at the wrong time, in the company of an insane person who wants to control her. Who wants to break her. Who thinks he owns her. If the scene is scary and ugly, it is supposed to be that, because sexual assault is a scary, ugly crime. There is no text here that indicates that Clary welcomes Sebastian’s advances. And if Sebastian is excited, it because he is causing pain and exerting ownership. 

Rape myths are so dangerous because in a large part they are aimed at women and girls, and when girls buy into them, they buy themselves a lifetime of believing that if they are sexually assaulted it is their fault. It is their fault for dressing too scantily, for getting drunk at a party, for being too pretty. Rape has nothing to do with being “pretty.” The two ideas shouldn’t even be in the same sentence. It is these kinds of myths that lead to the thought process that would assume that a scene of violent rape was about showing the heroine as desirable. That would ascribe to women and girls the idea that being violently sexually assaulted and punched in the face was a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Rape culture tells us women “want it.” The truth tells us that they don’t.

“… and [the scene] had no real point.”

Ah, the “no real point” rhetoric.

I think there are two things going on here. One is symptomatic of exactly how damaging rape culture is, how it weasels its way into our marrow and our bones and our minds. I’m talking about the discussion about how Clary is “stupid” — stupid for considering trusting her brother, stupid for calling on him to help save Jace, stupid for borrowing his scarf, stupid for any number of reasons that all wind up at the same conclusion: it is her stupidity that got her sexually assaulted. 

This is a cornerstone of rape culture: the shifting of the blame for the act of sexual assault onto the subject of it. People get raped because they go out in sexy clothes (rape, not about sex) or trust the wrong people or walk down dark alleys at night, and if you can just not be stupid or careless or slutty like them, you will be protected from ever being sexually assaulted. [Myth.]

If Clary were stupid, if her actions brought sexual assault down on her, then there would be a “point” because there would be a lesson. To quote one instance: “The scene would have been okay if it had been an opportunity for Clary to grow and learn.”

For Clary to grow and learn. As the survivor of a sexual assault, she should learn from it. Learn, presumably, how to not be so stupid as to get sexually assaulted. The statement that she should “grow and learn” implies that she was sexually assaulted because she wasn’t mature enough, or didn’t know enough. I’m not angry at the person who posted that — I’m sad for them, because to feel that way indicates that you’ve assimilated rape culture to a degree where you think that the person who needs to learn a lesson from a sexual assault is not the assaulter, but the assaultee.

So, I think the theory goes, if Clary were assaulted because she needed to “grow” or “grow up”, then [presumably] there would be A Point. But if the scene is presented, as I hoped and intended it to be, as a violent act against her that she did nothing to “deserve”, then “there is no point.” That is a reaction born out of fear, an understandable fear, but it is also one that unfortunately supports and promulgates rape myths that are very damaging. Anyone can be raped, at any time, at any place, by anyone. That is the truth and it’s an ugly messy truth that doesn’t fit neatly into any box and is therefore very scary. But retelling ourselves dangerous lies about how rape happens because women are stupid, and that when they are raped they had better treat it as a “learning experience”, are not the solution to that fear.

Secondly: I get hate mail about Alec and Magnus on what I would say is about a weekly basis. I keep thinking it will get boring, but no, every time I wind up shaking with rage and walking around trying to shake it off and cool down. Since there’s such a pile of it, I tend to notice the same language cropping up again and again. One of the most common complaints is that I made Alec and Magnus gay “for no real point” or “for shock value” or “to make money.”

 I always wondered what the hell that was about. Did Alec and Magnus’ sexuality have to create world peace before it was okay to include it? Are gay people existing that shocking? Is anyone dumb enough to think that including gay characters in your story is going to net you the big bucks rather than what actually happens, which is that your book gets kept out of trade fairs and banned from libraries?  

I finally came to the conclusion that this was coded language, just like it is here, and meant that what would have made it okay for Alec and Magnus to be gay was if they suffered. The fact that they are gay should cause them intense pain and misery. The fact that Magnus is basically joyous about his sexuality and never ashamed, well, what’s the point of that? He’s bisexual and happy and it’s never a plot point except that he’s there, being bisexual and not bothered about it. He isn’t there to teach the straight people in the books Important Lessons About Sexuality. He’s there to sink battleships and blow up demons, which is not about sexuality at all, and therefore gratuitous.

In the same sense, there is a desire to see Clary (not Sebastian) really suffer because she was assaulted. There is a desire to see her feel pain and trauma. 

headsyoulive-tailsyoudie asked you:

Is Clary even a little effected that she was almost raped? I mean, people just don’t get over something like that. Please tell me she has some sort of PTSD or something similar in City of Heavenly Fire.”

It saddens me to see this desire to have Clary really suffer horribly because of the awful behavior of somebody else. I can understand what it’s rooted in — the sense that if she suffers horrifically, she’s a good girl, she’s having the right reaction to a sexual assault, and whatever blame might be otherwise laid at her door will be erased. 

Female characters are often made to suffer far more than male characters — a woman’s capacity to suffer, the amount of pain she’s burdened with, are often linked to ideas of her purity. (There’s a good article in the Washington Post about female characters being made to suffer on television and a male TV writer responding to questions about it by talking about “mythic purity.”  

Anyway, I’ll link to feminist.com here and their article on the right way to respond to being sexually assaulted.

No two women respond in the same way…There is no one correct or preferred way to deal with the feelings and reactions you may find yourself having.”

As I said earlier, one in four women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime.

I’m one of them.

I based Clary’s experiences and reactions on my own. It is, I think, very dangerous to say that there is one okay way to respond to being sexually assaulted. Each woman’s response to sexual assault is valid for her. PTSD is a valid response. A reluctance to be sexually active or a frightened response to intimacy is a valid response. It was not my response. My response was to be very, very angry, and that is Clary’s response. The only thing that keeps her from killing Sebastian is knowing it will kill Jace. She hates him from that moment on and in the epilogue, when Jace says he wants to kill Sebastian, she breaks in to say she’d like to kill him herself. Her response is rage against her attacker, and I do believe it to be a valid one. Feminist.com lists many possible reactions to a sexual assault: with grief and self-blame, spiritual crisis; anger and rage are third on the list. 

Does that mean Clary never will suffer any other kind of reaction? She may: just as there is no one right way to respond to sexual assault, there is no one right time frame to do it in. Clary has suffered multiple traumas and her world is teetering on the edge of a massive war: many people, as a coping stragegy, shove their feelings to the side until what needs to be dealt with has been dealt with. But even if she never blames herself, even if her sexual feelings for Jace are never affected, that does not make her a whore, or make her reaction to her assault invalid or impossible. Some survivors, understandably and validly, develop an aversion to sexual contact after an assault. Others find healing in consensual affection and physical activities like kissing (or any physical activity: I’m using kissing as an example because it’s what happens in City of Lost Souls). Both responses are okay, because again, there is no wrong response for a woman — or man — to have to being assaulted.

That was a lot of personal information there, and not the sort I usually share with the internet. As I said, I debated back and forth about whether to ever even address this at all. I don’t think I should defend my books: they have a life of their own and have to stand on their own. If you want to say my books suck and are the worst thing ever to disgrace the planet, I won’t ever argue with your right to say it.

However this discussion has gone beyond a discussion of my books or what happens in them or me as a writer. When I say “Magnus shouldn’t be whitewashed” I’m not saying “I did a perfect job depicting Magnus and dealing with all aspects of writing a character of a race other than mine” or when I say “Using homophobic slurs against Magnus and Alec is not okay” I am not saying “I did a perfect job writing characters whose sexual orientation is different than mine.”  I know I have not; I know I have screwed up in myriad ways. But.

But my ask box is full of messages from confused and unhappy young people who identify with Clary, who feel that somehow they are being indicted, they are being told they are ” sluts” or “cunts”, they are being told they are bad people who condone rape even though they do not. Some are survivors of rape who are crushed by the thought that they have failed to respond in the right way and therefore the rape was their fault, or that they must have enjoyed it — one letter was from a girl who was frightened that since she had been sexually assaulted previously, if she tried to have sex with her boyfriend now, it would be awful and traumatic because that was how she was “supposed” to feel. She didn’t feel that way, but reading people saying that Clary kissing her boyfriend after being assaulted and making a joke to him about fishnets was inappropriate and that Clary should and must be too traumatized to do that was frightening for her. (Which made me very sad, because part of the reason I wrote that scene was to portray a girl who even after a sexual assault felt okay with consensual physical affection; I felt it underlined how totally different those two things were. This is again not to invalidate any reaction of shock, horror, or aversion to physical contact: only to say that there is value is presenting the spectrum.)

Just — know that enjoying a book in which a sexual assault is depicted does not make you a fan of sexual assault, any more than reading about war crimes makes you a fan of war crimes, or reading murder mysteries makes you a fan of murder. Reading The Hunger Games doesn’t make you a fan of violence. Reading Shine doesn’t make you a fan of hate crimes. 

Know that if you were sexually assaulted, whatever your reaction, that reaction is okay. Know that if you were sexually assaulted and you are okay and happy with consensual sex and/or affection now, you are not a slut or a bad example of a woman.  Know that just as there is no right way to be a girl, there is no right way to be a survivor of rape or sexual abuse.

It’s not for the people who are mocking or denigrating Clary for being assaulted that I wrote this: it’s for these girls (and boys) who wrote to me to share these thoughts and fears: they shared private things with me, and I thought that as a gesture of faith,the least I could do was share the same thing back. I hope it helps, even a little bit.

* I’m aware that “slut” and “whore” are extremely problematic term, but they, along with “cunt”, have been a feature of the discussion and I feel that I can’t leave them out; I hope I’ve implied in context how damaging they are.

Further reading: The American Library Association’s Freedom to Read Statement.

Rainn: The Rape, Incest and Abuse National Network

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