Content warning: Sexual Violence
Female Protagonist busts the door down at the secret laboratory. She strides down the main corridor, a gun in one hand and a knife in the other. She’s ready to fight—but she forgets to check her corners, and two uniformed guards quickly sneak up and apprehend her. Ignoring her attempts to warn them about Villain’s secret plan to replace all human brains with robots, the guards quickly handcuff her and start patting her down, removing all of her weapons. Guard One leers at her as he takes his time searching the inside of her top—
Female Protagonist has decided to ignore her father’s reprimands about how a real Princess should behave. She’s seventeen, damn it, and she gets to choose her own destiny. She’s in the woods practicing her parries against a tree when out of nowhere, two young ruffians from the town stumble into the woods. They smell of sour cider and it takes them a moment to notice her but when they do, they exchange a look that makes her nervous. They walk over, looking casual, but something in their stride is predatory. She realizes that the loose, comfortable dress she wears to practice swordplay makes her look like just any peasant girl. She looks up, and one of the young men is smiling at her. He grabs a fistful of her dress and before she can yell, his companion has covered her mouth—
Female Protagonist lightly punches Male Friend on the arm as they part ways for the night. She shouts that she’ll see him on the track first thing in the morning, so they can jog together. She’s glad that she’s found a friend in Space Army Headquarters, and that the hazing—which was constant at first—seems to have died down. She swipes her arm and the chip in her ulna buzzes as the door registers her presence. It slides open, but when she turns to swipe her arm again so the door will close, a shadow appears in the doorway. She startles—but it’s only Male Jerk.
“What do you want?” she asks—but instead of answering, he steps into her room and swipes his arm. The door closes behind him, and he shoves her to the floor—
He pins her arms down easily with one huge hand and fumbles with the laces on his breeches—
She screams, and the wizard slaps her hard across the face. She’s stunned at the taste of blood in her mouth—
She lies curled on the bloodied bedsheets as the Crown Prince of the Faeries snores beside her, and she cries into her pillow because she knows that this is her future.
You’ve read these books, and you know these characters—by now, you’re surely used to the idea that a female protagonist will be groped, leered at, grabbed, thrown to the ground. If she’s raped, then there’s a good chance that it happened outside of the narrative, and she’s tougher because of it. If it’s an almost-rape, then she’ll kill the person who was trying to assault her, and that will be her first murder. Or, she’ll be rescued by a male character who will then agree to teach her how to fight, so that it never happens again. Or maybe she’ll make a quip and use her newly-formed superpowers to dispatch the attacker, and she’ll marvel at her newfound strength. It’s come to feel inevitable*.
I want to be outraged about this. I want to be furious that SFF writers seem to have an easier time imagining faster-than-light travel than they do imagining a world in which sexual assault isn’t a constant threat. I want to yell at authors to give their female characters more interesting, dynamic arcs. I want to climb up onto my soapbox and ask why it is that female characters can be subject to sexual violence but not physical violence; and then I want to answer my own question with my lips on the microphone: it’s because beating a woman is taboo, but raping her isn’t.
I love this genre, and I love these female characters, and when awful things happen to their bodies in the name of whatever the author has in mind, I want to be mad. I want to hate the fact that the rare instances of sexual violence against male characters are often treated as either humorous or the ultimate transgression—while sexual violence against female characters is to be expected. But, it’s hard to get angry at the knowledge that for so many writers, sexual violence against female protagonists is a given. It’s necessary, and it’s accurate, and it’s the first thing that comes to mind.
The truth is that the scenarios described in most genre fiction aren’t incorrect. They’ll read as familiar to most women. Even women who have never experienced rape will be familiar with the grabbing, the shouting, the threats. The constant, endless threats. Threats that are supposed to be friendly warnings about what’s safe and what’s not. Threats that are implicit in everything from school dress codes to rohypnol-detecting nail polish.
Sexual violence in genre fiction is not the only thing that reminds female readers that they are seen as vulnerable, as targets. And besides, art holds a mirror up to life, right? Why shouldn’t genre fiction present our world as it is?
But then I do start to get a little mad, because damn it, that’s not what we do around here. We talk about universal experiences, like loss and love and fear and home and family. But sexual violence doesn’t have to be universal. It doesn’t have to be ubiquitous. It doesn’t have to be constant. We write about worlds where teeth are wishes and souls are books and time can be bent in half and swallowed like a pill. We write about spaceships the size of pinheads and we write about Gods in shackles and we write about spiders that are made from computer chips and blood. We write about adults inhabiting the bodies of children and dragons that become wolves and we write about entire galaxies where everything is brighter and better and newer or darker and more broken and irredeemable.
I get a little mad, because we can imagine horrors beyond human comprehension, and yet still we insist that rape is the worst thing that can happen to our female protagonists. We can open a rift between universes and allow a tentacle to herniate through a void in the sky, but we can’t suspend our disbelief enough to erase casual misogyny from the worlds we build. We can give a wizard access to a centuries-old volcano-powered spaceship, but we balk at the notion of a woman who has never been made to feel small and afraid.
I get mad, because I don’t want to accept “that’s unrealistic” for an answer from a genre that typically takes “that’s unrealistic” as a prompt.
I get mad, because we can do better. Some of us have done better—look at N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, or Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey, or Mishell Baker’s Borderline. Look at Maria Dahvana Headley’s Magonia, or Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway, or Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy. Look at them and ask yourself why their imaginations are strong enough to let their female characters have stories that don’t include sexual violence. Ask yourself why those stories are so rare.
Ask yourself, and do better.
*But hang on, maybe I’m just overreacting. Let’s look at some anecdotal evidence:
- I’ve read 61 books in the past eight months.
- 51 of those were genre fiction.
- 31 of those featured a female protagonist. What can I say, I like what I like.
- Of those 31, 20 included a scene involving sexual violence. So: two-thirds of female genre protagonists in my little sampling alone. That’s a lot.
Sarah Gailey’s fiction has appeared in Mothership Zeta and Fireside Fiction; her nonfiction has been published by Mashable and Fantasy Literature Magazine. You can see pictures of her puppy and get updates on her work by clicking here. She tweets @gaileyfrey. Watch for her debut novella, River of Teeth, from Tor.com in 2017.