Sunday Reflections: Dear Writers, Women’s Stories Don’t Always Have to Involve Sexual Violence
TRIGGER WARNING: THIS POST INVOLVES A FRANK DISCUSSION ABOUT SEXUAL VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IN OUR MEDIA CONSUMPTION
The last day of school is a half day. The Teen comes home at Noon. It’s already almost 100 degrees outside and she had two finals on this last day. So she asks me if I want to join her in doing “important things”. In our home, this is code for laying in bed and watching tv together.
“Do you want to go do important things with me Mom?”, she asks.
Of course I do. This is where she tends to open up with me and we have some of our deepest, most profound talks. Thing 2 is an active, play outside kind of kid and doesn’t often partake, so these are some of the rare moments that we have alone. If I can, I’m all for doing “important things” with my kids because this time is passing quickly and I don’t want to miss a moment of opportunity.
So there we are, doing “important things.” We flip channels until we find something we may want to watch. On the screen, a woman is walking a lone on the desert. We pause, trying to figure out what this is and what’s happening. Suddenly, two men appear in a truck. They start talking to her. The Teen tenses.
“Do you think they’re going to rape her mom?”, she asks.
I can feel the The Teen growing more and more tense beside me.
“Mom, they’re going to rape her. You know they’re going to rape her. They always rape the woman,” she says.
The men are inviting the women into the truck. One man stands behind her.
The Teen is now in a state of panic.
“Mom, change the channel. They’re going to rape her.”
We changed the channel.
The movie we were watching was called It Stains the Sands Red. I don’t know if those men raped that woman or not, but I’ve been thinking a lot about that moment of doing “important things”. I can’t stop thinking about the tension in her body, the rising anxiety in her voice, both the fear and expectation that when those men walked onto the screen she clearly understood that those men were going to rape that woman. That’s what she has been conditioned to expect when she sees a man and a woman on the screen in anything other than a RomCom or Superhero movie.
I went to the theater to see The Maze Runner one afternoon when the kids were in school without having read the book first. I tried to read the book, but it just wasn’t my thing. But The Mr. was off and we wanted something to do so we went and saw the movie.
If you’re not familiar with the story, a group of teen boys are enclosed in a space with no adults that they can’t seem to escape. At first, there are nothing but boys. Then one day, a girl is deposited into the glade (I think that’s what they called it. The minute that girl was dumped into the glade, I became anxious. One girl in a sea of young men – she’s going to get raped I told The Mr.
She didn’t. But I was anxious the entire movie because it felt like she would. That she should. I walked out of that movie discussing with The Mr. that the movie was unbelievable not because of the science fiction elements of the story, but because a girl had been placed into a non-regulated group of boys and they didn’t rape her. That’s not what would happen, I argued. THAT was the thing that made the movie unbelievable for me, the knowledge that I knew and understand that in that situation, it was very unlikely that girl would actually be safe in that situation.
As a consumer of media, I have been conditioned to expect that those boys were going to rape that girl. And when they didn’t, it wasn’t that I was disappointed (I was in fact relieved), but I found it unbelievable.
A friend and I are trying to find a Netflix show to binge. We like to watch dark British mysteries and then, in general, mysteries.
We select one and it begins with a woman running naked on a beach. She is running for her life.
“Not this one,” we say.
We select another one and it begins with a woman running naked in a forest. She is running for her life.
“Not this one,” we say.
We select another one and it begins with a woman running naked down a street, on the beach, through the forest . . . it doesn’t matter. They are all beginning the same. A woman is running naked. She is beaten and bloody. She has no shoes. She keeps looking back over her shoulder.
You know that she is fleeing from someone who has or is attempting to rape her.
We binge watch a comedy because we can’t find a mystery or crime show this day that we haven’t seen that doesn’t involve sexual violence against a woman.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the stories we tell and how women are used in those stories. About how we conditioned by the media we engage in to expect and glance over sexual violence against women. I’ve been thinking about how young that begins and what it means for how we all view women in media and in the world.
I want to read and watch mysteries and thrillers that don’t always involve sexual violence against women. I NEED to be able to read and watch mysteries and thrillers that don’t always involve sexual violence against women.
I want my daughters to grow up in a world where they can see a man and a woman on the screen and not automatically get tense because they know that the man is going to rape the woman because that’s what always happens.
I want my daughters to grow up in a world where the boys in their lives haven’t been taught over and over and over again in the media that they consume that when a man and a woman are together in a room, the man is going to rape the woman. I want her to grow up surrounded by men who understand that women’s stories don’t always have to involve sexual violence against the woman.
Mysteries don’t always have to be about the rape and murder of a woman. That’s not creative. That’s not breaking any boundaries. We’ve done that, a lot.
There are so many more stories that could be written. Creative tales that don’t objectify, stereotype, or constantly put women in harms way.
We need different stories.
We need better stories.
We need mysteries and thrillers and contemporary dramas that show all the other ways in which women live, thrive, survive, fail and are harmed.
Women’s stories can be about more than sexual violence.
Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have any stories about sexual violence. Sexual violence is very real and we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. It is harmful to pretend it doesn’t exist. We spend a lot of time here at TLT and I spend a lot of time personally advocating for a greater awareness and end to sexual violence against women (and men). We dedicate pages on this blog discussing how adults and educators can use YA literature to raise awareness of topics like consent, sexual violence and the long term effects of childhood trauma. This is not me saying that we should never acknowledge sexual violence against women on the page or on the screen.
Last night I finished reading an upcoming ya book, one of the best books I’ve read in 2018, arguably one of the best books I’ve read that really takes a deep dive into the world of sexual violence in the life of girls. It’s powerful, haunting and very, very necessary. It also doesn’t use sexual violence as a plot device; it mines the depths of sexual violence against girls to explore the short and long term impacts and the ways in which we talk about that violence against women. In this book, sexual violence isn’t an unnecessary plot device, it’s a real and horrific reality that is revealed so that the reader walks away thinking deeply about the impact of this violence on everyone involved. It’s not using sexual violence for the sake of entertainment, but it asks you to think long and hard about what happens to the girls in our world.
Another difference is that the author of this ya book is a woman writing about sexual violence against women as opposed to a man who is writing a mystery or a thriller who needs something to happen in a story so he goes straight to sexual violence. This author dives deep into the emotional impact, the trauma, that surrounds the topic of sexual violence against women as opposed to a man who is simply looking to fill a plot hole or looking to provide trite character motivation. I’ve followed this author on social media for years and have read almost all of her books and I know that she is a passionate advocate for women and that book and her other titles are motivated not by shock value but from a deeply passionate place of advocacy and awareness; she is a woman who wants to change our culture and seeks to help make that happen by tearing away the curtain that seeks to keep sexual violence against women in the dark or simply uses it for an easy and well worn plot device. This is a raw, frank and honest exploration of sexual violence and the darkness that surrounds it.
There is a difference in the ways that storytellers use sexual violence against women in their stories and what motivates them to tell those stories. As consumers, we have come to lazily accept sexual violence against women in our stories and we don’t often explore how it hurts us, men and women both. Of course it effects boys growing up with sexual violence used so casually and seemingly without consequence as a storytelling device. And of course it effects girls. There are no winners when sexual violence is an unexplored plot device. Sexual violence for the sake of sexual violence in our stories is not helping our conversations surrounding things like consent, #metoo, and feminism.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the tension, anxiety and stress that comes when you are a woman engaging with media. I’ve been thinking a lot about the casual acceptance of the ways that violence against women is used to propel a story forward and what it’s like for even young girls watching these stories. I’ve thought a lot about how already, at the age of 15, my teenage daughter understood how casual our storytellers are with using sexual violence against women as a storytelling device and how much anxiety it caused her as a young woman trying to engage with story.
If you are a storyteller, please think about the stories that you are telling and how you use sexual violence against women in those stories. What is your motivation for doing so? Can the story be told in a different way? What is the impact that your use of sexual violence has on our culture? Is it gratuitous? Does it appropriately reflect the true trauma that comes with being a victim of said sexual trauma?
If you are a storyteller, ask yourself, how will it effect the men and the women engaging with my story? How will it shape their view of women? How will it shape their view of women and their place in our world? How will the women engaging with my story feel about their sense of self and sense of place in our world? How will the men engaging with my story feel about women and view their sense of place in our world?
Stories told about women don’t have to be about sexual violence against women. We deserve to see ourselves on the page or on the screen exploring all the other aspects of our lives.
Even as a survivor of sexual violence myself, I want there to be a better balance in our stories. Yes, I want us to talk about and be realistic about sexual violence in the life of women. 1 in 4 women will be the victims of sexual violence. We have to talk about that. It’s a fact.
But I am more than just a survivor of sexual violence and my life story is about more than the sexual violence that happened to me. In the same way, stories about women need to be about more than sexual violence.
Tell different stories. Find different plot and character motivation. Give your stories more depth, more creativity.
Do better by the women in your stories.
I just want to do “important things” with my daughter and have more choices that don’t involve casual sexual violence against women.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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