Two weeks ago, I was writing a scene where one of my bad guys threatens my heroine and I had to decide what kind of threat he was going to use. He's in a position of authority, so he could threaten her job. He could threaten her physical safety. He could threaten to tell her secrets. Or he could threaten her with sexual assault.
This brought up a mental debate which has long been raging in my head. On the one hand, sexual assault is a very common threat which women face, as the #MeToo campaign illustrated so distressingly. Even if a woman hasn't faced it directly, the fear of assault is omnipresent.
On the other hand, I feel that sometimes sexual assault is used too often as a lazy story-telling technique. It's tossed out without much thought and with minimal impact on the story beyond the moment. This bothers me even more when I consider that mentioning the assault in the story can trigger those who have survived assault.
Personally, I don't like to casually use sexual assault as a plot device or character background. I used it for Dani in Revelations, but it was a major part of who she was and why she had trouble accepting her connection to the Huntress. I very deliberately did not use it for either Lily or Cali, because I didn't want it to become trite.
Using it for Martha in Judgment makes sense. I took a long time to weigh the options and explore possibilities and this feels like the right choice. Because assault does happen and bullies use the threat of it, knowing how hard it hits home and how much fear it can create.
However, I still feel that too many writers use it as a default. I've been recently hooked on Outlander, but in watching it, I'm struck by how often the heroine is threatened by rape. It's as if every male character is lusting after her and doesn't care about her consent or preferences. As a mother of sons and friend to many folk of the Y chromosome persuasion, I find that insulting on their behalf. Men are not rapists by default, they're not even predators by default. To imply otherwise is to reinforce the "all men are bad, so women have to be careful" fallacy that is part of rape-culture expectations.
There is one character who has threatened an assault in my story. My heroine is not under constant bombardment and needing a strong man to protect her from the others. In Revelations, it is a different story as part of Dani's character development was dealing with a mystical allure which drew the worst of humanity to her and destroyed their self-control. But even then, not every man was after her. It was a minority.
Don't get me wrong, that minority does a lot of harm, far out of proportion to the simple numbers. But it's important to never forget that they are a minority, that they can be identified, stood up to, and stopped. The rest of us should not have to live under constant fear.
When I began studying martial arts, my sensei told me something which has always stuck with me:
If someone puts their hands on you without your permission, then you can assume that they are planning to kill you and react accordingly. You don't need to wait for them to hurt you. You don't need to wait for them to prove themselves. You are within your rights to defend yourself as you see fit.
Now, he also taught us ways to escape, disable and prevent, but if it came to the ultimate threat, he wanted his pupils to not be the ones who ended up in a hospital or morgue.
As I watch the accusations roll in, followed by backlashes of predators claiming that they were only joking, I find myself wondering how many of them would be willing to grope and grab if they knew that one action would eliminate all of their rights. Would it be worth it if they knew that squeeze or fondle would open the door to physical pain? If the judges and police of this world stepped back and said "He was asking for it."
As writers, I feel we have the responsibility to be aware of how the stories we tell impact society. We can choose to reinforce the expectations or we can choose to expand them. We can educate and inspire changes. So to all my fellow NaNoWriMo people out there, I'd urge you to take a moment to think before using sexual assault in your stories. Decide if that is really the story you want to tell, and if it is, make sure that it's told well.