Realism, (Male) Rape, and Epic Fantasy

This post contains discussions of sexual violence, including anal rape and sexual mutilation.

In the last few days, I’ve crossed paths with a couple of discussions of realism, rape, and epic (quote-unquote “grimdark” or “gritty”) fantasy, that make much of the ubiquity of female sexual victimisation (“realism”) and the absence of male sexual victimisation in situations of threat.

The first of these is Sophia McDougall’s excellent article on The Rape of James Bond: On Sexual Assault and “Realism” in Popular Culture:

I found I couldn’t cope with rape as wallpaper.

When there had been two rapes of children (one of whom was also murdered) within about twenty pages of each other, when I realised I was physically tensing up every time a male and female character were in the same scene as each other, because something always happened, even if it was “just” sexualised verbal abuse, it occurred to me I was no longer having any fun with this book.

This is where the fans, whether of G.R.R.M or Rapey Pop Culture in General say, “But! That’s the point! That horrible sense that sexual violence permeates everything — that’s realistic.”

…But that heightened vulnerability to sexual violence applies to men too. So where are they, all the raped male characters? People say, it would be unrealistic if she wasn’t raped, but take it for granted that of course he wasn’t.

Why is that?

About one in every 33 men is raped… And that’s your statistically average, real life man. Despite all the privileges and protections of being male, he still faces a non-zero risk of rape.

He also doesn’t have a horde of enemies explicitly dedicated to destroying him. He doesn’t routinely get abducted, and tied up.

I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.

The other discussions on similar topic came to me via Adventures of a Bookonaut – who raises the question of why literary male-on-male sexual violence is often flinched from by the (usually male) authors of epic fantasy in the “grimdark” vein – and Episode 77 of the Galactic Suburbia podcast (around, I think, the 43rd minute mark), which discusses sexual threat with specific reference to Brienne of Tarth and Jamie Lannister in GRRM’s ASoIaF.

And this? This brought me to a 2011 Guardian Observer article on the rape of men in conflict zones:

Laying the pus-covered pad on the desk in front of him, he gave up his secret. During his escape from the civil war in neighbouring Congo, he had been separated from his wife and taken by rebels. His captors raped him, three times a day, every day for three years. And he wasn’t the only one. He watched as man after man was taken and raped. The wounds of one were so grievous that he died in the cell in front of him.

…Eleven rebels waited in a queue and raped Jean Paul in turn. When he was too exhausted to hold himself up, the next attacker would wrap his arm under Jean Paul’s hips and lift him by the stomach. He bled freely: “Many, many, many bleeding,” he says, “I could feel it like water.” Each of the male prisoners was raped 11 times that night and every night that followed.

…Men aren’t simply raped, they are forced to penetrate holes in banana trees that run with acidic sap, to sit with their genitals over a fire, to drag rocks tied to their penis, to give oral sex to queues of soldiers, to be penetrated with screwdrivers and sticks. Atim has now seen so many male survivors that, frequently, she can spot them the moment they sit down. “They tend to lean forward and will often sit on one buttock,” she tells me. “When they cough, they grab their lower regions. At times, they will stand up and there’s blood on the chair. And they often have some kind of smell.”

In its turn, “The Rape of Men” led me to Lara Stemple’s 2009 article in Hastings Law Journal (#60), “Male Rape and Human Rights”. Which, if you have access to this journal, I also recommend reading.

International estimates of the prevalence of male sexual victimisation range from 3-29%, including cases of childhood sexual abuse. There are two contexts outside of childhood in which risks of male sexual victimisation rise: prison (“Prisoner rape,” says Stemple, on p609, “is an alarmingly widespread human rights abuse that has received little attention within international human rights law,”) and conflict situations.

In conflict situations, Stemple says:

“Although these circumstances often include the rape of those detained in prisons or prison-like conditions, a discussion separate from prisoner rape is merited. In armed conflict, perpetrators are more likely to be captors from opposition forces, whereas in the domestic prisoner rape context, the perpetrators are most often, though not exclusively, other inmates.

The heightened political tensions during armed conflict and the frequently lengthy sentences carried out in domestic prisons are other important contextual distinctions.” [611]

“An astonishing 76% of male political prisoners surveyed in El Salvador in the 1980s reported at least one instance of sexual torture.” [612-13]

“The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia also instituted a Sexual Assault Investigation Team, which included investigations into the rape of men during the civil war. The team reported that men were castrated and otherwise sexually mutilated, forced to rape other men, and forced to perform fellatio and other sex acts on guards and one another.

“One study of 6ooo concentration camp inmates in Sarajevo Canton found that 8o% of males reported that they had been raped in detention. Accounts of abuse throughout the conflict were often quite graphic, including severe genital mutilation and forced incest.” [613]

An observer may therefore venture to suggest that sexual victimisation of men in conflict situations approaches that of sexual victimisation of women in the very same situations. In reality. But not, for some reason, in male-authored epic fantasy. What statistics we have on the (severely underfunded and under-reported) prevalence of male rape in conflict zones today, suggest that in epic fantasy every in-conflict-zone deployment of sexual threat against women should be almost matched by sexual threat against men.

And yet, in male-authored epic fantasy, it’s not.

(I’m not arguing for the inclusion of more sexual violence in epic fantasy. But if we halved the present incidences of sexual violation of female characters in epic fantasy, and subjected the male characters to that 50% surplus? We might approach “realism”. Of a sort.)

Why do men flinch from the reality of their victimisation? Does it not fit their fantasies of power? Of gritty, grim, realistic life and violence?

Sucks to be you, lads, but in a warzone you’re almost as likely to be raped as I am. And I am (women as a class are) a little less likely to be shitting myself for the rest of my life afterwards. How’s that for gritty and realistic?

38 thoughts on “Realism, (Male) Rape, and Epic Fantasy

  1. * claps *

    This is one of the many reasons why I think the issue is rape _culture_ in addition to rape itself. Because it’s not just about the victim blaming, it’s also about the normalization of sexual assault. Especially but not entirely against women. (And the framing of mutual pleasure as a quaint outlier.) And honestly, this is why I am so allergic to any claims of “realism” in works like Martin’s. Because such claims argue that rape of women in particular is inevitable – to the point that hope is pointless. It also, by focusing on women’s rape and ignoring the reality of, say, a young pre-teen boy being threatened with rape by murderous brigands, it fetishizes violence against women, whether that is the goal or not.

  2. One of the things that struck me about the horrible real world examples you cite is that they, well, horrify. And violence in epic fantasy often isn’t presented to horrify, but for shock value. Just to say “OMG teh world is so daaaaaark and gritttay!” That just makes the gendering of sexual violence in some corners of fantasy even less defensible.

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  4. @jennygadget:

    by focusing on women’s rape and ignoring the reality of, say, a young pre-teen boy being threatened with rape by murderous brigands, it fetishizes violence against women, whether that is the goal or not.

    This, I think, is precisely the point. I think it is also to-the-point that most male writers of epic fantasy in this mode do not conceive of male vulnerability in sexualised terms, and rarely conceive of female vulnerability outside sexualised terms.


    One of the things that struck me about the horrible real world examples you cite is that they, well, horrify.

    Don’t they? And well they should. Rape is a form of torture and ritual humiliation, and whether in fiction or real life, I think it’s necessary to think of it primarily in terms of torture: the conversion of absolute pain into absolute power, as Elaine Scarry has it, the making invisible of human agony to the torturer.

  5. Thank you. Great post.

    This is one of the main reasons that rationalizations that rape is realistic in grimdark fantasy have not precisely held up for me. It is a qualified and provisional form of realism, as it were.

  6. To my recollection, most rape scenes in Stephen King’s novels are male rapes. I believe Frank Herbert also brings it up in a military context in his Dune series.

  7. @Satis

    It’s been a while since I’ve read the Dune books, but I think that was mentioned in God Emperor of Dune. The God Emperor’s army was composed entirely of women because they were less likely… well, I remember something about ‘resort to homosexuality’. I don’t remember the exact words, but at the time I took it as they were just less likely to have sex with each other. I could be wrong, it could be that they were less likely to rape each other.

    On the other hand, if it was simply ‘less likely to have sex’, that raises a whole different set of questions about assumptions made by the writer… or at least by the characters…

  8. most male writers of epic fantasy in this mode do not conceive of male vulnerability in sexualised terms, and rarely conceive of female vulnerability outside sexualised terms.


    also, I know you had problems with Stina Leitch’s first book, but it did have male rape in it.

  9. Scott Bakker – who is considered problematic for many – does feature a lot of male rape in his books. At least three immediately off the top of my head (including of one of the major protagonists in the initial trilogy). Whilst Bakker’s been criticised for his treatment of women, it should be noted that men are much more likely to be killed, raped or sexually abused in the books than women are (though that might also be due to the relative dearth of female characters versus male ones).

    ASoIaF does have this as well. There are indications that Aeron Greyjoy, Tommen Baratheon and even Tyrion were all subjected to sexual abuse by their siblings when younger, though the extent in all cases is unclear (Aeron implies Euron used to do things to him; Cersei used to grab Tyrion by the genitals when they were children; Tommen merely refers to Joffrey mistreating him and gets uncomfortable discussing it). A maester in the most recent book is raped. Two other characters are identified as pedophiles. In the latest book Theon is subjected to several sexual degradation (and rape is implied, but not confirmed). On another level, Varys is mistrusted by everyone for being a eunuch, despite his castration being done to him against his will: he’s essentially treated like a rape victim being blamed for his or her own rape.

    I’m not sure that ensuring there’s ‘equal opportunities’ raping in a book is the answer. I think the only real answer is to ensure that if you are going to include rape – and it’s always worth it for writers to remember that a lamentably significant number of their readers are going to have experienced abuse of some kind – then it should be done in a manner that is responsible and that is handled well. I’m re-reading JV Jones’s fantasy books at the moment and she uses rape as a somewhat wince-inducing threat to be hung over the female characters’ heads in her initial trilogy. It’s clumsy and cheapening. In her sequel series, which is vastly superior, a female character is raped, but it has a much more believable consequence and defines her character in a manner that is realistic but not cliched (Steven Erikson also does something similar with his character of Felisin in the Malazan novels, though his later treatment of male-on-female violence is awful).

    Peter Brett is a good example of a current fantasy author who uses rape as a cheap way of developing character, and does so in a manner that sends a horrible message: the major male character who is raped takes on board the experience and learns from it to become a badass-awesome magical warrior. The women who are raped (of whom there are more) suffer severe trauma and only get over it by prostituting themselves to men for later reward. It’s surprising that the series is as popular as it is considering this major issue.

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  11. @Adam Whitehead:

    Thanks for the information: I’m not a reader of Bakker, Martin, or Brett (so far, at least).

    I think the only real answer is to ensure that if you are going to include rape – and it’s always worth it for writers to remember that a lamentably significant number of their readers are going to have experienced abuse of some kind – then it should be done in a manner that is responsible and that is handled well.

    I think we’re definitely on the same page in this regard.

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  14. @Adam Whitehead: Something that struck me about all of your GoT series examples – only one of the characters is actually raped on the page, it’s just implied that they maybe were in the past, or that maybe it was part of an experience. It’s also very telling that most of these sexual violations occurred when they were children – especially because of the fantasy-enhanced mythos that a sea-change in the way a male person experiences vulnerability is key to the transition from boy to man. Though all of those characters live in the same world run amok as their female counterparts, it is the women whose rapes bring that home in the book’s present.
    And even then the sheer volume isn’t at all necessary to create that atmosphere – even in real-world chaos where rape is a thing- the Arab Spring protests come to mind – every single woman involved doesn’t get raped. However, the sense of danger is very present even to women who never get attacked, and very real consequence of even one woman’s rape.
    In a less extreme context, one in four American women will be raped during our life, according to current stats, but it’s not like you draw a straw that tells you if you’re one of the other three. You live with knowing it could be you every day and you get by anyway and do what you need to do.

    It’s privilege that means most men – especially the sort who write epic fantasy – don’t know what that’s like and can’t envision that kind of vulnerability for a grown man.

    The ways male authors use rape in their work usually say a lot more about their reality than the book’s reality. You can see where that might be problematic.

  15. I’ve never seen such a huge strawman used.

    Let’s be clear: George R R Martin, Scott Lynch, and Joe Abercrombie are all held to be main progenitors of “grimdark” fantasy. And yet – rape is simply not a part of their storytelling.

    There’s not a single rape in Abercrombie or Lynch, and just one incident is mentioned as part of the backstory in GRRM’s “A Song of Fire and Ice”, specifically relating to the bloody over throw of the Targs by Robert’s rebellion.

    So why does “rape” keep being used to define “grimdark” when it’s plainly not a main part of it?

  16. Brian Turner: I have never yet seen anyone call Scott Lynch’s books “grimdark”, and we’re certainly not doing so here. And I haven’t read much Abercrombie. So let me just address GRRM’s A Song of Fire & Ice. I’m going to confine myself strictly to rape that I remember off the top of my head, without referencing the books again, as I haven’t read them in over a year.

    (Spoilers, and triggery stuff, will follow.)

    Dany is sold off to the highest bidder and gives extremely dubious consent to her husband /once/, while thirteen years old. She’s taught in the ways of sex by someone who is explicitly said to have been raised as a prostitute from a young age. The death of Dany’s husband comes about because of her attempt to intervene in the mass rape of many women. The person who kills him explains that she was partly motivated by being raped repeatedly. Dany has sex with one of her slaves, and while said slave offers it, it’s also clear that this is a woman who has been trained to offer sex; I’d be hard-pressed to call that meaningful consent of any time.

    Sansa is repeatedly threatened with rape, sometimes in fairly graphic terms. One character, meant to be growing more sympathetic at the time, says that he wishes he had raped her when he got the chance. It’s also made very clear that if she had been dragged away by a mob that was trying to do so, she would have been gang-raped; another woman dragged away by the same mob–a mentally disabled woman–is gang-raped, and then married off against her will to another man because of her resulting pregnancy. Cersei also says at one point that she will kill Sansa, herself, and several other women to avoid expected rape if the enemies get to them.

    Speaking of Cersei, she clearly did not consent to sex with her husband many of the times that she had it, and speaks with great loathing about the requirement that she have sex with him. Similarly, when Tyrion is married to Sansa, he actually repeatedly considers having sex with her while she’s clearly not consenting; it’s meant as a sign that he’s a Very Good Person that he does not in fact do so.

    Speaking of Tyrion! His wife is gang-raped by his father’s soldiers, purely to hurt him.

    In disguise as a boy, Arya is in a group of captives among whom all the women are explicitly said to be repeatedly raped.

    More than one person says explicitly that Brienna /should/ be raped, and one person attempts to do so while also trying to chew her face off. I can’t remember whether or not she was actually raped as well somewhere in there.

    Many of the men on the Black Watch are explicitly rapists; one of them was sent there because of a false accusation made when he resisted a rape.

    The Bastard spends pretty much all of his chapters torturing and raping women. At one point, he repeatedly rapes his wife, and forces another man to assist in raping her. (It is implied that he may have also raped the man he is forcing to assist in the rape.)

    And I’m not even wandering into the realm of Dubious Consent involved with all of Littlefinger’s whores; I can’t remember if it’s in the books or just the series that Littlefinger is also explicitly said to be able to provide children to those who want to rape them.

    There’s a lot more rape, of course. In backstories. On the page. Implied. Explicit. I really don’t know what books you read, if you think A Song of Ice & Fire isn’t overflowing with rape.

  17. Brian Turner said: “George R R Martin …. and Joe Abercrombie are all held to be main progenitors of “grimdark” fantasy. And yet – rape is simply not a part of their storytelling.”

    You are straight-up delusional.
    Please save the rest of us from your profound ignorance and do not comment on this topic again anywhere.

  18. “Something that struck me about all of your GoT series examples – only one of the characters is actually raped on the page, it’s just implied that they maybe were in the past, or that maybe it was part of an experience.”

    True, and as I said there are definitely fewer sexual assaults involving men than women in the books. They also tend to be back-loaded: most of them are referenced in the fifth book and maybe a couple of more obtuse references in the fourth. Women bear the brunt of this in the first book especially, which gives out the wrong tone. However, the issue of on-screen versus off-screen is true to a lesser degree with the women: the only female character to be actually raped ‘on-screen’ that I recall (and I could be wrong about this) was the Lhazareen woman in Dany’s chapter in the first book, and in this case the sexual assault is halted, the perpetrator punished and the victim given shelter. Dany then uses the incident as a catalyst to halt further sexual assaults against the Lhazareen female prisoners. In this case the scene attempts to justify itself by directly addressing the issue and uses it as a catalyst for positive (if temporary) change. The scene was neither there as wallpaper or titillation.

    Similarly, the Dany/Drogo relationship is highly problematic, and is meant to be. Actually GRRM missteps in the book by trying to backpedal and say that Dany’s into it, and the TV show is much more hard-nosed in saying that it’s rape and it’s unpleasant and Dany’s reaction to it is less one of fawning to her man (as it could be construed in the novel) and more of a survival plan, with her later ‘love’ for him possibly a result of Stockholm Syndrome. Dany’s entire journey in the series is from hapless (and helpless) pawn to a person with control, power, volition and agency and that situation (and the later scene with Irri, which says a lot about Daenerys’s personality shift) is part of it.

    The volume question is another matter. I – and I appreciate that my perspective is distinctly male, white and middle-classed and probably biased from that – don’t think that ASoIaF is ‘overflowing with rape’. There’s five thousand pages in the series to date and the number of them that feature some kind of sexual activity (consensual or otherwise, against men or women) is relatively low. In many cases it can be justified – as above – as having a consequence in the storyline, in the themes of the series (power and politics, and sexual power and sexual politics are part of that) or in characterisation. Where it cannot, and is presented as wallpaper, is where it becomes unacceptable. In ASoIaF I cannot think of a single moment, off the top of my head, where the issue is ever presented gratuitously, without consequence or without the audience meant to feel uncomfortable about it.

    Much more problematic for me are those books and authors who use the issue with much less serious thought. Terry Goodkind, who has his female characters ‘almost-raped’ on a near chapterly basis simply for the purposes of cheap drama, is the most well-known author with this issue. Peter V. Brett brushed against the same problem in his second novel. In these cases the authors really are guilty of the wallpaper complaint.

  19. @Brian Turner:

    The one using a strawperson is none other than yourself. The reason that I use quotation marks around “grimdark” or “gritty” is to acknowledge that it is a contested construct. However. The presence of rape is not the sole criterion for adjudging something “gritty” or “grimdark” (c.f., Warhammer 40K, whose novels we may adjudge “grimdark” yet those of which I’ve read do not contain sexual violence) nor is its presence either a necessary or a sufficient condition.

    The presence of rape is, however, one of the markers for interrogating the orientation of “grimdark” or “gritty” works of art towards systems of power and/or oppression. Whether the art in question interrogates those systems or not. Whether it replicates existing assumptions regarding power and/or oppression or not. Art is always political, whether it is intended to be so or not. (As the sayings of my elders go, “The personal is political.”) From a feminist standpoint, the depiction of rape and/or sexual discrimination is a fertile locus at which to examine a text’s gendered assumptions.

    Now, unfortunately, I have to agree with Fade Manley and Kathleen about your powers of observation. No one here is holding Scott Lynch up as an exemplar of “grimdark”. (He writes entertaining socially-aware capers, but his work thus far doesn’t possess either a noir or a grim cast, in my estimation.) As for Joe Abercrombie, at least one of his female characters – Terez, whose portrayal he has since admitted was not the best thought-out – is threatened with rape. It has been some time since I read his debut trilogy, however.

    As for GRRM, I will merely point silently to Fade’s comment.

    I suggest that either you are remarkably unobservant, or that your idea of what counts as rape lacks both understanding and empathy.

  20. @Kathleen:

    I suspect Brian is not mentally ill, merely willfully unobservant. As a person with some small history of mental illness, I’d prefer it if in future you could use different language in this space.


    I’ll say that on the issue of sexual coercion and rape in GRRM’s books, Fade has pointed up a lot of what I find problematic. It was partially this – and the fact that the incest was possible the healthiest, least coercive sexual relationship portrayed – that caused me to stop reading at the end of the second book.

    However, whether or not the sexual coercion is gratuitous or not (and I am voting for some gratuity, particularly with regard to the affair of Tyrion’s wife – who’s basically the fridgiest fridged woman in the history of sexual assault, as this backstory incident is presented only in terms of what it tells the reader about Tyrion and his father) is separate from whether or not it’s realistic: and realistically, one should have the presence of a lot more male victims and male survivors of sexual violence, under those circumstances.

  21. @werthead: “In ASoIaF I cannot think of a single moment, off the top of my head, where the issue is ever presented gratuitously, without consequence or without the audience meant to feel uncomfortable about it”

    unfortunately, I think that comments like Brian Turner’s (and many others on a similar vein that I have seen and heard) speak otherwise. How one could read GRRM and come away with “rape is simply not a part of their storytelling” is unfathomable to me. But it shows, to my mind, just how much of GRRM’s rapeyness IS wallpaper and gratuitous. Because readers like Brian Turner don’t even remember it.

    I mean, there is literally a character whose NAME is “Jane of the 1000 rapes”. like that is what everyone calls her. and Jaime Lannister comes up to a walled town and we’re given the tidbit that Sally the Blacksmith’s Daugher was raped to death by whoever so they won’t open the gates. and over and over and over.

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  33. @Adam Whitehead (werthead) I think it is symptomatic, that you – as the person addressed on GRRM’s acknowledgements in his 5th book (and a minor character in the next installment) – can’t recall gratuitous violence/rape against women off the top of your head.

    Women all over the internet discuss whether GRRM’s rather graphic descriptions of violence against women (Brienne/Biter etc.) serve a real purpose in the overall story-arc or are just tools of an author making “grimdark” even darker or: serve the only purpose of delivering enough gore to to cash in on shock-value. You even join in these discussions (amazon)! You were there, when women felt, that GRRM’s answer in an interview (Q: If you were to go on a date with one of your characters, which one? A: Why Dany, she’s hot! [a 15 year old character]) was downright creepy.

    And here you are: one of the official experts on the series – can’t remember … off the top of your head.

  34. Slight strawmanning there. Violence is much more commonplace, either male-on-female (as with the Biter/Brienne situation), female-on-male (Arya killing a Night’s Watch deserter; Daenerys burning slavers alive) or otherwise. That’s a different argument. My comments were addressed to the topic of sexual abuse and the suggestions that the series is ‘drowning in rape’ and that male characters never suffer such abuse, which were both exaggerations (though both claims identify, albeit via hyperbole, underlying issues with the series and with ‘grimdark’ fantasy as a whole).

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