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PSA: Sexual Violence Is Not a Plot Device

Attention, Writers!

Today we are interrupting your regularly scheduled swooning with an important Public Service Announcement:

Sexual violence is not a plot device.

We do understand that with the state of the world as it is, issues like sexual violence, misogyny and transphobia are on people’s minds. We also understand that when you are worried about something, it’s natural for it to be included in your writing so that you can work it out, and have characters who fight back against it. And stories addressing these issues are important, as they can help so many people.

But, especially in times like this, it’s vital to handle sensitive topics like this in the right way.

Sexual violence is a terrible thing, and cultures that promote it should be fought against. But, too often in pop culture (not just in books, but in movies and TV shows as well) sexual violence is used as a crutch. You have a strong, tough heroine, but you need her to be damaged or vulnerable in some way? It’s likely that she’s been subjected to some form of sexual violence or abuse at some point in her past. Need something for a character to overcome or be rescued from? Sexual violence or the threat of sexual violence is, much too often, the go-to solution.

And even if the main character manages to avoid being a victim themselves, there are so, so many worlds (dystopic and otherwise) where the overarching evil is based around a viewpoint that makes the idea of nonconsensual sex/marriage/sexual abuse the expectation of the society. So even if the tough character is fighting against it, many other characters in the novel are shown to suffer terrible things, and it’s only by luck or their own personal strength that the character escapes, because they are special.

The problem with all these portrayals is that they normalize sexual violence. It’s normal and expected that women in particular will have to face these issues and overcome them. And even in stories where the character is fighting against that viewpoint, the fact that it is overwhelmingly accepted as okay, right, or expected in their society, just underscores the fact that too often in our own society these evils have become normal or accepted. Something to be expected, endured or overcome instead of something evil and wrong and inherently bad.

This is not to say that you can’t write a strong novel about sexual violence and fighting back! Many books exist that address these issues in very powerful ways. But it’s important that these issues aren’t tossed in as a side note to a larger story, where they can’t be properly explored. And most importantly, it’s important to make sure that your book never dismisses the things these characters go through or treats sexual violence or misogyny or transphobia as right, or normal, or okay.

All we ask is that, if you feel the need to write about these very sensitive issues, please make sure that you are addressing them in a way that is respectful of the trauma that so many people have gone through, and that conveys the simple and clear idea that SEXUAL VIOLENCE IS NEVER OKAY. Sexual abuse, misogyny, transphobia and other related behaviors should not be the norm, and we feel it’s important that books (and other pop culture) don’t accidentally reinforce these ideas.

Interested in learning more? RAINN is a good place to start for resources regarding this topic, including a brief overview of a few key terms and phrases to use/not use when discussing and writing about this topic.

RAINN also offers 24/7 free, confidential support via either their national hotline or live chat. If you are in crisis, you can also text Hello to 741741 for 24/7 free, confidential support from Crisis Text Line.

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