How to Write a Rape Scene or A Review of Cethe
I read a lot of non-con and I really like it.
When I write that, it feels like I'm confessing something--a dirty secret, guilty pleasure, something to be ashamed of. I get it: rape is abhorrent and shouldn't be portrayed as erotic or titillating. It's arguable that media like books or video games make us more likely to accept or perpetrate crimes in real life--maybe not me, but someone else.
But I still read the stuff and I have no plans on stopping. Intellectually, I understand the objections, but emotionally the scenes simply don’t bother me. (In contrast, I can’t stand books that show a child being threatened or hurt--I don’t object to them morally, but I find them unendurable.) So I thought I would look at a book, Cethe by Becca Abbott, that features a fairly harsh non-con rape scene and figure out why it works.
Cethe is many things: a great high fantasy adventure, a scorching allegory of church abuse and persecution, a fascinating story of dynastic and cultural change. But as its title informs us, it is at heart a slave story. Much of the plot revolves around discovering what exactly a “cethe” is, but the first thing we learn is that a cethe is a slave (always male) to a kind of dark sorcerer called a Naragi, who is able to fuel his master’s power through sex.
The cethe in this story is a young man named Stefn, his master a slightly older man named Michael. The act which turns Stefn into Michael’s cethe is unambiguously a rape—not the ‘forced seduction’ so popular in 1980s bodice-rippers, not a lust-maddened ‘destined mate’ being driven by instinct, not some sort of cultural inter-species misunderstanding. Abbott does not try to sugar-coat matters, something I really admired about the book. The scene is told from Michael’s perspective, so the reader knows Michael is fully aware that what he is doing is wrong, an act of horrible abuse. There is no way to read Stefn’s actions as consent: when Stefn fights back, Michael knocks him to the ground and ties his hands. It’s a rape.
And yet the reader knows from the cover and a thousand other generic signals that this will be a love story. How does Abbott do it?
1. The perpetrator is not a monster. Michael has justifiable reasons for what he is doing: the opening chapters establish that their world is riven by horrible abuse and injustice--perpetrated mostly against Michael’s people, the Hnar. Michael firmly believes that his act will give him the power he needs to fight his people’s persecution.
2. The victim is not a victim: Stefn fights back furiously, letting the reader believe he has not been cowed or traumatized by Michael. When he's later asked what happened, his response is aggressive and accusatory not ashamed.
3. The rape advances the love story: Like most romances, Michael and Stefn start off believing they hate each other, and yet their hatred is based entirely on misperceptions. Stefn's family is devoted to persecuting the Hnar in the name of religion, believing them demons and “taints.” Compared to his family, Stefn is innocent of any abuse, but Michael has no way to know that. But as he rips off Stefn’s clothes, Michael discovers Stefn’s horrendous scars, which forces Michael to question his assumptions about Stefn. Likewise for Stefn, Michael's attempts to minimize his pain stand in stark contrast to his own family members, who abused him mercilessly for years.
5. The rape has a larger meaning in the book: Michael’s changing attitude towards the rape and Stefn himself is a bellwether for the book’s most complex theme: the danger of using other people as instruments even for the sake of a noble cause.
6. The author cheats using magic: The two are already attracted to each other, but the rape itself unleashes a kind of magic which awakens a strong bond between the two and in particular makes Stefn experience intense pleasure from the act.
7. It's M/M: Trickiest, but ultimately most important. The cover tips us off that Abbott is drawing on familiar tropes of Yaoi manga, which frequently feature (far more sadistic) rapes. (For a classic and extremely explicit example of this, check out Ayano Yamane's Finder series). Rape in Yaoi tends to take on the aura of an initiation ritual of a younger male by an older mentor. As the mother of boys, I would never for a moment minimize the horrors of male/male rape, but as a reader, I accept the logic of romance rules, where rape between the main characters is about forcing through inhibitions, social barriers, and misunderstandings, not destroying another person through violation of their body. But, and this is a topic I hope to come back to, I have also found that I buy into that logic far more easily in M/M fiction than in M/F, where a million cultural factors and the threat of pregnancy would make a scene like the one in Cethe seem far too traumatic to feel like a romance.
It doesn’t surprise me that some readers find these scenes too objectionable or disturbing to be pleasurable--I can’t argue with that. But I also know many readers secretly love them, and many feel guilty about it. One of the great benefits of hitting my forties is that I am mostly over the guilt about my reading, whether it’s non-con or romance itself. Reading Cethe or Yaoi is not going to turn me into a rapist (and both are targeted towards and mostly read by women); I also don't think reading non-con has blunted my attitudes towards rape in the real world.
Rather my own enjoyment of rape in fiction has forced me to analyze and ultimately accept the chasm between fantasy and reality. Human sexual desire and fantasy are highly fraught and contradictory. They are not easily reconciled with moral absolutes, political beliefs, or cultural constraints. Moreover, we forget sometimes that excessive guilt over our desires can be psychologically damaging. Worse, guilt about our desires can even encourage the blurring of the fantasy/reality line in a dangerous way. Just because you've fantasized about being "ravished" does not make you somehow culpable if you are later raped--it definitely does not mean you ‘secretly wanted it.’
Novels can be a safe place to explore our darker sides and when read thoughtfully can help us be clearer about what is actually acceptable in the real world. Hopefully the current popularity of non-con will encourage more soul-searching and less hand-wringing on why we like it. In the meantime, I heartily recommend Cethe.
(Now if Becca Abbott will just write a sequel! Please! I am begging!)