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?