If you haven’t seen this article on The Victimization of Lara Croft, read it. It brings to mind an issue I have, specifically about YA novels, that has been bugging the hell out of me lately: there is too much god damn sexual assault.
Before you get upset and say “it’s a real thing and YA needs to address real things!” hear me out: Yes, YA is doing a bang-up job at addressing real things, and yes, sexual assault is real. For all the women I know, the majority of us have either been sexually assaulted, harassed, or straight up raped. I know how real this thing is, and that’s why the common and complete mishandling of this highly sensitive subject pisses me off.
I’m not saying all, but if you read a handful of YA from the past few years with female protagonists and romance, just like in real life, 1 in 4 females will be a victim of sexual assault. The abundance isn’t what pisses me off, but how it’s most commonly used in the context of the story: aside from stories where rape and the emotional fall-out is the prime conflict throughout the book, almost every single time a female protagonist is sexually assaulted, she is then rescued by her romantic interest. Not only is that probably never going to happen, because most girls aren’t semi-stalked by their teenage dreamboats, but that course of events makes the female protagonist into a victim, and her romantic interest a hero. It artificially deepens the bond between them by taking a serious trauma, something with long-lasting psychological and emotional effects, and romanticizing it.
Pardon me, but what the fuck, people?
Forgetting the fact that this is a widely overused trope, it’s also insensitive as hell, completely dismissing the fact that it’s not healthy or expected that a girl would fall in love with her rescuer, and for many people who have experienced emotional trauma of any kind, that is a potential problem: it’s called erotic or romantic transference, and it’s like an inverse Florence Nightengale effect–patient falling in love with therapist, or rescued falling in love with rescuer. Girls who experience sexual trauma are much more likely to form unhealthy dependencies and attachments to romantic or sexual partners, and even develop romantic feelings for people they don’t actually love or probably shouldn’t fall in love with. Likewise, some women have a hard time developing romantic feelings for anyone, ever, because their ability to trust the human race (and in particular, men) has been shot to hell.
The scary thing is, as both readers and writers we’ve created this trope unconsciously–making the female protagonist incapable of defending herself by making her a victim of sexual assault does two easy things: makes her vulnerable and desirable. Weird, huh? That’s our reaction, for the most part: this person had such a strong reaction to this character that they tried to violate her, and now she’s a little more interesting to us, too.
I’m not a proponent for invulnerable characters by any means–Superman is boring and his superness causes many a plot hole. Sure, I love a strong female protagonist, but what makes them real and what makes their strengths even cooler is that they are not perfect. They do have weaknesses, weaknesses that they often overcome or come to terms with–that’s called the character arc. But I’ve never read a non-rape-issue YA novel where the protagonist was sexually assaulted and actively overcame the traumatic effects of it, because for the most part those are glossed over or not even mentioned. Yes, it’s a big deal at the time, or maybe there is some obvious residual fear if the actual character who assaults the protagonist doesn’t go away, but for the most part it goes like this: set up, assault, rescue, love, no psychological or emotional repercussions whatsoever.
I admit it’s possible that a character is strong enough, mentally and emotionally, to pick themselves up and dust themselves off and go on about their lives as if nothing ever happened, but we’re talking YA, which means teenage girls without well-defined senses of themselves as sexual beings, and…well, good luck selling that line.
As writers, we need to try harder, not just for the audience but for the dignity of our stories, to avoid abusing sexual assault as a vehicle for character appeal. As readers, we should be wary of our own reactions to this trope–it’s natural to want to protect a girl who has been victimized, but don’t be complacent about this form of emotional manipulation. If the author wants you to care about their main character, demand female protagonists who are made appealing to the reader because they are intelligent, insightful, hilarious, brave, brutally honest–anything besides so hot and vulnerable you either want to rape or protect her.
This is a touchy subject, I know–hell, discussing YA is a touchy subject in general these days. Feel free to yell at me and tell me I’m wrong, because truly, I would love to hear what anyone else thinks about this subject.