One of the things I’ve been noticing now that I’ve delved a little further into the apocalypse genre is the inclusion of scenes of sexual assault in many books. It has gradually dawned on me that those scenes seem to be more prevalent in works by men than in works by women, and find myself wondering what may be behind the difference. Does sexual assault come a little too close to the reality of many women’s lives for women authors to want to include it as part of an ‘escapist’ read? A quick check at the Centers for Disease Control shows that “Intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and stalking are important and widespread public health problems in the United States. On average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States, based on a survey conducted in 2010. Over the course of a year, that equals more than 12 million women and men. Those numbers only tell part of the story—more than 1 million women are raped in a year and over 6 million women and men are victims of stalking in a year.” Are women more conscious of the realities of violence against them, and therefore less willing to view it as “entertainment?” I can’t help but think that the reality and all-to-common fear of the experience prevents subconsciously prevents women from using it as a plot-point.
There are times when sexual assault also seems to be a literary shorthand, a way of convincing the reader that these are Really Bad People who do Really Bad Things. Why it takes rape and not other forms of violence is an interesting sub-question. I suspect a telling point is that writers who chose to participate don’t involve same-sex rape. I feel like many times it stems back to the idea of “might equals right” when there are no rules in the apocalypse, and the idea that people are returning to violence and primitivism, as well as ideas about basic male-female biology.
Cases in point:
The Windup Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi
The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell: an assault with almost-consequences leads the young female wanderer to disastrous consequences.
Jeremy’s Run by G.F. Gustav (L.A. Dark and Blood Loss): violent rape of one of three main female characters
This Dark Earth by John Hornor Jacobs: rape, ongoing sexual abuse of one character
The Benni Imura series by Jonathan Maberry almost made it–Rot & Ruin didn’t, but then Dust & Decay did contain violent sexual assault
Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick: no sexual assault. Actually has two tentative romantic interests.
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest: no sexual assault despite going into hostile city
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: no sexual assault despite being relatively powerless
This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers: no sexual assault despite being locked in a high school
Blood Red Road by Moira Young: no sexual assault despite leaving home, being captured and fighting for her life
The Enemy by Charlie Higson: no sexual assault, tentative romance
The Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey: no sexual assault
Extinction Point by Paul Anthony Jones: to be fair, the aliens were flesh blobs, but no probing was involved.
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
Alas, I can’t remember (feel free to help me out)
World War Z by Max Brooks: I don’t remember any, but I do know there was a multitude of stories. So I think it counts as an exception.
The Passage by Justin Cronin: seems like there was heavy violence against women implied in the small walled city
The Stand by Steven King: I feel fairly certain it was at least implied, but I can’t remember for certain.