Romancing rape culture

There is nothing like getting lost in a good book.  For the past few days I have been immersed in Diana Gabaldon’s The Outlander, an engrossing story about a WWII nurse who falls through an enchanted craig and finds herself in the 18th Century Scottish Highlands.  I had reached the halfway point when certain events began to make me very uncomfortable.  And then it hit me; I was reading rape culture.

It all started when the Jaime, the strapping young lad, beat Claire, our protagonist and his new bride.  Jaime, who had up until then been portrayed as a fair, sensitive, and considerate man, beat Claire as punishment for making a mistake that put others in danger.  Now, to be fair, his behavior is probably accurate for an 18th Century clansman.  However, Claire is a woman of the 20th Century, and she is steadfast opposed to wife-beating.  She vows never to forgive her husband, but she forgives him the next day essentially saying, “Well, I see your point.”

Later, Claire and Jaime get into an argument.  Unable to comprehend or accept Claire’s autonomy, Jaime responds with sexual violence, stating that she is his woman and he’ll have her whenever he damn pleases.  And then he rapes her.  Brutally.  As Gabaldon takes you through the graphic rape, I get the feeling that I’m supposed to be turned on.  But instead my feminist insides were raging in a putrid turmoil.  I felt sick.

The next morning the couple wakes up cute and happy.  Apparently it had been some great sex, despite the pain, bleeding, and bruises.  Then Jaime wants to have sex again, and Claire responds “No way, I’m way too sore.”  His response? Too bad. And then he rapes her again.  But he is gentler than usual, so apparently, it’s okay.  And after all this violence and rape, Claire finally realizes that she loves him. So much so that presented with the chance to return to her own time (spoiler alert) she chooses to stay with Jaime, her lover, her protector, and her rapist.  WTF?

As a point of interest, I have absolutely no problem with S&M or rape fantasies in erotica or porn — assuming that everyone involved is aware of what is going on and consents to reading/watching/participating.  As I was reading this, I felt at odds with myself.  The scenes were very reminiscent of S&M scenes, and in that light, I can respect the fact that both Claire and Jaime could enjoy the experience of power play and sexual violence.  But it didn’t feel right.  Claire did not consent.  This was a story about love, and there is something very twisted about slipping rape fantasies into a romance and passing it off as love.

If Diana Gabaldon’s goal was to get us off using rape fantasies, she should have labeled her book “rape fantasy erotica,” not romance.  That way, her readers could choose to consent to reading it.  But by disguising it, she has played us false. Her message, unintended as it might be, is that passionate love is inextricably linked to rape and violence, or perhaps that sexual violence is an expression of true love.

Rape culture is one in which books-for-women-by-women feature strong, masculine heroes who are lovable, respectable and sexy, even though they beat and rape women.  How many women will walk away from The Outlander under the impression that rape is what brings passion to a relationship?  How many will go forth looking for a dashing hero just like Jaime?  And even more upsetting, how many will find one?

11 thoughts on “Romancing rape culture

  1. As a feminist who has read most of the Outlander series, I agree with everything you’ve said here. I love historical fiction, and time travel stories, so these books seemed ideal, and in many ways they are. The dynamics between Jamie and Claire, however, always made me very uncomfortable.

    As you said, Jamie’a attitudes may well beaccurate representations of those of men in his time period. Claire’s reactions to them, however, don’t seem realistic for a 20th century woman, and I don’t think sexual violence should ever be treated as romantic. There are similar scenes in later books that I found just as distasteful, so if it’s particularly triggering for you, you might want to avoid them.

    • Wow, thanks for the warning. I’m glad you brought up the triggering issue. That is another important reason that sexual violence shouldn’t be slipped into love stories without some sort of warning. Then again, I would hate for this sort of precaution to lead to any sort of censorship. Perhaps there should be a website that records triggering literature and films so that folks who are concerned can check to see if a book is something they are comfortable reading.

    • Claire isn’t just a 20th century woman. She was born nearly 50 years before the civil rights movement and the whole feminist movement. My grandmother, who was born 20 years after Claire supposedly was, will still to this day put down her fork and get up from the table to refill my grandfather’s plate for him. Like it or not, a lot changed during the 20th century and she was from the first half, which is vastly different from the second.

  2. Thank you for putting this into words. I was recommended this book and thought it was some kind of romance/sci fi. Boy was I in for a surprise when I got to the beating scene. As a grown woman, the idea of having my husband discipline me is completely abhorrent. I am just grossed out. Not only does he beat her, but he does it to publicly punish (humiliate) her. She can’t even sit down for two days and everyone knows why. What a sexy man. I am giving up on this book. I don’t need to read a rape scene. Gah.

  3. Great post! I’m honestly appalled at all of these regular books (mainstream literature) being released that condone/perpetuate abuse and that are so anti-feminist in tone. I agree that this is blatant rape culture and its terrible.

    In terms of the Outlander series I hadn’t heard a single negative thing until I specifically read reviews about the first book (and even there it was maybe 1/4 of them). I was shocked at how many were fans and who actively defended this behavior.

    At least I know I won’t be reading the series at all now, so thank you.

  4. A friend recommended I re-read Outlander. I did read it 20 years ago when I was sick and stuck in bed for a couple weeks and was mildly disturbed by the violence, but it didn’t really sink in. On this reading I was definitely disturbed. When I pointed it out to my friend she got very defensive and kept calling me “too PC, lighten up!”

    Ummm…no. It’s fiction. The author chose to use violence against women as a plot point and character device. I’m out.

    Thanks for the blog post. Nice to know I’m not alone. The Outlandish Compnaions are rather belligerent in their enthusiasm.

  5. I read Outlander years ago and wasn’t offended by that scene. I didn’t see it as a rape or violence. I’ll have to reread it to reevaluate it. I suppose it could push some buttons for anyone who has been abused , was a victim of violence, or is just very sensitive.

  6. THANK.

    For some reason, reading this book just really struck me with the enormity of the problem of rape culture and domestic violence and thousands of years of women being abused and modern women reading this and getting turned on over it. When I read the beating scene I just cried and cried and cried. I feel utterly alone in this too, and trying to raise these questions with the awful, belligerent fandom gets you screamed down as a bitch.

  7. Thank god. I just read that chapter and immediately went online to see if there was anything online regarding this. I’m really struggling whether to finish the book or not- I was already unsure as it was really starting to drag. But this? I understand that it was a ‘different time’ but the way the author makes it seem like it’s understandable and we’re meant to sympathise with the actions really freaks me out. If she was going to excuse it as a man of his time you’d think there would be more of a moral judgement in the prose.

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  9. I could not agree more with this post. I started screaming into my pillow and punching my bed as the story unfolded saying “this is so messed up!” I am perfectly fine with violence or rape in books. Dominating the protagonist through repeated unwanted sex and then being rewarded for it is disgusting. This is called romance?!! I can not believe the reviews I had read saying that this book was so romantic. Here I am, a single guy wanting a nice summer love story to bring some romance into my life and I find myself reading about a woman getting repeatedly harassed/raped and beaten. And to top it all off, she stayes with this guy! What kind of message does that send to men who think this is appropriate behavior towards women?

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