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?

53 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.

      • Women in the late 18th and early 20th century were the pioneers for feminism- they were ‘first wave feminists’. Just because your grandmother serves dinner to your grandfather doesn’t mean a woman born 20 years before her couldn’t recognize that spousal abuse is wrong. There are plenty of sexist women today.

  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.

    • Jamie never ever rapes Claire. Jamie is raped in Outlander. ….AND the beating is very real and typical for the time period. If you canna handle that them maybe historical fiction is not for you.

      • He does. The lack of consent is still rape even if the characters are oddly pleasant about it later. And DG passes Jamie off as educated and progressive in the beginning of the novel, which is part of the reason I think many people were so put off by his later actions.

  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.

    • So sad. You dont know what your missing. Best written book I’ve ever read. Claire is never ever raped by Jamie. Jamie is raped though, and not by Claire.

  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.

    • ITS FICTION and historical at that. Should authors leave out authentic cultural history just because it might offend a few? Thats why out knowledge of history is so screwed up.

  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.

    • Thank you so much for putting that link! And I’m so happy I found this article! I couldn’t believe what I was reading when I read this book and the large amount of people trying to defend it. If anyone is questioning whether Claire gets raped maybe you should take it from the author, she gets raped and tortured by Jamie. I think that ends the discussion right there.

  8. 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?

  9. I’m shocked at all the reaction to this. If you know anything about history, you know women in that time period were worth very little. We were disciplined, beaten, treated like dirt. We were constantly being raped. That’s how it was. Ms Gabaldon’s books are historically extremely accurate. If you can’t handle reality, I suggest you don’t read historicals. It’s not all regency ballrooms and gloriously handsome gentlemen in tails.

    For the record, Jamie never rapes Claire.

      • What text book are you reading? Your interpretation of the writing does not make it text book anything, but you opinion. **Spoiler** when Claire is actually raped in later books, its traumatic and causes her to have panic attacks and PTSD. I have reread the series anytimes, and she does not get raped by Jamie, he is actually rather instant, but by the time any action was happening, she was giving what she was getting. Anyone who has actually experienced rape will tell you, you don’t come around and decide, well, since its happening, I might as well enjoy it…

        I have often been not thinking I was interested, only to have my mind and body decide, well, maybe so after all, due to a skilled lover. Unfortunately , I have also been raped… NOT. THE. SAME. THING. AT. ALL.

        • There are multiple times where Claire directly utters the phrase, “No i’m too sore/you’re hurting me” and he continues anyway. That is the actual literal definition of rape, I can’t believe we’re discussing this?

          Getting turned on and into it after non-consent is not the same thing as consent, and is rape, even if it’s not the violent-jumped-on-by-a-stranger people normally associate with the word.

          Which is all rather funny because the last third of the book is dedicated to Jamie’s rape, which involved his vocal non-consent and his getting turned on and enjoying it anyway. Which is the exact same situation, but apparently that traumatic experience was rape and something we should be worried about, but hers was not.

          If you think Jamie doing what he did was okay because they were married, because they love each other, because he apologised, because she was angry, because she forgave him, because it was presented as romantic etc, etc, then congratulations! You are rape culture.

          • I’m pretty sure Jamie DID NOT enjoy his rape. and he wasn’t turned on. It was a pure physical reaction. Never happen to you?

  10. I feel that everything that happened in this work of historical fiction was accurate to the smallest detail. For the spanking, Claire did not ‘make a mistake’. She knowingly went against instructions in complete defiance of her husband and endangered everyone. As per the times, she was punished. The author clearly stated, any of the group would have gotten that or worse for risking everyone’s lives. As for the so-called rape scene, it was an 18th century husband letting his wife know that she was his and he belonged to her as well. If you choose to view everything through the overly PC lenses of today’s
    Media and go searching for what is wrong, you will never be disappointed.

    • You’re right about no matter who it was, they would have been punished. In the second book, Dragonfly in Amber, Jamie puts himself up for being punished in the same way, when a young English soldier was able to sneak into their camp. He’s certainly not a hypocrite. And he also is true to the promise he made to Claire that he would never punish her again.

    • Jeanne, Genevieve & Micki —

      You can’t have your historical cake and eat it, too. Sure, 18th-cent. husbands may well have beaten their wives and treated them as belongings. But what you fail to grasp when you make this argument is that in turn, 18th century wives would NEVER have characterized their violent marriage as a romantic partnership between equals.

      But Claire (inexplicably) does. The day after Jaimie beats her all night — “within an inch of her life” — with a leather belt on bare flesh, and she struggles so hard to escape that she gives him a bloody nose, fingernail gashes down his face and a deeply bitten wrist — she tells him she loves him for the first time. What the .. wha?

      It is precisely that 20th century vision of romance shoehorned into the historical brutality that many readers find very disturbing. It’s a real bit of cognitive dissonance.

      Either you judge the relationship by 18th-century standards: Jamie has the right to beat and “take” her sexually and Claire must endure it, but no sane woman would call it romantic; OR you judge it by 20th-century standards: Jamie’s an abuser and Claire needs to get the hell out of there and back to her kind husband. But you vehement defenders of the novel hold one standard for Jamie and a different one for Claire.

      Honestly, it amazes me how invested some readers appear to be in these FICTIONAL characters that they will mock the real pain of REAL women who may have experienced real abuse. It’s honestly that hard to show some empathy?

      These women truly did not enjoy this author’s novel. Why, in every single forum I’ve seen on this topic, do you continue to browbeat them into trying to like it, it’s not so bad, they’re really missing out. Why can’t you let “no” mean “no”?

      … aaaand that’s why this blog post about rape culture and this book is so darned accurate. I read the book for the first time last week. I’ve never read romance novels before so I had little idea how much of the violence is standard for the genre and how much unique to this author; I came online seeking some intelligent analyses of it. Thank you, Leah.

  11. Never in this series of books does Jamie rape anyone, much less Claire. In the 18th century, men were the bosses in their households and in that particular area of the world, Catholics. They believed every word of the Bible (as do I) and It tells wives that they should never hold themselves back from their husbands. I understand if this is not a 21st century norm but we’re not talking about a book written in the 21st century mindset. Just like Diana wrote, “Gentle he would be; denied he would not.” This is not rape. Not even in the 21st century, in the bedrooms of loving husbands and wives, would a man who “wheedled” his way into sex be called (in any way, shape, or form) a rapist.
    It’s a sad commentary when repressed women try to influence the minds of the uniformed.

  12. This series is erroneously categorized as romance. While there is romance involved, a more accurate description is historical fiction with a little sci fi and romance thrown in. I would prefer the history be accurate and not have uncomfortable situations glossed over to save the sensibilities of today’s thinking. We’ve come a long way, but we should never forget the journey which brought us here. I love Jamie Fraser’s character and he did not rape Claire.

  13. (Spoilers, TW rape)

    “‘No!’ I gasped. ‘Stop, please, you’re hurting me!’ Beads of sweat ran down his face and dropped on the pillow and on my breasts. Our flesh met now with the smack of a blow that was fast crossing the edge into pain. My thighs were bruising with the repeated impact, and my wrists felt as though they would break, but his grip was inexorable.”

    Because when the heroine says “No, stop, that hurts,” and the male lead ignores her own bodily autonomy and continues? That’s rape.

    • You have taken that quote completely out of context and are ignoring their previous sexual encounters. Here’s what happened between Jamie and Claire before what you posted:

      (More Spoilers from page 186 of Outlander)

      “He circled my wrist with thumb and index finger. “It’s just … you’re so small; I’m afraid I’m going to hurt you.” “You are not going to hurt me,” I said impatiently . “And if you did, I wouldn’t mind.” Seeing puzzled incomprehension on his face, I decided to show him what I meant. “What are you doing?” he asked, shocked. “Just what it looks like. Hold still.” After a few moments, I began to use my teeth, pressing progressively harder until he drew in his breath with a sharp hiss. I stopped. “Did I hurt you?” I asked. “Yes. A little.” He sounded half-strangled. “Do you want me to stop?” “No!” I went on, being deliberately rough, until he suddenly convulsed, with a groan that sounded as though I had torn his heart out by the roots.”

      Jamie DID NOT rape Claire. They do get passionate and aggressive with each other, but that is not the same thing as rape.

      • Yeah that doesn’t change anything. She still said ‘no stop you’re hurting me’ and he didn’t listen. It’s rape, and I can’t believe the pretzels people will bend themselves into to defend a fictional character

        • Maybe you have to “know” the characters well to understand. Have you read any of the rest of the series, Rachel? I’m just curious, because I think that is why so many of us love the characters so much. I just can’t even imagine anyone thinking Jamie would ever rape Claire, but that’s probably because I have read so much of their story and know how much she loves sex with him and how often she is the instigator. Believe me, if she had wanted him to stop he would have. Claire is definitely an equal in their relationship and enjoys expressing her sexuality and power. Jamie would do anything for her. Anyway, it’s a book worth defending. :)

      • Jane, those two passages are miles apart (maybe 10 chapters?) in the books, and I think it’s pretty disingenuous to present them as though they were contiguous. What you quote is from the very first sex scene, in which Jamie is so clueless he can’t differentiate between female orgasm and pain.

  14. I’ve read Outlander several times over the past 21 years. Not once does Jamie rape anyone. He never once has sex with Claire that she doesn’t allow. There is a big difference between convincing someone to have sex via foreplay and raping. In every incidence of sex between Claire and Jamie the sex is not only consensual, it is shown as mutually pleasurable and loving. In later books in the series there are incidences of rape, because even more than now rape was a real thing in the 18th century. But not once is it ever made to appear anything but horrible. Mrs. Gabaldon goes to great lengths in those incidents to write about the trauma both, mental and physical, of the victims. And not once is Jamie the rapist. He is a strong man who protects and cares for women. I suggest that the people who are concerned by Leah’s post read the book and make up their own minds. And if you don’t want to pay for the book and therefore promote something you might be opposed to, there is always the library. I personally try never to believe what I read without first checking it out for myself.

  15. I just read the scene where Jamie “punishes” Claire, and I immediately felt sickened. I imagined how I would feel if my husband did that to me, literally beat me into submission to ensure that I would obey his orders in the future and just the thought made me feel furious and humiliated! I understand that that was the way relationships were at the time (men had every “right” to chastise their wife however they chose) and although my opinion of Jamie was damaged, it was really Claire’s reaction that disappointed me more. I was glad that she fought back during the beating, bloodied his nose and clawed his face, but was confused and disappointed that she forgave him so quickly. If a man held me down with his knee in my back and beat me ruthlessly with a leather belt I think I’d kill him in his sleep that night. I was enjoying the book until now, that scene just ruined the love story for me.

    • It did for me too at first, but I picked the book up again later and kept reading and the story won me back. I’m someone who doesn’t like the typical “alpha male” romance and I am totally smitten with Jamie. Something about his vulnerability brings out the healing/nurturing/protective instincts in me and really touches my heart. Claire just has to teach him to be more of a modern man first, since the book portrays him as a real 18th-century man and has him act realistically instead of prettying him up for modern sensibilities like most romances novels do. The different time periods they were from caused a huge culture clash for Jamie and Claire. It took them both a while to adjust to each other, but once they did I have never seen a more beautiful love story.

    • I had the exact same reaction. When I read that scene, I felt so sick that I couldn’t finish the book. It was like this smart, independent woman and educated, progressive man both received lobotomies and fell into a misogynist’s wet dream. And now, seeing all these articles pop up about how Outlander is the feminist answer to 50 Shades of Grey (which is also horrific in different ways) or Game of Thrones? Are you kidding me?! Just because she was more sexually experienced than him?! It’s understandable that society did not consider these characters equal. That’s part of it being historical fiction. But Jaime’s actions in these scenes show that *he* doesn’t consider her equal either. He can say he does or DG can put it in the exposition scenes, but his actions don’t show it. And that’s what I have a problem with.

      I actually kept reading to hear his explanation because I was so horrified that this well-written, likable character I’d gotten attached to had acted this way, and when he tried to say his father had done it to him when he was a child? Um…so you’re saying you’re in a parental role here and she has the autonomy of a child? VOM.

      I probably would have set the whole place on fire in his sleep and made a run for it. I just really wanted her to shiv somebody instead of forgiving him (or at least projectile vomited on him when he tried to explain why he was right in beating her). I’m not saying that Claire wasn’t a bit of a dillweed that day, but ugghhh there are reasonable responses to that. Even though Jamie’s brand of abuse was more subtle, it was no less damaging than anything the dangerous, disney-esque villains out there could do to her.

  16. I think this so called “rape” that this article is referring to is the scene after their marriage when they first return to Leoch. My interpretation is that her “no” was about his technique at the moment, not the act itself. And then two seconds later, she is crying out “Yes, Jamie, Yes!!! I think that sounds like consent, to me. Were they a bit “50 Shades” in this scene? I think so. But I don’t see it as rape and I am a personal survivor who will not hesitate to call it when rape is evident. My guess is that the TV version will change things up a bit to make it clear that consent is evident. I’m pretty sure it was not the author’s intent to imply rape here and I bet now that she is more experienced at writing, she would likely change it up a bit if she had a “do over”.

  17. Wow, I read those scenes entirely different from you, I never saw that Jamie raped Claire, perhaps she resisted a little, all as part of the game. I like my version much better than yours. I also think that Jamie was very forward thinking for the 18th century and had immense respect and love for his wife.

    • And would it be just as fun and sexy a game later on, when he beats her children, too, as he says he intends to (dialogue from that same scene)?

      I think this is why Gabaldon deliberately plots the story so that Jamie has no contact with his & Claire’s daughter until she’s an adult; the author is avoiding the inevitable backlash from readers who don’t see abuse when it’s happening in the name of “true love” and romance, but are forced to see it for what it is when the victim is a child.

  18. I loved this book until I read the beating scene. All along we’re supposed to trust Jamie, and then he does this? Sure he’s an eighteenth century man, and Claire is an early 20th century woman, but the author is not either of those. She should not have so graphically depicted this scene for her 21st century readers. I am disgusted and disappointed because she does make you fall for Jamie, and now I hate him. And without victim-blaming, I wish Claire hadn’t forgiven him and had returned to Frank (first time while reading this that I was actually Team Frank).
    Finally, for those of you commenting that what Jamie did next was not rape: any time a woman tells a man to stop having sex with her, or she doesn’t want to have sex, it becomes non-consensual. Non-consensual sex is rape. Plain and simple.
    I will keep reading Outlander because it interests me, but shame on the author for including this scene. I don’t think I will love Jamie again after this, even though I tried.

  19. I admit I haven’t picked the book back up after reading about the beating, but I intend to. I’ve been in an abusive relationship and reading it brought about some very powerful feelings of dislike towards Jamie. I still find it inexcusable and unforgivable but on second consideration, I think make the author wrote this scene to clearly illustrate to the reader the cultural differences that Jamie and Claire face. It definitely cleared it up for me, this was a dangerous and scary time for women, who were nearly powerless and and at the mercy of men.

  20. Thanks for the warning. I started the series and liked it until i stumbled upon some warnings about future violence. I never liked this kind of romance that to me is not romance but submission and abuse. Rape or not some said there was a beating of Claire and she forgiving him. My alarms went off long before but now it’s clear what this is all about. Thanks but no thanks. My degree in psychology and human instinct is keeping me from being entertained by this kind of story.

  21. Thank God I am not the only one who is concerned by the violence against women contained in this successful novel. I was highly disturbed by the beating part, but I kept on reading just out of curiosity on how the author would manage to make this beating consistent with the good image of Jamie she had constructed up to that point. When I got to the rape part I just stopped reading the novel. At least I am happy I did not actually buy the novel…

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