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?