Sexual Assault And Gratuitousness In Popular Culture

In light of some recent conversations we’ve been having, I broke out the question “What is the point at which depictions of domestic or sexual violence become gratuitous?” There’s no question that this is a personal question, one that’s particularly inflected by individuals’ experiences with sexual assault and domestic violence and their relationships with folks who have experiences sexual assault and domestic violence, but I got back a lot thoughtful answers from folks about where their lines lie. And I wanted to share some of them from Google Plus and elsewhere.

From Yashoda Sampath:

In lit, if it doesn’t drive a character or the story forward, then it’s gratuitous. Period. If it’s described in unnecessarily loving detail, it’s gratuitous. How do you judge whether it meets those conditions? It differs from person to person…That said, I think this has something to do with the real world. You will never run into aestheticized action violence in the real world, but you are very likely to encounter, be a victim of, or know someone who is a victim of sexual/domestic violence. Because being raped is a real fear, people are more disturbed by it than if their city was blown up, which is not a real fear for most in the Western world in spite of outlier attacks.

From Jason Kuznicki:


Depictions of sexual violence do have to meet a different standard. That’s because nonsexual violence often serves just as well to advance the plot as the author appears to have conceived it. In these cases, we should doubt whether specifically sexual violence is appropriate, particularly if the sexual component has no discernible relationship to the plot.

Why? To give an analogy, suppose it were a literary convention that no one, in whatever era, could ever be stabbed with a knife in fiction. It always, always — always — had to be a broken-off wine bottle.

This would be an incredibly stupid convention. Why would it exist? For no reason that I can imagine. But why does the convention exist that women get raped? Sexism, a reason I can definitely imagine. Unless the author is clearly interested in exploring the theme of sexism, a rape scene is likely to be gratuitous, or just a re-inscribing of a convention every bit as dumb as, but far more distasteful than, the wine-bottle stabbing bit.

From Kate Cox:

My personal thought is that there’s a difference between putting something in a story, and glorifying or reveling over the telling of something in a story. Where that line gets crossed, though, can be really subjective.

From Matthew Henderson:

It is probably important to note what is emphasized and lingered on. There’s something in our culture that makes action violence okay, as there are occasions where it is seen as Morally Good or appropriate. Sexual/Domestic violence is generally the abuse of power in a relationship. It is never a Moral Good. Culturally, that is.

From the author Mike Meginnis:

I wouldn’t say there is “a point.” I’m touchy about sexual violence especially but the idea that we can depict, say, the disemboweling of a dude but not sexual violence in art strikes me as totally perverse and in fact a part of the problem. I might actually argue that in moral terms we should be less concerned about depictions of rape specifically and sex generally and more concerned about depictions of other violence, because it may be wrong to be so cavalier about other violence. (I certainly find the casual violence of most popular entertainment upsetting.) But that can be very hard to put into practice. Descriptions of rape are hard for me to read, and on film I find it close to unbearable if I have to actually see much of anything. I can read about other violence without much trouble (but still don’t like watching it, mostly).

For me, the attack on Doctor Melfi has always been a useful barometer of something that is extremely difficult to watch, that goes on for quite some time, but that has lasting and specific repercussions for the character and the plot.