Content warnings: this installment of Urban Fantasy 101 will be dealing with sexual assault in the genre. This means that I will be quoting and talking about sexual assault with vivid and graphic language largely pulled from the books that I’m covering. This includes descriptions of assault and threats.
In The Becoming, the first novel in Jeanne C. Steine’s Anna Strong series, the main character is violently raped at the end of the first chapter. Her transformation into a vampire is inextricably linked with sexual violence.
In Cheryl Vaughn’s Kitty Norville series, part of the titular character’s backstory is that she is the survivor of date rape literal minutes before a werewolf attacks her (because he smells the blood on her from the assault). Following that, she winds up in an abusive relationship with her married alpha which includes him using his power over her to fuck her and force her to (meta)physically enjoy it.
In the Anita Blake series, Anita is constantly subject to threats of sexual assault and harassment. Many of those threats come peppered with promises of murder whether or not she cooperates with the person threatening her.
Additionally, the series is full of sexual assault survivors who the narrative mistreats in multiple ways or even turns into rapists themselves. At this point in the series not only is Anita a rapist who does not take no for an answer, but so are many of her lovers and friends.
In the Mercy Thompson series, the main character is drugged and assaulted while her pack watches over the security camera and, one of her rescuers, we find out, was sexually abused when he was younger.
In Bitten, the main character Elena is subject to pervasive sexual harassment and threats of rape from every single male werewolf that she meets that isn’t a member of her pack. Additionally, the fact that there are only two female werewolves (her and her daughter) in the world mean that we know that she will have to deal with her daughter fighting off similar threats of assault in her distant future.
Sexual assault happens all the time and it’s a sadly realistic aspect of life regardless of identity or orientation.
According to statistics from the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, “every 98 seconds another American is sexually assaulted”. I don’t have easy access to statistics from other countries, but I know that the same is probably true (or worse) for people outside of the United States.
This is our reality as human beings – as vulnerable people subject to the whims and fantasies of people in power.
I hate though, that even – no, especially – in fantasy settings, this is still the reality. The strong heroines in Urban Fantasy series are often subject to incredible amounts of sexual violence that frequently serves as a way for them to be shown as strong figures. There’s often an explicit connection in these narratives between being assaulted as a woman and having power as a woman.
Truly, the issue is that assault in the genre is poorly handled, rarely warned for, and tends to frame survivors as victims alone with a focus that’s far from healing.
Additionally, a character like Anita Blake is used to being threatened and assaulted and that’s normal but also why is it HER normal? Why don’t we get the fantasy of urban fantasy where we don’t have to relive our assaults in the characters that are supposed to serve as our stand-ins as readers?
There’s also a difference in the way that these different writers write about assault in the urban fantasy genre. Not every sexual assault in Urban Fantasy is seen as sexual assault and in many series, authors miss that the message they’re putting forward is one of minimizing this particular form of violence.
Why is this your fantasy?
In “Do Better: Sexual Violence in SFF”, Sarah Gailey speaks about her anger at the sci-fi and fantasy genres’ reliance on using rape as “the worst thing” that can happen to female characters, writing that:
I get a little mad, because we can imagine horrors beyond human comprehension, and yet still we insist that rape is the worst thing that can happen to our female protagonists. We can open a rift between universes and allow a tentacle to herniate through a void in the sky, but we can’t suspend our disbelief enough to erase casual misogyny from the worlds we build. We can give a wizard access to a centuries-old volcano-powered spaceship, but we balk at the notion of a woman who has never been made to feel small and afraid.
And Sarah’s right.
There’s something messed up that genres that revolve around imagining these vivid fantasy worlds and bright futures where rape is something that happens all the time to the point where it’s a significant thing that readers come to expect when you introduce a new character – especially if they’re a female character because these genres are clearly a bit behind the times when it comes to considering who can be assaulted.
There’s this article in Entertainment Weekly from 2015 where George R. R. Martin makes excuses for his work (of course) and one of the most infuriating things that he says in his comment to the website is about sexual violence in his work.
With no self-awareness whatsoever, Martin says that:
[…] then there’s the whole issue of sexual violence, which I’ve been criticized for as well. I’m writing about war, which what almost all epic fantasy is about. But if you’re going to write about war, and you just want to include all the cool battles and heroes killing a lot of orcs and things like that and you don’t portray [sexual violence], then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that.
There’s no sexual assault in Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit.
Tolkien managed to write a relatively complex world of magic and war without ever relying on assault to show that his villainous characters – who were already terrible – were the absolute worst. In hiding behind the inaccurate specter of “realism” to excuse the sexual assault and violence that populates it, Martin shows that he’s not capable of that kind of writing. He’s not capable of writing evil without getting grossly heavy handed about it.
Additionally, Martin is writing about war in a time of dragons and White Walkers. He’s not writing a world that truly mirrors our own at any point and in fact, has chosen to have the world of Westeros be a patriarchal high fantasy tale rather than well… anything else.
George R. R. Martin could’ve written Westeros with a matriarchy in mind. He could’ve had his “strong female characters” be strong and sharp without the threat of sexual violence looming overhead – often from the male characters whose POV the reader inhabits.
As Tumblr user tafkarfanfic points out, “the stories of rapists are important to George R. R. Martin”. Many POV characters throughout the series are rapists who describe the violence they commit on the page and who aren’t being punished for it. The stories of survivors don’t seem to be as important.
Martin chose to center sexual violence (primarily towards women) in the world of Westeros and for him to act as though a Medieval Europe-inspired world without sexual violence is beyond the pale to him is just embarrassing. He’s not even being vaguely historically accurate here.
Instead of writing a medieval world that even vaguely resembles the one that we’ve long-since moved past, Martin takes the kind of liberties that lead to things like characters like Lollys Stokeworth being gangraped by several dozen men. Because that’s apparently something that the Middle Ages had plenty of. That’s something that makes your story more interesting.
So, let’s bring this all back to urban fantasy:
I have a problem with the way that many works in the genre treat assault (and threats of assault) as so commonplace as to be “no big deal”. It’s similar to the way Martin casually drops rape scenes in his work or when he lovingly renders brutalities, because they’re scenes that frequently “don’t matter” to the narrative, but different because we’re almost always in the POV of the characters being assaulted when it happens.
Even though I’ve had repeated issues with Richelle Mead’s work, I picked up the first four books in her Dark Swan series because well… they were three bucks total. The books… well they have issues (extremely racist issues that, if I ever finish reading the second book, I’ll address in a post) but what stands out is how, from basically the very first moment that we’re introduced to the main character and see how the fae react to her, she’s subject to rape threats.
In the first chapter of Storm Born, Eugenie (Odile) Markham attempts to banish a death spirit inhabiting a shoe. So of course, the spirit decides to deliver a rape threat:
“You are small, Eugenie Markham, but you are lovely and your flesh is warm. Perhaps I should beat the rush and take you myself. I’d enjoy hearing you scream beneath me.”
Ew. Had that thing just propositioned me?
Remember what I said about the way that assault is “no big deal” in many of the genre’s works?
Odile/Eugenie literally doesn’t recognize an explicit rape threat as such. She calls it being “propositioned”.
Honey, even if we pretended that rape culture wasn’t a thing, there’s no way that “I’d enjoy hearing you scream beneath me” is anything other than a threat of assault. Brad Pitt at his prettiest (circa 1994) could say it to me and I’d still be reaching for my knife.
Because that shit’s creepy and inappropriate. It’s a sadistic threat where the person making it is clearly looking forward to inflicting pain and degradation on a vulnerable person.
And the thing about this series from Richelle Mead is that it doesn’t end with this demon. Odile/Eugenie is the long-lost daughter of some heavy hitting demon dictator and there’s a prophecy in play that if she gets pregnant, her child will be responsible for some great (and maybe terrible) changes in the world of the fae.
So, everyone wants a shot at being her baby’s other parent and they don’t care how she feels about their interest.
(Which like… ignores that abortion is a thing. If Odile/Eugenie gets pregnant from rape, she can just… get an abortion. She lives in our world most of the time so like it’s not like she’s stuck in a faux-medieval world without access to basic modern healthcare.)
Mead has created a world where her main character is subject to threats (or promises) of assault on a regular basis and where there exists a real chance that if she becomes pregnant over the course of the series, it will be without her consent.
What’s so dang fantastic about that?
Which brings me to my next problem with sexual assault in the genre…
Rape culture in Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series…
In Cold Days, book fourteen in Butcher’s Dresden Files series, the main character is reintroduced to his apprentice after months of being held as the fae queen Mab’s pet Knight.
Here’s how he describes her at that reunion:
I studied Molly’s profile while she drove. Stared, really. I’d first met her years ago, when she was a gawky little kid in a training bra. She’d grown up tall, five-ten or a little more. She had dark blond hair, although she had changed its color about fifty times since I’d met her. At the moment, it was in its natural shade and cut short, hanging in an even sheet to her chin. She was wearing minimal makeup. The girl was built like a particularly well-proportioned statue, but she wasn’t flaunting it in this outfit—khaki pants, a cream-colored shirt, and a chocolate brown jacket.
She looked good. Noticing that made things stir under the surface, things that shouldn’t have been, and I abruptly looked away.
He’s known Molly since she was prepubescent.
A baby basically.
And here he is, like a decade later, not only objectifying her by checking out her body as she rescues him from certain doom, but also admitting to the reader/his subconscious, that he has a desire for her that he shouldn’t. Harry is basically one of Molly’s parental figures. She’s his apprentice.
And yet, not for the first time, he finds himself marveling at how grown up she is and thinking about her body. (I’m not even going to get into how creepy it is for Butcher to keep up this creepy “will they, won’t they” relationship with him and Molly…)
The thing is that Cold Days doesn’t stop there with the creep factor. As Mab’s new Winter Night, Dresden is plagued by this desire to commit violence on weird whims. Frequently, this violent desire is sexual in nature.
Here’s how he responds to seeing Lily, the Summer Lady after his transformation:
And some other part of me abruptly filled my mind with a violent and explicit image—my fist tangled in Lily’s hair, that soft gentle mouth under mine, her body writhing beneath my weight as I took her to the ground. It wasn’t an idle thought, and it wasn’t a daydream, and it wasn’t a fantasy. It was a blueprint. If Lily was immortal, I couldn’t kill her. That didn’t mean I couldn’t take her.
He sees Lily for the first time in like a year and, (supposedly) because of the Winter Knight inhabiting him, he flashes to a fantasy of raping her.
When he rescues Andi later in the book, he has a similar reaction:
Sweetly curved Andi was the most vulnerable. If I could isolate her from the herd, things could get interesting. I’d just saved her life, after all. She owed me. I could think of a few ways that she could express her gratitude.
What is that supposed to say about our protagonist? What does that say about Harry Dresden as a character that his already misogynistic view of women (peep the way that Butcher has Dresden think of or talk to women in this series) can so smoothly turn to thoughts of violence towards them?
Following that moment with Lily and the thought he has about Andi as he rescues her, I find it impossible to read his comments about things stirring underneath the surface as he looks at Molly’s body as anything other than threatening or suspect.
And that’s his normal. It’s absolutely normal for Dresden to think of women as sex objects and to then imagine brutalizing them.
Sure, he’s shocked that the thoughts he has of women are more akin to stereotypical caveman-esque rape fantasies than “simple” objectification, but he doesn’t actually do anything about them. The urges and desires he feels about hurting the women he’s friends with or responsible for aren’t what make him second guess his status as Mab’s Winter Knight.
Not even close.
And the thing is that yeah, Harry Dresden doesn’t rape anyone in Cold Days, but he sure does think about it… He thinks about hurting women around him and the narrative handwaves it away by blaming it on Mab’s mantle and his role as her knight instead of on his own misogyny.
Dresden’s desires and his creepy internal monologues when faced with vulnerable women causes me to ask a question: what happens when an urban fantasy protagonist is an actual rapist?
I’m talking about Anita Blake
It’s not a true Urban Fantasy 101 post unless I talk about the Anita Blake series because there’s just so much that the series does wrong and hardly anyone is talking about it.
I don’t know if there’s any other way to say it, but Anita Blake is a character who survives sexual assault and sexual harassment only to become a rapist in her own character arc.
In Narcissus in Chains, Anita finds herself infected with the ardeur, author Laurell K Hamilton’s version of sex-pollen.
At one point in the book, Anita is overwhelmed by the ardeur and the character Micah comes across her in the shower as she’s struggling with what’s basically described as an incubus’ power. Micah, like Anita in later books, doesn’t know what “no” means.
Anita tells him “no” with her words and with her body language, only for Micah to ignore her and keep pressing at her until she gives in and fucks him:
I was shaking my head, and finally stopped moving with him. He kept pulling on the towel and it unwrapped, starting to slide down my body. I grabbed it, holding it just below my suddenly bare breasts.
“No,” I said, my voice strangled, but I repeated it. “No.”
He stepped into me, pressing the slick hardness of him against my lower hand and arm. He tried to uncurl my fingers from the towel, and I held on for dear life. “Touch me, Anita, cup me in your hands.”
“I know you want to. I can smell it,” and he moved his face above my skin, drawing his breath in and out against my wet skin. “I can feel it.”
Anita does not want to have sex with him. He presses, using his metaphysical attraction to her to cause her to have sex with him. This is rape. This is not called rape. Hell, in the current novel Crimson Death, Micah is as good as one of Anita’s husbands.
In one segment of a Q/A that she did on her blog to promote her release Dead Ice, Hamilton straight up rejects that the scene is a rape scene, writing that the question about whether or not Micah raped Anita caught her off guard (in part because the people asking weren’t very “nice” to her about it). Hamilton writes that:
It turned out that the scene had seemed like rape to them because Anita had not said a fully spoken, “yes.” I swear that I remembered her saying yes in the scene. I swear that I wrote her saying yes in the scene, but so many women were genuinely upset by the scene that I went back and reread it. One thing was true, Anita doesn’t say an out loud yes. *head desk* Sometimes when you write a book, things are so crystal clear in your head that you think they are on the paper; you actually begin to read them into the words, but that doesn’t mean they’re there.
If I could do this scene again I would rewrite some of Anita’s interior dialogue to make it more acceptable to the women who saw/feel the scene as rape. All I can say is that I did not write the scene with that in mind, but having listened to enough polite fans explain their point of view over the years, I can see their point. My apologies to those that were genuinely upset by the scene as written, and I have endeavored not to fall into ambiguity in any other sex scene with anyone since then.
Hamilton ignores the fact that the issue isn’t that Anita hadn’t said “a fully spoken ‘yes’”, but that she said no repeatedly during the scene as she didn’t want to have sex with Micah, a stranger she basically hadn’t spoken to at length, and that he wasn’t listening to her.
In fact, despite her physical/metaphysical attraction to Micah, she’s uncomfortable with him from the start of the chapter where he basically gets creepy in the group showers and starts to masturbate in front of her:
His hands slid downward, trailing white suds over his stomach, his hips, then slid between his legs, working the soap over himself. I knew from my own experience of getting the stuff off me that you had to scrub more where it had touched you, but his hands stayed, until he was slick, thick with bubbles, and partially erect by the time his hands slid to his thighs.
Micah doesn’t gain Anita’s active or eager consent at any point in this scene.
One minute, she is visibly uncomfortable with him (despite her arousal) and in the next, they’re fucking because he’s basically her metaphysical “other half” and they can’t help themselves.
But that doesn’t exactly excuse the fact that Micah pressured her into having sex with him by refusing to let her leave him and then forcing himself on her until she gave in. Micah’s a fucking rapist.
End of story.
But the Anita Blake series isn’t good about handling rape. Survivors have three settings: perpetual victim, heals via BDSM, and becomes a rapist.
Guess which one Anita is…
I’m going to go into this in greater detail in a later post about the way that rape culture is basically inextricable from the story Hamilton is trying to tell in this series, but the whole thing is that Anita, who is seen the epitome of the “strong female character” has gone to the absolute other extreme of the way speculative fiction’s worst offenders tend to portray women.
The series makes it very clear that despite all the shit she goes through and how she’s constantly subject to people ignoring her agency and not giving her the room to consent/not consent to their interest, Anita isn’t a victim.
And it does so by making her into a monster.
Here’s a partial list of people Anita has raped over the course of the series (via her metaphysical powers and both the initial impact and the way her powers create an addiction in her victims):
- London – She uses the ardeur on him because he’s the perfect “food” for the ardeur. He doesn’t want to be fucked and fed on, but his lack of consent is ignored.
- Byron – A vampire who was femme and “mostly interested in dudes”. Once she rolls him, he becomes one of the vampires that fixates on her as a member of her stable. Was turned at age 15 but somehow “passes” for 18.
- Nicky – were-lion that was attempting to kill her. Anita “rolls” him, using the ardeur and makes him one of her “brides” (as in “Brides of Dracula” I feel)
- Jade – Anita forces her to join in an orgy with men even though Jade, as a survivor of centuries of sexual abuse who is afraid of men, repeatedly tells her that she doesn’t want to participate in sexual contact with anyone other than other women or the male tiger-shifter Domino.
I think the way that Anita treats Jade is the most egregious example of rape culture and Anita’s turn to becoming a rapist because essentially, Anita sees herself as responsible for Jade’s well-being and therefore that excuses the way that she treats Jade. She rescued Jade from her abusive vampire master and has been working towards helping her function in St. Louis so Jade owes her.
At the point where Anita forces her to participate in sex acts that she’s vocally uncomfortable with (in Jason), they are still girlfriends.
But that novel, which leads to the end of their relationship, Anita straight up shows anger to Jade for not wanting to be six-in-a-bed with some people she doesn’t know and isn’t comfortable with. She pressures Jade into participating and then gets upset when Jade, due to her history of being abused, doesn’t respond the way she wants her to and has to leave the room.
Not only does she pressure Jade into participating in sex acts that she is uncomfortable with (and is even triggered by), but her response to Jade not doing/being what she wants sexually (which we know is connected to her trauma) is to… dump her and be absolutely cruel about it. I don’t even think that Anita breaks up with Jade on-screen.
Earlier in the book, Envy (a lion shifter that’s sleeping with Anita’s master Jean-Claude) refers to the ardeur as “a date-rape drug that doesn’t go away” and if you were expecting Anita to have an issue with that or deny it… well she doesn’t.
Not only does she not deny it, but when other characters appear to try and take some of the responsibility off of her (by saying “But this drug affects both parties”), she denies that. The ardeur isn’t some kind of mutual date-rape drug where the person using the power and the person being used to feed it are entangled.
Only in the earlier books was Anita “swept away” by the ardeur and right now?
Calling it a date-rape drug and her a rapist is beyond apt.
However, that’s not the way many readers (and certainly not Hamilton herself) see the character or her behavior. Instead of seeing Anita as a rapist, a potential monster, or an actual predator, they see her as empowered because she takes what she wants from hypermasculine dudes who would try to hurt her or assault her if allowed.
And there’s a huge problem in the way sexual assault and empowerment are entangled in the genre…
Next time on Urban Fantasy 101: Sexual Assault in The Genre…
Not only will the second part of this piece look at conflating sexual assault and empowerment, the way that Sherrilyn Kenyon writes queer rapists in the Dark Hunter series. and how queerness and sexual assault aren’t handled well in the genre…, but it’ll also provide a look at authors who refuse to write rape in the genre and how authors who do wish to tackle rape in their work can handle it in an honest and non-exploitative way.
Now here are a few questions for you readers: How do you feel about sexual assault and harassment as portrayed in the urban fantasy genre? Is it an across the board deal breaker regardless of the author’s talent or care? What are some urban fantasy books that you feel tackle rape without falling into gross traps?