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- Mikhail Bulgakov

Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Monday, May 5, 2014

Call to Action Response

Okay, this is going to be tough, so please bear with me.

On Friday, Brian Keene made a plea for horror authors to speak out against rape. You should really read the full article here because it's better than anything I'll say here. Nevertheless, like I said, it was a call to action, so here I am.

Why is this going to be tough? Well, for one thing I'm a white, middle-class, man in the United States of America which means I'm pretty much as privileged as a human being can get. I don't know what rape means to a woman just like I don't know what discrimination means to a minority or what poverty means to the poor and so on and so forth. These are all concepts I'm familiar with SOLELY on an intellectual level. I have never understood viscerally what it means to be treated differently or even violated on account of simply being who I am.

And yet, that being said, I DO deal with social issues in my writing. Because otherwise, what's the point? Writers are obliged to call attention to the social ills of their day.

Think Upton Sinclair, George Orwell, Harriet Beecher Stowe. But that's not the purpose of this post.

The purpose of this post is to discuss whether it is appropriate to address rape and sexual violence in fiction and how that differs from addressing it in real life. Dealing with rape in a responsible, adult manner in fiction is VERY different from minimizing the subject. And it's a world of difference from using it as a threat or an insult which is, quite simply, not acceptable human behavior. I can defend my usage of the themes in fiction partially because, as Keene points out, I'm a horror author and my job is to upset your amygdala, your "lizard brain." But it's also because I think these issues demand to be addressed.

THE GHOUL ARCHIPELAGO has a lot going on, but in part it's a critique of the culture of objectification. I've said elsewhere I consider it a feminist novel, and that may not be apparent at first glance, but it does deal with gender issues and paternalism in particular. But it also deals with rape, pornography, and the intersection of the two.

Rand Bergeron is a genius who has invented an almost perfect virtual reality collar. Its ultimate use is so obvious that he cuts right through the bullshit and just calls it the Sex Drive. Rand talks about the models who have sold the rights to their images to the Sex Drive corporation, but in practice he ends up molesting the (illicitly obtained) image of his ex-girlfriend. This science fiction conceit opened up the door for me to pose several significant real-world questions.

Where are the lines between masturbation, virtual sex, and personal violation? If you're having sex with someone's image against the will of that person, is that okay? What if you misappropriate their image? What’s the difference between simulated rape and the actual act? Does one necessarily lead to the other?

Eventually Rand's peculiar brand of self-justification spirals out of control and into the real world. The story ultimately ends up dealing with questions of zombie sex, which opens up yet another can of worms.

Can a zombie consent to sex? Is a zombie then still a person, with personal rights, or simply a body to be used? Is the human body itself sacred? Is it still rape if the zombie is docile but you know damn well the former person would NOT have consented?

These are some complex, albeit somewhat fantastical, questions about consent, pornography, art, rape, and necrophilia. Keene draws a distinction (as perhaps we all do) between the sex and violence which moves a story forward and that which is merely gratuitous. I believe (and feel free to tell me if I’m mistaken) that when I address sex in my writing, and sexual violence specifically, it is necessary to advance the plot and themes and not simply for shock value.

I understand that as a writer I have an obligation to address deep social ills like rape. I also understand that I'm a 31-year old white guy and my treatment of the subject, regardless of how much thought I put into it, could end up being as hamfisted and offensive as a minstrel show. That's for you to tell me and I hope you will.

But here's a key point. I quite simply can't even imagine what it would be like to be threatened with rape, as Keene’s editor was. I keep hitting this point, but because I'm a man, there is no way I can viscerally understand what a rape threat is like for a woman. There's no point of comparison, there's no apt metaphor, there's nothing in my own life that I can seize on and say, "Ah, it would be like if somebody said THAT to me." No, there's nothing, nothing even close.

My goal here is, as Keene says, to not be silent, but instead to start a conversation. And that's tough. It's absolutely tough. I'm a little terrified to even push "publish" on this post. Because who the hell am I to talk about rape? Do I even have the right to? No. Maybe not. But silence? No, that's not okay, either. The whole reason rape is a problem in our culture is because of silence. I served in the army for a few years and I'm more than a little ashamed of how prevalent Soldier-on-Soldier rape is. But I'm also heartened that instead of just covering it up like we always have, the Department of Defense is finally talking about the issue. Hopefully that's the first step towards progress.



  1. Brian Keene's article has some weak thinking. He defends Killing Joke by saying the writer "wanted to shock and terrify the reader" how is that in any way engaged with the people who have a problem with the impact upon women (and potentially men for that matter) of using rape in a work of fiction?

    I simply don't see how his defense of the Killing Joke- that he personally found it effective, in any way addresses the issue of whether there is a disproportionate impact upon women - who are more likely to be raped in real life- when a male writer uses rape to punch up, oh, let's say, some comic about Batman fighting the Joker?

    His argument seems to be "I enjoyed Killing Joke, so it couldn't' have been in poor taste".

    I don't necessarily have an issue with using rape in a horror story- but I just find his blog post to be poorly thought out.

  2. I can't imagine what it would be like either, but I do consider it a vile act. I couldn't write about it though. I write light space opera anyway - it just wouldn't fit with the story.

    1. Definitely not every topic is for every writer. I'm sure you cover some interesting ground with your science fiction, though. Thanks for the comment, Alex!


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