Rape in YA Fantasy

Young Adult fantasy has a bit of a rape problem.

I mean, all fantasy has a bit of a rape problem. But let’s talk about YA fantasy specifically here — a genre that typically has teenage female protagonists, lots of action, lots of romance, and an intended young female audience. And, almost inevitably, at least one rape threat, if not several of them, over the course of each book.

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while, but it really came to the front of my thoughts as I was reading Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes, an incredibly compelling, well-written book that I nevertheless want to describe as the Outlander of YA fantasy, because oh my god is rape a big theme here.

I didn’t keep a tally while reading, but there were at least three graphic, imminent threats of rape, one very violent, fully-fledged attack, at least one instance of a female character being tied up and given as a prize for a male character, and more casual mentions of it than I can count. Two of three young female characters are graphically threatened, and the third is only excused because she had her eye gouged out pre-book, and so “no one finds her attractive enough.” It’s never, never treated as acceptable by the protagonists, but it’s an endemic part of this book’s world, and it comes up very often.

Of course, violence in general is an endemic part of An Ember in the Ashes. The protagonist gets off lightly, with only being beaten within an inch of her life and permanently scarred by someone cutting a large letter into her chest. Characters are, off-screen, made to eat hot coals and have their faces shredded, and, on-screen, literally whipped to death. This is a brutal world, and a completely unsanitized exploration of slavery and oppression, and the frequent and casual appearance of rape is part of that.

But I think a book loses the “it’s a realistic exploration of oppression” justification when it directly and repeatedly correlates beauty with risk, with many, many characters noting that the beautiful protagonist is in more danger than most, and that the eye-missing secondary character is entirely safe. Add in the fact that none of these threats or attacks have any impact or the plot or on character development, and it feels like something thrown in entirely for flavor, as a quick world-building marker to show us that things are “bad.”

And although An Ember in the Ashes was more graphic than most, it’s representative of a genre that seems to use rape threats as the default tension builder. They appear in practically all of the popular YA fantasy series. The Winner’s Curse? It’s a plot point. Throne of Glass? Check. The Grisha Trilogy? Yup. Six of Crows? Snow Like Ashes? Graceling? Books I’ve loved, books I didn’t like… they all seem to have at least one instance where the female protagonist is threatened with rape by a male villain. Some have rape in their backstories or see other female characters dealing with this issue, but in most cases, it’s more of a “villain is villainy so he threatens the protagonist” thing. Of course, this is just for books that I’ve read, but unless I’m randomly picking up all the wrong books, it seems far more likely that any YA fantasy novel will contain a rape threat or rape plotline than that it won’t.

Sometimes, this seems to come up as a kind of Girl Power moment, which I can see the appeal of. Villainous guy makes rape threat against girl protagonist, because she’s a girl, and he wants to demean her and show that she’s weak. She then crushes him later on in the story, providing a victory for girls everywhere over endemic oppression.

But often, she’s rescued by the love-interest hero, helping the narrative to establish that he’s a Good Guy and building an emotional connection between him and the protagonist. And sometimes, it just seems to crop up as a habit of the genre, like the wizened wizard in a tower and dragons that breathe fire. The villain is evil and the protagonist is female, so this is how it has to go.

Either way, we have a genre aimed at young female readers that constantly threatens the characters they’re supposed to empathize with with sexual violence. Some people might praise this as realistic — acknowledging a dark reality and allowing the protagonist, and so the reader, to overcome it. But it can also feel a bit too much like the default setting, and when it shows up in book after book after book, it becomes tired. What message does it give, when even the most badass of female assassins and world-saving adventurers have to deal with this constantly? What ideas are these books reinforcing, when they have male protagonists face all kinds of emotionally-compelling threats and dangers, and have female protagonists face this, regardless of her character, regardless of the book, regardless of anything except that it’s fantasy and she’s female so that’s how it has to be?

So we come back to An Ember in the Ashes, a book that threatened rape so often I ended up just reacting to it with, “Again??” It is, in general, a really good book. It’s also a dark book, and where it falls on the line between “gritty” and “Game of Thrones” will, I think, depend on the reader. But the rape… the rape definitely crossed from “dark worldbuilding” to “no, but seriously, again???” territory. And honestly, after seeing the trope come up so blindly often in YA fantasy over the past few years, I really think we can do better. Yes, rape can play a role in a novel or be part of a character’s backstory. But when every villain threatens it, and every protagonist faces it, with no actual effect on the plot? Maybe then it’s time for a new trope to arise.

09 comments on “Rape in YA Fantasy

  • Penelope Wallace , Direct link to comment

    I haven’t read any of the above books except Game of Thrones, but I agree with the point you’re making, as we have discussed before! I feel rather shocked that this is all in YA – how old are the readers supposed to be? Incidentally, are any of the rape threats directed at men, or are men just not protagonists/victims in this type of fiction?

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      I’m sure there are examples of threats directed at men, but in the books I’ve read, it’s very much a female protagonist problem. Which, to be fair, could be because almost all YA fantasy has a female protagonists… but I’ve never noticed it appear in male narratives when it’s dual POV.

  • Rachel , Direct link to comment

    I’m 29 and I can still remember the first time I read a graphic depiction of rape in a book….Daughter of the Forest was fantastically written, but I still remember the details of that scene, and how sickening I found it that not only would a man do this to a woman (or more accurately, young teenager), but that he somehow managed to delude himself into thinking she liked it. It’s frustrating, because I know there are all too many women who have had that experience, but I sometimes wish I hadn’t read that book, at least during my middle school years, because that passage left such a vivid impression on me.

    (Daughter of the Forest is a retelling of the Irish fairy tale of a young princess who’s six older brothers are turned into swans by their evil stepmother and the only way to break the spell is for her to remain silent while she weaves shirts out of nettles)

  • Lars Sjöström , Direct link to comment

    I haven’t read the books you write about except A Song of Ice and Fire. But something which they, but not A Song of Ice and Fire, seem to miss is that men are also raped, In one of the Victarion chapters of A Dance With Dragons a maester are raped by members of Victarion’s crew, Victarion is only disgusted by the maester’s weakness, not doing anything to discipline his crewmen. From what you write they seem only interested in the realistic treat of rape against women, not the equally realistic treat of rape against men. There are also women who commit rape, even if they are a small minority of the rapists.

    But when a woman have forced a man to sex in fantasy like in Wheel of Time and when the summer islanders force Samwell to sex with Gilly in A Feast for Crows. The rape is not described as something horrible but as something the forced men likes. Weird is the least of it.

  • Deidre Dreams , Direct link to comment

    Gah! There’s nothing I hate as much as the trope that the threat of rape is higher or even only there when the female character is pretty. It keeps reinforcing the idea that rape is somehow a compliment AND that girls need to fear their own body because it can ‘make’ people be violent to them.
    Statistics constantly show that conventional beauty has no bearing on likelihood to get raped. But fiction just keeps on feeding this false narrative.

  • Mila , Direct link to comment

    I haven’t read An Ember in the Ashes, but implying correlation between perceived beauty and the probability of getting raped in an oppressive society has nothing to do with realism. When rape is used as a weapon of war, it is not about attraction — it is about power and a twisted display of dominance. It is a way of the victors to further humiliate those who lost. Like one battle commander baiting another, ‘I will kill your men and rape your women.’ Horrifyingly, rape is often treated as an insult to the men who failed to protect ‘their’ women. And men are also raped at wartime, again not related to attraction but as a power display, although this appears in fiction way less often (not saying that it should, but then can we make the ‘realism’ excuse?)

    Of course, things are not much different in peaceful societies, and rape has little to do with attraction. Is rape supposed to be some kind of a compliment??? Is a woman, receiving no unwanted attention, supposed to think something is wrong with her?? And this is targeted at teenagers. Sign.

  • Khyie , Direct link to comment

    This is so important and why I struggled so, so, so much with Finnikin of the Rock even though everyone I knew was raving about it. It seemed like all but I think maybe three female characters who were even mentioned in the book were either a) raped, b) implied to have been raped, c) nearly raped, or d) faked their own death to run away to a convent run by rape victims in order to escape being raped. It was awful. I’m so tired of it. I feel like it’s become one of the most overused tools in any fantasy writer’s arsenal.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      I haven’t read that one… it won’t be going on my list! The thing is, it’s a really *effective* tool as well. It very quickly establishes blood-chilling danger and in stories where death almost becomes run-of-the-mill, it marks the villain as *really* villainous. I can see why people fall into that trap, especially as it’s associated with being “serious” fantasy, and *some* examples would be realistic. But it’s becoming ridiculous at this point. Fantasy is supposed to be about inventiveness. Surely people can imagine worldbuilding and villainy beyond constant rape threats.

  • AO , Direct link to comment

    Spoilers for The Shannara Chronicles tv series

    I was watching the The Shannara Chronicles on Netflix recently. Half way through the season there was a scene where one of the main characters is almost raped because the guy wanted to teach her a lesson. At the end of the episode he (the would be rapist) helps the male protagonist. I didn’t watch the next episode because I didn’t want to find out how long that guy would stick around.

What do you think?

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