I have had an essay in the works for some time where the core thesis is that most SF (and fantasy, but I see more of this in SF than fantasy) is written by and for people who read mainly because they are interested in ideas and situations, rather than people and feelings. The essay remains unfinished because I have a hard time making it sound like I am tarring and feathering everyone who reads SF and fantasy, and that's not what I wanted to do with it.
Yet over and over again, I get this nagging feeling that I find hard to put into words about both the writers and audience for much of this material. I suspect this feeling, again, does not encompass all of both, but enough of each for it to be noteworthy. And the more I think about it, the more I suspect the things that bother me are not exclusive to SF and fantasy, or genre fiction generally: they are more a matter of bad writing overall than they are of a bad genre.
Some of this snapped into focus when reading an essay by Jim Hines at Apex about the wretched way sexual violence is treated in most SF and fantasy. The things he describes, though, could apply to any story in any genre — but then this sentence jumped out at me:
If you ever run into an editor, ask them how many badly-written, vicious, misogynistic, angry, and just plain awful stories they receive about rape and sexual violence. (Especially if they edit dark fantasy or horror.)
The "Especially" was what caught my attention. Why especially dark fantasy and horror? Possibly because, as Hines himself points out in the article, these are genres where such things are often invoked as a shortcut towards making things dark and edgy and disturbing. They're the easy way out.
I'm going to go a step further and suggest that SF and fantasy generally have grown that much darker — at least superficially so — and so lend themselves that much more readily towards including such material as if it were par for the course. I will further stick my neck out (Sword of Damocles, here I come) and suggest the reason such things are given a pass that much more readily in said material is because of what I hinted at above: a good portion of the audience, and perhaps a good portion of the authorship as well, isn't particularly attuned to why such things should not be treated as if they were just another plot device.
Of all the media I've encountered, I can think of two that include sexual assaults that do a good job of avoiding the pitfalls on Hines's list. One is the movie Irreversible, where the whole assault is shown from beginning to end in a single unbroken, unblinking take, and where there is nothing remotely sexual about it — it is violence, pure and simple, and it ends with the victim being pummeled into unconsciousness. The other is the book Last Exit to Brooklyn, where a drunken prostitute is gang-raped by a mob. Again, nothing sexy about it; it is one of the saddest and most ghastly parts of the whole book. In both cases the victim is a character, not simply a plot coupon or a piece of scenery. That said, neither work classifies as SF or fantasy (although Irreversible's reverse chronology is slightly SF-ish).
Hines isn't against the use of rape as a story element. What he is against is using it thoughtlessly and cavalierly as a story element. It's not something you should just throw in for the sake of spice, or to give someone a prepackaged motivation pro or con, or to use as cheap shorthand for illustrating how dark and hopeless things are. In the case of Irreversible, the rape in question is the axis for the whole story, and sets off a whole chain of events that lead to the downfall of several characters. In Brooklyn, it's an endpoint for part of the story, one from where people cannot sink any lower. Those stories, and especially those scenes, are ugly and hard to take, but they don't make us call into question the creator's motives.
Hines has talked before about how fantasy and SF fans in general need to stop allowing the kind of dismissive atmosphere that permits predatory types to use conventions as stalking grounds. I was aware that such things did happen at cons; what I was not as aware of, and what saddened me the more I heard about it, was the way such things were often dismissed or blown off by other fans in fairly flip terms. The more I thought about that, the more I realized how it might well be possible for people in that same crowd to read (or write) a scene of sexual violence without really understanding what they were dealing with.
I am trying as hard as I can not to paint the audiences, or the creators, with broad brushes. It's difficult to sift through it and figure out what's my own projection and what's not. But then I read things like this, and another piece of the mosaic clicks into place, and I begin to understand where my own unease might be coming from.