Mature Themes in Storytelling and Gaming: Rape

Advice Level: Beginner to Advanced Writer, Beginner to Advanced Gamer

As far as generalizations go, it’s fairly easy for me to say rape is the worst crime someone can commit.

Very brave, I know, but there are arguments to the contrary, so I felt the need to preface this article with just why I personally consider rape the “unforgivable sin.”  Lying, theft, even murder are all things I can rationalize or justify in the proper, if rare, context.  There’s no such thing as “self-defensive rape.” There’s no Robin Hood of rapists, righting social wrongs by sexually abusing others.  Anywhere free will is a factor, as far as I’m aware the choice to rape someone is always a purely self-serving action.

No other act is as inherently, dare I use the word, Evil.  This makes it among the most powerful tools in storytelling, discomforting to write and unnerving to witness.  Because of how traumatic and extreme it is, however, it’s used far too often as a bludgeon, stripped of nuance and used for its easy shock value.

So I’m going to explore the ways rape is often used in storytelling in general, and then specifically how to deal with it in tabletop games.  I’ll also give examples of how to approach it the most respectful, but still meaningful, way.  Art explores every aspect of life, inspirational and ugly.  When you’re telling a story, either through a novel or tabletop game, there are always ways to treat sensitive material honestly, but also with tact.

Rape as Easy Villain Creation

Kick the Dog is a trope in storytelling in which a character does something so pointlessly vile that it immediately sets the audience against them, and makes it clearer than crystal that This is a Bad Guy, Feel Free to Hate/Kill Them.  As you can imagine, rape is one of the most common forms of bashing an audience over the head with just how bad a villain is.

While the act of rape is unequivocally amoral, it’s also not particularly interesting or unique.  It’s often used to press emotional buttons (shock, disgust, hatred) without making people think.  And while stories are definitely about evoking emotions, evoking thought is the hallmark of a truly meaningful tale.  The danger in making the villain a rapist in addition to whatever other acts they do is that it’s often unnecessary, and it has diminishing returns on anyone with extensive experience with stories.

Protagonists should want to defeat a villain because they are doing things that are uniquely bad, or at least uniquely impactful.  An antagonist rebel leader intent on overthrowing a government, in the name of “justice” for past wrongs it committed.  A warchief leading his people in pillaging villages, to survive after their land was struck by drought.  These are the motivations of interesting villains who can still be brutal and dangerous.

But unless the theme of rape is central to the story, sprinkling it on top of a villain’s character often cheapens them.  It makes the revolutionary a hypocrite, the chieftain a savage.  And if you want a truly heinous villain, there are ways to do it without rape, the equivalent of a post-it note on their forehead that says EVIL. Like a blaring bass in a song, rape drowns out details and becomes the only thing that anyone really thinks about or notices.

For those rare cases where rape is a central tenant of a villain’s character, there are still ways to do it with skill.  For example, child molesters often come in two flavors: those that acknowledge their urges as vile, but fail to fight them due to their “overpowering love” for the sweet, innocent victims, or those that see nothing wrong with it, and groom their victims until they give in to the power differential.  They justify it to themselves, they think it through, they sometimes even agonize over it.

Taking from these more nuanced molds can make people think about rape and child molestation in new ways, rather than default to it as the act of an enigmatic monster.

Rape as Character Backstory

One of the easiest ways to portray a character sympathetically is to include that they were raped, especially as a child.  It can justify a revenge motive, give license for a jaded worldview, or succinctly communicate that a person came from a life of hardship. Rare is the street urchin or foster child in fiction that wasn’t sexually abused at some point in their past.

And the simple truth is, this works.  It acknowledges the grim reality that rape is tragically common on a societal level, while also being rare enough on an individual one that many will consider it a unique branding that sets the character apart from those around them.

The problem comes when it is thrown into the mix of a character’s backstory, then forgotten. Many people like their heroes to be consummate badasses, and dwelling on periods of a character’s weakness, humiliation, or trauma can interfere with the fantasy.  It’s also starkly uncomfortable, on many levels.  Rape is often a life-changing trauma on par with few others.  To never make mention of it except in passing, never have it negatively affect the character in the here-and-now, would be like making their backstory that of a rugged street-fighter, but not giving them any scars.

That’s not to say a person who was raped can’t recover from the experience: many people do, to one degree or another.  But portraying it as simple and straightforward cheapens the crime and experience, and makes it harder for a character to feel truly authentic and three-dimensional. Utilize it with care, and respect your characters enough to keep it a part of them, rather than simply a bomb you drop for spectacle and then move on from.

Rape as Player Actions

In the real world, there are often simple, broad generalizations we mostly feel comfortable making in regards to morality.  In stories where magic or superpowers or advanced technology is present however, there are scenarios that we don’t encounter in our world which may cause some of us to re-evaluate where the grey line of morality is drawn.  Even when it comes to rape.

For example: Is a love potion/spell considered rape by a game’s mechanics?  If one of your characters magically seduces an NPC into loving them, or uses mental powers to make them highly suggestible or uncontrollably aroused, what backlash should they expect?  If your game has a morality system of some kind, does that count as rape, or the “lesser” crime of influencing another’s mind (assuming the system categorizes them differently)?  Or is it both?  After all, the most common definition of rape is sex where a participant is unwilling.  If they are willing, even through altered consciousness or hormones, it might be unethical, but calling it rape might seem a bit extreme to some, especially since influencing someone’s mind in other ways is usually seen as much less extreme a crime.

Our closest real-world equivalent are things like date-rape drugs, the result of which is without a doubt rape.  If someone made a drug that turned a person murderously violent, would you want to be held responsible for your actions if someone slipped one into your drink?  Just so, giving someone a roofie and then having sex with them as they float in and out of hallucinogenic consciousness is no more them agreeing to sex than it is them agreeing to jump off a building because you threw them.

So what does all that mean for creatures that regularly use seduction as forms of control?  If a vampire’s bite induces ecstasy, does that mean every vampire character is a rapist just by feeding on others?  The case could be made that unless actual intercourse (or related activities) take place, it is merely influencing another’s mind in a way that happens to be erotic.  In the end though, it is without a doubt a heinous breach of that person’s will and the sanctity of their mind.  That they were forced to enjoy the experience could easily leave them even more traumatized.  Remember that, modern day re-imaginings aside, vampires were first and foremost considered monsters.  They prey on helpless victims and gain sustenance from draining their life: that they might find the hunt easier or more enjoyable because their victim is made to desire their lethal kiss is part of what makes them monstrous.

As for interactions between players, the question of how far mind control should go is bound to be touchy when it comes to sexual activities.  If one character with high charisma, persuasion, and general charm wins a contested dice roll to influence another into being less hostile toward him, or going along with his plan, that seems fine and dandy to most.  If, however, that person does it to convince the other player to take their clothes off, that might make a player a slight bit uncomfortable, to say the least.

If the character outright uses some supernatural means to subvert another player’s control over their character’s actions or feelings, the GM or player should probably put their foot down and use the old “hypnotism” standby: influencing another’s mind may help push them toward doing what you want, but it cannot make them do something they subconsciously would never do.  In other words, a siren may use her alluring voice to fill someone with carnal desires, or a vampire may use mental influence to appear as the embodiment of sexual perfection, but it’s still up to the victim to act on those desires, or not.

Give the affected character penalties to actions due to being distracted by the supernatural influence? Sure.  But they should still be able to punch their assailant between the legs when ordered to “touch” them.

(PS: None of this is intended to cast judgement on those who enjoy roleplay that happens to include anything mentioned above. As long as everyone involved consents, by all means, enjoy what you enjoy!)