Rape, Fantasy, and ‘Historical Accuracy’

This spring, I was sucked into Game of Thrones with a peculiar vengeance, despite the fact that it’s not exactly the most untroubling piece of media I’ve ever encountered. It’s filled with sexual violence, rape culture, extreme physical violence, and a world of danger and misery. That said, it’s also a well-built world, with complex worldbuilding and fascinating characters, even if they all die right as I get into rather liking them.

I’ve read a number of interviews with author and creator George R.R. Martin about the series, and in many of those, he’s been challenged about the level of violence, particularly sexual violence. He’s made more than a few disturbing comments about how the level of sexual violence is necessary for his plot, for the authenticity of the world, and for accuracy. It’s the kind of commentary I often encounter when it comes to rape and sexual violence in fantasy: it’s necessary for ‘historical accuracy.’

I’m sorry, but no. Actually, wait, I’m not sorry at all. The whole point of fantasy is that it’s, well, fantasy, set in a world where everything is fantastical and weird and you can make up whatever you want, though ideally it will fit in with the structure and function of the world you’ve created. You can’t claim that you need rape for ‘historical accuracy’ in a world that never historically existed — and if you’re going to argue that it’s necessary because your world is based on a loose interpretation of medieval Europe, can we talk about how there are fucking dragons for a minute here?

Because, yes, rape, and rapists, are unfortunately historically accurate in any era. People rape people. Men, in particular, rape women. This is an absolutely true and accurate characterisation of history, and one can definitely argue that sexual violence is more widespread in periods of social and political turbulence (as, for example, when a kingdom is tearing itself apart in a war of succession). One might also argue that social attitudes about rape have shifted since, say, medieval England, when things like spousal rape were legal because there wasn’t a framework for such a thing ‘existing’ in the eyes of lawmakers — with women being the property of their husbands, their husbands could do whatever they pleased.

However. Rape can and was prosecuted as a crime in that era, and not every man in the medieval era was a rapist. As now, rape was often a serial crime repeated by the same man, with plenty of men, you know, not raping women. And plenty of those men actively worked against rape and sexual violence, although their work and advocacy may have taken different forms than that we do today. Westeros is a brutal world, but the level of violence in it isn’t ‘historically accurate’ for some abstract period of global history — it is, instead, a nightmarish and almost creepily fetishised imaginary world of Martin’s own making.

Furthermore, rape isn’t limited to women alone. In fact, in times of brutal warfare as depicted in Westeros, men are commonly raped as well, and were commonly raped in the medieval period, as it was used as a tool of battle then as now. Raping defeated enemies was one way to turn them into abject subjects, just as raping women while invading new lands was yet another way for invading enemies to make war. Male rape is peculiarly absent from most fantasy, with the focus specifically on the rape of young women and girls — rape is not nearly so discriminate in the real world, so why, if the focus is on ‘historical accuracy,’ are we not depicting rape as it truly is?

And may we talk about the dragons again for a moment? Because dragons are in no way, shape, or form historically accurate, and they are coded in fantasy as distinctly separate from dinosaurs (who never coexisted with humans anyway), so don’t even try to argue on that front. Fantasy is fantastic, it’s in the very name, it’s meant to include elements that are not real and should not be read as such. It’s not about building a realistic world but imagining a different one.

I tend to prefer progressive science fiction and fantasy where worlds are without rape, or where it’s not used as an enabling plot device or tool for men, but as a legitimate part of the storytelling. But I’d be just as hard on those authors if they were claiming rape was somehow necessary to the storyline for reasons of historical accuracy. In fantasy, you make the history. You determine what is accurate. In the brutal world of Westeros, rape is historically accurate, but it has nothing to do with what’s passed in actual human history, and everything to do with the world Martin has chosen to build.

He chose to create a world where sexual violence is a constant theme, while at the same time he has incredibly powerful, fierce women. He’s made that choice, and he must deal with the consequences of it, not hide behind claims of historical accuracy in the hopes that readers will give him a free pass or a friendly nod because, well, he’s just being true to history. When you make the history, you can change history. For Martin, and many fantasy writers like him, a world without rape is unimaginable, and sexual violence is key to storytelling, which tells you a great deal about how these authors view women and women’s bodies, and how difficult it is for them to conceive of a world where things look different.

Image: Armour from Game of Thrones on display in Oslo, fridator, Flickr.