Sexual Assault in Romance

This post was written by Adriana Herrera. Adriana Herrera was born and raised in the Caribbean, but for the last sixteen years has let her job (and her spouse) take her all over the world. She loves writing stories about people who look and sound like her people, getting unapologetic happy endings.

When’s she not dreaming up love stories, planning logistically complex trips with her family or hunting for discount Broadway tickets, she’s a social worker in New York City, working with survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Her debut novel, American Dreamer, came out in March 2019 from Carina Press. American Fairytale, the second book in her Dreamers series, will be released May 20th. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and at her website. She has previously written for SBTB on the topic of Domestic Violence in Romance.

CW/TW: discussion of domestic abuse, sexual violence, assault, trauma

As romance readers and writers, we believe in the redemptive power of love. But when a character has experienced trauma, they need more than a new love interest to heal.

Exploring the intersection between fact and fiction can help us be better writers and readers: What do experts in the field tell us about how people heal from trauma, and how can romance create more helpful/realistic/humane portrayals of how to love someone who has experienced trauma? How do we show a more feasible healing journey for survivors?

About Trauma

There are many ways in which a person can experience trauma in their life, from the sudden death of a parent during childhood, to losing everything in a natural disaster, to being robbed at gunpoint or being in a car accident. All of these events are traumatic and could have lasting effects on a person’s life. However, because April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I wanted to focus on depictions of characters who have lived through sexual assault (not within the context of Intimate Partner Violence) as adults. This is a common backstory for romance novel protagonists, and it is not an unrealistic one.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, in the U.S.:

  • One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives
  • In the U.S., one in three women and one in six men experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime.

It is completely realistic (and necessary) for survivors to appear in our stories. We just need to make sure we get their stories right, and honor the work they do to claim their happily ever afters.

So What is Trauma?

The Body Keeps the Score
A | BN | K | AB

Bessel Van Der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, explains this about trauma:

“The essence of trauma is that it is overwhelming, unbelievable, and unbearable. Each patient [or character] demands that we suspend our sense of what is normal and accept that we are dealing with a dual reality: the reality of a relatively secure and predictable present that lives side by side with a ruinous, ever-present past.”

Trauma is not remembering, it is RELIVING. This means that when people are recalling a traumatic experience, it does not feel like it happened in the past, instead they are re-experiencing it, at a sensory level even.

According to Bessel Van Der Kolk:

…emotions, sounds images, thoughts and physical sensations related to the trauma take on a life of their own. The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present where they are literally re-lived.

This re-experiencing of the trauma plays heavily into how survivors live their lives and how they can connect with others. Trauma can change a person’s beliefs about themselves and their worldview as they look to make sense of what happened. Part of the healing journey is attending to these changes and finding a way to reconcile what happened with what they know and what they want for their future.

So, in a story where authors create characters who have survived unspeakable violence, if these characters are not given the space to properly process what they experienced or arrive at a place where they don’t self-blame—then their ability to connect to another person or embark on a healthy relationship will be very difficult. When a character has experienced a traumatic experience that was so horrific that it cannot be put in their past, then there is work to be done there. A new love interest, no matter how good and true, cannot make that go away.

What are some of the pitfalls in depictions of characters who are survivors of sexual assault in romance?

Inaccurate rendition of how surviving and healing trauma works.

Giving a character trauma reactions so severe that in the beginning of the story they are barely coping with life and then have them “get better” because of the romantic relationship, is , in my opinion, unfair and simplistic for the character, and for readers who may have lived through similar experiences.

We write romance, so we want to show the wonderful things that love (or falling in love) can do in a life. We must also maintain the hope that our protagonists will achieve the reward of “emotional justice” which the Romance Writers of America uses as one of the tenets in their definition of “An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending.” However, we cannot minimize or misrepresent the hard and at times painfully slow process of healing from trauma.

We fail our characters by overselling how finding love can “fix” the real emotional and psychological rebuilding that needs to occur after trauma. So, when we write a survivor story we must take the care to show that the work is either being done or has at least begun.

Here are some things to think about:

Let’s be intentional about showing the process of reconnection.

In the “Risking Connection” trauma framework, experts from the Sidran Traumatic Stress Institute state that a healing connection is a “growth-fostering” relationship. To me that speaks to the heart of what we aim to do in a romance. Trauma from sexual assault can shatter a person’s bond with their community. Survivors can feel isolated and alone, and healing is about reconnecting. A critical starting point is to show the protagonists reclaiming and repairing (sometimes with the help of a supportive new love) those severed bonds. Not just to others, but to their own minds and bodies. The start of a new relationship (at least one that will end in a HEA) should not happen in the immediate aftermath of sexual assault.

Let them tell their story.

Trauma and Recovery
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Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, talks about how telling the trauma story, sharing it, is a “precondition for the restitution of a sense of a meaningful world.” Survivors must be able make sense of what happened to them and to articulate their experience in their own words. Herman also states that the other central parts of healing are establishing safety (this should be the first step) and reconnection with the community and loved ones.

Show them learning they are not alone in their experience.

Another critical component to healing is the understanding for survivors that they “are not alone.” Trauma feeds off shame. Sometimes the most devastating parts of surviving can be living with the shame of what a person had to do to stay alive. That is where showing a survivor in a group, or in some kind of space where they are validated by others who have gone through similar experiences, can be so powerful. It’s what Irving Yalom, a world-renowned expert in group psychotherapy, called the power of “universality.” Knowing there are people out there who understand your particular experience can mitigate the shame, stigma, and isolation that can come with surviving sexual assault.

Does sex really help?

It could, once some work has been done.

We must end the practice of using sex as a hack for processing trauma.

At least of it being the ONLY way to process it.

Honestly, it just doesn’t work that way. Especially when it comes to sexual assault, because a survivor can easily fall into a cycle of reenacting the trauma. Before the magical sex happens, a sexual assault survivor should be able to reconnect with their body, individually. Not through intercourse, but by opening themselves up to feeling again. By getting to feel safe in their body again on their own.

Bessel Van der Kolk puts it this way:

While human contact and attunement are the wellspring of physiological self-regulation, the promise of closeness often evokes the fear of getting hurt, betrayed and abandoned. Shame plays an important role in this….

Unresolved trauma can take a terrible toll on relationships. If your heart is broken because you were assaulted by someone you loved, you are likely to be preoccupied with not getting hurt again and fear opening up to someone new.

For some survivors their bodies can feel like traitors. It was the place where the pain (the trauma) happened and where they continue to re-experience it. How can a romance really evolve if a lover’s touch can trigger them to relive it?

Trauma is not just about being stuck in the past: it is also about not being able to be fully present in the now, and a big part of that is a real disconnection with what survivors are feeling. There are good reasons for that disconnect of course—being able to detach the mind from what is happening to the body is a way in which survivors can go on after an assault. The issue is that break needs to be repaired. Once this happens, then sex with a loving partner who is mindful of the survivor’s needs and desires (whatever they may be) can even become a therapeutic experience, but one must build up to that experience.

What are some potentially harmful portrayals of sexual assault survivors in romance?

  • Setting them up to fail.

I can think of a couple of books where a character not only suffers trauma as an adult, but they’ve already survived pretty horrific trauma as: child sexual or physical abuse from a parent, or chronic neglect). Don’t pile on traumatic incidents when constructing trauma histories for characters. Giving a character a painful and complex history that is never addressed appropriately or might just disappear with love or romance is problematic. For example if you have a character who is brutally physically assaulted, that person may have lasting, possibly permanent injuries, from chronic pain to a traumatic brain injury. These are things that need to be addressed honestly and thoroughly in the story, because love does not make that go away.

That sort of history can make it very hard for a person to connect to others, or even feel emotionally safe enough to fall in love, not to mention any lasting health issues or physical injuries resulting from these events. I am by no means saying that people who have these histories can’t have fulfilling lives—they can and they do. I see it every single day. But they need the tools and resources to help along the way. This is what we call protective factors.

There are emotional, social and physical resources that can be used to build up a character’s happy ending. Let’s show supportive and informed partners and communities committed to lifting up their loved one as they work on their healing. Show characters actively seeking professional help (such as a therapist, a yoga practice, mindfulness, support group, exercise/purposeful movement, etc.), and other sources of comfort that are personal and satisfying outside the love interest (like a creative outlet, a beloved pet, a craft, a hobby like gardening, spirituality, prayer, being in nature, etc.). There is also the consideration of financial resources, stable housing, and if there are children, some support in helping them heal from their own trauma.

  • Unkind representations.

Something I take a lot of issue with is the rendition of the trauma survivor as the “irrational basket case” who is saved from themselves by the love interest. While it is true that trauma can sometimes result in survivors behaving in ways that seem incomprehensible, and even objectionable at times, we must maintain a compassionate gaze. Behaviors that seem maladaptive or negative now could have been what kept them alive in the past. Please be kind with your characters and honor the ways in which they coped.

PTSD, Anxiety, Depression and Dissociative disorders are NOT plot devices. Mental illness that arises from surviving trauma is not something to be used lightly. They are real diagnoses and they are not something that can just go away. For many people it is something they live with forever. So let’s show that. Let’s show protagonists living full lives with their mental illnesses, and not gloss over it as if they are something to be ashamed of.

Conclusion

The romance genre can be a space where we can do real and meaningful work around removing the stigma of mental illness, and of taking the care to normalize and properly render what it is like to live with trauma.

Let’s show protagonists who understand their diagnoses, who, despite setbacks, continue to strive for the lives they believe they deserve. Let’s not shy away from showing their struggle and their resilience. Survivors work long and hard for their happy endings and as the creators of stories that look to celebrate love, we should give our characters all the credit they deserve.

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