How worried should we be about violence against women in fiction?

My first novel, Don’t Stand So Close, falls into the genre of crime fiction – I didn’t actually set out to write a crime novel, but the book does touch on the themes of violence against women and domestic violence, and so I can see how it fits it into this category.

Crime writers are said to hold up a mirror to the issues we face in society, and my view is that violence against women is a real life phenomenon and it’s better to write about it, rather than keep it hidden and pretend it isn’t a problem. On the positive side, this makes it easier to believe victims when they do come forward. Freud himself was guilty of not wanting to believe his patients when they came to him with stories of sexual abuse. He had to come up with theories to explain why these “stories” were fabricated.

But there is concern about the levels of graphic violence portrayed against women in popular fiction, and two main questions seem to be asked.

The first question is: are people who write about or read scenes of violence against women doing so to derive some kind of vicarious pleasure?

I think there is a difference between novels that describe violent acts gratuitously, as opposed to the type of fiction that emphasizes the impact of violence on both the victims and the wider society. The former involves dehumanizing the victims, so that we don’t care about them as human beings and rows of faceless unimportant victims can be lined up to go to the slaughter. The latter approach involves identification with and empathy for the victim and their family, and recent television shows like The Killing and Broadchurch are examples of this trend.

An extended and graphic scene of sexual violence in fiction that comes to mind is Stieg Larrssen in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (a scene which I had to skip over in large parts due to being squeamish). Larssen, as I understand it, saw himself as an advocate of women’s rights and the book was written partly because of his anger about the way women were vulnerable to abuse within his society. The woman in this scene is very much the hero of the story.

Another element of this type of approach to violence in fiction is to focus on the emotional scars left after the violent event. In Don’t Stand So Close, post-traumatic stress and agoraphobia are explored as the aftermath of violence. Trauma also results in an outward ripple of effects on society, because it impacts on relationships and on others in the survivor’s network of family and friends.

Psychiatrist Robert J. Neborsky, MD puts it this way: ‘…focusing on works of literature, popular novels and media portrayals of violence against women is a bit like focusing on a flea rather than its rather larger host, the elephant. These are minor variables in an enormous problem that has social, economic and cultural roots. Would censoring Shakespeare’s publication and performance of Othello prevented violent acts against a woman who are unfaithful to their husbands? I think not.”

According to the World Health Organisation (2013) the following factors may contribute to individuals perpetrating violence against women (notice literature or entertainment are not on the list):

  • Having been abused as a child
  • witnessing family violence
  • antisocial personality disorder
  • harmful use of alcohol
  • attitudes that are accepting of violence and gender inequality

Factors specifically associated with intimate partner violence include:

  • a past history of violence;
  • marital discord and dissatisfaction;
  • difficulties in communicating between partners;
  • beliefs in family honour and sexual purity;
  • ideologies of male sexual entitlement; and
  • weak legal sanctions for sexual violence.

The unequal position of women relative to men, and the normative use of violence to resolve conflict are strongly associated with both intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence.

From a developmental point of view, the quality of attachment with parents is crucial in developing a strong sense of self worth and compassion for the rights of others. In Germany, a study by Grossman stresses the importance of father-daughter attachment as protecting girls from being victims of abuse in high schools. According to Neborsky, “Fathers throughout the world need to step up as advocates for their daughters and to be positive role models to demonstrate respect for women.”

Crime writer Sharon Bolton believes that the main point about violence in fiction is that the author is in control while writing about it, and so is the reader. We know that fiction is not reality, and reading about the events we fear most – or writing about them – allows us to master our fears. She puts it this way: ‘Crime fiction is a stage upon which we can explore our fears from a position of control.

I would also argue that most of us do struggle with aggressive fantasies and impulses at some stage. But most people – with the exception of criminals and psychopaths – do not act these out. Authors in my experience tend not to be violent criminals – quite the opposite – perhaps this is because they have found a way to act out their impulses safely.

There is no doubt that works of literature as well as sexual content in books and other media do involve the expression of unacceptable impulses. We are entertained because crime fiction offers an imaginary exploration of feelings and impulses that are taboo for the most of us. Is this a problem? That leads to the second question that is asked about the ‘dangers’ of crime fiction.

Is a person likely to act out a violent scene because of reading about it?

The simple answer appears to be no. While there are some vulnerable children and adults who may be at risk, the majority of people are perfectly able to differentiate between fantasy and reality. Studies into the effects of watching violence in television seem to show that in the case of children, only those who have been previously exposed to domestic violence may become more aggressive after watching violent imagery or playing violent video games. Does it incite? Maybe in some very disturbed individuals. In clinical work, psychologists and psychiatrists frequently find that childhood trauma leads to the fusion of sexual and aggressive drives. Children who witness domestic violence or who are victims of parental violence are at risk for becoming perpetrators, and mental illness can lead an individual to use violence as a means of expressing anger or rage. But as far as reading or watching violent scenes goes, who is to say the behavior wouldn’t eventually have been expressed anyway without the incitement?

In short, violence is written about because it exists. Fiction and film now grapple openly with domestic violence, sadism, masochism and our darker, aggressive impulses. Violence against women and children, and in particular sexual and domestic violence, is no longer a hidden crime, and I think that is a good thing.

It is obvious that violent and sexual scenes have become increasingly commonplace in literature, in film and on our television screens. Perhaps a threshold will be reached where readers are so saturated they become de-sensitised to graphic scenes of violence (and sex) and these will lose their power to shock. Novelist and Spectator crime reviewer Andrew Taylor points out that the way to truly terrify your readers is to take them to a certain point and then stop – to hint enough at whatever horror is about to take place – and then to let the reader’s imagination take over. In this way the writer is able to engage the hidden recesses of the reader’s mind and they do the rest of the work themselves, drawing on their own darker selves.