This post is about rape, and contains spoilers from Orphan Black (a show you really should watch) season 2 and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’ll put all that stuff below the cut, so for now, enjoy this gif of Helena eating toast:

Helena holds up the hood of her massive jacket with one hand while taking a bite of toast with the other.

Helena, why do I adore you so?

Reciprocal rape

The recent season of Orphan Black featured a plotline in which Helena, the very weird and strangely endearing serial killer, is abducted by a pro-clone cult whose leader harvests her eggs without her consent, in vitro fertilizes them with his own sperm, and then implants at least one embryo in her womb using what I understood to be the large metal device the farm usually uses to impregnate cattle. Later in the season, Helena escapes and knocks him out. When he wakes up she has him tied to the very table where he tied her, and she uses the metal impregnation device to violate him before setting the farmhouse on fire.

And standing dramatically on a hillside watching it burn

And standing dramatically on a hillside watching it burn

This sequence of events is reminiscent of the plotline in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in which titular character Lisbeth is violently raped by her court-appointed guardian, a man who has power over her finances and legal matters. In a calculated response to ensure no further danger from him, she attacks him in the same place and ways that he attacked her, raping him while he is tied to his own bed, then tattoos a message on his stomach that he is a rapist.

These are both fictional stories of what I’ve started thinking of as “reciprocal rape”–in which a character rapes her rapist, especially in a similar or identical format as he raped her. In both these cases the female character is already identifiable to the audience as morally ambiguous and has committed violent acts in the past. And in both cases, the male character is penetrated (rather than penetrator) during the reciprocal rape.

This is a very specific literary device…so what is its purpose? I can think of two reasons a writer might choose a reciprocal rape plot; one is more excusable than the other.

Clarifying the horror of rape

Violence against women is not uncommon in fiction, to the extent that writers may expect audiences to be desensitized to it. Rape scenes and sexual violence are often portrayed as titillating, or scenarios like Helena’s may not be identified as rape at all by a typical viewer. In short, the audience might not take the rapes of female characters seriously.

However, when those same actions are committed against a man, many people, especially men, may suddenly realize just how horrible they are, because men’s anal integrity is less often violated in fiction, and for many cisgendered men it may just be easier to imagine themselves in the character’s place.

When the same violent actions, between the same characters, in the same location, are committed that second time against the male character, the audience suddenly sees the horror of not just the current situation but of the preceding, similar situation the female character endured.

Many viewers who didn’t think of the cult leader’s treatment of Helena as rape on first viewing probably adjusted that perception after clearly identifying that what Helena did to him in return as rape.

Although author Steig Larsson’s description of Lisbeth’s guardian’s rape of her was very awful, as I remember it, readers–especially cisgendered men–may have found it even more terrible after reading about a man being subjected to those same violations, because they could imagine themselves and their bodies more easily in the later descriptions.

This is perhaps the best possible reason to use a reciprocal rape plot, especially when the character exacting the reciprocal rape has already been depicted as morally problematic, because it’s intended to increase the audience’s understanding of the severity of rape. The second reason to use it….not so much.

Vengeance empowerment

Of course, the other option is that writers are trying to give us a moment of gleeful empowerment in the form of revenge: she’s not a victim because she did it back to him! Maybe they’re trying to fill us with satisfaction that he got what was coming to him. Perhaps we’re supposed be be impressed by what a badass the female character is.

And even if this isn’t what they intended, surely some people watching will read that into it on their own.

The idea that criminals “deserve” rape–and specifically, that male criminals deserve to be anally raped–is a common one in our culture, unfortunately. It is most clearly seen in the way in which prison rape is often treated as inevitable and not big deal, and is frequently even the subject of jokes.

This is really messed up. I have a big problem with writing that’s intended to make us happy that someone was raped, ever. Unlike the first reason, this use of reciprocal rape makes light of sexual violence.

I couldn’t end a discussion of reciprocal rape without mentioning two negative ideas it perpetuates: that penetrative rape is the only horrible kind, and that abused people become abusers.

Limiting understanding of rape to penetration

There are a lot of issues with society’s conception of and treatment of sexual assault against men that I don’t have the time to get into here, but at least one aspect of it is connected to these rape scenes.

I think a part of what makes the second rapes, the ones against the male characters, so shocking to audiences is that the men are being penetrated. And although nonconsensual anal penetration of men is seen more clearly as a horrible rape in these stories, there are lots of people with penises whose sexual assault involves themselves as the penetrators. We need to take that type of rape seriously too.

Continuing the “abused become abusers” trope

W.H. Auden once wrote, “those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.”

There’s this idea floating out there in the world that victims of violence will perpetrate that same violence themselves: bullied kids become bullies, victims of domestic violence become domestic abusers, or (as in the case of reciprocal rape) victims of sexual violence commit sexual assault themselves.

Of course, in the vast majority of cases this isn’t true, and the idea that they might one day perpetrate the very same acts that have traumatized them is a painful burden to place in the minds of survivors of violence, as Dean Trippe so sensitively portrayed in his short comic about child sexual abuse, Something Terrible.

With all the negative possible outcomes for using reciprocal rape plots, writers should be especially sensitive and careful when thinking about employing them.