Please be advised that the content below may be upsetting to those sensitive to issues of sexual abuse, sexual violence, and sexual assault, as it addresses graphic depictions and discusses consequent trauma in detail. Reader discretion is advised.
“Sexual abuse” is defined as the infliction of unwanted sexual contact by forcible compulsion, or upon someone incapable of giving consent because of age or physical or mental incapacity. In the United States, approximately one in five women and one in seventy-one men are raped in their lifetime. An estimated 80% of those victims are under the age of thirty, and those who are mentally ill, physically disabled, queer, or people of color are at higher risk for sexual violence. Human trafficking is the third-biggest criminal enterprise worldwide. Still, sexual abuse is consistently made light of across all forms of media, including comics.
Sexual violence is often used as a tragic plot device. It’s something done to women to hurt the men in their lives or the dark back story that all women have. This isn’t even a phenomenon that has gone undiscussed. In 1999, Gail Simone created the website Women in Refrigerators, which lists the women in comics who have met unnecessarily violent ends. Yet the problem still permeates the comic industry. For men, there is rarely even acknowledgment that they are victims of sexual abuse. In comics, rape and assault are often just used and tossed away when convenient, rather than portrayed accurately as an ongoing struggle. It’s “edgy”: the thing that writers use for horror when they’re not creative enough to come up with scary monsters.
Like anyone who experiences oppression or trauma, survivors of sexual violence deserve comics that can help them with their personal struggles. Though offensive and lazy depictions of sexual abuse far outnumber authentic representations, there are a few shining examples that really capture the experiences of abuse survivors. If you look hard enough, you’ll find them. So, let’s work through talking about the bad first, shall we? Then we’ll delve into the amazing few I’ve come across lately.
It’s not uncommon for comics to use rape as a means to get a character pregnant. In Marvel’s AVENGERS #200 (1963), Marcus Immortus abducts Carol Danvers and, after failing to seduce her, uses mind control technology to make her desire him. She becomes pregnant by Marcus. In just three days, Danvers goes into labor. The baby rapidly ages into an adult to reveal it’s a rebirthed Marcus. Somehow, despite the fact that this was explicitly rape and Marcus is her son, Danvers admits that romantic feelings linger inside of her.
One of the most upsetting things about this storyline is that, when at first Carol is upset and distant from her new baby, the other Avengers are unable to understand her feelings. Her feelings of being used and abused are written off by her team as a mystery of womanhood. Complicated and painful emotions go with the birth of a child resulting from such a betrayal of trust. It’s not a plot point in their lives that they can forget as the story moves along.
In actuality, relationships with such children would be difficult as the victim struggles to cope with their trauma. For some people, a child conceived through rape serves as a painful, constant reminder of the brutality they suffered. Others feel unable to love the children. Additionally, there are several states in the U.S. which allow rapists to sue victims for custody of children. Storylines which use sexual abuse as a ploy to get a character pregnant, like AVENGERS #200, are an insult to the real people who have to live with pregnancy as a consequence of rape.
DC Comics’ 2004 series IDENTITY CRISIS opens with the murder of Elongated Man’s wife, Sue Dibny. As the Justice League argues over how to proceed, the secret that Sue was once brutally raped by Dr. Light comes out. However, Sue’s death means she has no agency in owning her story. Instead, the focus is on the retaliation to Sue’s rape.
Unfortunately, very few Justice League members seem bothered by Sue’s trauma. The Justice League at the time made the choice to erase Dr. Light’s mind and alter his personality. Certainly, there’s a question of how just this justice really is. However, it’s wrong of the writer to put more emphasis on the heroes’ questionable morality than on Sue’s horrifying trauma. As Dr. Light isn’t even Sue’s murderer, the inclusion of a graphic sexual assault serves very little purpose. Sure, it’s necessary plot-wise for the Justice League to tamper with Dr. Light’s mind, but the reason for this could stem from practically anything. There’s nothing requiring the catalyst to be a brutal rape.
IDENTITY CRISIS uses Sue as a one-dimensional prop. Her brutalization doesn’t explore truth, but rather it gives the story shock value. She has no identity at all besides being a victim. When comics want to go “dark,” writers seem to think the quickest way to build a gritty world is to depict a rape. The most common defense for this trope is that the real world is a dark place and rape really happens. Well, yes: however, the real victims of rape aren’t raped to make the world a darker place. It’s incredibly disrespectful to use a real trauma as some sort of set-dressing.
Unfortunately, another frequent excuse to exploit sexual abuse is to show how evil a character is. In Image’s THE WALKING DEAD, The Governor holds Michonne captive and repeatedly rapes her with the purpose of punishing and emotionally breaking her. In the same time frame, The Governor cuts off one of Rick’s hands. Several citizens of Woodbury express horror at Rick’s loss. However, in regards to Michonne’s trauma, there is silence.
Obviously, sexual violence is one of the most terrible things anyone can do. However, that doesn’t mean rape is the go-to indicator of someone being a villain. Using sexual abuse to measure someone’s morality (or lack thereof) puts the focus on the perpetrator rather than the victim. An act like rape is about power — taking it from the victim and giving it to the abuser. When writers allow a story with sexual violence to be about understanding the villain, they remove even more power from victims.
Using sexual abuse as a moral gauge significantly narrows the scope of the atrocity. It makes the violence appear to be immediate, something that only has an affect on the victim while the villain carries it out. However, sexual violence has long-term psychological effects on victims, such as PTSD, depression leading to self-harm and suicide, and dissociation. Often times there are horrible physical effects as well, like sexually transmitted infections or diseases, cervical cancer, and gynecological complications. The upsetting truth of the matter is that usually, the mental, emotional, and physical turmoil of the aftermath is permanent. Few people understand the consequences of sexual violence, and the moral gauge trope does nothing to help matters.
Bad News and Good News
The bad news is pretty clear at this point. Unfortunately, the above are but a few examples out of a staggering amount of comic books. The mishandling of sexual violence happens across all comic publishers. However, things aren’t without hope. There are quite a few examples of comics that not only portray sexual violence with respect to victims but also take things a step further by offering comfort.
Image’s SAGA has a wonderfully honest take on sexual abuse involving children. The comic depicts a six-year-old girl (referred to by her owner, Mama Sun, as Slave Girl) who experiences abuse through sex-trafficking. The girl was sold by her uncle to Mama Sun on Sextillion, a planet which functions entirely as a brothel. Fortunately, The Will and Gwendolyn rescue her.
While the girl is not the central focus of the series, she has her own story arc. The arc frequently deals with the struggles of healing from sexual abuse. Most notably, The Will gives her a name — Sophie. Mama Sun’s name for her is impersonal and cruel, which removes her identity and equates her to her powerlessness. By claiming the name Sophie, she no longer allows her trauma to define her.
At first, Sophie struggles with the concept of her freedom. She initially thinks that The Will is her new master. When he asks if she likes her new name, she tells him she likes any name that pleases him. In a beautiful moment of authenticity, Sophie sits in the grass with Lying Cat — a cat which has the ability to detect and call out lies. Sophie recalls things about herself — like her favorite color — and among these facts, she says that she’s dirty for her actions as a prostitute. Without hesitation, Lying Cat informs her this is a lie. Not only is this touching and reaffirming to victims, but it’s truthful to how many victimized people feel.
Children who have been sexually abused are exceptionally vulnerable, and often don’t know how to speak out about it. They don’t have the same agency that adults do to try and escape dangerous situations. To see a strong child like Sophie recovering and dealing with the effects of rape like this has the potential to help child victims reach out for support.
Recovery with a Partner
In Dark Horse’s BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER SEASON TEN #20, Buffy helps a woman, Jean, who had a non-consensual sexual encounter with an incubus. She was hypnotized at the time, which makes her hesitant to reach out to the law. She feels nobody will believe her and will dismiss her rape as sexual regret. This story is certainly in touch with the realities of how law enforcement often fails victims, like investigative officers who dismiss, insult, or harass victims of sexual violence.
In season six of the television show, Spike attempts to rape Buffy in her shower. Shortly after, Spike gets a soul and is considered within the lore — and by Buffy — to be a different person. This comic issue picks up a few years after the television conclusion. Spike (now Buffy’s boyfriend) tries to join Buffy in the shower, but this triggers her, and she attacks him. Buffy apologizes for her instinctual reaction, and Spike tries to talk to her about it, but Buffy brushes him off.
Jean helps Buffy understand that trauma doesn’t go away by ignoring it. Actually, strength comes from facing trauma and loving one’s self through it all. Utilizing this advice, Buffy asks Spike to stop looking for reassurance. By keeping the focus on his own guilt, Spike has unintentionally been making the incident about him. Buffy needs to be able to handle things on her own terms. When Spike says he just wants to help, Buffy tells him to ask her first because what she needs will be different each time. This issue navigates a healthy conversation on how to move on with a partner, and how not to let past abuse define one’s romantic future.
PRIYA’S SHAKTI, from publisher Rattapallax, is a poignant look at the power sexual abuse victims have to help others. This comic — with the story by Ram Devineni and Vikas K. Menon with art by Dan Goldman — gives a non-American perspective on sexual violence. In India, Priya recalls how she was gang raped and consequently shunned by her family when she told them what happened to her. The village council accuses her of provoking the rapists and tries to make her marry one of them. In her grief, she prays to the Goddess, Parvati. Parvati, filled with outrage, inhabits Priya’s body to confront the rapists. However, unknowing of the Goddess’ presence, the men attempt to rape Priya again.
Lord Shiva feels his wife Parvati’s anger and awakens to punish mankind for their injustices. He makes it so that men can no longer procreate. However, Parvati protests, as this punishes the women who have been victims as well. She argues that rape is a cruel act of control and Shiva is only lashing out with more of the same. Shiva proclaims he will only relent if Priya can convince him that mankind is capable of change.
Priya spreads the mantra “Speak without shame and stand with me, bring about the change we want to see.” Her bravery brings hope to victims of sexual abuse and cultivates respect for women and girls. She calls for equal protection and education for women. She demands people speak out when they see the mistreatment of women. Using nonviolence, Priya effects change by spreading love and courage. She displays the power of standing together and using one’s own painful experiences to help others heal.
Does the Good Outweigh the Bad?
These good examples are not only helpful for those suffering from sexual violence, but it’s also just tighter storytelling. These storylines have consistency and strong continuity. With respectful portrayals, I don’t question the writer’s choices. I don’t have to speculate at how necessary a creator’s choice is because instead of the trauma feeling random, it merely feels truthful and realistic. The characters feel human. They feel like people I know. They don’t feel like a means to a plot’s end.
Why is it necessary to insert a child into a comic as a result of a woman’s rape if the rape is only going to be forgotten? Adopting a child survivor of sexual abuse is far more powerful to see on the page. Children like Sophie healing as she ages is a beautiful thing, in opposition to using a vile act to give victims what is supposedly a “gift” of a child. Why should the shockingly grotesque violence of rape teach characters the lesson that the world is hard? You know what’s hard? The aftermath. Having your vulnerability used against you by the police and struggling to let those you love near you. Why would anyone want to read about a rape to get an idea of just how bad a baddie is? Seeing Priya’s strength and power grow after her rape is far more moving and interesting.
These good representations have plots that relate entirely back to the heinousness of sexual abuse. As such, no other act of villainy can replace the act of sexual abuse in these comics and make sense. The comics tell real stories, straight from the point of view of those who experience them.
The Place of Sexual Abuse in Comics
I don’t argue that sexual abuse shouldn’t be in comics. I only insist that the victims of such a horrific act receive more respect. Done well, depictions of sexual abuse in media can not only comfort and aid in the healing of victims, but it can also help positively shape the action society takes against abuse. While comics are meant to be entertaining, they are also political. Even if the intent of a comic isn’t political, social issues must have responsible depictions. Comics shape minds, and quite frankly, I don’t think it’s hard to believe that the blasé attitude towards sexual abuse lends itself to the hostility and over-sexualization that women who love comics face.
Fictional victims should be empathetic, not a means to an end for a hero or villain’s story. Sexual abuse doesn’t end for victims when the physical violation stops. It’s important to develop the process of healing and the legal struggles victims face. Far too many poorly done depictions of rape exist and, sadly, not too many more good depictions come to mind. Creators should step up to the plate and make an effort to compassionately and authentically address a real issue in the world today, or otherwise steer clear of it all together. As readers, we too should speak out when storylines fall short. Priya’s change doesn’t have to remain on the page if people start standing up for the victims too afraid to have their voices heard.