In recent years, the virality of the #MeToo movement has raised awareness of sexual harassment and assault. The pervasiveness of the issue is surprising and disappointing only for those naive enough to believe that sexual exploitation was a problem solved. The reality is that women have been wronged and exploited, held hostage by their vulnerabilities since the beginning of the human race. Historical and legal records captured the facts that were particularly gruesome or shocking, while literature—as good literature always does—offered the chance to empathize and understand; stories are an opportunity to offer personhood to the depersonalized.
While today's #MeToo is about women sharing their true stories to increase awareness of sexual harassment and assault, for a long time, stories in literature were some of the most influential ways of putting the spotlight on women’s suffering that was otherwise overlooked. If we survey the history of #MeToo type stories in literature, we may find that some storytellers were doing their part to bring women’s troubles out of the darkness, to greater awareness.
Greek and Roman Mythology
Western mythologies are densely populated with tales of rape, often perpetrated by their gods and heroes (in case you thought rape culture is a relatively recent phenomenon). Modern readers searching for a value judgment in these stories, particularly one that aligns with modern sensibilities of equality, consent, and free will, are usually left scandalized. The myths of ancient Greece and Rome are more focused on creating a national brand centered around masculine heroism and military prowess, and the might of their patron gods. And thus you have the incongruity—to modern minds at any rate—of the culture’s admiration for the chastity of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, and its horror for the Gorgon Medusa. Medusa is a fearsome, hideous creature with snakes for hair whose direct gaze turns men to stone. The hero Perseus gains renown for cleverly using the reflection of his shield to avoid Medusa’s deadly gaze, and cutting off her head. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when Perseus is asked why Medusa had snakes for hair, he responds, “They say that Neptune, lord of the seas, violated her in the temple of Minerva. Jupiter’s daughter [Minerva] turned away, and hid her chaste eyes behind her aegis. So that it might not go unpunished, she changed the Gorgon’s hair to foul snakes. And now, to terrify her enemies, numbing them with fear, the goddess wears the snakes, that she created, as a breastplate.”
Minerva’s response makes me wonder: how would Ovid define the ancient virtue of “chastity” when a goddess of chastity turns away from a rape victim in horror, then turns the beautiful victim into a hated monster, then decorates her shield with the slain victim’s snake hair as a talisman? What the story does clearly show is what power meant in the ancient world. Medusa is punished because Neptune’s rape desecrated the altar of the powerful Minerva, and someone needed to punished. This myth, like many ancient myths, demonstrates that what ultimately mattered in the ancient world was who is in power. While Medusa’s story is one of the victim punished, it is not especially victim-blaming. Victim-blaming grants some degree of consent and agency to the victim, qualities powerless victims of the ancient world did not possess. In the ancient world, the right to consent belongs to the powerful and the rest are objects to be taken or discarded at will.
Shakespeare has two harrowing stories of the trauma of rape in his oeuvre, Lavinia in the tragedy Titus Andronicus and Lucrece in the poem “The Rape of Lucrece.” Let’s first look at “The Rape of Lucrece,” a story drawn from the Roman legend of the origin of the Republic. When a number of husbands brag about the virtue and chastity of their wives, they decide to surprise their wives to test them. After testing all of their wives, the husband of Lucrece is declared victor, the man with the most virtuous wife. One man, the king’s son, decides to blackmail Lucrece into having relations with him against her will. Distraught, Lucrece demands that her husband and father avenge her. The two men try to convince Lucrece it wasn’t her fault: “With this, they all at once began to say, / Her body's stain her mind untainted clears.” But Lucrece, out of a sense of shame and duty, responds: “‘No, no,’ quoth she, ‘no dame, hereafter living, / By my excuse shall claim excuse’s giving’” before taking her own life.
The tragedy Titus Andronicus tells a story of strategic rape as revenge. After her military defeat and the execution of her eldest son by Titus Andronicus, Tamora, the queen of the Goths, chillingly masterminds the rape and mutilation of Titus’s daughter, Lavinia. After Lavinia communicates the names of her rapists, she consents to her father ending her life as an honor killing, which he does in the grisly final act.
Both “The Rape of Lucrece” and Titus Andronicus are set in ancient Rome and built around the ancient Roman admiration for those who alleviate dishonor through honor suicide/honor killing. That has always made me curious about Shakespeare’s point: to place his rape victims in such a setting, amplifies the cultural toxicity of women’s victimization and helplessness. Two other things are worth mentioning: one, there is a great deal of allegorical weight in both stories. These two Roman women act as metaphorical stand-ins for political debates of Shakespeare’s time rather than as moral examples of a solution to assault. And two, Shakespeare was, of course, writing from the vantage point of a culture that had spent a lot more time hammering out philosophical questions like free will, personal autonomy, and redemption to an extent not done in the ancient world. Shakespeare uses the setting of the ancient world to illuminate the despair and terror of living in a culture in which your honor and virtue are entirely contingent on the actions of the men around you.
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
It’s uncommon to view it this way, but I believe both Georgiana Darcy and Lydia Bennet (both 15 years old) are #MeToo-worthy victims of the charming, deceitful Wickham. Out of hatred for Darcy and greed for a large dowry, Wickham seduced and almost convinced Georgiana to elope with him until her brother discovered the plan. A short time later, Wickham successfully convinces Lydia to run away with him, promising (falsely) to marry her. The subsequent panic of the family after this discovery hinges entirely on the fact that in 19th-century England, a woman, even a teenager deceived by a notorious cad, would be ruined forever as a result. With Darcy’s money to bribe Wickham, the Bennet family marries their youngest daughter off to a man they know to be wicked, dishonest, scheming, greedy and unfaithful, because marriage to a bad man is better than a woman’s lost reputation in such a society (let that dysfunction sink in for a moment).
It can be hard for some readers to view Lydia as a victim, though. Lydia isn’t likable. She’s brash, silly, crude, and embarrassing. Where Georgiana is sweet and demure, Lydia is, well, irritating. In general, people prefer victims to be likable. So, the real question is: is Lydia an example of sexual liberation or victimization? First, Lydia is only 15 and too young to legally make choices without parental consent. Second, Lydia had the misfortune to be raised by careless, foolish parents. And third Wickham is an adult, likely in his late-20s, with a history of deceit, theft, and betrayals. He convinces Lydia to leave with him with the promise of getting married, knowing—better than she—that without a marriage she and her entire family would be ruined and shunned by society. The example of Lydia strikes me as an important one in the #metoo conversation because people like Lydia, the brash, willful, or foolhardy victims need advocates and defenders just as much as sweet, pliant Georgianas.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented (1891)
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles was groundbreaking in its time for its depiction of sexual assault. A series of unfortunate events are set off for the story’s eponymous central character when she falls asleep in a carriage, which results in a crash that kills the family horse. For this, Tess is sent away from the safety of her family home to try to earn a living. She is then drugged and raped by her employer. For modern readers, Tess’s passivity is maddening, but, in fact, Hardy uses Tess’s passivity to underscore, within the damning constraints of Victorianism, the blamelessness of rape victims.
Three editors refused to publish Tess until Hardy censored what they found objectionable—namely Tess’s rape and subsequent pregnancy. Victorian literature reflects the social morals of the time, one of which is the “angel in the house” trope, which places “good women” on a pedestal high above men. While this “angel in the house” sounds admiringly worshipful, it plays alongside the contradictory and misogynistic notion that “pure” women are both childishly unaware of sexuality and yet are also responsible for enforcing morality upon more animalistic men. Within this trope: women are either perfectly pure or they are impure. When Tess’s confesses her past to her husband, Angel (yes, that’s actually his name), he cannot forgive her for it, and his rejection of her propels the story to its tragic conclusion.
Literature is a powerful tool for social awareness and social change. Hardy struggled through the censorship laws of the time with edits and rewrites to tell the story of Tess and, right in the novel’s subtitle, maintain that her purity remained intact because what mattered was her consent and intention.
Twentieth Century and Beyond
Beloved belongs on this list as one of the first works of literature—and extraordinarily powerful work—about the African-American experience told by an African-American woman, Toni Morrison.
The women of Beloved, Sethe and Denver, are literally haunted not just through their own personal tragedies but by a culture systemically deadened to their humanity. The African-American experience described in Beloved is a chilling representation of the consequences of slavery, both while enslaved and in the far-reaching consequences after being freed. The magical realism of the story’s haunting allows the reader to experience the otherworldly brutality of life without freedom or choices or legal protections. A life without those protective boundaries means that Sethe must endure and absorb all the wicked fantasies of the worst men around her until desperation and death seemed like the best option. The disempowerment of women, particularly lower-class women, in the ancient world is exhumed and made even more monstrous in a supposedly modern and enlightened society. Beloved is a reminder that we should never assume a society cannot return to brutalize and dehumanize a group of their fellow human beings.
Since Lolita was written from the perspective of a middle-aged rapist abducting and exploiting a 12-year-old girl, it’s a stark reminder to readers of why we have statutory rape laws—because a minor can never consent. From the narrator’s perspective, he wasn’t at fault because Lolita had sexual experiences beforehand with peers, and because she appeared to initiate the first sexual experience with him (although this was after an extended grooming period). As their relationship progresses, he depicts Lolita becoming increasingly joyless, drained, and blank—what readers can see is a trauma response while the narrator is oblivious and wonders where her youthful vigor went. Over the story, it’s clear he sees her as a de-personified object.
The term “Lolita” has entered our modern vocabulary to describe a prepubescent child who possesses an adult’s sexuality—or, more accurately, is viewed as sexually desirable by an adult. And anyone who believes that a “Lolita” is in any way responsible for being sexually exploited has never read Nabokov’s stunningly layered novel.
White Oleander (1999)
This is a modern, post-feminism, post-Lolita portrayal of a white American victim of pedophilia from a vulnerable class (foster child). The main character grows up so profoundly unprotected, that the task of gluing herself back together is left entirely up to her, so much so, that she does not even have the luxury of naming her traumas.
White Oleander tells the story of Astrid, a teenage girl bounced between foster homes after her mom goes to prison for killing a man who cheated on her. When her first foster mom’s boyfriend exploits Astrid sexually, her foster mom Starr retaliates by shooting Astrid in the shoulder—reminding readers how even women can misunderstand the culpability of parties who have been exploited. In the story, consent and statutory rape didn’t seem to matter. If a girl is more developed at a young age, it’s common to view them not as victims but as competition. In the end, While Oleander continues to illustrate the damage and trauma that assault puts on vulnerable parties and how difficult it can be for some victims to be believed and cared for as victims.
The Kite Runner (2003)
This brilliant novel which gives a brief history of the Afghan culture’s fall to the Taliban also tugs aside the veil covering the taboo of male-on-male sexual assault. The Kite Runner tells a story of two childhood friends, Amir and Hassan, who grow apart after Amir witnesses Hassan beaten and raped in an alley by another boy and keeps it quiet out of fear and shame for not intervening. At the beginning of the story, the reader thinks Amir is of a higher class than Hassan, but in the end, it’s revealed they are more equals than they knew. The story ultimately guides readers to see that not only is sexual assault wrong no matter the class of the victim, it can take place in every culture and demographic. The story also highlights the particular damage that can come from the social silencing and shaming that is unique to male victims of both same-sex and opposite-sex assault.
Sexual assault may not be the kind of content everyone is looking for when they pick up a book. It can feel like we already get more than a full diet of disturbing content just reading about assault in the headlines. What purpose is served by focusing on these social ills in literature? Thinking about much of the classic and modern literature I’ve read that touches on these topics, I think they put a spotlight on the human face of suffering people, particularly at times when they were not as free and enfranchised as we are today.
We have a lot to be thankful for today when it comes to protection against sexual harassment and assault—from increased legal protections to the amplification of survivors' voices. We have a long way to go still, but sharing stories is key to better understanding these issues. We’re fortunate to live in a time when we’re hearing more stories—by real women and men, the authors of their lives and their stories, themselves.