(Role)playing the Victim

-Trigger Warning for discussion about rape and violence against men and women-

I was reading an interesting article last year that got me thinking about how victims are expected to be portrayed in text based roleplay communities, especially those who have experienced sexual abuse or violence.

It was about a female journalist who, after seeing the pain and anguish in another woman after she saw one of the men who raped her after the Haitian earthquake, got Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Firstly, I’d like to touch on the human power of compassion – this woman was not physically assaulted, however for months she exhibited all the traditional signs of PTSD. Poor sleep, crying fits, panic, inability to cope. She made reckless decisions, including poor sexual decisions, in the aftermath of what she had seen. Danger lurked everywhere. It would only be a fool who would state she wasn’t deeply affected by this.

Her final way of coping was to have excessively violent sex with a trusted partner.

Rape victims are, quite often, expected to act in a certain way. Not only are they expected to act in a certain way, but in our society, many aspects of the rape are supposed to live up to a certain criteria, as spoken about in detail here. Rape victims, then, are to have been raped by a stranger, have suffered physical signs of abuse like bruises, while dressed modestly and not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, preferably in a good part of town, and afterwards they are to be a husk of what they once were, consumed with sadness and anguish and pain.

To deviate from this calls into question if you had been raped at all.

So, if a rape victim, say, develops a taste for rough sex, or BDSM, or even more dangerous sex like being hit or punched while having sex, they are automatically cast into the bin that dictates that she must have, then, liked the rape. If you’re roleplaying as a someone who has suffered sexual violence and delves into darker ERP, you’re ‘doing it wrong’. There is undisguised venom for people who play these types of characters.

However, something that’s very important to keep in mind when developing a character is that no two people will respond to trauma in the exact same way, and the circumstances around the trauma will range from person to person. Some people do, in fact, have trouble sleeping, bouts of crying, fits of depression, and other signs of someone seriously traumatized after a rape. However other people who were, without a doubt, raped, respond in a different manner, varying from thinking it as not a big deal, or of something that just doesn’t warrant the full control over their life that society dictates it have.

I once had a friend many years ago who was raped by her father from the time she was 11 until he died when she was 18. She was very forthcoming at that point through her therapy and though the violence, she had emerged a troubled, though overall happy, individual. It’s no doubt that the life she lead had pushed her in a certain direction. She was promiscuous, always seeking to bring people pleasure through use of her body, and she felt acutely aware of other people’s simmering emotions. She was overly empathetic. She lived in a polygamous relationship with a female and a male. She was artistic, and confident, and she had problems, but she responded to the sexual abuse in a different way than what others would deem appropriate.

There was a question in Savage Love a few months ago that stuck with me. A woman had fantasies of her father raping her, which she asked her husband to enact with her. Her husband didn’t know if his wife had been assaulted and didn’t want to ask for fear of bringing up the pain for her. But whether she did or not, he was encouraged to comply with her wishes. Sometimes a victim of this type of violence finds it healing to re-enact the violence in a safe, consensual manner. It puts the control back in their hands and allows them to face their fear head first.

Victims of abuse no doubt can suffer and have long lasting issues with sex and sexuality, but many go on to lead normal, healthy lives. Humans are, after all, highly adaptable to extreme situations of pain and anguish. People have survived through terrible genocides, horrific acts that no doubt stick with them for the rest of their life, but everyone will handle their grief differently. This is why sometimes at funerals the wife won’t be able to stop crying, and other times she’s stoic and emotionless, and other times she’s laughing with friends. There’s no one correct way to handle grief, and the woman crying might not be any more upset than the woman laughing.

Portraying this realistic spectrum of reactions to violence is not a bad thing, but I’ve been told many time that no victim of sexual assault would ever volunteer that information to someone they weren’t very close to and that they will forever carry baggage from their assault making them trust others less. We have this idea of what a victim is and how they should act and if they deviate from this, we call them a Mary Sue.

Putting this heavy burden of expected behaviour on people who are victims of crime doesn’t help lessen their anguish, only allows it to grow and flourish, allowing people to accept that they are ‘damaged goods’, irreparably changed from the person they used to be. I think that sounds very damaging, especially to those that don’t feel particularly damaged afterwards.

I realize that this mostly focuses on female victims of sexual violence, and that males are a very under represented group within sexual assault issues – according to the Department of Justice, approximately 1 in 4 sexual assaults each year in the United States are against a male (93,000 estimated assaults against men, 248,300 estimated assaults against women in 2007 in the US). Unfortunately this is rarely touched on in roleplay and when it is, its often met with the same reaction males unfortunately have to endure in real life.

Recently, though, I did see a show that touched on male rape by a female (rather, multiple females) where it was called rape and was designed to make us feel uncomfortable.

-Spoilers for Season 4 of True Blood-

Tied up, helpless, wounded and weak Jason is raped by multiple women, including a woman that he professed, in Season 3, to love and want to be with. At no point in time was this scene, despite most of the series being tongue in cheek, portrayed as being humorous, light hearted, or anything less than terrifying.

I hope that, in time, rape victims can be acknowledged in a manner that doesn’t dictate to them how they should respond, and how it should have happened, both in respect to real people and fictional characters. I believe that it will really help those who have suffered heal if their actions and their retelling of events aren’t being so heavily scrutinized under our ideas of how they should be acting.


  1. J. Keep says:

    Humans are remarkably resilient beings, and very proficient at finding ways to cope with great tragedies. Which is fortunate and necessary, as human history seems to be a long string of atrocities.

    It’d be nice if as a society we got better at treating victims of such crimes as whole, healthy people finding ways to cope, except when they do need help, when we greet them with compassion and attempts at understanding.

    • Anjasa says:

      I just can’t imagine how insulting it is for people to say that people who are raped a) always act a certain way b) are always so traumatized that they would never talk about it and c) disbelieves everyone who doesn’t act a certain way and/or talks about it like Emily of xoJane – open and frank without kid gloves.

      If 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men are survivors of some type of sexual abuse, it becomes pretty obvious that there is no ‘right’ way to respond, and becomes even more obvious that this doesn’t affect everyone to the same degree.

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