The Windshield Theory, or, Writing Sexual Abuse In Fiction

While I was writing Edgeplay, probably the darkest thing I may ever write, I solidified a few of my thoughts about the handling of abuse and rape in fiction. These are my personal opinions only, as a survivor, and a friend or relative to many other survivors. I am not a mental health professional in any way shape or form. YMMV.

I’m primarily going to talk about sexual violence in this, since that’s what I was focusing on for the story, but a lot of the same principles apply to other kinds of trauma, like domestic abuse, PTSD, childhood neglect or abuse.

Trigger warning: this post contains explicit discussion of sexual violence, domestic violence, PTSD and mental illness, and a host of other potentially triggering issues.

A proper depiction of a survivor’s psychology is a spiderweb-cracked windshield.

The pebble impacts. If it’s too big, or was dropped from an overpass, maybe it does go through the windshield and kill the driver. But most of the time it doesn’t. At worst, maybe the pebble gets stuck in the crack it made until you pry it loose.

Often, it leaves a crack or chip, no matter how tiny, that expands and fractures over time, until it forms a multitude of spiderweb fissures that weaken the windshield or prevent the driver from seeing through it. Sometimes  it skids off and leaves barely a nick in the glass.

Though many windshields get cracked this way, each pattern is completely different.

Here are a few common rape narratives.

Forever broken, irreperably damaged. She committed suicide not long after.

The pebble crashes through the glass, kills the driver. No cracks, no logical progression to her decisions and mental state. It’s irrelevant. Rape=automatic death sentence. The survivor is irrelevant, barely even a character. Used on side characters, this kind of narrative often serves to add texture to the main character’s story by making the other character’s experience about the main character surviving it, instead. Or it serves to add grit to the worldbuilding, by using the rape to signify wider societal issues that encourage sexual violence or marginalize people. When a main character is presented this way, with ineffective suicide attempts or whatnot, no attention is paid to forming cracks, triggers, developing reactions. It’s entirely there because we need a reason for the main character to be a messed up person, and with the stigma surrounding mental health issues, a rape survivor may seem more sympathetic in her unreliability than someone suffering from a mental illness like Borderline Personality Disorder or depression. And that leads us to our next narrative.

He demonstrated these exact symptoms: substance abuse, promiscuity, night terrors, feelings of worthlessness, extreme aggression and need for dominance, and they all inexplicably went away when she put her hand on his cheek.

The spiderweb cracks are a carefully arranged lattice. They come or go as needed for convenience, and tap into the pattern that we’ve been trained to recognize with every other representation of rape in the media. They’re static, following a set pattern.

When he left, she scrubbed herself clean, trying to get the idea of his hands off her. She pulled out her razor, and nicked her arms, trying to scrape his taint away.

The spiderweb cracks appear instantaneously, in their proper form. They don’t develop over time. They don’t evolve organically. Once again, they’re static.

But though those stories can be easy to write if you don’t have direct experience with abuse or survivors,  treating your characters’ psyche this way only makes it harder for you, and your readers, to relate to actual survivors, and often alienates them from you, or your work. And with the stats being what they are, that could be a sizeable portion of your audience you’re pushing away.

Try these alternative narratives on for size.

She shivered when Guy1 passed her a drink. Ever since that awful night, it had gotten harder and harder to go out with her friends. Whenever one of the guys passed her a drink, she remembered every drink she’d had, how the alcohol had weighed her limbs down, made her gag as Guy2 forced himself into her mouth.  She put the drink to the side, untasted. Guy1 gave her a hurt look, and she knew he wouldn’t be back again. He’d go talk to the group, whisper behind her back that she just wasn’t any fun anymore. She’d already heard the others whispering it, too.

A much more precise spiderweb. Specific triggers– being passed a drink by someone she thought was a friend, and an aversion to something specific that reminds her of the assault– as well as side effects: alienation from her social circle over behavioral changes. Extrapolate beyond the immediate scene, and you also probably have particular aversions to talking about the experience, lest she be blamed as having consumed too much booze. You might even have her own inner conflict, wondering if she just dreamed up the nasty parts when she was passed out, and it was something more innocent. No one wants to consider the things other people are capable of, and sometimes denial can be the path of least resistance.

Man1 growled as he woke up in a cold sweat, the dreams still rattling in his head. Night terrors, the psychiatrist called them. She’d thought they’d go away as he processed things, but instead they just got worse. His husband rolled over in bed, put his arm around him, and he tensed up. There was a disconnect between mind and body, one that said that the rock-hard chest he was pressed against belonged to someone else entirely.

“You up?” His husband stroked his shoulder.

“Yeah, kinda.” Man2’s hand strayed lower over Man1’s stomach, and Man1 shivered. The touch should have felt nice, but after those dreams? He wanted nothing more than to numb his flesh, work out until the aches in his muscles overpowered the aches in his soul. Man2 let out an aroused chuckle, and Man1 braced himself. He knew he’d been aloof, that he couldn’t keep up with Man2, but if he said no again, Man2 might leave him. He was surprised Man2 had stuck around that long.

Symptoms: Night terrors, flashbacks, difficulty relating to a partner. Effects? Maybe the work-out coping mechanism becomes something destructive, if he injures himself overdoing it or it turns to an eating disorder. Not all self-harm involves razors or bruises. Him engaging in sexual activity he doesn’t want, exacerbating the feelings of brokenness and the fear of being alone.  Long term, it might compound the trauma, leading him to dissociate or never regain his sex drive, driving the unhealthy sexual associations deeper. It might chase Man1’s partner away, either because Man2 fears 1 is no longer attracted to him, or because Man2 doesn’t know why 1 hasn’t gotten better. Man1 also seems to be internalizing it as something wrong with him, blaming himself for his own difficulty coping.

She smiled as Man1 put his arm around her, wiped a spot of cream off her lip flirtatiously. So long as she could still do this, so long as she was still desirable, she was normal. She downed two more shots, to be numb when he touched her. Always whiskey, never vodka. She hadn’t been able to drink vodka since she woke up with vodka bile in her throat and Man2 on top of her. She’d regret overdoing it in the morning again, especially once the hangover hit, but for the moment, she was any other girl enjoying the party. She wondered if she’d remember Man1’s name in the morning.

She wouldn’t give Man2 the final victory of taking her sexuality away from her. She would fuck like a normal woman if it killed her.

Symptoms: the need to dissociate, promiscuity, substance abuse. Destructive coping mechanisms. Effects: a bad reputation that might lead to further social isolation and alienation, the potential to be abused again if a predator targets her while she’s drinking, and sexuality expressed as an unhealthy coping mechanism, rather than for her own enjoyment, despite her viewing these encounters as a victory of sorts. An unhealthy fixation on normal that might make her feel worse when she gets triggered by something, or upset.

She didn’t know what sex was, when it happened. She barely remembered that it had happened, she was so young. But now, with the school’s sex ed looming on the horizon, her mother sat her down to “put what they’ll tell you in context.” Her mother said “People who do this outside marriage will go to hell. If you don’t want to go to hell, you won’t do it.” But by then it was too late. And who could fight God? Every cut across her arms in the years since was a Hail Mary, a promise to do better. She felt cleaner, lighter, with each shallow wound, as though she was bleeding herself to purity.

Symptoms: Duh, self-harm. Feelings of worthlessness and blaming herself.  The presence of the cuts is going to have its own effects. She’ll have to hide them, which will dictate her clothing and behavior. She might have to withdraw from her social circle, avoid clothes that show too much skin, be excessively self-conscious about her body. She won’t be intimate with sexual partners, lest they see.  And eventually, when someone finds out, she’ll find herself in a mire. She’ll be misunderstood– they’ll ask her if she was trying to kill herself, if she’s actively suicidal. Worst case, that conviction may push her into becoming actively suicidal.

She may internalize their awkwardness or disgust for the behavior, take that to be something else wrong with her, causing further alienation and loss of support as she withdraws from discussing it or looks for better ways to hide it. They might label it a “cry for help” and “refuse to reward her for it,” when she does reach out for support, causing her to lash out more and more violently.  Any discussion of the underlying trauma will be sidelined by her support systems’ focus on preventing her from self-harm.

She might find herself disillusioned with her faith, or feeling betrayed by her mother’s black and white presentation of sexual morality, straining familial relationships. Or she might become more devout, accepting herself as the problem to be fixed, rather than questioning the framing that put her in that situation.

And note the difference between this and the earlier self-harm narrative– it takes her time to discover self-harm as a coping mechanism.

He didn’t know what sodomy was, when it happened. But when they watched the news, watched the first shots of those people gathering at the courthouse, his mom tensed and swore. “What’s wrong?” he asked. 

“The world’s lost its moral compass, letting deviants like that get married.”

“They look happy? Why is that wrong? What’s wrong with them?”

“God hates fags. Men who partner with other men will go to hell.” 

“Partner with?”

And she explained it to him, the unholy, unnatural activities staining those happy people’s souls. A weight fell over him at her disgust, her disdain for those confused sinners.

He wanted to protest– he hadn’t had a choice. He hadn’t chosen to sin. He hadn’t known it was a sin, only that it hurt. And nothing he might do, no great things he might achieve, could ever make him clean again. 

Deep down, he knew she was right. Fault didn’t matter. He was a fag, was going to hell. He wondered what his mother would say when her husband turned up in hell too. 

Symptoms: self-hate, alienation from relatives, inability to talk about the abuse. Depression issues, feelings of worthlessness. I’d say the seeds of suicidal ideation. As he grows up, it could lead to him losing his faith, or changing spiritual beliefs, obviously causing other effects, with a devout family or social circle. Also, he’s probably gonna have some sexual confusion when he hits puberty if he realizes he’s straight– the abuse didn’t actually make him gay, though that’s the framework presented to him. And if he actually does grow up to be gay anyways? Well, that’s going to create some baggage, as he’s attracted to men despite the connection in his mind between that kind of sexual act, and pain and shame. He’ll probably have a difficult time accepting his sexual identity. His earliest relationships will probably be really fraught, maybe even unhealthy or abusive, as he tries to work through things.

And all of that is ignoring the fact that his relationship with his family is probably pretty well screwed up anyways, given that the abuse happened with a family member. Will his mom take his side, if the story comes out? Will she kick his rapist to the curb, or accuse him of having a hyperactive imagination? What about the extended relatives? If his mom does separate from his rapist, how will she take care of the family? Will she resent him for it or distance herself from him? Or will she take it onto herself, that if she’d been more aware, or a better mother, it wouldn’t have happened to him? Will the separation mean that he has less support to pay for college, or survive life’s financial downturns without support from both parents?

Will someone convince him to take it to the police? Will he resent them for that if he feels pressured, especially if the experience with the police is traumatic and doesn’t yield closure or justice? Add a million more permutations of these questions, encompassing whether his lack of faith might lead to an erosion of support his mother had previously been willing to offer, or whether she is unable to accept his identity as a gay man, if he is gay, with the rape as a convenient scapegoat…  It goes on and on. Any other intersection or combination raising new questions… you’re getting a sense of the big picture. This poor guy’s in for a really rough time.

“Aren’t you upset?” Woman1 demanded. “Are you going to report it, go after the guy?”

“Who the fuck would believe me? I’m a goddamn transgender sex worker accusing a police officer of rape.”

“So, what?”

“So that’s it.”

“Well then, it obviously couldn’t have been that bad. I guess that’s lucky. Either that, or you’re just really repressing it and it’ll hit you later. You’re way too calm about this; it’s not healthy.”

“Look– it happened, it’s over. That’s all there is. I don’t want to talk about it more.”

Symptoms: Well, really none. Not everyone has widespread fractures. And there’s nothing wrong with those people who can walk away from it almost unchanged. Maybe as you get to know her more you see that she changes her work procedures to try to prevent it from happening again. Or maybe she has some aspect of it that bugs her, but only leads to minor lifestyle changes or aversions. Or maybe she already has survived sexual violence, and the fractures are similar enough for her to use the same coping mechanisms. But the reactions of those around her…. those are the harmful part.

Here, she’s internalizing the lack of support. From the friend who doesn’t trust her emotional reactions, to the knowledge that there’s too many bias strikes against her for the assault to be taken seriously. And you better believe that that could lead to a host of other mental issues, such as depression, withdrawing from her social circle rather than having her friends put words in her mouth or question why she won’t fight for herself, and an aversion to authority figures that may cause harm in other ways, due to her lack of willingness to work with them. (Even if it is warranted.)

“C’mon, loosen up a little. Let me look at those pretty tits!”

She wanted to tell him he was drunk– too drunk– but the words got lost as he tugged the hem of her shirt. He was gonna get what he wanted, one way or the other. Just like the others. May as well go along with it quietly. Better to let it be a yes, a normal encounter, and have some kind of fondness for it, than turn it to a no, a horror, as he tore her clothes off and used her over her protests.

“Okay.” She drew the shirt over her head.

Symptoms: inability to assert herself, promiscuous behavior as a defense mechanism to the threat of being hurt again if she says no, an unhealthy distance from her sexuality that might affect her ability to take pleasure in the activities that she does happily consent to.  Might also lead to guilt or self-loathing after the fact, due to resentment toward her inability to stand up for herself. Or to her identifying entirely too much as a slut for going along with it, leading to even more promiscuous behavior because “that’s all she’s good for.” Or to others thinking she’s a slut, which might deprive her of other support networks. Heavily, heavily undermined sense of self-worth.

All of these perspectives are perfectly valid ways a person might react to abuse.  And they’re all extremely individual to the person. You need to know your character through and through to be able to pinpoint which aspects of their trauma will be the hardest to get past, and which ones won’t even register.

Every survivor’s story is different, and affects them differently. These barely even scratch the surface. Some people can barely talk about it, and so much as the word in an article can trigger them, reopen the wound. Some people have to talk about it, even when those around them are uncomfortable with it. To not own it 100%, to bow to pressure to keep it to themselves would be denying the reality and weight of their experiences.

Depending what form the violence took, whether it’s “stranger danger” or a relative, whether they were old enough to comprehend it, or whether they were too young to understand what was happening to them, it can affect them hugely differently. If they’ve recovered from trauma once, and then been assaulted again, their reaction may be different, too. For some people, it might be much easier to get over, because they’ve already done it just fine once, and learned what tools and coping mechanisms were needed. The energy of the pebble hitting the windshield channels into the exact same cracks, diffusing the damage.

For others, it might compound the damage, make them even more volatile, to see themselves trapped in a cycle of victimization, and widen the cracks that were already there to full-blown violence or illness. Make it more likely that that second stone will crash through the windshield and kill the driver.

You need to know every aspect of your characters’ upbringing and circumstances to be able to understand the specific reactions that might be appropriate for them, both as a survivor, or as a character reacting to a survivor. This is a hugely complex plot point that could easily derail your entire story trying to do it well, or render your whole story painful and shallow, should you do it poorly.

Thank carefully before you go this path. Is this a genuine part of the story you want to tell, or an aside to add grittiness or texture? Is it a thin justification to set up a menage with a ton of men, to make your heroine reckless or promiscuous or self-destructive? Is it backstory to justify why your hero is the amazing, resilient person he is, and make him special?

If so, I suggest you reconsider. You could be bringing someone a lot of pain.

If you want to do it well, think of the windshield. Let your pebble fly true, and examine each crack as it develops.

For more information on resources for survivors, visit Rainn.

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