If ever there was a plot device that shouldn’t be used in a romance story, it’s this one. Sookie, raped for years on end, and finally brought back to life by a guy – usually Eric. How wrong it is. Apart from the fact that the idea is one that should make women slightly bilious – not shrug it off as nothing – it smacks of punishment. When I first entered this fandom, rape was like the place where writers seldom went, for good reason. Now it’s rising as a plot device, and readers and writers think it’s nothing, or worse, deserved. So too is Sookie hate rising, and I don’t think they’re unconnected.
There are actually women in the world who have been raped for months on end – those raped for years on end don’t actually survive that long. Usually, women who are raped for months on end suffer from prolapse – which is where the uterus or anus itself falls out of the body. If that woman has been pregnant many times or had a series of miscarriages, she develops a fistula – which is basically a giant hole between her rectum and her vagina. Neither of those are conditions that one tends to survive very long, just because holes and bits falling out don’t tend to be something that can go untreated.
But say, you add the magical element of your bullshit punishment scheme for the Sookie character. Either magic or vampire blood, so that real life problems don’t exist. One of the principal failings about having a woman raped for years on end is the romance bit. I know, it looks like the Sookie Stackhouse novels don’t have any effects from rape, but they do. It’s just not your average readers expectations of what rape does to a woman – too many bits of crap filtered down from popular culture, I think.
CH has written sexual dysfunction quite well into her stories, with an almost intuitive feel. It’s certainly not spoonfed to the reader. I have the benefit of reading research, and knowing the signs well. One of the things that happens though is that a whole bunch of women who haven’t been in that situation think they would react in completely bizarre ways. They don’t in fact, recognise the ways in which Sookie – and lots of other characters – have reacted.
There was this anecdote, that always affected me when I was a kid, and one that often pops into my mind, from my mother.
She told me that in the late seventies, there were a whole heap of thieves who used to go into women’s toilets, reach over the top of the door and swipe the handbags of women sitting on the toilet from the hook on the door. Now, from the risk management perspective, I can appreciate that this is an effective method of stealing, and notice that toilet door design is changed, and there are fewer doors with hooks on them nowadays – so that women may keep their handbags. You’re forced to keep it at your feet or within reach mostly – rather than hanging up for easy access on the door.
My mother had a friend who told her that when she heard about it happening to other women, she couldn’t believe that they’d just sat there and let their bags be stolen. That if it were her, she would fight tooth and nail to keep her handbag. Lo and behold, she was a victim of that crime. She was shocked, that she just sat there, frozen, on the toilet and let the guy take her bag.
Now, I know as a criminologist, that almost every woman tends to freeze. Women are made to freeze, thanks to gender training. Few of us actually react as we think we’re going to – unless we’re unusual, or unless they’ve been deliberately trained otherwise – which usually happens after a woman is a victim – not before. But it still surprises me how many women think they would react “X” way to something that happens to them, and feel free to judge women based on what they reckon they would do with no basis in fact or experience.
There are – to me anyway – obvious effects from sexual misuse in the Sookie Stackhouse books – even from Sookie. Unfortunately, they’re real life effects, and not the myths and dross that Hollywood has fed us for years. Sookie exhibits them – as do many other characters – without actually pointing them out. None of them say to themselves that they are “doing A because of B” – and that’s not the way real victims work. They are wholly unconscious things that happen – not something that they hearken back to its genesis. Most of the signs are subtle – not obvious – just like they are in real life. There’s a reason why you can’t pick out a rape victim from a crowd, unless you know what it is you’re looking for.
One of the things I notice that’s completely ignored in fanfic is the hygiene rituals. Now, hygiene rituals can go one of two ways – the person can either be compelled to be dirty for days on end, or they can be meticulous about personal cleanliness – not the cleanliness of their house, but of their person. All of the victims in CH’s novels are meticulous, and I’d say that CH herself has her own meticulous hygiene rituals. The worse the trauma, the more meticulous the victim is – so you can even see it on a sliding scale, as to how often their cleanliness is mentioned as opposed to how their trauma is. Some victims go the other way, of course, and don’t shower for days in an effort to reduce their attractiveness, but that’s not a feature of CH’s victims.
All the writing about Sookie pulling her hair into a tight ponytail, shaving her legs, showering, making sure her clothes are clean – these are all ways that she tries to have control over her own body and feel less “dirty”. They’re a relatively common symptom of sexual abuse and rape. The connection is perhaps most strongly made in DTTW, where Sookie sees Eric, desires him and then goes and wrenches her hair into the “tighest ponytail” making sure that it’s all smooth and straightened out. Considering that this is just after her incident with Bill, and is mentioned in the text when so many things aren’t, I think it’s easy to overlook. But I also think you need to know what you’re looking for.
Now, I’m not saying that grooming as such is something only done by rape victims – because of course it isn’t. But Sookie’s insistence on having a bath, staying clean, keeping her hair clean is almost at obsessive levels, and only increases in the text directly after the trunk incident. It’s also almost always at times when she’s been encroached on sexually – when she first desires Eric when he’s in her house, right after the dodgy feeding scene post Maenad, right after being almost raped in Dallas, right after Clete’s assault in the van – these are all times when Sookie feels the need to do some hygiene rituals, or to feel clean. She goes to quite a bit of trouble to do it – searching for clothes, showering in Fangtasia – this is not the casual act of someone who can wait half an hour to get home. Even the infamous shower is in fact a hygiene ritual – she desires Eric, and runs immediately to “get clean”. Doesn’t sound half as romantic when it’s viewed as an artefact of rape. 😀
Of course, when it comes to significance, CH is obviously aware of her own hygiene rituals – being that she’s a victim of rape herself – she writes them in well, and consistently. She gives them to Sookie, victim of childhood sexual abuse, and Lily Bard, victim of rape, but not to Harper Connelly or Aurora Teagarden – who are not victims of sexual misuse. So they’re not her trademark for all female characters, but merely the manifestation of real consequences. They exist all the time that something is going on with the female character – not just at random. They increase in Sookie’s case, and Lily is absolutely brutal about cleanliness. I also find it personally significant that Bill is not allowed in Sookie’s shower in LDID (even if he’s allowed in her showers off page) and is rebuffed rudely, while Eric is welcomed, and doesn’t push the point until Sookie gives it her okay.
Strikingly, only once a woman has been a victim and develops hygiene rituals is she aware of them – and us criminologists of course. So they tend not to crop up in fanfic as they’re seen as insignificant – unless that person is a victim of sexual abuse and understands that they serve as a psychological buffer and control over the body. It’s one of the key indicators to me that they are left out of so many fanfics that they’re either not seen, or the writer is not aware that they are in fact significant.
One of the things that always influences my viewpoint of vampires is noticing that some of the vampires also have hygiene rituals. Most notably, Eric. Eric is always clean, shining and perfect. As a victim of the sexual abuse at the hands of Appius, it’s a natural consequence. Sookie is always noticing how he’s shining and perfect – even trekking through the swamps he’s pristine. The fact that Sookie mentions how clean Eric always looks, but doesn’t consistently point it out about Bill, tells me that there is a sort of shared awareness given to the two of them – a commonality of trouble. They understand each other far more intimately due to that, and it’s yet another point of similarity in how they deal with things.
It was hygiene rituals that first gave me an in to thinking about vampire society – when I noticed that Pam had them too. That broke my heart a little. By rights, Pam shouldn’t have any. Eric wouldn’t be the cause of her rituals. But she does. Like Eric, she is pristine and shining, and Sookie is always pointing out the meticulous nature of her clothes, her hair, and I remember one scene where she had polished penny loafers. That was when I first started thinking about what it might be like for a woman to live in vampire society – and the solution I came to was “fucking awful”.
I can’t imagine abiding by a society that included as its members, guys like Mickey, Appius or Andre – or any of the other loathsome vampires. Pam wasn’t the oldest vampire who was ever created, and she spent time away from Eric. Eric is not the oldest vampire ever created either, and couldn’t protect her from everyone. It seems a high price to pay for immortality, but it exists consistently in the Sookie books – and in Two Blondes, it was inferred that before being ransomed back to Eric, the vampires of Mississippi would “have fun” with both Sookie and Pam.
In a society filled with violence, sex, blood and a need for dominance and laying claim, I think it would be a fucking awful thing to live within for any woman, who would tend to have less power than the men in a matching strengths and size way. It’s part of what makes me leery of Eric – that while he wouldn’t do these things, he would pull in women to a world where that would be done to them. I know that part of that is selfishness, but another part of it is the twisted way he’s resolved his own abuse though, so I don’t hate him for it. His mantra of surviving is one that should be taken seriously though – because Eric is all about surviving – not being safe.
Sophie Anne is another vampire who has obvious hygiene rituals, with Sookie’s stress on her wardrobe and clothes, her hair – and for good reason. No mention of them in Andre, but we don’t know his character so well. Bill has his palatial bathroom, but he talks about how he likes to soak in the water. While I don’t doubt that Bill had some trauma at the hands of Lorena, I don’t think that he was violated in the same manner as the others were. Bill has his own trauma, but it’s not of the sexually related kind.
Bill is mindful of the sexual trauma around him though – and deals with his own rape of Sookie in exactly the right manner for her – not for him. It’s one of the biggest mistakes I see in fanfic actually – writers handling it differently from how Bill himself handled it. In all truthfulness, if Bill had handled it any differently, Sookie would not be “better” – she would be worse off.
One of the common scenarios that crops up in fanfic is the infamous Eric punishment. Over all my reading, that’s ranged from a punch to a staking for what happened in the trunk. It’s also the worst thing Eric could have done in that case. Immediately after the rape, the other characters make it clear that nothing has changed about her, that she sets the agenda, that Sookie is in control. If they had taken it out of her hands, and done what they thought was best, Sookie wouldn’t have bounced back from that scene so quickly. They would have made her feel like a rape victim – and the last thing a rape victim wants to feel like is…a rape victim.
The odds are that under usual circumstances, it’s 48 hours before there is the first “outcry”. That means, unfortunately, that rape victims have well washed all the remaining evidence. They have dealt with it for the last couple of days. They have gone on as normally as possible while they process the violation – and it’s one thing that leads to so few actual convictions for rape – the figure here is 14% – and not all cases have charges pressed. That’s because the general public doesn’t know that this is what victims do.
I’ve actually been an outcry witness for someone, and he told me the day after. He spent at least 3 hours on the first day in the shower, and apart from that, there was no indication to anyone else that anything was overtly wrong. He didn’t tell the first person he came across – he went home, he showered, he didn’t tell his parents or any other friends. Nobody knew anything was wrong – and that’s just how he wanted it. He didn’t want to feel brutalised and violated. Nobody does – and it’s a big thing to get your head around. In order to have processing time, life must go on as usual.
If Eric had punished Bill, it would have taken that control from Sookie when she needed to feel the most normal. Bill dealt with it right, Alcide dealt with it right and Eric dealt with it perfectly. He didn’t act as if anything had changed – he continued to push her into keeping on going – he did not pause to give her a moment’s pity. Bill’s treatment was a little off mainly because he initiated the first touch when she regained consciousness, but that’s neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things. Sookie was fine with the contact, and sought it out, and that’s what Bill did right – taking his cues from her.
Now, lots of writers think that Sookie would have flinched and screamed at the top of her lungs that Bill raped her. Remember the stolen handbag chick – that’s when that anecdote crops up again. That’s how a non-rape victim thinks she would react. She’s seen it on countless movies, and that’s how she’s supposed to react according to the classic popular culture rape story. Now, sure there are women who would do that. One such case off the top of my mind was a nurse, fifteen years in emergency, raped in a home invasion, married with kids. She knew procedure, and did procedure in the correct order. Most women are not emergency nurses who know procedure.
There are other bits and pieces that fit with Sookie’s history of trauma. Her inability to be naked in front of Bill while telling him about her abuse at the hands of Uncle Bartlett – this shows that she feels extremely exposed. That one is relatively easy to see though. Then there’s the fact that she reacts to Eric having his hands in her hair while she’s giving him oral sex – that’s a clear control issue that many victims have – they don’t want to feel forced or coerced in any way. In light of her torture, it makes more sense that she doesn’t want to be restrained.
When it comes to the reaction to her own torture – the ultimate removal of all self and control – there is this bizarre assumption that Sookie would fall to pieces. See that anecdote again. That’s what happens in movies, but not what happens in real life.
Now, admittedly, there are soldiers, war survivors, who do react badly to torture and end up killing themselves. But that’s due to specific military training – what effectively makes them into better killing machines leaves them psychologically vulnerable later. Lots of them have severe trouble, and it will only get worse, thanks to the US military moving their kill ratio from about 2% in 1949, to 98% in 2008. But that’s another pet peeve of mine – the military kill ratio that destroys soldiers’ peace of mind.
There are heaps of modern day torture victims – from Guantanamo Bay to El Salvador to Tibet. They exist all over the place. They don’t go back to their non-tortured persona, but they don’t fall into a heap either. Usually, they come out of their experience horrified at the depths of what their fellow humans can do to them, and in absolute shock that they could be so violated and not die. Many of them don’t believe that they can ever get back to the person they were before they experienced torture, and they just move on, changed from what happened to them. Many of them are shocked at their own reactions – because it’s not what they expected at the core of themselves.
Sookie exhibits those signs perfectly. She doesn’t want to feel sympathy for Eric or Amelia when they can’t deal with what happened to her. She doesn’t want to make it all better for them – that is her manifestation that no one can make it better for her. When her reaction was released on the web, the sympathy wasn’t for the torture victim (astoundingly) it was for the bystanders. I can’t quite decide if this is the pervasive attitude in the US that the torture victim is to blame for their misfortune – which is one hell of a way to justify being party to Abu Ghraib and increasing in US perceptions – or if it is the standard blame the victim that goes on.
Torture victims witness callous brutality – one that really shakes the foundation of what they usually believe. Most people think that they know brutality, but the torture victim has been on the end of it. They are also shocked with themselves that rather than reacting like a human who is having their dignity taken from them, they feel as if they have in turn, acted like an animal as well.
One of the pervasive beliefs is that torture victims can talk it out and recover. The reality is that they can’t. It can take twenty to thirty years to resolve it, and rarely do they want to revisit and realise what it was that they went through. Most of them don’t want to set out in words what it is that they went through, and expose how degraded they were by the experience. As they’ll never get over their own torture, it’s of limited use to think that they can talk it out and not cause more trauma. I myself knew a POW interred in World War 2, and he never got over it. Even sixty years after his release, he still had bad days where he would sit on his front verandah and not talk to his wife. She understood how it went.
Torture is one of the biggest violations of a human – it surpasses rape for the violation factor. It cannot be recovered from. Sookie is unlikely to be more weepy from it – there is no middle ground for the torture survivor – they are mostly quietly furious about it or feel fairly empty inside – at least initially. If they are weepy, they are dead, and will soon kill themselves to stop the pain. The survivors who are most broken up don’t usually get through the experience intact, and instead, go mad, like Quinn’s mother. But they are well on the way to insanity when the torture stops – they do not gradually progress there. It is that break of their own self perception that causes it – and since Sookie made it through her experience sane, she will mostly stay that way.
But nor do they go on as if it is an ordinary injury. They change and become harsher as a result of the treatment they have undergone. They find it difficult to trust others. Again, the fact that Sookie was able to relax enough against Eric is a good sign – that she could fall asleep, a better one. Her reaction of not having an orgasm is a natural thing. Torture is like rape in the personal violation. Many rape victims have difficulty with sexual arousal after a traumatic incident.
In lots of cases, victims suffer PTSD, but that can manifest in a number of ways – not always being that they fall apart in a physical situation. It can just be that low level of anger that they feel all the time – one that they can’t seem to free themselves from. It wears at them after a time. In terms of the sort of world Sookie lives in, and the way she uncharacteristically reacts to danger (by not freezing) she’d be on the milder end of the spectrum, just because it’s part of her make up to react, rather than to freeze.
We see that reaction when Dermot grabs her – that one of the manifestations of PTSD. As are her nightmares, and her lack of trust. Not all cases of PTSD are so traumatic that everyone witnesses them. Not all cases of PTSD need to be solved. It is more than normal to have a bad permanent change thanks to torture than is the rather false belief that the victims of torture can just “recover”.
Overwhelmingly, many victims just become shaped by their experience, trust people less, become colder. It’s no accident that really old vampires are actually angry, cold and brutal. They become that way thanks to their very long lives and all the associated trauma that goes with them. They don’t get better at some stage. They stay that way until the day that they die, even if it is a really long way off. In some cases, they seem to be glad to end it all – Godfrey got to that stage, and Thalia is moving the same way. They may not actually kill themselves, but they don’t become more open as time goes on – even Eric, when we first meet him is as cold as a stone.
So the idea that Sookie would be able to talk out years of rape, and become better and sexual again is an absolute bucket of horse shit. Just because one rape has a very minimum of effect, or you can’t see an obvious effect does not mean that protracted rape over a series of years would have no effect. Sookie, in fact, would not wish for the touch of a man ever again.
The years of rape scenario would be like rape and torture combined. Sookie would be absolutely sick of sex, and she would have extremely violent reactions to the idea of having sex again. Along the lines of chucking her guts up if Eric went near her. The girls who have been in this sort of scenario, they tend not to have sex again. They’ve had just about all the sex they can handle, and don’t engage of their own free will. Saved sex slaves, for example, usually come home and wholly avoid men for the rest of their lives. I can’t see Eric finding it horny making to see Sookie crying throughout the act myself, but apparently, that floats some women’s boats – to put her in that situation.
Certainly, if she could get over that to have sex, she would be wholly unconnected from the act of sex itself. Sookie in the books after her sexual trauma and torture experiences only a mild break with connecting emotion and sex. She doesn’t jump Eric and Bill’s bones because she “really loves them” – she does it because she wants the physical act. When she waits for Quinn, planning it out as it “should be” it’s a very logical exercise from her, rather than “feeling right”.
In the case of saved sex slaves, if they’re forced to marry when they get home, all they do is cry when forced to be in that situation. If they don’t cry – if they’ve been beaten enough not to cry, then it’s like being with a corpse. They don’t react – and they don’t get aroused. Having sex for them is something that they endure and mentally go elsewhere. Luckily, it’s not something that the families of saved sex slaves tend to do. So these women sit at home being great babysitters who tend to flinch if men touch them – not react as if they believe that there is love in the world, or sexual joy around the corner.
Indeed, that’s one of the bigger complaints about Sookie – that artefact of her sexual misuse. Readers complain that she is cold, or that she doesn’t feel enough. But that’s just it – that’s how it manifests. Women who have had a long period of their lives where they haven’t been victims have probably made the connection between sex and love. The victim of sexual abuse has not. She does not feel that sex and love are connected – that’s the way that she rationalises getting over the offence committed against her.
Sookie has always had her feelings somewhat separated from her sexual deeds – and tries, when assaulted to do some clear dissociating. Sookie makes a clear dissociation with Bill – that it’s just about need, and not about anything emotional. Sophie Anne, as a victim of severe long term sexual misuse has become a cold woman. She finds it difficult to connect the idea of love and sex – so much so that she thinks her plan with Bill is a good one. Andre too finds it difficult to connect emotionality to physicality.
Again, this is something that CH is obviously aware of within herself, as Harper Connolley does not have that same emotional break. The times that Harper has sex in the books, and when Aurora Teagarden does too, they are expressions of how the female character feels about the men. They are not about fulfilling mostly what is a physical need, but of connecting with another human in an intimate way. That’s something that’s a little lacking in Sookie, but completely disconnected in Lily Bard.
But all of the symptoms of her abuse are far too subtle for women who are not criminologists, and not self aware victims to see very clearly. They think that she should either just not act as if her treatment was a problem – seemingly taking the cue from the books because they can’t see a problem; or they think she should fall into a submissive heap for all time.
The symptoms of abuse are instead reasons to hate Sookie, rather than see how the path of sexual misuse has lead her to this. CH obviously writes in a conscious and visceral way about it – obviously from her own experience. I can see it – with my magic criminology eyes. It makes it worse that it has become par for the course to just chuck in years of rape as if they are something that one can endure, and that sooner or later, without any effect, Sookie will be able to respond to Eric in any romantic fashion. If only it were that simple.