Within the arts and media in general, there is an ongoing debate about how much violence is necessary to tell a story and how much is overkill. Sexual violence is an especially dark subject matter which is almost never portrayed in a way which is beneficial to the story or the art. As someone who has studied theatre in an academic setting as well as participated in a number of stage productions, I have come to the conclusion that rape scenes in particular have no place in a show. I will defend this opinion from both an artistic standpoint and a social perspective.
To be blunt, graphic rape scenes never improve a play. Mentioning this type of violence or acknowledging that it has occurred offstage is fine if it is done wisely. For one thing, most plays with sexual violence are written in a way that the character being victimized is basically irrelevant. This is mainly true of classical dramatic works, but it sometimes continues today. Writing a rape, murder, or abuse scene as character development for someone other than the character being attacked is lazy script writing. I could maybe understand if one character did something that caused another to be put in harm’s way and felt guilty about it. However, it is important to remember that the character being hurt, raped, or killed is almost always a woman and the character being developed through the relationship is almost always a man. However, since this is starting to get into the social perspective and I’m still discussing artistry, I will leave it at that for now.
One common reason a director might want to play up an ambiguous scene is for shock value. An example of this is William Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona. There is a scene towards the end of this comedy which has little dialogue and no real stage directions which is often interpreted as a rape scene. One character, who is infatuated with a lady, tells her in rage that if she won’t love him he will make her. (I am, of course, paraphrasing quite a bit). His friend then comes and tells him to stop, then everybody reconciles and has a happy ending. Some would direct this as a violent, nasty scene to shock the audiences and make a statement of some kind. Aside from the problematic nature of a happy ending seconds after sexual violence, it doesn’t really make sense given the plot and tone of every other scene in this show. I saw a version of Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, where the director thought it would be best to tone down the scene as much as possible. Her idea was that the wedding and happy ending in the final scene would make no sense otherwise, so she had the character who demands love/sex mostly stand in one place and shout empty threats. At one point he stormed forward and was stopped by the lady haughtily slapping him, proving that there wasn’t much real danger. Because the show was a lighthearted comedy, this way of staging the scene kept the mood of the play intact.
Back to the topic of shock value, typically things done in media to shock audiences are gratuitous by nature. There are, of course, exceptions. Shocking audiences with a bit plot twist generally works well, and shocking things which also happen to assist the show in other ways are fine. For example, a sudden and unexpected death in the script is tacky if it exists solely to shake things up, but if it also advances the plot or something of that nature in an intentional way, it can be a smart decision. Often, though, directors make scenes about death less about gore and more about emotions. Final words and conversations affect audiences far more than blood and fighting. Watching someone get stabbed gets our heart rates up, but seeing someone kneel over a bleeding body and plead that they just hang on until help arrives is heartbreaking. I could list a dozen less cliched ways to make those final words impactful in a similar way, but that goes into a long tangent that’s unrelated to the subject at hand. The main point is that while death can have beautiful, heartbreaking conversations, sexual violence does not elicit that same type of opportunity. During the healing process for a character or in conversations surrounding the issue, yes, but not during the attack itself. I cannot think of a single reason to include a full rape scene other than to shock the audience.
Moving away from the artistic reasons to avoid this type of scene, there are many ways portraying sexual violence incorrectly can have negative social consequences. A director or writer might claim that shocking an audience with the horror of the situation in graphic detail can bring light to how bad the problem is. However, what they tend to forget is that seeing an image or scenario repeatedly causes the viewer to become desensitized to the situation. The second time someone watches a rape scene on stage, it is slightly less horrifying than the first. The cycle continues until the image of sexual violence stops being disturbing, and in turn the issue itself becomes less important in the viewer’s mind.
Another important issue with portraying these scenes is that the people in the audience might have problems with it. Typically, a production goal should not be to have people have panic attacks and leave the theater. A writer or director can’t account for every scenario in which a person might have traumatic memories attached, but sexual violence is so common that every showing of the play will likely have multiple audience members who have been victimized in this way. Since it is unnecessary to include a rape scene for the sake of the show, it should be simple to avoid it. The other type of audience member who might be affected by a rape scene is a rapist. Because sexual violence is so common and the perpetrators so rarely serve time in prison, it is perfectly logical to assume that various rapists will be in the audience during the run of the show. So, as a writer, director, or actor, the idea that a sex offender is getting off to your scene should feel disgusting. While the blame falls on the person enjoying sexual violence, it is important as creators of art to be conscious of the realities of the world we live in and to hold your work accountable to real world consequences. Not only is the rapist in the audience aroused by the action, but they now feel validated in their crimes. No rapist thinks that they are wrong for their actions, at least not without intense rehabilitation. When watching a play, they think that if rape is appropriate to be portrayed on stage, it must be appropriate in real life as well. This is especially true if the scene is being used for shock value or if the offending character does not receive punishment for their actions. As an artist making the decision to include a rape scene in a show, you are also making the decision to tell rapists that what they are doing is not that bad. It may not be fair to put that on someone who is just trying to create art, but life isn’t fair. Actions have real world consequences.
The truth of the situation is that whatever reason an artist gives for adding a rape scene to a production is not worth the problems of doing so. There are many other, better ways to achieve the same goal, whether that goal is enlivening the story lines or character arcs, crafting shock value to get a reaction out of the audience or generate buzz around the show, or bringing attention to the issue that is sexual assault. Showcasing sexual violence on the stage or a screen is unnecessary at best and genuinely problematic at worst.