Guest Post: We need to talk about the lack of realistic character response to sexual violence in Sci&Fi and Fantasy by Sammy HK Smith

We can do better. 

I spend my working week with both survivors and perpetrators of physical and sexual abuse, and consider myself privileged that these survivors trust in me to help them, and I’m dedicated in bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Leaving that behind at the end of the working day is tough, and I often find myself reaching to fiction to shut off and ‘decompress’. Often though, my work finds me in literature and I despair.

We’ve all read those stories: characters beaten, raped, sexually assaulted and they often rise from the ashes stronger and resolute, or they become a broken husk. The sexual assault is often used as a plot element (or, dare I say it, trope) to move the main narrative forward but seldom given the actual scrutiny it deserves. Often too, the abuse is used to push forward a ‘revenge’ plotline or used as a reason as to why that person is ‘weird/broken/*insert derogatory descriptor here*’ and told from the point of view of an outsider with no empathy or understanding as to what they have gone through – a character backstory used to explain or excuse actions rather than feeding into the story.

Rarely do we hear the stories of those who are just trying to live with what has happened. Those with PTSD who are still healing. Those who can’t get justice or revenge or those who, for a myriad of reasons, choose not to, but still have to live with the consequences of what happened. Those who are still adapting to the changes forced on them, or the trauma that they have to live with every day.

Sexual violence is prevalent in both fiction and reality (1)(2), and while I’m grateful we have the #MeToo movement and increased visibility and voices in reality, we have a long way to go in addressing the long-term effects of sexual violence on a person. PTSD in sexual abuse survivors is also higher than the average population (3).

It is unfair of me to point fingers at books that get sexual violence ‘wrong’ or use it as a titillating teaser, so instead I’m going to share two books in the SF&F genre with realistic survivor reactions and ongoing PTSD/abuse aftermath that I really recommend.

DEERSKIN by Robin McKinley

As Princess Lissla Lissar reaches womanhood, it is clear to all the kingdom that in her beauty she is the image of her dead mother, the queen. But this likeness forces her to flee from her father’s lust and madness; and in the pain and horror of that flight she forgets who she is and what it is she flees from: forgets almost everything but the love and loyalty of her dog, Ash, who accompanies her. But a chance encounter on the road leads to a job in another king’s kennels, where the prince finds himself falling in love with the new kennel maid . . . and one day he tells her of a princess named Lissla Lissar, who had a dog named Ash.

The main character is sexually abused by her father near the beginning of the book, and the story shows her wrestling with this experience and learning to heal at her pace and in her own way.

A fantastic story with a clear message. You can survive sexual abuse. It will change you forever, but you can live despite that.

TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan

Tender Morsels is a dark and vivid story, set in two worlds and worrying at the border between them. Liga lives modestly in her own personal heaven, a world given to her in exchange for her earthly life. Her two daughters grow up in this soft place, protected from the violence that once harmed their mother. But the real world cannot be denied forever—magicked men and wild bears break down the borders of Liga’s refuge. Now, having known Heaven, how will these three women survive in a world where beauty and brutality lie side by side?

A mix of fairy tale and fantasy, but most definitely for adults, this novel explores Liga’s childhood and abuse at the hands of her father. It shows us rape, miscarriages, pregnancy and how Liga becomes an incredible mother, overcoming the violence of the children’s conceptions. Have I included spoilers? Not really. Her journey is the story. Harrowing, but wonderful in the way the prose gives us hope even through unrelenting darkness.

Both of these show childhood trauma and sexual abuse, which can be very different to adult sexual abuse (and, to a certain extent, domestic abuse). I really tried to think of some good, solid stories that focused on an adult journeying through sexual violence PTSD but came up short.  Recommendations warmly received!


When writing ANNA I wanted to not only tell the story of a victim who struggles to deal with PTSD while rebuilding relationships, but also show how the behavior and persona of a perpetrator changes with their audience, and how those who have been coercively controlled can still bend to their abuser, even months after the event.

ANNA is not a milquetoast trope of a victim. She is broken, beaten, abused, carrying her scars and trauma around with her, never letting her guard down. She struggles as survivors struggle every day, second-guessing everything and everyone but desperately yearning for a sense of normality. Through all of that she is strong, and she shows us her strength as the story progresses.

As a writer and a feminist I think it’s important to show a different view of survivors of sexual abuse in literature. I wanted to show her decision-making, her thought process and agency through those dark times and hopefully take the reader on the highs and lows of her recovery.

I’ve been asked why I didn’t make the novel a contemporary piece. Honestly? I love speculative and dystopian fiction. I didn’t want to write in the here and now when I work with this subject matter so often.

I stress that I’m no psychologist. I have a vested personal and professional interest in this area, and have followed and relied on experts in the field (4) to help form my characters and stories. It is not my place to tell a reader how a survivor will react to such trauma; every person is unique, their story and experiences different. My experience of something does not make me the arbitrator of all the possible responses and reactions, but I hope that what I have shown is that sexual abuse is not a trope. It is not glib, it is not something to use to merely push a story forward and add a ‘grim’ slant to a novel. It is harrowing and often the survivor is alone, even when surrounded by people who love them, with a long journey to recovery.

But the journey of a survivor is not all doom and gloom. There is hope. There are moments of love, of pure happiness and joy, of friendship and trust, but it’s not easy. Strength comes in many forms.

ANNA is a book that stands witness to the experiences of so many survivors and although that makes it an uncomfortable read at times, it is an offering to and reflection of the people who struggle with these issues.

I refuse to make a spectacle of sexual trauma, and I hope that I’ve done justice to the hundreds of survivors I’ve spoken with during my 15 years in the field of domestic and sexual abuse.

I said that we can do better, but when we see how the world really is, we know deep down that we must do better.


  1. https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence
  2. https://rapecrisis.org.uk/get-informed/about-sexual-violence/statistics-sexual-violence/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2323517/
  4. http://www.zoelodrick.co.uk/training/article-1

BIO: Sammy H.K Smith lives and works in Oxfordshire UK as a police detective. When not working she spends time with her children, husband and pets, renovates her house, and inadvertently kills plants. A keen writer and lover of all things science fiction and fantasy, she’s often found balancing a book, a laptop, a child, and a cat whilst watching Netflix.

Learn more about Anna and buy the book here.


If you’re an author or other fantasy and science fiction creative, and want to do a guest blog post, please check out the guest blog post guidelines. Or if you’re looking for community from other F&SF writers, sign up for the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers Critclub!

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Where I’ll “Be” – Flights of Foundry 2021

Find information about the event here.

Friday, April 16 6 PM Pacific time
How to Put a Game in Your Fiction
Moderator – Panelists are P.H. Lee, Erin Roberts, and Gregory Wilson

Saturday, April 17, 9 AM Pacific time – Reading from Exiles of Tabat

Saturday, April 17, 12 PM Patron/student/mentee lunch – Zoom link will be posted on Discord and Patreon

Saturday, April 17, 2 PM Pacific time – cowriting session – Come write with me!

Sunday, April 18, 11 AM Pacific time – teaching Writing Your Way Into Your Novel

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Where I’ll “Be” – Norwescon 2021 Schedule

Thursday

NWW Critique Session with Cat Rambo
8:00am – 12:00pm @ Zoom 1
Cat Rambo (M), Barth Anderson

Friday

Building Diverse Worlds in Sci-fi and Fantasy
11:00am – 12:00pm @ Maxis
Cat Rambo (M), Suyi Davies Okungbowa, Jacqueline Carey, Curtis C. Chen

Reading: Cat Rambo
4:00pm – 4:30pm @ Cascade
Cat Rambo (M)

SFWA: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America
6:00pm – 7:00pm @ Poolside
Curtis C. Chen (M), Cat Rambo

Saturday

Norwescon Breakfast 9:30 AM
Open to mentees, students, and Patreon patrons
Zoom link will be posted on Patreon and Discord

The Creation, Care, & Feeding of Writing Groups
2:00pm – 3:00pm @ Fishbowl
Cat Rambo (M), Tex Thompson, Sonja Thomas, Rhiannon Held

Why Do I Keep Getting Form Rejections on Short Stories?
4:00pm – 5:00pm @ Mt. Baker
Cat Rambo (M), K.G. Anderson, Tod McCoy, Jack Skillingstead

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Guest Post: Magical Crones and Adventuring Mothers by Catherine Lundoff

When I first began working on a story about women who turned into werewolves as they entered menopause way back in 2009 or so, there was not a whole lot of representation of middle-aged and older women to be found in science fiction, fantasy, or horror. I mean, there were the evil middle-aged queens with talking mirrors, out to poison their younger, prettier rivals and the ancient witches who popped up to do terrible things or sometimes, provide directions, as the case may be. But, with rare exceptions, they were never protagonists, and they were seldom more than cardboard embodiments of evil or just plain window dressing.

Around 2010, that started to change. A bunch of other things happened around then too, including a huge growth in ebook publishing by indie authors and indie publishers which brought in a lot of voices that were not previously being heard from in more mainstream science fiction, fantasy, or horror. Along with that came writers willing to take risks, to tell new stories, to tackle things like representation that had been pretty sparse up until then. Those writers included women who were middle-aged and beyond looking to see themselves and their stories in the pages of the genres they loved.
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Writers and Guilt

Writers are so good at beating themselves up for all sorts of reasons, some valid, some not so much. Here’s some encouragement for dealing with writerly quilt.

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Guest Post: Finding Your Heroes and Yourself by Elle E. Ire

Threadbare, the first novel in my Storm Fronts series, gets a mass market edition and hits physical bookstores this month. It’s the realization of a lifelong dream, to see my work on an actual shelf in an actual store, to pull it from the others and turn it face out so everyone can see this thing I’ve created. Every time I walk into a Books-A-Million or a Barnes & Noble or some wonderful independent bookseller, I’ve imagined being able to point at a novel’s spine with my own name on it and say, “Look at this! I made this! I’m the person whose name is on this cover!”

And with this moment fast approaching, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the influences on my work and how Threadbare and the other novels in the series came to be, and specifically all the pieces and parts that went into the protagonist, Vick Corren. Vick is a lot of kickass and a lot of emotional hot mess with some identity crises and self-esteem issues thrown in for good measure. Add in her bisexuality and there weren’t a lot of characters I could draw from as templates, at least not when I was growing up.

I’m dating myself, but when I was a preteen and teenager, finding strong female role models was a challenge, and finding ones who weren’t heterosexual much more so. There were competent, intelligent, accomplished women on TV, but they generally weren’t the leads. So the rare shows like The Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman were eye-opening. And when Princess Leia snatched the blaster away from Han Solo during her own rescue and got all of them out of that Death Star corridor by blowing a hole in the trash chute and demanding that Han get inside, well, I knew I wanted to write women just like that—women who could rescue themselves, with some help on occasion, but still, women who acted rather than reacted, women who didn’t sit around helplessly awaiting the hero but rather women who were the heroes.

This was where my character, Vick Corren, got her roots. If you read Threadbare you will absolutely see the influence of Jamie Sommers and Leia Organa. Vick has an AI in her head, a sentient computer that makes her stronger, faster, and a lot more resourceful than the average human, much like Sommers’s bionics. But she’s also got Leia’s attitude. Don’t mess with Vick. She’s definitely no-nonsense.

However, I also wanted her to have a softer side. It’s important to me that my characters not seem too impervious, too perfect, too invulnerable. Vick might look like she has it all together when she’s on a mission for her organization of mercenary soldiers, but when the battle ends, when the action stops, when she starts having feelings for someone beyond friendship, she’s just as insecure and confused as anyone heading into their first real romance.

Who could I draw from for those character traits? Well, Leia again, for one. Her resistance to (and inevitable falling for) Han Solo are still some of my favorite scenes to watch over and over again. Battlestar Galactica had some wonderful episodes in which Athena and Cassiopeia put Starbuck in his place. (Yes, his. The original Starbuck was male—dating myself again.) And much like Leia, Colonel Wilma Deering of Buck Rogers fame was another great character displaying both professional competence and romantic insecurity, especially when it came to her relationship with Buck.

Not to say all my influences were from television and film. I was an avid reader from a very young age, and it didn’t take me long to gravitate to the female protagonists of books by Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Moon, and Tanya Huff, to name my favorites. These amazing authors showed me how to write characters who could be both strong and sensitive, not necessarily at the exact same time, but at just the right moments, with a balance of each.

And yet, Vick Corren still felt to me as if something was off.

I wrote an entire novel for her, Assassin’s Nightmare. It earned me my first agent representation, but don’t go looking for it in bookstores. It never sold. And I firmly believe the reason for this is that the character was trying to not only tell me something about herself, but teach me about my self as well. Vick Corren is bisexual. So am I.

It took me way too long to figure that out about both of us, but once I did, things really took off. I set Vick aside for a while and wrote my first published novel, Vicious Circle, featuring a bisexual female protagonist. By now, I’d discovered Xena: Warrior Princess, and that was a game changer. Here at last was a character who was obviously bisexual, whether the network executives wanted to state it openly or not. Here was a character with significant flaws striving to redeem herself and admit to herself that she was worthy of love. If you read Vicious Circle or Threadbare, you will definitely see that influence in both main characters. We even marketed Vicious Circle as “Xena: Warrior Princess in space with the subtext as the main text.”

Shortly thereafter, another major influence, author J.A. Pitts, and his Sarah Jane Beauhall series beginning with Black Blade Blues proved that a lesbian blacksmith protagonist for a series could sell to a major New York publisher. (There were probably others, but that’s the one I was aware of in 2010. Got recommendations for me to read? I’m all ears. Toss them in the comments!) With that discovery, I was ready to give Vick Corren another chance, and another novel—Threadbare. No, I didn’t crack New York publishing, but it’s out there in the world, one more book for women who share my orientation and interests to find themselves in, one more role model proving that women can lead adventures of their own.

Final thoughts? Whatever it is you want to write, write it. Listen to your heart. If you write from there, the emotions will come across on the page, and your writing will find its market. Keep hunting until you find your role models. Learn from those who have come before you, the ones who make you feel. And finally, if you can’t find what you’re looking for on bookstore shelves… go create it, so that your work will be there for the next reader who feels just like you.


Bio: Elle Ire writes science fiction novels featuring kick-ass women who fall in love with each other. Her first novel, VICIOUS CIRCLE, released from Torquere Press in November, 2015, and was rereleased in January, 2020, by DSP Publications. Her second novel, THREADBARE, the first in the STORM FRONTS series, was released in August, 2019, by DSP Publications followed by the sequels PATCHWORK and WOVEN in 2020. Her work is represented by Naomi Davis at the Bookends Literary Agency.

Chat with her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ElleEIre or Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ElleE.IreAuthor/

Learn more at her website: http://www.elleire.com.


If you’re an author or other fantasy and science fiction creative, and want to do a guest blog post, please check out the guest blog post guidelines. Or if you’re looking for community from other F&SF writers, sign up for the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers Critclub!

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Pantsing, the Flow State, and Trusting Yourself as a Writer

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Classes That Are Coming Up Soon

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Opinion: When Writers Punch – Up, Down, or Sideways

When a writer publicly calls someone out, they need to be aware of all of the implications, including the fact that the more popular the writer, the more devastating the results can be, not due to any intrinsic quality of the writer, but the number of fans.This is, I hope, my final followup to earlier pieces on reactions to Jason Sanford’s post identifying hate-speech and similar posts in a specific forum of Baen’s Bar, Politics, and the subsequent DisCon action in removing Baen’s leader, Toni Weisskopf, as an Editor Guest of Honor. I want to address a specific phenomenon, which is writers punching people who displease them via their readers, which has been directed at Jason Sanford.

When a writer publicly calls someone out, they need to be aware of all of the implications, including the fact that the more popular the writer, the more devastating the results can be, not due to any intrinsic quality of the writer, but the number of fans. The more fans, the more likely it is that the group will contain people who, emboldened by the idea of pleasing a favorite writer, can — and will — go to lengths that go far beyond the norms of civil, and sometimes legal, behavior.
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Rambo Academy Campus Calendar for March 2021

Zoom links will be available on Patreon, pinned in #localannouncements on the Discord server, and available via the !calendar command on Discord.

How do you get access to these events? Details are here, but basically you can subscribe through Patreon or Paypal. There are free scholarships.

Event explanations:

  • Unmoderated co-working. Log on and work with other Chez Rambo peeps. Does not have to be writing. Structure is up to the participants.
  • Moderated co-working. Cat or designated other will lead three thirty minute sprints, with check-ins to say how we’re doing in between. Does not have to be writing.
  • Chillax and chat:. Hang out and craft or clean your virtual or real workspace while we talk about stuff.
  • Story discussion group. Story changes every two weeks; titles and links will be posted on Discord and Patreon. Additional resources will be in #thepanel channel on Discord.
  • Writing Games. Bring a prompt if you like. We all write for 10 minutes to the same prompt, then people who want to share theirs. Then we do that a couple more times. Great jolt of creativity.

All days
12-3 AM Midnight co-working (unmoderated)
8:30-10:30 AM Morning co-working (unmoderated)
1-3 PM Afternoon co-working (moderated, weekdays only)

Weekly Events:
Tuesdays/Thursdays:
6:30-830 PM Evening co-working (unmoderated)

Wednesday:
11-12 PM Story discussion (1st & 3rd Wed) or writing games morning session (2nd & 4th Wed)
4-5 PM Story discussion (2nd & 4th Wed) or writing games evening session (1st & 3rd Wed)

Friday:
10-11 AM Chill and chat

Upcoming Classes

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