Sexual assault in fiction can be portrayed in a number of ways, and reinforced through healthy and unhealthy behaviors. Some books show examples of how consent should be looked for, and other books show examples of harmful behaviors regarding consent. One book that is an example of the latter is Savage Thunder by Johanna Lindsey, which was set in the 1800s.
The main character is Jocelyn Fleming, a 19 year old Duchess of England. She was married to a much older man who eventually passed away. He was impotent, and Jocelyn was worried that if people knew she was a virgin, it would reflect badly on her husband. Jocelyn didn’t want anyone to know about her late husband’s condition, so she wanted to lose her virginity. She was on the run from a murderous detective, and she moved to the United States. There, she meets Colt Thunder: a half Native American, half white man who hates white women. She hires him to help her reach Wyoming. The rest of the book is about how their relationship develops as well as how they stop the detective.
Personally, I thought that the plot was incoherent, and I was bothered by the negative stereotypes the author used for Native Americans. Jocelyn used Colt’s attraction toward her to get what she wanted, and Colt did the exact same thing to get what he wanted. Their behavior was manipulative. There are more issues with the book, but the worst aspect for me was its portrayal of sexual assault. There were multiple examples in which assault was glorified and/or trivialized.
Here are the examples that I found the most startling:
Colt was unnerved by his attraction to Jocelyn (because she was a white woman, and he hated white women), so he wanted to stay away from her. He tried to get himself fired by kissing her. Brutally. There was no consent involved, and the author even tries to justify this by saying that Colt gave her every opportunity to stop him. The author kept saying that Jocelyn could have struggled or cried out, but she didn’t.
Colt tried to harm her instead of dealing with how he felt. He was more worried about his own feelings than her consent. Instead of dealing with how he felt in a mature way (or confiding in Jocelyn), he resorted to doing a harmful act. This is an attempt to “excuse” sexual assault and demonstrates an unhealthy way of communicating and dealing with emotions.
Colt kept trying to drive Jocelyn away from him by convincing her that he was an uncivilized savage. He kept putting himself down so that she would stay away from him because he was unsettled by his attraction to her. She said that there was nothing he could do to convince her that he was a savage. Colt threatened Jocelyn, then assaulted her, apparently trying to prove that he was a savage. She tried to get him off of her, but he wouldn’t move. He let go after she pleaded with him. The author then said that it was wrong of Jocelyn to challenge him and to not accept it.
No matter what a person says, that does not give someone else the right to assault them. He intentionally assaulted her to make her fear him. He essentially manipulated her so that he could get what he wanted. He wanted her to stay away from him so that he would not have to deal with the fact that he was attracted to her. Again, this form of communication is very unhealthy and it should not be condoned.
There was an instance in the book in which Colt touched Jocelyn while she was sleeping. The second Jocelyn fell asleep, Colt said he knew he could do whatever he wanted with her at any time. Eventually, he started touching her.
Jocelyn woke up and told Colt to let go of her. Colt said that he couldn’t wait and that she was given fair warning. Jocelyn told him that she didn’t expect to be attacked. He responded by saying that since she (the maiden) let him (the Cheyenne warrior) touch her in the past, he was allowed to treat her like his property.
This justification has more problems than I can count. First of all, it’s not historically accurate. There is evidence that suggests that Native Americans have historically viewed sexual assault as a severe crime. It was uncommon for Native Americans to commit such crimes, but when they did, the punishments were harsh and there were less repeat offenses. Native Americans also viewed men and women as equal, which meant that women would not have been treated as property. The author wanted to further the bias against Native Americans, portray them as savages, and justify sexual assault by including false information. Even though this is a historical fiction book, facts should not be twisted and ignored, especially for a matter as serious as sexual assault.
Colt said that he couldn’t wait. It seemed like he was prioritizing his own sexual desires over Jocelyn’s consent. Both people should be in agreement, and if one person does not want to keep going or even start, that should be acknowledged and the other person should stop immediately. Jocelyn was also asleep, which means that she couldn’t consent. The author is trying to justify this by saying that Jocelyn had fair warning (Colt insinuated that he would not stay away from her) and by stating inaccurately that women belong to him. This excerpt suggests that if you are intimate with someone in the past, then they automatically have a right to your body. That is not true at all. No matter what relationship you have with someone, they are not allowed to touch you without your consent. Consent should always be sought after, ongoing, clearly expressed, and respected.
After he assaulted her while she was sleeping, she justified it by saying that he lost control. She said that him losing control was understandable because she fell asleep. He justified it by saying that he lost his patience and that she “heated his blood”. They treated what happened as a romantic thing. However, feeling sexually attracted to someone does not justify assault. He should have found another way to deal with that feeling of losing control instead of assaulting Jocelyn.
The sexual assault was never dealt with properly. Even when she protested, it wasn’t talked about much. They either moved past it every time as if it wasn’t important or tried to justify the actions. This book isn’t only excusing his actions – it’s trivializing assault.
There are multiple reasons why glorifying and trivializing sexual assault in books is harmful.
People who don’t know about consent could think that this is normal or even romantic. Sexual assault should not be normalized or glorified. It is a crime which should be taken very seriously and has numerous effects on survivors. Survivors should be advocated for, not blamed. The actions of the perpetrator should not be justified.
This book (and other books that glorify assault) could be used to reinforce some preexisting beliefs. An example would be the belief that once someone touches you, they can touch you whenever they want. People may start blaming the victim for letting the perpetrator touch them before. However, we have a right to our bodies. Sexual assault can still occur within a relationship, marriage, etc., and how the survivor feels is valid. In any relationship, the people should stop when the consent is unclear or taken away. If the person does not want to begin, that should also be respected.
In this book, we do not see healthy communication, especially when it came to sexual activity. The characters made assumptions and did not listen to each other. Their relationship was unhealthy. The media – as well as the people around us – influence us in many ways. If we don’t see healthy communication and relationships around us, it may be harder for us to be in healthy relationships. In the same way, if we don’t see properly expressed consent, it may be more difficult for people to practice consent because they might not know what proper consent is. This could lead to blurred lines and unacceptable behavior.
This is why it is so important to be surrounded with media that portrays proper consent and healthy relationships, whether those are romantic, familial, etc. I hope this book can be a lesson for all of us, and I hope that we can write more books that handle sexual assault in a better way. This can benefit us as well as the future generations, and it could shape our interactions for the better.