Bridget Lawless responds to novelist Helen Field's criticism of the Staunch prize, which rewards crime fiction that does not feature violence against women
Claiming to be late to a debate she deliberately avoided last year, author Helen Fields times her critique of Staunch Book Prize to land on the publication date of her latest serial killer novel (Why I won't stop writing about violence against women, BookBrunch 18 April). But her misleading attack needs setting straight.
Staunch Book Prize was conceived around the time of #Me Too and the launch of the Time's Up campaign. As an award for thrillers in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered, it aims to challenge the proliferation and increasingly graphic nature of violence towards women in popular culture (books, TV drama and film) - to spark a conversation around the issue and ask people at least to notice. We felt that the endless depiction of women as victims - particularly of sexual violence - sat uneasily beside the real life battles that women face in calling out men for harrassment, stalking and rape; women, who are often disbelieved, face losing their jobs and careers if they speak out, and all too frequently fail to receive justice if and when rape cases come to court.
"We need to talk openly about violence to women, and in particular sexual violence," Fields states. "We should encourage it into the open, see it and call it out. Because it's everywhere. No one is immune to it, whatever their age, education, or profession." It is as if Staunch had imposed a ban on such discussions, rather than opened them up by questioning whether an overabundance of stories that feature women as victims of sadistic violence as entertainment risks normalising it, is a damaging representation, and inures us to it on both a conscious and subconscious level.
"The Staunch Prize loudly and clearly invites alternatives to thrillers with violence to women"
Thankfully, many deeply committed people are talking about real life violence in real life, especially sexual violence towards women, in different fields of awareness - raising, campaigning, law-making, educating and by working in women's refuges and rape crisis centres. Some women offer their own painful experiences of grooming, rape, trafficking and domestic violence to the world in order to inform, warn or demand justice and changes in the law. We know, because we work with them, follow them, read them and talk to them, and they are in no doubt what Staunch is for and about. But Fields seems to be suggesting that writing fictional stories in which women are tortured, raped and graphically murdered is somehow equally effective, if not more so, in highlighting violence to women.
She goes on to claim that that she doesn't differentiate between her characters based on gender, "because it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman when you're raped, beaten or terrorised. Pain, fear and helplessness are the ultimate equalisers."
But there is a huge difference. For men and women, pain, fear and helplessness don't even start equal. Sexual violence towards women is a deeply rooted societal inequity - the threat and fear of it as well as the reality. Women carry it as an ever-present danger. And how many thrillers have you read, watched, or indeed written, where a man is raped? How many where a man is beaten or terrorised because he's a man? How many TV shows or movies where men are abducted or trafficked and held as sex slaves? It's a fact that more men get assaulted and murdered in real life than women, but very rarely in the same ways, mostly by other men, and often over territory or things of monetary value, or occasionally "honour". In contrast, women are targeted in real life and fiction because they're women.
Fields continues: "The Staunch Prize, let's be blunt, offers an accolade for writers who write only about men being victimised. I find that offensive on its own."
No, we absolutely don't! The opposite is spelt out clearly on the same "ABOUT" page of our website that Fields quotes from elsewhere. In fact, the Staunch Prize loudly and clearly invites alternatives to thrillers with violence to women, specifically stating that this doesn't just mean stories in which men are the victims. Both our submissions and our shortlist demonstrated that this was not how the prize's intentions were interpreted by entrants – whether authors or publishers. (I hope what they saw was the chance for a good piece of work to gain some publicity and notice.)
Our first shortlist of six did, however, feature four stories where men (and women) were killed because they were refugees, violent criminals, terrorists, or targeted because they were black. In the fifth, a man died in a hit-and-run accident, and in the sixth, no men (or women) were killed at all. No male character in any of the entries was raped, and none was killed because he was a man.
As is now well known, the majority of real life rapists in places not at war (where rape is sanctioned and weaponised to a horrific degree) are "ordinary" men who force themselves on women they already know or have at least met, and all too often do so when the woman is incapacitated in some way. Some do this repeatedly. Some only once. The few who are prosecuted do everything they can to destroy the woman's reputation in order to preserve their own, making it a double assault. But rapists like these don't make good crime fiction. There's no great detection involved in going to the address of a known assailant. No intriguing red herrings along the way. No detective battling their own demons as they try to track down and catch the perp.
Real life rape sees the ruthless exploration of the woman's sexual history/alcohol use before the CPS decides if she will or won't make a "good" witness, followed by the demolition of her character if it comes to court. Check out the Guardian's recent podcast "When rape cases don't make it to trial" (18 April 2019) for a disheartening example of that process in a real case.
Fields takes issue with our mention of research into juror-bias and rape myths, saying: "notably the only apparent research applies to rape charges, although I'd love the prize organisers to have cited their source given that jurors cannot be questioned about their motivations".
It's true that jurors can't be questioned about their motivations, but they can be questioned to determine pre-existing attitudes before a trial. A quick Google of the terms "juror-bias" or "rape myths and rape trials" would have turned up various pieces of research, including that of psychologist Dr Dominic Willmott, a specialist in criminal and legal psychology who works across gender, sexual and domestic violence.
His groundbreaking approach used a form of psychometric testing to determine subconsciously-held beliefs in a group of men and women who took part in reconstructed rape trials played out by actors and real life barristers. The participants were selected from the electoral roll and given the now standard warning judges give jurors about rape myths. It was possible to predict accurately from this which "jurors" would find the rapist guilty and which would not, whatever the evidence. The research is summarised very well here by barrister Nigel Booth, who played a part in the reconstructions.
That subconsciously held beliefs about what rape is and what rapists are like can predict a given juror's likely verdict as guilty or not guilty in advance has already raised the question of whether jury trials are safe and appropriate in rape cases. Dr Willmott's research is being listened to by prosecutors and judges, and has been referenced in the House of Commons and Northern Ireland Assembly in ongoing enquiries about why rape convictions in the UK are so low. I'm grateful someone's doing this work, and I'm delighted Dominic came on board to be one of the Staunch Book Prize judges this year.
We have to ask ourselves where these blinkered ideas about rapists come from. Why, when it's so widely understood that 90% of rapists are known to their victims, do people persist in thinking of a rapist not as an "ordinary bloke" but as the stranger who drags his victim down a dark ally, or as a serial killer, psychopath, or that guy who abducts women and keeps them in a locked basement. Those assailants do exist, but they are the exception, not the norm.
In crime fiction, it's the other way around. Could it be that fiction, novels, and of course, film and television series (often based on novels), along with tabloid coverage of rare but high-profile cases have helped paint a picture so unforgettable, so deeply embedded, that it can unintentionally affect a jury's verdict despite evidence that should convict? That is not a "dangerous" idea dreamt up by Staunch. It is a question already being asked by those responsible for delivering justice.
Some critics of Staunch claim that they write about violence towards women "because it happens". Fields cites her own experience of rape as one of the reasons she both writes crime fiction and finds Staunch "offensive". Yet nowhere does this prize deny or devalue any woman's experience or suggest it should be silenced. Quite the contrary.
I can absolutely believe that it may be empowering for some women to write fiction about violent or sexual assaults having lived through the experience. Equally it may be cathartic for some survivors to immerse themselves in reading stories that reflect their own dreadful experiences. But these repsonses are subjective and deeply personal, case by case, not a universal truth.
Surely no one is suggesting stories involving sexual assault should be recommended reading at every rape crisis centre? And for women all over the world who have lived with the continuous threat and reality of rape - refugees, women in war and disaster zones, women trafficked in the sex trade, young girls groomed and raped by gangs - is anyone seriously suggesting that for these women, reading fiction about helpless female victims subjected to rape, torture, captivity and sadistic murder would bring some kind of benefit or peace of mind? We're not saying such books shouldn't exist. People should write and read what they like. But they are neither an accurate reflection of rape or violence statistics or any kind of cure-all.
"Is Staunch censorship? No, it is not. Literally no one is going to write a book in order to enter a single competition"
Does anyone have the moral high ground here? I don't believe so. I see differences of opinion about what matters, what is "good" for women and what might effect positive change for women in the world. Fields has her point of view while we at Staunch take a different view. Yet we both believe violence towards women is a bad thing. My intelligence and integrity have been attacked (almost exclusively by crime writers) but the questions Staunch raise strike a strong note with many readers, writers and thinkers.
Is Staunch censorship? No, it is not. Literally no one is going to write a book in order to enter a single competition. But some writers have told us they have thought more critically about what they write, and why, and are taking a fresh look at their work because of this prize. Their reflections are interesting, and we hope to bring some of that dialogue out soon.
When Fields announces she "doesn't want a prize that would reward her for shutting up", it sounds highly principled. Except that Staunch is not a prize against speaking out. It's meaningless to reject a prize for a competition she's under no obligation to enter and, as a writer of novels that feature women being tortured and murdered, couldn't win. Helen Fields is free to write whatever she wants, but her work doesn't fulfil the entry criteria for this prize.
For the record, the conversation and controversy about these issues isn't mine and Staunch's alone. I get queries every week from people writing or making programmes about violence towards women in popular culture. People are noticing, commenting, asking why there is so much of it, why it's become so graphic and whether it's had its time. As advertising has long since proven, how fictional women are represented affects how women are seen and treated in real life. That's why it gets called out, and, slowly but surely, alongside changing attitudes, for reasons both political and financial, it evolves in order to stay relevant and survive.
Photo of Bridget Lawless by Clare Park
Bridget Lawless is founder of the Staunch Book Prize, which closes for entries on 14 July.