This post has spoilers that go right up to the last few chapters of Downbelow Station.
So don’t read it if you don’t want spoilers! Big ones!
Now that that’s out of the way, also a content warning – this post talks about rape. Although that itself isn’t a spoiler, since the alluded-to rape happens in the first few chapters. But it’s another possible reason not to read this.
Early in the book, a character (Josh) is taken as prisoner of war by a warship captain (Mallory) and used as a sex slave during his captivity. He is clearly raped by her, seemingly multiple times, before being left at Downbelow Station. He’s damaged by this, and later in the novel when Mallory returns, makes an attempt to murder her in revenge.
Later on, Mallory begins a redemption arc. She’s shown to be one of the least bad captains, given the situation. In the end, she breaks from the fleet admiral and turns on her former comrades in order to save the station and save the lives of tens of thousands of civilians that were to be slaughtered. It’s a great emotional moment, which builds for chapters as we see more and more injustice through Mallory’s eyes, and feel her silently raging against it, until she realizes the holocaust that’s about to take place and simply cannot stomach to accept orders anymore. We readers are very glad she switches sides and comes to the rescue. However it occurred to me as I was reading it that if this had been a male captain who had raped a female sex slave in the early chapters of the book, I wouldn’t be even a fraction as accepting of this redemption arc. I might accept it grudgingly, because preventing holocausts is a good thing. But I’d be angry with the author and wondering what the hell they are trying to pull. As it was, I was only really uncomfortable and struggling with this dissonance.
Then, in the last chapters, Josh returns to Mallory and volunteers to join her crew. And is accepted. He is now part of a family, content to be a crew member of the captain who raped him repeatedly. If this was a male captain and a female character going back to him in kinship, I would have thrown the book across the fucking room and cursed the fucking author. Disgusting, and unbelievable, and infuriating. As it was, I was again only uncomfortable… and now REALLY struggling with the fact that I feel that I should be outraged, but I’m just kinda fucked up instead.
Why the hell are the two situations so different? I did, of course, turn to rationalization right away. Men are less likely to contract STIs from women. Men can’t get pregnant, the most horrific STI of all. Men raped by women are far less likely to by physically damaged by the act. Men do not suffer the stigma and (depending on the society) loss of status of being “impure” or “dirtied” by the act.
However the violation of bodily autonomy is just as present. The helplessness of being an object used by someone else is just as damaging. It was still rape, after all. Shouldn’t I be just as outraged? I should be enraged that this character could be portrayed as forgiving and living with (and under the command of) his rapist.
I’m still not sure what to make of all this. I don’t have any statements or conclusions to make. I’m just expressing my own discomfort with my non-equal emotional reactions in this post. I think that Cherryh was wise to choose the sexes of Josh/Mallory as she did, because this would have been unacceptable to most audiences if written with their sexes swapped. But, OTOH, it probably would have also been written very differently if their sexes were swapped, and likely would have resolved in a completely different way. So the fact that we are more willing to accept it written this way says something about us. With this subplot, Cherryh has held up a mirror to me, and shown me an aspect of myself I was unaware of. And done that to our society as a whole, I venture. That’s good writing.
Still weirded out by myself, though.