Introduction to Sexual Violence and Science Fiction Symposium

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 3

Sexual Violence and Science Fiction

Introduction to Sexual Violence and Science Fiction Symposium

Adam McLain

Sexual violence is a difficult topic to wrestle with because it not only spans literature, media, and culture, but also inhabits various bodies and existences. Its effect is widespread but also personal. It is not only sexual and not only violent but both; it crosses the boundaries between very personal parts of a human being—their sexual organs, their sexual arousal, and their sexual engagement—and harasses it, assaults it, and enacts violence against it. Sexual violence harms individuals and societies—from the initial trauma and the recovery required afterward, to the justice (or lack thereof) that can be provided for such an action, to rape culture and the prevalence of how our society teaches its communities to act and react to each other.

Science fiction—whether it be scientific in nature, or fantastical, or horrific, or speculative—has an effect on society and individuals as well. Through various literary tools, conceits, and tropes, readers discover, learn, and grow from these texts, bringing with them the world they inhabit and experiencing a world different than—yet somewhat similar to—their own. Science fiction acts as a tool that estranges us from issues, like rape culture and sexual violence, that have become so normalized and prevalent that a step back from real life into the science fictional universe is needed to see things in our world for how strange they really are. Science fiction has the potential to bring about great change because of what it does to culture and readers: it gives us hope, it opens our eyes, and it helps us look up to the stars and imagine a world different from the one we currently inhabit. The hope, then, is that these experiences influence our own lives to make a change in the world around us.

This is not to say that science fiction is the thing that will change the world and make it a sexually just and safe place; books are still books, inanimate objects that must be read and understood before they can influence change. It is individuals and communities who must work for that change. But that influence, that perspective change, that science fiction brings is what I hope for when considering the intersection of science fiction and sexual violence. I chose a symposium on the subject because I believe that science fiction can and will help us achieve a more just world by causing us to reflect on the kind of present and future we want to build. Science fiction is a tool that can influence people who can affect their communities and societies. By bringing together scholars who analyze and discuss various points of sexual violence in science fiction, I hope that their insights will bring science fiction into closer conversation with current efforts toward sexual justice, like the #MeToo Movement, and create an introductory space for those who wish to use their educational or community action space to combat rape culture.

The symposium begins with an overview of post-1990 Chinese science fiction, showing that Chinese authors are using the genre of science fiction to create thought experiments about sexual violence and feminist thought. Following Xi Liu’s overview, Eyal Soffer analyzes later texts in Frank Herbert’s Dune series, looking specifically at how Herbert portrayed women’s power and authority in relation to sexual dynamics and hierarchies. The symposium turns to dystopian stories next, with Athira Unni’s article discussing identity and hierarchy in Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters (2017) and Ros Anderson’s The Hierarchies (2021), while Verónica Mondragón Paredes argues about the essentializing of masculinity in Virginia Bergin’s Who Runs the World? (2017) and Christina Sweeney-Baird’s The End of Men (2021). Turning from dystopia, the symposium considers horror, post-apocalypse, and space-faring science fiction, with Derek Thiess considering theories around sports in relation to the male body in Michael Swanwick’s “The Dead” (1996), Ryn Yee and Octavia Cade dismantling the logic of rape in post-apocalyptic stories, and Julia Lindsay looking at Octavia Butler’s Dawn (1987) in light of the #MeToo Movement. Leaving books and films, the symposium hones in on board and video games, with Dax Thomas discussing sex in two tabletop role-playing games, Pistol Packing Bondage Nuns from Dimension Sex (2021) and F.A.T.A.L. From Another Time, Another Land (2002); Kenzie Gordon debating whether the new Tomb Raider games (2009–2022) have an impetus of sexual violence; and Steph Farnsworth arbitrating fan conversations around bodily control in the Mass Effect series (2007–). Finally, the symposium ends with a reading of Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue (2012) by Cheyenne Heckermann, taking our discussion into a young adult fantasy series that focalizes sexual violence.

While these texts deal with fictional literary conceits, such themes are inextricable from the real harm caused by sexual violence. We recognize those who have survived sexual violence perpetrated against their body, their community, or their society. [1] We acknowledge their pain, their trauma, and the effort it will take to heal—if healing comes, for it does not always. If survivors are reading this collection, know that we believe you and we envision a future for and with you that is better—better with justice, better with care, and better with peace. We thank you for engaging with our topics, and we hope we handled them with care. This topic seems like it will always be difficult to discuss, but we hope that through discussing it, we can come to better understand it in pursuit of a more sexually just world. It is our hope that, in many ways, science fiction will continue guiding us there.


[1] I use the collective pronoun we here because I hope my fellow writers, editors, and readers join with me in acknowledging the various material realities of sexual violence.

Adam McLain researches and writes on dystopian literature, legal theory, and sexual ethics. He is currently a Harvard Frank Knox Traveling Fellow, studying twentieth-century dystopian literature and the legal history of sexual violence in the UK. He has a bachelor’s degree in English from Brigham Young University and a master of theological studies from Harvard Divinity School.

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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