Sexual Violence and Science Fiction
Sexual Assault After Apocalypse: The Limited Logic of Natural Selection
Ryn Yee and Octavia Cade
The advent of apocalypse in science fiction is often accompanied by significant loss in both human and nonhuman populations. Depressingly, this is all too often followed by a focus on rape and forced reproduction, justified within the narrative on the grounds of repopulating the planet, or ensuring the provision of viable offspring: examples of this type of sexual assault are seen in texts such as 28 Days Later, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Mad Max: Fury Road. The argument underpinning this storyline is often a pseudoscientific interpretation of natural selection, one which prioritises sexual and reproductive coercion by one or more dominant males. This interpretation, however, is limited in its use and understanding of science. It does not consider, for instance, the requisite genetic diversity required for a viable population to stay viable. Nor does it consider environmental factors which would indicate a small population is likely to be beneficial for the long-term sustainability of that population. A significantly degraded environment is unlikely to be able to support a rapidly growing population, and arguably it may be more beneficial for characters to focus on nonhuman reproduction in order to stabilise the ecology that supports them. This broad-based, ecological approach to repopulation is, however, far less popular in science fiction narratives than those based on forced reproduction and the sexual subjugation of women, arguing that popular misinterpretations of natural selection are driving narrative instead of alternate, potentially more accurate applications of the biological and ecological sciences.
Contemporary post-apocalyptic narratives can present as a “dystopian catastrophe” (De Cristofaro 6), reflective of “apocalyptic anxieties” (2) that eschew the expectations of utopian renewal that traditionally accompany literary depictions of the apocalypse. The prevalence of sexual assault in these dystopian post-apocalyptic stories is “a notable and recurrent feature” (Yar 60). Rape, in particular the rape of younger women, is present in a number of texts, justified by the rather hackneyed excuse that repopulating the world is a necessary action, and one which should be achieved by all means necessary. If dystopian, post-apocalyptic texts are reflective of contemporary anxieties, then Majid Yar’s contention that the “idea of a biologically-driven basis for sexual aggression has long enjoyed currency not only in popular prejudice, but also in legal and criminological thinking” (61) must surely act as inspiration to the authors of these texts. Similarly, Brent Ryan Bellamy notes that post-apocalyptic stories “provoke an emphatically political injunction to imagine the consequences of the political present” (6): in the context of this essay, this imagination would include the futures that may result if the so-called biologically-based excuses for sexual assault are (or remain) normalised.
The resistance that these imaginations provoke, within dystopian post-apocalyptic texts, tend to be centred around moral and political arguments such as individual liberty and the necessity of human rights. These are of course critical, but they rarely extend to health or science-based criticism of the premise. Before exploring some of this health-centred resistance, however, it is worth considering several examples of dystopian post-apocalyptic fiction where repopulating the world is used as a justification for rape.
In the film 28 Days Later (2002), for example, a few scattered survivors of a plague are promised safety at a mansion, but the ultimate purpose of this promise is the enslavement of any (fertile) women. The surviving men are promised these women, because “women mean a future,” and without the promise of that future, men may be driven to suicide. Notably, this justification doesn’t even consider that women may be driven to suicide as a result of repeated sexual assault; the status of women’s mental health is apparently irrelevant. Similarly, in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), sex slavery is instituted by Immortan Joe, who creates a forced breeding programme in order to ensure that the healthiest women in the community will bear his children and provide him with viable heirs. The strongest boys within the wider community are trained and brainwashed in order to perpetuate Joe’s hierarchy, thereby both decreasing his potential competitors for healthy women, and increasing his power over the rest of the population. On an even greater scale, in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), widespread infertility caused by environmental contamination sees fertile women forced into the role of sexually available handmaids in order to raise the birth rate. The social changes this causes are reinforced by religious fundamentalism that encourages the perception of women as child-bearers above all else, and their exploitation is therefore perceived as being both necessary and righteous.
These secondary justifications—the improvement of men’s mental health, the consolidation of existing power structures, and the imposition of religious fundamentalism—are all challenged within their separate texts. Admittedly, advocates of rape as a repopulation tactic are consistently presented within the narratives as antagonists, and this may help to undermine their poor argument by simple association. The more heroic, relatable characters are reliably in direct conflict with these antagonists. Jim is completely disgusted with the actions of the other men in 28 Days Later, and he not only refuses to be complicit in their attempts to rape both Selena and the fourteen-year-old Hannah, but actively helps them to escape. In Mad Max: Fury Road, the wives of Immortan Joe, aided by Imperator Furiosa, one of Joe’s most effective subordinates, successfully escape his control, and Joe’s regime is ultimately overthrown. Notably, in the prequel comic Mad Max Fury Road: Furiosa #1 (Miller et al. 18) one of those wives is caught attempting to induce an abortion on herself after repeated rapes by Joe which, together with the subsequent escape attempt of the film, indicates resistance on both individual and community levels. And in The Handmaid’s Tale, informal networks of men and women work together to help the handmaids and their children to escape to Canada, where their documented experiences are able to provide proof that Gilead is committing crimes under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
Most of this aid results from empathy for the women, although there is further discussion of how the religious subjugation—the sexual slavery based on biblical ideals—is outdated, no longer applicable to modern society, and resulting from religious beliefs that are hypocritically applied. Some men who argue in favour of handmaids, for instance, also visit brothels, indicating that their justification for rape likely does not stem from genuinely held religious ideals. However, even the text-based criticisms of these secondary justifications all too often do not fully critique the primary assumption for sexual violence: that repopulation is an adequate justification for sexual assault. Perhaps it is simply assumed that the sadistic and predatory behaviour of the antagonists is sufficient argument against them? This is, admittedly, a perfectly reasonable response from other, more heroic characters, from the writer, and from the audience. However, it is worthwhile to consider the potential for resistance that may be found in health and science-based objections to repopulating the dystopian, post-apocalyptic world through rape.
Popular Misinterpretation of Natural Selection and Sexual Subjugation
In many of the sexually violent post-apocalyptic texts that use the “repopulating the world” justification, there is a some sort of dominance hierarchy, one that is often based on the primacy of the fittest. The argument that some are meant to rule and some are meant to submit is clear in the above examples, and those who challenge the hierarchy are punished. They may be beaten, maimed, or killed, and this response, within the text, is meant to reinforce strict social or religious codes, particularly those that relate to gender. For example, the women in The Handmaid’s Tale may lose limbs for reading (Atwood 275), are threatened with being sent to the toxic, radioactive colonies (61), and are even hanged for their resistance to enforced hierarchy (275-276). Similarly, in Mad Max: Fury Road, the escaping wives of Immortan Joe are hunted by Joe’s War Boys, so that they may be recaptured and forced to resume their sexual subservience.
Such a representation of hierarchical behaviour may result from a misunderstanding of what is popularly called the “alpha male” or “top dog.” The term “alpha,” when used in this manner, has its origin in a 1921 study of poultry, when a researcher assigned the letter α to the female chicken at the top of the pecking order (Sumra 2). The same terminology has been used in studies on other animals, including some primates, although the most famous application has been to wolves: the term “alpha pair” was used by Rudolph Schenkel in the late 1940s, in relation to the apparently dominant pair in a captive pack of wolves (Sumra 3). However, the later realisation that captive wolves did not adequately reflect the behaviour of wild wolves has seen this term fall out of use, and it is now accepted as inaccurate.
Unfortunately, the label has stuck, and anyone who has perused the paranormal romance section of their local bookstore will be aware of its influence within speculative fiction. Fans of post-apocalyptic narratives, however, will recognise many of the same structures, albeit presented in a less direct form. Immortan Joe may not be the head of a werewolf pack, but he is certainly presented as an alpha male, even if that presentation is based on inaccurate, inapplicable, or fantasy science. This is because the existence of the alpha wolf, particularly the alpha male wolf, has become a popularly accepted truth, regardless of its actual accuracy. This misunderstanding of science has proven difficult to correct. Dave Mech, a researcher who had previously used the “alpha” terminology in his 1968 text The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, has noted with despair that the book that propagates these terms is “currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it” (Mech).
The mapping of animal dominance structures onto human societies is fundamentally flawed, and dystopian post-apocalyptic scenarios that rely on cross-species behavioural similarities do not have adequate scientific backing. Often, these texts merely reinforce the biological misconception that natural selection has resulted in there being a hierarchical model that everyone must strictly obey, and that violence—particularly sexual violence—is an inevitable consequence of that model.
Even if the idea that natural selection produces one or more alpha males who can justifiably rape in order to produce offspring were accepted in a human context, however, there are a number of other scientific problems with the “repopulating the world” justification for rape, and these centre on environmental factors, health services, and population viability.
Potential Impacts on Population Viability
The “repopulating the world” argument for sexual assault in post-apocalyptic environments is undermined by two primary factors. The first, and most critical, is that the survival of a population is not dependent on successful conception in individual women. It is dependent upon the successful raising of young to reproductive age. The second is that the long-term viability of that population is impacted by genetic diversity, with small populations becoming less viable as genetic diversity decreases.
Given that successful conception does not equate to successful reproduction and long-term population viability, the argument that repopulating the world is an adequate justification for rape completely ignores the dystopian post-apocalyptic setting. Many of those settings are resource-poor—consider the limited water in the Mad Max franchise, or decreasing availability of food in Rebecca Ley’s 2018 novel Sweet Fruit, Sour Land—and the carrying capacity of the environment may advantage a reproductive strategy that limits births rather than forcing as many as possible. Notably, narratives that prioritise repopulating the world (through any means necessary) rarely focus on rebuilding populations of pollinating insects, for example. Repopulation is limited to the human species, regardless of available resources, as if the death of those resulting children from starvation makes any meaningful contribution to species survival. Ley’s Sweet Fruit, Sour Land addresses this, with characters choosing not to have children because of the impoverished, food-poor ecology they would be born into: “To bring a child into this nothing is cruel” (Ley 95), but such decisions do not always survive the reality of rape for purposes of reproduction: “She was almost thirty. Something had to be done,” argues a doctor who is complicit in medical rape (92).
“Something had to be done.” But who decides this, and does their logic survive close scrutiny? If the goal is really “the future of mankind” or “healthy heirs” or “increase the population with particular attention to traditional values,” then the consequences of sexual violence are at direct odds with these goals. High maternal stress levels during pregnancy are correlated with low birth weight, premature birth, and developmental delays (Cardwell 119), as well as aberrations in the offspring’s neurological development, cognition, and cerebral processing (Van den Burgh et al., 26). Each situation of sexual subjugation provides a wealth of stress to expectant parents, affecting the unborn children in long-term ways that diminish their chances of attaining healthy adulthood.
Furthermore, texts that include the “repopulating the world” argument as a justification for the rape of young girls, such as the fourteen-year-old Hannah in 28 Days Later, refuse to take into account that the onset of menstruation does not negate the difference between adolescent and adult bodies, and that the negative consequences of childbearing in adolescence can be significant. If Hannah had become pregnant, her foetus would have an increased risk of premature birth, low or very low birth weight, and neonatal mortality (Torvie et al. 95.e6-95.e7). These risk factors are likely to be significantly exacerbated by the lack of available healthcare in post-apocalyptic environments, where prenatal care and effective medical intervention may be extremely limited, or even entirely absent. That Hannah’s attempted rapists consider neither her healthcare needs, nor those of her prospective infant, undermines their argument as to the supposed “necessity” of her rape: actions that actively reduce her chances of birthing healthy offspring are counterproductive to the stated goals of her intended rapists.
Similar undermining of the “repopulating the world” argument occurs in narratives where groups of women are forcibly made available to either a single dominant male, or a small group of men within a larger population. An example of this would be the multiple wives of the slaver and warlord Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road (although the term “wife” implies a level of consent which is not reflected in their circumstances). While natural selection does include the survival of the fittest, where the genes of more successful individuals have a greater chance of spreading, within a limited population this can lead to a decrease in genetic diversity, and an increased chance of inbreeding, as the pool of available genetic material becomes less diverse over generations. Decreased variation, therefore, decreases population fitness (Lacy 320). Furthermore, the treatment of women as exploitable resources within these narratives is frequently linked to, the cause of, or results from conflict within the population as to who is able to access those resources. When that conflict results in death or injuries that preclude reproduction the gene pool is further reduced.
That conflict not only reduces genetic material and contributes to maternal stress. If women are primarily treated as exploitable resources to be sexually assaulted for the perceived good of repopulation, then the less desirable futures available to girls may have unintended consequences. In the real world, societies where women’s rights, particularly their reproductive rights, are limited, sex-selected abortion or infanticide can result in an imbalance of births, with boys favoured over girls. The United Nations Population Fund notes that “sex selection in favour of boys is a symptom of pervasive social, cultural, political and economic injustices against women, and a manifest violation of women’s human rights” (UNFPA 2). The impacts of such sex-selective reduction of children are not always explored in “repopulating the world” narratives. If such a culture persists, however, the likelihood of a sex imbalance within the population increases, meaning there would be fewer female children to help populate the species—which is diametrically opposed to the justifications given for keeping women in sexual slavery to begin with.
Narratives that justify rape on the grounds of repopulating the world, therefore, rest on logic that is frequently both internally inconsistent and scientifically inaccurate. Arguably, the most effective means of viable long-term population survival lies in both increased maternal wellbeing, and increased genetic diversity, but few post-apocalyptic dystopias of this sort are interested in allowing women the freedom to choose their own partners, or the choice to reproduce at all. Neither are they particularly interested in assessing the viability of genetic material in pre-existing sperm banks, for example, to supplement the limited material present in those who survived the apocalypse. Rape appears to be a more attractive narrative option.
It is difficult to ascertain exactly why this is so, without making assumptions about individual authors. If the “repopulating the world” justification for rape in post-apocalyptic dystopias was routinely criticised on scientific or health-based grounds—a criticism that could easily exist alongside moral arguments for freedom and self-determination—then the prevalence of this unpleasant trope might be more reliably related to the desire to introduce conflict into the text, even if it is a conflict of the most unimaginative kind. Given that so many post-apocalyptic texts that use rape to repopulate the world do very little to explore any of the above issues, however, may indicate a wider misunderstanding of the science of reproductive health in both the producers, and the consumers, of post-apocalyptic fiction.
28 Days Later. Directed by Danny Boyle, DNA Films, 2002.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor Books, 1998.
Bellamy, Brent Ryan. Remainders of the American Century: Post-Apocalyptic Novels in the Age of US Decline. Wesleyan UP, 2021.
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De Cristofaro, Diletta. The Contemporary Post-Apocalyptic Novel: Critical Temporalities and the End Times. Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.
Lacy, Robert C. “Importance of Genetic Variation to the Viability of Mammalian Populations.” Journal of Mammalogy, vol. 78, no. 2, 1997, pp. 320-35.
Ley, Rebecca. Sweet Fruit, Sour Land. Sandstone Press, 2018.
Mad Max: Fury Road. Directed by George Miller, Village Roadshow Pictures, 2015.
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Miller, George, et al. Mad Max Fury Road: Furiosa #1. Vertigo, 2015.
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Torvie, Ana J., et al. “Labor and Delivery Outcomes Among Young Adolescents.” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, vol. 213, no. 1, 2015, pp. 95.e1-95.e8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajog.2015.04.024
United Nations Population Fund. Sex Imbalances at Birth: Current Trends, Consequences, and Policy Implications. UNFPA Asia and the Pacific Regional Office, 2012.
Van den Bergh, Bea R.H., et al. “Prenatal Developmental Origins of Behavior and Mental Health: The Influence of Maternal Stress in Pregnancy.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, vol. 117, 2020, pp. 26-64.
Yar, Majid. Crime and the Imaginary of Disaster: Post-Apocalyptic Fictions and the Crisis of Social Order. Palgrave Pivot, 2015.
Ryn Yee is an American immigrant to New Zealand. Their poetry has appeared in several charity anthologies, including Pride Park, Invisible: The Mystery of Hidden Illness, and The Longest Night Watch (Volume 2). They also spent several years writing for the magazines Twin Cities Geeks and Books and Quills. They have a background in education and publishing. They are currently working through a post-graduate diploma in science communication with a particular focus on reproductive choice, disability, and speculative fiction.
Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer with a Ph.D. in science communication. Her previous academic work on the intersection between science and speculative fiction has appeared in venues including Horror Studies, Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, MOSF Journal of Science Fiction, Supernatural Studies, as well as a number of academic anthologies. She’s sold close to seventy short stories to markets such as Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, F&SF, and Asimov’s. She’s won four Sir Julius Vogel Awards and was the 2020 writer in residence at Massey University.