Sexual Violence and Science Fiction
The End of Rape? Essentializing Masculinity in Male Extinction Dystopias
Verónica Mondragón Paredes
Over the last five years, works depicting the sudden extinction of humankind have populated mainstream media. Pandemics often feature prominently in the dystopian subgenre of science fiction (SF), including those that target only one portion of the population. Who Runs the World? (2017) by Virginia Bergin and The End of Men (2021) by Christina Sweeney-Baird are speculative fiction novels that portray the drastic reduction of the male population by means of airborne viruses. The novels explore the evolution of male sexual and bodily autonomy over the course of their near extinction, yet only include assaults targeting female victims. Relying on Beverly A. McPhail’s (2015) comprehensive Feminist Framework Plus (FFP), this narrative approach will be shown to perpetuate the theory of rape as a performance of normative masculinity. Though sexual violence operates across sexual and gender spectrums, it disproportionately affects female-presenting people. In this paper, I will argue that, while sexual violence is used as a social control instrument against the remaining male population, individual instances of rape of men against women essentialize masculinity as aggression and femininity as victimhood. The result is two novels that absolve women from the responsibility of sexual violence and posit that the end of rape at the individual level will follow from the extinction of men, the presupposed primary perpetrators.
The main common ground between Who Runs the World? and The End of Men, aside from both being written by British women, is the origin of the viruses that cause the death of most male populations. With a genetic source, the viruses in both novels “targeted anyone with a Y chromosome” (Bergin ch.2), effectively reducing gender down to chromosomal differences in the human body. In the case of Who Runs the World?, the virus causes the death of the infected patient within 24 hours, while The End of Men’s virus shows symptoms on day 3 and kills on day 5 (Sweeney-Baird ch.8). Infection, as with other airborne viruses, happens as people get into contact with air contaminated by droplets or particles expelled by an infected person. Women can also be infected by the viruses and become hosts, but largely due to the protection afforded by their XX chromosomes, they do not succumb to the illnesses. However, a relevant difference between the novels is the period of the extinction they portray. The End of Men commences with patient zero in the United Kingdom and covers the following five years of the Plague, including the apocalyptic increase in male death rates and the development of a vaccine. On the other hand, Who Runs the World? is set sixty years after the outbreak, featuring 14-year-old River living in a new semi-feudal matriarchal society set up after the death of most men, with the survivors relocated to Sanctuaries to keep them safe (Bergin ch.2). Both showcase how men’s sexual and civil rights are curtailed in efforts to ensure the survival of the human race.
The implications of the sexual violence portrayed in Who Runs the World? and The End of Men can be understood by employing Dr. Beverly A. McPhail’s etiology of rape, the Feminist Framework Plus (FFP). This framework uses the knitting method introduced by David Kalmar and Robert Sternberg, “whereby the best aspects of existing theories in a given domain are integrated within a new framework” (McPhail 8). The FFP is a feminist model that unifies multiple theories to describe the motivations behind rape, such as sexual gratification, revenge, power/control, and attempts to achieve or perform masculinity. It acknowledges the lack of explanatory power of individual theories—such as the radical theory of rape as motivated by power/control or rape as performance of normative masculinity. The main limitation of the FFP for this analysis is the lack of a theoretical explanation for female sexual offenders and same-sex female rape. As such, the instances of female-on-male sexual violence in the novels will be analyzed using only the theory of rape as a tool for social control and the strand regarding the motive of revenge, while acknowledging that they demonstrate a gap in the study of rationales for rape.
As was mentioned in the introduction, sexual violence disproportionately affects female-identifying people in a patriarchal society, even as it operates across sexual and gender spectrums. According to the Rape Crisis England & Wales organization, 1 in 5 women have been raped or sexually assaulted as an adult, whereas for men it’s 1 in 20 (RCEW). Similarly, Dr. McPhail mentions Dr. Peggy Reeves Sanday’s (1981) classic study on rape as support for finding matriarchal societies—symbolized as having “respect for female authority”—as rape-free societies, while “rape-prone societies were associated with interpersonal violence, male social dominance, and the subordination of women” (McPhail 4). These are all arguments in favor of the theory of rape as performance of normative masculinity, in which sexual violence is a social practice that helps engage men with their manhood at the individual level, and uphold patriarchal societies at the State level. It is nonetheless a gender essentialist view of rape that reduces masculinity to the capacity to exert violence and femininity to its receptacle, negating the capacity of women to enact sexual violence.
Role reversals, in which women are given the attributes of economic, political, and sexual dominance (LeFanu 37), have also been criticized because some approaches embrace the essentialist assumption that matriarchal societies are inherently more peaceful (Gilarek 236). This assumption can be observed in varying degrees in the novels, mostly espoused by Who Runs the World?. The post-apocalyptic semi-feudal society is described as one in which “[a]ll wars ended overnight because it didn’t seem to matter much who had killed whom in the past, or over what. . . . War ended because women had no interest in war whatsoever” (Bergin ch.4). This same sentiment, that conflict ended or at least changed form with the extinction of men, is echoed in The End of Men, when a combatant in the Chinese Civil War is being interviewed: “We maintained a brief twenty-four-hour window of peace to agree we would not use violence unless absolutely necessary to defend ourselves. We have seen men wage war since the dawn of time. Nobody wins the wars men fight” (Sweeney-Baird ch.32). In this example, sexual violence specifically is mentioned in its role as a masculine weapon: “For the first time, rape is not a tool in this war” (ch.32). Likewise, rape is alluded to as an anachronism in Who Runs the World? when River recalls the lessons they have been taught at school about men: “We girls got a talking-to from the Granmummas about ‘no means no’—which didn’t make a great deal of sense to us, because what else would ‘no’ mean?” (Bergin ch.14) Nonetheless, men experience sexual violence in the novels even if it does not present as rape.
The first indication of violence against men is the curtailing of civil rights in The End of Men at the beginning of the pandemic. The first motive for rape examined here is revenge, as recognized by the FFP, which can be enacted against an individual man or woman, or against men or women as a group. In the novel, Dawn is a character that works for an unnamed British intelligence agency with access to Interpol reports. When describing the current situation in Moldova, she recalls the country as “one of the prime sources of sex trafficking” and sexual slavery in the world before the Plague (Sweeney-Baird ch.67). Four and half years after the virus, the situation is deemed an “overcorrection” when an all-female, anti-men Freedom Party illegally detains all men while they await trial on sex trafficking charges. Considering 8000 men are unaccounted for and that the death penalty is being widely used without due process, this is an example of structural violence, as the Moldovan government has failed to uphold the human rights of men in the country. The direct result of decades of sexual violence against women who have now gained power is the institutional failure to protect the men who are now the minority.
This phenomenon is exacerbated by the interplay of structural and individual violence against men, as it represents the endorsement of the latter by an authority. An example of this is the murder committed by Irina, a Russian housewife, against her husband: “He is still alive. Why? Why him? He beats me every evening. He is the worst kind of man” (Sweeney-Baird ch.32). After smothering him with a pillow, she calls the number to have the body removed from their apartment and is surprised by the lack of inquiries, which allows her to commit this crime with impunity. The violent act here serves as revenge against an individual man, whereas the Moldovan case refers to revenge against men as a group, both for retribution after years of sexual abuse. Despite the injustices suffered by women, this androcidal violence commonplace in science fiction “remains highly questionable ethically” and “[women] cannot be completely absolved of the responsibility” (Gilarek 236). Though not expressed in sexual terms, the origins of the violence described here are of a sexual nature and therefore examples of sexual violence in this male extinction dystopia.
Explicit institutional sexual violence against men can be better observed in Who Runs the World? as the matriarchal society is better established after the two generations that have passed since the virtual extinction of men. In an alleged attempt to protect uninfected men from the virus, they are placed in Sanctuaries with no women, cutting them off from any outside contact. In a biological essentialist process, they are nicknamed by the government after the chromosomes that make them vulnerable to the virus. This is portrayed by protagonist River at the beginning of the novel when she encounters a runaway boy, Mason: “I have never seen an XY in my life. No one has seen an XY in sixty years… It cannot be an XY” (Bergin ch.2). Although he is badly wounded, “Permission to treat is refused. Pain relief only. They’ll learn more from the body if he…fights to the last. He could help other XYs. He could help all of us” (Bergin ch.3). The protocol negates treatment because the men, once exposed to the outside world, are believed to be doomed to succumb to the virus and thus researchers can study their deaths. In this way, the novel’s authorities showcase structural violence in the restriction of access to healthcare.
The second motive behind the violation of men’s bodily and sexual autonomy is presented as a necessity of the survival of the human race: after River discovers Mason outside of a Sanctuary and discovers he can survive the virus due to being genetically modified, she questions why the men are kept locked up anyway. The answer is, they’re being sold for their sperm: “We have the most advanced IVF programme. We have nothing that the world needs—except a reliable, virus-proof supply of sperm” says River’s mother, a government representative (Bergin ch.22). Mason aptly responds: “You ain’t got sperm. That’s all I’m good for to you, isn’t it?” (Bergin ch.22), evidencing the process of commodification of men’s bodies on the basis of their reproductive capabilities. In The End of Men, men are also reduced to their genitals: “I have the delightful job of creating an Urgency of Care Protocol… If You’re a Man with a Working Penis We Want to Keep You Alive” (Sweeney-Baird ch.30). In this last example, which contrasts with the access to treatment seen in the other novel, it is favorable to men to be discriminated against, as it gives them priority access, at the expense of being reduced to their reproductive organs.
This process evolves with time in Who Runs the World?, as men are dehumanized given their near-extinction. Conceived of as commodities by the older women in charge, younger girls who have never interacted with men have a hard time accepting their humanity: “Thing. Creature. Boy…It almost looks human” (Bergin ch.8). This facilitates the use of sexual violence using the third motive of power/control as supported by the FFP, where rape is used as a state instrument of social control over men in the novel. Within the Sanctuaries, the Fathers act as proxy authorities to the women that cannot enter for risk of infecting the men, using guns to control the male population. River asks Mason whether rape is also present, “unable to believe there could be any other answer than no,” to which he answers, “That happens” (Bergin ch.13). Using the FFP, this is one example of the normative masculinity theory for rape, since the power differentials between the Fathers and the rest of the men in the Sanctuaries allow for this violation (McPhail 12). However, since the Fathers’ authority is only a proxy of the women’s, this sexual violence between men is part of a cycle meant so that the matriarchal society can dominate the male population without intervening directly.
In spite of being full of examples of institutional violence against men, there are scant specific instances of individual sexual violence against men in the novels. The most prominent are those in The End of Men displaying sexual harassment against men. After a vaccine is developed, one of the novel’s narrators, Catherine from the UK, meets a man named James at a house party. He describes his experiences being flirted at by women, with ninety-five percent of the encounters being relatively tame and the other five percent being more aggressive. Regarding the latter, he complains about the harassment to female friends, who either agree with him or let him know that they “knew exactly how that felt and it was part of their daily life until a couple of years previously” (Sweeney-Baird ch.65). This last group evidences the usefulness of the role-reversal to showcase what sexual violence against women in the real world would look like for men in a fictional one. Nonetheless, this narrative of harassment against men is undermined within the novel when men immune to the virus are described to be more egotistical, with a god complex, and more aggressive towards women:
The basic rules of economics would suggest that as the supply of men decreased, the demand for them would increase. From the sharp rise in reports of abusive message we received—messages with unrequested dick pics, insulting demands for sex, etc.—a lot of our male users thought the tide would turn that way. But it was the opposite. (Sweeney-Baird ch.53)
Instead, as women are faced with a 90% reduction of their dating pool, a portion decide to start dating women. All in all, the implications of individual sexual violence against men in a world where they are the minority are downplayed by the novel.
Although sexual assault is mostly absent from The End of Men, rape does feature in the novel, but only against a female character. Catherine, mentioned above, was a mother whose husband died because of the Plague. Before her son succumbs to the illness, she decides to escape to the Devon countryside to isolate her child. A few hours after arriving, though, a man breaks into her aunt’s cottage and proceeds to intimidate her. She immediately thinks of the worst consequences: “My brain is expecting him to charge toward me, pummel me or rape me or kill me” (Sweeney-Baird ch.22). In the normative masculinity theory of the FFP, rape as a masculinity building tool can also take form as “an added bonus in the commission of another crime” (McPhail 12). In this case, Catherine reasons that the stranger breaking into her aunt’s cottage will take advantage of being alone with her in an isolated area to rape or murder her. However, the changing gender dynamics in this male extinction dystopia are revealed when she uses the threat of the male-killing virus to scare the delinquent off: “This is my house. You shouldn’t be here. I have the virus. My son has the virus. If I so much as breathe near you, you’ll catch it and you’ll die” (Sweeney-Baird ch.22). After he scurries off, she reveals she has “never felt so powerful” (ch.22). Although this scene clearly captures the power over men that women are gaining with the advent of the virus, the potential perpetrator of a sexual crime is still a man.
On the other hand, there are two instances of sexual assault in Who Runs the World?. The first is mentioned by River when she describes the rape of a woman named Astra from a nearby community. More attention is paid to the restorative justice system that dealt with the rape than to the rape itself, since no other details are shared: “The report of the case was public, as all 150 Court cases are. There was shock and there was anger and there was huge sorrow” (Bergin ch.14). Readers should assume that the perpetrator of the rape was another woman since men are virtually extinct. However, this omission results in rape being perceived as something women experience and not commit. Furthermore, the novel describes how “Astra chose to advise and support on rape—of which there are so few cases” (ch.14). As mentioned earlier, this works to position the matriarchal society as a rape-free one, defined by the lack of sexual violence enacted against women. In spite of the already identified instances of rape used as an instrument of social control against men in the novel, this example’s lack of a perpetrator locates femininity only within victimhood and not as a perpetrator of sexual violence.
This is further developed by the sexual assault against River, which is perpetrated by a man. While driving around an airport, she discovers containers full of men and decides to break one of them out. As soon as they are alone in the woods after escaping from the authorities surrounding the area, he tries to grope her: “Its lips crash against mine, poisonous and ugly. Its body presses. I push it away. I push so hard – but it grabs back harder – so hard my shoulders feel the physics of escape” (Bergin ch.21). She’s able to survive because he is unfamiliar with the terrain and falls from a small cliff to his death. As she grapples with this event, she exhibits behavior aligned with sexual assault trauma, such as memory gaps, going from not wanting to wash to having an irrepressible urge to do so, or not wanting to be touched by Mason: “By an XY, I do not want to be touched. Not ever again” (Bergin ch.23). Although this assault is framed through River’s nonhuman conception of men—this is the first adult man she meets—it is still an instance of sexual violence as motivated by normative masculinity as espoused by the FFP. Despite not being brought up together, they each were nevertheless socialized as feminine and masculine, in the outside world and in the Sanctuaries, respectively.
In the context of widespread male extinction carried out by seemingly unstoppable viruses, men feel threatened and need to reassert their masculinity. More specifically, their motivations conform to the idea that “some men rape, not because they feel powerful, but rather because they feel powerless” (McPhail 7). In The End of Men this manifests with Irina’s husband escalating his abuse of her, while the intruder in Catherine’s cottage uses violence to enter someone else’s property. This desperation is more evident in River’s attempted assault, since the rescued man is in a position of true powerlessness. He was most likely born in a Sanctuary full of other men, with a strictly authoritarian setup, frequently injected with testosterone and treated with a healthy diet of pornographic images (Bergin ch.13). Faced with his newfound freedom after a lifetime of confinement, having been saved by presumably the first female human he has ever encountered in real life, his response to alleviate his powerlessness is to attack first. This way, within the storyworlds of each of the novels, men re-establish their masculinity in the face of death by enacting sexual violence against women. These cases consolidate the position of men as the perpetrators of sexual violence, powering over women as in the past despite the changing gender dynamics brought about by their own near extinction.
However, as I have pointed out, this portrayal of sexual violence essentializes gender in the rape phenomenon: masculinity’s essence is being the aggressor, whereas femininity’s is victimhood. The virus reduces the body down to chromosomal differences in the human body, but this approach to sexual violence goes beyond that and assumes a link between gender and the potential to rape and be raped. While The End of Men mainly avoids the question of sexual violence, the scenes with Irina and Catherine demonstrate that sexual assault is predominantly committed by men and it is only thanks to the virus that women can fight back. Conversely, Who Runs the World? does present sexual violence against men as used by the authorities to keep them imprisoned even after a cure for the virus has been found, as demonstrated by Mason’s testimony: “If them wimmin touched you it ain’t your fault. We all know that. We all been told what wimmin’ll do to any ’scaped male they find” (Bergin ch.1). This setup in which sexual violence by men is committed at the individual level while women’s is enacted at the government level effectively absolves women from the responsibility of their sexual crimes as they are absorbed by the abstraction of the State. On the other hand, individual men are not relieved from this responsibility and are shown to be the main perpetrators of sexual crimes against women, which means that their extinction would also represent the end of rape.
Pandemics in the dystopian subgenre of SF strike a personal chord for most people after 2020, but they also serve to remind us of the social implications of a biological hazard. Who Runs the World? (2017) by Virginia Bergin and The End of Men (2021) by Christina Sweeney-Baird speculate on the possibility of airborne viruses that only harm male populations. Despite failing to address them in this paper, these novels also use their cognitive estrangement technique to interrogate the boundaries of sex and their overlap with those of gender, even as they reiterate essentialist ideas about matriarchal societies as evidenced here. This space was instead used to argue that the use of sexual violence against men only at the structural level absolves women from their responsibility, a privilege not afforded to the men who are portrayed as committing individual sexual assaults. Who Runs the World? presents examples of rape as an instrument for the social control of imprisoned men in Sanctuaries. Considering this novel is able to speculate on a future many more years after the virus outbreak than The End of Men, it is understandable that it explores more avenues of sexual violence against men in the context of a male extinction dystopia. As with all narratives that present a role-reversal, the result is an essentialist and reductive view of the rape phenomenon that assumes the end of rape will necessarily follow from the extinction of men.
Bergin, Virginia. Who Runs the World?, eBook, Macmillan Children’s Books, 2017.
Gilarek, Anna. “Marginalization of “the Other”: Gender Discrimination in Dystopian Visions by Feminist Science Fiction Authors”, Text Matters vol. 2. No. 2, 2012, pp. 221-238, DOI: 10.2478/v10231-012-0066-3.
LeFanu, Sarah. Feminism and Science Fiction. Indiana University Press, 1989.
McPhail, Beverly A., “Feminist Framework Plus: Knitting Feminist Theories of Rape Etiology Into a Comprehensive Model”, Trauma, Violence & Abuse, vol. 17, no. 3, 2016, pp. 1-16, DOI:10.1177/1524838015584367.
Sanday, Peggy Reeves. “The socio-cultural context of rape: A cross-cultural study”, Journal of Social Issues, vol. 37, no. 4, 1981, pp. 5–27. DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1981.tb01068.x.
Sweeney-Baird, Christina. The End of Men, Doubleday Canada, 2021.
“Statistics about sexual violence and abuse.” Rape Crisis England & Wales, https://rapecrisis.org.uk/get-informed/statistics-sexual-violence/. Accessed April 24, 2022.
Verónica Mondragón-Paredes (she/her) is a fourth-year student at Tecnológico de Monterrey, where she is pursuing a degree in International Relations (BA). In the summer of 2021, she performed research on YA Literature as a MITACS Globalink Research Intern. Her work has been featured in international speculative fiction conferences, as well as the journal Contemporary Women’s Writing (2022). Her research interests lie at the intersections of speculative fiction with gender, sexuality, power relations, and social conflict.