How The Handmaid’s Tale Depiction of Rape/Sexual Violence Mirrors Real Life

Gilead's rape culture is terrifying because it's so much like our own.

This story contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale episode 10.

Truly, the ceremony scene with Janine in last week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale was one of the more disturbing scenes on an already-harrowing show. Yet we’ve actually seen a rape in just about every episode of this show, including last week. While those scenes have always been tough, they don’t usually feel as skin-crawlingly terror-inducing as this one did. Many, including myself, have hesitated in the past to label these scenes as unequivocally as we should: rape. There are many complex reasons for that, but one of them is because most of the rape in Gilead doesn’t look like what we’re programmed to think rape looks like in the real world, either; it isn’t the common myth of a “violent” attack from a stranger in a back alley. Instead, Gilead uses manipulation to silence its victims into something resembling compliance, absolving itself of moral responsibility, adding to their guilt, and playing right into the same disbelieving, victim-blaming dynamics we experience in our own world.

The entire existence of Gilead is predicated on rape. More specifically, on coercive rape. Not only does Gilead require the systemic monthly rape of fertile handmaids across its territory, it requires the kind of behavior that the constant, implicit (and occasionally explicit) threat of violence generates. By definition, coercion uses power, control, manipulation, and the threat of violence to force victims to comply, and that threat doesn’t need to be spoken out loud. As we have seen on the show, once Janine lost an eye or Ofglen was mutilated, we as audience members never needed to hear those threat again to feel the tension and fear, and neither did other characters. The colonies exist as a continual threat of an accelerated and painful death, as do many other imagined punishments. Without this means for attaining fertility, Gilead has nothing to offer the domestic population, never mind achieve international legitimacy.

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While everyone is, “under his eye,” in Gilead, some are more under siege than others in this complex power structure that is a twisted version of our own. Gilead’s secret police and caste system create a panopticon that enforces punishment for transgressions real and imagined, magnifying the vulnerability of those at the bottom, like handmaids. This makes them prime targets for sexual violence, just like vulnerable populations in real life, such as women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and people of color.

It makes sense that we as an audience would read rape scenes of June or other Handmaids as less frightening if they appear to be compliant: in the real world, just as in Gilead, we are subject to victim-blaming myths and general ignorance about sexual violence. To bust a few myths, rape by force is incredibly rare, and most perpetrators know the victim, which also line up with the experiences we’ve seen on The Handmaid’s Tale. Real life survivors of sexual violence are criticized for not reacting the “right way” to their trauma, particularly for not showing enough emotion, even though most study on trauma and neurobiology says that is completely normal. “Fight or flight” is a commonly known phrase, but going into shock or dissociating, which many refer to as an out of body experience or “just shutting down” is a common reaction as well, and one that a person cannot control, at least not at first. Putting aside that it could save a handmaid’s life to comply with the ceremony, she may not have a literal, biological choice in the matter if she hasn’t learned any coping mechanisms.

One of the cruel tricks that coercion plays on its victims, particularly when it is used for sexual violence rather than other crimes, is that it often comes with feelings of self-blame, like those Offred experiences. Offred and Moira both refer to themselves as having chosen this life. What kind of choice is sexual slavery or death by nuclear waste clean-up as a slave? Two kinds of sexual slavery with slightly different work conditions? I don’t think Moira would agree that Offred chose this life, or vice-versa, and yet they so easily blame themselves.

June will likely have more unkind thoughts about herself after using her sexuality to get the Commander back to Jezebels to help Mayday. This type of behavior is so common that scholars have terms for it: survival sex, sometimes called transactional sex. While some critics dislike that the term “sex” makes it sound consensual, it includes cases like when UN workers in Haiti were raping women in exchange for food, or among homeless youth. June’s actions with the Commander this episode feel like a case of survival sex to me, which I consider rape as much as anything else he has done.

This brings us to Janine, who seemed to be the only one to believe Commander Putnam loved her. It’s unclear whether she really believed it or just needed to cling to it like a prize, like how she wanted the desserts Aunt Lydia promised. Either way, let me be clear: Janine was still a sex slave, still a prisoner, still systemically raped. She did not consent to having a woman she hated be present during sex, to giving up her daughter, or to sharing the man with whom she had a relationship. Even if you buy that Janine was of a clear and sound mind and consented to her extracurricular activities (the power dynamics here seem out of whack, at best), she clearly wanted many things from this relationship that were not respected. The whole thing was so non-consensual that in the end, she attempted suicide, with Gilead rather clearly the cause.

The Handmaid’s Tale on the June 2017 episode of Sci Fi Fidelity at 16:51. iTunes | Stitcher | Soundcloud

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On the other side of the power dynamic, the Sons of Jacob require coercive rape rather than so-called violent rape in order to maintain their ideology. I hesitate to even use this term, because rape itself is violence; there’s no need for a weapon or additional action for it to meet that threshold. Nevertheless, it’s useful to distinguish between coercive and not. The illusion of choice that is inherent to coercion likely assuages the guilt of those in power within Gilead, though it is entirely hollow. Someone like Commander Waterford can tell himself that a woman like Moira was able to “leave” the Red Center and go to Jezebel’s, which was a better fit for her. This allows him to maintain his fantasy that June is with him of her own free will, which both flatters his ego and maintains his high moral self-esteem. This mirrors the way that, according to research by David Lisak and others, real life perpetrators tell themselves and others all kinds of stories about to justify their behavior without using the r-word. It turns out, as long as no one says “rape,” rapists will answer all kinds of questions about having sex with someone against their will and go to great, creative lengths to explain why it was acceptable.

It’s easy to become a bit numb to all the terror that this show and this world have to offer, and perhaps I and others had been a bit hardened. Like June, we’re just trying to protect ourselves. But Margaret Atwood doesn’t mess around when she says she didn’t make anything up in her book. In this case, the ease with which Gilead accepts the systemic rape of women is based on the disparity between how we feel about the handmaid who she screams, “no!” and fights back, and the handmaid who lies silent, paralyzed by her own fear. But the greatest trick Gilead ever pulled isn’t raping women, it’s getting all of us to look the other way while it rapes women with a wink and smile, so long as the woman only makes a pained grimace.

Visit RAINN to learn more about how you can help the survivors of sexual assault.