The Morality and Commonplace of Mind Rape

Charles_XavierThe idea that there’s someone out there with telepathic abilities certainly has an element of horror to it, and that’s an element pop culture likes to latch onto. Villains with this kind of ability strike a chilling terror in their victims, and even in us, the audience. It goes without saying that the invasion of someone’s mind against his or her will often has long-lasting, damaging effects that leave us with little to no question on the morality, or lack thereof, of the perpetrator. These acts come in different forms, whether mind controlling, binding someone against his or her will, the implantation or removal of memories, or just plain mind reading. The best way to describe such a thing is “rape of the mind”, or “mind rape”. Unfortunately, mind rape is not always committed by the bad guys. Often in fantasy and sci-fi, the good guys will do this as well. And even more unfortunately, when our heroes commit such a heinous act, the narrative will either excuse or refuse to acknowledge the rape in question.

Trigger warning for rape after the jump.

Here’s the thing with mind rape, and why it’s so horrible: it is a way of talking about actual rape. That’s why it’s so awful when villains do it, because the story is telling us that a character was just raped. In fiction, authors can talk about real-life issues through their characters and story. Maybe mind rape being an allegory for actual rape wasn’t intended, but that’s what it has progressed into. It is the fantasy/sci-fi way of discussing this issue.

And it does it really good job at it. It captures the horror, the pain, and the feelings of victimization. It has characters taking weeks, months, and even years to recover from what has happened. Whether authors realize it or not, when they put characters with telepathic abilities into a story, they are calling attention to the issue of rape. And it is because of this connection between mind rape and actual rape that makes it even more terrifying when the good guys do it, because that’s saying rape is okay in some circumstances.

These acts are probably more accepted when the protagonists commit them, because heroes don’t rape, right? No one wants to root for a rapist. Additionally, our heroes almost never invade another person’s mind with malevolent intentions. In truth, mind rape, like actual rape, is a way of dominating another person, which is never something the good guys would or should want to do. But even without the malevolent intentions, or the want to dominate another person, are protagonists and heroes truly excused from any consequences? We know the bad guys aren’t. In the end, the hero will win and the villain will face punishment of some kind, most likely through death. However, good guys very rarely, if ever, question the moral implications of reading another person’s mind.

Supernatural gives a fantastic example of showing how hypocritical it is to hold villains and heroes on differing levels in this situation. Sam and Dean, our heroes, discover that they have died numerous times and that the angels have simply brought them back to life on every occasion—which, first of all, good attempt at killing any suspense the show may have had—and erased their memories of heaven each time. The angels are shown as being in the wrong, that they have committed a heinous, unforgivable act against the Winchesters. However, later in the show Dean wants to abandon Lisa and Ben for their own safety, and he thinks that in order to do that, their memories of him need to be erased.

Lisa and Ben do not consent to this. Dean makes the decision for Castiel to remove their memories of him for them. He doesn’t ask them, nor does he even considering asking them or trying to explain the situation. He just does it. Additionally, the decision to remove Lisa’s and Ben’s memories makes no sense and only serves as a cheap copout to no longer have them in the show. Dean believes that they’ll be safer without them, but unless Castiel removed Lisa and Ben from the memories of everything trying to kill them it only puts them in more danger.

This idea of altering someone’s memories for the better good shows up just about everywhere. Let’s not forget Charles Xavier from X-Men. He has a habit of simply reading people’s minds, invading their thoughts, and controlling their actions. Charles Xavier’s mind reading was one of the things that first had me questioning the morality of telepathy when growing up. Around the same time as coming to the realization of what Charles Xavier’s power really meant within the story, I was also reading one of the most beloved series of all time. Sadly, no, we will not be getting though this without discussing Harry Potter.

Although Harry himself does not partake in anything remotely mind-related until Order of the Phoenix, mind rape is present throughout the whole series, and it comes across in the treatment of Muggles. Muggles, for the mere crime of their birth, have any and all memories of the wizarding world removed should they stumble across something they shouldn’t see. The Obliviate spell is used in abundance, and if not in every book, at least mentioned in just about all of them. Though there are wizards who fight for Muggle rights, even they don’t seem to care about how easily wizards and witches alike alter Muggle memories, and the issue is never brought up. The morality of such a thing is never brought up. The only time the series shows how awful it is, is when Lockhart tries to use it on Harry and Ron, but outside of that, no one cares.

At the very least, Hermione feels guilty about Obliviating her parents, which she says she did for their own good. But one still has to wonder whether or not her parents consented to it, and by the end of the series, the issue is never resolved.

Furthering the mind rape in the series is the Imperius Curse, and to Harry Potter’s credit, it is presented as unforgivable and deserving of a life sentence in Azkaban. Unfortunately, all pretense of this is dropped in Deathly Hallows, when Harry starts using it on Death Eaters at every opportunity. While we could argue that this is the result of the Horcrux inside him, it is never explained that way, and it was rather unnerving to see our hero go from good and righteous to stooping down to his enemies’ level in order to win.

The same thing also happens in The Inheritance Cycle. I touched briefly on the issue here, but I feel the need to reiterate. From the first book, we are told that mind reading is something to do sparingly, and of course, it is a powerful tool in battle. But what about outside battle? In the series, mind reading is incredibly painful if non-consensual, and can be used to inflict torture. While Eragon and Arya don’t do it to be torturous, they still have no regard for the violation they are putting other people through.

It’s okay when she does it, because she’s pretty.

But in the books, it is always okay when the good guys invade other people’s thoughts, because they’re gentle about it. No, that’s seriously the reason. That, or it’s just always okay when done by the heroes because the heroes did it. When bad people read minds, it’s painful, even if it’s consensual, such as when the Twins examine Eragon’s mind in Eragon. It’s unpleasant, and it shows how evil the Twins are. Then, at the end of Eldest, Eragon does the exact same thing to an Urgal, but he is still excused in his actions simply for being the hero.

And this is not to say that all heroes and characters will never consent to having their minds probed; it’s just awful when the heroes do it without permission. Young Justice does a good job of calling attention to this with M’gann’s power. In the first episode, she communicates with her teammates telepathically and is surprised at their negative reaction to it, since that is how people talk where she’s from. Her teammates, especially Superboy, feel horribly violated, and those two seconds are all it takes so sow mistrust for many episodes. However, as the series progresses, they become so close with each other that M’gann has them all linked telepathically almost always, and none of them think anything bad about it. Young Justice had to build up that trust to show how something so bad can be good, but only if it’s consensual.

I think that the prevalence of mind rape committed by the heroes is caused by one thing: laziness. While some stories may occasionally ask whether or not it’s morally acceptable, most of them use it as a copout, more often than not. Dean’s removal of Lisa’s and Ben’s memories made no sense and was just a way to stop the characters from continuing to feature on the show without killing them. And the Obliviate spell is just a nifty little way the wizards and witches don’t have to deal with Muggles.

And all of these examples were done with no consideration to what mind rape means to the audience, whether consciously or not. If villains are evil for mind raping characters, heroes and protagonists alike must be held to that same standard, at all times.

24 thoughts on “The Morality and Commonplace of Mind Rape

  1. If you haven’t, you MUST read Freakangels ( by Ellis and Duffield. It treats mind rape in an exceedingly detail fashion. I’d love to hear your opinions.

    You also left out the original mind rape trope that predates even the Jedi Mind Trick and that is the Vulcan Mind Meld. I don’t know if a Mind Meld would constitute a mind rape using your definition, but Vulcans, logical sticklers that they are, would not have the least qualm about melding with an unwilling subject, provided – of course – the needs of the many, etc, etc.

    One must remember, however, that “good” and “evil” are moral constructs. Are the Mandalorians good or evil? Do you recall what Obi-Wan tells a despairing Luke Skywalker? “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” Even today, absolutes exist only in religion and philosophy. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. “The United States DOES NOT TORTURE!” Waterboarding?

    In something more than our fallen and broken world (I am a devout practicing Christian; recovering Fundamentalist, actually) we could say that “all mind rape is evil therefore only evil people mind rape” but in this world we’ve been forced — without consent — to live in, saying that is giving in to Paolini’s mockery of morality. Is it “right” to mind rape ONE person if doing so would ensure the safety of one billion people on a planet who would otherwise perish? If one does not hold ALL human life as equal, the the answer is an easy “yes”, but if — as I do — one views ALL human (Elven, dwarven, halflingian, Vulcan, Cardassain, Corellian, Whillian, etc) life as EQUAL and valuable, then the answer is no because the ends cannot be used to justify the means.

    Or can they?

    Great article and website though.

    • Hey, thank you so much for replying. As a fellow Christian, I am of the mindset that all people are equal, and that mind rape is never justified. A lot of this is still opinion because, you are right, good and evil are moral constructs. I actually left the Vulcan’s out because, I must confess, I was never a big Star Trek fan, so I would need to go watch it before commenting on it. I will definitely check out Freakangels, but I can’t promise how soon that will be.
      Again, thank you so much for your comment.

  2. This is an impressive piece of work. I’m not familiar with enough of the stories to comment on them, but I’m pretty sure that Hermione’s parents were not asked before they were Obliviated. Clearly, Hermione feels terrible about doing so, and I never really questioned her reasons before. I suspect her actions saved them from a dire fate, but she probably should have informed them or asked them first before she did it.
    That scene in the movie makes me cry every time I watch it.
    Thanks for an interesting read!

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  4. Thank you for that article. I never thought about it that way (at least not about simple mind-reading), and now that I think about it …

    Twilight’s Edward is a serial rapist. It seems he can’t really control his mind-reading, but he could still stay away from people. He makes no such effort. Instead, he reads other people’s minds and then complains because their think about such mundane things and it is so boring, or whatever.

    The Obliviate curse from Harry Potter removes memories. While that’s not okay, it’s not as intrusive as mind-reading. It’s as if someone destroyed data from your computer that you had shown them before, while non-consensual mindreading equals someone looking at data you wanted to keep secret.

    • Hey, I’m glad you liked it. 🙂

      Edward has always bothered me for many reasons, but that one gets me to. Yes, it is true that he has the ability to stay away from other people, which is something he should do if he’s really as dangerous as he says he is. And it has always upset me how he treats other people for their thoughts, complaining about what they think with no regards to how intrusive he is being to probably the most private part of that person’s life.

      I would argue, though, that the Oblivate curse is just as intrusive. While the person casting it cannot see the victim’s thoughts, I don’t think, that person is still rearranging them or deleting them. And there is definitely a level of danger to that.

      Anyway, thanks for commenting. 😀

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  11. I would like to mention that in the Harry Potter universe, Obliviate is used because exposing magic to Muggles has led to to witch hunts, torture, murder, and Muggles trying to obtain magic and injuring themselves (and possibly others) in the process. That obviously doesn’t justify erasing their memories, but I just wanted to point it out. Loved the article, thanks!

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  13. The Vampire Diaries explores the good guys committing mind-rape and that being a horrible thing quite frequently and in interesting ways. “Mind Compulsion” is an ability: which can lead to essentially the same thing as the obliviate spell OR the imperius curse in Harry Potter, depending on what you want to do with it. We see as early as episodes 3 and 4 of the show being used as a LITERAL date rape drug, where one of the lead vampires (who, granted, is treated as a creepy villain at this point in the show) is having sex with a girl while also physically abusing her and using mind compulsion on her to make her feel different emotions (stop being afraid) and to not tell anyone/forcing her to cover up her wounds from where the vampire fed on her. In general though, we see good guys using compulsion too, throughout the series, and we learn to see the bad guys as not-all-bad as well. Often, there remains an element of “isn’t this immoral?” whenever the superpower is used. I find it pretty interesting.

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  18. I always hated when Willow Rosenberg used the tabula rasa spell on Tara & Buffy. It was premeditated and selfish on both accounts. And she never even learned from it, never understood the severity of her actions, just that they cause people to turn away from her. Even after Tara told her it was a violation and a dealbreaker for their relationship, Willow pledged to give up magic for one week only to, the very next morning, erase Tara & Buffy’s memories and inadvertingly her own and other friends when the spell overshot.

    The first time we saw Willow put the forget spell on Tara, they were having a fight and Tara could clearly barely handle sleeping beside Willow in her frustration & annoyance. And yet because of the forget spell, they have sex the next day. I do NOT think Tara would’ve consented to sex with Willow had she remembered they were fighting. So Willow mind raped her AND physicaly raped her by taking away her ability to give an informed consent to sexual activity.

    Willow’s storyline (bullied nerd turned misuser of technology/magic) was paralleling Warren’s and yet fans immediately forgave Willow while calling Warren a disgusting misognynist.

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