This study explored reader responses to different literary depictions of rape. Four literary excerpts were used and divided as aesthetic versus nonaesthetic (style) and allusive versus explicit (detail). The general question was how readers would react to literary fragments depicting rape and whether the level of aesthetics and the level of explicitness influenced readers' thoughts and feelings. An open-ended question asked readers to report how the style had influenced their thoughts and feelings, whereas 7-point scales addressed the following variables: experienced distance, perceptions of realism and of beauty, emotional versus intellectual reaction, empathy, tension, and arousal. In a 2 (detail: explicit vs. allusive) × 2 (style: aesthetic vs. nonaesthetic) within-participant design (N = 34), gender functioned as a between-participants variable. Results indicate that the personal tendency to feel engaged with fiction overrides effects of aesthetics and explicitness. Principal-components factor analysis suggests that readers who are easily engaged with the characters feel unsettled when reading rape scenes they find brutal and intellectualize to handle these feelings. These “high empathizers” are not likely to be detached or to appreciate the fragment negatively: once absorbed, they will try to take something positive even from an unsettling experience.

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ERMeCC - Erasmus Research Centre for Media, Communication and Culture
Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts
Department of Media and Communication

Koopman, E.M, Hilscher, M, & Cupchik, G.C. (2012). Reader responses to literary depictions of rape. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 6(1), 66–73. doi:10.1037/a0024153