SPOILER ALERT: This story includes plot points of recent episodes of Starz's "Outlander" and HBO's "Game of Thrones."

RAPE. Underreported, notoriously hard to prosecute and in some cases subject to disagreement about what the word even means, it's always been a tricky thing to talk about. And it turns out that having millions of witnesses doesn't make it any simpler.

Television has long and successfully fed on stories of generic, victimized women, but as rape moves beyond the crime-of-the-week, the treatment's getting some pushback from viewers.

One recent target: the upsetting, mostly off-camera assault on "Game of Thrones" of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) by her sadistic new husband Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) on their wedding night.

Setting aside the fact that the George R.R. Martin books from which the series is drawn did far worse to the character (not Sansa) whom Bolton marries, I'm not sure why viewers who've endured nearly five seasons of incest, murder, mutilations - and some thoroughly unnecessary nakedness - would be stopped at this.

Yet, no less a figure than U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill tweeted after the May 17 episode that she was "done" with the show, because of the "gratuitous rape scene," which she called "disgusting and unacceptable."

She wasn't alone. The New York Daily News reported last week that a number of women's groups have condemned "Game of Thrones," quoting the president of the National Organization for Women's New York chapter as saying "gratuitous rape scenes feed the rape culture."

Just don't get Diana Gabaldon started on rape culture.

"When [a rape] occurs, it is a unique act. People, I think, homogenize it" with the talk of "rape culture," Gabaldon told me in an interview a few months ago.

The author of the books on which Starz's "Outlander" is based, she's used to being asked about the rape scenes she's written, questions likely to be raised again after last Saturday's Season 1 finale.

That episode deals, unflinchingly, with the sexual assault of the show's male lead, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) by a British officer known as Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies). It's remarkable not just because it occurs between two men but because it's as much a psychological invasion as a physical one, leaving Jamie with the same, undeserved shame so many assaulted women suffer.

Rape "is an individual sexual encounter. Just like a good sex scene in a book can only have happened between the two people who are engaged in it . . . a rape is the same way, in a very negative sort of way," Gabaldon said.

It's also an experience with consequences that live long beyond a single chapter or episode.

Though Gabaldon said that she avoids the term "victim," because "you're about as much a victim as you choose to be, unless you're actually killed, in which case you have no choice," her work's never glossed over rape's painful aftermath.

And that's where I think those who declare a particular plot point gratuitous before seeing where it leads may be rushing to judgment.

Yes, there's still a revolving door for rape victims on too many shows. But others are depicting sexual assault in a way that makes it clear just how lingering its effects can be.

Might storylines involving main characters, like the one in AMC's "Mad Men" in which Joan (Christina Hendricks) was raped by her then-fiance, also make those who've had a similar experience feel included?

Not every viewer was happy when ladies maid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), was raped by a visiting manservant in the fourth season of PBS' "Downton Abbey."

I'm not crazy myself about the tortured murder mystery it's led to, but I can't fault the "Downton" writers for how Anna's story was handled.

When Froggatt learned about the rape storyline, she told reporters last summer, "[M]y first thought was, I just want any viewer that may be watching this that's been through that experience, or a similar experience in their own lives, to know that I've taken this more seriously than anything else I could possibly have done and that I have really, really put my soul and heart into making this as honest a performance as possible."

Since it aired, she said she'd heard from women who said they'd been assaulted and "they have all said the same thing, that they felt they could connect with Anna and that they were pleased. . . . And that is the most meaningful thing, probably, that's ever happened in my career."

Not every case is as clear-cut as Anna's.

Heightened consciousness about issues of consent has led to some provocative discussions. In last season's "Game of Thrones" a scene between a long-incestuous brother and sister was interpreted by some, not unreasonably, in a way producers apparently didn't intend.

Back in 2006, when Denis Leary's "Rescue Me" character forced himself on his wife, Janet (Andrea Roth), a number of critics, including me, saw it as rape. Leary didn't.

Louis C.K., creator and star of FX's "Louie," was asked at a press conference in January about a lopsided wrestling match last season between his character and Pamela Adlon's, the reporter describing it as "borderline rape."

"I guess I wouldn't call it rape because I kissed the side of her mouth," the comedian replied. "I think you've got to be careful with that word 'rape.' Because it's a real serious and bad thing. So if you call, like, a bad bowl of soup 'rape,' that kind of dilutes what it really is."

Adlon said that when she originally read the scene and heard it described, "I thought it was really funny," but "then on the day that we were shooting it, I looked at him, and he's pulling me . . . I'm going, 'No, no, no, no, no, no.' "

Afterward, she said, "I looked at him. I said, 'I think that we may be in trouble. I don't know if somebody's going to get mad.' "

" @elgray

Blog: ph.ly/EllenGray