by Maggie Block
I’ve been wanting to share Young Adult book recommendations dealing with rape culture for awhile. And in light of the popular resurgence of the #MeToo hashtag,I feel now is probably the appropriate time. But– and forgive me, this is going to take a while– I think we need to start by talking about rape culture.
The terms been in usage since the 1970’s. Created by the second wave feminist movement, rape culture refers to the many ways in which our society normalizes a great number of appalling ideas, and individuals’ behaviors so that rape (& sexual assault, & sexual harassment) become a regular part of day-to-day life.
This manifest in a variety of ways. Sometimes it might mean telling a child who is constantly harassed by classmates that those actions equate to, “they really like you.” Sometimes it might mean that mothers talk to their daughters about how to avoid being raped, but nobody talks to their sons about getting consent before they engage in sexual activity. Sometimes it might mean dissecting everything the survivor of sexual assault did to “ask for it,” and talking at great lengths about the bright futures the perpetrators had that were put in jeopardy by such accusations.
Sometimes it means suggesting that if women do not want to be sexually harassed they should get out of high power workplaces. Sometimes it means reducing a man bragging about sexually assaulting women and dozens of those woman coming forward in confirming the sexual assault to “locker room talk” or “boys will be boys” type shenanigans. Sometimes it means that powerful career makers are openly allowed to assault young women, and their buddies will help cover up the story.
And rape culture is so hard to tackle because there are so many facets to address. We need to make a huge cultural shift in how we approach sex, and how vital consent is. We need to talk to young people of all genders about how you shouldn’t engage in intimate relations with anyone without consent. We need to stop talking about how getting consent is a mood killer; without going into details I can tell you that someone asking if they can do X, Y or Z in bed is extremely sexy. We need to talk to young people about how they are not owed sex, that no matter what expectations they may have, or why they have them, it’s not ok to coerce anyone else into sex.
We also need to make a huge cultural shift in how we think about rapists. Rapists can be our children, our siblings, and our parents. Rapists can be our good friends, or our partners, or a member of our church community. Because we live in rape culture, there are lots of people who think their actions are totally normal and acceptable, even when they commit sexual assault and rape.
And we as their community members not only need to teach them better, but we need to hold them accountable. If someone we love, someone who shows us their best self, someone who we know to be a very good person is accused of rape, we must believe the accuser. Just because we love someone does not make them incapable of rape, and if we spend all our time fighting for them, all our passion worrying about how hard it is for the perpetrator- we make it harder for survivors, we further engrain rape culture, and we do nothing to help the perpetrators we love to be better people.
We are, every one of us, both victims of and perpetrators of rape culture. And we all need to do the necessary work to retrain ourselves in how we think about sex, who we think is capable of assault, and who we support when sexual assault happens. This culture can be better because we can make it better. And here are some books I think can help.
Now I want to be clear about these book’s intended audience. They are not for survivors. Many of these books discuss, and relay details about sexual assault; some survivors could read such accounts and be fine, but many survivors could potentially be hurt or re-traumatized by such stories.
These books are for people who assume survivors of sexual assault are asking for it. These books are for people who have never questioned how being assaulted could affect the survivor’s life. These books are for people of all genders, but in particular for young men. Because young men need to believe women, and understand how sexual assault affects women.
I read this book when I was 16, and it moved me very deeply. I love the way Anderson writes; her characters are always so smart and funny but not too smart and funny that they stop resembling teenagers. It’s a difficult sweet spot to reach with your writing and Anderson somehow manages to do it every time.
Speak tells the story of Melinda, a high-schooler having a terrible freshman year. Not only are all of her best friends from middle school part of different cliques now, and none of them are talking to her, but she’s a pariah of the entire school. Everyone knows that she’s the one who broke up the end of the year party by calling the cops. And as her social isolation intensifies, she just stops talking.
This book can at times be brutal, but Melinda’s biting remarks about school and the social groupings of high school give the reader the necessary comedic reprieves to totally enjoy this story.
So, by including this book in a list about rape culture I am already giving you a major spoiler (But if you’d rather not know the exact details of said spoiler skip ahead to the next recommendation). Melinda called the cops to the party because she was raped there, which is the book’s big reveal. The book explores how deeply devastating surviving sexual assault can be, Melinda’s inability to speak is in large part because she cannot admit what happened to her, and further cannot tell anyone about her experience.
Speak was published in 2001, and has remained a touchstone of YA literature to this day. And for good reason, it was a groundbreaking book for teen audiences about sexual assault, and somehow manages to make such a story both hard-hitting and incredibly enjoyable to read. It deals with the physiological effects of being assaulted, and the internal struggle to self-advocate and trust people will believe you. I don’t think this is the end-all, be-all narrative about teens surviving sexual assault, but I think it is gripping and cannot help but build the reader’s empathy for survivors.
Can we just start off by acknowledging how the title of this book is pretty incredible? I love playing with the meaning of the saying, and I love expressing both female and survivor’s rage.
If Speak is about the internal struggles and mental tolls that sexual assault takes on survivors, then All The Rage walks the reader through the external and societal struggles far too many survivors of assault experience. This is an unflinching narrative of what happens when communities do not believe survivors, instead protecting perpetrators.
Romy Grey lives in a tiny town, where everyone knows her as the loose girl who tried to ruin Sheriff Turner’s son’s life. Coming forward about Kellan raping her ruined Romy’s reputation in her community, her social standing in high school, and even costs her her best friend.
It is excruciating reading about the cruelty of the bullying she faces, mostly from teenagers who were once her friends. It is painful to watch Romy meticulously apply her red nail polish and match it with lipstick as her armor against the world, because nobody outside of her home will offer her any protection.
I think everyone who ever talks about the terrible social cost of being accused of rape needs to read this book. Anyone who doesn’t understand why more survivors don’t come forward, and why they don’t come forward sooner needs to read this book. It is brutally painful, incredibly believable, and something real young women deal with far too often.
Midway through the book Romy’s former best friend tries to reconnect, says a girl a few towns over told her to be careful around Kellan, and then goes missing after a party. The book then turns into a bit of a murder mystery/suspense novel. Nobody suspects the folks who most likely hurt her best friend, so Romy goes hunting after the truth herself.
A subplot to All The Rage is that Romy is a waitress in a restaurant outside of town, where nobody knows about her and she can exists anonymously. And she starts building a romantic relationship with a cute coworker. It’s at times cute, and at times excruciating (as she’s still very much traumatized, and doesn’t want to tell him that she’s been assaulted because this is the one place where that doesn’t define her life) and always utterly believable. (And while I oftentimes don’t care for romances as secondary plot lines for YA) I think in one of the most brutal narratives about sexual assault it’s important to show the protagonist making romantic connections. Life goes on after sexual assault, you can give and receive love after sexual assault. This is a very bleak book, and considering the subject matter rightfully so, but this book also offers the reader and Romy hope for the future.
So Johnston decided to write a book about rape, where after the assault took place, everything and everyone acted the way they ideally should. So, it’s a book about rape, without the rape culture.
What does that look like? Well, when the main character, Hermione Winters, wakes up at the hospital near cheer camp not remembering how her night ended. Her best friend, Polly, is alongside her carefully and thoughtfully explaining how they found Hermione.
Winters is taken care of emotionally before legal and medical options are explored. The police officer who takes her statement is a woman, and believes Hermione. Her coach believes her and supports her, her team believes her and supports, her parents believes her and supports her.
Her boyfriend’s a dick, and is personally hurt she got raped. Which sucks. But she breaks up with him and really doesn’t dwell on that for any period of time.
Her parents help her find a therapist, and she goes through the long process of working on being okay, of getting better, of moving forward with her life. And when her biggest fear is realized–she’s become pregnant–everyone supports her decision to get an abortion, even her coach who had a baby as a teenager. And when she tells her mom she want’s Polly to be the one to take her to get an abortion, her mom, while a bit hurt, accepts her decision and supports Hermione doing what she feels is right for her.
A lot of the reader reviews of Exit, Pursued by a Bear talk about what makes the book different from other YA narratives about rape is that Hermione is tough, and possesses the spirit to move beyond the rape. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I think the reason Hermione is able to exhibit such grit is because of the great love and support she gets from her community. Unlike Melinda and Romy, Hermione is not an outcast after her assault; her friends and team stand by her. And unlike Melinda and Romy, who experience some of the worst bullying by their former female friends, in Exit, Pursued by a Bear, Polly and Hermione’s friendship only gets stronger in the aftermath of the assault. It is a true testament to the power, importance, and beauty that female friendship can have in your life.
The book opens with the line “this is how I kill someone.” Its first chapter takes you through how Alex meticulously plans and then executes the murder of a man who was never convicted for the rape and murder of her sister. The first chapter ends with the lines:
“This is how I kill someone.
And I don’t feel bad about it.”
The Female of the Species was my favorite book of 2016, and the book I most needed to read in response to rape culture.
The book isn’t a chronicle of Alex going through her small town and murdering all the rapists in it (although I’d definitely read that book too). It tells the story of Alex, PeeKay, and Jack. At the beginning of the story they’re all strangers to each other. Alex has chosen to be removed from her peers, and only comes into PeeKay and Jack’s lives when she and PeeKay both start volunteering at the animal shelter. She and Jack are then pulled into the guidance counselor’s office because of Alex overtaking Jack as the class valedictorian.
Both PeeKay and Jack think Alex is weird, and she is. She talks like she learned English out of a book (she did). She’s unflinchingly honest with everyone, and she doesn’t take any shit. And they are both completely taken by Alex: PeeKay as a friend, Jack as a romantic interest.
It is really fascinating to watch someone actively fight against rape culture, I as a reader, and PeeKay and Jack as people who grow to love Alex, were completely entranced as Alex kneed a classmate in the balls who tried to hug Alex without her consent, and ripped a creeper’s nose ring out when he tried to take an intoxicated PeeKay home from a party.
Now I imagine that a lot of you are reading this, and aren’t stoked on the idea of YA literature advocating for teen vigilantes. And I’m not necessarily advocating that everyone #KillYourRapist, but there’s something incredibly empowering about reading about a teen girl who does. One of the valuable things that literature allows its readers to do is explore things that they wouldn’t want to or be able to do in real life. And for those of us surviving out here in rape culture, being able to read an empowering rape revenge story is what we need.
And whether or not you think violence is an acceptable tactic I think The Female of the Species is a great book for young people to read. Because Alex does not accept rape culture, and her standing up to rape culture inspires others to fight against it, using tactics that work for them. That is a message I want every young person to internalize.
Gabi, Girl in Pieces, by Isabel Quintero (SPL)(KCLS) is about so much more than surviving sexual assault– which is why it isn’t properly on the list and I’m fairly sure I’m going to give it a longer review in the future, so stay tuned– is a truly excellent book about growing up female.
A lot of it is about finding your voice, learning to love your imperfect self, learning to find love and have affection for your family (even when you’re 17 and it’s REALLY hard), and how important friendship is. One of the things Gabi and her friends deal with is rape, and how it really doesn’t look like some stranger jumping out of the bushes at you. It’s such a great book about being a Latina teen that I think should be required reading.
Asking For It, by Lousie O’Neill (SPL)(KCLS) is a book that got a lot of buzz when it came out in 2015. I haven’t read it so cannot vouch for it, but it’s about a girl who cannot remember the night she was assaulted but photos of it have been circulated to everyone in her school. In the age of smartphones and social media this seems an important take on surviving assault.
What We Saw, by Aaron Hartzler (SPL)(KCLS) is a book that was recommended to me by a coworker that I haven’t been able to read yet. What We Saw takes a completely different viewpoint, it’s about a girl who was at a party when another girl gets assaulted. Kate can’t remember the night too well, and the book is about her trying to figure out if what the survivor claims is true. It looks at how silence by bystanders is a major form of complacency in rape culture.
Ultimately this list is incomplete, because the books published about surviving rape culture leave out so many experiences. We need books that explore how rape culture affects young women of color, queer & trans people, disabled people, immigrants, and how rape culture affects young men- because people of all genders can be sexually assaulted.
As a society, and often times as feminist movements, we put far too much import on white, straight, cisgendered, able bodied women. If our feminist movements are really going to dismantle destroy rape culture, they need to do it for everyone. Otherwise our feminist movements are useless.
Maggie Block is a South End-area Teen Services Librarian. While her expertise as a youth librarian in the community will help when writing these pieces, she writes these articles on her own time, and the opinions she expresses are purely hers and in no way reflect her library system or anyone else they employ.