YA Lit and the Circumstances of Sexual Assault

Posted September 3, 2015 by Stormy in Books / 2 Comments

NOTE: As you can probably infer by the title, this post will contain mentions of rape and sexual assault throughout. 

A few months ago, I asked on twitter if anyone knew of YA contemporary books that featured/where about sexual assault where the crime did NOT take place at a party/gathering or soon thereafter. I got some really good answers, and went digging into Goodreads to look these books up. What I found? All the books that I could find in which sexual assault did not take place at a party were about sexual abuse by a family member. 

Now, I haven’t read all the YA books about sexual assault, but I have read a good chunk. This year alone I’ve read Some Boys, All the Rage, Some Girls Are, Fault Line, and What We Saw. In the past I’ve read Faking Normal, Speak, Uses for Boys and more. Most of those books I liked. In fact, All the Rage is one of my favorite books of the year. I think rape and sexual assault is a necessary topic to explore thoughtfully in YA because it’s such a huge problem, and I really appreciate the YA books that deal with not only rape but the rape culture that surrounds it(such as All the Rage and What We Saw).

However, I do wonder about what happens when all these books tend to portray a rape that happens in a similar circumstance. I understand what these books are often trying to do, which is to show that no matter what, rape is the fault of the rapist, not the victim. It doesn’t matter how short her skirt is or if she was drinking–rape is a choice that a rapist makes. That is a vitally important message for YA’s target audience to hear, particularly since they probably hear things to the contrary with some regularity. And it’s obvious when you pay attention that many sexual crimes DO occur under these circumstances, especially with high school and college students, as evident by the Steubenville case, so I am in no way saying these books portray this topic badly, as several of them are very good.

At the same time, though, I do wonder why there’s not more variety in books that deal with rape(unless it’s incest). This is a setting in which rape does occur in real life, yes. But it’s not the only one. Rape is a hard topic and I give major props to the authors who thoughtfully explore the aftermath and not as a plot device. Ideally, these books wouldn’t be necessary because rape would be rare and unthinkable, but sadly it occurs often. According to RAINN, 44% of rape victims are under the age of 18, which makes this very much an issue that YA should thoughtfully explore.

Most of the time, sexual assault in YA fiction is portrayed to happen at a social gathering, as mentioned above. If not outright parties, then at the very least low-key gatherings. This creates a sort of narrative I tend to see pop up in these books, where many lies about rape culture are directly confronted. It’s not unusual for their to be witnesses or even video evidence(as in Some Boys and What We Saw). What I see explored less in YA is when these sexual crimes don’t have the same trappings of a social gathering. There’s little of “date rape”( a term I hate because rape is rape, but am using here to signify the circumstances of the crime and not the severity, because again, rape is rape), other than The Mockingbirds. There’s little in which the MC has previously consented but does not this time(other than Some Boys, though that still takes place at a party).

I don’t think any of the books mentioned above should have changed the setting of sexual assault. . . but I would like to see YA in general look at the circumstances in which sexual assault is depicted. This is a topic that will continue to be explored in YA until it’s no longer necessary(which is as it should be), but I do think that the fact that most of the well-known titles that deal with sexual assault tend to set it in similar circumstances creates a narrative that should be examined.

I actually wrote this post while on I was on hiatus(and I had been thinking about it for a *very* long while), and yesterday I saw someone share a link on twitter about how often victims think of terms of “almost” rape, which seemed relevant to this topic & made me want to share. I do think YA in general tends to be better at exploring how there’s no “typical” sexual assault than the media at large, but I still think it’s something that still needs discussing.

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2 responses to “YA Lit and the Circumstances of Sexual Assault

  1. First of Stormy, brilliant post.

    I’ve read Fault Line, Faking Normal and Uses for Boys which I think were pretty amazing attempts at trying to explore a topic as sensitive as sexual assault. Faking Normal however, was my favorite-I think Stevens did a great job with the narrative, starting off subtle and building a powerful finish that really drove the message home. Both Fault Line and Uses for Boys seemed to take a more blunt approach that seemed to really push readers out of their comfort zones (myself included). I must admit that until you pointed it out, I never quite thought of the setting. But now that you bring it up yes, there seems to be a common factor where the assaults to place in parties and other large social gatherings. I wonder if this is something that the authors intentionally included or if it something more. Is it that we are unknowingly conditioned to think of sexual assault as something that is likely to be caused by a stranger rather than someone who is seen as either a family/friend?

    All the Rage is definitely a book that’s on my TBR because Courtney Summers. Adore her work.What We Saw is actually on my nightstand so I’ll be picking it up this week or the next.

    I would strongly recommend Rachele Alpine’s Canary-Alphine is an amazing writer so please do give it a go.

    • Stormy

      Oh yeah, like you said, Fault Line and Uses for Boys were both blunt. I think it’s harder to talk about what happens in Uses for Boys because it’s used as part of a pattern and not about the event itself(as compared to All the Rage). I do think that the setting most likely occurs because I think those are the types of cases we tend to hear about. It’s much harder for the media to ignore an assault that happens at a party when there’s, say, video evidence. But it makes me wonder about the circumstances we don’t see. And I think a lot of those books do really great things, like showing it’s never the victim’s fault even if they’ve been drinking, which is something our culture likes to say a lot. . . but then it becomes this own narrative.

      Ooh, All the Rage is excellent! I’ve liked or loved all of Courtney Summer’s books, but All the Rage is my favorite. And I’m headed to Goodreads right now to look up Canary, in that case! That’s one I haven’t even heard about.

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