Examining Sexual Assault in YA Novels
Guest blog by Heather Cumiskey
Remember the cringeworthy scene in the movie Sixteen Candles when Caroline, the ever-popular high school senior, wakes up after a night of drinking to discover that while passed out, she’s had sex with Ted, the freshman geek and former virgin? It’s understood that until then, these two had never crossed paths. She looks ashamed and regretful at first. He then asks her if she thought he was any good—and astonishingly, they KISS!
Wait, WHAT? To be honest, my 16-year-old self didn’t bat an eye at this either.
Though this 1984 date rape storyline is a product of the era, disturbingly it perpetuates the notion that it’s okay for drinking and nonconsensual sex to go hand in hand. These things happen, right? Blame it on the alcohol and one crazy, wild night. For the majority of teens today, (I hope) this wouldn’t fly today, largely due to the growing awareness of sexual assault in the media, movies, and especially YA novels.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Fourteen-year-old Melinda, a high school freshman, dials 911 during a party to report a rape that has just taken place. Her own. Melinda’s distraught state blocks her words from coming out. Her 911 call, however, manages to bust up the party, resulting in arrests and severed friendships. She swiftly becomes the school pariah and spirals into a deep depression. It’s a haunting example of the devastating effect sexual assault has on a young woman’s life. Her stress of burying what’s happened slowly sabotages every aspect of her life, until she’s forced to come forward to save her former best friend from the same fate.
Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
Annabel finds herself trapped in a dark upstairs bedroom during a high school party and is forcefully raped by her best friend’s boyfriend. When the lights go on, her best friend makes it clear to the rest of the party that Annabel’s a slut. Like Melinda, Annabel, too, keeps silent. Later, her flashbacks of the attack take a physical toll, plaguing her with panic attacks. There’s a dramatic shift in the girl she was before the rape to the girl she is now.
Both novels explore the complicated reasons why victims of sexual assault aren’t always able to come forward. The confusion and fear that manifests often paralyzes them to act. Swallowing their shameful secret seems easier than facing public scrutiny and becoming “that girl.”
Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake
What if the alleged rapist wasn’t some random guy at a party? In Blake’s novel, Mara’s twin brother, Owen, is accused of raping his girlfriend, who is also Mara’s best friend. As Mara grapples with who she can believe, the incident triggers her own trauma to surface, an incident that happened years before with one of her teachers. The novel confronts the difficult questions surrounding consent and victim blaming, as well as the damage that’s caused when we treat rape survivors with suspicion.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the US Department of Justice reports that young women ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.
With this sobering stat and many others on RAINN’s site, I find comfort in the undaunted storylines of rape and sexual assault in today’s YA novels. They especially excel in the exploration of what happens to a victim AFTER an assault; how suicidal and depressive thoughts tend to increase and forever change someone, and how friendships and families can unravel.
Once these characters are able to speak their truth, they are able to take back their power and slowly start their path to healing, leaving readers hopeful.
Young women like Caroline in the era of Sixteen Candles weren’t given that consideration. When it came to teen partying, they were written as powerless, careless creatures.
Maybe now our daughters and sons can escape that same fate.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673, available every day 24/7. For more resources on sexual assault, visit RAINN or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Heather Cumiskey is an award-winning author of I Like You Like This, a poignant YA duology about addiction, peer pressure, sexuality, and first love. The second book in the series, I Love You Like That comes out this month. Connect with her at HeatherCumiskey.com.