Rape Culture in YA Literature

Steady yourselves, I’m going to recommend an article in Glamour magazine.

But first I want to talk about Veronica Mars. You remember Veronica Mars right? A TV show a few years back, it featured Kristen Bell as a high school girl who helped solve cases that came in to her Dad’s detective agency. But what sucked me in right away was her backstory.

Veronica Mars was a popular girl who went to a party and was drugged & raped … and didn’t know by whom. When she went to  law enforcement she was ridiculed by the sheriff (“Why don’t you go see the Wizard. Ask for a little backbone.”) Her boyfriend broke up with her. She lost her “friends” overnight. I found that to be … well, realistic.

When the show opens, it is a year after that event. She has become a wise-cracking tough girl with no friends. A girl with PTSD who nevertheless handles her aftermath with grace and a taser.

Though that may not ring quite as true with many of us survivors, it is my fantasy of how I handled things 30 years ago. This was back in 1984. There was no background or training about rape other than from the plots of 1970’s cop shows. Opening: woman walks through dark parking lot. Footsteps. She looks back and quickens her steps.  The following steps quicken.  She fumbles for her keys and runs for her car door.  A man in a mask puts a gloved hand around her mouth.  Cut to commercial.   That was rape.

But someone forcing sex on you in his apartment?  That was just a thing that happened. Unless you were a pristine virgin attacked by an absolute stranger in front of witnesses, you didn’t go to the police. You put up with it. You didn’t question it. There was no talk about consent culture or rape culture. No one recognized acquaintance rape as “real rape” back then.

I talked to my roommate, who told me the same thing had happened to her and shrugged. I talked to my parents, who sympathized and urged me to stay in school. I talked to someone in the counseling office who talked about rites of passage and growing up. And I talked to a friend who said “Everyone’s first time sucks.” I don’t resent any of those people. We just didn’t know. It did not occur to anyone that this was rape, least of all me. (Also, tasers weren’t commercially available until after 1994, but I digress.)

If the books mentioned in the Glamour article below had been around, maybe one person would have believed me. If I had read these books, I’d have had the tools to acknowledge what had happened. I don’t have a lot of regrets in life, but I do wish I’d known enough to prosecute this guy.  I’m sure I’m not alone in that regret. Still today, 68% of rapes are not reported, and 98% of rapists won’t spend a single night in jail.

Over three decades we’ve changed a lot, and that’s worth celebrating.  A young* person raped in someone else’s apartment today may still be slut-shamed or told that they’re making too big a deal out of it, but there are advocates all over the internet.  Like RAINN.org, where a survivor can start getting the support and information they need.  Or No More.org, which gives friends and family members the strategies to be supportive. Or 1in6, specifically created for the estimated 17% of sexual assault victims who are men.  As the conversations about date rape and rape culture come up, and consent culture gains advocates, sexual assaults have gone down about 49% since 1993.

And here’s a great thing:  today’s young adults are getting more of an education about what rape culture is, through media. Glamour’s article on YA Literature makes that clear. And it is here:

http://www.glamour.com/story/ya-lits-hot-new-trend-fighting-rape-culture

It’s my hope that today’s young adults will recognize rape as rape when it happens to them or their friends. Certainly counselors and administrators and law enforcement have more information about it. But we still have a long way to go. Even as you read this some shell-shocked teenager is being questioned by someone they trust who will fail them by asking what they were wearing, if they were drinking and if they really thought it was rape. “It can’t be real rape — you’re a boy,” they will be told. Or, “you went to his apartment willingly.”

 Call to action: promote consent culture by having conversations with the young people in your lives…and buy someone a book that will help them recognize rape when it happens to someone around them.

Rabbit Hole: Rape Culture – Teens

From  Bustle’s “5 Prom Traditions That Perpetuate Rape Culture“:

Bustle’s article looks primarily at prom traditions supporting the idea that young women are targets for young teenage men (who are painted as sexual predators).  Problematic are traditions like insisting that young woman dress conservatively at prom (because they are objects and therefore responsible for inviting rape if they dress provocatively); and the traditional Dad-threatening-prom-date trope that makes only males responsible for the sexual safety of teenage young women.

askingforit
Cover of “Asking For It” by Louise O’Neill. Cover design by Kate Gaughran

According to one Kaiser Family Foundation study, one-third of boys and 23 percent of girls ages 15-17 feel pressure to have sex, and prom can exacerbate this. After-prom parties are often considered an opportunity for high schoolers to reach sexual milestones. This can lead students both to feel internal pressure and to put pressure on one another.

From  Psychology Today’s “Peer Pressure and Teen Sex“:

One in three boys ages 15-17 say they feel pressure to have sex,
often from male friends. Teen girls feel less pressure–only 23 percent
said they felt such coercion. Researchers questioned 1,854 subjects
between the ages of 13 and 24 in a national survey.

The study, released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, also found
that teens feel strong pressure to drink and try drugs. The study
findings show a need for sex education at a young age, say the study
authors.

From the SEICUS Fact Sheet in support of the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act:

The availability and quality of sexual health information and sexuality education varies drastically across the country. Less than half of all high schools and only 20% of middle schools in the U.S. provide all 16 of the CDC-identified topics critical to ensuring sexual health. (CDC) In addition, many young people face systemic barriers to accessing health information and services, resulting in persistent inequity and disparities. (CDC)

The data on disparities and disproportionate burden on young people continue to highlight the need for additional resources to serve young people most in need of sexual health education.

  • HIV infection rates are increasing among young people, particularly among young men who have sex with men (CDC) – young people under the age of 25 account for 1 in 5 new HIV infections. (CDC)
  • Half of the nearly 20 million estimated new STIs each year in the U.S. occur among people ages 15–24. (CDC)
  • Despite historically low unintended teen pregnancy and birth rates in the U.S., the country continues to have the highest rate of teen births among comparable countries. (UNICEF)
  • A devastating 10% of high school students report experiencing partner violence and/or sexual violence. (CDC)

Note: the CDC figure looks only at partner violence and sexual violence.  In terms of sexual assault of teens in general, the American Psychological Association reported in 2014 that 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls report having been sexually assaulted by age 18. (1)

  1. “Child Sexual Abuse: What Parents Should Know,” American Psychological Association. (http://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/child-sexual-abuse.aspx) (February 19, 2014)