Does rape and sexual assault belong in fiction? I believe that the answer is yes. Many of the books that include themes of assault and rape depict what many young men and women survivors go through; even though many of them do not end with the offender getting punished, they usually end with hope for the survivor to heal.
I read several different young adult fiction novels with themes of rape and sexual assault and saw these common threads within them: Victim blaming, harassment of the survivor, rape myths, gender stereotypes, and the fear of coming forward. I think the best way to support my belief that fiction books containing these themes are necessary is to go through some that I have read.
*** Please note that the author discusses several books ahead, so if you’re interested in reading them spoiler free, this might be a good stopping point. ***
What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler, tells the story of a girl named Stacey that was raped at a party. Several people were there and all saw different things, but no one will say for sure what happened to her. Stacey decides to file charges against four men that were at the party, and that is when trouble starts for her. First she is harassed through very aggressive tweets written about her: “What u get for inviting a TRAMP to the party” (Hartzler 85). The four men accused are on the school’s basketball team, and more people are upset at the thought of them being jailed causing them a championship than the thought that they are abusive rapists. Later in the book, there is an article written up about the incident describing the men accused as sports stars, painting them in a more positive light than the victim. The article even contains victim blaming language: “Some in attendance deemed the young woman’s attire to be provocative” (Hartzler 100). The article makes the victim seem like she was asking for what happened to her, just because of how she was dressed and the fact that she didn’t leave with her friends. Just because someone drinks and wears certain clothes does not mean that they want to be assaulted, or that it is acceptable to treat her in an abusive manner. Towards the end of the book, a video is found of the attack. The narrator of the story watches it and sees that the basketball stars are not the great people everyone believes them to be.
In the end, the men do get prosecuted, but are able to get their charges lessened because of a connection with the prosecutor. Stacey moves away to start a new life at a different school with people who don’t know about the attack; she is able to move on with her life. This story is very realistic. Often women who come forward accusing men of rape are not believed, especially when they were drunk and wearing provocative clothing. The fact that the men accused were sports stars would make it even more difficult to receive any sort of justice, as most do not want to believe their idols would do such a thing. For instance, in the case against Brock Turner many thought it was unfair because he lost his swimming scholarship and had so much promise as a swimmer; he received a very small sentence that, in my opinion, in no way makes up for what he did.
In Maybe I Will by Laurie Gray, a girl, Sandy, is sexually assaulted by her friend’s boyfriend while she in in the other room. The attack happens so fast that she doesn’t even really know what happened until she has some time to think about it. It begins when her friend, Cassie, asks her boyfriend Aaron to teach them self-defense. Cassie walks out of the room for a moment, when Aaron pins Sandy down in what seems to be another self-defense move:
“I couldn’t breathe, and was just about to say so when he put his hand over my mouth…I thrashed around trying to fight him off, but he was too strong. I couldn’t get him off me. I could feel myself starting to panic. I stopped struggling and just tried to breathe. Cassie was right there. Nothing was going to happen. But I was wrong again.” (Gray 39)
Sandy is too shocked by what happened, and terrified, that she doesn’t say anything to Cassie. She doesn’t tell anyone anything. Instead she turns to alcohol to numb her pain and begins to drink heavily. Later in the story, Sandy gets a call from Cassie saying that she knows what happened. Sandy freezes, but quickly learns that Aaron told Cassie a false story of the assault. He tells her that she was coming onto him and that he didn’t mean any of it to happen. Sandy doesn’t know what to say, so she lets Cassie believe that that is what happened. When she finally does tell someone what happened, she gets some support, even though she believes that pressing charges will be fruitless. After her confession, she finds out that she is not Aaron’s only victim. The book ends with Aaron getting away with his crimes, and Sandy having to come to terms with her assault and move on.
The reality of these books should shock readers and hopefully inspire change, which is starting to happen as seen by more women coming forward with their stories. This type of attack is very important to read about as well as there are so many times survivors don’t realize what happened to them was in fact assault. Sandy denies what happened for a while and tries to lessen it in her head, until she is able to think it through more and realize that just because it could have been worse doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen and that it wasn’t assault.
One other thing I found when researching this theme in young adult fiction is the lack of books containing male rape victims. The books I found were not easily obtained. Librarians and workers at bookstores were unaware of any books, and many that have been published are now out of print and hard to get. In Target by Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson, one of the only three books I could get with male survivors, a sixteen year old boy is raped by two men that jump him while he is walking alone. He doesn’t know these men, but is instead targeted by them while he is by himself, in what he believes to be a safe area. A van stops by him to ask for directions, and he is pulled in and violated by two men. The young boy, Grady, goes to the police right away, but does not get the help he expects. He talks about what the police said to him:
“What, to a big guy like you?” The disbelief in his face, the skepticism in his raised eyebrows, mocked Grady. Then, his voice cynical, the cop said, “Sure you didn’t just have a fight with one of your boyfriends?” Boyfriends? The two men who had jumped him, beaten him, shoved him in the back of a van and hurt him so badly he screamed, then dumped him alongside the road? (Johnson 21)
This is an unfortunate common response to male victims of rape. Their sexual orientation is assumed, which is ridiculous because a woman in the same situation and condition would never be asked this question. If a woman is beaten and raped, the police do not joke about it in this manner. Because Grady is a man, he is assumed to be able to take care of himself and not get into a situation where he can be raped.
Grady stops talking to people, except to say a few words on very rare occasions. He even says that he is glad his rapists never got caught because he would have been humiliated to go through a trial and have to relive that moment in his life. Grady also reveals later on that he had been a victim of child sexual abuse as well from a family friend, which he never tells anyone about either. He is able to finally tell his story to his two friends and begins to start healing. Though his attackers are never found and prosecuted to his knowledge, he is able to start the road to recovery. He also does mention that one hurdle he felt was that men are supposed to be brave, and never cowardly. This is something we need to work on as a society to make male victims feel safe enough to get the help they need, and tell their stories to their loved ones so that they can be supported and not feel so alone.
The ending of these books are often very bleak, but they do have one very good common thread: hope. There is always hope for the survivor to heal and get back to living a normal life after being attacked, whether the offender is punished or not. I think that it is important to keep these books around not only to show survivors that they are not alone and things can get better, but to show the public the reality of what happens and how little justice rape survivors get. These survivors are so extremely strong because they are able to heal and move on, even without the justice they so deserve. Especially in the case of books with male survivors, I hope that more do get published so that men see that they can get the support they need too. Yes these are all works of fiction, but the situations in them are very realistic; in fact, many of them could read as non-fiction.