Wednesday, 22 June 2016

It's Time To Stop Using Sexual Assault and Rape In YA as 'Plot Development' or 'Character Personality Shifts'


I've lost count how many times I've read a young adult novel where the main character is trapped in a scene that has them fighting off somebody who's made a sexual pass at them, and I am willing to bet that you've read a scene exactly like that recently too. A scene of somebody being pressured into a situation they don't want to be in, being 'convinced' that what one person wants, they want too, having to forcibly shout, scream and beg for somebody to stop what they think is acceptable. I've read scenes like these one too many times, and I've reached breaking point.

Is this the kind of message we want to send to young readers - 'sexual assault and rape is a plot development in your life' - something that we should all have some sort of experience of to appreciate? That, in order to make it anywhere in life, you have to have been through something horrific and life changing and get through it forever changed, forever affected, to become the person we're meant to be? I know it's not the message I want to send, because I know how it feels..

At the age of 13, I became a victim of sexual assault.


Of course, I didn't know or understand this at the time. I was in a relationship, albeit a naive one with a super sweet guy, but his best friend wasn't qute so sweet, and it's his disrespect for me and my feelings, my protests of no, my whimpers and my heartbreak that turned my life upside down.

I was held beneath him, trapped.
I was blackmailed to perform acts on him.
I was abused, assaulted, hurt, and a victim.

It's without a doubt one of the most traumatic and most harrowing experiences of my life, but it had everlasting repercussions. When I shared my experience with close friends, I wasn't believed, I was branded a cheat, a slut, and a whore. I was the biggest gossip going. I was a story spread in the corridors of school, and I was watched by teachers for bad behaviour.

While I wish I'd known or understood what happened to me then, because I can say for certain it changed how I developed growing up. Relationships have never been a strong suit of mine, and none of my sexual experiences have been all that positive. I've suffered from mental illnesses and have become an entirely different person than I may have become had I not suffered from that sexual assault, and yet I only see what a difference it's made when I read the same terrible experiences suffered by characters in young adult and how they deal, or don't deal with the issue themselves.

Too many young adult novels gloss over sexual assault and rape as 'plot advancements' or character development to encourage personality shifts or romantic affections. This is not the best way to discuss this issue, and two memorable reads of 2014 brought this to light for me even more..

While I actually quite enjoyed Love Bomb by Jenny McLachlan and talked briefly about the issue when it was released, it's a really bad example of a sexual assault experience having a lasting impact on the rather young and impressionable main character, only to lead her into a relationship down the line with no lasting feeling or emotions.

One of the scenes involves the main character and her 'love interest' heading into a bedroom, something the main character is shown to be uncomfortable doing, and then later, encouraged to sit on his bed. This could quite easily be a show of nerves, understandably so, it's her first real relationship, but when kissing and touching certain body parts is taken too far, affecting her confidence and comfort, actions that are stated as being unwanted by the character, they're entirely shrugged off as 'a learning curve of the teenage years'.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the main character is made to feel as though the experience was her fault, that she'd done something wrong, tor disappointed said 'love interest', implying that she should have been more open about the experience, even if she didn't want to be part of it. The most heartbreaking part is that she never actually speaks to anyone about the whole experience, and the 'love interest' in question is never punished for his actions..

We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen also touched upon similar experiences, and although these are actually explored in more depth, they're never explored like they should have been, and it contributed hugely to my feelings towards the novel when I read it.

The main female character is first told that her 'boyfriend's' parents will be home when plans are made to meet at the 'love interests' house, only to later be told upon arrival that they are not there. Almost unsurprisingly, the 'love interest' then encourages alcohol towards the female main character, something she naively agrees to, and then later tries to encourage her to embark in sexual activities she makes clear she doesn't wish to be involved in.

Words such as 'no' and 'stop' are used frequently, and once the traumatic experience is over with, the female character is later left questioning whether the 'love interests' apology was for the actions he took upon her, or because he couldn't continue with them. Later in the novel, the female main character is plied with more alcohol at a party with 'love interest' who has already proven his intentions, and is taken into bed with not one, but two males who are clearly nowhere near as intoxicated as she is, and then proceed to determine whether she is aware enough to take part in sexual activities with her.

When it becomes clear that she is not, they proceed to attempt to undress her, take photographic evidence and then leave her unattended, vulnerable and almost unconscious, only for her younger sibling to find her. The female character does, eventually, speak to people about the experience, and while legal proceedings almost take place, lack of evidence proves to be a standing factor and the accusations are dropped. Public people of power, both in a school and legal environment are made aware of these actions, yet once again, the 'love interest' is never punished for his actions, despite witness accounts..

These moments and scenes taken out of the novels in questions may seem rather small in comparison to the actual novels themselves, but they speak volumes when pinpointed and separated from the rest of the writing, which only goes to show societies lack of understanding about these experiences. They're easily dismissed as a plot device, or as a way for a character to change their personality, or for a relationship to occur with somebody else, rather than actually be delved into in a much deeper, much more positive way. Jamie of Perpetual Pageturner asked whether it's the authors responsibility to make sure that important topics are given the right message in fiction, and in this case, I say yes, it is.

You can't feature rape or sexual assault in young adult novels and not make clear that these actions are wrong, and worse illegal. You can not bring up these moments and not make clear that it's not just a part of growing up and learning more about yourself, that it's actually something abnormal, something victims should talk to people about, and find justice for. If we don't, how can we expect society to take the real life cases of sexual assault and rape seriously?

You can't, and shouldn't shrug of these types of abuse, because by doing so, you help feed the wrong impression, and create more innocent victims who don't see that what's happened is not okay. These 'love interests' were never punished, were romanticised, and were further allowed to be involved in the victim's life, with no consideration of it might affect them in future, from their trust and emotional interests with others, to their confidence and comfortableness in society, to serious mental issues due to trauma. You can't write about these subjects and not call it what it is. It's time we stopped using sexual assault and rape as a plot and treated it with the sensitivity and honesty it deserves.

How Do You Feel About the Use of Sexual Assault and Rape in Fiction?

16 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Sexual assault/rape/... are tough subjects to write about. I don't like it when it's portrayed as something you need to go through in order to become your true self. That's plain bullshit. No one should go through something like that let alone be expected to grow stronger because of it. It shouldn't even EXIST. Period.

    I do feel like it's important that this subject is talked about in books, whether it's young adult or adult. If it's not talked about, then it's taboo. It should be talked about in a way that opens up peoples eyes and minds and makes them aware of it. In a way for young readers to learn about it, especially to learn that it's not the victims fault and that you should be able to talk about it with someone, that you should be able to report it.

    Examples in the media aren't all that positive, what with this recent case of a guy raping an unconscious woman and getting a ridiculous punishment (aka none). These things scare me and a lot of other women but if authors write about it in a way that makes us feel reassured that we should talk about things like that if they were to happen, then I feel like we are taking a step forward. They should not be used as character development because that's not the right example to set.

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  3. That was really brave of you to share your story, and I'm glad you are taking a stand against this. Media deals with it really poorly, and I guess that would transfer to books as well. I hate that people never believe someone when they talk about it, who would lie about something like that.

    I think your a very strong person.

    *hugs*



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  4. I really admire you being brave enough to share your experience and bring up this discussion. And I'm so sorry you experienced that.

    It's true that often sexual assault is used as a plot point for character development of the MC or to make it clear that another character is villainous. And often time the MC leaves the experience feeling shaken up, but with no lasting effects. This has already bothered me because that's not how sexual assault works. People don't just brush it off. A lot of the time it takes years and years to even get past the point of self-blame. I do think that when writing on sensitive subjects authors should think more about what they want the reader to come away with. Rape isn't a life experience women need to go through to get stronger. It's a horrible experience no woman should ever have to go through, or man for that matter.

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  5. This post is amazing, Amanda. It's so brave of you to share your story and I completely agree with you. I don't know if you watch Game of Thrones (I won't spoil just in case), but there was a rape scene last season that felt like it was just for shock value and to push another character to grow (not even the rape victim). It made me so beyond angry I almost quit watching the show because of it. I think it can be written about, but it has to be done right and so many authors don't get it right.

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  6. Thank you for being so brave to share your story with us and I'm really sorry that that happened to you. <3

    I completely agree with you. I can't say much on the topic as I haven't actually read many books where sexual assault or rape takes place but my best friend reads a lot of YA contemporary/NA and I was actually shocked when she told me how so many of the books she read contained that. The sad thing is as well is that it isn't dealt with sensitively - the emotional turmoil the victim experiences and this act of violation on their body is written about just to give the book a plot. It's a serious matter and it shouldn't be used in books just so there's something to write about or to explain a character's attitude/actions - it should be written about in order to show the repercussions of having such an awful thing happen to someone and how to recover from the trauma in a healthy, positive way. Rape and sexual assault is another thing (alongside mental illness) that is romanticized and it must stop! Thank you for writing this post!

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  7. " You can't feature rape or sexual assault in young adult novels and not make clear that these actions are wrong, and worse illegal." <--- I ABSOLUTELY ENTIRELY AGREE WITH THIS. I think it's dangerous when books go for darker themes but don't actually say it's wrong. Like I write about dark things a lot (not sexual assault though because...no) but I want my book's end thought to be "THAT WAS WRONG AND THAT DAMAGED THE PERSON AND THAT SHOULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED". Bad things do happen. Sexual assault does happen. I saw a horrible statistic the other day on the percentage of women that face some sort of assault in their life, and it was very high and very disturbing. So I don't think assault should be erased from books because it DOES happen and I think books should be honest. But they NEED to not shrug it off. Ugh.
    Like one thing that bothered me in An Ember in the Ashes was the amount of violence and rape-threats...and how it was all just in their for the shock factor. No one had any thoughts about it being wrong, it was just how it was. And I hate that. Rape should NOT be used as a shock factor. :(
    Anyway *sends hugs* I think you're very brave also and I love how eloquent and well written this post is. <3

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  8. Oh Amanda. I am so incredibly sorry that you went through that. And are probably STILL going through it, at least emotionally. I just wish I could give you the biggest hug ever. And writing this post... wow, not only is this SO brave, you are helping SO MANY people. I just wish we didn't live in a society where you had to, where this was something that happens all the time. Because it does, sadly and infuriatingly.

    Have you read Asking For It by Louise O'Neill? That's my go-to recommendation, because she has this uncanny ability to make you want to start rioting in the streets with her words. The takeaway of that book is basically that NO ONE is ever "asking for it", NO ONE deserves that, and no matter WHO a person is, it is NEVER, EVER OKAY. But it will infuriate you- and might even be triggering, so a heads up. It actually reminds me a LOT of the case that's been in the news, which is another thing that absolutely sickens me.

    I hate that nearly a quarter of women will endure the pain you've endured. And I applaud you for making a stand against it. Because you're so, so right- the more it's portrayed as NBD, or a plot device, or anything aside from a CRIMINAL AND MORAL OFFENSE, things won't ever improve. This is such a powerful post, Amanda. Thank you for it.

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  9. I honestly cannot imagine what you must have gone through and I think you are incredible brave for being able to share your story with us. Not to mention that this blog post can actually help so many people. And it makes me angry everytime I hear story like this because who does the guy think he is that he has the right to do this to someone. No one should be forced in this century to something he or she doesn't want.

    I think it's important to talk about serious issues in YA books because it can influence so many young girl AND boys. Books can be great platform for raising awareness in the right way and the two books you mentioned are not doing it quite right. I don't think a girl would go through those scene thinking it's something she has to go through or would blame herself because she didn't enjoy it. I don't think reality works that way.

    This year, I've read The Way I Used To Be and it's primarily dealing with depression, although I think that the element of rape is more apparent. But again, after the horrible incident, the main heroine didn't tell anything to anybody because she thought it's her fault and because it was her brother's friend. She suffered, as would anyone obviously, and started seeking sex because it numbed her senses and she didn't have to think about what happened. I had troubles believing she would seek something that cause her pain in the first place.

    I think it is topic that should be talk about, but it shouldn't be just a plot device because then it looses all the seriousness and realness.

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  10. First I wanted to say that I am sorry for what you've been through. No one should ever have to go through something like that and especially at such a young age.
    As for the use of rape and sexual assault in YA literature my opinion is this:
    Books have the power to show us a different way to deal with situations in our everyday lives. So, when an attack like this is used in the right way in a book, it can be used to show to the reader a better way of dealing with that experience, it can help them understand that something like that is unacceptable, that they should speak up, and that they should not be ashamed of what happened to them, because it wasn't their fault.
    I understand that it wouldn't be realistic if every book ended with the attacker in prison, but-and I think you would agree with me on this-the most important thing in this situation is how society deals with the issue in the book. I can accept that sometimes there won't be enough evidence to prove the attacker's guilt, but if the author uses society to shun the attacker, and to embrace the victim and try to help him/her deal with this traumatic experience and move on in their lives, then I think it would be okay to use rape/sexual assault in the book.

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  11. I agree. I try not to read books that are about rape. I was almost raped when I was nine. I say almost because I yell for my mother before anything happened. I was lucky that I knew about sex before it happened or else I would have know what was happening.

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  12. I understand how sexual abuse goes, but this is because of the books I chose to read. I personally like reading YA Novels that involve hard topics such as this, I don't enjoy it because I like seeing or knowing people get their free will and innocence taken away, nor am I a nymphomaniac. It's something that keeps my eyes open on how cruel society can be. Someone who hasn't experienced such couldn't possibly write properly about rape, and truth to be told, I'll can never pretend to understand how a victim feels cause thank God, I've never been one. I can't even begin to imagine the trauma changes his/her life forever.

    It's a good discussion though, it definitely makes sense. Thanks for sharing this!

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  13. Thank you for sharing your story. You are absolutely right. There needs to be a strong message about how wrong abuse is. I was older (17) when I went through an experience with a family friend and feel somewhat guilty because I should have known how to deal with it. Being painfully shy and having low self confidence probably made me an easier target.

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  14. This is such an important post. Thank you for sharing it. Authors have a responsibility to write truthfully about rape and sexual assault, if they are going to include these serious issues in their writing, they need to be ready to handle them in a way that is truthful, and sensitive, and not afraid to show that rape and sexual assault are absolutely wrong. It's just wrong to use a traumatic experience as a plot device, and ignore the reality of it. I really liked your point about how if we don't take the cases of rape and sexual assault seriously in fiction, then how can we take them seriously in real life. So true.

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  15. if i had not read this i would never understand. thank you for letting us know better.

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