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Find more Make Them Hear You
At a party for a mutual friend, the man I’d just met informed me that rape culture doesn’t exist. It’s all one big example of overreactions and social-justice hysteria, a misrepresentative fallacy created by feminist thought police. Show me the people who are arguing in support of rape, he said.
What do you think the phrase “rape culture” actually means? I wanted to ask him. I wanted to say that rape culture, the way I understand it, isn’t the belief that all men are rapists or have violent tendencies. It isn’t the belief that most men are that way. Rape culture doesn’t really have that much to do with men at all.
I wanted to say that when I left that party, I’d do so with my keys between my knuckles and the thumb on the call button of my phone. I wanted to explain that it’s more than that. It’s the catcalls, the endless dialogue surrounding women’s rights, the interruptions and the condescension, the workplace microaggressions. Rape culture, I wanted to say, is people like you telling me that my lived experiences are invalid because they don’t match your perception of the world.
In the end, though, I didn’t say any of it.
Because of the pervasiveness of this feeling, it’s no surprise that stories about rape and rape culture have slipped into YA literature. Fear lives in the body, and so many of these novels deal with traumatic internalization, the struggle to come to terms with a horrible event. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak (1999) is perhaps the most enduring example of this: after she’s raped at an end-of-summer party, freshman Melinda Sordino turns inward, literally biting her lips until they bleed as she’s ostracized by her peers, telling no one the truth about what’s happened to her.
Melinda is far from the only heroine who remains silent about a rape or an assault, and certainly not the last to become a social outcast following a traumatic event. The YA landscape is rife with characters who fit into one or both categories, and it’s a topic that has only grown, with titles like Sarah Dessen’s Just Listen (2006), Patty Blount’s Some Boys (2014), Aaron Hartzler’s What We Saw (2015), and Amber Smith’s The Way I Used to Be (2016). The focus on rape as a culture instead of a singular event has also become more prevalent in recent years, from Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable, a 2005 National Book Award finalist that addresses a rape from the point of view of a rapist who insists on his own innocence, to such powerhouse titles as Courtney Summers’ All the Rage (2015) and Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It (2016).
Two 2016 novels in particular stand out, and not just for their extensive literary merits. Not only do both deal with the aftermath of a rape, but they each engage actively with the ongoing discussion surrounding rape and rape culture, and especially what it means for women. E. K. Johnston’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear is the quieter of the two; in it, high-school senior Hermione Winters is drugged, raped, and impregnated at cheerleading camp. It’s a subtle retelling of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, with one striking difference: when Queen Hermione in the play is accused of faithlessness, she retreats and dies of grief, leaving only a stone statue in her likeness.
Johnston’s Hermione, though, refuses to be turned to stone. It isn’t an easy choice: Hermione’s boyfriend accuses her of asking for it, and the road to recovery is long. But Hermione has a strong support system, abortion is a frank and realistic option, and her forceful determination not to retreat inside herself is the hallmark of this tale.
Mindy McGinnis’ The Female of the Species, on the other hand, is an explosive takedown of a world that seems to keep forgiving violence against women. It takes the shape of a thriller: Alex’s sister was raped and murdered, and when the man everyone in town knew was guilty walked free, Alex exacted her own ferocious retribution, in secret and without guilt, even as she worried about what else she might be capable of. Soon, despite her self-imposed isolation, she becomes involved with several other teenagers in her small Ohio town: Claire, called Peekay because she’s a preacher’s kid; star athlete Jack, who just wants to get to know Alex; and cheerleader Branley, reduced to the parts of her body, even as she’s degraded for her sexuality.
Alex struggles to keep the truth of who she is and what’s she done to herself as their lives intertwine further and the story hurtles toward its violent end. But beneath the high stakes and cliff-hangers lies an elegant critique of a culture that refuses to defend women in the face of sexual violence in all its incarnations. Alex’s actions and reactions are never condoned, but the price of staying silent is shown, more than once, to be unbearably high.
The discussion potential for both books is invaluable. It’s a conversation worth having, with both boys and girls, again and again; where books about rape were once about the trauma itself, focused on solidarity and empathy, they’ve now become less of a whisper and more of a shout. In a culture that is rooted in counteracting your ability to make a choice, they tell young women, you choose to speak. This thing we have borne in stoic silence for so long is going nowhere without a fight, and we won’t just wake up one morning to find the world changed.
These books exist, in part, to rail against rape culture and that part of society that believes it doesn’t exist. Books on the subject have gotten angrier, and they’ve gotten louder. But more than that, they continuously strive to remind teenagers that they, too, can fight. You have a voice, they say. Now make the world listen.
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