Why Claire Needell's 'The Word for Yes' Is Such An Important Read
I wish that I could have read Claire Needell's The Word for Yes back in high school. It's not that I didn't enjoy reading the book as an adult — I practically read it in one sitting, because Needell's writing is just so very readable. And it's not that high school me would have have loved this book (high school me would have been too busy reading science fiction from the early '70s). It's simply that The Word for Yes is such an important read.
I know, the phrase "this book is important" can be a huge turn off for people. No one wants to read a book that feels like an after school special. And while the plot of The Word for Yes wouldn't feel out of place in an episode of Degrassi, Needell manages to avoid lecturing her readers. Instead, she delivers a nuanced introduction to rape culture and the importance of consent.
So be warned: This book is easy to read, but difficult to digest. To her credit, Needell does not try to sugarcoat the reality of sexual assault. This is not a book that beats around the bush or hides sexual violence in gratuitous or flowery language. Instead, The Word for Yes is a straightforward look at a family in the aftermath of rape.
The Word for Yes centers around the three Russell sisters: responsible college freshman Jan, sensitive and nerdy Erika, and the baby of the family, popular girl Melanie. With their parents in the middle of a divorce and Jan off at college, all three have started to drift apart. Melanie and Erika are constantly at each other's throats, and conventional Jan doesn't know how to deal with her depressed long-distance boyfriend or her radically feminist punk roommate (who is easily the best character in the book).
And then it happens: a high school party gets out of hand, kids get drunk, and a boy takes advantage of his intoxicated friend. It's (unfortunately) not a new or revolutionary story, but Needell adds a layer of complexity by switching to the rapist's perspective. The result is chilling. We, as readers, understand that this situation is horrifying, but we understand, too, that even "nice" guys and trusted friends can perpetrate violence. And that is what makes this book so very important.
We, as readers, understand that this situation is horrifying, but we understand, too, that even "nice" guys and trusted friends can perpetrate violence. And that is what makes this book so very important.
Yes, Needell addresses the emotional difficulty of divorce and family strife and teen drinking and New York private school gossip, but we've heard all that before. The Word for Yes really shines because it shows how a supposedly "nice guy" can violate a friend's trust. It shows how growing up in a culture of rape and non-consent can hurt everyone involved.
The three sisters are dragged out of their sheltered lives and into the real world: Melanie has to come to terms with what's happened to her, Erika has to choose whether or not to risk her own safety for her sister's well being, and Jan's new college life is introducing her to everything from the patriarchy to slut walks. It's a relatable coming-of-age story, especially if you've ever come-of-age as a woman.
So, is The Word for Yes a perfect portrayal of youth culture and sexual assault? Well... no. It's an introduction to these issues, and a good one at that. There were times while reading The Word for Yes that I wanted to hurl the book down in frustration because these characters engage in so much victim-blaming (unfortunately realistic), and because the high school kids are so quick to condemn a rapist in their midst (unfortunately unrealistic). The only outspoken feminist character is treated as radically radical for speaking common sense.
But a 200-page novel can hardly cover every aspect of rape culture while still developing likable characters and keeping up with a plot. And that's why I wish I could have read The Word for Yes back in high school. It's still an enjoyable read now, especially for anyone who wants to look back and cringe at who they were in high school or freshman year of college. But it's a must-read for anyone, anywhere who's still fuzzy on what constitutes assault and why affirmative consent is necessary.
For all that it leaves out, this book is frank and honest about the important stuff: sex with a drunk or incapacitated person is rape, full stop. And that's a message worth writing (and reading) about.