March has been a time of exciting YA releases, chief among them Amber Smith's The Way I Used to Be. As a fan of Ellen Hopkins, Smith's debut was brought to my attention. Told over a longer span of time than is typical for YA fiction (four years rather than two months to a year), Smith's debut explores rape culture not just during or immediately after an assault, but in the several years following. Smith, Hopkins, and two more YA authors discuss with Bustle what we mean when we talk about rape culture and why they chose to write about it.
The conversation about rape and rape culture still isn't where it needs to be, but people like these four authors are confronting it and bringing further attention to the pervasive issue. Young people are growing up when fiction that fights rape culture is being published and promoted. These titles often find themselves being banned, but the fiction is still out there. These books are helping to teach young people that being assaulted is no fault of theirs, but the fault of their attacker and the culture around it.
Often, as the authors in this article will discuss, rape victims are questioned about things that aren't relevant to their assaults: what were they wearing, what had they had to drink, what were the events leading up to the assault, did they know their attacker? These things don't matter. Rape culture loves to point the finger at the victim rather than the rapist.
These authors, through their fiction, are challenging the way survivors are represented (in the media, in the courtroom, and in society). The fact of the matter is this: rape is never encouraged by a victim, and the blame and guilt they bear has to stop. To celebrate the release of Amber Smith's The Way I Used to Be, four YA authors — Smith, All The Rage's Courtney Summers, Perfect's Ellen Hopkins, and Fault Lines' Christa Desir — have written about their views on rape, rape culture, and victimization.
1. Amber Smith, debut author of The Way I Used to Be (March 22, 2016; Margaret K. McElderry Books)
The Way I Used to Be is a novel about a young girl who is raped by her brother’s best friend. This novel is about the silence that rapists thrive on and that victims suffocate on. The silence that rape culture encourages isn’t detrimental only because the offence goes unanswered, but because the victims are irreparably damaged and nobody knows it’s even happened. Told in four parts — freshman, sophomore, junior and senior year — Smith’s debut explores the trauma and devastating, lasting impact of rape. When asked why she wrote The Way I Used to Be, Smith said:
Rape culture is more than just a theory or abstract term — it’s a reality in today’s society, where people are taught how not to be victims rather than how not to victimize others. It’s a culture that promotes silence, fear, and shame, placing blame on victims rather than perpetrators. It trivializes trauma and normalizes abuse and sexual assault as something that is an expected, even accepted, part of life.
The sad truth is that in the U.S. someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes. Sexual violence is an epidemic, and unfortunately, extremely common in the lives of teens. In fact, I’ve seen statistics suggesting that by the age of 18, anywhere from 1 in 6 to 1 in 3 girls have already been the victim of sexual violence, and in boys those numbers range from 1 in 7 to 1 in 5. Conversations about sexual assault, abuse, consent, and relationships in general, need to be taking place earlier, as teens are already dealing with these issues. What often happens when we don’t have the help we need, or we don’t feel empowered and supported — particularly in the face of extreme and potentially damaging experiences of violation, such as rape or abuse — the underlying problems are often forced to work themselves out in unhealthy, destructive, and dangerous ways that not only impede healing, but also perpetuate rape culture.
Rape culture is more than just a theory or abstract term — it’s a reality in today’s society, where people are taught how not to be victims rather than how not to victimize others.
I think that’s why YA literature provides such fertile ground to address these topics — fiction can be an extremely powerful, accessible, and safe forum to begin talking about, working through, and raising awareness of important issues like these.
I had wanted to write about abuse and sexual violence for a long time. These are issues that hold a lot of personal meaning for me, but they are also a lived reality for so many young people. Because rape culture is pervasive in our society, there’s still so much silence surrounding these issues. In The Way I Used to Be, I saw a chance to really explore what that silence means and feels like — and ultimately, what it might take to break that silence. The book follows the main character, Eden. Because Eden does not feel safe and supported — and is, in fact, threatened by her rapist — she doesn’t tell anyone what happened. As she moves through high school we see her struggle to rebuild her identity and find her voice. I wanted to use the element of time to show just how deep and lasting the wounds of violence can be, as well as the destructive and debilitating nature of unprocessed trauma.
Rape culture is repulsive ... It is the ongoing silence and the stigma of shame that feeds rape culture — ending it involves cultivating an equally strong culture of respect, validation, and compassion. I hope The Way I Used to Be will contribute to the important dialogue that’s happening right now ... In particular, I hope it might expand on our understanding of what it means to be a survivor, that it can provide some fresh insight into how rape culture can manifest in a person’s life, and why speaking out is not always as simple or easy as some might assume. We need more people standing up and demanding to be seen and heard, in whatever ways they are able. It is my hope that this book can act as one more voice.
2. Courtney Summers, author of All the Rage (April 14, 2015; St. Martin's Griffin)
Courtney Summers, author and creator of the social media campaign #ToTheGirls, discussed with us why she wrote All the Rage. Summers is a documented advocate for young women, but what's particularly unique and impressive about All the Rage is that it tells the story of a young girl who did report her rapist, and then got shunned by society. Summers explores every victim's greatest fear: what if they report it, and nobody believes them?
We’re inundated with media that normalizes and glamorizes rape and violence against women and the consequences are devastating: It’s 2016, and we still live in a world where victims of sexual violence are asked what they were wearing or how much they had to drink when they were assaulted. It’s 2016, and we live in a world where professional journalists mourn the futures of young rapists who got caught. It’s 2016, and we still live in a world where we teach girls not to get raped — but we don’t teach boys not to rape. Rape culture thrives on silence and All the Rage is my contribution to the ongoing conversation about rape culture as well as my stand against it.
All the Rage is about a girl named Romy, whose town turns against her after she accuses the local sheriff’s son of raping her. Because her rapist has influence — power, money, status — Romy’s community protects him instead of helping, listening to, and seeking justice for her. I wanted to explore how we’ve created, and are complicit in, protecting a system that makes it next to impossible for victims and survivors of sexual violence to get the justice they deserve.
I wanted to explore how we’ve created, and are complicit in, protecting a system that makes it next to impossible for victims and survivors of sexual violence to get the justice they deserve.
Since All the Rage’s publication, I’m often asked which high profile rape case it was based on. That there have been so many and that the book could have easily been based on any one of them is heartbreaking. It speaks to our consistent failure as a society to help and protect those who need it. It’s critical we keep talking about it if we want anything to change.
3. Ellen Hopkins, author of Perfect (September 13, 2011; Margaret K. McElderry Books)
Ellen Hopkins has examined rape culture in many of her works, most notably in Crank . It is in Perfect, however, that Hopkins examines what rape looks like when it happens in a previously consensual relationship. What does it mean when a couple is about to have sex, and then suddenly the girl decides she isn’t ready? Did she bring this on herself? After all, she had, only moments ago, been prepared to do this. Ultimately, it is a human’s right to say “no” at any given time, no matter the circumstance. It doesn’t matter if he’s already naked and you said yes only moments earlier; if the answer isn’t yes right now, the answer is definitively no.
In my YA novel, Perfect, 18-year-old Cara is a straight-A kid, pushed by her parents to be perfect. She’s dating Sean, a baseball star using steroids to boost his batting average and snag a full-ride scholarship to Stanford, where Cara will be going in the fall. Everything is in perfect order. Until Cara falls for a girl.
Cara has waited to have sex, but now feels compelled to seduce Sean so she can be certain about her sexuality. They go to his brother’s apartment and things get hot and heavy. Sean, who loves her and has been patient to this point, finally has her skin-to-skin and ready to go all the way. Except, just before he actually consummates the act, he hears her say, “No.” But her protest doesn’t stop him, and when she uses the word “rape” afterward, he can’t believe it. When she breaks up with him, he stalks her and trashes her reputation.
I thought it was important to highlight the fact that, regardless of the situation, “no means no.” Yes, Cara went to that apartment willingly and yes, she thought she was ready to have sex. But when she changed her mind, he should have stopped. Instead, he assaulted her.
Victim blaming takes many forms, and often victims choose to accept the guilt. It’s the way we’ve been programmed, but it's time for that to change.
I hope this scene will open dialogues about the definition of rape. Some readers believed Cara deserved it. Later, in fact, she questions herself and her motives, but with the support of her parents and girlfriend, she files a police report. Victim blaming takes many forms, and often victims choose to accept the guilt. It’s the way we’ve been programmed, but it's time for that to change.
Rape culture is a fairly recent term, but we see examples ... that perpetuate untruths and attempt to shift blame to the victims of sexual assault. Only through open discussion [and] solid early education ... will we change the official statistic that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will become victims of sexual assault.
Personally, considering the reader correspondences I’ve received over the last decade, I believe that number is much higher. Victims are still afraid to come forward. Afraid of retaliation, perhaps, but also that they’ll be viewed as damaged goods. We as a society owe them better than that, and bear the responsibility of dismantling rape culture from the inside out.
4. Christa Desir, author of Fault Line (October 15, 2013; SimonPulse)
If you've read Christa Desir's Fault Line, you'll know what I mean when I say that I'll never be able to look at this cover the same way ever again. Desir hasn't shied away from the tough stuff; she writes about rape and self-harm, two difficult topics. As a sexual assault survivor herself, Desir offers authenticity to fiction that deals with such traumatic experiences.
Fault Line came out of a testimonial writing workshop for rape survivors that I participated in. I am a childhood sexual assault survivor and have been working in the field of rape victim activism for 20 years. I have worked as an advocate in hospital ERs, providing direct service to rape victims in Chicago. I am part of a nonprofit whose mission is to give a voice and face to rape survivors and dispel rape myths. I have heard the stories of hundreds of survivors, and have experienced first-hand rape trauma syndrome and its impact, not only on victims, but on those around them.
I wanted to write this story because I have witnessed the helplessness of partners of rape victims and I wanted to engage men and boys (particularly teen boys) in this conversation in a way that promotes dialogue instead of making them feel attacked. Fault Line is told from the perspective of a boyfriend whose girlfriend is gang raped at a party he doesn’t attend. The story details how this boy tries futilely to piece his girlfriend back together in the months that follow her gang rape.
I had written this book years prior to Steubenville or Daisy Coleman or the Rolling Stone article, but all of those came out within a year of Fault Line’s publication and demonstrated how much this conversation continues to be at the forefront of teen issues. What was the most appalling thing to me in all of those cases was how quick people were to blame the victim, to assume she was lying, to point out all the ways in which these girls had done the wrong thing ... Seeing women harassed online when they’re endorsing RAINN or discussing sexual violence is heartbreaking.
... I remain absolutely appalled at how people bend over backwards to defend perpetrators while having absurd expectations of victims ... I think we need to start examining the messages we send to both girls and boys when it comes to rape and where the culpability really lies.
Female-identified people have long understood the dangers of being a girl in the world ... If conversation doesn’t begin to include men, we’re always going to be working at a deficit because it is in male-dominated spaces where a lot of rape culture is perpetuated, and it is time for that to stop.
Finally, I think we aren’t going to get anywhere in the fight against rape culture if we don’t have everyone talking about it. Female-identified people have long understood the dangers of being a girl in the world ... If conversation doesn’t begin to include men, we’re always going to be working at a deficit because it is in male-dominated spaces where a lot of rape culture is perpetuated, and it is time for that to stop.
It is clear that "rape culture" has a long way to go before it is no longer this negative term associated with accusing victims. The stigma of being a sexual assault victim is still ever-present, but we're living in a time capable of change. These authors, pulling from their experiences and the experiences of sexual assault survivors that they've spoken with, are creating change. Their words and their messages are finding their way into the hands of young people, and hopefully teaching life's hardest lessons the easier way.
Amber Smith's debut novel The Way I Used to Be is releasing on March 22, 2016. Contribute to the conversation. Contribute to the solution.