All Bad Guys Are Rapists: Sexual Assault in YA

I have been working as an intern and reader for acquisition editors for almost two years now and in addition I’ve been a slush reader, a beta reader and a CP for a large number of YA manuscripts. Today, I would like to discuss the significant amounts of sexual assault I find in the unpublished manuscripts I read.

Around 30% of the YA manuscripts I have read over the past couple of years feature some form of sexual assault or violence, most often against female characters. This ranges the gamut from unwanted groping to attempted rape and full-on rape. One of the most common scenarios I see is that a female character is on the verge of being raped, when a chivalrous, non-raping hero swoops in and comes to her defense.

I would like to talk about whether we need any more of these kinds of moments in YA.

Please understand, I’m not saying that sexual assault needs to be eliminated in young adult fiction. As my friend, Riki Cleveland, points out in her excellent essay “Critical Representations of Sexual Assault in Young Adult Literature,” books and stories have “the potential to serve as a valuable resource for shedding some light on sexual violence and critically engaging adolescents on this relevant issue.” In her piece, she goes on to analyze books including FAULT LINE by C. Desir and Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK, which are riveting stories that tackle the tough topic of sexual abuse in profound and meaningful ways.

For me, there are two main kinds of sexual violence in YA: Meaningful depictions and what I call sexual assault as a device.

Meaningful depictions of sexual assault in YA lit typically have these components:

  • The assault or violence is critical to the story; it could not be removed or easily replaced.
  • The aftermath of the assault, especially the long-term emotional consequences are demonstrated in the story.

When sexual assault is used as a plot device or as an element of characterization:

  • The violence could easily be replaced or removed from the story
  • The assault is born from a general desire to show one character is a hero or another is a victim.
  • The is little or no demonstration of the long-term consequences of the assault. The victims are often shown quickly moving on or “getting better.”

Here’s a true confession. My first manuscript, THE WHITE LEHUA, includes one of these kinds of moments. In that MS, one of the characters attempts to rape my protagonists but is interrupted by the actions of a third party. The thing is, that character is a really bad guy and I wanted a device to show the reader that he is a really bad guy. But I could have just as easily had my bad guy kick a puppy or knock over an old lady to demonstrate this. And after the attempted rape scene, my character gets right back to solving the main mystery of the book.

I’ve had to ask myself why my default posture when I needed to characterize my villain was to have him engage in sexual violence. In my case, I think I was being a really lazy. Instead of doing the work of effectively creating my antagonists unique brand of evil, I used a crutch. The logic was something like All Rapists Must Be Bad Guys so All Bad Guys Must Be Rapists.

I’ve also had to ask myself some awkward questions about rape culture. My character does not stop and call the police. She doesn’t report her assault to anyone. Do I assume that rape is a de facto part of culture and that people who are victims should just dust themselves off and get on with things? Is this an attitude I want to put in a book my teenage daughter might read? The answer on both counts is no.

Then I turned off my feelings as a woman and a mother and addressed the issue solely as a writer. As far as I know, none of the manuscripts that featured what I have described as “sexual assault as a device” went on to sell. I think this is possibly because editors also think this kind of material needs to go. Or maybe that readers don’t consider it a compelling component of storytelling.

What do you think? How should sexual assault be handled in literature intended for a young adult audience?

  • Katie L. Carroll

    Very thoughtful post on a topic that can be difficult to discuss. This kind of casual treatment of sexual assault in adult fantasy books is one of the reasons why I turned away from reading that genre in my late teens and early 20s. It seemed every adult fantasy I read had rape in the plot just to have it and it served no real purpose, like it was an inherent part of the fantasy world and was treated with a very “so what” attitude. It disgusted and frustrated me. Rape is a big deal, and a big problem in our culture. I think sexual assault should be treated with the seriousness it warrants in all books, and particularly in YA where young readers are learning about themselves and the world through the books they read.