Trigger warning: This post is about using literature to talk to kids about rape and consent. Some things may be triggery.
A few months back I wrote about reading the novel Keeping Corner and talking about it with my daughter and how that opened up the opportunity for some tough discussions about rape culture—not an easy topic with a 12 year old who is just figuring out that sex might have a purpose beyond something you’re obligated to do to make a baby.
For a variety of reasons (including this RAINN fundraiser), I recently reread and reviewed the novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. This is another great book for bringing up tough topics with your kids. It deals with the trauma of a girl who was raped by a senior at a party a few weeks before her freshman year. Terrified and traumatized, she called the cops—that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re in trouble, right?—and brought the police down on a party full of under-aged drinkers. The chaos of the situation panicked her and she ran away without reporting the rape. Now she’s in school with him, everyone has turned against her as “the girl who called the cops,” and she bears her secret in silence—literally, for she stops talking almost completely. The novel, told from her point of view, shows what she goes through until she’s finally able to speak about what happened.
There’s a fascinating doctoral dissertation on the effects of teaching Speak in classrooms to dispel myths about rape. Mind you, the book isn’t perfect—the ending has an incident that works well for a story, but I think slightly dilutes the otherwise strong message that rape is rape, even when you can’t or don’t explicitly say no (see my review for details on the incident). But it defines rape in ways that a lot of kids, especially boys, haven’t heard before. Rape doesn’t require a weapon, a penis, or an explicit no. It isn’t the fault of the victim, even if she talked and danced with the rapist, even if she kissed him, even if she’s drunk. The rapist in the story denies that he’s a rapist—he’s just used to getting what he wants, and obviously she wanted it, too. The reader, of course, knows differently.
In the wake of the Steubenville incident, the need for this discussion about what rape is has become all the more apparent. In the ways people talk about rape—not just kids or stupid people in the comments, but also supposedly educated people in the news—it seems pretty obvious that “rape” is typically defined as something done by a stranger in an alley with a knife. It’s a very specific kind of crime. Most people are pretty clear on the idea that randomly grabbing strangers and violently assaulting them is not ok. People who do that? Obviously monsters. Discussion closed.
But relatively few rapes fit this definition. It’s more likely that a victim will know the attacker. As the mother of kids coming up quickly on their teen years, what personally concerns me most right now is that many of their peers are unclear on what consent looks like and what constitutes rape. I don’t think most boys are monsters barely in control of their sexuality about to snap at any moment. But I do think they’re bombarded with images and messages that make the idea of consent cloudier rather than clearer. I want my kids’ peers to be totally clear on what consent looks like so hopefully they will speak up in its absence without fear or confusion. Using books like Speak to have explicit conversations with them about it is an important step in the right direction.
I don’t think my kids are quite ready to read Speak—its brutal honesty requires experience they don’t have yet. My daughter, finishing up 6th grade, will be ready soon. I can’t help but fear that she needs to be armed with this information before she gets much older.
My son is 10 years old. And, more important than age, maturity-wise he’s just not in a place to even process this conversation. That’s not to say we don’t address ideas of sexual assault with him. We live in State College—home of the Sandusky Scandal. Yeah, we’ve had multiple conversations about what kind of touching is and isn’t ok.
But we’ve also been teaching both our kids to respect their own bodies and the bodies of other people. From the time they were little, we’ve been teaching them about not touching, hugging, kissing, hitting, tickling, etc. a person who doesn’t want you to do that. If you were tickle fighting and the other person isn’t having fun anymore? You stop, even if they don’t explicitly say no. The cat wants to get off your lap? You let her. You have control over your own body, for the most part (as parents we get to step in and override sometimes for safety’s sake). You don’t have to hug or kiss people that you don’t want to. And you need to offer that same respect to other people.
Stopping every psycho lurking in a dark corner may be beyond what we can do right now. But helping kids learn about consent, and that it’s SO much more than “No means no,” is something that is within our power. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to often be frustrating and uncomfortable. But books like Speak and Keeping Corner give us a place to start the conversation.