Trigger warning: mild description of the circumstances of rape
I sat down with a fantasy book for adults that I wanted to like (I’m being discreet here, I won’t tell you the title). The prose was lovely, the young heroine interesting. About 70 pages in, the first niggling suspicions started up: She’s not going to get raped, right? She’s going to do something clever or one of those bystanders will step in… Right up until the heroine was gang-raped (yes, gang-raped) I didn’t believe it would actually happen. And then she was raped again. The description was not graphic; the rape wasn’t particularly violent, except, of course, it was rape. And it was enough to make me feel claustrophobic and sick and to wish that I had never read that and to put down the book never to pick it up again.
When I went to my YA book club and told my book club-friends I didn’t have enough brain bleach to remove the memory of that fictional rape, I realized that one of the reasons I enjoy YA is that bad things don’t happen to the main characters just because they are female.
Sure, bad things happen. The main character might have to choose between saving her dad and saving her city; she might get locked away on the other side of a portal in Prague and separated from all her family; she might have to go kill other teenagers in a staged fight to the death; but none of these things happen to the characters merely because they are female. And for the most part, rape is not a part of most fantasy YA or really most YA at all. There are exceptions, but usually they are in contemporary YA, as backstory (i.e. not on the page) or issue YA (which I don’t read). Occasionally it comes up under the revolting pretense of romantic relationships that the author does not see as abusive and sex that is not identified within the story as rape but which I do see as abusive and as rape. (That’s a whole other post.) Usually my friends or the internet or my own good sense warn me away from those.
Getting back to why there isn’t that much rape in YA, it might be a rape-isn’t-suitable-for-the-childrenz thing or it might be because a lot of YA is written by women and most women don’t think writing about rape is fun. Not that being a woman means you automatically won’t commit rape as backstory, rape as character development or rape because it’s “realistic.” But it seems slightly less common. It might be any number of things, but thank god for it.
It’s no surprise that rape is normalized in fiction; after all rape and violence against women and children is normalized in our society. Lots of people have posted much more articulate posts about rape culture, so I’m not going to. I already have those rape culture paradigms installed in my head, thank you very much, however much I fight against the passive assimilation of them. I have my own firsthand experiences of violence and many, many women have confided in me their own stories of violence and rape–and those are just my friends, I’m not even counting the stories I heard while working at the District Attorney’s office as a domestic violence victim/witness advocate.
So why would I want to read stories that continue to normalize that experience and the expectation of violence? I don’t. Especially given the new studies coming out showing that read experience is, to some extent, lived experience.
I want to read stories that normalize equality and about worlds where women socialize safely with men without the ever-present worry about rape and violence hanging around like a third wheel. (If you think that makes for boring stories, you haven’t read Sherwood Smith‘s Sartorias-deles books where the urge for sexual violence has been eliminated from humanity.) And if not, then I want to read about worlds where the women beat the hell out anyone who tries to hurt them–whether physically or through quick thinking and intelligence. Or worlds where our own rape culture expectations are not imported whole scale and uncritically and where sexualized violence is not seen as expected or realistic.
YA, more often than not, gives me that reading experience.
PPS Off the top of my head, Malinda Lo has some posts about YA and normalization with regard to LGBTQ people/characters.
PPPS The photos automatically recommended by Word Press for this post were triggerific themselves.