Well before Steubenville, "I was shocked when I realized how ignorant boys are about this," she told me. "It became clear in 2002, after five years of pretty heavy school visits, and people putting the book into the curriculum. In every single demographic—country, city, suburban, various economic classes, ethnic backgrounds—I'd go into a class and talk about the book. And usually by the end, a junior boy would say, 'I love the book, but I really didn’t get why she was so upset.' I heard that so many times. The first couple dozen times I sort of freaked, and then I got down from my judgmental podium and started to ask questions. It became clear that teen boys don’t understand what rape is."
Halse Anderson cites a couple of reasons for this. For one, there's the old, false, yet still pervasive view that rape can only be committed by "a stranger in the bushes with a gun." That's a perspective not just held by teens; it's also believed by a lot of adults. And if parents think that way, they tend not to feel they have to talk to their teenage boys about rape. Sometimes it's more plainly that they're uncomfortable with any discussion at all. In her talks at schools, Halse Anderson has found that the necessity for informed consent is not a widely understood reality. "When you tell teen boys that if they have sex with a woman who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they can be charged with rape, they’re like, what?" she says. "No one’s talked to these boys. There are a lot of parents who love their sons and don’t want to think about them as rapists. But I think they’re being naive. It’s uncomfortable, but we need to talk about it. Most teenage boys are wonderful, but if we don’t have the courage to sit them down and explain the rules, we’re failing them."
Peskin adds, "We can’t expect our boys to know what’s appropriate or not when they haven’t been taught. We teach kids right from the start, you don’t hit, that’s not how you express yourself, but often those conversations don’t extend to sex and sexuality. I suspect that some boys engaging in these behaviors don’t understand, maybe, that this behavior is wrong."
One would hope that if there is any positive side to be found in news like what happened at Steubenville, it would enforce the view that such behaviors are absolutely wrong, and that rapists should and will be punished. Yet even in the aftermath of a guilty verdict for the boys, commentary from CNN and other outlets about their young lives being "ruined" after the fact (and awful commentary that followed from that around the Internet) seems to indicate that that's not, in fact, the case. Not only rape, but also how we talk about rape—and most of all, figuring out how we talk about it in order to prevent it—remains a serious societal problem.
Parents can't keep their children from committing crimes, and neither can books, but Halse Anderson and Peskin, among others, believe that communication can and does make a difference. Part of the role of young adult fiction is as a parental or teacher assist, to help teen readers understand what happens to the characters in the books, to help them learn from those experiences without, one hopes, having to experience them themselves. A book like Speak, in which a character experiences rape and its aftermath, allows boys and girls to get in the head of that character and realize their own moral stance on the subject. And research has shown that reading the book really has changed how kids view rape, and rape culture. "My experience watching it taught is that many boys don’t understand the emotional impact that sexual assault can have on a woman," says Halse Anderson. "The awesome thing is that teenage boys for the most part are pretty amazing people, and when people they respect explain to them the rules of the road—this is why you don’t want someone to do this to your sister or your mother, she could lose ability to trust for the rest of her life—the boys go, Ohhhhhh, now I get it. I’ve seen this happen over and over again."