The Author Who's Teaching Boys How to Talk About Rape

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and today marks the kickoff of a new program focused on Laurie Halse Anderson's classic Y.A. novel Speak, which tells the story of a high school girl coping in the aftermath of being raped.

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April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and today marks the kickoff of a new program between Macmillan and RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, to help raise money for survivors of assault. At the heart of this campaign is Laurie Halse Anderson's classic Y.A. novel Speak, which tells the story of a teenage girl who stops talking in the aftermath of being raped by an older high school boy at a party. The book was initially published in 1999. To date, Speak has sold 3,176,161 copies domestically across all editions. Joy Peskin, editorial director of Macmillan's Children's Publishing Group, told me, "The sales never go down."

The dichotomy of the book's age and continuing readership says a lot about where we are on the subject as a nation. Speak is one of the most widely read, long-standing teen books about rape. It's taught in schools, where Halse Anderson herself travels to speak to students about the topic. Yet the news of the day—take what happened at Steubenville, for instance—indicates that the problem of sexual assault remains very real, even increasingly so, nearly 14 years after the book was released. Halse Anderson believes this is because communication still has a long way to go with regard to rape (which received an updated federal definition just a year ago), particularly when it comes to how we talk to teenage boys about sexual assault.

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."

That's not to say that all books that deal with rape are helpful to the conversation. Earlier this year Y.A. author Maggie Steifvater wrote a blog post in which she demanded "less gratuitous literary rape." She's not talking about books like Speak, she says, but "about novels where the rape scene could just as easily be any other sort of violent scene and it only becomes about sex because there’s a woman involved. If the genders were swapped, a rape scene wouldn’t have happened." Using rape as a plot device, or to boost character development, is no more excusable than is not talking to your children about rape, perhaps. When we do talk, or write, about rape, we need to make sure we're talking about it in the right way—not sensationalizing, not making it gratuitous, not using it simply as an aspect of a story.

I've noticed, though, that there are relatively few books that address the topic from the perspective of the boy who has committed the crime—and that may be a valuable place to go in support of future discussions. Halse Anderson mentions the award-winning 2005 book Inexcusable, by Chris Lynch, which addresses how "it may be all too easy for a good guy to do something terribly wrong." That's a valuable lesson, too, and Halse Anderson agrees that it's a powerful book (she blurbed it, after all). "My only issue with it is that the main character gets so buzzed when he assaults this girl," she says. "I don’t think it’s the typical situation we’re talking about." Peskin adds, as for what we might in expect in the future, "I would love to do a book like that, from the perspective of the boy—not to excuse the behavior, but to figure out the environment in which the behavior was created."

Whether that manuscript comes to her or not, Peskin says there will certainly be more books about the most challenging topics that require discussion. "I think that young adult literature has changed since Speak," she says. "I think the marketplace is much more willing to hold books for teens that discuss difficult things and challenges. One of the greatest tools we have to start these conversations are books. Most teens don’t want to sit in a room with a grownup and talk about their sexual habits, but if there’s a book featuring the issue, you can talk about that stuff and apply the lessons to your own life. I think that’s one of the best chances for stopping things like what happened at Steubenville. I hope this can spark a conversation about how we can do better by boys, so they can behave in a way that’s more respectful to girls."

"It's time for America to grow up," says Halse Anderson. "We have to change the way we're dealing with rape so there are no more Steubenvilles. Speaking up to boys about the law and the morality of sexual assault empowers men to become men without criminal records and without bars. Hopefully it will move this generation forward, men and women, and maybe they’ll raise a generation of kids who really get it, who aren’t afraid to speak at all."

The #Speak4RAINN program runs through the month, and includes a matching donation campaign as well as a ‘How Speak Spoke to Me’ creative contest, signed book giveaways, a manuscript review, and visit from Halse Anderson to the school that raises the most money. Learn more about it here. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.