In my new release, EVERY LAST PROMISE, Kayla, the main character, witnesses an assault, but doesn’t speak up about it. It wasn’t an easy point-of-view to write but, in my mind, it was an important one to explore. As small-town rape cases continue to be publicized in the media, I find myself thinking about the people who don’t speak up. Who have internalized rape culture or are immobilized by fear. What is it that keeps the silence?
There isn’t just one reason. There are many, and they are insidious.
If you tell your university you were gang-raped by players on the basketball team and seek on-campus help, your medical records might be publicly released in what looks an awful lot like retaliation. And that would happen after the basketball players were allowed to continue playing NCAA-level sports and, eventually, have charges against them dismissed.
If you are a sex worker who is raped, you might be asked if you liked being raped, if you were paid well for being raped, if you really thought you didn’t deserve being raped, considering your line of work, and all. That is assuming, of course, that you aren’t outright jailed for your admitting your line of work.
If you are a Woman of Color who is raped, you might avoid reporting because your community has a long-standing distrust of law enforcement—for good reason—and you might rather face your trauma than face the blatant racism and violence ingrained in so many law enforcement agencies.
If you are an immigrant person still learning English, American law, and local culture who is raped, you might not report your assault because of the language and culture barrier, because of (again) ingrained racism and xenophobia in law enforcement agencies.
If you are a child who is raped, your fear may engulf you. You might have no one to turn to. Threats from your rapist, most often a family member, force your silence.
If you are a girl in a small town and your rapist is a well-loved town hero, you might keep your secret out of fear, out of loyalty, out of worry that you’ll be run out of your home. In the meantime, your rapist goes free, you’re blamed for ruining his life, “you” create a fissure in your community and things will never be the same. You know these things might happen because you’ve seen then happen in towns small and large, again and again. You know it’s wrong not to report…but you know even more deeply that rape victims are rarely treated fairly.
All these situations presume that even in the most clear-cut cases—even when the victim is a middle-class white woman of impeccable community standing—most victims will be taken seriously, not shamed, ostracized, or treated violently. And that most perpetrators will go to jail for their assaults. But, according to RAINN, taking into account unreported rapes, only about two percent of rapists will ever serve time.
So, there’s another reason not to bother telling. With all the emotional energy and physical time it takes to report and build a rape case, why bother, when it’s unlikely the rapist will see justice or rehabilitation, anyway?
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) only 36 percent of rapes, 34 percent of attempted rapes, and 26 percent of sexual assaults that happened in the United States between 1992 and 2000 were reported to the police. (1) Rape is the most underreported crime in the United States. Rape culture leads to “Rape myths” which excuse the perpetrator, place blame on the victim of rape and sexual assault crimes, discourage victims from seeking medical and therapeutical treatment and reinforce stereotypes about who rapists are and who victims are.
Rape culture means that a victim is asked what she was wearing when she was raped, with the assumption that dressing a certain way invites rape. Rape culture means that being drunk means the victim shouldn’t have put themselves in “that situation.” Rape culture means media uses rape storylines to add drama to a show, normalizing sexual violence against women. Rape culture means serial killers often target prostitutes because sex workers “deserve it.” Rape culture is people accusing a victim of ruining a rapist’s future chances at a successful sports career rather than holding the perpetrator responsible for his actions. Rape culture is thinking victims “cry rape” as a way to get attention. Rape culture maintains that women who choose to be sexually active with more than one man cannot be raped. Rape culture shames women for “turning a man on” and “not following through.” Rape culture scoffs at the idea that boys and men can be raped and discourages their attempts to report as “unmanly.” Rape culture targets the most vulnerable members of society, including children and the elderly. Rape culture laughs at prison soap jokes. Rape culture means that skepticism is a common first reaction to a victim’s claims.
Rape culture means survivors keep their secrets all too often.
It’s easy to watch from the sidelines and wonder why people aren’t doing anything. It’s easy to point a finger and say she should have told someone. And it’s easy to call those who do report heroes. And they are. But we need to be empathetic to the reasons survivors don’t tell their stories. We need to make the focus of our energies the breakdown of rape culture, itself, not of its survivors.
1. Rennison, C.M. Rape and Sexual Assault: Reporting to Police and Medical Attention, 1992–2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, August 2002, NCJ 194530.
Meet The Author: Kristin Hallbrook
When I was little, I wanted to be a writer, the President of the USA or the first female NFL quarterback. Despite being able to throw a wicked spiral, I didn’t really grow to the size needed for the NFL. Then, as I got older and studied more, I came to realize there were better ways to effect positive change than becoming president. The first one, however, stuck. Even when I was pursuing other dreams, I always took time to write here and there. My first attempt at a novel was adult upmarket fiction, but it felt a little forced. Then I wrote a Young Adult. Put it aside as part of my writing apprenticeship. Wrote a Middle Grade, also put it aside. Then another Young Adult, then another. Then NOBODY BUT US, published by HarperTeen.
When I’m not writing or reading (which is what I do all day, in all of my work), I’m spending time with three pixies, my Mad Scot soulmate, and one grumpy cocker spaniel; traveling across oceans and time; cooking and baking up a storm; and watching waves crash and suns set on the beach. I currently live, love and explore in The Emerald City, though I occasionally make wispy, dream-like plans to move to Paris or a Scottish castle one day (if just temporarily).
Publisher’s Book Description
Every Last Promise
Perfect for fans of Laurie Halse Anderson and Gayle Forman, Every Last Promise is a provocative and emotional novel about a girl who must decide between keeping quiet and speaking up after witnessing a classmate’s sexual assault.
Kayla saw something at the party that she wasn’t supposed to. But she hasn’t told anyone. No one knows the real story about what happened that night—about why Kayla was driving the car that ran into a ditch after the party, about what she saw in the hours leading up to the accident, and about the promise she made to her friend Bean before she left for the summer.
Now Kayla’s coming home for her senior year. If Kayla keeps quiet, she might be able to get her old life back. If she tells the truth, she risks losing everything—and everyone—she ever cared about.
Every Last Promise is good, very good. It may be the only book that looks at sexual violence from a bystander or witness point of view, which makes it important. Kristin Halbrook does a really good job of illuminating life in a small, close knit community and visibly showing the barriers to reporting. There are reasons Kayla doesn’t initially come forward, the same reasons that the victim herself doesn’t, and most of us will recognize them immediately. But as Kayla sees this girl, a friend and classmate, slowly disintegrate in front of her eyes, the reasons why she must come forward become clear. There is so much that Halbrook does really well here, but it is in the increasing guilt and despair of everyone involved that really sell the story. Every Last Promise combined with All the Rage by Courtney Summers make a pitch perfect book reading and discussion combination about rape culture and the internalized messages we have all received that make it so hard for victims of sexual violence to report their crimes and get the compassionate treatment they deserve.