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Talking about sexual violence in young adult literature with a teen book club, by Amanda MacGregor

A few months ago, I asked my teen book club if they were interested in discussing sexual violence in young adult literature at an upcoming meeting. I explained a little about the Sexual Violence in Young Adult Literature Project and sent them links to past pieces about topics on TLT that I thought would be useful to inform our discussion. They were all really into this idea. I made it clear to them that this was a sensitive and potentially upsetting and triggering subject to be discussing, and that it was fine to decide to skip this meeting, or to want to come but not talk, or to get up and leave during the meeting. I assured them no explanation was necessary if they wanted to do any of these things. Our group has been meeting for two years and the teens are all incredibly thoughtful and respectful. Every month we either read a specific book, or read around a theme or project (such as reading for the library’s Battle of the Books), or just talk about what we’ve been reading on our own. Because YA books often cover important and complex subjects, the group is used to having in-depth conversations about serious issues.
When we held our SVYALit meeting, 10 teens were in attendance. After a few months of flagging attendance, this was one of the best attended meetings we’d had all spring. The group this day consisted of four boys and six girls. They ranged in age from 8th grade to 12th grade. I had supplied them with a booklist in advance of possible titles to read, and had a cart available at the previous meeting with many of these titles. My hope was that everyone would read something different, to give us a wide view of what sexual violence looks like in YA lit.

Usually our meetings are very informal. I try to direct some of the conversation, but usually it’s a little chaotic, with everyone jumping in or going off on tangents. There is usually good natured arguing over opinions on books and lots of laughter. This meeting, though, was different. I’ve never seen the book club members so quiet while listening to someone talk. I began by giving them some background information on rape statistics (from RAINN) and rape culture, most of which I pulled from the archives of the SVYALit projectwebsite.
I read them pieces from various posts on the SVYALit website, including this from an April 8, 2014 post titled “Not aPunch Line, Not Something Everyone Should Go Through: Sexual Assault and WhatWe Can Do In the Library to Help Our Teens”:
“Sexual assault is not just rape. Inappropriate touching, groping, forced kissing, any type of unwanted contact that can be considered sexual is sexual assault. Male, female, trans, bi, not sure of what gender, not claiming a binary gender, gay straight, anyone on the Rainbow or not claiming anything: it can happen to anyone, by anyone. You can be assaulted by those older than you, those younger, those in positions of power, those you are married to, those you are engaged to, related to, or complete strangers to.”

I read them this piece to make it clear what sexual assault is and to point out that it can happen to anyone and be perpetuated by anyone. I wanted them to hear these words, to listen to someone making it clear for them that sexual assault can happen in a lot of different ways. For their own sakes, I wanted them to know this, to really understand it.

A few of the book club members were familiar with the term “rape culture,” but many were not. I read them this explanation of rape culture from the blog Shakesville in an October 9, 2009 post titled “Rape Culture 101” (linked to from a Buzzfeed article via the SVYALit project index under “additional resources”):
“Rape culture is telling girls and women to be careful about what you wear, how you wear it, how you carry yourself, where you walk, when you walk there, with whom you walk, whom you trust, what you do, where you do it, with whom you do it, what you drink, how much you drink, whether you make eye contact, if you’re alone, if you’re with a stranger, if you’re in a group, if you’re in a group of strangers, if it’s dark, if the area is unfamiliar, if you’re carrying something, how you carry it, what kind of shoes you’re wearing in case you have to run, what kind of purse you carry, what jewelry you wear, what time it is, what street it is, what environment it is, how many people you sleep with, what kind of people you sleep with, who your friends are, to whom you give your number, who’s around when the delivery guy comes, to get an apartment where you can see who’s at the door before they can see you, to check before you open the door to the delivery guy, to own a dog or a dog-sound-making machine, to get a roommate, to take self-defense, to always be alert always pay attention always watch your back always be aware of your surroundings and never let your guard down for a moment lest you be sexually assaulted and if you are and didn’t follow all the rules it’s your fault.”
You could have heard a pin drop after I read this. They were silent as I read, some of them occasionally nodding at certain parts. My usually extremely talkative group was, for once, without words. I let that passage settle in for a minute, then we moved on. 

I include these long passages I read to them to show the sort of set-up we did before discussing the books. We discussed a little bit about what, if anything, they talk about in health class regarding sexual violence and consent. They all agreed that rape was not talked about in school. The book club members this day represented four schools. They said they don’t remember any talk about consent in their health classes. One of the girls said the class was more focused on information about STDs, pregnancy, “and scaring kids away from sex.” She said they briefly talked about dating violence (such as hitting) and suicide, but never about rape. I asked them to think about what books they’ve read in their literature classes that might address anything about sexual violence. While they could think of many that included violence (and lead to class discussions about violence), the only thing anyone had read in school that addressed sexual violence was Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I pointed to the large stack of books we’d collected where sexual violence is a part of the story. They thought it was interesting that these stories were being told, but no one was talking to them about them. 

 The books we discussed at this meeting were:
What Happens Next by Colleen Clayton
Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott
Easy by Tamara Webber
Sold by Patricia McCormick
The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney
Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian
Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller
Hush by Eishes Chayil
Fault Line by Christa Desir
I asked the teens to think about this quote as we talked about the books we read, from Karen Jensen’s answer to a question on the SVYALit blog about teaching teens to think critically about books with sexual violence in them (in an April 2, 2014 post). Karen says:
“When I think about equipping readers, I think about making us really examine whether or not the way that sexual violence is used in a book is 1) necessary and 2) contributes in any meaningful way to breaking down rape culture. This I think is an important way to consider the books that we read, by asking ourselves if the inclusion of sexual violence is simply used as a narrative device … or if it is an essential part of the story that is used effectively. And when I say is used effectively, what I mean is that it doesn’t engage in victim blaming or slut shaming, it doesn’t minimize the crime that sexual violence is, and that it doesn’t gloss over the very real effects of sexual violence in the life of its characters.”
These books showed the different ways rape can happen, the ways various people react, and the ways they cope or don’t cope. We went around the circle and each book club member gave a summary of his or her book, including how the sexual violence occurred and what happened after it. If others had read the same book, they jumped in with additional thoughts. By talking about these books, we also talked about kidnapping, lawsuits, suicide, repeated childhood sexual abuse, family and friend reactions, and depression. We talked about slut shaming and victim blaming. We touched on recovery, compassion, shame, healing, triggers, and relationships post-rape. One girl pointed out that she wished we had seen one book where the character went directly to the police, was believed, and started a process of legal proceedings and recovery. She noted that we saw very little police involvement in most of the books, and when we did it was often late in the story. For many of the books, we discussed what role parental involvement played in the stories. In some cases, where parents noticed their child was suffering or depressed, or suspected that perhaps something had happened to cause these changes, they turned a blind eye and chose not to address it. We talked about how often teenagers are told to turn to a parent or other trusted adult when something serious happens, but in many cases in these books, the adults failed to take action or seemed unapproachable. (See also: Silence Hurts Everyone, why don’t adult intervene more when abuse is suspected.)

After the meeting, some of the members chose to send me further thoughts. One member shared with me that this was the first time she discussed sexual violence with a group. “I liked how comfortable I felt discussing what I had read with the group. In other situations, mentioning to someone that I had read a book about sexual violence usually ended with an odd look and an abrupt ending to any discussion I had hoped to spark.” She goes on to say that she valued the open discussion we had. “It’s what I wish I could have with a teacher, a friend, even a sibling without feeling weird for bringing it up.” She says she wishes we had had even more time to discuss our books and this topic because talking “about a topic that society seems to shy away from isn’t an opportunity I get often.”

Another member wrote, “This was the first time I’ve read a book about sexual violence. It made me feel uncomfortable because the character wasn’t able to do anything to stop what was happening. I wish she could have.”
I was proud of how respectful and insightful the book club members were during this meeting. We could easily have spent multiple meetings discussing this topic. Though the subject was, obviously, very serious and at times difficult to talk about, one member smartly pointed out, “the only thing that made me uncomfortable with this topic was that these fictional stories are something that is happening daily to real people.” For many of the teens, it was the first time they really considered sexual violence in literature and in real life. I hope other teen book clubs are taking the opportunity to utilize the SVYALit resources and tackling this subject in their meetings. The experience our book club had was invaluable, and I think we all walked away feeling much more educated about sexual violence not just in literature but in life. To be able to speak openly about such a loaded subject was revolutionary for most of these teenagers. As one member wrote, “Working to rid the topic of its taboo is a great step in bringing awareness and change, and I think YA books written about sexual violence are doing this.” 
Amanda MacGregor has worked in both public and high school libraries. She reviews for School Library Journal, Voice of Youth Advocates, and the Horn Book Guide. Find her online at www.citesomething.com and on Twitter @citesomething.


  1. Excellent article, and about time someone published a list of available books on the subject. for YA. But I have a question. Why are there no books that address inappropriate touching or more severe forms of abuse for middle grade readers? Isn't this an age group that is at risk for the many kinds of sexual abuse of children? The only book I can think of is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which mentions sexual abuse — but not of a child. It seems to me that this subject, if handled with care, would be something middle graders need to be aware of. I would appreciate comments.

  2. Great list. I am a children's/YA librarian and have already purchased half of these for my library's collection, and will definitely make sure I budget for the rest. This is such an important issue and using popular literature is an fantastic way to approach it for teens. Nicely done!

  3. I agree that there should be more literature that addresses this issue for middle graders. The hard part is that books for middle graders are often deemed “inappropriate” the minute they hit the shelves if they contain any talk of sex. One title that would fit the bill though is called Jumping the Scratch by Sarah Weeks. The sexual abuse occurs “off page” but is tastefully alluded to by the author. The boy, an 11-year-old who was abused by the manager of the trailer park where he lives, lives with this secret until he confides in his aunt, who is unable to form new memories. It got pretty decent reviews.

  4. Katie, thank you for this recommendation, I'll definitely check it out.

  5. Marilyn,

    I get asked often about books that cover this topic for middle graders and we have not, so far, been able to come up with a good list. I wrote about it today, but one title you might want to check out is I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This by Jacqueline Woodson (http://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2014/09/in-my-mailbox-looking-for-middle-grade.html)

  6. Thank you Katie

  7. Found your blog this morning doing research on my current YA novel. Awesome. Thank your group for allowing you to post this and their personal reactions. I worried when I wrote my first book on date rape, having lived through the horror myself only during a time when it would have been considered “my fault”, that it would be considered taboo. I've been pleasantly surprised to find it helped some of my young readers. I've also read a couple of the excellent examples you gave them to read. If I could share one piece of advice to pass along to your group, it would be to not stay silent. Keep telling what happened until they find someone willing to listen and help.

  8. Harley, thank you so much for your comment. I am so sorry to hear about your experience. And you are right, sharing our stories and keeping the conversation going can help change the way we talk about and hopefully even decrease the amount of sexual violence in our world.


  1. […] written all year is the first post I did for Teen Librarian Toolbox back in September. The post, “Talking About Sexual Violence in Young Adult Literature with a Teen Book Club,” is important to me because of the extremely honest and fascinating talk I had with my book club […]

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