Sexual Assault as a Trope in YA (Nope Nope Nope)

I have to get a little serious with y’all today, so please forgive me for a minute. (Or a post.)

I was trying to write a fairly lighthearted post to link up with Top Ten Tuesday this week about the things that make me not want to read a book. And it got me to thinking about one of the top things that I don’t want to read but end up reading in so many YA books because it is not warned for or very discussed, and that is the casual use of sexual assault as a trope.

This is not to put down my fellow reviewers, because there are plenty of amazing and insightful people out there who are really on top of warning for that, and I am grateful for them. But in many cases, in acclaimed or well-loved books, this happens very obviously.

What do I mean when I say sexual assault as a trope? I don’t mean any book that writes about sexual assault and its consequences. I’ve talked before about books like Speak and Exit, Pursued by a Bear, which I definitely recommend (with the caveat that there are potential triggers and they’re not light reading, obviously).

I mean books that use sexual assault as a casual plot point, as a Thing That Happens that simply moves the story forward. Without any focus given to the feelings of the person who was assaulted/nearly assaulted about that Thing That Happened, because it’s irrelevant: the assault was only there to make a villain seem evil, to get a couple together, to teach someone a lesson about life.

I’m going to give a few examples here; you can skip to the next heading to avoid spoilers, because I’m also going to talk about why this is a very bad trope.

Spoilers follow for The Winner’s Trilogy, If I Was Your Girl, and We Are Made of Molecules. Scroll down to the next heading (past the cat gif) to skip ’em.

Grandpa Simpson hat gif

Tfw I’m reading a book and sexual assault is a casual plot point.

But do you see the Goodreads ratings for books like The Winner’s Trilogy? Wherein we get to experience how much of a villain one character is because he tries to rape the female protagonist. She gets rescued by her love interest, because of course this scene is written in for the narrative purpose of testing his loyalty to/love for her, but the emotional consequences of that for her are not dealt with and I don’t actually remember them even being mentioned.

Or how about (and this one really hurt me because this book was a groundbreaker in terms of representation) the girl who opens up to the protagonist, Amanda, about her sexual assault in If I Was Your Girl, but it never comes up again and only acts as a vehicle to make Amanda comfortable enough to share that she’s trans and to simultaneously give that girl a Tragic Backstory that’s not relevant to her role in the rest of the book?

Or how about the fact that a guy tries to rape Amanda but the conclusion afterwards deals with that not at all? I understand that she’s dealing at that point with the trauma of being outed. But that’s a very good reason why the author didn’t need to add the trauma of almost being raped, and certainly not to make Amanda more sympathetic or the guy who tried it, who isn’t really that important, more of an asshole.

Ah, and then there’s We Are Made of Molecules, the critically-acclaimed book where a girl has the audacity to try to be pretty and popular in high school (which the narrative largely denigrates her for), who is only “humbled” and becomes a better person after a guy she’s dating violates her consent. I mean, I guess that one had emotional consequences. It takes sexual assault for a girl to mature, I guess! (In case tone is hard on the Internet, that was sarcasm. Though the writing of the male protagonist’s voice was somewhat adorable, I was so angry at We Are Made of Molecules and just no to that book for anyone.)

Why this is very, very bad

Okay, so those are just a few quite obvious examples off the top of my head from some books that are well-reviewed or critically acclaimed or otherwise just rarely called out for this particular problem. (I mean, not to knock on people who call out other problems. The slave-master romance issues in The Winner’s Trilogy are very bad on a larger scale.)

In any case, it’s not okay to use sexual assault as just a scene, a quick plot event to drive the narrative. Because that is not how it works in real life. People deal with the physical, emotional, psychological consequences of sexual assault in many ways, but there is no one who faces absolutely no consequences at all. It’s irresponsible to portray a main character who faces sexual assault and give a reader no aftermath to that. It undermines the very real trauma that people go through.

Also, using sexual assault as a plot event to do things like hook up couples or teach life lessons—I mean, do I even have to elaborate on how that’s not okay? Sexual assault in real life is never washed away by a new boyfriend or the sudden epiphany that trees are pretty. Sexual assault often makes those things more difficult to reach. YA, what is even happening.

All of this begs a very important question, I think. Why use sexual assault in a story? If it’s not to deal with the topic of sexual assault, then why? And I have to honestly conclude that some writers are acting lazy.

No, seriously. Because there are about a zillion ways to make a villain despicable. A zillion ways to have one person get hurt and have another comfort them. A zillion ways to have someone go through something difficult and find a new lease on life.

But writers are choosing sexual assault as their way to do those things and they’re not even sticking around to write the consequences this has for their characters. So yeah. That, to me, is an act of laziness. On their part, on the part of any editor/publisher who approves it, on the part of anyone who thinks using rape as a shock tactic is fine to do without caring whatsoever about the narratives of those who have suffered through it.

This grosses me out everywhere (television is obviously not innocent of this charge, either), but in YA, it’s downright horrifying. Young adult fiction has always occupied a space of being at least a little message-driven, a little moralistic, hovering somewhere between the outright “here is the lesson” structure of a lot of children’s stories and (sometimes) more metaphorical or morally fuzzy adult literature. In YA, characters can actually be expected to be good examples, and when they’re not (as in The Chocolate War), then they tend to serve as a cautionary tale.

This is not to say that teens aren’t smart, savvy readers who can draw their own responsible conclusions; part of why I am so invested in YA is that I 100% believe that teens are smart, savvy, and worthy of excellent literature to discuss. I probably learn a lot on the regular from teens on Tumblr, to be honest.

But anyone can be influenced by the examples and touchstones they encounter consistently, and if the media we feed to teenagers glosses over the badness of sexual assault, makes it just one quick event that leads to other, better things, then what message are we sending and why would we send it?

In any case, this is to say that I’ll be doubling down on warning y’all in my reviews when this trope comes up. I often am not sure how to talk about it because I feel like doing so invites spoilers, and I am often also fearful of reprisal when I’m dressing down a book that is otherwise very loved or that has really great representation in some other way. But you know, I am so done with this dang rape culture in my dang YA books.

I’ll also be doubling down on reading more books that promise to treat sexual assault as an actual issue of consequence, so I’ve picked up a few titles that I can hopefully add to my slim recommendation list on that count.

If you made it to the end, then I really do appreciate it. And if you’d like to rant about some of the harmful tropes you’ve found in YA, I’m here for you. (I feel like slave-master romance is starting to be one of those things, cough, The Bone Season.) And I’ll see you on Friday on a lighter note with some book reviews!

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