The Tortoise's Tale

"... we went to school in the sea. The Master was an old turtle-we used to call him Tortoise-"
"Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn't one?" Alice asked.
"We called him Tortoise, because he taught us, " said the Mock Turtle

Jill P. May, editor

Critical Representations of Sexual Assault in Young Adult Literature

Erika Cleveland and Sybil Durand

Erika Cleveland is currently studying at the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. She writes a young adult column for and contributes at Pen & Muse Press.

E. Sybil Durand is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Arizona State University where she teaches courses on young adult literature and methods of teaching English language arts

In March 2013, two high school football players were convicted of raping a sixteen year old girl in Steubenville, Ohio (Oppel). Although the victim had little recollection of the assault, photos and videos that were circulated via phone and social media provided the evidence that led to the boys’ conviction. Richard Oppel reports that the images suggest that “Steubenville High School’s powerhouse football team held too much sway over other teenagers, who documented and traded pictures of the assault while doing little or nothing to protect the girl.” The trial and extensive media coverage opened up a nationwide conversation about the U.S. having a rape permissive culture.

“Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture” (“Rape Culture”).  A rape permissive culture is associated with the acceptance of rape myths, which are “a specific set of attitudes and beliefs that may contribute to ongoing sexual violence by shifting blame for sexual assault from perpetrators to victims” (Iconis 47). Such myths may include beliefs such as women who are raped are promiscuous or that men are never raped (Iconis 48).

While the Steubenville case may seem exceptional because it involves high school students, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal that 8% of the students in grades 9 through 12 who were surveyed reported having been “physically forced to have sexual intercourse” (10). Considering these statistics, alongside the media coverage of the Steubenville case, we wondered how young adult literature (YAL) engages the national discourse on rape and how teachers might facilitate critical discussions about sexual assault with their students. In this article, we examine representations of sexual assault in four YA texts and discuss the implications these have for education.

YAL, Sexual Assault, and Young Adults

In the current climate of standardized testing and teacher accountability, using YAL focused on sexual assault might seem risky for teachers. However, we agree with C.J. Bott’s argument that teachers must be aware of books that discuss sexual assault to meet their students’ needs (26). She acknowledges that, “Sex is always a controversial topic in YAL, with rape being one of the edgiest topics,” but challenges that, “Trying to pretend rape does not exist is dangerously ignorant” (26). Moreover, as Steven Wolk asserts, the aim of school should extend beyond merely preparing students for their future careers, but also ensure that students are socially responsible individuals (665). Likewise, Janet Alsup reminds us that “reading literature can be an ethical as well as intellectual process,” (159) and that educators ought not only to make books available that feature characters and social issues that reflect their students’ lived realities, but also critically engage these issues in the literature classroom (161).

Many educators use YAL as a tool to promote critical discussions of social issues. For instance, Stacy Miller used Gail Giles’ Shattering Glass with her AP Literature and Composition class to talk about violence, and Mark Jackett’s ninth grade English class read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak to talk about rape. Most recently, researcher Victor Malo-Juvera conducted a survey of students who also read Speak in their eighth grade English classes. The study revealed that reading and discussing the novel effectively decreased students’ acceptance of rape myths. Together, these efforts support the assertion that YAL can serve as a vehicle for engaging students in critical discussions of social issues (Wolk). It is thus imperative that educators evaluate YA texts in terms of their accuracy and implicit messages on such issues.

In order to understand the realities of sexual violence in young people’s lives as well as how these are represented in YAL, we examined research published in the last fifteen years that reported rates and effects of dating and sexual violence in middle and high schools. Rape is part of a larger issue of sexual violence, including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual coercion. As such, we considered research from psychology, health, violence, and legal fields of study. Three important themes emerged from our readings. First, sexual violence has substantial psychological and physical effects on victims; for instance, disordered eating to control weight and attempts at suicide (Ackard et al. 468), or engaging in risky sexual behaviors after an assault (Alleyne-Green 1470). Second, rates of rape were significantly higher for females than males (CDC 10); however, all of the studies also counted a number of male rape victims (Ackard and Neumark-Sztainer 467; CDC 10; Freedner et al. 472). Notably, when looking at race and sexuality, some researchers found that youth of color, and gay, lesbian, and bisexual (GLB) youth seem particularly vulnerable to dating and sexual violence (CDC; Freedneer et al. 473). Third, adolescent perpetrators of sexual violence are primarily male (Banyard et al. 1322), and some researchers argue that bullying and aggressive sports may be pathways leading to sexual violence (Espelage et al. 64; Forbes et al. 449). Together, these studies illustrate the significant and varied effects of sexual violence on adolescents, challenge myths about the demographics of rape victims, and indicate a need to foster critical discussions about sexual assault with students early in their academic careers. The Malo-Juvera study points to the role YAL might play in addressing this need.

Selected YA Texts on Sexual Assault

In consideration of the themes that emerged from our review of the research, we argue that educators must carefully examine the implicit and explicit messages in YAL that depicts sexual assault. We adopt Alsup’s definition of a “critical text” as the type of literature teachers should provide students for independent reading and for classroom discussions:

A critical text is a text that confronts difficult issues in society—a text that does not break down into meaningless clichés and predictable plot patterns. A critical text could also be called a resistant text, because it is not only resists some of the “rules” of its genre but also encourages its readers to resist the “rules” for mindless, complacent reading. (Alsup 165)

A number of YA titles handle the topic of sexual assault in a meaningful way. In selecting source texts for this article, we searched for realistic YA fiction and narratives in which rape is a significant part of the story. We selected four novels that discuss sexual assault in a critical manner: Inexcusable by Chris Lynch, Fault Line by C. Desir, Canary by Rachele Alpine, and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. As finalists for the National Book Award, Speak and Inexcusable are well established in YAL. Canary and Fault Line are more recent publications, but together, these books function as critical texts by paying attention to not only the assault itself but also its greater implications. The texts also represent sexual assault from diverse perspectives. For instance, Inexcusable is told from the perspective of a male perpetrator; Fault Line is narrated by the victim’s boyfriend, who tries to support her through the ordeal; the story in Canary unfolds in the context of sports at an elite school; and Speak depicts the aftermath of rape on a female victim.

We analyzed these novels to determine how they engage the national discourse on rape and how they reflect research findings on adolescent sexual assault. For the most part, the texts align with the research: the victims are female, and the perpetrators are males who often participate in aggressive sports. The stories depict the most common types of sexual assault—acquaintance and date rape—and describe the social and psychological effects of sexual assault on these young women. However, there are some significant gaps in who is represented in YAL: the victims were all white females and did not represent some of the young adults who are most vulnerable to sexual assault according to the research—youth of color and GLB youth.

Aggressive Sports and Sexual Assault in YAL

News media play an important role in shaping the discourse on rape. However, scholars argue that news media tend to underreport rape cases and ignore those that are most common—dating and acquaintance rape—for more sensationalized cases involving celebrities, and gang or serial rapists, which are atypical (O’Hara 256). News media reports also tend to reiterate rape myths, such as blaming the victim and characterizing the perpetrators as monsters rather than discussing rape as a societal problem (Kosse 278). However, the verdict on the Steubenville rape case has refocused attention on rape as a social issue. For instance, columnist Dave Zirin questions whether the social context of sports creates conditions where rape is possible:

We need to ask the question whether the jock culture at Steubenville was a catalyst for this crime. We need to ask whether there’s something inherent in the men’s sports of the twenty-first century…that can also create a rape culture of violent entitlement. I am not asking if playing sports propels young men to rape. I am asking if the central features of men’s sports—hero worship, entitlement and machismo—make incidents like Steubenville more likely to be replicated.

Zirin’s questions align with the Forbes et al. study that young men who play aggressive sports in high school are more likely to exert sexual violence (449). The culture that surrounds aggressive sports may also unconsciously endorse and promote sexist attitudes. In a study with 11 high school coaches, Lyndon et al. found that, although the coaches they interviewed believed to “have influence over athletes’ character on and off the ‘field’” (382), they were unable to serve as advocates for rape prevention because “they also endorse a variety of rape myths that blame young women for their own victimization, minimize male responsibility, and justify male sexual aggression” (392). Zirin’s questions about “jock culture” are apt in light of these findings. How, then, does YAL address the problematic ways sports culture might support a rape permissive culture?

Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable addresses the issue of date rape in the context of aggressive sports. On the surface, the protagonist Keir Sarafian is a talented high school football player with a college scholarship on the horizon. According to Keir, everybody he knows thinks he is a pretty great guy. He is revered at school and in his community for being an athlete and is doted on at home for being his father’s last child to leave for college. Keir believes that he can do no wrong. In reality, he is incapable of taking responsibility for his own actions. Early in the novel, Keir makes a violent tackle on the football field that leaves the opposing player horribly injured but rationalizes that he simply did what he was expected to do on the field. After the incident, he stays home from school until a verdict comes down. In the end, he is considered not guilty, and Keir relies on that verdict to shape his own assumptions about the event.

This defining moment sets up the way that Keir understands his sexual encounter with Gigi Boudakian, the object of his affection. Gigi has a long-term boyfriend and has never given Keir any outward signs that she might be interested in a sexual relationship. When the two find themselves alone after her long-term boyfriend fails to show up at a graduation party, Keir sees an opportunity to express his love. However, what Keir thinks is a mutual act of love, Gigi finds to be an inexcusable act of violence. Keir pins her to the bed and convinces himself she is consenting. Just like the incident on the football field, Keir believes that as a good guy he can do no wrong. “I am a good guy. Good guys don’t do bad things. Good guys understand that no means no, and so I could not have done this because I understand, and I love Gigi Boudakian” (Lynch 3). Keir’s sense of entitlement and lack of accountability make it possible for him to brush the real issue aside. In this way, Inexcusable is a plausible account of how sports culture and rape culture can overlap. In this novel, the absence of personal responsibility paves the way for a permissive rape culture.

Rachele Alpine’s Canary also considers the intersections of sports and rape culture. After losing her mother to cancer, Kate’s father becomes increasingly distant. When he gets a job coaching basketball for the exclusive Beacon Prep, Kate looks forward to a chance to build a new life. Kate begins dating a star basketball player and enters a world of prestige and entitlement. At Beacon Prep, the basketball team is on a pedestal: the players are constantly tardy, skip class, and cheat on assignments without penalty. Outside of school, they have raging parties complete with plenty of alcohol but no intervention from the police. Kate’s girlfriend explains, “Those cops aren’t stupid enough to screw around with the team during the season” (Alpine 206). This negligence by authority figures feeds the players’ already inflated egos and eliminates any consequences for their behavior. When Luke, another player on the team, sexually assaults Kate at a party, his arrogance and entitlement are evident. Given his social status at school and within the community, he feels untouchable and thus acts in increasingly violent ways, beginning with sexual harassment and culminating in his assault on Kate at the party.

As the coach of the basketball team, Kate’s father contributes to the jock culture at Beacon Prep by not holding the players accountable for their actions. When Kate finally tells him that she was assaulted, he sides with his player and diminishes Kate’s feelings:

Listen. Do you understand what would happen if you told people about this? It would be worse for you than anyone else. You’d have to tell your story to everyone. Do you really want to talk about it again? Especially in front of Luke? (Alpine 396)

Refusing to take rape accusations seriously and trivializing the experience are key examples of how adult figures, such as coaches, can unwittingly promote a rape permissive culture.

Both Lynch’s Inexcusable and Alpine’s Canary describe the unintended consequences of a sports culture that values violence. These novels reflect findings from research linking aggressive sports and sexual assault as well as news headlines such as the Steubenville case. Furthermore, by depicting sexual assault in the context of an aggressive sports culture and holding the attackers responsible for their actions, these novels open a dialogue for making changes within that culture.

Victim Blaming in YAL

Another aspect of rape culture represented in YAL is victim-blaming. Victim-blaming occurs every time a woman’s choice of dress, decision to drink alcohol, or prior sexual history is questioned in relation to sexual assault. Columnist Clara Musca explains that as many as “80% of rapes don’t get reported or prosecuted” because of “the trauma and shame” involved. Thus, the inherent danger in victim-blaming is that, if women also “have to deal with society’s backlash that includes controlling every aspect of [their] …behavior and actions” (Musca), they will be even less likely to report sexual assaults.

Christa Desir’s Fault Line examines the dramatic effects of victim-blaming. The narrative is told from the perspective of Ben who meets Ani, the new girl, at the start of his senior year. He is instantly drawn to her sassy wit and irreverent humor, and the two soon fall in love. Their new romance is shattered one night when Ani attends a party without Ben. When Ben gets the call the next morning to come see Ani at the hospital, his world is upended. Ani has no recollection of what happened, but according to witnesses at the party, she seemed drunk, was dancing on tables, and was loudly proclaiming her intention to hook up with boys. Her friend even mentions seeing Ani carried up the stairs by a group of young men. The aftermath of Ani’s assault is particularly horrifying: in the hospital, doctors must remove a lighter from her vagina. Ani’s classmates quickly spread rumors that she was putting on a show with the lighter and call her vulgar names.

Throughout the ordeal, Ben remains Ani’s only true ally, even as she transforms from a girl with an easy laugh and ready smile into a sullen and suddenly promiscuous girl. Ben will do anything to help his girlfriend but respects her decision to keep the assault a secret from her mother. Ani is reluctant to discuss that night because she blames herself for the assault:

Still, how do you imagine a conversation with my mom going? ‘Hey Gayle, I screwed around with an unknown number of guys at a party where I got drunk, danced like a slut, and announced to everyone within hearing distance that I was gonna hook up with all these dudes.’ (Desir 96)

Ben watches helplessly as Ani falls into progressively more destructive patterns, including dangerously promiscuous behavior. Although Ben tries to be supportive, in the end, he is unable to bring her back to the girl he knew before the assault.

Desir, who is a rape victim advocate and has spent considerable time providing service in emergency rooms, wrote Fault Line to open a dialogue for teens regarding rape and victim-blaming. In an interview, she states:

I hope I start a discussion about the role people play with survivors. The role they play in victim-blaming, in silencing survivors, in retraumatizing them in a way. I hope to start a discussion about what is the definition of rape, what enthusiastic consent looks like, and how to take care of someone in a situation like Ani is in…I want the “messiness” of this book to start a discussion about culpability, about what we can all do to make this look different. (DeYoung)

The novel clearly opens a discussion about the effects of victim blaming. It also reflects the research on the effects of rape on young adults: adolescents are less likely to seek help from adults after being sexually assaulted (Ashley et al.) and often engage in self-destructive behaviors (Alleyne-Green et al.). Unfortunately, in this novel victim blaming also remains effective in silencing Ani, who internalizes the blame and gets lost in the aftermath of her sexual assault. Her attackers are never identified, and there are no consequences for those who sexually harass Ani at school after the party. In this way, while the novel does raise awareness about victim blaming, the outcome of the story leaves that myth intact—there is no justice for Ani and Ben who remain victims in spite of Ben’s efforts. Educators who use Fault Line will need to address this gap by engaging their students with the novel critically and providing alternative avenues for support. 

In a different look at victim-blaming, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak depicts what can happen when a victim finally regains her voice. After calling the police at an end-of-summer party, Melinda Sordino is the social pariah of her freshman class. No one at school understands what really happened the night of the party, and Melinda is not speaking. When even her new friend Heather gets tired of her melancholy ways, Melinda suppresses all her emotions and hides in her secret closet at school. She struggles through her days, failing every class except art, where Mr. Freeman is gently pushing her to find her voice. When Melinda finally reveals that she was sexually assaulted at the party, her life changes for the better.

In the climax of the novel, Melinda finds herself trapped with her attacker once again.  Only this time, she is able to speak up and stop the assault. Her screams attract the attention of her classmates, and the truth about Andy Evans is finally revealed. In the aftermath of this second attack, Melinda is viewed differently at school and has the full support of her classmates. Most importantly, Melinda has finally found her voice and no longer feels shamed into silence.

By depicting the triumph of the victim and bringing the attacker to justice, Speak models for readers a culture that does not condone the sexual assault of women. While novels like Fault Line are certainly realistic, the unresolved ending may unwittingly perpetuate sexual assault as normalized and tolerated within society. In contrast, books like Speak offer transformative possibilities for victims.

Implications and Recommendations

The four novels we analyzed offer powerful opportunities for teachers and students to engage the national discourse on rape through YAL. Inexcusable and Canary reflect media discourse about the link between aggressive sports culture and rape culture and raise questions as to how educators might approach this issue with their students. Fault Line and Speak raise awareness about the detrimental nature of victim-blaming and effectively address both media concerns and research findings about the aftermath of sexual assault for victims. However, the novels we surveyed did not adequately represent the experiences of youth of color, youth who identify as LGTBQ, or males who are the victims of sexual assault and coercion. We are not necessarily advocating for more depictions of violent acts against already marginalized youth—as Wickens posits, a plot conflict centered on a character’s identity might reinforce understandings of that identity as problematic (153). Instead, we recommend that educators who use YAL to foster critical discussions about sexual assault in their classes supplement the texts with research articles or inquiry projects that challenges rape myths, including the likely victims of sexual assault. Acquaintance and date rape are part of a larger social issue of interpersonal violence, which includes bullying, aggressive sports, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. Teachers might follow Miller’s approach to developing a unit on violence in society with sexual assault as one type of such violence. Or, educators might adopt Franzak and Noll’s method of examining violence at the individual, cultural, and institutional levels in society. Most of all, teachers must provide accurate information to their students about the social context of sexual assault in all types of relationships and ensure that diverse student populations have adequate resources and avenues of support. What started out as a question for us—“How does YAL address and represent sexual assault?”—became a much larger inquiry and revealed the depth and complexity of sexual violence in adolescents’ lives. Examined alongside current research and analyses of media, YAL has the potential to serve as a valuable resource for shedding some light on sexual violence and critically engaging adolescents on this relevant issue.


Works Cited

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Alleyne-Green, Binta, Coleman-Cowger, Victoria H., and David B. Henry. “Dating Violence Perpetration and /or Victimization and Associated Sexual Risk Behaviors among a Sample of Inner-City African American and Hispanic Adolescent Females.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 27.8 (2012): 1457-1473. Print.

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Wickens, Corinne M. “Codes, Silences, and Homophobia : Challenging Normative Assumptions about Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary LGBTQ Young Adult Literature.” Children’s Literature in Education 42 (2011): 148-164. Print.

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Erika Cleveland and Sybil Durand

Volume 17, Issue 3, The Looking Glass, November 2014

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