Critical Representations of Sexual Assault in Young Adult Literature

  • Erika Cleveland Arizona State University
  • E. Sybil Durand Arizona State University


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 recent research 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; second, rates of rape were significantly higher for females than males, though youth of color, and gay, lesbian, and bisexual (GLB) youth seem particularly vulnerable to dating and sexual violence; and third, adolescent perpetrators of sexual violence are primarily male, with suggestion that bullying and aggressive sports may be pathways leading to sexual violence. 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 young adults. Therefore, 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 discussion.
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