When I was sixteen, I read a dystopian book with a sexual assault scene. The teen girl protagonist was in a prison-type environment where she had to trade sexual favors for prison perks. After a “mild” assault scene, the guard character told her he’d be back for more later.That bothered me enough that I returned the book to the library. I didn’t want to read a book with repeated assault scenes.
Conversations about what teenagers should be reading-and by should, I mean should, not shouldn’t-always seems to center around what adults want teenagers to learn. Adult women want young girls to be educated about sexual assault, so they write and promote those books. The summer before my senior year of high school (2014), I recall a sudden explosion of dialogue about sexual assault in all my online spaces. All the book review and writing websites I followed wanted to talk about the importance of understanding assault. Sometimes that centered on books with rape and assault scenes, but more often, it was a general dialogue.
Did I learn about sexual assault, rape, and consent as a teenager? Yes, from reading blog posts, tweets, and formal articles, most of them authored by women in the writing/general geekery community. Not from reading novels. Books didn’t need to “teach” me about sexual assault because I lived in a broader world where those dialogues were already happening. I read some YA contemporary books, issue books, with assault scenes and didn’t mind them, since that’s a hallmark of the issue book subgenre. But I didn’t want that kind of content in my dystopian fiction. It seemed gratuitous.
My senior year of high school, in response to all the online dialogue about sexual assault, I wrote a rape book. I published a one-page excerpt from it in my high school’s literary magazine, but I have no plans to publish the rest of the story. Its purpose was for me to learn and grow as a writer and explore topics that were dominating my internet landscape. Every edgy scene was, I believed, essential rather than gratuitous because the point of an issue book is to showcase difficult content.
When I was 22, I wrote a fantasy book with an assault scene. Two male critique partners gave me the feedback that that scene seemed contrived, that it didn’t fit within the overall context of the story. I ignored them because, y’know, men were the patriarchy. When I was 24, I looked back over that scene and realized they were right. In my previous book, several sexual scenes were necessary, but in this book, even one was too much. I wrote that scene as An Agenda Moment, to make a point about how Sexual Assault Is Bad. But most people know sexual assault is bad already and reading that scene is unlikely to be anybody’s personal revolution. I could articulate why I put that scene in there-”This helps explain a theme”-but I didn’t have a good explanation for why that character was committing assault. And I know sixteen year old me wouldn’t have liked it, so why am I giving that scene to other sixteen year olds?
As an adult, I’m less bothered by books with sexual assault scenes. I read one just this weekend, and the affected character was a teenager, though the book was meant for adults. There’s plenty of space for adult authors and adult readers to read and write scenes like that, but they can do it away from teenagers. Adult voices have always dominated the YA landscape and dialogues about what’s right for YA tend to center adult interests rather than that of young people. When adults talk about why gritty content is okay in YA fiction, the two main talking points are:
This type of content is realistic to teen life
It is important for teenagers to learn about difficult issues
The first is valid. There are, of course, teenagers who seek out books about gritty issues, either because they see their own lives represented in darker fiction or because they want to learn about gritty topics. But I’m uncomfortable with adult authors trying to make their books teaching tools rather than avenues of entertainment. The question at the heart of the debate surrounding content in teen books shouldn’t be “Is this an important issue?” but “What benefit will teenagers derive from seeing this important issue explored in novel form, as opposed to reading about this topic in an informational article?” Do you, as an adult author, have a legitimate story reason for including this content, or are you just getting on a soapbox? Teenagers who read tend to read a wide variety of material, not just novels, and will learn about dark issues through their own study, without seeing characters they love placed in harm’s way to prove a point.