Good fiction about domestic violence and sexual assualt is hard to find; a lot of what people write is either stereotypical or outright voyeuristic. Good YA fiction about those subjects is even harder to find. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak–about a girl who is raped at a party and then ostracized by her classmates–has become a classic since its publication in 1999, and Sarah Dessen’s Just Listen (2006), seems to be headed in that direction as well.
Don’t get me wrong: I read Speak as a teenager and wasn’t crazy about it. I appreciated Anderson’s point, but even as a fifteen-year-old, I had attitude about clumsy denouements (Speak falls apart a bit towards the end). I read Just Listen over the summer, and again: I’m not crazy about it. I think that from a stylistic standpoint, Dessen’s done a lot better. But that doesn’t change the fact that Just Listen is a very important book for every teen–boy and girl–to read. Because it is one of the best depictions of what attempted rape can do to a person that I have ever read.
The scene in which the heroine is sexually assualted is all of those million-dollar words that book reviews usually throw at it: it’s horrifying. It’s disturbing. It also nothing but accurate. Girls go to parties and get assaulted by “nice young men” they know. Those “nice young men” shove their hands down girls’ pants without asking permission or taking no for an answer. It’s awful, but it happens. Whether you like it or not, it happens.
Which is why this article angers me so very, very much.
I have a lot of problems with this piece. To begin with, including the word “repulsive” in the title is far from fucking neutral: the reporter might have felt that she was just “objectively” including a source’s opinion in the title, but what she was actually doing was picking a side before the article even began. That’s bullshit. Total fucking bullshit. Also, I take issue with this particular summarization of the plot: “Van Brunt describes the story: The main character is at a party and her best friend’s boyfriend tries to rape her. It never happens.”
No, he doesn’t rape her. He sexually assaults her. He reaches his hand down her pants and shoves his fingers into her vagina. That’s called sexual assault, friends, and it’s a crime. It’s a crime, which is part of the reason (SPOILER ALERT!) that he’s on trial at the end of the book. Because, you know, HE’S A FREAKING CRIMINAL. Without even trying, that comment just illustrated why Just Listen is such an important book: because people don’t get that attempted rape is every bit as much of a crime as “actual” rape, and that being “merely” sexually assaulted is horrific and incredibly painful.
The comment that really got me screaming silently with rage while I sat at my desk, though, was this:
It was just awful,” [the mother who brought the complaint] said. “I have no problem with the story line in the book. It’s just the graphic detail. You’re going to see it on TV and everywhere else – still, finding it in your daughter’s backpack …”
“If we wouldn’t show it as a movie in school, it probably shouldn’t be in the library,” she said.
I am not a particularly sensitive person, but I’ll admit it: that scene made me cringe. It was hard to read. If I’d been a little younger, or if I had more of a soul, it probably would have actually made me cry; as it was, I teared up. It is graphic, and it is awful, and it is…effective. Because it is so graphic and so matter-of-fact and so violent and–yes–so repulsive, it makes you understand just why the main character has been walking around in a fugue state for six straight months. You understand why this hurt her so badly, and why the kid who did it deserves to go to jail. Would you really have that understanding if she just said, “He tried to rape me. It was not fun. Sexual assault is bad!”? I don’t think so, but maybe that’s because I have a bad imagination.
I doubt it, though.
Ultimately, this article infuriates me because A.) It’s shitty writing and even shittier journalism; and B.) It shows that the first reaction of any adult to this sort of situation–even a book discussing this situation–is to cover it up. To smooth it over, to pretend that it never happened. And judging by some of the comments on the article, I think it also shows a disturbing tendency to confuse sexual assault with sexuality. To confuse a violent act with a loving one, or even just a horny one. One person even calls Dessen’s book “smut,” which is so creepy and so wrong that it makes me want to scream. If you think that attempted rape is “smut,” then you are a sick, sick fuck, with creepy, twisted attitudes towards sex, and I will be calling Child Protective Services on you.
Basically, the whole debacle makes me disgusted with humanity. It also makes me want to buy a crate of Speak and Just Listen and ship ‘em off to Florida. Thoughts?