Speaking up: a brief history of rape culture in young adult fiction

Asking For It engages the media and popular culture but also its own field, YA, which since the 1950s has pushed boundaries and explored adolescence in edgy, realistic ways

A disclaimer, first: I adore Louise O’Neill, as both a person and a writer – she is kind and funny and smart alongside having tremendous skill and dedication to her work. I spent much of the second half of 2014 pressing her debut, Only Ever Yours, into as many hands as possible: you must read this book, you must, you must. I’m delighted to see her second novel, Asking For It, receive such media attention, and to be received so positively: we’re seeing consent and rape culture discussed in a way that, with the exception of some below-the-line misogyny, has been respectful of both women and men.

What infuriates me, as is perhaps inevitably the case whenever a ‘big book’ in a particular field goes mainstream, is the sense that young adult fiction hasn’t been engaging with these issues already. O’Neill didn’t intend to write YA – but if you’re conscious of the field, you understand that it is the best possible home for a writer who is provocative and tackling the difficult issues that affect the real, lived experience of young people.

Asking For It is a work that is in conversation with the media and popular culture, but it is also in conversation with its own field, a field that has been pushing boundaries and offering up 'edgy', realistic explorations of adolescence since the middle of the twentieth century. It has not always been as visible in bookshops as it is today – hence why many writers today note 'there wasn't any YA when I was growing up' even as writers like Judy Blume, Paul Zindel, Robert Cormier, Aidan Chambers and a pre-Tracy Beaker Jacqueline Wilson were widely published – but it has been developing and growing for many decades. Long before Twilight was even a sparkle in Stephenie Meyer's eye, Zindel was writing about abortion and Blume was exploring sex and Chambers's male teenage characters fell in love.

And in 1999, Laurie Halse Anderson published Speak (Penguin published in the US; Hodder Children's brought it out the following year in the UK). Nominated for both a Printz Award and the National Book Award in the US, along with a range of other prizes, it launched Anderson's career as a YA writer and was one of the titles cited when she was awarded the prestigious Margaret A Edwards Award from the American Library Association in 2009 (given to writers who have made "a significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature"). Anderson's heroine, Melinda Sordino, starts high school as a mute outcast, shunned by her old friends because she called the police from a wild party during the summer: a party at which a popular, older boy raped her.


It is a novel about rape, and specifically about peer rape: what happens to a teenage girl when she’s raped and society doesn’t protect her? What happens when they punish her? I specify peer rape because there are also many novels about sexual abuse within families (June Oldham’s Escape and Laura Wiess’s Such A Pretty Girl are among the better offerings), about being taken advantage of by a teacher (sometimes sexually, sometimes not), and about ongoing abuse as a victim of kidnapping (Elizabeth Scott’s Living Dead Girl; Cat Clarke’s recent The Lost and Found also addresses this topic). It is often easier to view these other kinds of assault as violent – what happens when it’s just at a party? What happens when it’s a handsome, popular, desirable guy and there’s alcohol involved? ‘Rape’ still evokes a cliched image for most people: a stranger in a dark alleyway. It is not a thing that happens in normal life – except that it does.

Speak celebrated its 10-year anniversary with a new special edition of the book; it is taught in high schools and colleges around America and Canada. It has been the subject of a doctoral thesis in education, exploring if it reduces teenagers’ acceptance in false rape myths (it does). Anderson devised a poem, Listen, composed of readers’ letters, which shares its poignancy (“your book cracked my shell”) and humour (“P.S. Our class is gonna analyse/this thing to death”) with the novel. Speak paved the way for other books where rape wasn’t just something that happened to a supporting character as a cautionary tale: its most obvious successor in the US is Courtney Summers’s All The Rage (St Martin’s Press, 2015; forthcoming from Macmillan in the UK in January 2016).

Summers acknowledges her debt to Anderson, but her own take on rape is not about finding a voice and learning to speak up. It is angry, as the title implies. Romy is an outcast after accusing the town’s golden boy, the sheriff’s son, of rape. There are no criminal charges, but the ongoing discrediting of her story has changed her life for the worse while his sails smoothly along. Her red lipstick and cold demeanour are armour in a world that won’t protect her, and when she thinks about her boyfriend’s newborn niece, it is a damning indictment of a culture that doesn’t protect women: “She doesn’t even know how hard it’s going to be yet, but she will, because all girls find out.”

American YA fiction has also tackled what it means to be a boy linked to a rape case; Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable (2005) is an unsettling insight into a privileged athlete whose unreliable narration invites us to excuse his rape of his girlfriend – and then shocks us into seeing the truth. Christa Desir’s Fault Line (2013), penned by a rape victim advocate, explores the frustrations of a teenage boy whose new girlfriend is gang-raped and who responds in a way he doesn’t quite understand.

There are problematic and unsympathetic portrayals too, of course; rape culture isn’t just tackled by novels but sometimes perpetuated by it. Situations where alcohol is involved prove particularly tricky: if the girl is attracted to the boy who slept with her when she was incapable of giving consent, when she doesn’t remember, it can be portrayed as romantic, as in Paige Harbison’s Anything To Have You (2014), rather than being labelled as a violation of any kind.

Irish YA has been slower than American to tackle the harder issues, which is one of the reasons why O'Neill is so celebrated. But it has not been as silent and backwards as one might assume. Larry O'Loughlin's Breaking the Silence (2001) invites us into the head of a teenage male rape victim, who worries that he might have been 'asking for it' – that his unwilling arousal during an assault means that he is not only gay but guilty. A Swift Pure Cry (2006), from the late second-generation Irish Siobhan Dowd, never labels the sexual encounters between its naïve heroine and the charismatic older boy as rape but there is certainly a power imbalance and lack of understanding about the consequences of sex at play there. Deirdre Sullivan's forthcoming Needlework (February 2016) explores rape within the family, and echoes Desir's work in its portrayal of a girl who responds to assault by seeking out other sexual relationships rather than hiding away from them - a brave choice to make in a world that expects rape victims to enact their survival in the 'right' way.

O’Neill’s book, particularly in this country, has sparked a discussion about rape culture and consent that is important, necessary, and long overdue. In a literary context, though, this has not been made possible ‘despite’ her work being aimed at, or about, teenagers. Young adult fiction is precisely the place that we find these books – like Speak, like All The Rage, like Breaking The Silence, like Asking For It – that explore some of the ugliest truths about the world we live in.

Claire Hennessy (@clairehennessy) writes, reads and breathes YA fiction.

Asking For It by Louise O’Neill is published by Quercus Children’s Books

Competition winners

The 10 winners of a copy of Asking For It and a ticket to the Irish Writers Centre event who correctly said thatLouise O’Neill’s debut novel is Only Ever Yours are: Ailbhe Hayes, Strandhill; Deirdre Carlile, Blackrock, Cork; Brid Reardon, Monasterevin, Co Kildare; Marian Power,Portlaw,CoWaterford; Alison Groves, Tralee, Co Kerry; Anne McGuire, Navan, Co Meath; Lisa Stapleton, Cashel, Co Tipperary; Suzanne Doyle , Athlone , Co Westmeath ; Ger Gaughran, Kells, Co Meath; Nicola Curry, Dublin 1.