Why we need more books about sexual assault survivors
Towards the end of 2016, I read two books that resonated deeply — The Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll and Asking For It, by Louise O’Neill. Both authors have their own, distinct narrative styles and the novels have plenty of differences — but I walked away from each with the same thought: “I should just hand a copy of this book to the next person who shames or doubts a sexual assault survivor for not reporting the crime.”
So, I set out to compile a list of 11 books that also offered a variety of a scenarios and featured diverse protagonists. My only criteria was that they’d help readers understand why survivors are hesitant to report sexual assault — not just to the police, but to their own friends and family members.
I quickly ran into a significant road block — these books don’t exist. As it turns out, sexual assault isn’t only a taboo topic to speak about in real life — this mindset extends to literature as well.
I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised. Although we’ve recently made progress in shattering the silence surrounding sexual assault and the stigma faced by survivors, there is still so much work to be done. Furthermore, there have been attempts to keep books about the topic out of the hands of readers.
A prime example is Laurie Halse Anderson’s critically-acclaimed young adult novel, Speak, which is one of the most commonly challenged or banned books in schools and libraries. The book’s protagonist, Melinda, is ostracized by her high school classmates and former friends after she busts an end-of-summer party by calling the cops. No one thinks to ask her why she made the call, and Melinda stays silent — she busted the party because she was sexually assaulted by a popular upperclassmen. She is terrified to tell anyone the truth.
It’s troubling on many levels that such an important book is kept out of the hands of the people who need it most.
According to RAINN, 7 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. In juvenile rape cases, that number jumps to 93 percent. Melinda’s situation in Speak is, unfortunately, all-too-common — and books, even fictional ones, can provide survivors with a sense of validation and the feeling that they’re not alone.
Luckiest Girl Alive and Asking For It were both published in 2015 — so I’m hopeful this is a sign that more authors will tackle this painful but incredibly important topic. Until then, I highly recommend reading both these books. One key reason is that both shatter the myth of the “perfect victim.” There’s a common misconception that rapists are masked strangers who drag unwitting victims kicking and screaming into dark allies. Although these types of sexual assaults certainly occur, they don’t account for the majority of assaults. So, instead, people tiptoe around the topic and gloss over it by using terms like “gray area” and “nonconsensual sex” rather than calling it what it is: rape.
It’s my hope that Luckiest Girl Alive and Asking For It will successfully challenge readers to have empathy and compassion for the survivors who were drinking and trusted the wrong people. And I hope they’ll start important conversations among survivors who have suffered in silence and shame for years.
It’s no surprise that, after the book was published, Jessica Knoll revealed Luckiest Girl Alive is inspired by her own experience of being gang-raped as a high school student.
Among high school students in particular, it’s tragically common for a survivor’s friends to take the side of the attacker — which is exactly what happens in Luckiest Girl Alive. When the Steubenville rape case went to trial in 2013, the victim’s two former best friends testified for the defense and, after her attackers were convicted, two teen girls were arrested for making death threats against Jane Doe.
Navigating the high school social scene is hard enough — and Luckiest Girl Alive perfectly conveys why so many survivors are terrified of becoming social pariahs if they tell anyone, even a trusted friend, that a popular classmate sexually assaulted them.
In the moment, it often feels easier to force yourself to “forget about it and move on.”
Emma, the 18-year-old protagonist in Asking For It, has no recollection of her sexual assault — and, in her case, the aftermath is more traumatic than the rape itself. She’s ostracized not just by her classmates and friends, but by her entire tight-knit community. Emma essentially becomes a recluse, paralyzed by her severe anxiety.
Emma wakes up on her front porch after a night of partying, partially clothed with a blistering sunburn. Later, she opens her Facebook and is shocked to see she has hundreds of notifications — her attackers photographed the assault and treated her naked, unconscious body like an object by posing her in a variety of degrading positions.
Again, Emma is decidedly not the “perfect victim” — charges are filed based on the photographic evidence, but the case isn’t considered strong. She has a reputation for being sexually promiscuous and initially denies that an assault happened because she’s so desperate to stay in control of her image.
But O’Neill takes it a step further by deliberately making Emma an unlikeable character — prior to her rape, she steals expensive accessories from one friend and is relentlessly competitive with her peers. In an eerily prophetic scene, a friend confides in Emma that she was sexually assaulted — and Emma shrugs her shoulders and advises her friend to “just pretend it didn’t happen.”
This narrative tactic is brilliant and thought-provoking because it makes readers unwittingly complicit as well. Everyone, including Emma’s own family, entertains the idea that she was “asking for it” — but the question is really being posed to the reader. And then, we must reflect on why we live in a society where such a question is even raised.
These books are starting important conversations.
After Knoll revealed the inspiration behind Luckiest Girl Alive, she received an outpouring of support and messages from women who had also been victimized and spent years feeling as though they had no voice.
"The reaction has been overwhelming. I can’t even keep up with all the messages on social media but I feel very responsible to respond to everyone," Knoll told BuzzFeed. "I’m hearing from a lot of women who have gone through similar experiences and I want to let them know that they’re not alone, that they’ve been heard."
O’Neill received a similar response from readers who were deeply moved by Asking For It —in her case, many were her own friends.
"What I found funny was the amount of friends who contacted me once they read the book to tell me about something that has happened to them. I wondered, Why have we never talked about this before? I'm that person that people tell stuff to," O'Neill told Refinery29. "So why haven't we talked about this? Everyone said, 'I just wanted to forget about it.'"
As survivors know, the tactic of simply “forgetting about it” can only work for so long, and trauma has a way of catching up with you, infiltrating your life in a variety of painful ways.
We need more books like The Luckiest Girl Alive and Asking For It because they shed light on all the reasons survivors stay silent.
And, just as importantly, these books can help survivors realize they’re not alone, they have nothing to be ashamed of, and they have a right to tell their story in a safe space of their choosing.