If You're Writing About Assault ...

Content warning: this post will discuss sexual violence

By popular request, I’ve decided to write a post (or rather, rewrite something I posted years ago on an anonymous Tumblr) about a major trend in Young Adult books right now: sexual assault.

As a sexual assault survivor who longed to see myself in literature beyond Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, I’m excited to see authors tackling sexual violence in YA literature. However, with this trend obviously comes the issue of how sexual assault is written about. Some YA books about sexual assault are written by authors with limited personal experience , so I thought I’d put together a post (like this one I did about queer stereotypes in YA) on tips for writing about sexual assault.

  1. Sexual assault is not a plot device. I can’t say this enough. It’s not for shock value, waking up drifting readers, or just making a book “edgy” or “modern” (given #MeToo). So if you’re just putting sexual assault in your book casually for shock value, please don’t. It’s serious and if you’re going to put it in your book, you need to do it with tremendous thought and care.

  2. Graphic details aren’t necessary. Most of the YA books I’ve read that I find do justice to sexual assault don’t have tons of graphic details. Sure, they have some, but the details are limited. For example, All the Rage by Courtney Summers just mentions a hand on the survivor’s mouth. A small detail, but not too graphic. Some books mention some physical pain in the aftermath. If you’re adding a bunch of graphic details beyond that, ask yourself why. They aren’t needed to show the reality of how sexual assault impacts survivors, and honestly, graphic details can often come across as being mostly for shock value. It’s YA, not porn (to be blunt).

  3. Survivors react differently. One of my friends moved on pretty normally; one didn’t know it was sexual assault until months later; one had a nervous breakdown; I tried to act normal but inside I totally lost it, though people tell me I seemed normal on the outside. Some days are normal, others are a mess, often for no specific reason. Not everyone melts down, and not everyone can ignore it; vary up your character’s reactions!

  4. Survivors and perpetrators can be anyone. Survivors can identify as any gender and be assaulted by people of any gender. Not all survivors are able-bodied. Not all survivors are white (and people of color are actually more likely to be assaulted). While most perpetrators are white cisgender men, some aren’t.

  5. Assaults can fit different molds. I usually only see two types of assaults in YA literature: an assault at a party where the survivor is drunk, or childhood sexual abuse where the survivor totally hates the abuser, and that’s about it. Oh, and everything happens at night. Assaults can totally fit that mold, but assaults can be totally different. They can be within intimate relationships that already exist, in households, at school, etc. Statistically most assaults happen during the day. And maybe the survivor doesn’t hate the perpetrator completely.

  6. Listen to survivors. Don’t use Law & Order: SVU as your guide. Look at what actual survivors say about their experiences for guidance online, and when they talk about things that bother them in depictions of violence or come to you directly about a problem with something you’ve written, don’t ignore them. (P.S. Feel free to contact me if you have a concern about something you wrote.)

In summary, be intentional, empathetic, and careful. Sexual assault is so important in the lives of young adults, and if you write about it well, you can change someone’s life.

Do you have suggestions for what to add to this list? Comment below or Tweet at me (it can be a DM) and I’ll add it!

Here are things suggested through comments and DMs thus far (edited for grammar and clarity):

  • Not every assault is rape, and rape isn’t necessarily more severe than other forms of assault.

  • Putting your rapist in jail isn’t always the goal and isn’t always necessary to healing.

  • Telling people about a sexual assault isn’t always this moment where everything changes for the better. Sometimes it sucks.

On Trigger Warnings (May 24, 2015)

As a sexual assault survivor, I feel compelled to respond to recent op-eds slamming sexual assault survivors who ask for trigger warnings in college classrooms. A "trigger warning" is a warning issued before material that has the potential to remind students of their assaults. (The most recently contested example is the request by some Columbia University undergraduates to be warned before being presented with Ovid's "Metamorphoses.")

There are multiple misconceptions about trigger warnings these op-eds perpetuate, the first of which is the idea that those who ask for trigger warnings are trying to avoid living in the “real world.” This is wildly inaccurate. I argue someone who has experienced something as horrific as sexual assault has experienced the darkest parts of the "real world." The insinuation that sexual assault survivors have spent their lives in a bubble — one May 13, 2015 Daily Banter article referred to the Columbia survivors who asked for trigger warnings as “special snowflakes” — is downright offensive.

The second misconception is that trigger warnings are present so students can avoid challenging ideas. However, they’re there so that survivors of sexual assault like me can ground themselves in order to engage more thoughtfully with challenging ideas. When I'm not given a trigger warning before being presented with graphic material, my body slips away and falls back to the day I was assaulted. The room morphs into the room I was assaulted in. I spend an hour reliving every sensation and sound from my assault — the physical pain, the muffled screams, the fear pounding in my chest. When I'm given a trigger warning, it doesn’t mean I won’t read or watch the material — it means I'll have time to ground myself so I can stay present. I'll observe my surroundings. (What color is the rug? What material is the table in front of me made of?) Then, when the material is presented, I'll have things that will remind me that I’m safe. (The rug is dark green. The table is tan and made of wood. I’m sitting in Spanish class.)

Third, trigger warnings are being misconstrued as censorship. Censorship would be if material was blocked from being shown at all. That's not what a trigger warning does. Trigger warnings go before material but do not prevent the material from being shown. It takes one second to give a trigger warning. Is it really so difficult to sacrifice one second in order to spare survivors many minutes, if not hours, of flashbacks?

Finally, many op-ed authors dismiss survivors who require trigger warnings as unstable. In a recent May 22, 2015 Wall Street Journal article titled "The Trigger-Happy Generation," the author insinuated that requesting a trigger warning is an indication that the survivor needs more therapy. However, sexual assault doesn’t disappear if you talk about it once a week. While some survivors overcome triggers, many survivors, myself included, don't completely. Healing is complicated and a lifetime process with no beautiful, definitive ending. Believe me, I wish therapy could remove all my triggers, but it doesn’t, and the fact that it doesn't is not an indication that I'm unstable.

I love creative writing and tend to write dark stories, so I've both written triggering material and, as a survivor, needed trigger warnings. As someone with both of those experiences, I'm blown away by the ignorance displayed in recent national conversations regarding trigger warnings in college. While it's possible some authors have experienced sexual violence, I'd wager the vast majority of trigger warnings' most outspoken opponents haven't. As with many conversations regarding sexual violence, here's one where the voices of the survivors themselves are being dismissed. I want to engage with challenging ideas and material. I love classic literature. However, in order to be able to engage with material like Ovid's "Metamorphoses," I need to be given the opportunity to remain present in the classroom and not spend the class fighting with flashbacks instead. I don't want trigger warnings so I can hide from challenging ideas — I want trigger warnings so I can grapple with them.