On October 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted:
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write “me too” as a reply to this tweet.
Her message unleashed a hurricane of tweets and Facebook posts that swept the internet. Women (and some men) shared their stories of sexual harassment and assault under the hashtag #MeToo. Many of us asked each other Is there any women alive who hasn’t experienced these things? Many men were shocked at the ubiquity of the problem.
The #MeToo movement, which as of this writing in late December, continues to shake the foundations of power in American media and politics, began ten years ago with Tarana Burke, director of the Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity.
She describes the movement she founded this way:
On one side, it’s a bold declarative statement that “I’m not ashamed” and “I’m not alone.” On the other side, it’s a statement from survivor to survivor that says “I see you, I hear you, I understand you and I’m here for you or I get it.”
#MeToo has focused attention on what feminist theorists call rape culture: the fabric of beliefs, social norms, media depictions, and institutional structures that both normalize and excuse male sexual aggression and sexual violence. The underlying message of rape culture is that the female body exists primarily for male pleasure and male domination.
So why am I writing about rape culture on a blog dedicated to books for middle grade readers?
This post is a call-to-action for those of us who care about young people.
Rape culture exists on a continuum from cat-calling to pats on the butt to solicitations for sexy pictures to assault and rape. And these behaviors begin early.
Consider these examples:
(a) A boy chases a girl and tries to kiss her during elementary school. The girl complains and is told, “He does that because he likes you.”
(b) A boy snaps a girl’s bra. The girl complains and is told, “Boys will be boys.”
(c) A school’s dress code forbids girls from wearing spaghetti straps or short skirts because this attire distracts boys from their school work.
(d) A boy grabs a girl’s bottom, and she slaps him. Her peers accuse her of being too sensitive and over-reacting. Others call her a b*$%#.
In each of these cases, an act of harassment, upsetting in itself, is coupled with the message that girls should be (a) grateful for the attention, that (b) this behavior is “normal,” that (c) girls are the cause of boys’ misbehavior, and that (d) girls should be silent and accept this treatment.
These examples show how we confound desire and aggression and coercion so profoundly that our young people grow up believing that men are supposed to be sexually aggressive and not “take no for an answer,” while women are supposed to both welcome sexual attention and be blamed if their own boundaries are violated.
According to a study of 1,300 middle school students conducted by Dr. Dorothy Espelage of the University of Florida, 25% of girls had experienced verbal and physical sexual harassment. In a similar study of high schoolers, that percentage rose to 68%.
Is it any wonder that the percentage of women responding to #MeToo is 100%?
For young adults, sexual harassment and sexual violence are linked to depression, eating disorders, problems in school, and problems with friends. In adults, sexual harassment and sexual violence are a huge part of why women continue to be at a disadvantage in the workplace.
If we, as writers, educators, and parents who value young people, want to make a real difference in the lives of girls and young women, we need to educate ourselves about rape culture (book list below) and make a commitment to calling out instances of rape culture as it affects young people.
This means having hard conversations about everything from the lack of consent depicted in story of Sleeping Beauty to the current wave of actors, musicians, and politicians being outed as sexual predators thanks to the #MeToo movement. We need to be talking about these things with all our young people—boys and girls alike—if we are going to deconstruct the toxic effects of rape culture and move toward true gender equity.
Resources for learning about rape culture
Asking for It: The Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It by Kate Harding, Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2015. In-depth research into present day rape culture.
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakaue, Doubleday, 2015. An incisive case study of rape culture on a college campus.
Yes Means Yes by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, Seal Press, 2008. An anthology that deconstructs rape culture and proposes new paradigms for respecting women’s sexual autonomy.
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, Haymarket Books, 2015. A collection of essays including one that responds to the #YesAllWomen hashtag and sexual aggression toward women.
Hey, Shorty! by Girls for Gender Equity, Joanne Smith, Meghan Huppuch, and Mandy Van Deven, Feminist Press, 2011. A guide to combating sexual harassment and violence in schools and on the streets.
Slut by Katie Cappiello and Meg McInerney, Feminist Press, 2015. A play and guidebook for combating sexism and sexual violence.
P.S. I am currently writing a nonfiction book for tween and teen readers about rape culture, which will be traditionally published in Spring of 2019. More details as soon as I am able to share them. You can follow me on Twitter at @amberjkeyser or sign up for my newsletters at www.amberjkeyser.com if you want to be in the loop.