Frisky Q&A: Speak Author Laurie Halse Anderson On RAINN, Rape Culture & Consent

laurie halse anderson

Every year, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, when many of us participate in Take Back The Night speak-outs and marches to raise awareness about sexual violence in our communities. This year, the beloved young adult novelist Laurie Halse Anderson has thrown her support behind a fundraiser for the Rape Abuse And Incest National Network (RAINN), one of the main resources in our country for survivors of sexual violence.

Anderson is the author of Speak, a YA novel about 16-year-old Melinda Sordino, who is raped by a classmate at a house party the summer before 9th grade. Melinda calls 911, and the police break up the party, but she runs before she can tell anyone about the assault. When school begins, Melinda is shunned by her former friends for getting kids in trouble. Eventually, she stops talking almost entirely, grows isolated from her parents and tanks her schoolwork.

But Melinda is also mentored by a fellow outcast, an art teacher. She is able to name what happened to her and find her voice again. Published in 1999 and sadly still relevant in post-Steubenville, Speak explores the post-traumatic stress disorder that survivors suffer after an assault, but also the social ostracization of victims of sexual violence instead of perpetrators.

Throughout April, donations for RAINN will be matched dollar-for-dollar by Speak‘s publisher, Macmillan, in honor of the book’s 15th birthday. I called Laurie Halse Anderson this week and we spoke about the success of her best-selling book, teaching consent to teens, and recent controversial statements made by the president of RAINN about how “rape culture” doesn’t exist. Our conversation begins, after the jump!

The Frisky: I read Speak when I was a teenager and then I reread it about a year ago now that I’m a grownup, and it’s still such a meaningful book. How does it feel to have written a novel that is still so resonant after all these years?

Laurie Halse Anderson: You know, it’s really hard to make sense out of any of the success of the book. I never thought the book would be published in the first place, so the fact that it has been and that it keeps on speaking to people — over and over again sometimes, because I’ve heard from other people too who go back and reread it when they get to a new part of their life. If you’re in 10th grade right now, you were probably born the year Speak came out and it’s emboldening in a lovely way that the book still has something to share with people. I’m a really lucky girl.

How do you think it would be different if you wrote a book about a teenager’s sexual assault today? Because now every teenager has a cellphone, Facebook, Snapchat …

Yeah, that would obviously have to be a part of it. It’s funny, I wrote a book that came out in 2007 called Twisted, and it’s a guy’s story, and part of the story has to do with pictures taken of a girl whose clothes were taken off after a party when she was passed out. He did not do this, but he was accused of doing it, so I touched on that a little bit. Of course, if Speak was being written today there would be no alternative but to bring up the technology. Maybe that’s why Speak is continuing to be read, because the technology gets outdated so quickly, and without the technology there at all, somehow that book has not gotten as dated as I might have feared at one point.

Tell me about the fundraiser that Macmillan is doing for RAINN.

Macmillan is just made of awesome! So, when Speak was first published, it was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux which at that point was a very small, traditional publishing house that didn’t do paperbacks. So, they licensed the paperback publication to Penguin, which had a license for 10 years. By the time that license had expired, that’s when the original paperback rights go back to the original publisher. Farrar, Straus and Giroux had been purchased in the meantime by Macmillan. So Macmillan had me down to their office and said “We’re really excited to have Speak back in-house, and what can we do that’s going to make this awesome?” [So] I talked to them about how important RAINN had become to me over the years because it’s the resource that I always share with survivors of sexual assault. I talk to thousands of people every year who’ve been through this and I, years ago, needed a national organization that I could hand a hotline number out to people instead of having to try to find the closest domestic violence agency in any person’s area of the country.

So Macmillan got totally onboard with it and they contacted RAINN, and we decided to do a bunch of different kinds of fundraisers to bring awareness of RAINN up and try to raise some money for the important work that they do. I’m just so honored that! People like to talk a lot of trash about the publishing world sometimes, but my experiences have been pretty good, and this is a great example of the kind of things that people in publishing like to do.

So throughout the month of April, Macmillan is matching donations to RAINN dollar-for-dollar

They’re doing up to a $15,000 matching donation. [And] for example, I’m packing right now to go to Texas for the Texas Library Association Conference, which is one of the biggest state library conferences every year and Macmillan is hosting a fancy dessert that’s also a fundraiser for RAINN. They’re giving out books as “thank yous” to donors and putting a lot of energy into it.

You said that you’re contacted by thousands of people a year who are looking for help after they were the victims of sexual assault or an attempted sexual assault. What do you do in that situation? 

Well, first [I] make sure that somebody is physically safe. That’s first and foremost, because you never know where somebody is in their life or when this happened. Sometimes they don’t give all those details.

The second is to help that person understand that it was not their fault. When you are the victim of a crime you are not at fault, and that they deserve a lot of support and attention and love. RAINN is such an excellent resource to be able to send people to because they have trained hotline volunteers. They’ve counseled about a million and a half assault survivors since they’ve been open. That’s a lot of people. Then they can just listen … [S]ometimes people want advice about contacting the police or they’re afraid that they’re going to see this person again; every experience is deeply personal.  Obviously I’m not a counselor, I’m not a specialist, but I wrote a book that somehow people connect to and so it’s my responsibility to try to find a good place for these folks to go so they can start speaking up.

Is it difficult for you at all to get contacted by so many sexual assault survivors? On The Frisky, I write a lot about having depression, and I get lots of emails from people, especially women, are who experiencing it and asking for help or guidance. On one hand, I’m very happy that I can be there and let them know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. But at the same time, it can be heavy to be exposed to other people’s pain so frequently. And the topics people contact you about — rape, incest — are especially heavy. How could you not get sad about the state of world when you hear so frequently from survivors?

Yeah. First and foremost, you know, they say in the airplane, put the air mask on yourself first before you help the person sitting next to you. You have to be really protective of your spirit, I think. The book’s been out for 15 years, so I’ve met a lot of people and I think that something that strengthens me is that I’ve heard from people who have then contacted me again after they’ve gotten better and dealt with what they had to deal with. While it can be very depressing and horrifying sometimes, to know that the book has already made somebody feel less alone, that kind of balances everything out, so it’s good.

Have you noticed the tenor of any of the letters or emails you’ve gotten from survivors over the years have changed? Like what were were talking about earlier, in terms of everyone being on social media now? 

That’s a good question. It’s interesting because when people used to write letters, which they don’t do very much anymore, in some ways they felt a little bit more personal because, you know, people’s handwriting is different and the choice of the pen or paper they use sometimes carried its own hint of personality. Over the internet I tend to get a lot of these connections from readers via Tumblr and Twitter, and Facebook to a lesser extent. It’s typewritten stuff on a screen, so that’s not quite as personal. I think the horrifying thing that has changed is now, with the Internet in everybody’s lives, I’m beginning to hear stories of the kind of cyberbullying and harrassment that can go on and just be so damaging after a sexual assault and that just makes you want to start hitting people.

Are you familiar with some of the controversy recently about some of the statements that RAINN made about rape culture?

Oh, yeah.

So what do you think about that? I realize you aren’t an employee of RAINN, but what are your thoughts about what was recently said about the non-existence of ‘rape culture’? Specifically it was said that sexual assaults are “not caused by cultural factors, but by the conscious decisions of a very small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.” Obviously, so many feminists and anti-violence activists thought that was preposterous. 

This was the president of RAINN, Scott Berkowitz, who made that statement. I believe it was in a letter that was part of a policy suggestion to a White House commission. I spoke to Scott about it this morning, as a matter of fact, because I think he’s wrong. I told him it’s not a zero-sum game. It’s not that we either go after rapists or go after rape culture. I think the reason we have so many people sexually assaulting people is because they know they can get away with it or they feel they can get away with it, and that’s part of rape culture.I think the thing to say is that RAINN and I are in ongoing discussions about this, I’m hoping that this is a really teachable moment and we can use it to start educating about some new things.

If you’re a woman in America, you’re afraid often when you go in public places. I’ve never met a woman who hasn’t at some point in her life been groped, had a stranger come and touch her body. I think one of the biggest issues that we’re dealing with as a country is [educating people that] rape is a crime. To peel the word “sexual” off “assault,” it’s an assault. And obviously, everybody in America has sympathy for people who are victims of assault. You get mugged, somebody burglarizes your house and you get beat up in the process, you would only have an outpouring of sympathy and empathy. And yet, because we’re so freaked out about sex in American culture, when it’s a sexual assault, people don’t know how to respond and bad guys have taken advantage of our inability to speak openly and honestly about human sexuality.

I’m very heartened by discussions of rape culture.If we’re all having this giant national conversation, I would love to see people start discussing concrete, constructive ways that they can change rape culture. I think when you’re discussing it, it’s really important to acknowledge that a lot of men are allies. A lot of guys —especially guys that I’ve met under the age of 40 — a lot of them were raised by single moms or they just grew up in a world where there’s a lot more emotional equality between men and women, and so they’re just as outraged as most women are by rape culture and the horrifying things that bad guys do. So, you want to be careful not to demonize all men or all one kind of person, but … the whole point of my book is about speaking up.

You can’t make things better unless you speak up about them, so to summarize, I have a strong difference of opinion with the president of RAINN about this but I still completely support their mission. They do the important work, the life-saving work of helping victims speak up and become survivors better than any organization in the U.S., so we’ll keep working on it.

Beyond your own book are there other pop culture resources, any books or movies, that you think handle sexual assault or incest or rape well?

Yeah, that’s a fascinating question. I’m the wrong person to ask! It’s probably because I was raped just before 9th grade started, which was where the seeds of this book began. My assault was very different from the one in the book, but my emotional truth of not speaking up is in the book. I actually didn’t speak up for 25 years, so I cannot read books that have this in them. It brings up a lot of hard stuff for me, and for the same reason I don’t go after movies where [sexual assault is] a big issue.

I think that makes a lot of sense. Is there anything that you think I haven’t touched on that’s important to talk about?

I think that I would love to see us continue the conversation about consent. This is one of the exciting things that has developed in the last — I’d say, from my perspective, three years — we’re finally, instead of just saying “don’t rape” or “don’t have sex” or unrealistic things like that, we have to finally start teaching our kids “well, this is how you have sex and before you have sex, you have to have a conversation about having sex.” I used to do a lot of school visits back in the day — and much to my children’s horror I became known as that lady who will come to your high school and talk about sex — and I would tell audiences of teenagers, “If the thought of having a conversation with your partner about sex like ‘how are we going to prevent STDs and pregnancies?’, if the thought of having that conversation makes your stomach tie up in knots, there’s nothing wrong with that. Your body is just sending you a clear signal that you’re not ready to have sex with this person yet.” Because if you can’t talk about it — and I’m talking about a sober conversation with your clothes on, preferably separated from each other with a table. McDonald’s is a great place to have this conversation, right? [laughs]

So now we’re starting to see sex ed curriculum and more conversation in the media, because parents are the ones who have to figure out how to screw their courage to the sticking point and be adults and have the hard adult conversation with their sons and their daughters that you don’t have sex with somebody unless you’ve had an honest, sober conversation about it every time. Consent has to be given enthusiastically every time. So I think that moving away from the finger-wagging, old days approach to just a kind of calm conversation about “these are the rules — before you have sex with somebody, you have to be sober and you have to talk about it.”

And the other side that I would like to see a lot more conversation about is making it really clear, particularly to teenage and college-aged men, what the legal consequences [of sexual assault] are. When there was the Steubenville case, and two guys from that team were found guilty, as they should have been, somebody on CNN said “Those poor boys, their whole lives are going to be ruined!” and I almost went to through the television screen. That’s just … I mean you want to talk about rape culture, there’s rape culture right there. So I would like to see more conversation about [the law] … a lot of guys don’t know. I’ve always been shocked by the number of teenage boys that I’ve met if I’m speaking in an English class or something, who A) don’t know the definition of rape, B) don’t know that if they have sex with a girl who’s high or drunk they could be charged for raping her even if she agreed because she couldn’t make an informed decision if she wasn’t sober, and they don’t know what the laws in their state are. They don’t know that they are committing a crime that could get them locked up for 15 years.

I agree with you about existence of rape culture, of course. But I actually think feminists are making a huge impact on the mainstream culture. People who try to dismiss or joke about sexual assault will get called out. I just turned 30, and from the beginning to the end of my 20s, I feel as if I’ve even sort of seen the change happening. I’m certainly not saying sex positivity is everywhere or that people are as informed as they should be, but I definitely think that millennials are way more compassionate and curious and have answers to their at their fingertips on the Internet. It takes a lot of the mystery and the scariness out of sex which I think is like how all of this stuff was able to flourish in the first place.

In the darkness, and when people didn’t talk about things, absolutely. I’m glad to see that you’re seeing things move in a positive direction, too, because I am. We’re getting there, one step at a time.

Learn more about Laurie Halse Anderson, including her new book The Impossible Knife Of Memory, at MadWomanInTheForest.com.

You can learn more and find resources for sexual assault survivors on the Rape And Incest Action Network web site at RAINN.org. You can donate to RAINN.org here and all your funds will be matched by the publishing house Macmillan. 

Email me at Jessica@TheFrisky.com. Follow me on Twitter.

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