teens

A rape survivor made it her mission to talk to teens about sexual assault. This is what she learned.

If you have experienced sexual violence, support is available 24 hours a day via 1800 RESPECT. Please call 1800 737 732 or visit the website to chat with a trained counsellor.

There are people who believe Laurie Halse Anderson’s first novel, Speak, doesn’t deserve a place on library shelves, that it should never find its way into the hands of the very people for whom it was written: teens. In 2010, a Missouri State University professor openly called for it to be banned from the curriculum of a local school district, and it remains on the American Library Associations list of most-challenged Young Adult novels.

But for what?

Speak, which this year turns 20 and is considered a classic of the genre, tells the story of Melinda, a 14-year-old girl who is raped by a senior at her high school. When she attempts to report the crime, the words catch in her throat. Over the following months, she talks less and less as the secret swells inside her, muffling her voice. Her silent suffering eases when she learns she is not alone; it’s through the stories of other girls that she’s empowered to speak.

Like all the best fiction, there is truth behind the words. A personal truth: Laurie’s own experience of rape as a 13-year-old. And a universal truth: that people learn, grow and draw strength from each other’s stories.

In the two decades since, the Pennsylvania woman has toured thousands of schools and spoken to thousands of teenagers around the world about those truths and listened to how they interpret them.

“When Speak was published, I was just going to talk about it as a piece of literature; I wasn’t going to talk about the reality of what lay behind it. But it became quite clear that if I was going to be a responsible adult, then I owed teenagers the truth,” Laurie told Mamamia. “So I began telling my story one school at a time. And I realised how important – literally lifesaving – it can be when responsible adults are honest about the hard things in life.”

Sadly, none of those school visits – not a single one – has passed without a student sharing their own truth, pulling Laurie aside to say they too have been assaulted, abused, violated. These stories are often whispered, sometime scrawled on a note slipped nervously into her hand. Most are tearful. Knowing how difficult it can be to speak up (it was 25 years before Laurie told a therapist that she was raped), she feels honoured they choose her to listen.

“I feel trusted and I feel like it’s a gift,” she said. “You know, I get to be a little bit of an auntie for a moment. But my job as a responsible person is to listen first and foremost, and then to help this young person find the adults in their community they can trust, the adults in their community who can help them. Because I’m not a professional psychiatrist, I’m not a police officer, but there’s always somebody in a child’s life they can talk to.”

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The fact that they are silent until that moment with a stranger speaks volumes, Laurie said.

“We’re not really great at being honest with our kids about human sexuality, healthy sexuality or any of these things. It makes it very, very difficult for them to speak up when there’s an attack, when they’ve been hurt. And it makes it almost impossible for the boys to ask questions; they’re just as lost as the girls are.”

What boys hear.

Over the years, Laurie has observed the main reactions boys have to her book. 1) They question whether what happened to Melinda was really rape (“she was drunk”, “she was dancing with the guy earlier that night”). 2) They question why two minutes of her life would affect her so deeply for so long.

“What it tells me is that parents are telling their kids that rapists are always strangers with a gun. And very few parents will look at their son and say, ‘Wow, I haven’t taught him about what the rules are’, because they simply don’t think that their kids are criminals,” she said.

“Also, for many teenage boys the only lesson they hear from their parents about sex is ‘don’t get a girl pregnant’ or ‘wear a condom, try not to get an STD’. So many of them are learning about sex by watching pornography on the internet, and an awful lot of internet porn has scenes of non-consensual sex.”

Laurie's new memoir, Shout. Image: Text Publishing.

But as Laurie has seen through her visits, boys are willing to see differently, they're willing to learn.

"You know, adolescence is that grey area where we want kids to begin to take responsibility for their actions. But in order for them to do that in an appropriate way we have to teach them the consequences of those actions. We have to teach them the rules," she said.

"They want to be the good guy, they want to be kind of the hero of the moment, they want to be there, to be the one that people will turn to. They don't want to be rude but they don't have many people - especially adult men - in their life talking to them about what that looks like to be a good guy and what it looks like to stand up for women."

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What boys need to hear. (Advice for parents.)

Laurie appreciates that with the #metoo movement, with the light being shone on crossed boundaries, that parents of boys are wary. They're wary of imparting the right messages, of raising good men, and sadly even of their boys being wrongfully accused.

The latter is undoubtedly awful - and there should be consequences - but thankfully, it's also rare. Studies indicate roughly two per cent of sexual assault claims turn out to be false.

The rest, Laurie argues, is about being open, clear and, yes, repetitive.

"The thing to remember is that it's not one conversation; it needs to be an ongoing conversation," she said. "In the same way that if your child is getting to the age where they're about to get their driver's license, you would never just talk to them about driving safely once. You would be the annoying parent who's always saying, 'look before you turn' or 'you're not braking properly'. Because you know the dangers involved."

She suggest that those ongoing conversations ought to include the proper names for parts of the body ("you can't talk about sex with your son unless you can say the word testicles and vagina without going red in the face"), what your expectations are of his behaviour before he has sex with somebody, and of course, consent.

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For Laurie, the message to get across about consent is that it needs to be "sober, ongoing, informed and enthusiastic". Alcohol and drugs are therefore another crucial part of the ongoing conversation.

"I say to them, 'If the thought of asking a potential partner if they want to have sex makes your stomach turn inside out, and so you're trying to get drunk, trying to get shitfaced, so you have the courage to to operate on that desire, [then wait]. Because if you can't ask that question sober, then you're just not ready to have sex with that person."

Her new book, Shout, part memoir part social commentary, delves into all this and more.

"Everybody deserves to be able to decide who gets to touch them, under what circumstances. That's one of the basic human needs, to be able to control what happens to your body and to be able to walk in the world without fear of being hurt. We know how devastating sexual violence can be. The amount of victims who have PTSD 20-30 years after their attacks is staggering. People change their careers. People drop out of college. People's lives can be permanently damaged and altered after act of sexual violence," she said.

"So I'm looking forward to the day where my books aren't required anymore, because we will have gone past this absurd nonsense. When we can't talk about sex in a healthy way, where people know what the rules are and so they don't walk around hurting people. I hope that someday my book will be a relic of the past."

1800 RESPECT (National Sexual Assault and Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service): 1800 737 732
Lifeline (crisis support): 13 11 14

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