Teaching High School Students About Sexual Assault Through Literature

Sep 30, 2018
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We talk about sexual assault in the news because of the Kavanaugh hearings at the moment but, sadly, other stories. A lot of people may be thinking about the best way to talk about that sensitive issue with younger people. It can be a difficult conversation. And this is where I should probably mention that the conversation we're about to have might include issues that are sensitive or uncomfortable for some people. But our next guests have been thinking about issues of sexuality, consent and assault involving younger people for some time now. Laurie Halse Anderson wrote a book called "Speak" almost 20 years ago. It's about a teenage girl who is raped by a teenaged boy and about what happens to both of their lives afterwards. The book has been taught in high schools and colleges since then.

Eric Devine has taught that book. He is an author and an English teacher just outside of Albany, N.Y. He's taught middle school and high school English for the past 16 years. Eric Devine, thank you so much for joining us. Laurie Halse Anderson, thank you so much for joining us.

ERIC DEVINE: Glad to be here.

LAURIE HALSE ANDERSON: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Now, Eric, I'm going to start with you because you came to our attention because you wrote a blog post in 2014 about your experience teaching Ms. Anderson's book, "Speak," to your class of high school freshmen and their reactions to it. Were - I don't know how else to put it. They were stunning to you. Tell us about it.

DEVINE: Yes. Stunning was definitely the feeling I had. So at the end of the book, the kids were discussing the feelings and sensibilities about the book. And I kept hearing within the groups this use of the term responsibility. And as I listened a little more closely, it was obvious to me that they were assigning blame for the rape. And I didn't quite understand what I was hearing. So I asked them to clarify and put up on the board pie charts that indicated the level of blame that would be associated with the rape. And it boiled down to almost a 50-50 split between the victim and the perpetrator, which I could not understand.

And with that information, I went to our school social worker, and we devised a panel of students to speak about sexual violence. The older kids talked to the younger kids at a really good Q&A. I thought all was great. And then, at the end of the year, I had a bunch of boys joking about the fact that - hey, you know, make sure, you know, you don't get drunk this summer. And if you see a drunk girl, don't have sex with her because, you know, you could be accused of rape. And it felt as if I had just failed as an educator.

MARTIN: Why'd you think that you'd failed?

DEVINE: I mean, I - God, I thought I'd gotten the message across, right? I thought we had - really had a good conversation about consent. And the fact that, you know, when we walked away from it, they still didn't get that idea and were making jokes about it and kind of, you know, just going back to that stereotypical can of boys-will-be-boys mindset, I didn't do the job.

MARTIN: So, Laurie Anderson, I'm going to turn to you now. What do you make of the reaction that his students had?

ANDERSON: Eric's story doesn't surprise me. What surprised me 20 years ago when I started to visit classrooms was the question I was getting from boys over and over again, which was - they were confused that the girl was so upset. They really had, and they continued to not have any information about how being raped affects the victim. And they don't see themselves as rapists. One of the mistakes we make is to frame a rapist as the bad guy with a gun, you know, in the bushes. About three-quarters of sexual assaults are committed by acquaintances. When you look at kids under 18, that percentage goes even higher to 93 percent.

So there's this huge disconnect - when parents frame stranger danger, you know, and the bad guy, then a lot of teenage boys, of course, are not going to put themselves in that frame there. I'm a good guy, right?

MARTIN: Eric Devine, what about you? Have you observed any difference in how the boys are responding to the work in recent years?

DEVINE: I mean, there is more reception in terms of listening to it and maybe trying to understand the long-term ramifications. But seeing themselves, you know, in that mirror still doesn't quite exist.

MARTIN: Laurie Anderson, what about you? What do you think would make a difference? And, here, I would love to know why you decided to write this book to begin with.

ANDERSON: When I was 13 years old, I was raped by a boy a few weeks before ninth grade started, and I didn't tell my parents. I didn't tell anybody for 25 years. The circumstances of my attack were different from the circumstances in the book "Speak." But that book holds my emotional truth, the pain, and the trauma, the depression and the struggle to try to figure out how to talk about this thing that nobody in my world ever talked about. And I think that's the key. I think we have to understand that communication is how we solve this problem.

When parents don't talk to their kids throughout their childhood about sexuality the way they talk about exercise, the way they talk about breakfast, that behavior of not communicating is in itself sending the message that we don't talk about this. This is shameful silent thing. And I know it's scary, sometimes, as a parent to figure out those words because our parents didn't talk to us about it. But you model what consent looks like when you open your mouth and you start talking.

MARTIN: Well, first, let me just say I'm sorry that happened to you. And I also want to say, again, thank you for your work. I think it's meant a very great deal to many, many people. So, Eric, before we let you go, you mentioned in your blog post that you were so upset by that assignment that year and how the students reacted to it that you actually stopped teaching "Speak" for a while afterwards. Are you teaching it again?

DEVINE: I took a year off. And then, I did go back to it. Sadly, I didn't wait for that to come up, the assignment of blame. But I also was just afraid to hear it again. I currently have eighth-grade students, and I already see the kind of ways things begin. Girls in groups dealing with a boy who's just being goofy, just being a jerk. And they'll say, oh, that's just so-and-so being so-and-so. And I'll say to them, you don't have to put up with that. You don't have to just simply say he gets a pass - right? - you have rights here. And that's kind of where it begins. It doesn't have to be so much even just about sexuality first. But it's about that concept of consent and girls having that voice and not feeling they need to be passive or please anyone.

So as much as I struggled with teaching "Speak" just because of that one encounter, it has informed a lot of my choices in how I frame things and talk to kids on an individual level, both boys and girls, to understand that, you know, rights are rights, and, you know, we all have them. And no one's getting a pass here.

MARTIN: That's Eric Devine. He's an author and an English teacher. He joined us from member station WAMC in Albany. We're also joined by Laurie Halse Anderson. She's the author of "Speak" and other critically acclaimed books for young adults, and she was kind enough to join us from Denver. Laurie Halse Anderson, Eric Devine, thank you both so much for talking with us.

DEVINE: Thank you.

ANDERSON: Thank you for the chance. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.