A few days ago I got the pleasure of talking with my dear Lucy A. McLaren, author of a Child’s Awakening, first book of the Commune series, which will be published in 2022 at SFWP. You can already pre-order it here!
We both are very invested in topics like rape culture, feminism & toxic relationships within YA fiction. It was a delightful and very instructive session. You can watch the video above and/or read the transcript below. I hope you enjoy!
A Discussion of Rape Culture and Toxic Relationships within YA Fiction
Lucy: Okay! So, here we are. So, hi, erm. So, we’ll start with introductions then. Cindy, I’m going to hand over to you to introduce yourself first.
Cindy: First of all, hello to everyone who is going to listen to our chat. I’m Cindy van Wilder, I’m a Belgian writer—as you can hear, pardon my French as you say. I’m a young adult writer. I’ve written about a dozen novels all in French. Sorry, but none is available yet in English. But I’m working on it. And I’ve met Lucy through Twitter when she was looking for a CP reader, a beta reader and from this time on we are getting on like erm… how do you say? Match on fire? Something like this.
L: House on fire
C: House on fire!
L: Yeah. Erm, yeah thanks Cindy, yeah. So, yeah, we did on meet on Twitter, which is erm… I think it was like two, two years ago now. Something like that.
C: Oh, a bit more, I think.
L: Maybe three?
C: Bit longer. Yeah, three years ago. Time flies.
L: I don’t know, time is a blur. But anyway, yeah, so I’m Lucy McLaren. I am also a young adult writer. No releases yet but my debut book is coming out, er, May next year—2022. So it’s a fantasy book called A Child’s Awakening and is part of the reason why we’re here today, talking about… I guess, how would you sum it up? Like, rape culture? And all that, everything that comes into that really wide category. Erm, but, so if I, kind of, specifically go into then what’s brought me into this, and then you can feel free to add your own stuff Cindy but, erm, for me, in A Child’s Awakening, my book… So, it’s a multi-perspective book but one of the characters, Evelyn, erm, so she’s 18 years old and what is part of her backstory, erm, is a rape that she experienced. And I know, I know I’ve seen, kind of, criticism of rape being included in stories that we’ve read, and that I’ve read as well, erm, in terms of, like, “oh, why does there have to be a rape for a woman to find herself?” kind of thing. And I was really conscious of that writing this and wanted to make sure that’s not what this is. For me, I wanted to include it because I feel so strongly about, you know, stuff like the fact that rape culture is even a thing. Things like the MeToo movement, erm, so I created this backstory for her because I wanted to explore that within the story that I was writing. So, it’s a fantasy setting but we’re looking at contemporary issues really. Erm, and as you, kind of, read on in the story, er, it becomes clear that she was treated very badly after her rape, like, not believed, and that’s something that happens way too much in our culture.
L: Erm, like, a shocking amount—sorry, go on.
C: Yeah, erm, I will just interrupt you just one moment because, er, I had the privilege to read this book and it’s a wonderful book, really, it’s a wonderful series.
L: Thank you.
C: And, er, I’m very much looking forward to the release in 2022. And in the meantime, I recommend you all to really pre-order this book and to get behind Lucy, who is a wonderful writer. Speaking about the rape of Evelyn, of your character, I do think you have very consciously and in a very sensitive way avoided the bias, the cliché you were talking about, according to which only sexual abuse or abuse in a general way makes a female character stronger for the story. There’s a real reason behind Evelyn’s development as a character, and the fact that she was raped earlier in the story, uh, that you really mention it bit by bit in the back story of your book does bring a really important image for her and for the story you are bringing to life in this book. Of course, maybe, I am partial to it because I love your story so much.
L: Thank you.
C: And I love your characters, especially Evelyn and many others who we might mention later in our chat. But, yeah, I do think as a reader, as a writer, it was a very consciously written so as to avoid this particular cliché.
L: Yeah. Yeah, I appreciate that because that was, kind of, at the back of my mind, like, yeah, I’ve seen criticisms of rape origin stories, er, being a thing for female characters and, erm… because I’m, kind of, interested in it from the mental health perspective as well and I try and explore the trauma side of things with Evelyn insofar as looking at the impact this experience had on her when it happened, then the impact that it still has on her, the fact that, a, she was raped, b, she wasn’t believed, and how that continues to, kind of, colour her actions and, you know, her inner thoughts and all that kind of thing. And it’s, it’s kind of through the relationship that she develops with Raif, who is one of the other main characters in the story, erm… He’s one of the first people that believes her and shows her that, erm, actually not everyone is going to disbelieve you when this kind of thing happens to you. And it’s that kind of thing that helps her start processing what happened and working through the trauma. But, yeah, I mean, as I say, from a mental health perspective, it was important to try and be as sensitive as possible, erm, because I’m a counsellor as well, I do work with–
C: Yeah, you do have some experience.
C: Some professional experience.
L: Exactly. Erm, working with teenagers and young children, erm, so it’s, kind of, taking on board my personal experiences, personal experiences of people that I know, clients that I’ve worked with. Taking into account theories that I’ve studied within counselling and stuff like that. So, I’ve tried to bring all this into the story that I’m telling.
C: And it shows, really, it shows.
L: Thank you, yeah, I appreciate that because it’s just… it’s hard trying to take so many different things on board, erm… Yeah, but it’s just, it’s one of things that I really felt was important to include.
C: It was, really, really. I do think, er, we need to have more stories, and especially young adult stories, showing that trauma is not just a pretext to make the character stronger, but that it can be a real topic to discuss in our stories and especially when we are writing for teenagers and young adults.
L: Yeah, I totally agree because, I think, that age group in particular can be, er, very… can be vulnerable, can be open to, um… what is the word I’m looking for? My mind has gone blank.
C: Uh, maybe, um, more open to discussion—
L: Yeah, it’s important.
C: …on this particular topic because their ideas might not be set.
L: Mm, yeah.
C: Erm, but not be set in stone as more of the adults are, and, uh, if we can lead them into questioning all they think they know about these topics, such as mental health in general, or abuse in a very specific way.
C: I think this is, kind of, our responsibility as young adult writers to do this, yeah.
L: Yeah, I think so. And, I guess, you know, we said at the beginning we’re talking about rape culture but it’s, kind of, a wider subject than that in terms of, like you said there, abuse. We’ve both kind of spoken about previously the idea that in young adult fiction there can be problematic depictions of what I would deem abusive relationships, right? Toxic relationships. I don’t want to name any names, but I’ve certainly been shocked–
C: We won’t.
L: Yeah, I’m not here to judge anyone specifically.
L: But I have seen stories that are very popular, erm—
L: And been absolutely shocked at, at, like, at the content and the way that this glamorisation of really toxic, unhealthy relationships, erm, that include abuse, gaslighting, just all this kind of stuff that’s very problematic, erm, and it’s a bit scary really, I think.
C: Er, I think it’s very scary, actually. Especially in, uh, in stories intended for such an audience.
C: For such a young audience. And the fact that we, that those kind of stories are such successful and they are, kind of, allowed to be published without any prior explanation, without any, um, I don’t want to say some validity stamp, but some discussion beforehand. I think it’s very problematic.
C: Okay, uh, things are changing. They are changing quite slowly, we know that, but they are changing all the same in the publishing world—
C: –and that’s a very good thing because, um, I’ve been reading young for more than ten years now. Yeah, more than ten years, we are going to say that. Not talking about age here. But, erm, I do remember that in earlier days, when young adult was making such a break in bookstores and, uh, libraries and so on, people were eager to get their hands on the newest, sort of, the latest successful book–
C: –in that age category. And in this craze for young adult, we, I think we have forgotten to examine what was really being published at this time. I don’t say that there are no longer problematic books in the young adult world, of course there are. But in earlier days with my readers experience, I do think we, uh, have not examined really consciously and deeply what was being published at this time.
C: And this topic of abusive relationships and gaslighting and rape culture, uh, was so prevalent in some books. This was really, really scary at the time. And, yeah, with a bit of, uh, background, reflecting of what I read some years ago, I was really shocked when I thought about it.
C: You know, we won’t mention the titles, but uh…
L: No, I can think of some examples though. Same here, ones that I read when I was late teens, early twenties, erm, so about ten years ago as well.
L: Bit longer. But, kind of, revisiting those now, yeah, and you think, oh, uh, okay, actually that was really popular at the time but… okay, that’s, that’s some very questionable things now. And I think you’re right about the fact that things are changing very slowly. But there’s kind of, you know, there’s a subset of authors, I think, who are very conscious of the issues that have come before and want to, kind of, fight against them and make sure that’s not going to continue on in the stories they’re writing. Us included, because we’re obviously trying to be conscious of these issues and not include them in our stories. But I think there are still really popular books being published, um, that are very problematic, like you say, and it is, it is scary. Erm, because, I mean, if we think about it in terms of, you know, going back to the rape culture, and the fact that… I personally believe you can link this glamorisation of toxic relationships and rape culture, they kind of, in a way, go hand-in-hand because there’s that myth of, oh, people are raped by strangers walking home alone in the dark at night. That’s not the case, you know, it’s usually someone that is known to the victim.
C: Yeah. And… I’m sorry, but this cliché is so, so, so widely spread in our media and entertainment. And, erm, when I was, yeah, when I was a child–and I’m nearing forty now–but when I was a child and still a teenager, uh, the main idea of rape victims were woman alone in the dark, meeting a stranger and getting assaulted for it.
L: Mmhm, yep.
C: And we know now that it does reflect at all the reality of what rape is.
L: Mmhm. No.
C: And how rape is committed. And a French journalist who is named Giulia Fois has written a book called “The Good Rape”, literally it’s called “The Good Rape” because she was attacked by a stranger at night in a parking lot and her story was believed.
C: And it led to a conviction. While so many stories of rape victims–
C: –are not believed and they do not lead to a conviction because it does not fit, uh–
C: –the stereotype about rape.
C: And this is really shocking to see how it’s still going on in our society right now.
C: And when you see the conviction rate for rape, for crime related to rape.
L: Oh, it’s- yeah. Mm.
C: It’s only, I don’t know, I’ve seen… it’s less than 6%.
L: Uh, 5.7% of recorded rape cases end in a conviction for the perpetrator.* And that’s of reported cases, you know, that’s not, not everyone who is raped reports it because of these low conviction rates. Because you’ve gone through the trauma of this horrific thing being done to you and then the fact that the conviction rates are so low, going through, kind of, essentially what is a potentially retraumatising experience: disclosing what happened to you to the police, having to be physically examined, all of these things that come with reporting it to the police.
C: And being not believed for it.
L: And you think, what’s the- if the chance of them being convicted is 5.7%–
L: It’s, uh, it is, it is shocking.
C: It’s like you have to endure a second time what has happened to you.
C: And you’ve got a reaction just in front of you who is being already negative. Negative because, uh, there is discussion still going round, especially in France, because police officers have been told, uh, they do not, they do not listen really in a very sensitive way–
C: –we are going to put it like this, to rape victims. And this leads to a serious, um, to serious harm for these victims, but also to a really, really low rate of conviction–
C: –also in France and in Belgium. It’s, it’s so widespread in our culture. That, um, somehow rape victims are getting the blame for this.
L: Yeah. Um, just looking at a quote here, “A third of people believe women who flirt are partially responsible for being raped.”**
L: And I know, you, you, uh, sent me a few bits before our chat today about, um, the fact that people are, erm, say things like, “Oh, she shouldn’t dress like that.” “Some girls are just asking for it.”
L: Um, “She led him on.” All this kind of stuff it, it really is, it is so common to hear that, um, and that victim blaming mentality is really, really, is almost like a knee-jerk reaction, I think, for some people. Because, maybe, I don’t know, the greater implications of what’s- the fact that rape culture is so prevalent, maybe that’s scary to really examine. Maybe people don’t want to examine that because–
C: No, no. They really… I think that some people are still, um, very much reluctant to examine this, as you say, because if we start exploring rape culture and its consequences in our society, uh, where does that lead us?
C: It does leave us with a kind of, um, of story which does not fit what we have been told about rape and rape victims.
C: It tells us the story that it can happen to anyone, anywhere and regardless of age, race or, of course, social class.
C: And it leads to many embarrassing questions, to many scary questions, and we don’t want… I don’t know, I think that we have a kind of, um, instinctive reaction to this that, do we really want to explore what, uh- why our society produce so much rapists and produce so much of rape culture, and why we have been surrounded with this at such a, a… in our childhood. Why?
C: Really ask us some very scary questions.
L: Yeah, um, because it brings to mind… there’s a theory, um, in psychology called Cognitive Dissonance Theory, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. But basically, it says that if some information is presented to someone, they kind of respond to it in one of three ways. Either they’ll take it on board and change their own viewpoint accordingly, um, they’ll completely disregard it because it doesn’t fit in with their point of view, so they’ll say, “Oh, no, I’m just going to ignore that.” Or they’ll twist it to fit into how they see things. So I think we see a lot of those second two, either ignoring it or twisting it somehow where people will either just not look, not look at those statistics, not take on board the, the stories of survivors, or they’ll say, “Oh, well, you were out. You were drunk. Why did you walk home on your own? Why didn’t you get a taxi? Why didn’t you do all these things to prevent this from happening to you?” So, yeah, I think, um, it’s sometimes easier for people to, to respond in that way than examine the real implications of it. Of the fact that this happens and, um–
C: Of course.
L: –it, uh, it’s really horrifying. Um, so I guess we could, kind of, look on to your own, if you don’t mind talking about your own project here, because I know this is the reason why we’re talking about it today, it’s something that we’re both very passionate about.
C: Yeah, I think that’s showing in our chat.
L: Yep, uhuh. Erm, and the fact that we both, kind of, are wanting to include these kind of themes, an exploration of them within our storytelling. Um, now obviously you’ve, like you said earlier, you’ve got your book published in French but you’re working on, um, English language stories as well, right?
C: Yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. I’m working on it because, um, yeah I’m working as a translator, first of all, and second of all, second reason, I was always very interested in, um, making a break in the English-speaking market so, yeah. I, uh, I’ve got on with this project which is called Rose Girls.
C: And it’s a young adult mystery. It’s set in a dystopian world where women are divided between “good girls” and the others. And, in fact, it is, um… they are selected at birth because in this world, when a little girl is born with a rose, really, a rose-like mark on her forehead, which is called “the mark”. It means that they intended to become model wives and mothers–
C: –and for those born without this mark, they are sent directly beyond the wall, along with the Republic’s renegades. It’s kind of a motto “each woman in her place and all will be well.”
C: And, uh, my main character is Abigail, she’s seventeen and, fortunately for her, she is a Rose Girl. And, well, in her ignorance, she doesn’t know that an epidemic is spreading through the Republic—I know, it sounds familiar but, I promise, it was written before all this pandemic with the COVID and so on.
C: Sorry if it brings any trauma out, it wasn’t my intent. And, uh, an epidemic is spreading through the Republic, and it causes the mark to change on a woman’s skin. And she’s also unaware that a killer is preying on women, uh, who caught the disease, he considers them somehow as impure. They must be punished in his point of view. And, well, Abigail’s ignorance is shattered when she herself is assaulted. She miraculously survives but her eyes are opened to the reality of her society where she believed she was safe.
C: When her boyfriend is arrested and charged for assaulting her, she embarks on a quest to not only identify the true killer but also uncover the truth behind this disease. In order to do so, she must question everything she thought she knew. What if a woman’s future doesn’t depend on whether or not she has the mark on her skin? And what if she is free to do her own choices? That is quite the long pitch for this project, but I know, and as you know, that it has been a long time, it has been a long time in the making. I’ve toyed several times with these topics, um, in other stories and I think I have still to grow up, to, uh, to learn about these particular topics in order to be able to write Rose Girls now. So, yeah, fingers crossed that it will be as ready, as beautifully written in my mind as it would be in truth.
L: Mm. I’m sure it will be, you know I love your stories.
C: Thank you.
L: The way you write things and, yeah, I’m looking forward to reading it.
C: Thank you.
L: But what strikes me is, like, this idea of, um, like you were saying the Rose Girls are the “good girls” and they fit into this, um, what a woman should be, and you said if you… it’s, kind of, paralleled to our society in, like, okay, if a woman fits into all these, uh, categories, and acts in this specific way then you will not have this horrible, like, you won’t be raped. You won’t be sexually assaulted in any way because you’ll fit into this, uh, like, good girl, kind of, ideal. Um, but actually that’s not the case and it sounds like that’s the kind of thing you’re trying to say there. Actually, no that’s not a barrier against horrible things happening to you.
L: In an ideal world, that’s what people would have you believe but that is in no way how the world actually works. And I know you were doing a lot of research, weren’t you, when you were writing this, around rape culture.
C: It’s kind of reassuring, you know, that, uh, we have this kind of idea of, um, if we behave, if we act, if we do this in some way then we won’t get raped.
C: Uhh, this really, this is an idea widely spread in our media and entertainment which are really policing the way we act, we dress, we speak and among others and to men specifically, because it’s always the idea of woman, of straight woman–
L: Yeah, exactly.
C: –talking, and which later got them into trouble.
L: Mmhm, yeah, we’re talking in very, kind of, gender normative terms here–
L: –but of course it’s, a person of any gender identity can be raped, um, and it’s… I think that’s something again people struggle to get their head around and, um, I think what comes to mind for me when I think of this kind of thing is, I don’t know what the percentage and I wish I’d looked it up, but I know that the percentage of perpetrators of rape is, erm, the majority is male are the perpetrators of rape.*** That is a statistic that cannot be denied, but a person of any gender can be raped–
L: And, you know, it’s, it’s just an issue that is so widespread, um–
C: Yeah, and it doesn’t happen always to, to women, or people identifying as women. And it was very important to me to, um, state this into Rose Girls because as a queer, non-binary person–
C: –I do think that gender biases really limit us into what we are able to think, what we are able to… how we are able to act as regards rape culture.
L: Mmhm. Yeah.
C: Yeah. And it doesn’t always, um, apply to, uh… Sorry, I’m going to start again. It doesn’t always happen to, to straight women and the culprits are not always straight men.
C: So it was very important to tell this and to say that, unfortunately, um, sexual assault can happen to anyone, anywhere and no matter the gender.
L: Yeah. Um, I think that is the key issue, it’s not, there’s no set, um, one type of person that can be a victim of this type of behaviour. Okay, so, I guess a way to round this off then would be, um, to think about how we, we think… how authors can, like, navigate this and prevent the perpetuation of this, the glamorised toxic relationship, the idea of rape culture and this kind of thing that all links together. How can we prevent that as writers from being perpetuated in, um, like young adult stories in particular because that’s what we write, but in stories in general? And I know you had some thoughts on this, kind of, what were your thoughts in terms of that? What do you think writers can do to prevent it?
C: I do think that as writers, um, writing for, for teenagers and young adults, I’ve already said that, uh, we have this responsibility, this kind of moral obligation to examine our work critically and in a really constructive way.
C: And it’s, it’s not only us who can do this work, but we are also, um… we must submit our work to external points of view.
C: Uhh, we, we have so many resources to help us with this kind of thing. We have beta readers, we have critique partners, we have sensitivity readers, especially important when we are talking about, uh, sensitive topics or when we are writing about minorities. And this is really important that we do this work because, uh, otherwise I do think we are letting down some, uh, the young people who might read our work.
L: Mm, yeah.
C: You know, and this is why I admire so much your work, really, because you’ve done so… You have prepared this so carefully and so… in a very sensitive way, not only because of your professional background, but also because you have, um, submitted your work, not only to critique partners like me but also to sensitivity readers and it is really something I applaud with both hands.
L: Thank you, yeah. I think I agree because, you know, I think, like you said, having outside eyes looking at your work can make all the difference.
L: Because sometimes you can become so blinkered as to your own writing, you don’t see issues, maybe, that someone else would point out. Which I totally found from having, you know, beta readers, critique partners, sensitivity readers, um, were really valuable. Um, I also think, kind of, educating yourself on the statistics—
C: Absolutely, yeah.
L: –like the kind of thing we’ve been talking about today. I’m going to put a link in to where I got my statistics from, which is Rape Crisis the UK, kind of, organisation that provides support for survivors of sexual assault and rape. But it’s, you know, there’s, kind of, education around trauma and the impact that can have, um… being aware of the toxic nature of relationships that have been seen in the media and have been really popular for whatever reason.
L: And being aware that, actually, that’s, that can be incredibly damaging. And that is not a safe way to portray a healthy relationship, because I, I, you know, as I mentioned earlier, and not to try and open another tangent here because I could talk about this for ages, but, you know, having worked with young people, I have had certain comments about, “Oh, I’m a real fan of this film on Netflix”–
L: –and I was like… that’s concerning, because you’re, like, 13 years old and that has a very toxic relationship portrayed in it.
L: And I found that very worrying. Erm, yeah, I just think awareness is kind of number one in this, and from that will come people doing research and trying to get their education and, basically, get rid of that filter of… would ignorance be the right word? I don’t know. Lack of awareness, whatever you want to call it that can really, like, colour how you see things. And, you know, personal experience, I have changed considerably since I was 18 years old.
L: I used to think certain things were okay and now, going back to them… nope, they’re not okay.
L: And, erm, I think once you have that awareness, you can’t switch it off. Like your brain just has that information now so you can’t ever—
C: No, you can’t go back to where you were.
C: And this is really a phase of, uh, of deconstruction.
C: And when you start it, you know that it’s going to have no end. It’s going to, to last all your life because it never really, um, it never really finishes.
L: No, absolutely.
C: But yeah… and you can’t see things the way you were seeing them before. It’s really helping. We can only improve if we accept this fact. And if we are talking, constantly talking to young people and listening to them.
C: And speaking of education, I’m going to mention at least one positive example–
C: –of a series which got, uh, worldwide success and it’s Sex Education.
L: Oh yeah.
C: Yeah, Sex Education on Netflix.
L: Yep, brilliant.
C: Yeah, I’m not going to, to mention that any further on this, but, really, when I was watching this show, and I was really, really glad that young people now are going to have such an example of how we can communicate with each other–
C: –about, um, yeah, sensitive topics.
C: About body image, about healthy relationships, about it’s not okay to accept something even if you love each other, even if you think you love the other and he or she, they, are posing something you don’t feel okay with this. And, uh, the very topic of sexual assault was mentioned in this series and I think it was very, um, sensitively done.
C: Uh, it could’ve been so, so scary and so problematic but they don’t mention it like this. They, they really sent out the message to all victims that we hear you, we see you and we believe you. And this is really, really important, not only for young people, but for all people watching this series and who have, might, unfortunately, have gone through this, er, very stage at some point in their life.
L: Mm, absolutely, 100% agree.
C: I had to, I had to mention Sex Education.
L: I think it’s great, yeah, I recommend it as well, it’s a brilliant series. And I think that’s a good note to end on because it is a positive and it is… that’s, I guess, what we’re also trying to do is to provide that message of: people are there to listen, there are people that will believe you and, you know, it’s okay to feel whatever you feel having gone through this, um, and it’s good that there is, there is this slowly growing awareness around this issue and media like that that is giving that message out. And I think that is really valuable. Yeah, and I think that’s a great place to end it because it, kind of, ends on that slight positive. We’re on an upward trajectory and we will get there.
C: We will get there but it’s a long, long, long way ahead of us.
C: Because there’s so much, uh, laying around which is very, very problematic, not only for straight women, but also for all kinds of people. When I think of people who are marginalised, uh, who belong to minorities and who are not… who are even less likely to be heard because of what they are, who they are, it’s, um, yep. It’s really heart-breaking, especially when you belong to one of these minorities.
L: Yeah, completely, yeah.
C: Believe for better for the future.
L: Yeah, we’re chipping away, right? That’s all we can do. That’s the aim, just get, get that awareness out there.
L: So, yeah, we will wrap up our chat here. So, thank you Cindy, it’s been a real interesting chat.
C: Thank you Lucy for the kind invitation.
L: You’re welcome. And I will speak to you again soon.
*Conviction rates for rape are far lower than other crimes, with only 5.7% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction for the perpetrator (Kelly, Lovett and Regan, A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases, 2005).
**A third of people believe women who flirt are partially responsible for being raped (Amnesty, 2005).
*** In the years ending March 2017 and March 2020 combined, the majority of victims who had experienced rape or assault by penetration since they were 16 years old reported that the perpetrator(s) were male (98%). https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/natureofsexualassaultbyrapeorpenetrationenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2020#perpetrator-characteristics