Books Aren’t Enough to Challenge Rape Culture

By Sarah Rose Silverman

Illustrator: Franziska Barczyk

I felt a lurch in my stomach. Did one of my beloved students just say that?

“It was partially Melinda’s fault. She shouldn’t have been drinking. She needs to take responsibility.”

We were in the middle of our English 10 unit on Speak, a young adult novel by Laurie Halse Anderson. Underneath the main character Melinda’s seemingly normal high school struggles is a horrifying incident — she is raped by another student and then ostracized by nearly the entire school. Much of the story is about her mental health as she grapples with her trauma, coupled with a lack of support from her friends, teachers, and parents. The novel is called Speak because of Melinda’s struggle to speak out about her experience, and the way society abets this horrible silence.

A few other students joined in, agreeing that Melinda bore all or at least some responsibility for the abominable assault against her. I asked, shaken, “Does anyone else want to respond or push back on these comments?” No one spoke. 

In the height of the #MeToo movement, I selected Speak as a whole-class read to develop understanding and empathy around the problem of sexual assault in the United States. I wanted students to learn the importance of speaking out against rape culture, a culture that normalizes sexual violence and disparages and impugns survivors of misconduct and assault. 

However, in this moment, I felt the burning shame of my own silence, my ill-timed realization that I was not emotionally ready or pedagogically equipped to respond to my students’ misunderstandings.

On my commutes home, I regularly recorded weekly unit reflections using an app on my phone. After the lesson, my words and feelings erupted the minute I slammed my car door shut. The next day, I prepared some notes, steadied myself, and explained to my students why blaming Melinda for her own rape was harmful and inaccurate. They listened dutifully, but I felt haunted that I’d missed my window to disrupt their misconceptions. The energy from that initial discussion still hung in the air, a musty smell that permeated the classroom culture, like damp in a basement.

The following year, I resolved to try again. Though painful to relisten to my recordings, it lit a fire in me to redesign the unit. It quickly became clear that Speak, despite its powerful message, was not enough for students to think critically about a topic so sensitive, complex, and deeply entrenched in our culture. I needed to provide resources and opportunities for students to accurately engage with the issues within — not just to eliminate misunderstandings, but to provide them with the tools to grow their empathy and sharpen their ability to disrupt and speak out against rape culture. 

“We, as a Society, Silence Women”

This time, before we started reading Speak, I asked students to grapple with victim blaming, the wrongful idea that a victim is responsible for the perpetrator’s actions. 

I projected art by Kat Ellis that portrays a woman with a hand covering her mouth and a multitude of questions scrawled under the title “#Why I Didn’t Report” (such as “What were you wearing?” “You never said no,” and “Why now? After all these years?”). The energy changed as students transfixed on this powerful focal point in a dark classroom, began whispering to one another. “Using this image, hypothesize a definition of victim blaming in your notebook,” I instructed. “I’m using the word ‘hypothesize’ because I want you to make an educated guess, rather than worrying about the exact definition.” The writing timer went off after three minutes. “OK, let’s begin. What do you notice?”

“Well, this is English class,” said Frankie. “It’s clearly a metaphor. The hand is supposed to represent the way we, as a society, silence women. And it’s pretty powerful to see the hand. It looks strong. Her eyes look wide, in fear.”

“The phrase ‘You’re being dramatic’ stood out to me,” responded Daniela. “I feel like girls get told this a lot, even when they have a serious problem, and they’re upset about it. To add to what Frankie said, saying someone is dramatic when they’re hurt is also a way to silence someone or make them feel like their feelings don’t matter.”

“I noticed the hashtag at the top first,” added Mark. “I think the artist is trying to explain why people who get assaulted don’t say what happened to them.”

Turning to Mark, Greg said, “Yeah, social media is a big part of this. A lot of girls were using hashtags like #MeToo to show that it happens all the time.”

Although Ellis’ art certainly engaged my students in initial conversations about victim-blaming language, I own that I did not consider the way race was portrayed in this image with a light-skinned woman and a darker hand representing the perpetrator. Students did not say that they noticed this either. 

As I planned this unit and continue to reflect on it, I must recognize that my identity as a white woman, teaching a book written by a white woman, about a young white girl, to a racially diverse group of students, matters. I needed (though sometimes failed, such as the case with Ellis’ artwork) to create opportunities for students to think about the ways race intersects with rape culture: How does race inform who is believed? Who is given news coverage? Who is (and isn’t) held accountable?

I taught this unit during the hearing of Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court justice who was accused of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford. I asked students to contrast this with the experiences of Anita Hill, the Black woman and attorney who worked under Clarence Thomas. Thomas was accused of sexually harassing Hill in the early 1990s and was narrowly confirmed to the Supreme Court; Anita Hill was forced to resign from her job and demonized in the press. Students interacted with curated images and clips of the Kavanaugh and Thomas hearings. I asked students to write about and discuss what they noticed about race, how they felt watching these clips, and what questions came up. And in the next iteration of my unit, I will ask students what they notice about race in Ellis’ artwork and choose art that centers experiences of people of color, such as Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” a mural series that addresses gender-based street harassment. 

An enduring understanding of this unit must be that no injustice, including racism and rape culture, is siloed.

Storytelling Matters

To further understand victim blaming, we also watched Franchesca Ramsey discuss its psychological roots in the YouTube series Decoded. Ramsey explains that “the just world hypothesis” is the basis of victim blaming; it’s the belief that the world is morally fair and leans toward justice. It reinforces victim blaming because it ascribes morality and responsibility to victims’ behaviors, giving one the sense that they got what they “deserve.” After all, the world is just. 

Especially important in an English class, the video calls attention to language — how stories are told directly impacts the way people perceive responsibility. Ramsey points out a 2016 study where participants were told crime narratives. The initial version of the story was told focusing on Lisa, ending with “Lisa was assaulted by Dan.” When participants heard this passive voice version with Lisa as subject, they victim-blamed her by hyper-focusing on how she could have prevented the assault. In the second version, the story was told focusing on the perpetrator’s actions: “Dan assaulted Lisa.” By simply changing the wording to focus on Dan’s behavior, participants were more likely to hold him responsible and less likely to victim-blame Lisa. Not only does this teach students to hold perpetrators accountable, it also reminds them of the importance of language and power, two big concepts we discuss all year. Who writes or controls a narrative? Whose perspectives might be silenced or missing?

After watching the video, I asked, “Where else might we see the concept of victim blaming in society — particularly focusing on the victim’s behavior rather than the perpetrator’s behavior?” 

Maria’s hand immediately shot up, and she blurted out “Dress codes!” Several others in the class nodded and murmured “mmhmms” could be heard throughout the room.

“Say more about that,” I responded.

“Well, when you look at dress codes, you always see rules meant for just girls,” said Maria. “The length of our shirts or skirts, no spaghetti straps.” She gesticulated wildly, pointing to her own clothing. “Stuff like that. It’s always put on girls to not be distracting, instead of talking to boys about how to treat girls.”

Frankie furrowed their brow and leaned forward. “Also, girls aren’t the only ones who wear skirts,” they replied, their voice rising. “Sometimes trans kids get told our clothes are distracting, too. Like, learn about gender instead of blaming us!” The class erupted in reactions. 

Layering Our Understanding

Shortly after we began reading Speak, students read Shaila Dewan’s article “She Didn’t Fight Back: Five (Misguided) Reasons People Doubt Sexual Misconduct Victims” in small groups. Dewan disrupts key misconceptions of rape culture, particularly the idea that sexual assault or harassment survivors should act in certain ways, such as reporting the crime, fighting back, or disavowing their abuser. In fact, Dewan states that some of the behaviors we use to cast doubt on survivors “are the very hallmarks that experts say they would expect to see after a sexual assault. . . . Responses to trauma that are often viewed as evidence of unreliability, such as paralysis or an inability to recall timelines, have been shown by neurobiological research to be not only legitimate, but common.”

I asked the groups to stop at each subtitle to annotate using two questions: What is challenging your understanding of how survivors might act or behave? What applies to Speak? After 20 minutes, I asked groups to share with the whole class.

“I feel like I understand why this book is called Speak,” Mari said. “Victim blaming is showing me why people don’t always tell when they’re assaulted. If people are being made to feel that it’s their fault, why would they?”

“I feel like I had it wrong this whole time,” shared Greg, a student who often modeled vulnerability as he spoke openly about his learning. “In my head, it seemed simple how you should react if this happened to you. If something bad happens, fight back. Tell somebody. But it’s like, a lot more complicated than that. Trauma makes people not always act in the ways we think they should.”

My heart nearly exploded listening to the conversation. Grappling with these concepts before we got too deep into the text seemed to radically change how students viewed Melinda. Students seemed more curious and empathetic toward her behavior and more critical of the characters who lacked compassion and awareness. Just as importantly, I was inspired by students’ willingness to interrogate their beliefs and reflect on their responsibility to disrupt victim blaming in their own lives.

During my initial Speak unit I had allowed my assumptions about what students knew and wanted to know about the problem of sexual assault guide the curriculum. As I taught the redesigned unit, I wanted to give my new students the opportunity to brainstorm and share their own questions. 

After a few moments of awkward silence, Greg started the discussion: “How common are false rape reports? I’ve heard that this can happen a lot, and as a guy, it makes me worried.” Other boys nodded enthusiastically.

“Yeah, and if people experience sexual assault, I still don’t get why people don’t report it if it really happened!” added Abelardo. He shrugged. “I would if it were me.”

“I feel like this is happening constantly,” said Daniela. “How often does it really happen? And does it just happen to women?”

Using their questions, I created a gallery walk to address them using infographics and statistics from Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), and specific prompts for students to consider as they looked at the data. 

For example, several infographics related to the “who” and “how many.” Many students expressed outrage after learning that about 60,000 children experience sexual assault each year, and that 93 percent of the perpetrators are known to the victims. I overheard Justine responding to Abelardo, remarking, “I guess that’s why some people don’t fight back. They’re kids, even younger than us. They might be afraid to talk about it or not sure how.”

Several of the artifacts challenged students’ narrow stereotypes of survivors: One presented specific groups that can experience sexual assault, such as people in prison and in the military, as well as those who experience it at disproportionate rates, like Indigenous and trans people. Naomi curiously turned to her group: “I wonder why.” Their voices rose as they talked about the ways people pushed to the margins are made vulnerable.

Another artifact was an interview with Laurie Halse Anderson about her autobiography with similar content, Shout. Anderson’s interview gave students a different window into Speak, to see it as both a social and a personal issue, rather than a fictional one. The next time I teach this unit, I will include quotes highlighting women of color who also wrote memoirs about their experiences, including Unbound by Tarana Burke (founder of the #MeToo movement), Know My Name by Chanel Miller, and Jacqueline Keeler’s article about the #MeToo movement and Indigenous communities.

Finally, I included some artifacts about our justice systems to help students think about the reality that rape is underreported and that perpetrators rarely face consequences. A powerful RAINN infographic caught many of the students’ eyes. “Out of 1,000 sexual assaults, only 25 perpetrators will receive a prison sentence?” Bree looked at me with her eyes wide. “25!?”

I walked Greg over to the poster with statistics that revealed false rape reports are extremely rare, estimated as low as 5 to 7 percent

He paused and looked back at the poster. “It makes me think it’s not as much of a problem as I thought it was. And it’s not even close to being as bad as the problem of sexual assault.”

Inviting Complexity Through Debriefing

After the gallery walk, I projected some questions: “Let’s take a moment to reflect. What was new learning? What challenged you? What feelings came up?”

I gave students a few minutes to jot down ideas before asking some to share out loud. 

“To be honest, I was really surprised that men and boys experience sexual assault.” Abelardo leaned over his table, straining to read the artifact hanging on the wall. “Millions of men! Three percent of men! Why doesn’t anyone talk about this?”

Zahir brought up the concept of masculinity. “Men are supposed to be the strong ones in our society. Telling someone you were raped or reporting this — I feel like men see that as a weakness or not ‘manly.’ It makes them feel ashamed, so they don’t want to talk about it.” 

“OK, I’m just pissed that so few people face consequences for their actions. It makes me furious!” exclaimed Bree. 

“How could that idea impact the number of people who report?” I responded.

“Well, if you don’t believe anyone will face justice, why would you put yourself through all of that?” Justine questioned. “The number of people who report sexual assault is probably way less than the number of people who actually experience it.”

“Yes, and, we might think about how different identities could further connect to mistrust of the justice system,” I added. “Besides being a sexual assault survivor, what other identities might make someone mistrustful toward our justice system? Take a moment to talk with your table.”

As I went around and listened to groups, race came up most frequently. I heard students talking about police brutality and unfair sentencing, particularly for Black and Latine people, as a pre-existing social problem that sowed fear, mistrust, and doubt toward the courts and the police. I repeated a more specific version of the question to help students develop more ideas. “What about things like gender identity, sexual orientation, class, or citizenship? How could those things complicate folks’ relationships with the justice system, in addition to race?”

Abelardo called out enthusiastically before I could let students turn and talk again. “It’s true. I know people who are undocumented, and they would never go to the police, even if they were a victim of a crime. They’re scared and worried they could be deported.”

“How could that link back to your earlier question about why people might not report?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” Abelardo murmured. “They’re afraid,” he responded quietly.

During the debrief, students could question and criticize our society, respond to each other’s thinking, and affirm their feelings. While this activity increased students’ empathy and accuracy with respect to Melinda’s story, they also were able to have a more nuanced discussion of how our complex and intersectional identities produce different experiences and outcomes for people going through the same experience as Melinda.

In Preparation for Teaching Speak

Before engaging with a text that evokes trauma, a positive classroom community must already be formed and norms should be co-created guiding students how to behave, discuss, and support one another throughout a sensitive unit. Whatever we teach, we must assume that students in our classrooms have had similar experiences.

To prepare students to engage with Speak, I provided space to name emotions that could arise and how we could support one another through them. In one activity, student groups listed emotions (using a feelings wheel to encourage specificity) on chart paper that might come up while talking about sexual assault. Seeing similar words written across all the charts — including anxiety, sadness, anger, discomfort, disgust, numbness — normalized and validated diverse emotional reactions. After looking at each chart, I prompted students to discuss: What are the roots of these feelings? Why might different people experience this unit differently? These discussions asked students to recognize and affirm how their peers might be impacted differently during the unit and helped them consider how to be supportive and sensitive with their words and actions.

Lastly, I knew I needed to empower students with the resources and support available to them. I invited our school’s social workers and psychologists to speak to my classes so that students would know the names, faces, room locations, and emails of our mental health support team. They addressed to whom and how students could report instances of sexual harassment, assault, or rape; and how they support students’ mental health. This was one of the most powerful teaching moves I ever made, and I continue to share this information with my students, no matter what we are reading. Beyond having my support as their teacher, I want the young people in my care to know what other help, advocacy, and resources are available to them.

Books Aren’t Enough

Despite being published in 1999 when I was 13, Speak remains infuriatingly relevant more than two decades later. In end of unit reflections, students shared over and over that they appreciated the opportunity to be more informed about how rape culture manifests in our society, and what we can do about it.

Reteaching Speak helped me realize that compelling, relevant books are not a panacea to address injustice. Speak, on its own, was not enough to disrupt rape culture in my classroom. In tandem with powerful books, students need other resources to help them make sense of difficult and painful topics, topics often rife with misunderstandings and oversimplifications. And they need facilitated opportunities to speak their truths, reflect, ask questions, and apply this knowledge and context to the books they read. 

My work is not simply to put books in students’ hands, but to provide them with the guidance, resources, and tools to discover the life-changing, world-shaking lessons within.


ACLU: “Celebrate Women’s Suffrage, but Don’t Whitewash the Movement’s Racism”

An op-ed by Professor Tammy L. Brown gives a brief overview of white feminism and how many of the movement’s most well-known activists and protests excluded Black women.

Feelings Wheel

This feelings wheel helps students consider the diverse, specific emotions that may be present during conversations about sexual assault.

MTV Decoded: “How to Stop Victim Blaming”

Franchesca Ramsey teaches viewers about the psychology and language of victim blaming, and how to stop doing it.

NPR: “Teaching High School Students About Sexual Assault Through Literature”

An NPR interview with high school English teacher Eric Devine and Speak author Laurie Halse Anderson discussing how to teach about sexual assault.

NYT: “She Didn’t Fight Back: Five (Misguided) Reasons People Doubt Sexual Misconduct Victims”

Shaila Dewan exposes myths and helps students think about how trauma and power impact survivors.

RAINN: Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network

Statistics can help students better understand who is most impacted and how this issue intersects with the criminal justice system.

Yes! Magazine: “Why Reading Sherman Alexie Was Never Enough”

Jacqueline Keeler, a Native American writer and activist, explains how sexual violence disproportionately impacts Indigenous women and how this issue intersects with the publishing industry.

Sarah Rose Silverman (she/her, is an English teacher in a public high school in Westchester County, New York. She has taught English and history in public, private, and charter schools for the last 13 years.

Illustrator Franziska Barczyk’s work can be seen at