With the #MeToo movement bringing sexual violence to the forefront of public discussion, isn’t it time we consider the impact of the movement on literature? Prior to the explosion of the Me Too movement several different books addressing the thorny issue of sexual assault were gaining attention. Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing and Hanya Yanaghara’s A Little Life, released in 2013 and 2014 respectively, have garnered particular notice in recent years, with both rising to the status of a ‘modern classic’. One of the common threads linking these two texts is that they not only depict characters experiencing and coming to terms with sexual assault, but that the main characters both take their own lives. However, in the wake of the Me Too movement new statistics that demonstrate how common experiences of sexual assault really are might suggest that authors should be very careful when choosing to discuss such a difficult topic.
Statistics from the 2017 Crime Survey of England and Wales suggest that one in five women and around 4% of men in England and Wales have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16; and roughly 31% of women aged 18-34, according to an NSPCC report in 2011, reported that they had experienced some kind of sexual abuse during childhood. Given how common these experiences are, should we be changing the way we discuss sexual assault? And where does literature stand in this discussion?
At a recent event at the University of York, a prominent academic stated that after reading A Girl is a Half-formed Thing they experienced such extreme anger that the nameless heroine is depicted as committing suicide at the end of the novel. Given that millions of people in the UK continue to live with the effects of sexual violence, this anger is perfectly understandable. Afterall, where is the narrative depicting the continued possibilities of life after sexual assault? Perhaps A Little Life achieves this feeling of possibility more fully, with one of the main characters, Jude, managing at times to work past the trauma and abuse he experienced as a child towards a more contented adult life. However, he is never fully able to free himself from the grip of his past and ultimately he ends his life in order to escape from the pain of his past and the continued struggle of his present.
The movement Me Too has shone a light on how common the experience of sexual violence really is. To thousands of readers struggling to come to terms with this experience it is potentially a great comfort for them to see their experiences put into words. However, these novels also have the power to damage readers and slow the process of recovery. Amid this greater awareness around sexual violence, isn’t it time that the literary world starts to consider its power in this discussion more seriously? The world is full of survivors, and their voices deserve to be heard.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org.