When we consider rape culture, football programs (and athletics generally) and student parties are often lightning rods for our scrutiny. Within school walls, advocates for change seek to update dress codes and sexual health education. All this is vital, but I am an English teacher, and I feel compelled to consider how the texts and approaches to literature I teach reinforce the same rape culture we are hoping to cast out from other areas of school. Despite my best efforts, I feel complicit in the perpetuation of toxic values.
For the past two years I have taught Romeo and Juliet, which opens with a series of rape jokes and toxic male bluster that leads shortly to an open brawl. Sampson, one of the two instigators, suggests that after beating the Montague men in combat, he will rape the Montague serving maids. He finds particular delight in the wordplay with “maidenheads’ to imply he might be raping virgins. The graphic novel I have used to supplement our text includes the visual flourish of Sampson flicking a cherry off a stem to add the euphemism of “popping a cherry.” I’m sure this scene was intended to be humorous on stage, but I can’t dismiss this language as mere “locker room banter,” to borrow the phrase of President Trump. Sampson and Gregory are dehumanizing their foes, and it is important to note that they imagine assaulting women with greater relish than they imagine fighting men.
My students are in middle school. The girls are 11–13 years old — the same age as Juliet. So when one female student exclaims “that’s statutory rape — she can’t marry Paris at her age,” I tell her she’s absolutely right. I also have to do my best to contextualize the values of the time to explain to students that adult roles were assumed by children at far younger ages than in society today, and that values of cultures evolve and change. By the end of the play, we discuss how different things really are today. Do women have more power and agency? Are young women safer today than they were in Shakespeare’s time? One of my favorite students was quick to make the connection between the control Lord Capulet commands over his daughter and current tropes on TV with dads threatening the lives of girls’ prom dates if they “get any ideas.” She has already identified that her worth is equated with property, and she’s livid.
The tragedy of Juliet is not of love, but rather of her determination to live and die according to the values of a society that does not value her. I try use the text to suggest the power we always have to reject traditions and the cultural values we inherit. I also teach students about iambic pentameter, allusions, similes, and other poetic devices, but I wish I didn’t have to also teach a text built around a young woman whose family ignores her rights to bodily autonomy and free will. Juliet might have been fated to die, but are we doomed to keep telling her story for the sake of explaining archaic rhyme scheme and meter? My students know what it means to be ignored. They are scared by the news, and they fear the society that awaits them. I just wish I could teach a text that offers something other than confirmation of these fears without providing alternatives.
I grapple with these issues with so many texts that I teach. Take a moment to consider our canonical texts. Begin with The Odyssey; many educators love to. We champion Odysseus as a master of wits and hero for all time, but he also rapes Circe at sword point, and when he finally returns home, he hangs his female servants who took up with the suitors courting Penelope in his absence. While some scholars might dispute this perspective, today we should recognize the imbalance of power between noblemen and female servants. Odysseus is a rapist who murders rape victims who offended his honor. Another favorite text is To Kill A Mockingbird, which ostensibly serves to combat racism (though I am skeptical of its efficacy), but it also provides a devastating example of a false rape accusation. With just those two texts, we are implicitly teaching students that men can be heroes despite their abuse of women, and women should not always be trusted. What does it mean for us to not only perpetuate rape culture, but to essentially teach rape?
Students often complain about how depressing our texts are. It was with dismay that I realized that almost all of the poems selected for my 8th graders at a former school were about death. Another colleague of mine reflected on her curriculum to realize that each of her texts ended in suicide. Our curriculum is saturated with stories of death and violence. If we investigate further, the violence is almost always gendered. Stories of violence involving men are war stories or stories in which the male character is a hero and an active participant. He has agency. More often than not, stories of violence involving women are stories of assault. The female characters are victims. Their role is often passive. I don’t believe the toll of these repeated messages on our students is being taken seriously enough.
Students in class are internalizing that these are the conflicts that shape characters, and we often build on this lesson to suggest that they will face similar situations in their lives. Presumably that is one of the purposes of our discipline — not only to teach language and the art of literature, but to study the human experience. Yet we focus almost exclusively on troubling narratives.
This is not the fault of any one teacher or department. This is a problem with our literary paradigm. We see value primarily in suffering. By extension, pain is art, but pleasure is pornography.
This is reinforced everywhere in our culture and media. Consider how many female actors have received Oscar nominations for their role as a rape victim. Yet how many actors have received nods for performances which involved consensual, pleasurable sexual encounters? I can’t think of a single one; those films are “chick flicks,” and unworthy of acclaim. Similarly, literary awards go to the dark stories of abuse and suffering, whereas stories of pleasure are mocked as smut for bored housewives and disparaged. We do not value the pleasure of women. We see the pain of women as an acceptable cost for art. Our students are learning these lessons every day, both within and without of our classrooms.
This is not a call to censor or ban what we are teaching. Our past is our past. History teachers cannot be expected to suddenly produce historical role-models who meet today’s standards; we have evolved, and that is a good thing. Similarly, there are few gems undiscovered from literary history. We have what we have. However, we do not have to let the past dictate our futures.
It is possible to have a sex-positive text that is neither explicit nor pornographic. Falling short of that, it is at least possible to teach a text that at least portrays active consent, or perhaps even just one healthy, mutually supportive relationship. If we can teach Lolita, surely we can incorporate just one text or two that shows communication between characters about desires and boundaries. These stories exist. The work in many ways has already been done for us — there are writers who have provided so many wonderful portrayals of nuanced characters negotiating relationships and identities.
Unfortunately, we dismiss these stories as “YA,” young adult literature that is not comparable to the venerated classics we champion. If only we could be as flexible and forward thinking as our librarians, who have quietly been reading and purchasing these books for our students. I fail to see the value in dismissing a text because it is accessible and students enjoy reading it. These stories combine vital subject matter with commendable literary style, and they have won awards for doing so. In addition to the Newberry and the Printz Awards, look for the Stonewall and Coretta Scott King Awards.
I would seek to go further. I would look to the future through science fiction and the imagined universes of fantasy. We are perfectly willing to teach dystopian fiction of primarily white, male authors (Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, etc.) but we are unwilling to take the same leap of imagination with contemporary women and people of color. So instead we indulge in these male fantasies of societies that have advanced in technology for transportation, communication, and more, but in which women are still primarily one-dimensional sex objects.
Whether it be out of laziness or some misplaced prejudice, we keep teaching the same texts and then bemoan the fact that our society continues to be plagued with the same evils.
I would give anything to be able to teach Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, which is set in the imagined West African nation of Orïsha. Yes, there is magic, but it is a vehicle to discuss race, power, and control. There are also questions of consent and permission explicitly discussed by characters who have the power to enter each others’ thoughts and dreams. In Leigh Barduggo’s many fantasy novels, almost all of her characters grapple with their shared traumas and work on navigating healthy communication and consent.
These stories belong in our classrooms. We have to be able to point to at least one text and say, “look — this is consent. This is important.” It is very much in vogue to pat ourselves on the back for seeking to cultivate empathy in our increasingly alienated society of strangers stranded on social media. Would it be so wrong to connect over a positive experience or a shared hope rather than just pain and suffering? Our students should hope for more for themselves than we are suggesting is possible with our bleak curricula. Most importantly, our students should know that their voice, the very essence of consent, matters. Who will teach them that if we do not?