Why I Wrote a YA Novel About Sexual Assault

When I was fourteen, one of my best friends, Tim Coyne (not his real name), decided it would be fun to start punching me in the chest—not once, not twice, but every time he saw me. He’d greet me and be friendly, he’d tell a joke or two, and then, out of the blue, wham, right in my newly formed breasts.

I don’t know why Tim started doing this. It hurt like hell, but I never complained about it. Not to him, or my parents, or teachers. Not to anyone. I accepted it as normal. Boys will be boys. At 14, I had already learned that lesson.

During my first day in the dining hall as an 18-year-old college freshman, I came out of the kitchen holding a tray of food and looked out into a sea of unfamiliar faces. Was I dressed right? Was my hair wrong? Could everyone tell how nervous I was? Then I heard the murmuring. And the snide laughter. And this: “Nah, her tits are too small.” And finally this: “I’m not into those thighs.” It came from a table to my left. A dozen large, male students, upperclassmen, were staring at me, evaluating my assets—loudly, aggressively. They wanted me to hear them. They wanted me to know exactly what they thought of me. I was an object. An inadequate object for which they had contempt and lust in equal measure. They were the football team and this was how they entertained themselves. 

I was never sexually assaulted in college. But some of my friends were. Not by invading monsters from outside the campus gates: They were raped by their friends. One of these young women, a sweet-natured, gregarious 17-year-old, kept waking up in unfamiliar boys’ dorm rooms, naked, not knowing how she got there; not knowing, she told me one day, whether she was still a virgin. I’d seen her at some of these parties. I’d watched her drinking with our friends. Did they turn on her? Did they cooperate with each other to assault her? 

In one of my English classes, a freshman boy raised his hand to share his view that Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire “deserved to be raped” because she’d been flirting with Stanley Kowalski. Notice he didn’t say that it wasn’t rape. It was. But it was good rape. The kind that puts a woman in her place. One day in the campus bookstore I saw a male student wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with this: Enough of this shit. Down on your knees, bitch.

Other girls laughed it off, or played along. It was the price of dating, the cost of having a social life. Not me. I was earnest, straightforward, incapable of the kind of sophistication you needed to pretend something was okay when it wasn’t, to laugh at a boy’s joke if it wasn’t funny. 

When I was 20, I spent a summer backpacking around Europe. By then, I was wary, street smart; I knew better than to let my guard down. But one day, thoroughly exhausted, I fell asleep on a train heading to Madrid. I woke up to find a strange man’s hand wandering up my skirt. I kicked and slapped him, grabbed my backpack and ran to another car.

Never once did it occur to me to report him. By then, I knew the drill” Women were prey; men would prey on us. This was the way of the world.  

I graduated. I moved to New York. I went to grad school for a while. I worked in the film industry. I made amazing friends and dated a string of wonderful men. I was awake and aware, but I wasn’t diminished by my knowledge of sexual politics. In fact, I was thriving. Then the president of the film studio I worked for called me into his office.

The director of the film I’d just produced had been spreading vicious lies about me, namely that I had slept my way into the job of producer. This ugly rumor made its way through the entire crew, all the way to the president of the company. And just like that, I was thrust back in time—to that moment as a 14-year-old girl, wondering why Tim Coyne was punching me; to the dining hall, holding my tray while a clutch of football players bullied me.

Only I wasn’t a nervous teenager any more. Now I was a 30-year-old professional woman. A respected industry insider. It shouldn’t have been so easy to smear me. I should have earned some kind of immunity to that. All the hard work. The long hours.

Hadn’t I earned the right to be taken seriously? Why wasn’t this director afraid of angering me? He wasn’t. He paid no price at all. And I was expected to roll with it. Boys, as I knew all too well, will be boys.

When I began writing Send Pics, I wanted to describe what it felt like to be a young woman at the mercy of rumor and violence. Because of the tenuous calculus of teenage morals, a girl’s status rests not merely on her own choices and behavior, but on whatever people say about her—true or untrue.

When I was a teenager, the rumor mill was analog, organic. You heard something in the hallway and you passed it on. You wrote little notes to each other. The modern technological version is different in some ways, but it works on the same principle. You trade on each other’s reputations, building your own identity in large part based on what you say about your peers. Nowhere is this more boldly illustrated than in the phenomenon of slut-shaming. 

While researching Send Pics, I came across the chilling story of Amber Wyatt, a 17-year-old girl who was raped by two male friends in a shed not far from the party they’d all been attending. Amber went to the police: semen samples were collected, bruises and cuts consistent with rape identified. But despite overwhelming evidence collected at the scene of the crime, and despite the fact that the boys’ stories were inconsistent and amply disproved by other kids at the party, the district attorney declined to pursue the case. The boys were never even charged. 

That’s when Amber’s nightmare truly began. At school, rumors circulated that Amber had recanted her story. She hadn’t. Her peers, and their parents, rallied around the accused boys, both varsity athletes. A campaign of abuse and harassment against Amber unfolded online and in real life. Kids began writing the word FAITH on their cars. It stood for F— Amber In Three Holes. 

Amber left school before graduating.  

Her case is extreme, but it is not singular. Rape culture. Toxic masculinity. The bizarre exaltation of teen boy athletes. All of these things have been with us since I was a teen. They have been critiqued and dissected. After our Take Back The Night marches, Slutwalks, Women’s Marches, even after #MeToo, boys are still getting away with rape while their victims are smeared and run out of town. 

How do you navigate such a brutal terrain when you’re at the beginning of your own sexual education?

In Send Pics, high school freshman Nikki Petronzio is sexually assaulted by her friend, Tarkin Shaw, a junior varsity wrestler. Shaw lies about the incident, telling whoever will listen that Nikki threw herself at him and he turned her down. It’s the springboard for Shaw’s reputation as a player, a ladies’ man, a legend. It becomes the defining rumor of Nikki’s life, too—as a desperate, rejected slut.

Nikki responds to this by going underground, sheltering with her small circle of tight friends who believe her and have her back. Shaw’s reputation as a stud continues to grow over the years. Periodic accusations of rape and assault brush off of him the way they brushed off of Amber Wyatt’s attackers. Then, senior year, Shaw, now the varsity wrestling captain and an all-state champion, tries his hand at a new type of assault: sexploitation.

His victim is Nikki’s best friend, Suze Tilman, the new girl in town, someone so cool, so worldly, no one but Nikki and her tight cluster of pals have been able to get close to her. Shaw slips Rohypnol into Suze’s drink at a party, drags her into a weight room in the basement then takes nude photos of her. Later he threatens to publish the photos online unless she agrees to have sex with him.

Suze may be experienced and worldly, and she’s not ashamed of her own body. But even for someone as liberated and sex-positive as Suze, the prospect of these nude photos being published online is horrifying. Once something is out there, it’s out there for good. So she fights back. Enlisting the help of Marcus Daubney and DeShawn Hill, two intelligent misfits, Suze conspires to destroy the photos before they can harm her.

As events unfold, Suze, Nikki, Marcus and DeShawn will learn the hazards of fighting the Tarkin Shaws of the world. It doesn’t matter that Shaw is the guilty one. A culture of misogyny, slut shaming and toxic masculinity will rally itself to protect Shaw and his friends. Nikki, Suze and their friends won’t win by being right. They may not win at all. But, in the end, they’re determined to hold each other up—or, at the very least, to go down fighting together.

Send Pics is a story of outrage and compassion, of unimaginable betrayal and enduring loyalty. It reflects teens’ reality today—sexting, online bullying, sexploitation and the proliferation of easily-accessible pornography have heightened the stakes for young people coming of age as sexual beings.

I want this book to be a rallying cry. It’s the book I wish I’d read when I was 14 and hurt by Tim Coyne’s bizarre violence, or when I was 18 and humiliated by a gang of sexual bullies in the dining hall. It’s a book I would have liked to have given my friend who didn’t know if she was still a virgin. (She was, of course. Rape is not sex. But I didn’t have the language to say this, or the maturity even to understand it. This is the terrible gap that a good book can fill.)

When I was learning how to become a woman, I was on my own. Eventually, I found my way to books like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room. They opened my eyes to the invisible forces that were making me feel bad about myself. They taught me about patriarchy. But they were already vintage by the time I read them, historical documents about women from my mother’s and grandmother’s generations, and they concerned women at a later stage in life than I was in, women working and starting families.

I was still a teenager, and when I tried to share my newfound interest in feminism with my peers, they weren’t interested. To them, feminism was “women’s lib,” a tired, defeated holdover from the seventies, of women burning bras and hating men. This was the eighties. The backlash had begun. 

Feminism survived those backlash years. It’s alive and thriving today, particularly among teens, who are a lot more politically vocal and savvy than we were. But there is another backlash to face down: the dudebro backlash, the incel backlash, the sexploitation backlash. Today’s teen boys are requesting—and in many cases demanding—nude photos from teen girls, then using those photos against them. Many of the boys who engage in this behavior do so openly, with bravado, celebrating their brand of misogyny on websites and in chat rooms with like-minded men and boys. 

I wrote Send Pics to explore the devastating impact of toxic masculinity on teen girls, not just the vulnerable sensitive ones, but even the alpha girls, the cool girls, like Suze Tilman. Discovering that your body can be dominated and exploited is one of the hardest lessons a girl will ever learn. But if it’s learned within the proper framework and narrative, I believe it can be an empowering rather than a diminishing experience. The right book at the right time can have a potent impact. I know this from experience. 

I also wanted to explore what it means to be a young man in this challenging environment, for they too are the victims of toxic masculinity. Compassion and empathy are too often derided in boys who instead are encouraged to burnish their masculine credentials through cruelty and misogyny. Marcus and DeShawn, who are misfits even before being thrust into Suze Tilman’s nightmare, represent a different vision of masculinity. Empathy is their superpower and, in this story, they’re able to deploy it to heroic effect. They’re not her knights in shining armor. They’re her allies, her equals.

If I’d found a book like this when I was a teenager, I wouldn’t have felt so alone. It would have helped me face the terrible realization that life is sometimes cruel and unfair for girls. I could have faced that with a sense of companionship and camaraderie.

I wrote this book for the scared and lonely girl I used to be, and for every girl now facing that same dark epiphany. I wrote it for every boy chafing against the sneering demands of toxic masculinity, clinging to that softness that is so tragically mistaken for weakness. 

I wrote it for Amber Wyatt.


Lauren McLaughlin is the author of five novels—"Cycler," "(Re)Cycler," "Scored," "The Free" and "Send Pics"—and the children’s pictures books "Wonderful You" and "Mitzi Tulane Preschool Detective."'