Why Richard Swier’s Attack on Speak is Detrimental to Society

Parents at Laurel Nokomis Middle School in Sarasota, Florida became outraged when they learned their children were reading the child pornography book Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Speak is about a 13-year old being raped. –Dr. Richard Swier

I made a vow to myself when I started this blog that no matter what the temptation might be, I will not stray from the purpose this blog was original set up for. I have personal blogs to discuss politics, movies, and education outside of the reading spectrum, and as such I wanted to keep Bray and Books strictly about fostering the love of reading through interviews, book reviews, and video blogs all centered around books. It’s a relatively simple task for somebody such as myself, as I am very passionate about my reading (and hope to one day invoke a passion for reading in my students once I have students). Unfortunately, that resilience has been tested today, and I’ve allowed myself a pass into the world of politics on this blog because, in this case, the world of literacy and politics have clashed horrifically.

For those of you who haven’t read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (and if you haven’t, I highly recommend you do so as soon as possible), it is the story about a teenage girl named Melinda Sordino who is raped at a party just before she begins high school. The party ends with her ostracized in school and from her friends, with nobody knowing the inner turmoil she is experiencing as a result of her assault because she hasn’t told anybody it happened. She recedes inside of herself and refuses to speak all together. Throughout the book, she begins to realize the importance of her voice, and why she needs to speak up about her ordeal.

I won’t go into the importance of why this book is important for students to have at their disposal, especially when there are girls Melinda’s age who have experienced this type of abuse themselves. My sister blog Amanda (Amanda’s Nose in a Book) does an excellent job of doing this in a manner that leaves little more to be said on that subject. I suggest you check out her post about it, which I’ve linked to at the bottom of this article. She goes in-depth into the benefits of having this book in the curriculum for students.

Instead, I want to go into how labeling this book Child Pornography is detrimental to society as a whole, and perpetuates rape culture.

As I said before, Speak is about a rape. Plain and simple. The act is in no way glorified, or sexualized. The focus is on the devastating after effects of this heinous crime and what the victim goes through when she has to see her attacker every day at school. To label it pornography detracts from the crime committed and acts as though this is obscenity not for the fact that it’s violence against a woman, but because it dares to talk about sex. I want to make it very clear that I don’t believe that rape in itself is not obscene, but that labeling it pornography completely limits its obscenity to the same level as Playboy and Cinemax where the women are willing participants.

I know that there’s a chance here that people are going to come at me with the argument that it’s just semantics. Maybe it is. Maybe I’m nitpicking word choice because I’m angry that a fantastic book is being attacked and degraded and tossed to the banned books pile because some people are uncomfortable with the idea that teenagers aren’t stupid and know that this kind of stuff exists. Or maybe I’m reading this article in the wake of three girls being held prisoner by a man for over a decade, and a group of boys in Steubenville, Ohio raping a girl because she was “asking for it” by being drunk at a party. A teenage girl who, coincidentally, is young enough to have gone to school with Melinda Sordino if Melinda wasn’t fictional.

And that, my friends, is exactly why books like Speak are important. Somewhere along the lines rape culture evolved to the point that our teenagers are unsure of the boundaries anymore, and consent is a myth to entitle youth trolling parties. There are girls like Melinda out there who went to parties with their friends to celebrate their youth, the summer, school being out, somebody’s birthday, you-name-it, and became the next number to add to the growing statistic that we shake our heads sadly at and mutter “if only she had become a nun and locked herself away in her room instead of putting herself out there with her classmates.” Melinda is raped at a party with her friends in a situation that could easily be transposed into any high school in America, and her story brings this to light because it’s realistic, it happens, and it’s unapologetic for bringing this truth. Instead of focusing on this and trying to tackle the horrors that is rape culture, Richard Swier labels it pornography as if it’s that simple.

People like Swier and his supporters act upon these books the way they are because they want to shield their children from the horrors of adulthood, because they don’t believe that teenagers are ready for this content and they want to protect them. The problem is that by silencing books like Speak, they’re accomplishing the opposite. If you continuously hide what rape is, teenagers–and the world–becomes convinced that rape is only the media-played caricature of a stranger stalking his victim and violently forcing himself upon her. Then teenage boys don’t realize that taking advantage of the girl at the party who’s intoxicated is considered sexual assault, and the girls don’t realize that just because you knew him, doesn’t mean it wasn’t rape.


Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak gives hope to many teens and adults- Amanda’s Nose Stuck in a Book
Really? Again? SPEAK labelled pornography- Laurie Halse Anderson
Poll: Florida Middle School students reading child pornography- Dr. Richard Swier


Filed under Miscellaneous, The Politics of Books

19 responses to “Why Richard Swier’s Attack on Speak is Detrimental to Society

  1. Thanks for reading and commenting on this important issue. As the trial of Mr. Castro, the man who kidnapped and raped three underaged girls, approaches a dialogue on rape is much needed. The issue is does Speak help or hurt the efforts to make rapists stop raping or does it just add fuel to the fire.

    Your theme does my classifying Speak as child pornography detrimental to society. May I suggest that it is rape that is detrimental to society. Dr. Judith Reisman has written extensively on the harm caused by “soft porn” books like speak have on society. I would suggest you visit her website and learn more about why Speak is bad for society. Here is the link: http://www.drjudithreisman.org/. Her seminal book “Sexual Sabotage” is a must read on how our society was fundamentally changed by one man – Dr. Alfred Kinsey – whose faulty research is still quoted today to justify books like Speak.

    I welcome dialogue as rape is becoming more common especially among our youth, who commit about one-fifth of all rapes. Today in our military there are more men raped by men than women raped by men. Why is that? It is because of people who believe that its going to happen anyway so lets prepare the children for the consequences. This is a false and dangerous narrative.

    Lets start a discussion about rape. Here are two columns that you may want to read and comment on:



    Let the dialogue begin!

    • I don’t see how the two have to be mutually exclusive. This isn’t an instance where you can either claim rape is detrimental to society, or condemning Speak is. Of course rape is horrible and society would be much better off without it; that’s a common sense attitude.

      The problem is that you’re assuming that Speak falls under the category of soft core porn when it doesn’t. Can I ask you a question, Dr. Swier? Have you read Speak? Because it seems to me the parts of the book you focused on were Melinda’s internal sarcasm as she judged the people around her in her silence. There weren’t orgies, Laurie Halse Anderson didn’t glorify teen sex. Instead she painted a very realistic portrayal of what high school is like and, more importantly, what it’s like to be a victim of sexual assault at an age where you are IN high school.

      Seeing portrayals such as this is important for teenagers because 1) they’re the ones being affected and 2) teenage boys and the media are constantly painting rape victims in the light that they asked for their rape and 3) so many young people today are unaware what rape looks like.

      What is your greatest fear of what will happen if students read this book? That they’ll run out to parties and start having sex and doing drugs? Because they’re already doing that. Pretending something doesn’t exist doesn’t make it not exist. Instead you are petitioning to take away a book from teenagers that’s engaging and could be the push necessary to get the silent victims of sexual assault to speak up, and if they don’t speak up it at least gives them the solace that they are not alone, it wasn’t their fault, and they’re worth something.

      • This book is being used in the Florida middle school to prepare the students for what they will face in high school. The book is being used to show how to cope with rape, not how to prevent it. That is the problem.

    • I take issue with you calling a book like Speak “soft porn”. How is the rape scene in Speak considered pornography, which assumes consent? There was no consent given – Melinda was intoxicated and froze up. There’s nothing remotely attractive about that.

      Also how does Speak add fuel to the fire by actually taking you into the mind of someone who was violated? As a survivor of abuse and attempted sexual assault, this book encouraged me to speak out and I know it has helped others as well. Let’s not insult Ms. Anderson’s ground breaking novel by calling it something it’s not.

  2. Pingback: Why Richard Swier’s Attack on Speak is Detrimental to Society | Amanda Marie

  3. Pingback: My Nose Stuck In A Book | Why Richard Swier’s Attack on Speak is Detrimental to Society

  4. Reblogged this on Vaginas and Video Games: Advice and Stuff for Gamers and commented:
    It’s a day late, and I have very little to say on the subject which has not already been covered by this article. Happy Sexism Sunday! (On Monday).

    I found Speak while I was in high school and it was one of those experiences I had in which I felt I was supremely lucky to find exactly the right book at exactly the right time to tell me exactly what I needed. Of course, now it’s on the curricula at many high schools, as it appropriately should be.

  5. MaryEllen Murphy

    Normally I prefer to stay out of debates such as this. However, having read both arguments (Dr. Swier’s column and Ms. Bray’s blog) I feel I must weigh into this discussion.

    Full disclosure here, I read SPEAK my junior year of high school in 2004, at the advice of this blog author no less. I don’t recall the book word for word, but I vividly recall the emotions it called to mind; deep sadness, raw pain, but ultimately empowerment because of the way in which the main character, Melinda eventually comes to the realization that she is not powerless against her attacker and finds a way to begin to heal.

    What confuses and ultimately frustrates me is the referral to this book as Child Pornography. What amazed me when I read this book was how Anderson wrote the scene of Melinda’s assault with little or no sexualization of an act of sexual assault.We the readers in Melinda’s head do not get every graphic detail of the attack; we certainly get enough in those minute details to feel the horror of what’s happening to her. In no way is it presented in an attractive or arousing sense, which is how I would define soft porn.

    Secondly – I do not have children, but when I do, I would frankly be fine with this being taught to them in 8th or 9th grade. When I was in grade school, some of the literature that was part of the accepted curriculum included “1984.” “Brave New World.” “Night.” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” “The Diary of Anne Frank.” “Lord of the Flies.” Books where people behave like savages, drop racial slurs, involve drug use, and/or characters having promiscuous sex. I would like to highlight “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Night” here because they are books about horrible events that really happened, and are still taught with the accompanying Mantra of “Never let it happen again.”

    Why do it? Why teach innocent teenage children of these horrors that already occurred? Because they need to know. The way to insure that such horrors do not happen again is to make people understand why they were so terrible in the first place. Just like you can tell a child all you want not to eat a slice of pizza until it cools down because they will burn their mouth; your words may not convince them, but actually burning the roof of their mouths certainly will. You want to talk about rape, about preventing it? SPEAK does for rape what other books already did for Slavery, the Holocaust, Apartheid, to name a few evils – it slaps the reader in the face with the cold hard truth of the damage that selfish, misguided actions do to innocents.

    So to sum up, were I a parent, I would be 100% okay with an educator guiding my child through reading this book, provided they did so with appropriate sensitivity toward the subject matter and approached it in a way that was tailored to address the subject with a teen audience. Were one of my children to be assaulted, God forbid, I would like them to know they shouldn’t keep it a secret and let their attacker get away with it. On the flip side, as a mother, I would want my children to understand why they must never do this to anyone, never inflict this misery on someone else. It is not enough to simply tell someone that something is wrong – they must understand why it is wrong.

    Read SPEAK – really READ it; I guarantee that if you read it correctly, you will find no juicy tension build-up, no bodice-ripping gratuitous sex scenes, no encouragement of promiscuity; you will find a story of an innocent girl who becomes the victim of a heinous crime, tries to do the right thing, and winds up bullied and ostracized because of it, and ultimately finds the courage and strength to prevail.

    • MaryEllen,

      A question: If you made a movie depicting the rape of a 13 year old girl and used the language and ideas in the book would you rate the movie PG-13?

      • I wanted to reply to your other comment to me, but for some reason I cannot, so I’m bringing the response here.

        “The book is being used to show how to cope with rape, not how to prevent it. That is the problem.”

        I’m not sure I understand the logic in saying there is a problem with teaching students how to cope with rape. There is nothing saying, once again, that the concept of preventing rape and the concept of helping children deal with it have to exist in a dichotomy. Of course we should be doing everything to prevent the rapes from occurring, but what you’re suggesting is that once it occurs, the victims deserve nothing more because you tried to prevent it.

        Let me put it in a hypothetical situation. When we get our licenses to drive, we take courses to prevent accidents. There are laws in place to prevent negligence on the road. That doesn’t mean that these accidents never happen, and because of that we have insurance in place to deal with the aftermath when it happens. What you’re suggesting is that we do the classes, so to speak, to prevent rape, but not have the insurance in place for if it should happen. That’s no way to live.

        Furthermore, when you teach children right from wrong, you have to tell them what is wrong. Saying “it’s wrong to be mean” won’t prevent children from being mean if you don’t give them examples of what is mean. The same goes for rape. Telling children over and over that it’s wrong to rape is all well and good–except that many of them don’t know beyond the stereotypical violent stranger scenario what rape is. If you ask college students if they’ve ever raped a girl many of them say no, but the second you ask if they’ve ever had sex with somebody who was too drunk to say yes or no and the amount that answer yes jumps staggeringly high. We need to teach students what is considered rape so that they know what they shouldn’t be doing, and while Speak isn’t the be-all-end-all of that, it does show students what the aftermath of their actions on a victim is if they should assault one of their peers, and that’s important.

        Furthermore, while I’m not MaryEllen, I can tell you with certainty that there already exists a movie version of Speak. It aired on Lifetime, stars Kristen Stewart as Melinda Sordino, and is, in fact, rated PG-13. But more than that, ratings are subjective and given based on the whims of the MPAA. There’s controversy abound over their ratings system (and particularly the fact that nobody knows exactly who is part of the association doling out these ratings). To further answer your question, I would absolutely have my children read this book, and all of Laurie’s books. I don’t live in a delusional world where I assume if I, and the school district, don’t expose them to these things they’re magically free of the exposure. Children are not stupid. They pick up on things. It’s better to educate them directly than cross your fingers that they’ll get the right information on their own as they grow older.

        And just as a little more, I noticed on your site that you’re arguing for the inclusion of Shakespear over graphic novels, if I read that correctly (and I’m still having a hard time understanding why you keep bringing forth dichotomies in which neither can exist while the other does). I love Shakespeare, and I will always argue in favor of having Shakespeare in schools. But have you read Romeo and Juliet? The first scene after the prologue talks in length and jokes about rape in a far greater manner than Speak does. It shows the suicide of children younger than Melinda (yes, Romeo and Juliet really are that young). Hamlet features suicide and murder. To Kill a Mockingbird includes rape. Plenty of the classics that people fight to keep in have worse things in them than Speak does, and yet these same people are fighting to have Speak banned because it’s modern. To me, that undermines the argument that Speak is inappropriate for children. I think it’s safe to suggest that it’s not the students who aren’t ready for this material, but the adults.

      • MaryEllen Murphy

        I appreciate Tracy taking the time to locate the information on the film version of SPEAK since I was unable to do so at the time the comment was posted – I have seen this film version and agree that a PG-13 rating was appropriate given the portrayal of the scene in question – I would not want my child viewing this film before they were in at least 7th grade and would definitely prefer it if they were viewing it with an adult there to talk to them about it (be that myself, Dad, or an educator). But if I recall correctly, children are taught early on in school how to identify if the way in which someone is interacting with them constitutes physical or sexual abuse, and taught beginning in middle school about the risks of sex, drugs, and alcohol and why they should say no to all three. If teenagers are mature enough to be taught these things, I would expect them to be mature enough to view a film such as SPEAK (or read it) under supervision/with proper guidance.

        Side note: I would strongly recommend the documentary “This film is not yet rated” for an interesting foray into the MPAA’s rating system.

  6. I ask on on this thread to read and comment on these two column just posted by Dr. Judith Reisman.

    Juveniles responsible for one-fifth of all rapes: http://bit.ly/1anymkD

    Shock report: 10,700 men raped in the US military: http://watchdogwire.com/florida/2013/05/15/shock-report-10700-men-raped-in-the-us-military/

    Now ask yourself why?

    • Becka

      I notice you’re using your own sources there. That’s kind of biased. Do you mind giving an outside source of this information?

      Also…you seem to be in the mindset that rape is to do with the act of sex. It most emphatically does not. It is all about power, domination, and control. A rapist does not care about the sex; he only cares about the degredation of the victim.

    • Donald Horn

      Dr. Judith Reisman has been discredited numerous times, although I did read the two columns you posted. It seems as if she is still going strong. First, she puts forward a statistic, then she completely goes off on a tangent to support her own beliefs. She has been doing this for years. See the link below for how she compared anti-bullying gay youth support groups in schools to Hitler Youth programs. She still has it in for gays, but now she tries to do it in a less direct way. For example, “juveniles responsible for one-fifth of all rapes” is a regular enough title, until you read the article and realize that she actually should have named it: “Why I think Homosexual Youths will destroy the Boy Scouts and our nation: A short primer on how to conflate different issues to support my bigotry, by Judith Reisman.”

      Reisman also cherry-picks the statistics that she uses from the government report she cites. For example, 80% of all juvenile forcible fondling victims were female and over 95% of all juvenile rapes involved a female victim (pg. 4). Together, the forcible fondling and forcible rape categories make up 87% of all sexual assault cases (pg. 2). Yet Reisman does not even mention these facts. She is too busy trying to convince her readers that all gay males are pedophiles waiting to prey on male youth. She would have a statistically stronger (yet still misguided) argument if she tried to assert that all straight males are pedophiles waiting to prey on female youth.

      The larger issue here of course is rape and sexual assault. It is wrong. It doesn’t matter who commits it against who. It has much more to do with power and control than it does with sex. Holding frank discussions on why it is wrong and the effects that it can have on the victims is not pornography. If we ban Speak, rape and sexual assaults will not magically decrease.


    • Melissa

      What Dr. Swier clearly fails to understand is that 1 in 3 girls will be sexually assaulted by the age of 18. I was 4 the first time and my step dad started at age 9. When HRS came to the school the parents all started talking and I was suddenly the bad kid no one wanted their kid around because I “knew too much”.

      I am personally thankful for books like this that teach people how to be compassionate about this kind of pain, that never goes away.

      Dr. Swier, rape will not stop. Molestation will not stop. Educating the young on how to have empathy for others that have been assaulted is something that is sorely needed in this society. Perhaps in your sheltered life you have never has to deal with things like this, but many of millions of men and women do on a daily basis. Education is important, all kinds of education.

  7. Pingback: Speak (Review and discussion) | Chrissi Reads

  8. you are very stupid for doing this to a woman that did nothing wrong.

  9. All of the other nasty and inappropriate books in the world you choose to pick on this one? That says a lot you’re a true bitch.

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