The best books for putting sexual assault in perspective

Who am I?

I write about contemporary art, and much of the work I’ve been drawn to was made by women and by artists in other sidelined communities. Early on, I also focused on marginalized disciplines: artists’ books, performance, and art that responded directly to the vacant sites that abounded in New York City when I started out in the late 1970s. It was an enormously exciting time, but also a tough one. Violence was very hard to avoid. I didn’t focus on that at the time, but ultimately, I realized I needed to look more directly at trouble, and how artists respond to it.  

I wrote...

Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s

By Nancy Princenthal,

Book cover of Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s

What is my book about?

During the famously violent 1970s, the incidence of sexual assault spun out of control, with surprisingly little attention. The women’s movement of the time was great at challenging injustice in the workplace and at home, but initially tiptoed around rape. It was artists who first spoke out, quietly at first, soon with bullhorns. Yoko Ono was the moment’s magnetic if ambivalent herald; Nancy Spero its lacerating poet; Suzanne Lacy its fearless activist. Today sexual assault is routinely in the headlines, but confusion still abounds over whom it most affects, how best to confront it—and even how to define it. Along with illuminating these issues, Unspeakable Acts heeds younger artists who have looked at how rape is inseparably entwined with issues of race and class.  

The books I picked & why

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The Shadow Knows

By Diane Johnson,

Book cover of The Shadow Knows

Why this book?

A first-person novel published in 1974, this wry, low-key thriller, quietly shattering, slaloms through marriage and infidelity, prosperity and poverty, motherhood and neglect. I first came across The Shadow Knows shortly after it was published, turned the pages at speed, and in my head argued furiously with the protagonist all the way through. Re-reading it forty years later, I was still aghast, and just as mesmerized. I think it’s safe to say the narrator’s response to sexual violence—like much else in this book—would be impossible to publish in the present; it is as revelatory about our moment as about the one in which it was written and set. 

Last Days at Hot Slit: The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin

By Andrea Dworkin,

Book cover of Last Days at Hot Slit: The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin

Why this book?

I didn’t read Last Days of Hot Slit in time to include it in my own book about sexual violence. In truth, I could have (barely; it was published just before I finished). But I felt comfortable with my aversion to Dworkin, a crusader against assault who had found common cause with conservative activists. And Dworkin was a self-defeating font of vituperation, wasn’t she? Well, no. She was in fact altogether brilliant. Fateman’s wonderfully lucid, deeply researched introduction and the careful selection she and Scholder made of Dworkin’s surprisingly wide-ranging work, demonstrate the force and courage not just of this radical feminist’s writing, but also of her character. She was dauntless.

Memories of the Future

By Siri Hustvedt,

Book cover of Memories of the Future

Why this book?

An audaciously experimental novelist, Siri Hustvedt is also a highly respected scholar of neuroscience who is not afraid to bring the philosophy of mind into her fiction. In Memories of the Future, she adroitly employs some revisionist art history as well. And there is a breathtakingly vivid evocation of the sensory lag that occurs with trauma. But what grabbed me first and unrelentingly in this novel is its evocation of a time and place—New York in the 1970s (the then scruffy Upper West Side, to be exact)—and of the social and sexual perplexities it produced for young women. The protagonist negotiates independence and loneliness, courage—and memory—both true and false, and men safe and otherwise. I wish I’d known her then

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

By Saidiya V. Hartman,

Book cover of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

Why this book?

I’d heard a great deal of praise of Hartman’s book from artists and other colleagues, which stoked my curiosity about its hybrid form—a blend of archival research and fictional narrative. It’s a tricky combination that Hartman manages with unerring aplomb, making it seem not only viable but essential for understanding a world lost to history. Her portraits of Black women living under fairly desperate conditions in New York and Philadelphia in the first decades of the twentieth century—of the personal and practical choices they made—are precise, vivid, rousing, And I do understand why artists love Hartman: she understands that not all truths can be told within the limits of conventional nonfiction. 

The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century

By Amia Srinivasan,

Book cover of The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century

Why this book?

Srinivasan is clearly an amazing teacher, deeply attentive to her students, and extraordinarily honest and open herself. It is evident her honesty is reciprocated. Much of this book is based on reports from the classroom, and as a longtime educator myself, I was awed by her ability to engage in remarkably fruitful discussions about irresolvable questions of desire and consent. Writing with grace and precision, she explores a terrain in which gender, race, class, and sex overlap, with emphasis on how that terrain looks to people new at navigating it.  

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in women, feminism, and sexual assault?

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