The Sweetest Debut: Jessica Luther Takes on College Football and Rape Culture

Welcome to the Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

Jessica Luther writes about romance novels and college sports —  and as a feminist, she’s often critiquing the cultures she follows avidly with the knowledge and precision of an insider. In Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, she writes that there’s a disturbing similarity between dozens of college sports rape cases. “It often feels like everyone involved is following the same playbook when a college football player is accused, charged or convicted of sexual assault. Coaches, university administrators, sports media, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and fans end up following the same scripts each time. People make choices and settle on narratives that mirror previous cases, doing the exact thing we’ve come to expect.” In her book, Luther takes on how this “playbook” gets implemented, and how teams can do something different.


What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

Unsportsmanlike Conduct interrogates the intersection of college football and sexual violence, and how the system of college football often minimizes, sometimes encourages, and definitely ignores this problem.

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

College football and sexual violence. I keep it short. I don’t really have to say more than that and most people don’t want me to.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

I was actually approached to write this and had to be convinced. I wasn’t sure there was enough to say, which seems silly in retrospect. But I had been working on this topic for a couple of years before I signed the contract to write a book on this.

How do you define rape culture in the book?

I define rape culture in the book as: “‘Rape culture’ is around us all the time. It is a culture where people, mainly women, come to expect a form of sexual harassment, assault, or rape at some point, perhaps daily, because we minimize, ignore, or make excuses for the reality of sexual violence in many people’s lives. It blames the victim when violence does happen and it rarely punishes the perpetrator for inflicting it. It is a culture where, no matter what the statistics tell us about the rarity of people lying about being sexually assaulted but also the prevalence of sexual violence, it is nonetheless easy to believe the victim is lying.”

What do you tell fans who get defensive about their teams?

I tell fans who get defensive that I understand why they feel that way but that all I am asking is for programs to be better, that fans should want to know that the programs they are supporting are not actively participating in a culture that leads to harm. Why do you not want it to be better?

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

I’m not sure. I remember reading Tess of the D’ubervilles in high school and hating it, but I feel like if I read it now, two decades later, I’d probably feel differently. It was easy to judge Tess when I was only sixteen.

Whats a book you’ve read more than twice?

Love in the Afternoon by Lisa Kleypas

Is there a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?

Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women’s media toolkit for reporting on rape and sexual violence.

Do you have a favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

I don’t have a show but I will re-watch the Kiera Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice forever and ever.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Kubo and the Two Strings.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

Sometimes and if I do, it’s often Explosions in the Sky.

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

Coffee shop.

Do you write at a desk, bed or couch?

Bed.

Morning writing or late-night writing?

Late-night.

Is your preferred method writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

Perfecting as I go.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

I only do this.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

I don’t think there was a trick. Not sleeping much, maybe?