Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sexual Violence in YA Lit

So yesterday I did this video chat with authors Carrie Mesrobian and Trish Doller and librarian Karen Jensen about sexual violence in YA literature. The recap is here if you're interested. The conversation was only an hour. It could have been 8 hours and we would've still been talking.

But the truth is it sort of wrecked me afterwards. Which always happens when I talk academically about rape. Because I can distance myself and talk about my book, but when I'm done with that, the personal hits me like a ton of bricks. And the reality is that this issue is very personal to me.

When I "come out" as a survivor, the most common reaction is uncomfortability and awkwardness of no one knowing what to say. There are times when I don't discuss this part of myself because I feel like the Debbie Downer of the room/panel/etc. And yet, I will not hide that part of me either, because I have to believe that when I say it, there is someone else around me who cannot and who maybe feels less alone because of my words.

And strangely, this experience somehow gives me an authority that I otherwise would not have. Which I think is bullshit really. I do not speak for all rape survivors. My experience was different than other people's. If anything, I feel more able to speak with some knowledge about this because I was a rape victim advocate in hospital ERs for ten years. And what I mostly learned from that is that we're all different and no one reacts exactly the same. Which is why I am grateful for the numerous ways that YA authors have represented sexual violence in their books.

So sexual violence in YA? To me, before we can really have a conversation about this topic, we need to understand where teens are with their base of knowledge and why this topic is an important one. I have no empirical data on this. There are way better teen advocates who understand sex ed and what our schools are failing at than I do (Scarleteen, Cory Silverburg, Mr. Health Teacher). But I will say this from the teens and classes I have interacted with: enthusiastic/affirmative consent is not a part of their vocabulary, and what constitutes rape and rape culture remains incredibly vague.

So when I am asked why it is important to include these things in YA novels, my first reaction is: because how else will they know it? My second reaction is usually: because it promotes the development of compassion and empathy. Because statistically speaking, the highest rate of sexual assault is in 16-25 year olds. Therefore, if we don't have conversations with them now, when will we? And these books are not only for the benefit of survivors, they are for the benefit for everyone who interacts with survivors. When we fail to talk about sexuality, when we fail to clearly define consent, when we fail to acknowledge the various way that rape culture infuses itself into our daily lives, we fail our kids. We send them out into the world to build houses with a staple gun and some duct tape.

And more, we fail to ask the greater ethical question of: are we okay with this? Removing legal definitions of sexual assault from the mix, we still need to look at the ethics of sexuality and sexual violence in the world of teenagers. There was an incident in a nearby high school recently where the Winter Formal Court was being introduced at an assembly and each couple got increasingly sexual inappropriate as they were introduced, with the final couple being a girl bowing down to her guy and him revealing a dildo and whipping it around. The students in the gym went wild with cheering. The girl looked up from her bowed position (she did not know this was going to happen), was horrified, and left the assembly crying. Of course the whole thing went viral. And of course the school canceled the dance.

But here's the interesting thing: a number of parents and teens took to the Internet to complain about the school canceling the dance. From my perspective, the school was right. They sent a message: we will not have people feel sexually unsafe or unprotected in this school. But the backlash they got was incredibly illuminating to me. There is a gross lack of understanding about teen sexuality and safety in this world. More, there is a lack of understanding in the role that bystanders play in perpetuating sexual violence and rape culture. Every kid cheering the dildo boy in my mind was culpable. The same with every kid who did nothing when the Jane Doe in Steubenville was carried between two guys to four different parties.

So. When it comes to the inclusion of sexual violence in YA literature, I think it is not without tremendous consideration that authors choose to write about this topic. From my perspective, I think authors are attempting to create dialogues and fill holes in the lives of teens. To deconstruct cliches and cultural expectations of what boys and girls should be like, and instead allow for a greater understanding of what is really going on in some teens' lives. And further, to make this okay to talk about.

Because what do we say when a teen has disclosed sexual violence to us? Do we ignore it? Do we spend a lot of time discussing it? Do we offer platitudes or apologies or pity? Frankly, I know more what not to do than anything else. When people tell me they've gone through this, I say I'm sorry. I say I believe them (if that question is on the table, which it sometimes is). I ask them if I can help them in any way. I thank them for trusting me with this.

When we pretend "dark" issues don't exist in the lives of teens, we perpetuate silence. We ignore the notion that our teens might be contributing to a culture of sexual violence through their actions. We allow our teens a false sense of security and lack of accountability when this is the time they need it the most. High school shouldn't feel like a gauntlet that you must make it through. And the only way in my mind to undo that is to have open conversations. To talk about uncomfortable things in an environment that feels safe. That is the beauty of YA literature. Because sometimes teens will find a connection through a character, through fiction, that they wouldn't be able to get to otherwise. There are copious non-fiction resources for difficult issues, but I'm not sure that's where teens are looking. I think their grounding comes from different places (their family, their friends, school) and if YA literature provides one of those places for grounding, I think in general this is a very good thing.

Which brings me to my final point (and one of the topics of conversation in yesterday's chat) which is the notion of including sexual violence in a book for the sake of giving a character more depth. I'm not going to expound on this academically because Maggie Stiefvater has done so beautifully here. But I will discuss this in a personal way, because yesterday I was academic and said that these things are also a place to start conversation even if the conversation is, "stop doing that because it's reductive and terrible." But I've changed my mind on this because really, we've had the conversation of "stop doing that" and it's still happening. People are still including rape backstory as ways to define a character and they are not paying heed to the dialogue around this being problematic.

So I will say what I think today about gratuitously adding rape to a book: On a very personal level, when you add rape to a backstory for the sake of depth, it makes what happened to me feel unreal. It reduces me to one label ("survivor") and takes away all the awesomeness of my other labels (mom, editor, feminist, loud pain in the ass, friend, sister, warrior). It gives a tremendous amount of weight to this experience while simultaneously taking away my agency. It covers me in a blanket of "victim" and allows for no other parts. It also feels dismissive in this "well, these things happen to girls" kind of way that makes me want to poke someone's eyes out. My fight, my voice, the reason I tell my story to the world is to make these things not happen to girls (or boys) anymore. And eff anyone who thinks I'm "more interesting" because I'm a survivor. Eff anyone who wants to "make rape happen" so we have a character arc. This is not a character arc I would wish on anyone. So get off of that.

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