Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Slut-Shelf & Sexual Violence

So Alexandra Duncan is in the midst of doing a book giveaway of YA titles that have been criticized for the “slutty” behavior of the female protagonists. As I am frequently fairly vocal about my feelings on sexuality and sexual violence, I wanted to take a bit of time to discuss the intersectionality of slut-shaming and sexual violence. And I would like to discuss it from the perspective of a rape victim advocate and a mom. I have spoken on this issue multiple times before but for those who are new to me, welcome to the feminist fun house.

I think that culturally we have a knee-jerk reaction when faced with rape survivors to distance ourselves from them so that we have a reason why that could never be us (or our mothers, sisters, daughters, GFs, etc). And I have also seen way too many rape victims throughout my life in ERs and in the work I do with the Voices and Faces Project to buy into any truth in the notion that rape can be prevented by some action the victim takes. 

When you have seen rape victims as young as 3 and as old as 87, when you have seen men, women, QUILTBAG, all races, rich, poor, etc, you start to realize that there is nothing that makes a person unrapeable. So every time I see things like “no rape panties” or “sassy self-defense classes” or “save your life apps”, there is a part of me that appreciates the well-meaning intentions behind these, but there is also a part of me that wants to point out the fact that these things do not stop rape. Perpetrators are the only ones who stop rape. By NOT RAPING.

Which brings me to the slut-shelf and what happens when we culturally place judgment on a girl’s sexuality, on a girl’s choices, on her clothes, on who she dates, on what she drinks, etc. A few months ago, my eleven-year-old came downstairs wearing leggings as pants (meaning leggings with a regular t-shirt on top so you could see her pantyline). And my husband asked her to go upstairs and change. And I smarted about this for hours because I worried what kind of message we just sent to her. And then I realized that I have never once considered buying my daughter a bikini, even when she begged for one at the age of 8. And I have been pretty solid on that stance. And the reason for it is that I knew children who were photographed underwater at the pool by a pedophile. And I don’t want anyone looking at my daughter like that.

But, in trying to protect her, I have bought into the idea that shame can be a shield. That if I make her cover up, she will be somehow safer. And the reality is, she will not. I have told the story of the high school girl who followed the guy into the boy’s bathroom at school and came out saying he raped her (which he admitted that she did not consent to yes, that's rape). And many of the girl's classmates said, “What did she expect when she followed him in there?” (The answer, btw, is always: SHE EXPECTED NOT TO BE RAPED.)

So that’s the thing about judging and labeling girls “sluts”. You put their sexuality on trial in a way that justifies sexual violence against them. This is the very reason rape shield laws came about in the first place. Rape and sex are not the same thing, and yet some people instinctually judged Daisy Coleman for sneaking out in the middle of the night to meet an older guy. And it is the perpetuation of that which is most problematic to me with regards to the slut-shelf. Because it leaves girls unprotected. It makes them an “other” wherein they are more “rapeable” because of their actions. And it also opens the door into perpetuating notions about purity and value and victim-blaming that ignores the very real onset of sexuality that teenagers are grappling with. Which is really bullshit, but that's a post for another time.

So I’m going to add to this giveaway as part of TeenLibrarian Toolbox’s Sexual Violence in YA Lit Project with copies of: Jennifer Mathieu's The Truth About Alice (ARC) and my book Fault Line. (U.S. Residents only please). Just leave a comment in the box below & consider yourself entered. will do the rest. I'll announce winner on my blog on May 20th. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

On Unhealthy Relationships in YA Books

So this week, BLEED LIKE ME advanced reader copies started getting distributed at TLA. And whenever I think of this messed-up broken love story of mine, I am dropped immediately back into my high school years and the plethora of bad dating choices I made as a teenager.

Because here's the truth: I dated badly in high school. If I really think hard about it, I would say that my high school years were mostly a series of bad choices and hook-ups with people who didn't want me nearly as much as I wanted them. The ones who did want me? Yeah, I wasn't really interested.

And for me, this is the reality of dating in high school. Yes, I know people who were high school sweethearts. Yes, I know people who had generally healthy relationships in high school. But more, I know people who dated assholes (both girls and guys). And while my teen years might have been slightly more tumultuous than the average high schooler, my guess is that dating assholes is not unique to my friends.

Which is why I love the YA books out in the world that turn the notion of great young love on its head and assert that yes, it really can go badly.You really can be in love with someone and it turns out they suck.

It's a tricky thing as a writer to delve into the world of unhealthy relationships because you don't want to be endorsing such relationships, but at the risk of sounding redundant, writing about assholes does not mean that writers are looking for people to be assholes. To be clear, these books are not romances, we're not trying to redeem heroes or heroines. We're exploring toxic relationships and bad choices.

Here are a few of my favorite books on unhealthy relationships:

BUT I LOVE HIM: Sometimes at night, I wake up and stare at the heart for hours. I think of how I collected each piece from the beach, how I glued it all together into one big sculpture. I wonder if Connor realizes what it means, that he'll always have a piece of me no matter what happens. Each piece of glass is another piece of myself that I gave to him.

It's too bad I didn't keep any pieces for myself.

At the beginning of senior year, Ann was a smiling, straight-A student and track star with friends and a future. Then she met a haunted young man named Connor. Only she can heal his emotional scars; only he could make her feel so loved - and needed. Ann can't recall the pivotal moment it all changed, when she surrendered everything to be with him, but by graduation, her life has become a dangerous high wire act. Just one mistake could trigger Connor's rage, a senseless storm of cruel words and violence damaging everything - and everyone - in its path.

This evocative slideshow of flashbacks reveals a heartbreaking story of love gone terribly wrong.

CRIMINAL: Nikki’s life is far from perfect, but at least she has Dee. Her friends tell her that Dee is no good, but Nikki can’t imagine herself without him. He’s hot, he’s dangerous, he has her initials tattooed over his heart, and she loves him more than anything. There’s nothing Nikki wouldn’t do for Dee. Absolutely nothing.

So when Dee pulls Nikki into a crime—a crime that ends in murder—Nikki tells herself that it’s all for true love. Nothing can break them apart. Not the police. Not the arrest that lands Nikki in jail. Not even the investigators who want her to testify against him.

But what if Dee had motives that Nikki knew nothing about? Nikki’s love for Dee is supposed to be unconditional…but even true love has a limit. And Nikki just might have reached hers.

POINTE: Theo is better now.

She's eating again, dating guys who are almost appropriate, and well on her way to becoming an elite ballet dancer. But when her oldest friend, Donovan, returns home after spending four long years with his kidnapper, Theo starts reliving memories about his abduction—and his abductor.

Donovan isn't talking about what happened, and even though Theo knows she didn't do anything wrong, telling the truth would put everything she's been living for at risk. But keeping quiet might be worse.

DREAMLAND: Ever since she started going out with Rogerson Biscoe, Caitlin seems to have fallen into a semiconscious dreamland where nothing is quite real. Rogerson is different from anyone Caitlin has ever known. He's magnetic. He's compelling. He's dangerous. Being with him makes Caitlin forget about everything else--her missing sister, her withdrawn mother, her lackluster life. But what happens when being with Rogerson becomes a larger problem than being without him?

USES FOR BOYS: Anna remembers a time before boys, when she was little and everything made sense. When she and her mom were a family, just the two of them against the world. But now her mom is gone most of the time, chasing the next marriage, bringing home the next stepfather. Anna is left on her own—until she discovers that she can make boys her family. From Desmond to Joey, Todd to Sam, Anna learns that if you give boys what they want, you can get what you need. But the price is high—the other kids make fun of her; the girls call her a slut. Anna's new friend, Toy, seems to have found a way around the loneliness, but Toy has her own secrets that even Anna can't know.

Then comes Sam. When Anna actually meets a boy who is more than just useful, whose family eats dinner together, laughs, and tells stories, the truth about love becomes clear. And she finally learns how it feels to have something to lose—and something to offer. Real, shocking, uplifting, and stunningly lyrical,  Uses for Boys  is a story of breaking down and growing up.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

On the Beauty and Danger of Risk

So last week, I went to Grinnell College for a symposium of people in the publishing/screenwriting industry and how we figured out our way into the business after graduating. Great people, lots of great talks. Lots of great questions. On my way home, I swung through Zion for the BAM Festival at Zion-Benton Library. And because there was dessert served at my speech, lots of teenagers came. :)

But one thing that came up in both these venues was the question of risk. Are we raising a nation of people who are risk-averse and what does that mean for the future?

So risk is a tricky thing. While I absolutely believe in risking failure, in screwing up and getting back up to try again, there's also a part of me that delineates this kind of risk with the kind of risk that involves sending my children out into the world unprotected.

Because the reality is, as much as I want my children to go out into the world and fail and learn and mess up and get caught and experience consequences, I do not in any way want my children to have to go through what I did to get where I am today.

And I'm not sure how to marry these two instincts of mine beyond writing about it. Easing them into horrible things through story telling. Because as much as I want to be a "free-range parent", after the fourth "attempted abduction" notification from my kids' school, I decided to always drive them. It's a dumb thing really. It's not like the safety of my mini-van can protect them from anything, not really, but it's something I can control. In a world where I have very little control over what my kids are exposed to, I can drive them to school.

And this is what parents do, I think. Our instinct is always to shield, even when we know it won't do anything, even when we understand how little we control. And I think it's maybe okay to shield. I think "free-range parenting" is generally practiced by people who have never been abducted, who have never dealt with driveby shootings in their neighborhood, who have a utopian experience. And I'm grateful for that experience and for them, but it's not the only one.

The minute we get into a solid position of "this is right" is the moment I want to shake my head and point out nuance and discussion and how everything is way more interesting for ALL the different experiences. There are multiple sides to everything.

So yes, I would like my kids to experience the reality of  sexual violence through books instead of life, and I would also like them to get an F in school and have to deal with that. I think we can have both. I think we as parents are constantly navigating this. I think we as writers are constantly exploring it. Can we protect our kids? And how far are we willing to go to do so?

It's a slippery slope, protection. But I don't think there's an either/or scenario here. I think everything is a choice. I choose to drive my kids to school, but I also choose to let them read generally what they want. I choose to limit screen time, but I let them play outside without me hovering to watch.