Thursday, April 4, 2013

Discussing Sex, Sexual Assault, and Rape: A Resource Guide

April is sexual assault awareness month, and with the amount of press surrounding the outcome of the Steubenville rape case, it'd be an oversight not to at least talk about it a bit. 

I've been particularly inspired by stories like this one, titled The day I taught how not to rape. This educator, in her position as a teacher, stepped out of her curricular plans and instead had an open and honest discussion of what is and isn't okay when it comes to touch, to sex. There's a particularly poignant comment, too, worth pointing out.

There was an older post that came through my reading that stuck out too, this one from a parent and it's simply called If she's not having fun you have to stop.

Taking these two together and reading through the comments -- some which are excellent and supportive, like the one I pointed out and others which are not supportive and some which ask what is the right thing to say to kids at what age -- it's worth remembering that any adult in any position that influences younger people has the power and opportunity to teach really important lessons about boundaries when it comes to touch. It's not just about acts of physical aggression or of sexual assault; it's important to have a discussion about physical space, period, and the rights people have to and over their own bodies. About the rights people have over what other people can even say to them about their bodies or appearances or their rights to set limits on what is and isn't okay. 

I am not good at this. 

I've been incredibly lucky (and is it weird to even consider it lucky?) that the physical relationships in my adult life have been exceptionally healthy, supportive, and based on trust. I can't say this has been the case my entire life nor in every context. As a result of things in my own past, I know I am particularly sensitive about boundary issues, and it rarely has anything to do with the other person. Sometimes, I just don't want a hug; sometimes I don't want someone to pat me on the back. Those things can make me feel exceptionally uncomfortable. 

I have a suspicion a lot of people will relate not only to that, but they will relate to the fact this sort of stuff happens regularly in the line of working in, say, a public library. There are patrons -- and in my experience, it's been older men and they aren't out for any nasty purposes and are rather just being kind/funny/breaking silence -- who can overstep the lines physically and verbally. I don't like when someone rubs my back for doing my job. I also don't like when they make sexually-suggestive comments to me. I had one man make a joke a few months ago that's stuck with me, that turns my stomach every time I think about it, when I was kneeling to pull paper out of a cabinet. He told me something along the lines of how my husband must like it when I'm on my knees like that and started laughing.

It made me pause for a second, and rather than address the comment as inappropriate, I instead finished what I was doing and walked away. To which he said something along the lines about it just being a joke and he hoped I'd laugh but maybe I didn't get jokes. 

I'm still angry at myself for not saying something. 

These incidents of uncomfortable touch or inappropriate comments happen every single day across all sorts of contexts. And even if the person who initiates sees no harm, these sorts of things are problematic if they're not addressed. While it's unlikely these instances I've experienced were ever meant with harm from the person who initiated them, they still left me feeling I'd lost some sort of power or had had my own boundaries ignored and overstepped. 

They've left me wondering more what is the right language and approach to take to those situations and more, how I can empower other people to feel as though when they're put into a situation like this -- or ones that are much more uncomfortable and disempowering. I think it comes down to what that teacher linked to above did: open up conversation. Talk about boundaries. Talk about ownership. And not just talk about it. It's important to model it and do so with respect for yourself and your body. These are the sorts of lessons, though, that don't come through a seminar or through a structured classroom setting nor even a series of programs at a library. They come up in unexpected ways, but it's through those unexpected ways that conversation happens organically and change can happen. See again how the conversation regarding rape and sexual assault arose from discussing a single poem. 

It's what happens when, say, you're doing a program with teens at the library and one attendee makes another uncomfortable by touching or otherwise saying something uncomfortable to them. Speaking up in those instances not only models how to respond to discomfort like that, but it arms everyone with the tools to do so for themselves. This is where the second link -- the one from the parent -- is worth thinking about. "If s/he's not having fun, you have to stop" is such a simple and yet powerful line. It sets up boundaries without putting blame on anyone. It doesn't put the person overstepping boundaries into the category of bad person; it instead suggests that if someone's not having fun, then don't continue. It's an unabashedly simple concept. And I think the more we say it and the more we model that particular behavior, we create change, even in small ways. But those small ways matter.

This simple line is an easy way into a bigger conversation, too. These ARE conversations you can have with very young people. It's not the sort of discussion that is in any way sexed; this is an educational necessity for everyone, regardless of genitalia. It's about exactly what the comment linked to is about: it's vital to educate that everyone's body is theirs and their limits are important. 

I wanted to wrap up this thought-piece with a book list. These are YA titles that tackle sexual assault in some capacity, and they're all worthwhile reads. If not only for your own education, but they're all books that open themselves up to conversation with teens (and adults) about sexual assault and abuse and awareness of each. They open themselves up to healthy sexual relationships, as well, which is something that, while possibly a very uncomfortable topic to broach in a classroom or library setting, is a crucial one to have. But as uncomfortable as these topics are, I think remembering and using the line "if s/he's not having fun, you have to stop" as your guide through the discussion will have long-lasting power. Because that line is about ownership, about space, and about boundaries. 

Many other people have written far more on this topic, and I especially invite you to spend some time reading through Philip Nel's post about how to teach rape culture and activism through children's books, and this piece I cannot stop thinking about, titled I am not your wife, sister or daughter; I am a person. I also ask you spend a few minutes reading this really thought-provoking post from the rejectionist on responses to Uses for Boys and the way the female main character is discussed in regards to her sexual relationships. These things remind me that, despite how awkward it may be for me to say to a patron that his joke made me uncomfortable, it's something I need to do because it empowers me. It doesn't need to be done rudely; rather, it needs to be done to ensure future interactions don't continue to make me feel little months later. I have the right to say that I'm uncomfortable with something. I'm not having fun. 

This is a short book list, with descriptions via WorldCat. I encourage you to chime in with other YA titles that tackle sexual assault or abuse; genre doesn't matter, but my titles are realistic because that's my area of strongest knowledge. I'd love to build a nice resource for anyone looking for these kinds of books. It's not easy to read or discuss these books, but it's important. 




Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson: A traumatic event near the end of the summer has a devastating effect on Melinda's freshman year in high school.

Inexcusable by Chris Lynch: High school senior and football player Keir sets out to enjoy himself on graduation night, but when he attempts to comfort a friend whose date has left her stranded, things go terribly wrong.




What Happens Next by Colleen Clayton: The stress of hiding a horrific incident that she can neither remember nor completely forget leads sixteen-year-old Cassidy "Sid" Murphy to become alienated from her friends, obsess about weight loss, and draw close to Corey "The Living Stoner" Livingston.

Live Through This by Mindi Scott: From the outside, fifteen-year-old Coley Sterling's life seems imperfect but normal, but for years she has buried her shame and guilt over a relationship that crossed the line and now that she has a chance at having a real boyfriend, Reece, the lies begin to unravel.






One Lonely Degree by CK Kelly Martin: When fifteen-year-old Finn's world falls apart after a violent sexual encounter, the only person she can talk to her is her best friend, Audrey, until beautiful boy Jersy moves back to town and both girls develop feelings for him that threaten to destroy their friendship.

Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers: Regina, a high school senior in the popular--and feared--crowd, suddenly falls out of favor and becomes the object of the same sort of vicious bullying that she used to inflict on others, until she finds solace with one of her former victims.





The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney: When Alex, a junior at an elite preparatory school, realizes that she may have been the victim of date rape, she confides in her roommates and sister who convince her to seek help from a secret society, the Mockingbirds.

Canary by Rachele Apline (forthcoming in August -- description from Goodreads): Kate Franklin’s life changes for the better when her dad lands a job at Beacon Prep, an elite private school with one of the best basketball teams in the state. She begins to date a player on the team and quickly gets caught up in a world of idolatry and entitlement, learning that there are perks to being an athlete. But those perks also come with a price. Another player takes his power too far and Kate is assaulted at a party. Although she knows she should speak out, her dad’s vehemently against it and so, like a canary sent into a mine to test toxicity levels and protect miners, Kate alone breathes the poisonous secrets to protect her dad and the team. The world that Kate was once welcomed into is now her worst enemy, and she must decide whether to stay silent or expose the corruption, destroying her father’s career and bringing down a town’s heroes.

8 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for putting this list together! There are several that I'd never heard of before, which is always great. As for additions...I know it might seem like a bit of a stretch, but at its heart, I think Fire by Kristin Cashore is an intense engagement with rape culture and consent, both in terms of how men react to Fire's monster body and in terms of how Fire comes to terms with her monster powers of mind control in the context of how her father used them to impose his will on others.

    I'd also include Just Listen by Sarah Dessen, which I realize is very similar to Speak, but is a bit lighter in tone and has other subplots that may make it accessible to a different group of readers.

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    1. Thank you so much for your suggestions! I haven't read the Cashore book, but I have read the Dessen and agree it's one that definitely fits the bill.

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  2. I really love this post, and I'm amazed there aren't more comments. It's a rough subject to talk about, and maybe in the wake of what happened in Ohio, people are worn out. Which doesn't mean that it stop being an issue, and I hope you get more people to chime in.

    I've read a lot of these books -- as a survivor, they've helped me, and I've passed them on to friends as well.

    I have no doubt that Christa Desir's upcoming debut, FAULT LINE, will generate a lot of talk. It handles rape in a way that we're not used to reading. It left me a little speechless, and a month after reading it I'm still not sure how to sum up my feelings on it. But I think it's a great one to pass along to (most likely older) teenagers who might already have some level of understanding. I don't say this often, but it could potentially be too heavy for recent survivors.

    RAPE GIRL by Aline Klein covers a rape and an entire school's reaction. I was not a fan of the book, but it does allow for great discussion.

    EXPOSED by Kimberly Marcus is a novel-in-verse that covers two best friends and the aftermath of an accusation of rape. This is not a great book for someone who has spoken about being assaulted and wasn't believed.

    BOY TOY by Barry Lyga covers the sexual abuse of a boy by a teacher. It's thoroughly disturbing to read, but it stands out in my mind as being one of the better ones involving a boy's experience.

    Some of the others I have on my list are SUCH A PRETTY GIRL, LIVING DEAD GIRL, LEFTOVERS, SCARS, and SMASHED. They don't cover the situations like other books do -- although I can't speak for everyone, and someone may read and think it's the perfect one for someone's situation.

    Thanks for this post, Kelly.

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    1. Thank you for the suggestions. I've still got a few of these to read, so I appreciate it.

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  3. Kellye Crocker from Twitter suggested two other titles: Every Time a Rainbow Dies by Rita Garcia-Williams and Target by Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson.

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  4. YOU AGAINST ME by Jenny Downham is a great one that covers points of view rarely seen - the brother of the victim and the sister of the perpetrator.

    I must admit, I'm a little disturbed by the propensity of some of these books to be a thinly veiled versions of what I call "the rape rescue fantasy" wherein the survivor struggles to move on until some beautiful and gentle boy teaches her to love again etc. I find that really gross, in fact. I would almost rather have books with actual rape rescue fantasies wherein the nice boy catches the rapist in the act and beats the shit out of him.

    We talk about fetishizing rape (in porn for example)but I feel that some of these books fetishize rape survivors as kind of pale, wispy haired, willow limbed martyrs. It's disturbing. I'm not sure how younger readers, who can be very impressionable, experience these books. But just once I'd like to see a fat androgynous weirdo (like me, c. grade 11)tell one of these stories.

    Are any of them girls of color even?

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    1. I think you're right about there being a problem with people of color being represented in these books. I think that's a bigger problem of contemporary YA more broadly (and for another post entirely). But that said, I think there's a problem about there being a lack of these sorts of books, too. There are very few titles tackling these issues with the honesty they need to be tackled with. So I give huge kudos to the fact what we do have we DO have.

      That said, I disagree with any of these being thinly veiled versions of rape rescue fantasies. While I understand that the main characters portrayed in these stories fall into certain majority groups -- white, middle class -- they aren't all a certain TYPE of character. I can't remember them being cast by their looks, actually (though it's a possibility). Regardless of whether they are or are not of a certain "type" of look, I think it's problematic to say that these books fetishize a certain look. It's almost victim blaming. Yes, I think we need to see more books featuring more diversity in characters, whether by their skin, their weight, their social class. But I think it comes down to we need more of these books PERIOD because this topic is important and we need to keep talking about it.

      I think young readers experience these stories as they need to. I think those of us who work with young readers have a responsibility to be providing these sorts of books and opening up these conversations.

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  5. Thank you for this, Kelly. There are so many good resources here. I've clicked through to your recommended blogs--powerful.

    Thank you for sharing your personal stories about boundaries. I have been in similar situations, and it's not easy to talk about. We need to keep finding our voices. Thanks for empowering others to do that with your own story.

    I would've added Canary to your list, but it's already there. :) Another important book, which is not YA but a memoir, is Dawn Schiller's The Road Through Wonderland. Dawn is a survivor and teen advocate.

    God bless.

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