I can’t pinpoint exactly when I started thinking about sexual violence/abuse. It was a topic that always remained in my peripheral vision – I don’t recall us discussing it in my sexual education class. But, when I joined Tumblr the topic began demanding my attention constantly and forced me to analyze my own thoughts. I think sometimes we are so engrossed in trying to smoke out the negative out of social media, the positive gets unnoticed.
But, in retrospect, I realize I was exposed to the topic before I even finished high school. I read young adult literature novels that tackled sexual violence/abuse – Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable, Barry Lyga’s Boy Toy, Laura Wiess’s Such a Pretty Girl – but having the reinforcement of reality now has made me see how important and necessary these books are. Exposure to this literature can and does prepare young adults to face head on what is possible in this, at times, treacherous world. It prepared me without my conscious acknowledgment. It has given me empathy – understanding and value. I can only understand to a degree, but I can value these voices and their experiences ad infinitum.
I recently finished reading Chelsea Pitcher’s fantastic The S Word. (Now, there are some spoilers ahead. Not massive ones, but here’s your head’s up.) The story centers on the recent suicide of Angie’s best friend Lizzie. We find out that Angie’s boyfriend, Drake, and Lizzie we caught in a compromised position during prom. As a result, Angie severs all relations with her best friend as Lizzie is labeled a “slut” by her classmates. It is etched onto her locker, her car, her very soul. It was too much for her to bear, especially with a religious background and the lack of any intervention from her peers.
One thing I noticed was how easily Lizzie’s peers labeled her a “slut.” There was no hesitation. There was not a moment of introspection. (And this is not a jab at teenagers. This is a comment on the word itself. It’s so normalized we overlook the need to ruminate.) The word just became who she was to the rest of the student body. Before prom, Lizzie was just in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She was the daughter of a preacher. (It should be noted that these are not great either. They are flat and one dimensional. Lizzie was much more than that.) Suddenly, she was just this one thing. It made me realize how common the word is, how quick we can be to allow that term existence, life.
“‘I don’t know.’ Cara looks at me finally. ‘It was just easy. You call some other girl a slut, and nobody’s looking at you anymore.’” ~ Cara, Angie’s cheerleading friend
This quotation just left me cold. It was just easy. The nonchalant way this was written by Pitcher made me shiver and was brilliantly done in order to drive the point home. It’s the passing of a burning, dangerous torch you never knew was circulating.
We find out towards the end that Drake raped Lizzie. During prom. In a diary entry she states that it was not a stranger, but a friend, someone she had known since childhood that did this to her. Reading about sexual violence/abuse on the internet almost daily, I know this is not something fictitious. This happens. The way Lizzie can be so introspective after such a traumatic ordeal made me see her in a whole another light. It gave me a glimpse into the mind of someone who experiences such a life altering moment. But, I know, because of young adult literature, that there are many ways to cope after. I think Lizzie chose this route because she was used to silence in her life. Because of her father and his less-than-holy-activities. Because of her best friend. She did not want to hurt Angie. She did not want to hurt anyone. So she wrote.
The most jarring moment in this novel for me was when, at graduation, we see in electric blue letters the word RAPIST written on Drake’s gown – courtesy of Angie. The reaction? It was not shock. It was not distraught whispers. It was laughter. Laughter. I couldn’t comprehend how this was humanly possible. I assumed the internal dialogue was, “There is no way the most popular guy in school could be a rapist. The concept is utterly hilarious.” But when the word suddenly took a serious tone, it was no longer funny. It became difficult for people to say in the book. You can call someone a slut all you want, but a rapist. No, that is taking it too far. You need proof for the latter. The former, that is easy. This reality in the book and in our world just made me sad.
The last chapter of the novel is a journal entry from Lizzie, describing her excitement about the play. The book ends on this note of hope. Hope that passivity does not and will not prevail in similar circumstances. Hope that as readers and human beings we learn to understand and, especially, value what others have to say when they don’t say anything at all. This is why young adult literature is so magnetic and necessary – it reminds us, it reminds me, that the world is at times ugly yet beauty can be and will be found. Addressing sexual violence/abuse in young adult literature enables writers and readers to break down misconceptions and highlight, showcase, promote truth.
“‘So maybe it isn’t about doing what’s good. Maybe it’s about doing what’s necessary.’” ~ Jesse, in “cahoots” with Angie
Books like The S Word are necessary for dialogue about sexual violence/abuse, particularly for teenagers. It captures the world of high school in such a dynamic and powerful way. There is no sugar coating. There is instead a raw, emotional story about the consequences of assumption and passivity. I left this story feeling more informed, more aware, more human. YA never fails me in this regard.
Lourdes Keochgerien is the Editor-at Large for YARN, The Young Adult Review Network, where she has worked since its inception. After finishing her thesis on YA literature, she moved back to Uruguay with her family and now freelances creating Readers’ Guides and providing Spanish language consulting on manuscripts. She can be found at lkeochgerienwrites.blogspot.com.