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#SVYALIT: Sexual Exploitation, 2 YA Titles That Explore Child Pornography and the Life of Teens

PLEASE NOTE: THE FOLLOWING POST WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS

While reading VANISHING GIRLS by Lauren Oliver, an author I adore, I was struck by how it turns out this title fits into The #SVYALit Project, though it took me a while to find the words to explain why. I also waited a while to talk about it because I can’t do so without some major spoilers. I then have gone on to read an additional titles that fall into this category which I would like to discuss with you today.

So you are aware before reading any further and being spoiled, the titles we will be discussing include VANISHING GIRLS by Lauren Oliver and A WORK OF ART by Melody Maysonet. If you have not read these books, please don’t read.

But first, what exactly do we mean when we say “sexual exploitation”?

What is Sexual Exploitation?

“Sexual exploitation is the sexual abuse of children and youth through the exchange of sex or sexual acts for drugs, food, shelter, protection, other basics of life, and/or money. Sexual exploitation includes involving children and youth in creating pornography and sexually explicit websites.” (from the Sexual Explotation Toolkit)

“Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a type of sexual abuse in which children are sexually exploited for money, power or status. Children or young people may be tricked into believing they’re in a loving, consensual relationship. They might be invited to parties and given drugs and alcohol. They may also be groomed online. Some children and young people are trafficked into or within the UK for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Sexual exploitation can also happen to young people in gangs.” (from NSPCC)

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is a good resource for information regarding CSE. They also have a cyber tipline that you can use if you suspect that you or someone you know is a victim of childhood sexual exploitation. And it’s important for us to understand and acknowledge that the viewing of child pornography is not a victimless crime, there are more than 3.3 million reports of childhood exploitation and each one involves criminal acts against a child. In one of the library communities I worked at previously a pre-teen girl was removed from her home after it was discovered that her parents were using her to create child pornography. These are real people being abused and exploited and I encourage you to learn more about what’s happening and how you can help.

What is Child Pornography?

“Child pornography is a form of child sexual exploitation. Federal law defines child pornography as any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a minor (persons less than 18 years old).  Images of child pornography are also referred to as child sexual abuse images.

Federal law prohibits the production, distribution, importation, reception, or possession of any image of child pornography.   A violation of federal child pornography laws is a serious crime, and convicted offenders face fines severe statutory penalties (For more information, see Citizen’s Guide to Federal Law on Child Pornography).” (from US Department of Justice)

The Book Discussion

AGAIN, LET ME REMIND YOU THAT THIS PART OF THE POST IS FULL OF SPOILERS. IT REVEALS MAJOR AND IMPORTANT PLOT POINTS OF THE BOOKS. DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOKS.

When I first read VANISHING GIRLS, I was struck by how tucked into this compelling story about guilt and sisters there was in fact an incredibly pitch perfect example of a type of sexual exploitation that happens to boys and girls. And although this particular title is about girls, it is something that can and does happen to boys as well. In VANISHING GIRLS, we soon learn that there is a pornography ring in town in which young girls are being drugged and photographed in the nude and the pictures are sold for a price on a secret website. Pornography is being made using their image but without their consent or knowledge; and because they are minors it is considered child pornography. It’s important for us all to understand that although certain types of conestual pornography is legal, child pornography is never legal.

A lot of the child pornography themed YA lit that I have read recently, and this doesn’t mean that this is all that is out there, has involved a teen girl sexting a picture of herself to a boyfriend and the events that follow, as in A THOUSAND WORDS by Jennifer Brown. This is still technically considered child pornography, because it involves nude pictures of a minor, even though she took the picture herself. It’s becomes a thornier legal issue when, out of anger, her ex-boyfriend shares the picture with others and, since he is an adult, part of his conviction is that he must now register as a sex offender.

But child pornography is many things, and it is typically much more sinister because it involves using children in the creation and they have no say in their participation whatsoever; It’s typically not a young teen taking a nude pic and sharing it with others but people in positions of authority or strength using that position to force young children and teens into posing for pictures or performing sex acts on their self or others for the creation and distribution of child pornography. It is a horrific and a serious crime. And when other views child pornography they are just as complicit because they are re-victimizing that child or teen and leading to the abuse of others because that demand means more child pornography will be created to fill that demanded. Children and teens are sometimes kidnapped in the growing number of human trafficking crimes to create child pornography. Other children and teens are drugged and exploited in ways similar to what we read about happening in VANISHING GIRLS.

Other children and teens are used sometimes without their full understanding of what is happening, which is what we read about in A WORK OF ART by Melody Maysonet. Tera is the artistic child of an artistic father whom she adores. When we first meet Tera she is talking with her teacher about her future prospects and he is viewing her artwork in her home. There she finds a nude piece that her father made of her that she thought he got rid of; it obviously makes her feel weird though she can’t really figure out why. In this opening scene there is soon a knock on the door and there stand the police with a search warrant, arresting her father and confiscating all of his art. As the story progresses it soon becomes clear that he was creating pornographic comic books that involved nude images of children. A WORK OF ART is Tera’s journey as she realizes the truth of how she was groomed and used without her knowledge in the creation of this child pornography, and of how Tera has to work through her feelings about her father and her mother. It’s a nuanced look at childhood abuse and very adeptly shows the complicated feelings children feel, this is, after all, the only father Tera will ever have and now she must make that cognitive shift that happens when you realize your mentor and father isn’t who you thought he was and your relationship isn’t what it thought it was.

A WORK OF ART actually appeared on my doorstep from Merit Press shortly after we had our own all too personal experience with childhood abuse and I asked if anyone knew of a book in which a parent was accused of sexual abuse and how the child of that parent dealt with the accusations. Although it is eventually revealed that the main character herself was a victim of her father’s abuse, this was a good exploration of the feelings that one goes through when a parent is accused of abuse from someone outside the family. It’s a point of view that we don’t see often in YA lit and I thought it was handled well. I felt incredible compassion for Tera as she went from vowing to help her father fight the charges through the emotional arc of realizing that not only were the charges real but that she herself had been a victim and she didn’t realize it.

In both of the stories the girls weren’t sexually abused in the ways that we typically think of sexual abuse, they weren’t raped, molested or forced to perform sexual acts. But each of these girls were sexually exploited in a way that used them sexually without their consent and completely violated their rights to personal bodily autonomy. I highly recommend them both and hope that it will lead readers to discuss a different type of sexual abuse and exploitation that is all too real though not the focus of most YA literature. We all should have the right to determine who gets to see our naked bodies, when, and under what circumstances; To take that away is an incredible violation that can have long lasting consequences for all.

About the Books

VANISHING GIRLS by Lauren Oliver

New York Times bestselling author Lauren Oliver delivers a gripping story about two sisters inexorably altered by a terrible accident.

Dara and Nick used to be inseparable, but that was before the accident that left Dara’s beautiful face scarred and the two sisters totally estranged. When Dara vanishes on her birthday, Nick thinks Dara is just playing around. But another girl, nine-year-old Madeline Snow, has vanished, too, and Nick becomes increasingly convinced that the two disappearances are linked. Now Nick has to find her sister, before it’s too late.

In this edgy and compelling novel, Lauren Oliver creates a world of intrigue, loss, and suspicion as two sisters search to find themselves, and each other.

“Alarming and uplifting, a rare psychological thriller that has a kind heart at its center. Read it with all the lights on.” — E. Lockhart, author of We Were Liars.

A WORK OF ART by Melody Maysonet

Shy, artistic Tera can’t wait to attend a prestigious art school in France to prove to her famous artist father that she can make something of herself.

But Tera’s hopes for the future explode when the police arrest her dad for an unspeakable crime. Her father’s arrest must be a mistake, so Tera goes into action, sacrificing her future at art school to pay for his defense. Meanwhile, she falls head over heels for Joey, a rebel musician who makes her feel wanted and asks no questions about her past.

Joey helps Tera forget her troubles, but he brings a whole new set of problems to Tera’s already complicated life. Then, to make matters worse, as her relationship with Joey deepens and as her dad’s hotshot lawyer builds a defense, fractures begin to appear in Tera’s childhood memories–fractures that make her wonder: could her father be guilty? And whether he’s guilty or innocent, can she find a way to step out of the shadows of her father’s reputation and walk free? Can she stop him, guilty or innocent, from tainting the only future she ever wanted?

A Work of Art is a deeply felt story about self-image, self-deception, and the terrible moment that comes when we have to face the whole truth about the myths of our childhoods.

Comments

  1. I know it’s been a few months since this article was posted, but I just saw it, and I wanted to thank Karen Jensen for her thoughtful discussion of VANISHING GIRLS and A WORK OF ART. As the author of A WORK OF ART, it’s gratifying to know that teen librarians recognize the importance of YA books that talk about sexual violence.

    • Karen Jensen, TLT Karen Jensen, TLT says:

      Melody,
      We have an ongoing feature where we talk about sexual violence in YA literature because I feel that it is an important and useful tool to help teach teens – and adults – about consent, sexual violence and more. I really found your book very interesting and one of the few titles out there that talk about this important topic, so thank you for writing it.

      Karen

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