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The Distance Between Lost and Found, part 2: Sex, Power, Politics and The Church

It’s interesting how two people can read the same book and have two different experiences with it. When Ally Watkins and I began talking about The Distance Between Lost and Found it became evident that different parts, different themes, stood out to each of us. So whereas Ally talked a lot about the the faith aspects of DBLF, I’m going to talk about something very different, though definitely related to the idea of power in the church.

In order to have this conversation, I’m going to have to spill some big reveals. SO DO NOT READ THIS POST UNTIL AFTER YOU HAVE READ THE BOOK.

READ THE BOOK, COME BACK, AND LET’S TALK.

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When we first meet Hallie, she is at church camp and it is clear that she is being frozen out and bullied, and the freeze out is primarily being led by a boy named Luke Willis. Luke Willis happens to be the preacher’s son, which gives him a de facto position of power in the church youth group. He chooses to use this position of power not for good, but for personal gain. Like many people in positions of power, yes even people in positions of power in the church, he has power and that power is easily abused.

The basics of the story is that an event has happened between Hallie and Luke and when this event becomes known, Luke’s version of the story is automatically believed over Hallie’s. This is in part because of Luke’s position of power, but I would also argue that it is also in part because Luke is the male in this story and Hallie is the female; culturally we still tend to believe the males over the females, see any recent news headlines or read the comments of any column about feminist issues for ample evidence of this.

It’s also interesting to note that when this book was first recommended to me I asked if it was about sexual violence and I was told no, it was about bullying. But I would argue that there is indeed an element of sexual coercion involved as the events that happen between Luke and Hallie are not rape, per se, but neither are the fully consensual acts. Luke uses a variety of tactics to try and engage Hallie in a physical relationship with him, including some very real emotional coercion. What the event might have turned into we will never know because it is interrupted. But this event is a really strong example of emotional coercion and makes for a good discussion about enthusiastic consent. I would love to see church youth groups read and discuss this book together, I think it would make for a powerful discussion.

I found it interesting that this was presented to me as not a story about sexual violence, when it has many of the hallmarks including emotional manipulation (anger, threats), ignoring her no (he begins taking her bra off even though she has pulled away and expressed that she is not comfortable) and then, later, slut shaming. Because of the way Luke spins the story of what happened that night, Hallie becomes a victim of slut shaming in her youth group and in her home. Though culturally we are still very uncomfortable with female sexuality, this is magnified in the church to the nth degree, particularly when we discuss sex, sexuality, and sexual desires outside of marriage. Like most victims of slut shaming, Hallie goes through a journey of many emotions, including shame, doubt, self-blame, isolation and alienation, and a very understandable questioning of her faith.

In some ways this story reminds me of one of the storylines in Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican. In the opening scene of BY a young man, hoping to cause a diversion away from a major event happening, runs up and grabs a teacher and kisses her. When the teacher tries to report that she has been the victim of sexual assault to the police they ridicule her, stating that it was merely a kiss and more important things are happening. In a culture that is still fuzzy on what constitutes “legitimate rape”, we do an even worse job of discussing other forms of sexual assault and coercion, which I maintain both of these stories provide examples of. When victims of rape come forward they still have an incredible problem getting the police to investigate the crimes against them, and we do an even worse job of talking about and protecting those who experience situations like those we see here in The Distance Between Lost and Found and Brutal Youth.

The other interesting thing we see happening is the power dynamics of the sexual abuse. Sexual coercion and sexual abuse are not only about sex, they are about power. And this is something Luke has. It’s something he knows will keep him safe. It’s something he knows he can use as a weapon not only to woo girls only to quickly discard them, but something he knows he can use to cover up his transgressions. These are the same power dynamics you see in the sport culture (see Canary by Rachele Alpine for example) and in books like the upcoming All the Rage by Courtney Summers and Every Last Promise by Kristin Hallbrook (both of which I highly recommend).

Sexual abuse in the church happens. It happens among teens in youth groups. It happens in the pulpits as youth pastors and Sunday school teachers and Priests use their power to abuse the people who trust them to not only guide their spiritual growth, but to keep them safe and guide them away from sin. One of the best books regarding this topic is The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely, a book about the Catholic priest abuse scandal. But there are also elements of this in Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens.

The power that these perpetrators has comes not only from their position, but from our unwillingness to believe that these very people that we put our spiritual growth in the hands of are capable of this type of abuse. Surely that person is not capable of these things they have been accused of we think to ourselves, which is part of the reason why almost 30 women can come forward with claims of abuse against men like Bill Cosby and there are still people who think there is no possible way we should maybe, kind of believe that he is in fact capable of that which he has been accused of. And yet the truth is that it is people in positions of power who have not only the most opportunity to abuse, but have the most courage to abuse because they know that their position of power provides them protections that those without that power would have. With great power may come great responsibility, but it can also be said that with great power comes a greater temptation and ability to abuse that power. In the church and in popular culture we make people into idols and we hold onto those idols fiercely, even when they are destroying others around us.

Luke of course is not a pastor or a preacher or a teacher or a priest. He is a teenage boy. But he is, in fact, in a position of power. Even in high school and in church youth groups that proclaim love and acceptance for all there are hierarchies of power. Whatever our intentions may be inside the walls of our churches, we are still a group of fallible human beings gathered together. This is one of the things I loved most about The Distance Between Lost and Found, it highlighted so eloquently that struggle between our human nature and our desire born out of faith to be better. Holmes doesn’t shy away from the idea that even in a church youth group real world dynamics are at play and horrible things happen. These teens grapple with the very same things that non-churched teens grapple with in a high school setting, they just happen to be doing it while on a church camping trip. But these questions are universal: Who am I? What do I believe? What’s my place in this universe? Or in this group? Or in this moment?

Two of my college friends were raped in the church by their Sunday school teachers. Different friends, different churches, different experiences. But in both of these cases, just like in the public school, a person that was entrusted with their care and growth violated that trust in horrific ways. They abused their power. They altered the landscape of their lives, they changed the trajectory of their paths. Things happen in the church and in church youth groups. Sometimes they are indisputable, as my friend’s stories are. Sometimes there is more nuance, as I would argue The Distance Between Lost and Found presents us with. But it is a real reminder that even in our church youth groups, we need to be talking with our teens about what real consent is and what it isn’t. Sexual education makes adults uncomfortable. We don’t want teens to be having sex so we think if we don’t talk about sex with them then they won’t have sex. But the truth is, some teens have sex. All teens think about sex. Even teens who practice any of the various religions out there. The best thing we can do for our teens, even the teens in our churches, is to talk to them about healthy sex and consent. We are losing far too many of our young people to sexual violence, and sometimes that sexual violence is occurring in our churches.

For more on Faith and Spiritulaity in YA Lit, check out our discussion hub here.

For more on Sexual Violence and Teens in YA Lit, check out the #SVYALit Project index here.

Thinking About Male Sexual Violence and Althea and Oliver by Cristina Moracho (The #SVYALit Project)

Karen’s Short Thoughts: An amazing, complicated and at times flawed look at the relationship between two childhood friends.

Publisher’s Description:

What if you live for the moment when life goes off the rails—and then one day there’s no one left to help you get it back on track?

Althea Carter and Oliver McKinley have been best friends since they were six; she’s the fist-fighting instigator to his peacemaker, the artist whose vision balances his scientific bent. Now, as their junior year of high school comes to a close, Althea has begun to want something more than just best-friendship. Oliver, for his part, simply wants life to go back to normal, but when he wakes up one morning with no memory of the past three weeks, he can’t deny any longer that something is seriously wrong with him. And then Althea makes the worst bad decision ever, and her relationship with Oliver is shattered. He leaves town for a clinical study in New York, resolving to repair whatever is broken in his brain, while she gets into her battered Camry and drives up the coast after him, determined to make up for what she’s done.

Their journey will take them from the rooftops, keg parties, and all-ages shows of their North Carolina hometown to the pool halls, punk houses, and hospitals of New York City before they once more stand together and face their chances. Set in the DIY, mix tape, and zine culture of the mid-1990s, Cristina Moracho’s whip-smart debut is an achingly real story about identity, illness, and love—and why bad decisions sometimes feel so good.

Karen’s Longer Thoughts:

As I said, this is an amazing and rich book with very complicated characters.

Althea and Oliver both come from single parents home, Althea lives with her father the professor and she has a very strained relationship with her mother who took off. Oliver lives with his mother, his father died some time ago.

Oliver suddenly develops a rare condition in which he will unexpectedly fall asleep for days, weeks and sometimes even months at a time. Kleine-Levin Syndrome is a very real disease, though I had not heard of it until reading this book. While Oliver struggles with what this syndrome means to him – he loses whole chunks of his life – the syndrome also puts a real strain on their friendship.

Althea is also very lost, in part because she very much wants her relationship with Oliver to be something more, but Oliver does not return those feelings. He is, in fact, very clear about this. So when Oliver starts checking out for long periods at a time, Althea is forced to find an identity for herself apart from Oliver. It gets messy. Also, please note, some very real spoilers occur from this point on.

And this is where things get complicated. Althea really begins to spiral and is at times a very unlikable person. But worse yet, she does something horrific at one point when Oliver is in the midst of one of his long sleeps. You see, Oliver will some times “wake up” for a brief period, though he is most definitely not himself during this brief moment of awakeness. This fact is established in a previous scene where Oliver wakes up and goes on a hostile eating binge at Waffle House, only to crash back into the deep, unwakeable slumber on the way back home. In another instance, an episode that I think can only be called rape happens, as Rob Bittner at Sense and Sensibility and Stories points out:

Oliver is having a very difficult time of it. He is suffering from a condition in which he ends up falling asleep for extended periods of time, and when he does wake up during these periods, he isn’t quite himself. Not only that, but he doesn’t remember what’s happened during these periods. During one of these times, Althea, who likes Oliver and wants to get closer to him, ends up in a position where she has him turned on and she’s turned on and then they have sex, though Oliver is in the midst of one of his episodes! This, my friends, is an instance of rape. Oliver doesn’t remember it. His virginity is taken from him. He has been sexually assaulted!! And somehow this is not a HUGE thing later in the book aside from a few moments of inner conflict that each character explores, but that’s not enough, in my mind. Okay, maybe Althea feels she isn’t a rapist because Oliver was “conscious” during the incident, but damn it, SHE TOOK ADVANTAGE! For crying out loud, if Oliver had taken advantage of Althea during such an episode, I can only imagine the outcry! 

As Rob points out, Althea definitely takes advantage of Oliver in a moment when she knows that he is not fully able to consent. It’s a very unique parallel to the drunken/drugged scenario we often hear being discussed. And worse, Oliver has already made it clear to her that he wants their relationship to remain in the friendship territory. Althea is very haunted at times – and sometimes very angry – because when Oliver finally wakes up from this episode, he has no memory of what has happened. The dialogue looks something like this:

“I’m not upset because we didn’t have sex, I’m upset because we did. And you don’t remember, and it’s like it never happened, but it did happen, and you keep complaining because things are different except nothing’s different.” […]

“I feel nauseous. I told you, I said I wasn’t ready–“

“You wanted to,” Althea says stridently.

[…] “You stupid bitch, it wasn’t me! You knew it wasn’t me, you knew I wouldn’t remember, how could you let it happen? I didn’t want to, I told you–“

“Oh no? You didn’t want to? What did you think happened then? Do you think I forced you? Do you think I held you down and made you do it?” […]

“You knew it was a big deal to me,” he says. “You knew I never would have wanted it to happen like that. How could you not tell me? You’ve been lying for months.” (128-9) (Again, this is taken from Rob’s Sense and Sensibility and Stories page)

Author Brandy Colbert (Pointe) and I have been having behind the scenes conversations about this book for some time now. Librarian Angie Manfredi pointed the above review out to me, and I was so glad that she did because it was another voice to add to this conversation. I had even asked Brandy Colbert to write a piece on this title for The #SVYALit Project, because without a doubt there are some interesting conversations to be had about what consent is and what it isn’t. And for me, I feel that this moments falls squarely in the realm of not consent. Althea takes advantage of Oliver in a vulnerable moment and he has no recollection or memory of it happening.

Later, in another part of the story, Althea gets drunk and has sex with a boy knowing full well that she is going to do all of this and regret it later. This is another complicated sexual encounter that highlights the intense emotional journey Althea is on. At this point, Althea is so utterly lost. Eventually, she concocts a story about going to visit her mother and ends up going to New York where Oliver is not enrolled in a study for his syndrome. She spends a few nights sleeping in her car before finding a small group of people who take her in for a while.

In his review, Rob goes on to state: 

I have definite trouble with this aspect of the plot. I understand that much of the novel deals with Althea trying to work through what she has done, and Oliver has his moments of trying to come to terms with the situation. BUT, besides the one exclamation above, the situation is treated not like a rape (except briefly in some dialogue), but more like a drunk accident, or at least something less horrific. Just because a body is responding to a sexual situation, that does not mean consent is being given, especially since she knows he’s suffering from some type of syndrome (even if it is unknown what that syndrome is, at the time.) But even later, when the syndrome is described, the instances of hypersexuality isn’t mentioned or expanded on except through discussions by secondary characters who basically describe it as boys being boys, and boys are just really horny.

And later this:

This could have been a great opportunity to discuss rape of a male character in the vein of Speak, but alas, the opportunity was lost. Consent is a huge issue these days, and I felt that it could have been discussed within the book in much clearer and more direct ways. As the brilliant Angie Manifredi noted during a discussion about this book, “What will a teen reading [this book] think? HIS BODY DID WANT IT. What [the reader] needs to ‘learn’ is that’s not what makes rape, that’s not what consent means, and you can be raped even if your body is ‘cooperating.'” This is something that needed come out much more clearly within the book, but unfortunately did not. (You can read the full review here) 

I agree with Rob about this, this scene read to me as clearly rape and there are some important discussions we can be having about consent and sexual violence in this title. As Rob mentions, the body can respond in physiological ways that betray what the mind is thinking. Boys can still get an erection, girls can still lubricate, and sometimes, victims even have an orgasm in the midst of a rape – this doesn’t mean the experience isn’t rape, because many of these responses are biological responses that don’t represent what the heart and mind truly want.

Shortly after I read this book, I watched an episode of Homeland. In this episode, we see a man, Peter Quinn, drunk poolside. He is so drunk when he stands up to talk to a woman who has just appeared he starts to fall down. She comments on how drunk he is. Then it cuts away to a scene of them both having sex. A commenter on the IMDB boards asks why no one in the media is bemoaning the fact that this sexual encounter should clearly be called rape given the current discussion we are having about enthusiastic consent. In fact, some celebrated this scene as an empowering moment where a “fat girl” was seen having sex on TV. Although some have questioned the celebration of this scene, it has tended to be commentors having discussions on discussion boards and not the media. The Good Men Project even has a post discussing this scene that mentions several times how drunk Peter Quinn is but never seems to even suggest that this moment might be rape, instead focusing on people’s revulsion that he might choose to have sex with a “fat girl” (their words, not mine).

Together, these two moments in various forms of art are a stark reminder that we still have very huge double standards when it comes to discussing the rape of women vs. the rape of men. This double standard is something I pointed out on the SVYALit Tumblr during last season of Agents of Shield when a character uses her magical ability to coerce Ward into having sex with her. I believe in all three of these instances if the genders had been reversed then the media would be discussing these scenes very differently. But the genders aren’t reversed and we should still be having these discussions because none of these scenes would qualify as truly consensual acts and we should be talking about that.

For example, read the publisher’s book description above again. It ends with this line:
Set in the DIY, mix tape, and zine culture of the mid-1990s, Cristina Moracho’s whip-smart debut is an achingly real story about identity, illness, and love—and why bad decisions sometimes feel so good. Is the “bad decision” they are referring to the moment when Althea has sex with her best friend who is in the midst of a rare but devastating medical condition that alters his ability to truly consent in this moment? If that is the “bad decision” they are referring to, then I think it is a problematic way to classify this decision.

I’ll be honest, Althea and Oliver is a stunningly well written book and it introduces two very complex and emotionally intriguing characters. It’s a really good book. And I’m not entirely sure that the intent of the author isn’t, in fact, to make us think about the topic of consent and male victims of rape by presenting us with a highly complicated scenario and leaving the reader with no real easy answers about how to talk about this scene. Oliver himself tries several times to make others understand how devastating this all is, and he finds himself butting up cultural misconceptions time and time again. One character even suggests that he shouldn’t be upset about what happened because he got to have sex with a hot girl, what’s to hate about that? Which is a very real reaction that Oliver would face time and time again in this real world. All guys are horny all the time, so he should just be excited he got to have sex with a hot girl – right?

The truth is, boys can and often are the victims of sexual violence. And because our culture still doesn’t understand how often it can happen, we still fail to call out instances of it that we see in the various arts we consume. Even if that isn’t author Cristina Moracho’s intent here, though I maintain that it may in fact be, she has given us a richly nuanced story that allows us to think about the finer points of consensual sex by giving us this complex narrative and fascinatingly, emotionally complex teens and then asking us to consider a scenario in which a boy loses his virginity in a moment in which he is not truly himself and later has no memory of. And then after you read it, reverse the genders and ask yourselves how you would feel about this story.

In a word, Moracho may be incredibly brilliant. Much like great science fiction does, Moracho has crafted a story that makes us think about the finer points of our culture – including how we view men and sex and identity – by holding up a type of funhouse mirror. And she creates some profoundly amazing teenage characters on a rich emotional quest to do it.

Edited to add: This would make a really interesting companion read with INEXCUSABLE by Chris Lynch as we look at the mindset and beliefs of perpetrators of sexual violence.

The #SVYALit Project: When Yes is Not Really Yes, Coercion is Not Consent (part 2)

The #SVYALit Project Index

The other night at karate, the sensei was passing out lanyards and the 5-year-old wanted one even though she wasn’t a student there. So she went and asked if she could please have one. His reply was this, “if you give me a hug, I will give you one.” I suddenly appeared from across the room, panicky. I realize he thought nothing of this simple statement, but it sets such a dangerous precedent. You see, he was withholding something she wanted and suggesting that the only way she could get it was to do something to him physically. He was, in fact, coercing a hug out of her. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with a hug – when it’s freely given. But coercion is not consent. In order for true consent to happen, it means both people have to have a choice in saying no and that they instead choose to say yes.

Coercion is defined as “the practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats” (Dictionary.com) Sexual coercion is “the act of being persuaded to have sex (or some other sexual activity) when you don’t want to.” (Sexual Coercion Resources, this is a really good resource that outlines sexual coercion) “Coercion is a tactic used by perpetrators to intimidate, trick, or force someone to have sex with them without physical force.” (from the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center discussion Coercion and Consent)

is the act of being persuaded to have sex (or engage in other sexual activities) when you don’t want to. – See more at: http://bandbacktogether.com/sexual-coercion-resources/#sthash.7IVMb3HE.dpuf
Sexual coercion is the act of being persuaded to have sex (or engage in other sexual activities) when you don’t want to. – See more at: http://bandbacktogether.com/sexual-coercion-resources/#sthash.7IVMb3HE.dpuf

When we talk about sexual violence, the current cultural discussion suggests moving away from the idea that no means no to that of enthusiast consent, the idea that yes means yes. But the truth is, sometimes yes isn’t always yes. Sometimes, that yes is born out of coercion and manipulation, sometimes it is born out of a threat. It may look like a yes to an outside observer, legally it may even hold up as a yes, but ethically it is not truly a yes. That’s why when we talk about consent, it is defined as someone who is willing and able saying yes out of their own free will. Free will, self-sovereignty, is an important component of true consent.

Which brings us to Bleed Like Me by Christa Desir

I read Bleed Like Me some time ago and have been waiting for months to talk about it. And that time is finally now. Bleed Like Me is a strong and powerful book because it plops us into the midst of one of the unhealthiest relationships ever and asks us to consider what that would look like and what it means – for both parties. And tucked inside there is a little nugget of truth about what many would consider the “gray areas” of consent.

Amelia Gannon, “Gannon”, is somewhat lost. Her parents adopted three younger boys from Guatamela and ever since then her life has not been the same. She’s been pushed to the outside as her parents deal with the myriad of issues that her brothers come with. She is lonely, her family is broken, and she seeks solace and comfort in the edge of a razor blade. Gannon is a cutter, she cuts to help deal with her emotions.

Michael Brooks seems to really see into the soul of Gannon. At first he seems to love her, but as the relationship develops he seems to have an almost obsessive need for her. It’s not so much love as it is a need to try and take Gannon and use her to fill up the broken places inside himself.

Neither one of these two teens should be in a relationship, and yet that is exactly where they find themselves. And there are moments where Michael manipulates Gannon into having sex with him. He doesn’t assault her, she is in fact saying yes – but she is not saying yes out of her own free will, she is saying yes because Michael insists that her saying no will somehow damage him further. He puts the burden of his emotional health and well being on her, and since she is so broken in her own ways it is so easy for him to do.

That sex that happens between Michael and Gannon is not, in any legal sense of the word, rape. She has in fact said yes. But as we see the process play out and see into Gannon’s point of view, it is also clear that this is not, in fact, what she really wants. She is not saying yes out of her own free will, but as an end result to the extremely destructive emotional coercion that Michael uses against her.

Emotional coercion occurs when one party tries to use guilt or other forms of manipulation to force the other party to consent to sex when they really don’t want to. Emotional coercion is a type of power play; it is not born out of both parties free will and it is therefore not true consent.

There are more extreme examples of coercion in both Plus One by Elizabeth Fama and The Program by Suzanne Young. In Plus One, a male police officer threatens to jail a female unless she does a sexual favor for him. In The Program the main character, Sloane, is in a treatment center for “therapy” that will remove her memories; a male attendant promises to give her pills to help her keep her memories if she will kiss him, promising that the next time it will cost her more than just a kiss. On the outside, these scenes looks like consent, but they are not true consent because the party saying “yes” is only doing so because the other party is holding something over them – whether it be emotional coercion (if you don’t have sex with me you will lose me or if you don’t have sex with me I will somehow be hurt) or some other threat (I will make sure bad things happen to you or I will permit this bad thing to happen to you).

It’s interesting to note that earlier this year I stumbled across a review of Plus One by Elizabeth Fama where the reviewer began slut shaming the young lady who was being coerced by the police officer, calling her a slut and a prostitute. The reviewer didn’t recognize that this was not truly consent but a form of sexual violence. After some discussion, she amended the review to reflect that it was not consensual and it changed her opinion of this character. But this moment demonstrated to me how deceptive sexual coercion can be, even when clearly outlined in the pages of a book many readers will still not recognize that sexual coercion is taking place and they will blame and judge the victim as opposed to the perpetrator.

Sometimes, it’s really hard to identify if you’ve been, or are being, sexually coerced. You ARE being sexually coerced if the following behaviors are noted:
  • You don’t feel you have a choice 
  • You’re being pressured constantly
  • You’re being pressured even after you’ve said “no.”
  • You face possible social consequences if you don’t engage in a certain type of sexual behavior.
  • Someone uses their authority or power to get you to engage in sexual behaviors.

– See more at: http://bandbacktogether.com/sexual-coercion-resources/#sthash.7IVMb3HE.dpuf

In contrast, there was some very interesting dialogue that happened on an episode of Glee involving the characters of Sam and Mercedes. Sam wanted to have sex, Mercedes was unsure. They have several conversations throughout the show about the topic, both of them having competing interests. Sam is experienced and he is ready for more. Mercedes is a virgin with a strong religious background and she is not sure that she is ready for sex. Although you can clearly see Sam’s frustrations at times, he does a pretty good job of respecting her and her right to wait until she is ready.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcH8cwxS4C0]

Or, to use YA literature in our comparison, we can look at the scenes in This Side of Salvation by Jeri Smith-Ready. Here, it is the girl that is experienced and the boy who wants to wait. And wait they do, until the boy finally states that he is ready and both teens have a healthy, satisfying sexual encounter that harms neither of them physically or emotionally. We see a similar scene play out in the one healthy relationship that Anna has in Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt. There is healthy conversation, there is respect, there is true consent. The relationship in Uses for Boys is particularly interesting because there are so many other clearly unhealthy relationships in Anna’s life that have preceded this one for readers to contrast it with.

Think of how beautiful it is in If I Stay when Mia asks Adam to play her like a musical instrument, both of them at a place in their relationships where they feel safe and valued and choose to share their bodies with one another. Or in The Fault in Our Stars when Hazel Grace and Augusts decide that they are ready to have sex with one another.

It is the subtleties of consent that often get lost in our conversations about sexual violence because it requires that we talk about the dynamics of a healthy relationship, which many sexual education courses fail to do. But YA literature can help us do this. As we read, we can ask ourselves if this is a healthy relationship. And when sex occurs, we can ask ourselves if it was truly consensual sex. And yes, we can use these titles to discuss the issue with teens. We can ask our boys, “do you want to be the guy that has sex because you manipulated a girl into it?” And we can ask our girls, “do you want to be the girl who has sex just to get it over with or because you finally decided to give in?”

Sexual coercion is part of the reason why the culture is asking that we shift from “No Means No” to the ideas that “Yes Means Yes”. And then we have to have discussions about what a true yes means. It has to come from a place of free will, without guilt, manipulation, or any type of threat. Only then is a yes truly yes. Only then is it real consent. If you’re not willing to accept their no, then it isn’t really a yes.

Talking with Teens About Consent
Sexual Assault Awareness Month, talking to teens about consent and rape part 1 and part 2
This is What Consent Looks Like
The Curios Case of the Kissing Doctor and Consent 

Sex/Romance in Fiction (including a Ted talk on Making Sexing Normal) by Carrie Mesrobian
The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21 (the Good Men Project)
Why Talking with Teens About the Age of Consent Matters
On Teachable Moments and Consent 
Sexual Violence, Drinking and Date Rape Drugs  
Voice Against Violence has a good list of some resources that discuss consent

The #SVYALit Project: Bleed Like Me and Emotional Coercion, a guest post by Christa Desir (part 1)

The other day a blogger asked me what I wanted people to walk away from BLEED LIKE ME thinking about. This is always a tricky question because it implies that authors have this big agenda when it comes to their fictional stories. We do not. We’re telling stories. And yet, at the same time, it is hard to interact with me in any way (personally or through my books) without knowing I have pretty strong opinions about feminism and being a girl/woman. The reality of BLM is that at its core, it asks the question of what we’re willing to suck up to be loved.


And I think this question is an important one, particularly for girls. Because from the very moment we start being able to interact with other humans, we learn that much of our value is determined by who we are to men. It’s tiny messages, things like “Now you put your finger through Mommy’s ring” in Pat the Bunny. Mommy is a wife, don’t you know? And it’s also big messages, the abundance of weddings at the end of Disney princess movies. The princesses being saved over and over again by dudes. Yes, there are outliers (Thank you, Paper Bag Princess), but these are written more as a point of contrast, an intentional paradigm shift, than as an example of diversity in the genre. And think about how prominent this message is in everything we see. Where are the guy cheerleaders on the sidelines for women’s basketball games? Where are the reality TV shows about househusbands? There is a reason the Bechdel test came about in the first place. We are a gender-biased culture.

So after being spoon-fed this diet of bias as a child, it is certainly no wonder that so much of a straight teen girl’s life is spent worrying about/craving/obsessing over, etc. boyfriends. Do guys want this too? Of course. But their status, who they are as people, does not seem to hinge on their relationship (or lack of relationship) in quite the same way as girls.

When it came to creating a story for Gannon, it wasn’t that difficult to conceive of a girl who desperately wanted to be loved. She was unprotected by her parents and took it out on herself through self-injury, so when a guy came in to presumably save her from her loneliness, readers are hopeful that he can fix her. That he can love her enough.

But of course, he can’t. First, because he’s deeply broken himself. And second, because we do not get fixed by someone loving us. We get fixed by loving ourselves. And not only is Brooks not able to fix her, but he takes her vulnerability and uses it to his own advantage. He takes her need to be loved and manipulates it into a balm for himself. Because he can. Because she’s been spoon-fed the pudding of validation through men and so has he. He will feel better if he takes care of her, and she will feel better if she lets him. But they’re both missing parts and it turns into a game of emotional manipulation and co-dependency where no one can win.

And so emotional coercion becomes another issue to explore in young adult literature. Whether in obvious ways (Sarah Dessen’s Dreamland) or in more nuanced ways (Brandy Colbert’s Pointe), we need to start questioning the messages our children have absorbed about our culture and how they form their own self-worth. And more importantly, how a lack of self-worth can be manipulated by others and damage teenagers in very serious ways. 

About BLEED LIKE ME:

From the author of Fault Line comes an edgy and heartbreaking novel about two self-destructive teens in a Sid and Nancy-like romance full of passion, chaos, and dyed hair.

Seventeen-year-old Amelia Gannon (just “Gannon” to her friends) is invisible to almost everyone in her life. To her parents, to her teachers-even her best friend, who is more interested in bumming cigarettes than bonding. Some days the only way Gannon knows she is real is by carving bloody lines into the flesh of her stomach.

Then she meets Michael Brooks, and for the first time, she feels like she is being seen to the core of her being. Obnoxious, controlling, damaged, and addictive, he inserts himself into her life until all her scars are exposed. Each moment together is a passionate, painful relief.

But as the relationship deepens, Gannon starts to feel as if she’s standing at the foot of a dam about to burst. She’s given up everything and everyone in her life for him, but somehow nothing is enough for Brooks-until he poses the ultimate test.

Bleed Like Me is a piercing, intimate portrayal of the danger of a love so obsessive it becomes its own biggest threat. (Goodreads description)

BLEED LIKE ME by Christa Desir will be released on October 7, 2014 by Simon Pulse. ISBN: 9781442498907  

What we can learn about the gift of security and foundation from USES FOR BOYS by Erica Lorraine Scheidt (by Christa Desir)


A long time ago, I sat at a lecture where the speaker said, “Don’t be afraid to tell your kids ‘I love you, but no’. This is the very best gift that you can ever give them. It is the gift of security, of them knowing that someone is driving the bus.”

I think about this a lot. Mostly I think about those of us who for one reason or another didn’t have parents who said no. The unprotected ones. The ones with no boundaries, no one driving the bus. Or maybe someone was driving the bus, but only sometimes, and it was erratic enough to feel unsafe.

There are a lot of different reactions to being left unprotected as a child, but at the end of the day, it all ends up in the same place: with the undeniable knowledge that however you’re going to navigate this world, you are on your own.

It’s a tall order for a small child.

When I read USES FOR BOYS, I felt this narrative creep back inside me. The narrative of someone who grew up with few boundaries, with no parent around to say “I love you, but no.” Anna was unprotected. Her early life was peppered with a revolving door of men and/or her mom notably absent. And the gaping hole inside her got bigger with each interaction she had with guys. 
 
To me, there is a lot of solace in reading a book that lets you know you’re not alone. But Erica Lorraine Scheidt takes it a step further. By Anna so frequently creating her own fairy tale in her mind, desperately trying to control the narrative of her own existence (i.e. posing herself the first time that she goes on a date with Sam), the reader is pushed into considering how we could change Anna’s story, both from her perspective and from her mom’s. We are left to think: at what point along this path could we have made this better so that Anna is not so incredibly unprotected. What lessons could we have offered Anna or what could we have helped her avoid. 
 
You cannot protect your child 100% of the time. They don’t live in bubbles. It’s a wide world of a lot of shitty things. But there are tools to give them, resources to provide them with enough of an emotional landscape that when confronted with hard things they can get through. People say that kids are resilient. I think they are only if they have enough resources to be. If someone along the way has given them enough of something to cobble together a workable life. They deserve this. And Erica Lorraine Scheidt spends a lot of her time trying to provide this. (Ask her about her job/non-profit). 
 
This book is about sex and not about sex at the same time. It is about want. It is about seeking wholeness in the only way that Anna knows, through interactions with boys. Over and over again we see Anna trying to fix herself through boys and over and over again it doesn’t work. And to me, Anna’s journey in this book is more about figuring out what she wants than anything else.

But for girls (and boys!) to figure out what they really want, they have to be asked. They have to know that what they want matters. They have to consider themselves as part of the equation in all things that they do. They have to feel protected enough to fail and know that they still have a safety net.

Which is the role of Sam in this book. Sam is the protected one and through him, Anna figures out what she wants. Not because he tells her, but because he asks. A lot. And then his mom does. And Anna finds her way into something that starts to solidify the broken foundation she had been existing on. Which ultimately leaves us with enough hope at the end of the book to believe it might be okay for Anna. That she might have the tools she needs to make it through after all.

Christa Desir is an activist, editor and the author of FaultlineFaultline is the story of a girl (Ani) who was gang raped at a party and how her boyfriend, Ben, deals with his guilt and feelings in the aftermath. She is also the author of the forthcoming title Bleed Like Me. Desir is one of the moderators of the #SVYALit Project and guest blogs with us here on topics involving sexual violence, slut shaming, and consent.

You can join us tonight at 7 PM Central on Twitter as we discuss Uses for Boys with author Erica Lorraine Scheidt using the hashtag #SVYALit. 

Sunday Reflections: On Teachable Moments and Consent, part 2

Since beginning the #SVYALit Project, I spend a lot of time thinking about consent and how we teach our kids about it. The truth is, we really must start teaching our kids very early. In many ways when our kids get to the teen years, if we still haven’t talked to them about consent then we have missed many opportunities. Talking about consent begins young and occurs often, sometimes in the most interesting ways.

Conversations about consent occur when we teach our children to keep their hands to themselves, to respect other people’s space, and when we remind them that they have to respect other people in any way.

Conversations about consent also happen when we teach our children that they have a right to say no and express themselves. These conversations occur when we allow them to take ownership of their feelings. And they occur when we allow our kids to to not wear the clothes that make them uncomfortable and when we tell them that they don’t have to kiss or hug visiting relatives if they don’t want to.

I had another one of those teachable moments the other day with the Tween. She is currently obsessed with Minecraft, and she genuinely likes to show you her creations. The other day we were sitting in the car while The Mr. quickly ran in to the store to buy a gallon of milk. She was in the backseat. I sat in the front seat taking a moment to answer a time sensitive e-mail on my phone. “Can I show you my new house I built mom?”, she asked. “Not right this second,” I replied. “I’m answering an email real quick. Let’s wait until we get home so I can see it comfortably.” Maybe 30 seconds passed before she said, “How about now?” Then a few moments later she asked again.

Finally, I turned around and looked at her and said this: “It really bothers me that after I told you that we could look at it when we got home that you are continuing to use guilt and manipulation to try and get your way, that you just won’t let my no be your answer. I would really like to wait until we get home and I really want you to respect that answer.”

Later that day, we talked more about this. I remembered once when I was in high school this boy that asked me out and I was not interested, which I politely but firmly explained to him. He kept persistently asking me out, and I persistently said no. During this time, I did go out on a date with another boy, one that I wanted to go out with. Apparently that night he drove down to the end of my street and waited for me to come home. He told me later all about what time I had come home and that he had watched me. In his mind, I didn’t have a right to say no to him. He didn’t respect my no. And the situation was very scary for me.

And in that moment with my daughter, I was reminded of all the scenes in movies I had watched where a girl says no and the boy then tries to change her mind. Just last night we were re-watching an episode of Buffy, Doomed, where Buffy tells Riley that this thing between them isn’t going to work and for a moment you think, he’s going to respect her no and walk away. But then he doesn’t, because he starts to explain to her that her no isn’t good enough, because he feels that they will work. He is expressing that his want for them to be together overrides and supersedes her feelings that they won’t work. And it frustrates me that of course later they do in fact get together. This moment and this romance arc reinforces the narrative that a woman doesn’t know what she wants, that a guy should keep trying, keep pursuing and pressure her to change her mind.

Imagine what a different message it would have sent if he would have said something along the lines of, “I’m sorry you feel that way but I respect your feelings. If you change your mind, come talk to me and we can see where we are both at and what we both want.” And then he simply could have walked away. But of course that’s not what happened because the pursuit is part of the romantic film narrative.

I recently was watching Indiana Jones – I’m not sure which one – and there was a moment when the female character tells Indy no and begins to walk away. With a flick of his wrist he sends his whip out to draw her back in and the two kiss. This moment is supposed to be romantic. The music swells. He is the hero, we’re supposed to cheer. And yet, she said no. She was walking away. He imposes his will on her.

Ignoring someone’s no in the little things makes it so much easier to ignore someone’s no in the big moments. When we believe that we don’t have to accept someone’s no, to respect their wishes, in these little things, how much easier is it to disregard it in those moments that are in fact sexual violence?

There are two important things happening here:

1) We let each other get away with not respecting another person’s boundaries and agency all the time. We see it in the movies. We see it on tv. We hear it in our songs (“You know you want it.”). We watch it play out on the playground and in the classroom and in our homes and work places.

And . . .

2) We teach young people – particularly it seems girls – that they don’t have a right to say no. We teach them to add all those watering down statements to protect the other person’s feelings and take away the power of no. And as girls get older, they realize that there is legitimate fear in saying no because sometimes it incites men to violence. Or when we say no we are called bitches or sluts or whores, because to some type of men, women don’t have the right to say no.

When my daughter began to whine to me about how much she really wanted to show me her Minecraft house and began just asking me every 30 seconds, “How about now?”, she was using guilt and manipulation to try and get her way. Guilt and manipulation, emotional coercion, is the murkier issue of consent we need to talk more about. Far too many times people are being emotionally coerced to do things that they are not yet ready to do. This happens when we insist that “you know you want it.” It happens when we continue to try and negotiate even after someone has said no. This happens when boys (and sometimes girls) say, “If you loved me you would.” Or when boys suggest that if they don’t then they will get “blue balls” and be in pain. It happens when we won’t take no for an answer.

This is why talking about consent should happen very early and often. We need to teach our children that they have a right to say no and that they have to respect other people’s no. We have to teach them to respect other people’s personhood, property, and boundaries. We have to teach them that they aren’t the center of the universe. And we have to teach them that they and they are alone are responsible for their thoughts, feelings and actions.

We can’t wait until our children are teenagers and starting to explore the ideas of sex and sexuality to begin talking to them about consent. The truth is, we are already laying these foundations way earlier in life. For more, check out this post that outlines how we can begin laying this foundation throughout the various ages and stages. There is more good discussion about this at The Good Men Project.

And don’t worry, I love my Tween so of course I sat next to her on the couch and let her walk me through her new house on Minecraft. We just made sure we did it at a time that was right for both of us.

Talking with Teens About Consent

Sexual Assault Awareness Month, talking to teens about consent and rape part 1 and part 2
This is What Consent Looks Like
The Curios Case of the Kissing Doctor and Consent 

The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21 (the Good Men Project)
Why Talking with Teens About the Age of Consent Matters
On Teachable Moments and Consent

Book Review: Inexcusable by Chris Lynch

As part of the #SVYALit Project I’m trying to read as many titles as possible in order to work with Christa Desir, Carrie Mesrobian and Trish Doller to put together an annotated bibliography/index of titles that highlight the wide range of issues involved in this discussion. And truth be told, so many people kept telling me to make sure that I read Inexcusable by Chris Lynch. So I did.

Let me start this discussion by saying this: WOW. This book is truly amazing.

So let’s talk about it. Please note, since this is an older title I’m not writing strictly a review but more of a discussion post so if you haven’t read it yet be forewarned THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.

Publisher’s Description:

“I am a good guy. Good guys don’t do bad things. Good guys understand that no means no, and so I could not have done this because I understand.”

Keir Sarafian knows many things about himself. He is a talented football player, a loyal friend, a devoted son and brother. Most of all, he is a good guy.

And yet the love of his life thinks otherwise. Gigi says Keir has done something awful. Something unforgivable.

Keir doesn’t understand. He loves Gigi. He would never do anything to hurt her. So Keir carefully recounts the events leading up to that one fateful night, in order to uncover the truth. Clearly, there has been a mistake.

But what has happened is, indeed, something inexcusable.”

Karen’s Thoughts:

Inexcusable is a master class in the unreliable narrator. An unreliable narrator is a narrator who quite literally can’t be trusted. He, or she as the case may be, is narrating the story being told and slowly you learn that not all is as the narrator makes it appear to be.

In this case our narrator is Keir, who assures us time and time again he is a “good guy.”  He comes from a good family and he is very close with the various members. Slowly, the layers of our story are peeled back and we begin to have our doubts about Keir. The pacing of Inexcusable is pitch perfect and amazing.

When we first meet Keir he is in a room with a girl who is hinting that something bad happened. But Keir assures us that it wasn’t what she thinks it was because he loves her. Then he goes on to tell us all about himself to convince us all that he is a good guy incapable of doing the things that she is saying. But really, he is trying to convince himself.

I am so sorry.
“What are you sorry for, Keir?” Gigi screams again, grabbing me by where my lapels would be if I had a jacket on, or a shirt, or anything. She can’t get a purchase because I have no clothes, and very little fat, because I have been good about my health lately. She grabs, can’t grab, scratches instead at my chest, then slaps me hard across the face, first right side then left, smack, smack.
“Say what you did, Keir.”
“Why is Carl coming? Why do you have to call Carl, Gigi?”
“Say what you did, Keir. Admit what you did to me.”
“I didn’t do anything, Gigi.”
“Yes you did! I said no!”
I say this very firmly. “You did not.” –
from Inexcusable by Chris Lynch

In addition to being a brilliant example of the unreliable narrator, Inexcusable is a really good book to use to get teens discussing the idea of consent. I believe a large number of guys never go out with a girl with the intention of raping their dates. And afterwards, many of them still fail to understand how a girl can call it rape for a variety of reasons; like Keir who thinks it can’t be rape because they genuinely love the girl they are with. But if I love her, they think, how can it be rape?

Inexcusable is told in two timelines. In one, we get the background story from Keir about who he is. He is building his case and helping us understand just what a good guy he is. This storyline builds up until the night in question. In the other, we are witnessing the scene of the morning after. In this scene, Keir is basically holding Gigi hostage in a room while he tries to convince her (and us and himself) that no, no, no, it can’t be rape. He literally won’t let her leave the room, demonstrating how quickly he is willing to take away her agency and try to control the situation to his favor. I would love to discuss this book with teen readers and find out what they think about even this aspect of the story.

Agency, Free Agency, Self Agency – these are terms that have really come to have significant meaning for me as I delve deeper into the issues of sexual violence and consent. Self Agency is the notion that each individual and that individual alone has the right to make decisions regarding their government of self, including how and when they consent to any type of sex or intimacy, including kissing. In order for us to recognize that any people – including women – can have the right to consent, we have to acknowledge their right to have complete self agency. And yes, this is something that we can find a wide variety of examples of ways in which our society does not grant this agency to others. As a Christian woman, I can cite for you tons of examples from my church and various Bible studies. But we can also find very clear examples in our day to day operations, as demonstrated in Inexcusable where Keir is very much trying to control Gigi and this situation in order to avoid her even being able to discuss with others what happened so that outsiders can determine whether or not she was violated. When we impose our will upon others, we take away their agency.

And it raises, for me, very interesting questions: If Keir is so easily able to force his will upon Gigi in this moment by holding her hostage to convince her to see recent events his way, then why should we believe that he would have such a difficult time forcing his will upon her in other events? This is one of the interesting concepts highlighted in Inexcusable. And I think this is a moment where we can use story to discuss bigger life issues with teen readers, issues like intent, responsibility, and yes, consent.

“I thought about mistakes I had made in the past. I thought about when things went wrong. And I realized it was never an issue of intent, but of intensity. I was a good guy, recall.” – from Inexcusable by Chris Lynch

Of course the most fascinating aspect of Inexcusable is in fact that realization that Keir is doing what all of us do on a daily basis: trying to balance the outward self with the inward self. There is who Keir wants to believe he is and what his life is, and then there is the reality. Keir’s situation is not unique, we all do this to some extent. Keir is really no different than any of us in this regard, he is just (hopefully) a more extreme, exaggerated example. And this is such a fascinatingly discussable concept.

We will be reading and discussing this title in August with a Tweet chat moderated by author Rachele Alpine. I think it will be a great discussion. And I look forward to hearing what everyone thinks about the ending.

If you have not read Inexcusable by Chris Lynch, I highly recommend you check it out. The Mr. read it after me and he thought it was “brilliant” and “interesting”. And it is. This title should really be taught in all classrooms.

What the Book Reviews Said:

Booklist 9/15/2005 says . “Through expertly drawn, subtle, every- guy details, Lynch creates a nuanced, wholly believable character that will leave many readers shaking with recognition: They know this guy, a strong athlete who fleetingly struggles with his self image, loves (and is disappointed by) his family, wants to have fun with his friends, and has a deep crush on a girl. His very familiarity, combined with his slippery morality, violent actions, and shocking self-denial, will prompt many readers to question themselves, and their own decisions and accepted ways of talking and behaving with each other. Teens may doubt Keir’s reliability as a narrator, but his self-recognition, in a final, searing scene, rings true. Here, and throughout this unforgettable novel, Lynch raises fierce, painful questions about athletic culture, family denial, violence, and rape, and readers will want to think and talk about them all. Where does personal responsibility begin? What defines a ‘good guy’? Are we all capable of monstrous things?”

VOYA Says “Lynch’s masterful exploration of the difference between perception and reality is fascinating. Teens will reread this short but complex story debating the issues of violence and responsibility. As Keir says, ‘it was never an issue of intent, but of intensity.'” – (Cindy Dobrez, VOYA 12/01/2005)

Simon & Schuster Discussion Guide for Inexcusable by Chris Lynch

Join us for the June USES FOR BOYS Reread and Twitter Chat with author Erica Lorraine Scheidt

Join us in June for the inaugural twitter read-along of the #SVYALIT Project: USES FOR BOYS by Erica Lorraine Scheidt.


Discuss this powerful, haunting book and its stunning contrast of both sexual violence and consent all month with the hashtag #SVYALit with moderators @TLT16, @CarrieMesrobian, @TrishDoller, @ChristaDesir, and @ericalorraine. 


A one hour twitter chat, on June 12 at 7pm Central, will bring together YA authors and sexual health educators in a discussion of sexual agency, sexual assault, and consent in USES FOR BOYS. Join the conversation, using #SVYALit. 


About USES FOR BOYS

Uses for Boys, St. Martin’s Press 2013, was named a Best First Book for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist and a 2014 Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers. This polarizing debut from Erica Lorraine Scheidt, has been called “grim, gritty, and heart-breakingly real.” 


Here is my (very spoilery) review

In July, we will have our next Google+ Hangout:
When Past Meets Present, a look at the issues in terms of historical fiction and what we can learn from the past

Date: July 30th

Moderator: Christa Desir

Confirmed: Jenn McGowan (MAID OF SECRETS/MAID OF DECEPTION, Katherine Longshore (GILT), Sharon Biggs Waller (A MAD, WICKED FOLLY)

And in August we will be having our next #SVYALit Book Club hosted by author Rachele Alpine, look for announcements in June but it looks like we may be reading and discussing Inexcusable by Chris Lynch.

On teachable moments and consent

Infographic from http://vitaminw.co/society/what-consent-looks

The other day the Tween came out of the house wearing a pair of shorts from last summer, which means they were now both too short and too tight. It was a stark reminder to me that it was, once again, time to go shopping. These kids won’t stop growing.

So the next day she came home and I proudly handed her two pairs of shorts that I had bought for her, because I love her. Because I saw her plight and I wanted to her to know that I think about her. My mistake, of course, was that I bought her clothes without her approval so of course she hated them. She tried on a pair and then took them right back off; she didn’t like they way they felt. Which I understand, I often buy clothes and then decide I don’t like the way they feel or fit or look.

But I was a little sad, because I had tried to do a nice thing and it didn’t work out the way I planned. I will admit it, I moped.

Seeing my sad face, the Tween then said to me, “It’s okay mom. I’ll wear the shorts.” And she got up to go put them on. BUT . . . this actually terrified me because it made me think about consent. Yes, consent. Stay with me here, I’ll tie it all together in a moment.

When we talk about sex, consent is when one party willingly agrees to have sex with another party. Consent is willingly and enthusiastically saying yes. Consent must always be freely given. When we talk about rape, we always say that No means No. But when we talk about consent, it’s not just the absence of no that matters, but the presence of YES. And that YES must be freely given – meaning there is no guilt, manipulation, threats or coercion.

What this means is that if party A asks for or tries to initiate sex and party B says no, that no needs to be respected. That doesn’t mean Party A then begins to use guilt, manipulation, threats or coercion to ask for sex and try to change that no into a yes. It means that the no is respected and we move on to the next topic or part ways. It does NOT mean that you now begin a campaign to change my mind and turn my no into a reluctant yes.

And yet here my very sensitive daughter was agreeing to do something because she saw that her no made me sad. And alarm bells went off in my head because I thought, I don’t want her to think that she can’t say no. I don’t want her to wear these shorts because she sees that I am sad and feels guilty. Because the truth is, being able to stand up for yourself can be a lot of little lessons that we learn throughout our life. And this moment, I thought, was one of those moments where I could remind the Tween that she has a right to say no and that she is not responsible for the feelings and emotions of others. So we had a conversation and it went like this:

Me: Tween, it’s okay that you don’t like the shorts. And it’s okay that I am sad that you don’t like the shorts. But that doesn’t mean that you need to wear the shorts to make me happy because you are not responsible for my feelings or my happiness. You don’t have to do things just because you think it would make me happy. You should never let anyone’s feelings guilt you or manipulate you into doing something you don’t want to do. You are allowed to your own opinions and feelings.  You’re allowed to say no and to stand up for yourself.

Now she doesn’t know that we were having a conversation that was laying down a foundation for consent, but I do. Because I looked at that moment and thought this is an important moment; this is a teachable moment where I can either teach her to stand up for herself or I can use guilt and manipulation to make her do what I want her to do knowing that it would set a dangerous precedent for others to do the same in the future.

I had a high school boyfriend once in my junior year. His family was getting ready to move the next day and he came over to say goodbye. We never really talked about it, but we knew we were going to break up and I was really okay with that. But that night, he came over and said, “Don’t you think we should finally have sex?” And I was like, “Um, no. No I do not.” That night he tried to use guilt (“Don’t you love me?”), manipulation (“It’s the last time we’ll ever have to be together!) and more to try and change my no into yes. In that moment I looked at him and thought, it really irritates me that you are going to spend our last night together being an ass and trying to get me to do something that I very clearly told you I have no interest in doing. Which I might have said out loud because he then looked at me and said, “Maybe I should just leave.” And then he did. I want my daughter to know in moments like this that it is okay to say no and that the other person should respect her no. It was okay that he was disappointed that we weren’t going to have sex that night, just as it was okay that I was disappointed that she didn’t like the shorts that I bought her, but in neither case does that mean the other person is responsible to make those feelings better because doing so would force them, or manipulate them, into doing something they don’t want.

Parenting is tricky business I am learning. There are probably lots of teachable moments that I have missed or made the wrong call on. But in this one moment, I think that I did something right.

More about Consent as part of the #SVYALit Project:

Sexual Assault Awareness Month, talking to teens about consent and rape part 1 and part 2
This is What Consent Looks Like
The Curios Case of the Kissing Doctor and Consent 

The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21 (the Good Men Project)
Why Talking with Teens About the Age of Consent Matters

There are also a lot of great discussions and essays about what consent is, and what it isn’t, on the #SVYALit Tumblr

Consent and Teenage Vulnerability, a look at POINTE (Brandy Colbert) by author Christa Desir


When I was twelve years old, a friend of my mom’s became interested in me. Very young brides were pretty common in his country of origin and while he understood they weren’t common in the US, he started a strange sort of courtship with me. My parents had been divorced for a few years and while my sister was more frequently back and forth between my mom and dad’s house, I spent most of my time with my mom because she needed me more. As a result, I spent quite a bit of time with my mom’s friend.

From the outside, this man was amazing. Smart, handsome, very well-spoken, kind. He spoke to me like an adult and was seemingly excited by all my ideas and stories and thoughts about the world. He asked me endless questions and marveled at my clever answers. He brought me presents and said lovely things about me in this way that a father would dote on a treasured daughter.
I had no idea what was happening until my mom said something to me about it. “You need to be careful with D. He’d like to keep you.” Whether he had said this to her outright or if she could tell from how he interacted with me, I’m still not sure. But I know exactly how I felt when she said it to me, at that moment on the cusp of young adulthood: I wanted to be “kept”.
The reasons for this desire to be kept are deeply rooted in personal history that is too complicated to go into, but I do think that for vulnerable children (and frankly, what girl isn’t vulnerable during her tweens for one reason or another) this notion of being wanted, being craved is important to understand when looking into sexual coercion, power dynamics, and age disparity between partners.
(Spoilers for POINTE ahead)
Brandy Colbert’s absolutely excellent POINTE takes the issue of “consent” and dissects it to a deep and critical look at both power and age disparity in sexual relationships. What struck me so much with this book is the unflinching way in which Theo, the protagonist, holds on to the notion that she wanted to be in this relationship with an older guy, that she loved him, that he made her feel ALL the things as a young woman on the cusp of adulthood.
Only she wasn’t on the cusp of adulthood. She was thirteen. Thirteen to his eighteen (which later is revealed to be twenty-six). And he made her feel special and craved and wanted and really, from an older guy who you admire, it’s a gift. Because when you’re thirteen and pimply and awkward and nothing on your body feels right and you’ve been inundated with messages about the importance of boyfriends and being sexy, it means something when someone picks you. When someone desires you. When someone thinks you’re so spectacular that they’re willing to break rules for you. And all you have to do to keep this feeling going is break a few rules for them.
And it’s that head space that is captured so beautifully in POINTE. What makes a girl make this “choice” and what is the fall-out from the choice. Theo’s fall-out is indeed difficult to watch, particularly her inability to value herself enough to ask for more from Hosea. She accepts that this is what she’s worth, that all she deserves is furtive sex with a boy who already has a girlfriend, and it is heartbreaking to read. But so important to add to the conversation about sexual violence in YA literature.
Similar to THE GOSPEL OF WINTER, POINTE poses difficult questions about culpability, consent, love, and demonstrates the delicate nature of blind trust and how it can be manipulated by perpetrators to leave victims in a place of shame. Over and over Theo rationalizes her relationship with Chris/Trent and this is important to the dialogue about victim-blaming. Because often perpetrators are able to perpetuate silence in their victims by planting seeds of self-doubt and blame. The majority of sexual violence survivors I’ve spoken with over the years have all had at least one moment where they felt responsible for what happened to them. When it comes to victim-blaming, victims themselves are frequently the first people in line to say, “well, I did do XXX so…”
And perhaps the most important take-away from POINTE is our ability to discern that Theo was not at fault. That she had been used. That her thirteen-year-old vulnerability had been twisted into something terrible. That her feeling loved and wanted did not change the fact that what Chris/Trent did was rape. And that a good deal of sexual violence is perpetrated not through overt physical violence, but through coercion and manipulation, plucking at the very core of adolescent vulnerability.

POINTE releases on Thursday, April 10th from Penguin. ISBN: 9780399160349

Christa Desir is the author of Fault Line and the upcoming Bleed Like Me. She is also one of the co-moderators of the #SVYALit Project. She lives outside of Chicago with her awesome husband, Julio, and their three children. When she’s not writing, she is an editor of romance novels. Christa is also a feminist, former rape victim advocate, lover of coffee and chocolate, and head of the PTA. Visit her at www.christadesir.com.