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SVYALit Project: Discussing THE S WORD by Chelsea Pitcher, a guest post by Lourdes Keochgerien


“Maybe the first step to stomping out the world’s ugliness is dragging it into the light.” ~ Angie The S Word

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.  

Because No Always Means No: a list of titles dealing with rape and sexual harassment

April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month. And we had a lot to say about it.  The bottom line, no means no (and silence doesn’t mean yes).  That should be the message – always.  It’s what we need to be teaching all people, both boys and girls, at all ages.  Respecting others is at the heart of ending all violence, including sexual violence.  This type of education begins at birth and continues throughout all of our lives: all people are people and are worthy of respect and safety and to live a life without fear.  I teach my children that they can’t touch others without their consent.  That means any and all touching.  And of course there is always the golden rule; whatever your personal faith may be,  “treat others as you want to be treated” seems like a common sense life principle.  The reciprocal is that others can’t touch them without their consent.  It seems like such an obvious thing, and yet every day people fail at this.  Every day people are assaulted and raped and robbed of their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  It’s not easy to read about it or talk about it, but we have to.  Information – education – is the only way to end sexual violence.  Here are some titles that deal with this subject in various ways.  Read them.  Talk about them.  Develop empathy for the victims.  Speak out against violence and speak up for its victims.

SPEAK – Laurie Halse Anderson

Melinda Sordino busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops. Now her old friends won’t talk to her, and people she doesn’t even know hate her from a distance. The safest place to be is alone, inside her own head. But even that’s not safe. Because there’s something she’s trying not to think about, something about the night of the party that, if she let it in, would blow her carefully constructed disguise to smithereens. And then she would have to speak the truth. This extraordinary novel has captured the hearts of teenagers and adults across the country.  Author Laurie Halse Anderson is a spokeperson for RAINN, you can read more about it here.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT  – Coleen Clayton   


When Sid finds herself on a ski lift with hunky local college guy, Dax Windsor, she’s thrilled. “Come to a party with me,” he tells her, but Dax isn’t what he seems. He takes everything from Sid-including a lock of her perfect red curls-and she can’t remember any of it.

Caught in a downward spiral, Sid drops her college prep classes and takes up residence in the A/V room with only Corey “The Living Stoner” Livingston for company. But as she gets to know Corey–slacker, baker, total dreamboat–Sid finds someone who truly makes her happy. Now, if only she could shake the nightmares, everything would be perfect…

Witty and poignant, Colleen Clayton’s debut is a stunning story of moving on after the unthinkable happens.

THE MOCKINGBIRDS – Daisy Whitney


When Alex wakes up one morning next to a boy from her school, flashes of the night before begin to come to her. She was date raped.  Alex seeks the help of her boarding schools secret justice society – The Mockingbirds – to help get justice for the crime committed against her. Whitney emotionally captures Alex’s journey to seek justice in a world of privilege. Emotionally raw and compelling, this is a great book for discussing the topics of date rape and the concept of justice.

EXPOSED – Kimberley Marcus

In the dim light of the darkroom/I’m alone, but not for long.

As white turns to gray, Kate is with me.

background of the dance studio blurred,

so the focus is all on her–legs extended in a perfect soaring split.

The straight line to my squiggle, my forever-best friend.

Sixteen-year-old Liz is Photogirl—sharp, focused, and confident in what she sees through her camera lens, confident that she and Kate will be best friends forever. But everything changes in one blurry night. Suddenly, Kate is avoiding her and people are looking the other way she passes in the halls. As the aftershocks from a startling accusation rip through Liz’s world, everything she thought she knew about photography, family, friendship, and herself shifts out of focus. What happens when the picture you see no longer makes sense?

LEVERAGE – Joshua C Cohen


Joshua C. Cohen began writing “Leverage” after reading a news account of a horrific attack by a group of high school seniors on their fellow underclassmen. When the victims reluctantly came forward, instead of receiving offers of help, they were ostracized by the surrounding community for sullying the reputation of the school and causing a cancellation of the football season. Joshua’s fascination with that part of human nature–the need to keep quiet when awful things occur and how that leads to victims getting wronged twice–is what started the whole story that eventually led to “Leverage.”

MONSTROUS BEAUTY – Elizabeth Fama


The mermaid Syrenka falls in love with a mortal, a decision that comes with horrific consequences.  In the future, 17-year-old Hester is afraid to fall in love because of a curse that seems to hang over the women in her family.  Although there are mystical elements to this story, there are several disturbing scenes of sexual harassment – and rape – that tie these women together and show what type of treatment many women have had to deal with for centuries.  This beautiful, haunting story led me to write an entire post about the almost casual way some men will harass women and the things that women must endure on a daily basis: What It’s Like for a Girl: How Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama made me think about the politics of sexuality in the life of girls.

RAPE GIRL – Alina Klein

Hey, look. It’s that girl. That rape girl, right?Valerie always wanted to be the smart girl. The pretty girl. The popular girl. But not the rape girl…That’s who she is now. Rape Girl. Because everyone seems to think they know the truth about what happened with Adam that day, and they don’t think Valerie’s telling it.. Before, she had a best friend, a crush, and a close-knit family. After, she has a court case, a support group, and a house full of strangers.. The real truth is, nothing will ever be the same.. Rape Girl is the compelling story of a survivor who does the right thing and suffers for it. It is also the story of a young woman’s struggle to find the strength to fight back.

GOING UNDERGROUND– Susan Vaught

Del’s a good kid, but he became a social outcast when his girlfriend texted him a revealing photo . . . and the police got involved. Now he’s finally met a new girl, but complications threaten to bring his world crashing down again. Will Del be able to overcome his past? This must-read, all-too-believable story features a likeable guy caught in a highly controversial and timely legal scenario.

BREATHING UNDERWATER– Alex Flinn


It was only a slap. Well, maybe more than one. And maybe Nick used his fist at the end when the anger got out of control. But his girlfriend Caitlin deserved it–hadn’t she defied him by singing in the school talent show when he had forbidden her to display herself like that? Even though he’d told her that everybody would laugh at her because she couldn’t sing and was a fat slob? Both were lies. Because Caitlin was so beautiful, the only person who understood him. Out of his desperate need for her came all the mean words and the hitting. But now Caitlin’s family has procured a restraining order to keep Nick away, and the judge has sentenced him to Mario Ortega’s Family Violence class, to sit around every week with six other angry guys who hit their girlfriends. And to write a journal explaining how he got into this mess. In what PW called “a gripping tale,” a 16-year-old, who is considered perfect by his classmates, suffers a turbulent home life with an abusive father, and he himself follows the pattern of violence.

EASY by Tammara Webber

When Jacqueline follows her longtime boyfriend to the college of his choice, the last thing she expects is a breakup two months into sophomore year. After two weeks in shock, she wakes up to her new reality: she’s single, attending a state university instead of a music conservatory, ignored by her former circle of friends, and failing a class for the first time in her life.

Leaving a party alone, Jacqueline is assaulted by her ex’s frat brother. Rescued by a stranger who seems to be in the right place at the right time, she wants nothing more than to forget the attack and that night–but her savior, Lucas, sits on the back row of her econ class, sketching in a notebook and staring at her. Her friends nominate him to be the perfect rebound.

When her attacker turns stalker, Jacqueline has a choice: crumple in defeat or learn to fight back. Lucas remains protective, but he’s hiding secrets of his own. Suddenly appearances are everything, and knowing who to trust is anything but easy.

INEXCUSABLE – Chris Lynch

“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.

THE GOOD BRAIDER– Terry Farrish


Gr 9 Up–The Good Braider follows Viola on a journey from her home in ravaged Sudan to Cairo and finally to the folds of a Sudanese community in Maine. Viola’s story, told in free verse, is difficult to read without a constant lurking sense of both dread and hope. In the opening scene she gazes at the curve of the back of a boy walking the street in front of her, only to view his senseless execution moments later. This tension never completely dissipates, though it takes on different forms throughout her story; by the end it is replaced not by the fear of execution or of the lecherous soldier who forces her to trade herself for her family’s safety, but by the tension of walking the line between her mother’s cultural expectations and the realities of her new country. Yet while Farish so lyrically and poignantly captures Viola’s wrenching experience leaving her home, navigating the waiting game of refugee life, and acculturating into the United States, she’s equally successful in teasing out sweet moments of friendship and universal teenage experiences. Viola’s memorable, affecting voice will go far to help students step outside of their own experience and walk a mile in another’s shoes.

POISON STUDY – Maria V. Snyder  (Fantasy)


Shivers, obsession, sleepless nights—these are the results not of one of the milder poisons that novice food-taster Yelena must learn during her harrowing job training but of newcomer Snyder’s riveting fantasy that unites the intelligent political focus of George R.R. Martin with a subtle yet potent romance. Through a stroke of luck, Yelena escapes execution in exchange for tasting the food of the Commander, ruler of Ixia. Though confined to a dank prison cell and doomed to a painful death, Yelena slowly blooms again, caught up in castle politics. But some people are too impatient to wait for poison to finish off Yelena. With the help of Valek, her steely-nerved, cool-eyed boss and the Commander’s head of security, she soon discovers that she has a starring role to play in Ixia’s future—a role that could lead to her being put to death as a budding magician even if she hits each cue perfectly. Yelena truly has an awful past containing physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, so there are some disturbing flashbacks to that–however, they aren’t gratuitous, and definitely help explain her as a character.

Coming soon:

CANARY – Rachel Alpine  (August 2013)  “almost exactly like the Stuebenville case but basketball”
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.

FORGIVE ME, LEONARDPEACOCK – Matthew Quick 


Today is Leonard Peacock’s birthday. It is also the day he hides a gun in his backpack. Because today is the day he will kill his former best friend, and then himself, with his grandfather’s P-38 pistol.

But first he must say good-bye to the four people who matter most to him: his Humphrey Bogart–obsessed next-door neighbor, Walt; his classmate Baback, a violin virtuoso; Lauren, the Christian homeschooler he has a crush on; and Herr Silverman, who teaches the high school’s class on the Holocaust. Speaking to each in turn, Leonard slowly reveals his secrets as the hours tick by and the moment of truth approaches. (male rape)
List compiled by the Librarians at YALSA-BK and annotated by Sarah Littman.  It is posted here with Ms. Littman’s permission.


More on Sexual Harrasment and Rape on TLT:
Sexual Assault Awareness Month, talking to teens about consent and rape part 1 and part 2
Also, I talk about Teaching Consent at Campus Progress

Edited to add the title Monstrous Beauty, 5/07/13

Book Review: Canary by Rachele Alpine

Staying quiet will destroy her, but speaking up will destroy everyone.
 

Earlier this year, the world was rocked by the Stuebenville case and it is like, somehow, Alpine knew it was happening and in her premonition wrote about it all, just changing the sport from football to basketball in her teen novel, Canary.  At the same time, we have spent the month of April speaking and Tweeting and blogging about things like Sexual Assault Awareness Month, consent, and the importance of teaching our teens to respect one another not only as sexual beings, but as people period. Canary is an important tool in that process.

Synopsis: It has been 2 years since the death of her mother from cancer has turned Kate Franklin’s home into a quietly desperate place of strangers who speak through post it notes, so when her father gets the coaching job at a prestigious private school Kate sees a chance to start over again.  She is immediately welcomed by the popular crowd, though at times she questions ther motives.  For a while, she is blinded by the glamour that comes from being star players boyfriend, the parties, the friends . . . but occasionally glimpses of the truth creeps in.

We’ve all heard the stories before, about sports stars (and sometimes cheerleading squads) that seem to rule the school to such a degree that even the adults in this world are willing to turn a blind eye to drinking, cheating, and barely passing grades.  Beacon is such a school and, for a while, Kate is a part of it all.  That all changes one night when one of the players attempts to rape her and she is suddenly labelled a slut and an outcast.  And just like the stories we have heard in the news lately, pictures are shared via cell phones, Kate is ostracized, and she is suddenly very desperately alone.


I am not going to lie, there is a little bit of everything thrown into Canary: grief, sexting, drinking, sex, drugs, attempted rape, parental alienation and even a little war anxiety.  It is a mega dose of the after school special, but done pretty effectively and, as we now know all too well, there are cases of this really happening in the world around us.  When even Kate’s father asks her to stay quiet, you know people’s priorities are really screwed up.  But don’t lose hope, Kate finally finds a way to stand up for herself and there is a definite theme of hope at the end.

There is so much to talk about in this book.  The way these teens all pressure each other to do things, like drinking and engaging in sexual activity, with little real care and concern for the actual person.  The bullying.  The slut shaming.  The rape culture.  The entitled sports culture.  All of it real and relevant.

The first part of Canary involves setting Kate up in her new world. There are parties, a new boyfriend, and that high one gets when you are suddenly on top of the world.  It also establishes the culture of Beacon, which can sometimes be a slow process but it essential to building up and then subtly revealing the layers of deceit and master manipulation involved.  The star basketball players hold all the cards, and they know it; the trick is too wield them without showing their hard, which they do quite successfully for a while.  Beacon is an example of a school that puts sports and profits over people and academics, it is disturbing and sinister in the “character” that it builds in these teenage athletes, more so because many of us can name places just like it in the real world.

Whereas Kate seems able to turn a blind eye for far too long, her brother Brett stands in as the voice of reason, reminding her that as his older brother he knows far too well this life she is living, how her friends may not be her real friends, and how he will always be there for her.  And even in the midst of his own personal grief and crisis, he comes through when she needs him most.  This is a sometimes strained but genuine sibling relationship, the shining beacon (no pun attended) in the life of these two teens who are suffering the loss of one parent quit literally while also dealing with the emotional abandonment of another.

Kate’s father, the basketball coach, is a disappointment.  He clearly is not dealing well with the grief of losing his wife and is failing as a parent.  His reaction to Kate’s admission of the sexual assault is so very disappointing. It is hard to imagine any father reacting the way he does, and it is troubling when you think that many parents often do in fact ask their children to keep these types of revelations quiet out of fear.

The way Kate eventually finds her voice is by publishing her online blog/diary, which has been revealed to us throughout the story in poetry form as it happens.  Some of these entries are cutting and poignant and spot on.  It is interesting, too, how Alpine uses current technology to have Kate keep her secrets and then make them public in an effort to save herself from the harassment she is receiving at school after the rumors about her start spreading.  There are definitely a lot ways that this book can be used to spark discussion about technology in the lives of teens, and again – there are some real relevant discussions to be had about sexting, privacy, the distribution of child pornography, etc.

Plot wise, there are no real surprises, but it is a compelling read all the same in part because it does seem like one of those ripped from the headlines episodes of Law & Order SVU and because of the addition of verse journal entries.  Canary helps teens put some emotional components in place with the current headlines they are hearing.  Real, relevant, and very discussable.  3.5 out of 5 stars. 

Canary by Rachele Alpine.  Published in August of 2013 by Medallion Press.  ISBN: 978-160542587-0.

More About Sexual Assault on TLT:
What It’s Like for a Girl: How Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama made me think about the politics of sexuality in the life of girls
Sexual Assault Awareness Month, talking to teens about consent and rape part 1 and part 2

Saturday Thoughts: Going Backwards

I really don’t know what to think this week.  I don’t know where we’re going as a society when we can’t hold people accountable for their actions because “they don’t know what they’re doing” or victims are “enticing them with what they’re wearing.” I know that we as a culture are growing less empathetic due to the distance and immediacy caused by the internet, but when you’re told that you’re “too sensitive” because you react to things said to you *online* that someone could be prosecuted for if they were said face-to-face, something is wrong.
All I know is that I can try to help those I work with and those that I care about know what is Right and what is Wrong, and what to DO when faced with situations like these.
Middle School BANS ‘Tight’ Pants on Girls because girls are the problem and boys can’t be responsible for how they act around girls dressed in tight clothing. RIIIIGGGHT. What about teaching people to respect others personal space and not to assault people instead, and holding people responsible for their actions?
according to Marvel and their new T-Shirts:


WARNING- THE FOLLOWING LINKS MAY HAVE GRAPHIC CONTENT AND MAY BE TRIGGERS



Anita Sarkessian during her TED talk about the “harassment” she recieved after her kickstarter campaign about looking at gender in video games went live.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZAxwsg9J9Q]

And two girls who couldn’t hang on during their “harassment” after their rapes and are no longer with us.

 
 
 
 



 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qplKBKVvH_Y?rel=0]

What It’s Like for a Girl: How Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama made me think about the politics of sexuality in the life of girls

Please note: this post is on a sensitive subject and can have triggering discussions for some.
 
“What have we here?” a cocky teenage voice said.
A group of boys ducked under the short doorframe into the room.  A particularly tall one stared through the open window with his mouth gaping, as if she were an animal in the zoo.
“Good day t’ ye,” Hester said. “I did not see ye at my door, or I should not have carried out such a graceless act.  Would one of ye care to rest yourself?” She motioned to the chair near the door.
A boy with a Boston t-shirt who looked to be about her age pushed his way past the others. He pointed in the direction of the bed. “I’d like to rest myself there, with you.” Machine-gun laughter burst from behind him.” – Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

Monstrous Beauty is the story of an older teen named Hester.  Hester lives in Massachusetts, a place still rich with history and legend and some believe, magic.  Hester is a lover of history with a scientific bent, she does not believe in magic.  A few days after Hester was born, her mother died.  The same thing has happened to every woman in her lineage as far back as they can tell.  This knowledge has made Hester take a vow that she will not allow herself to fall in love so that she is not tempted to marry, bear a child and suffer the same fate as her ancestors.  In an alternating storyline, we hear the story of passionate lovers Syrenka and Ezra.  With each turning page it is clear that their stories intersect in ways that Hester could never have imagined.

While reading Monstrous Beauty, I had a variety of reactions and immediately closed the book upon finishing to write a post about an aspect that I found both true and troubling.  Monstrous Beauty is many things: it is a richly dark gothic tale that slowly peels back the layers of a centuries old mystery and helps our young heroine, Hester, break a family curse.  The building blocks of the story are put together so incredibly well, almost flawlessly.  It is a mastercraft lesson in storytelling.  I give it a 4.5 out of 5 stars.

But there is one aspect of the story that I found deeply troubling: there is some incredibly disturbing sexual brutality, both outright and implied.  In fact, in the first 100 pages Hester is approached and put in sexually threatening situations twice.  Syrenka herself is raped in a moment that becomes the catalyst for our story.  I found this unnerving.  And then I spent some time really thinking about the implications of what life is like for a girl and how it is depicted in Monstrous Beauty.  So let’s take a quick journey through my life, shall we . . .

As a Middle School and High School student, I can vividly recall three separate instances when a fellow male student – whom I did not even know – purposely reached out and grabbed my breast while walking the hallway and changing classes.  I can also recall my best friend’s father once doing the same (and now you know why we were no longer friends – it wasn’t you, it was your dad.)

Twice in high school I went out with friends, with the clear knowledge that we were indeed nothing but friends, and at some point in the evening the drove me to the place called “lover’s lane” where people went to make out.  Nothing happened, but I had found myself in a very unsafe position with someone who was supposed to be my friend.  Because we were alone in the car, I realized that they were in fact in a position of power.

In another scene, Hester goes onto the beach and when it starts raining she runs into a cave for cover and is followed by a fellow student named Joey.
“Stop it, Joey,” she interrupted.  She pushed his upper body away, but he wrapped both arms around her waist and pressed his hips against her. – Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

In college, I went with a group of students to a local cafe to study.  A male friend from the group was driving me when he went past the cafe and drove me down an empty street in the middle of the desert.  This was definitely one of the most terrifying times of my life.  In the end nothing happened, but he had all the power and control in this moment and I had never been so unsafe.  The conversation clearly indicated what his intentions were and I was just lucky that he didn’t have a weapon or chose not to use it.

Then there are all the times when you are simply walking from point A to point B, often in broad daylight, and men say filthy, lecherous things to you.  A couple of months ago a car of men drove by and screamed what they wanted to do to me as I played outside WITH MY CHILDREN.

Just last month I was visiting my dad when I went for a walk.  As I walked I passed a young man waiting at the bus stop, he got up and started to follow me.  At this point in my life I have learned what this life is like for a girl and I had my phone so I called and my people came out of the house to make sure I was safe.  As my family called me back to the house, the man waited a beat and then went back and waited for the bus.  Thankfully, my family was there to keep me safe.  And it was obvious that he was willing to forgo his bus ride for whatever nefarious plans he had upon seeing me.  This is another instance that could have gone much differently then it did, and I was terrified.

I have shared before, but there was even a time when I was continually sexually harassed by a teenage boy that was coming to my programs.  When we met with the boy and his father, the father said I should take it as a compliment.  There was never any acknowldgement of the innapropriateness of his behavior or how he failed to stop after having been told several times to stop.  These are the types of messages that our boys are being given – women should learn to take a compliment and they are ungrateful bitches when they don’t.

Statistics indicate that 1 out of 3 girls/women will be the subject of some type of sexual abuse/victimization – often before they even reach the age of 18.  If you include catcalls, unwanted sexual advances and off color remarks – all girls will.  Unfortunately, I fear that for a lot of teenage girls, Hester’s experience is in fact way too common.

Question: What is rape culture?
When we teach girls how to protect themselves from being raped and don’t spend our time teaching boys a plain and simple truth: It is not okay to rape.  As if the responsibility somehow rests on the victim and not the assailant.

Earlier this week, a Fox News correspondent made the comment on air that women who find themselves the victims of violence “should make better decisions.”  We continue to shift the blame onto women instead of shouting from the rooftops, Hey guys – it’s not okay to 1) touch a woman (another person really) without their explicit consent, 2) there are in fact situations in which a person can not realistically give consent and they include being under the influence and when there is an imbalance of power, to name just a few and 3) you – the aggressor – are ultimately responsible for your actions.  I can’t make you rape me.  Not by wearing the wrong clothes.  Not by walking in the wrong place. Not by saying the wrong things. Not by being in a night club. Not by being your friend, or your girlfriend, or even your wife.  You and you alone make those choices and they are your responsibility to bear.

On Twitter, I follow several people who are very active in a campaign to stop Street Harassment.  Street Harassment occurs when men yell out or whistle to women who are simply walking by.  Often, it is a group of men and these are terrifying situations that can easily escalate.  Again, there is an imbalance of power.  More importantly, women ARE in fact people and they deserve the courtesy and respect of being able to walk down the street without being harrassed, objectified, and intimidated.  (Side note: the objectification of women would constitute a whole other group of posts.)

Questions: What’s the cultural message we send to girls?
You must be thin, beautiful and sexy – but not too sexy or else I will rape you and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT.

As I continued reading Monstrous Beauty, I came to appreciate it for the rich story that it presented, the quality of the writing, and the way that Fama was able to juggle two story lines and weave them together in a way that followed through.  But I also thought, I want people to be reading and discussing this book because we should be talking about the sexual politics of our world and what it is like for a girl.  What happens in the book is unnerving and off putting – and it should be.  That is the power of story, sometimes it holds a mirror up to truth and makes us think about things we prefer to sweep under the rug.  I don’t know of a single female in my life who hasn’t in some way been the victim – multiple times – of some type of sexual harassment, intimidation or abuse.  We can’t still be thinking that is okay in the 21st century.  Thank you Elizabeth Fama for highlighting how little some of the politics of sex have changed since the time when Syrenka lived.

One final note: In the scene I opened this post with Hester is working her job at a Colonial America tourist resort.  Her job is to play a very specific role and remain in character at all times.  When approached by the group of boys in threatening ways, Hester stays in character and takes the opportunity to leave the cottage immediately under the pretense that a neighbor is expecting her to bring eggs.  She gets herself out of Dodge.  I thought this was an incredibly smart way for Hester to handle the situation because had she responded by verbally attacking the group, they more often than not will respond in anger and use it as an excuse to follow through on their threats – and then they will claim that bitch deserved it because she was disrespecting them.  Because somehow they can disrespect and threaten her, but she doesn’t have the right to defend herself.  I believe that this was a very realistic way for Hester to handle the situation and I applaud her intelligence.

Last night on Twitter I asked for help putting together a reading list of YA Titles that discuss sexual intimidation, violence and abuse.  These are some of the titles that were recommended:
What Happens Next by Colleen Clayton
Live Through This by Mindi Scott
Identical by Ellen Hopkins
Pieces of Us by Margie Gelbwasser
The Mockinbirds by Daisy Whitney
Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Schedit
Flawed by Kate Avelynn
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
But I Love Hime by Amanda Grace
Stay by Deb Caletti
Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers
Boy Toy by Barry Lyga
Something Happened by Joseph Heller
Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen
Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
Such a Pretty Girl by Laura Weiss
Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian
The List by Siobhan Vivian
Bitter End by Jennifer Brown
Empty by K M Walton
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott
Exposed by Susan Vaught

I also asked for titles where a girl was put in a compromising sexual position, stood up for herself and the situation was resolved without harm coming to the girl.  The Twitterverse could not come up with very many titles.  This is what they came up with:
Knee Deep by Jolene Perry
Easy by Tammar Webber
Raw Blue by Kristy Eager
13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

A note about boys: obviously sexual violence can and does happen to boys and it is just as horrific of a crime.

More discussion:
Force: Upsetting the Culture of Rape
Teach “don’t rape” instead of “don’t get raped”
Stop Street Harassment