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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.

In Our Mailbox: How do we guide teens in a safe & critical discussion of sex in YA literature?

I got this letter in my mailbox and thought I would take a moment to answer it:

I agree with what you and other bloggers have said about sex in books for teens not being a bad thing. Teens, like everyone else, need to read books that mirror their experiences and also broaden their views of the world. They need to think about difficult topics in safe environments, and books are a great way to do that. They need to read about things so that they can learn they don’t need to experience them first hand. The same thing goes for alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence.

The question is how do we, as librarian, guide them to a safe and critical dialogue about these books? I knew kids as a child, and I know 8th graders now, who will find books that mirror what they want
to experience. Rather than truly investigate the material, and think critically about it, they will read it only on the surface. So, the book about the healthy sexual experience where consent is freely
given, and the book about the controlling relationship, will be seen as equal in their eyes because they aren’t truly thinking about the content of the book.

So, how, within the processing of helping teens select, check out, and return those books, can we teach them to think critically about them? How can we engage them in safe dialogue, or guide them to the proper place for that dialogue? Is it therefore irresponsible to recommend a book that features sex to a student who we don’t know well enough to know what they will gain from it?

Karen’s Thoughts on This Question:

This is a really good question and I have some thoughts.

In the end, I think that most of the time the narrative of the story actually makes the unhealthiest parts, the danger and the emotional effects of the situation, quite clear. And we should not underestimate our teens and their ability to think and discern the nuances of the story. If we ask them to read classics like Black Like Me and 1984 and such in class, classics written by adults for adults, then we should trust them with books that reflect the teenage experience as well. We ask them to read books about politics, about racism, about economics – about very heavy themes – but we seem so fearful of doing the same when it comes to the issue of sex, and yet this is the time that teenagers are starting to ask themselves these questions.

For the next part of this discussion, we need to have a basic understanding of what rape culture is.
“What is rape culture? To put it simply, it’s basically attitudes or practices that (consciously or not) try to normalize, excuse, trivialize, and/or ignore the seriousness of rape.”
Read more at Gurl.com http://www.gurl.com/2014/03/26/rapecultureiswhen-tweets-about-what-rape-culture-is/#ixzz2xTkHFshW

I think for me, one of the things that I would like is for us to really begin to examine are the ways that we can casually include moments of sexual violence in literature (and other forms of media) and how that influences our acceptance of what is typically referred to as “rape culture”. So when I think about equipping readers, I think about making us really examine whether or not the way that sexual violence is used in a book is 1) necessary and 2) contributes in any meaningful way to breaking down rape culture. This I think is an important way to consider the books that we read, by asking ourselves if the inclusion of sexual violence is simply used as a narrative device (see, for example, Maggie Steifvater’s essay on Literary Rape) or if it is an essential part of the story that is used effectively. And when I say is used effectively, what I mean is that it doesn’t engage in victim blaming or slut shaming, it doesn’t minimize the crime that sexual violence is, and that it doesn’t gloss over the very real effects of sexual violence in the life of its characters, for example. We – Christa, Carrie, Trish and I – are also working on a basic list of questions that can help readers evaluate books on this topic. Our goal is that these questions will help engage readers in thinking critically about the way relationships, sex and sexual violence in particular, are portrayed and used in a story.

I will say this caveat: not all books are right for each reader, which is where good reader’s advisory comes in. This means that we need to be well read and look at what we are reading critically and make note of the themes, style, and even level of explicitness. Then when we are talking to our teens, whether it be in a group or in a one on one situation, we can make better, more personalized recommendations. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Uses for Boys by Erica Lorainne Scheidt both deal with the subject of rape and consent, but they are very different books and as a librarian doing RA knowing and understanding those differences can help us provide better RA.

As a final note on this topic, for the moment at least, I want to talk about the idea of triggering or rape triggers. For sexual assault survivors, reading books with sexual violence can trigger intense emotions related to their own experiences. This is another reason why I am strongly concerned about authors (and directors) haphazardly, sometimes almost lazily, throwing sexual violence into a work where it is not necessary to propel the story or the character in any way. Imagine if you will being a teenage girl, a rape survivor, and reading a book when suddenly the character is attacked and you find yourself very vividly and without any foreknowledge or preparation having to relive your own rape experiences. This is what sexual assault survivors are forced to do time and time again because the topic is often used so casually in various forms of media.  Have a female character that you want to have some type of emotional baggage? Well, of course she’s been raped the answer seems to be. And though statistically we know that many girls (somewhere around 1 in 3 statistics tell us) and even many boys (possibly as high as 1 in 5) will in fact be the victims of sexual violence, I feel we can do a better job of protecting survivors from these types of gratuitous triggering scenes when it isn’t in any way essential to the story or character. (For more information on triggers and how to talk to survivors, check out this sheet on Tips for Friends and Family).

And let’s take a moment to address the very last part of your question: Is it therefore irresponsible to recommend a book that features sex to a student who we don’t know well enough to know what they will gain from it?  At the end of the day, we never know how a reader will respond to a book. And it’s interesting that we as a society continue to ask as if somehow sex is this great other thing that can impact a teen reader when they are faced in every book with so many issues, whether it be violence, family dynamics, drug and alcohol use, bullying, issues of class and poverty, etc. Every book has such a wide variety of topics enclosed within its pages and we can never predict how a reader will respond or what, if anything, they will gain from it. But that is what the access to information is all about, the belief that people have the right to access as much information freely as they want and to take that information and make of it what they will. I don’t get to control what any reader will gain from any book, none of us do.

Carrie Mesrobian had this to say:

The only thing I can say about this is that being a teacher is also this way. You toss out seeds and hope some bloom. You can’t be sure what impact the book will have, even at the time the kid reads it. There may be reckonings from reading it that come later, or lead to other books or ideas. You just don’t know and I don’t think you can control that.

Writers don’t necessarily write wanting to control response or take-aways, either. At least, I try to minimize that. So perhaps the notion of ‘this book is supposed to make you learn X’ isn’t the right response.
 
I was doing a reading/panel last week and I was sort of spouting about this. Books are not like other lesson plans. They aren’t like a chem lab, where the objectives might be clearer, or a spelling test or even a reading comprehension exercise. Books are mini worlds that orbit all in themselves; they aren’t necessarily object lessons. They don’t stay confined within the spaces we want them to. A book might bleed into history and economics and politics and science and psychology. This is why stories are so powerful, why we keep using them in our lives and our histories. What I was trying to say during this panel was that I think we need to approach books as different kind of teaching experiences or lessons. They aren’t as compact or precise. We have to be comfortable with a certain level of chaos when it comes to student response.

Sex and Teens and Books – Oh My!

Yesterday, someone expressed hesitation in recommending books that they perceive as “highly sexualized” to teens and quite the storm erupted surrounding the conversation.  The truth is, I can understand where everyone at some point takes a moment to ask these questions.  When I first became a librarian I was working on a Youth Ministry degree at a conservative Christian university.  And I remember very distinctly the moment when I was processing a bunch of horror books that I had purchased for my teen area and I questioned whether or not it was in line with my spiritual beliefs.  It was a real moment where I had to examine who I was, what I thought, what I believed, and whether or not working in the library was a real thing that I could do.

Then one of my adolescent classes revealed a staggering fact: 80% of all decisions to become a Christian are made during the teenage years.  This is a very important formative time in development, it is a time when we try on roles, examine the world around us, and starting really deciding who we are going to be.  And I maintain that in order for teens to do that successfully, they need as much information as possible.  Real life information.  They need to understand how messy and complex and how broken and how glorious the human race can be.  And they need, if at all possible, to do this in the safest way possible.  Books – all types, even the razor sharp edginess of contemporary fiction – can be a safe place to do that.  And sadly, for far too many teens, they don’t need those books to tell them how unsafe and messy life can be, they are already living in that reality and these books helps affirm their life stories and give them a voice.

Ah but sex, sex makes us crazy.

We don’t like to talk to teens about sex.  We don’t want to think about teens having sex.  I get that, I really do.  I am a mom to two not yet teenage girls and I don’t want them having sex.  Not until they are 30 and married (Ha!). But what I do want is for them to have the information they need to make informed personal decisions about sex, I want them to be comfortable in their sexuality, and I want them to see all kinds of examples of what healthy sex can and does look like, and what it doesn’t when it is age appropriate.  I want them to be able to protect themselves, express themselves, and to not have a bunch of preconceived notions about sex and their personal identity informed by hamburger commercials and cartoons that seem to suggest there is only one right way for a woman to be.

So when they are ready, I want them to be able to read true to life stories that help them process this important part of their life and identity.  I don’t want outsiders – say a librarian who is not their mom – to make those decisions for me by determining what they can and can’t read. I don’t want others imposing their opinions and belief systems on my child, which is why as a librarian I refrain from doing that very thing onto other people’s children.

I think we all wrestle with this question from time to time, it is part of being human and caring about those we serve.  But we have to remember that service also means that we remove our personal opinions and belief systems out of the equation.  My job is to help make books accessible to the teens that want to read them, not to parent them.

Here is a look at some of the Tweets I sent out on the topic yesterday . . . It began as a conversation about Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian and grew from there.