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Sunday Reflections: In Which The Teen Writes a Poem About Sexual Harassment

TRIGGER WARNING: THIS POST TALKS ABOUT SEXUAL HARASSMENT

I know it’s been a rough week in a lot of ways for us all between the mix of politics and loss, but it was also a really rough week at the Jensen household because of everyone’s arch nemesis: sexual harassment.

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On Friday, I received a text from my daughter explaining how angry she was about the sexual harassment she had received by a “friend” the night before. This friend got into her sports bag and took an item of hers and put it on himself. She asked for it back repeatedly and he refused. Finally, she approached him to take it back and he proceeded to say some sexual things to her that she says made her feel “scared” and “dirty”.

They are 15 years old. And I’m sad to say that this is not the first time she has experienced some type of sexual touching or harassment. But it is the first time that she has come to me so visibly shaken and expressed feeling scared and dirty. Scared and dirty. Scared and dirty. Scared and dirty. I just keep hearing this over and over again.

This is what sexual harassment does.

As we talked about it and processed it and tried to determine what we were going to do, she shared with me that she was so upset about it that she wrote a poem. She has given me permission to share that poem.

Are you done yet

Undressing me with your eyes?

Are you happy

Now that you’ve made me cry?

 

You’ve stared at me

It’s felt like hours

You’ve smiled smugly

Enjoying your power

 

It’s like you can’t see it

My hatred that churns

You can’t see the effect

That makes my skin burn

 

You make me sick with fear

But I won’t say a thing

I’m far too afraid

Afraid of what it will bring

 

I’ll keep my hatred inside

Put on a pretty smile

You’ll never see me break

My tears will stay in for a while

During our discussion of how she felt about what happened, she kept saying she didn’t want to do anything about it. At one point I said to her,” I know you don’t want him to get into trouble but he also needs to know that he can’t do this to others going forward.” To which she replied, “I’m not worried about him getting into trouble, I’m scared he’ll be angry and hurt me.” That was the moment the undid me because I am far too aware of how often boys and men do respond with violence and retribution in these instances. She’s not wrong.

As a mom and a woman, I’ve been incredibly angry and upset about these events, as you can imagine. I’ve seen this all play out over and over and over again in this world and my anger is compounded by the fact that this is my baby girl we’re talking about.

I don’t have any fancy resolution to this post. I don’t have a neat and clean way to wrap this post up. The truth is, this will keep happening. It will happen again to her. It will happen to her younger sister. It will happen to her best friends and worst enemies. It will keep happening until we find a way to seriously address the issues in our culture that allow this to keep happening. And we have to stop shrugging this off and protecting the boys and men who do this. We have to talk about the patriarchy and power and privilege and toxic masculinity and sexism and why we choose to protect men instead of their victims. We have to change the dynamics. All of them.

Until then, I’m just going to be over here raging because I had to listen to my daughter talk about how someone who was supposedly her friend made her feel scared and dirty.

I’m pretty mad at you right now world. I seriously am.

Sunday Reflections: Dear Writers, Women’s Stories Don’t Always Have to Involve Sexual Violence

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TRIGGER WARNING: THIS POST INVOLVES A FRANK DISCUSSION ABOUT SEXUAL VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IN OUR MEDIA CONSUMPTION

The last day of school is a half day. The Teen comes home at Noon. It’s already almost 100 degrees outside and she had two finals on this last day. So she asks me if I want to join her in doing “important things”. In our home, this is code for laying in bed and watching tv together.

“Do you want to go do important things with me Mom?”, she asks.

Of course I do. This is where she tends to open up with me and we have some of our deepest, most profound talks. Thing 2 is an active, play outside kind of kid and doesn’t often partake, so these are some of the rare moments that we have alone. If I can, I’m all for doing “important things” with my kids because this time is passing quickly and I don’t want to miss a moment of opportunity.

So there we are, doing “important things.” We flip channels until we find something we may want to watch. On the screen, a woman is walking a lone on the desert. We pause, trying to figure out what this is and what’s happening. Suddenly, two men appear in a truck. They start talking to her. The Teen tenses.

“Do you think they’re going to rape her mom?”, she asks.

I can feel the The Teen growing more and more tense beside me.

“Mom, they’re going to rape her. You know they’re going to rape her. They always rape the woman,” she says.

The men are inviting the women into the truck. One man stands behind her.

The Teen is now in a state of panic.

“Mom, change the channel. They’re going to rape her.”

We changed the channel.

The movie we were watching was called It Stains the Sands Red. I don’t know if those men raped that woman or not, but I’ve been thinking a lot about that moment of doing “important things”. I can’t stop thinking about the tension in her body, the rising anxiety in her voice, both the fear and expectation that when those men walked onto the screen she clearly understood that those men were going to rape that woman. That’s what she has been conditioned to expect when she sees a man and a woman on the screen in anything other than a RomCom or Superhero movie.

****

I went to the theater to see The Maze Runner one afternoon when the kids were in school without having read the book first. I tried to read the book, but it just wasn’t my thing. But The Mr. was off and we wanted something to do so we went and saw the movie.

If you’re not familiar with the story, a group of teen boys are enclosed in a space with no adults that they can’t seem to escape. At first, there are nothing but boys. Then one day, a girl is deposited into the glade (I think that’s what they called it. The minute that girl was dumped into the glade, I became anxious. One girl in a sea of young men – she’s going to get raped I told The Mr.

She didn’t. But I was anxious the entire movie because it felt like she would. That she should. I walked out of that movie discussing with The Mr. that the movie was unbelievable not because of the science fiction elements of the story, but because a girl had been placed into a non-regulated group of boys and they didn’t rape her. That’s not what would happen, I argued. THAT was the thing that made the movie unbelievable for me, the knowledge that I knew and understand that in that situation, it was very unlikely that girl would actually be safe in that situation.

As a consumer of media, I have been conditioned to expect that those boys were going to rape that girl. And when they didn’t, it wasn’t that I was disappointed (I was in fact relieved), but I found it unbelievable.

****

A friend and I are trying to find a Netflix show to binge. We like to watch dark British mysteries and then, in general, mysteries.

We select one and it begins with a woman running naked on a beach. She is running for her life.

“Not this one,” we say.

We select another one and it begins with a woman running naked in a forest. She is running for her life.

“Not this one,” we say.

We select another one and it begins with a woman running naked down a street, on the beach, through the forest . . . it doesn’t matter. They are all beginning the same. A woman is running naked. She is beaten and bloody. She has no shoes. She keeps looking back over her shoulder.

You know that she is fleeing from someone who has or is attempting to rape her.

We binge watch a comedy because we can’t find a mystery or crime show this day that we haven’t seen that doesn’t involve sexual violence against a woman.

****

I’ve been thinking a lot about the stories we tell and how women are used in those stories. About how we conditioned by the media we engage in to expect and glance over sexual violence against women. I’ve been thinking about how young that begins and what it means for how we all view women in media and in the world.

I want to read and watch mysteries and thrillers that don’t always involve sexual violence against women. I NEED to be able to read and watch mysteries and thrillers that don’t always involve sexual violence against women.

I want my daughters to grow up in a world where they can see a man and a woman on the screen and not automatically get tense because they know that the man is going to rape the woman because that’s what always happens.

I want my daughters to grow up in a world where the boys in their lives haven’t been taught over and over and over again in the media that they consume that when a man and a woman are together in a room, the man is going to rape the woman. I want her to grow up surrounded by men who understand that women’s stories don’t always have to involve sexual violence against the woman.

Mysteries don’t always have to be about the rape and murder of a woman. That’s not creative. That’s not breaking any boundaries. We’ve done that, a lot.

There are so many more stories that could be written. Creative tales that don’t objectify, stereotype, or constantly put women in harms way.

We need different stories.

We need better stories.

We need mysteries and thrillers and contemporary dramas that show all the other ways in which women live, thrive, survive, fail and are harmed.

Women’s stories can be about more than sexual violence.

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have any stories about sexual violence. Sexual violence is very real and we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. It is harmful to pretend it doesn’t exist. We spend a lot of time here at TLT and I spend a lot of time personally advocating for a greater awareness and end to sexual violence against women (and men). We dedicate pages on this blog discussing how adults and educators can use YA literature to raise awareness of topics like consent, sexual violence and the long term effects of childhood trauma. This is not me saying that we should never acknowledge sexual violence against women on the page or on the screen.

Last night I finished reading an upcoming ya book, one of the best books I’ve read in 2018, arguably one of the best books I’ve read that really takes a deep dive into the world of sexual violence in the life of girls. It’s powerful, haunting and very, very necessary. It also doesn’t use sexual violence as a plot device; it mines the depths of sexual violence against girls to explore the short and long term impacts and the ways in which we talk about that violence against women. In this book, sexual violence isn’t an unnecessary plot device, it’s a real and horrific reality that is revealed so that the reader walks away thinking deeply about the impact of this violence on everyone involved. It’s not using sexual violence for the sake of entertainment, but it asks you to think long and hard about what happens to the girls in our world.

Another difference is that the author of this ya book is a woman writing about sexual violence against women as opposed to a man who is writing a mystery or a thriller who needs something to happen in a story so he goes straight to sexual violence. This author dives deep into the emotional impact, the trauma, that surrounds the topic of sexual violence against women as opposed to a man who is simply looking to fill a plot hole or looking to provide trite character motivation. I’ve followed this author on social media for years and have read almost all of her books and I know that she is a passionate advocate for women and that book and her other titles are motivated not by shock value but from a deeply passionate place of advocacy and awareness; she is a woman who wants to change our culture and seeks to help make that happen by tearing away the curtain that seeks to keep sexual violence against women in the dark or simply uses it for an easy and well worn plot device. This is a raw, frank and honest exploration of sexual violence and the darkness that surrounds it.

There is a difference in the ways that storytellers use sexual violence against women in their stories and what motivates them to tell those stories. As consumers, we have come to lazily accept sexual violence against women in our stories and we don’t often explore how it hurts us, men and women both. Of course it effects boys growing up with sexual violence used so casually and seemingly without consequence as a storytelling device. And of course it effects girls. There are no winners when sexual violence is an unexplored plot device. Sexual violence for the sake of sexual violence in our stories is not helping our conversations surrounding things like consent, #metoo, and feminism.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the tension, anxiety and stress that comes when you are a woman engaging with media. I’ve been thinking a lot about the casual acceptance of the ways that violence against women is used to propel a story forward and what it’s like for even young girls watching these stories. I’ve thought a lot about how already, at the age of 15, my teenage daughter understood how casual our storytellers are with using sexual violence against women as a storytelling device and how much anxiety it caused her as a young woman trying to engage with story.

If you are a storyteller, please think about the stories that you are telling and how you use sexual violence against women in those stories. What is your motivation for doing so? Can the story be told in a different way? What is the impact that your use of sexual violence has on our culture? Is it gratuitous? Does it appropriately reflect the true trauma that comes with being a victim of said sexual trauma?

If you are a storyteller, ask yourself, how will it effect the men and the women engaging with my story? How will it shape their view of women? How will it shape their view of women and their place in our world? How will the women engaging with my story feel about their sense of self and sense of place in our world? How will the men engaging with my story feel about women and view their sense of place in our world?

Stories told about women don’t have to be about sexual violence against women. We deserve to see ourselves on the page or on the screen exploring all the other aspects of our lives.

Even as a survivor of sexual violence myself, I want there to be a better balance in our stories. Yes, I want us to talk about and be realistic about sexual violence in the life of women. 1 in 4 women will be the victims of sexual violence. We have to talk about that. It’s a fact.

But I am more than just a survivor of sexual violence and my life story is about more than the sexual violence that happened to me. In the same way, stories about women need to be about more than sexual violence.

Tell different stories. Find different plot and character motivation. Give your stories more depth, more creativity.

Do better by the women in your stories.

I just want to do “important things” with my daughter and have more choices that don’t involve casual sexual violence against women.

Sexual Harassment in KidLit

As a librarian, I don’t often feel genuinely a part of kid or yalit. I’m not an author. I’m not a publisher. I’m not an agent or an editor.

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But I am someone who regularly talks about books and puts them into the hands of kids and teens. So these last few days, I have really sat with and thought about what is happening with the MeToo movement in kidslit. And more importantly, what is my response as a human being and as a librarian.

If you need some background, Anne Ursu wrote a post on Medium sharing the results of a survey she did regarding sexual harassment in kidlit publishing. (Sexual Harassment in the Childrens Book Industry Anne Ursu)

In addition, School Library Journal, with whom this blog is networked, shared a piece about sexual harassment in kidlist as well. Then sometime yesterday the comments exploded and people began naming names of their harassers and there were a variety of discussions had regarding sexual harassment. (http://www.slj.com/2018/01/industry-news/childrens-publishing-reckons-sexual-harassment-ranks/#_)

We as a nation and, really, as a culture, are wrestling with sexual harassment. It’s a discussion we should have been having all along, and it’s an uncomfortable one. The most necessary and most difficult conversations often are. But just because it’s messy and uncomfortable doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be having it.

Previous Posts:

MeToo: Teens, Libraries and Sexual Harassment

Things They Don’t Teach You in Library School: Sexual Harassment in Libraries

As a general rule of thumb, this is where I stand on the issues.

1. Believe the victims

As a survivor myself, I can assure that there is nothing to be gained by coming out as a victim. Even in the midst of the MeToo movement, victims are still shamed, ridiculed, questioned and reviled.

2. Practice the fine art of listening

This past week I have spent a lot of time reading and listening. Yes, even as a survivor myself, it’s still important to listen. Not everyone reacts the same way, not everyone feels the same way, not everyone thinks the same way.

3. Keep in mind that anyone can be a harasser and anyone can be a victim

Although it is true that women are victims far more often then men, and men are abusers far more often than woman, it is also true that anyone can be a victim/survivor and anyone can be a perpetrator. Sexual harassment happens regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, and religion. It happens regardless of where a person is, what they are wearing, or how much they have had to drink.

4. The abuser is always responsible for their behavior

When talking about sexual harassment and violence, it’s important to remember that ultimately, the abuser is always responsible for their actions, their choices. At some point, the abuser must make the decision to engage in the behavior. They and they alone are responsible for their choices.

5. Survivors don’t owe you their stories

If, how and when people choose to share their stories of harassment and abuse are totally up to the victims/survivors. We do not get to demand of them their stories. They have already been violated once, we do not need to violate them again by denying their personal autonomy and demanding that they answer our questions, share the details, etc. Even if their abuser goes on to abuse 100s of other people, they don’t owe anyone their stories and they are not responsible for any subsequent abuse. They get to process their trauma on their own terms and in their own time.

I also have seen some discussion about what this means for us as librarians who work with kids. And I think that it is a good question, one with which we will wrestle with for quite some time. I know that what I may choose to do personally or as a blogger is different than what I will chose to do as a professional librarian. I purchase and put in my collection every day books that I don’t agree with by people I don’t like because I am a public employee and as such I am not building a personal library, but a community one. To hold the title of public librarian comes with a lot of responsibility to a community that is larger than just me. I am bound by community standards, board adopted collection development policies, and the teens in which I have chosen to serve. So while someone may be named as a serial predator and I will personally chose to believe the victims, I will probably not be able to stop buying their titles for my library. It also means that if I have reason to suspect that my teens will not be safe in the presence of said author, I will chose to invite someone else to an event as a speaker.

As a librarian and a reader, I believe in the power of words. I believe that what we say and what we do matters and helps shape the world that we live in. I believe that every person deserves to walk through this world with a reasonable expectation of respect and safety. I am keeping all of this in mind as I listen to the conversations we are having and trying to figure out when, what and how to say something.

I also want to remind us all that teens today have access to these conversations that we are having. They are connected in ways that previous generations never were. They are connected with authors, with the larger kid/yalit community, and with the news. They see and hear us talking about consent, sexual violence, and sexual harassment. They are listening. They are learning. Now, more than ever, what we say and how we say it matters. We are not just reckoning with our past, but we are helping to shape the future in terms of these issues. What is happening matters.

#MeToo: Teens, Libraries and Sexual Harassment

svyalitOver recent weeks, a wide variety of discussion has been happening about sexual violence, harassment, and assault. These are important conversations that have wide reaching implications. Make no mistake, these things are also happening in the lives of our teens. With the discussion there has been a lot of sharing online with the hashtag #MeToo. This hashtag was begun years ago and became very active again in the past couple of weeks.

#MeToo: An activist, a little girl and the heartbreaking origin of ‘Me too’

#MeToo: Women are sharing their stories of sexual harassment

Many librarians are bringing this topic into their libraries by sharing book displays of titles that deal with the topic of sexual violence with a simple sign that says “#MeToo”. I think this is a relevant and important display for our teens. This IS a topic that they deal with, it is also a conversation that is happening right now. Our teens are online, plugged in and connected; they are very aware of the conversations and engaging in their own ways. We need to be relevant to our teens, which means we need to make sure that we are responding and putting up these types of displays. Some librarians have responded that they would not be allowed to put up a display of this nature because it is too political, but this is not about politics – this is about teens and their lives, the lives they live and the topics that they talk about. By the time they reach the age of 18, 1 in 4 or 5 will be the victims of sexual violence. And almost no female will graduate high school without experiencing some form of sexual harassment. My teenage daughter has already dealt with this on multiple occasions and it is a topic that we talk about often as I try and help her navigate how to stand up for herself and demand safety and respect. By the time they graduate high school almost all of our teen girls will be able to share their own #MeToo stories, and this is unacceptable.

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If you are considering putting up your own #MeToo display, here are some book lists to that you can draw from.

#SVYALit: The Sexual Violence in YA Lit Project and Discussion – includes book reviews and book lists

13 YA Books About Sexual Assault And Rape Culture

#SJYALit: Ten Young Adult Novels for Sexual Assault Awareness

YA Books About Rape Culture, Fight Against Sexual Assualt

When Talking About Sexual Consent, YA Books Can Be A Parent’s Best Resource

9 Books That Are a Call to Action Against Rape Culture

#MeToo Book List by Barnes and Noble

On MOXIE, THE NOWHERE GIRLS, Current Events and the Power of Books

There has been a lot of very important discussion in the news this past couple of weeks about sexual harassment and abuse by men in positions of power, in no small part thanks to the revelations regarding Harvey Weinstein. Of course women know and have known for years that type of culture and abuse isn’t rare and isn’t limited to Hollywood, it’s everywhere. Yes, it’s even in our public school perpetrated by both teachers and students.

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This year there are two really good books that discuss this very topic and The Teen has read them both.
She has also already enthusiastically passed them on to friends with the note that they need to read these books right now. After she finished reading the second book, The Nowhere Girls, she came and told me that she was going to put up boundaries! It turns out there is a male student at school who keeps touching her, not in obviously inappropriate ways but in ways that still made her feel uncomfortable and she felt like she couldn’t say anything about it because it was just her being “weird”. But the truth is that she hated it and wanted it to stop. She has since told him that he is not allowed to touch her without her permission. To be honest, I believe there were threats like, “if you touch me again without my permission I will break your arm.”

As a parent, it was amazing to watch her read these two books and apply them to her real life experiences. Without a doubt, they made her think and gave her a sense of empowerment that she needed for a real life situation. As a librarian, it just reinforced for me that yes, what we do is important. Access to stories are important and powerful and although I see it in action every day, it doubly meaningful to see it in action with my daughter.

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I am the survivor of sexual abuse. The first time that a man ever touched my breast without my permission was when I was in the 6th grade. It was not the last time. I have been sexually harassed at work, and once a male colleague reported that HE was uncomfortable having witnessed it yet nothing happened. When these stories come out, women are not surprised. They know. And we are not surprised by the silence of women, because we understand how and why that happens as well. When we tell, we are doubted, condemned, and sometimes suffer great losses, like family, friendships and yes, jobs and reputation. Victims of sexual violence are never in a position of power, which is what men accused of sexual abuse like Harvey Weinstein and even Donald Trump are counting on (adding allegedly here to protect myself legally).

It would be nice to think that reactions this week mean the tide is finally turning, but at the same time our current president is on tape talking about how he can get away with this very thing because “they let you” because he’s famous. So while men are saying things like this ends now, women in the know recognize that it needed to end decades ago – and this will still probably not be the things that makes it end. But books can help. Book reveal what we try to keep hidden in the dark, they enlighten, and they empower. It’s not the only thing that is needed, but we definitely need them.


  1. So speaking of creepy dudes and sexual harassment, let me share a story about The Teen and events of this week. A thread.


  2. So The Teen recently read both MOXIE by @jenmathieu and THE NOWHERE GIRLS by Amy Reed. She loved them both. AND she told me


  3. @jenmathieu there is a boy at school who always touches her in creepy ways. Massaging her shoulders. Poking her belly. And it made her uncomfortable


  4. @jenmathieu but she thought it was just her being weird. But she read the books and declared, I'M DRAWING PERSONAL BOUNDARIES and telling this guy


  5. @jenmathieu that he can't touch me without my permission. Which, hell yes! And these important books helped her realize this & empowered her. Thank you!


  6. @jenmathieu Also, every girl. Every. Single. One. Will deal with this at some point. And speaking up is hard & can be costly. Careers, reputation, etc


  7. @jenmathieu And they always try to make it seem innocent but they are definitely not. They are trying to satisfy personal needs - power, thrills - at


  8. @jenmathieu the expense and comfort of another. And when girls speak up, they are ungrateful bitches, or manipulative, or vindictive. We as a society


  9. @jenmathieu need to change the narrative and call it what it is and recognize it as a non consensual violation of another person.


  10. @jenmathieu It's so normalized for girls she - who tells me everything - didn't even think to come talk to me about this. It's just the way things are.


  11. @jenmathieu And I obviously think every collection should have and everyone should read BOTH Moxie and The Nowhere Girls. Yes, both of them. We need


  12. @jenmathieu the message repeated and reinforced in multiple ways to help break down rape culture and change the discourse. Get them both. The end.

About Moxie

Moxie girls fight back!

Vivian Carter is fed up. Fed up with her small-town Texas high school that thinks the football team can do no wrong. Fed up with sexist dress codes and hallway harassment. But most of all, Viv Carter is fed up with always following the rules.

Viv’s mom was a punk rock Riot Grrrl in the ’90s, so now Viv takes a page from her mother’s past and creates a feminist zine that she distributes anonymously to her classmates. She’s just blowing off steam, but other girls respond. Pretty soon Viv is forging friendships with other young women across the divides of cliques and popularity rankings, and she realizes that what she has started is nothing short of a girl revolution.

About The Nowhere Girls

Three misfits come together to avenge the rape of a fellow classmate and in the process trigger a change in the misogynist culture at their high school transforming the lives of everyone around them in this searing and timely story.

Who are the Nowhere Girls?

They’re everygirl. But they start with just three:

Grace Salter is the new girl in town, whose family was run out of their former community after her southern Baptist preacher mom turned into a radical liberal after falling off a horse and bumping her head.

Rosina Suarez is the queer punk girl in a conservative Mexican immigrant family, who dreams of a life playing music instead of babysitting her gaggle of cousins and waitressing at her uncle’s restaurant.

Erin Delillo is obsessed with two things: marine biology and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but they aren’t enough to distract her from her suspicion that she may in fact be an android.

When Grace learns that Lucy Moynihan, the former occupant of her new home, was run out of town for having accused the popular guys at school of gang rape, she’s incensed that Lucy never had justice. For their own personal reasons, Rosina and Erin feel equally deeply about Lucy’s tragedy, so they form an anonymous group of girls at Prescott High to resist the sexist culture at their school, which includes boycotting sex of any kind with the male students.

Told in alternating perspectives, this groundbreaking novel is an indictment of rape culture and explores with bold honesty the deepest questions about teen girls and sexuality.

Book Review: The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed and What You Need to Know About MRAs

nowheregirlsPublisher’s Book Description

Three misfits come together to avenge the rape of a fellow classmate and in the process trigger a change in the misogynist culture at their high school transforming the lives of everyone around them in this searing and timely story.

Who are the Nowhere Girls?

They’re everygirl. But they start with just three:

Grace Salter is the new girl in town, whose family was run out of their former community after her southern Baptist preacher mom turned into a radical liberal after falling off a horse and bumping her head.

Rosina Suarez is the queer punk girl in a conservative Mexican immigrant family, who dreams of a life playing music instead of babysitting her gaggle of cousins and waitressing at her uncle’s restaurant.

Erin Delillo is obsessed with two things: marine biology and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but they aren’t enough to distract her from her suspicion that she may in fact be an android.

When Grace learns that Lucy Moynihan, the former occupant of her new home, was run out of town for having accused the popular guys at school of gang rape, she’s incensed that Lucy never had justice. For their own personal reasons, Rosina and Erin feel equally deeply about Lucy’s tragedy, so they form an anonymous group of girls at Prescott High to resist the sexist culture at their school, which includes boycotting sex of any kind with the male students.

Told in alternating perspectives, this groundbreaking novel is an indictment of rape culture and explores with bold honesty the deepest questions about teen girls and sexuality.

Karen’s Thoughts

Yes, in the title of this post I mention MRAs, which we will get to in a minute, but make no mistake: this is a powerful feminist story about teenage girls. Like Moxie by Jennifer Matthieu (which comes out tomorrow), it sets its sights on rape culture in our public high schools and sends readers the important and powerful reminder that they can and should actively stand up against sexual harassment and violence. In the midst of those big themes, there are also reminders about the importance of and power of female friendship, intersectional feminism, faith of all kinds, and more.

When The Nowhere Girls get together in private places, they have what many perceive to be forbidden (and graphic) discussions about sex, sexuality, rape and more. These are frank conversations that many characters note they wish adults would have with them so that they could work on sorting it all out. In fact, some of the girls mention that they wish someone had told them they had the right to say no and other mention that they wish someone told them that it was okay to enjoy sex. As an adult reader I wish that someone had these discussions with me. Reed does a really good job in these conversations and throughout the book in presenting a wide variety of points of view on the topics without condemning any one point of view to lift up another.

The Nowhere Girls also does a really good job of giving us some good character diversity. One of the main girls is a progressive Christian with a pastor mother (which was a refreshing representation in every way even if the girl’s name is Grace), one is a Latina girl, and the other has Asperger’s. At times I wondered if the characters didn’t fall too broadly into stereotypes – the Latina character, Rosina, for example, has a big family that runs the local Mexican restaurant and she is constantly being forced to either work in the restaurant or watch her large number of cousins. Erin, the girl with Asperger’s, sticks to a rigid schedule and is obsessed with Star Trek: The Next Generation, looking to the android Data as a source of inspiration. Then throughout the book we get glimpses into many of the other girls in short vignettes. In fact, I originally stopped reading this book because of the number of voices and points of view that came up, but I picked it back up and I am so very glad that I did.

If it only ever gave us The Nowhere Girls stories and points of view, this would still be a profoundly powerful must-read, but it goes an important step further and acknowledges the very real and very toxic men’s right advocate/activist culture (MRAs). If you are not familiar with the MRA culture, it is a deep online culture (though less hidden more lately in part due to terrifying cultural and political shifts) where men discuss how to pick up and yes, how to rape, women. There are some MRAs who are fighting for things like father’s rights after divorce and an end to alimony and child support, but if you go deeper into the culture you see the types of posts that are highlighted in The Nowhere Girls.

Here are some posts to help get you started in understanding MRAs and what you read about in The Nowhere Girls:

Mad Men: Inside the Men’s Rights Movement (Mother Jones)

The 8 Biggest Lies Men’s Rights Activists Spread About Women (MIC)

I Spent a Week Hanging Out On a Men’s Rights Activist Forum – VICE

5 Uncomfortable Truths Behind the Men’s Rights Movement

There’s a better way to talk about men’s rights activism (VOX)

And right there in the pages of The Nowhere Girls author Amy Reed shares posts from an online blog called The Real Men of Prescott where they talk about things like the only role of a woman is for sex and sandwich making, how women should be submissive, and how if girls don’t give you sex, then you might just have to take it. They talk about how they get girls so drunk they can’t say no, and this is rape. These blog posts are a very real look into some of the darker parts of the online MRA movement and this is the first book I have read that talks about this part of our culture. It’s disgusting and uncomfortable, but it is oh so very necessary to talk about because it’s real and it’s happening and I want us all to acknowledge it’s existence and understand the impact it has on the world we live in.

And because this is a book review, I want to let you know that this is powerful storytelling with someone beautiful phrasing and imagery. And the ending moved me to the extreme and I hope that when girls come and tell us their stories of being a victim of sexual violence, we will believe them and move with them through life in the ways that these girls do. And sometimes, not often enough but sometimes, there is justice.

The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed is a must read by everyone 14 and older. It’s dark and graphic, but it’s also inspiring and empowering. Combined with Moxie by Jennifer Matthieu, I think this is powerful one-two punch on rape culture and feminism in our high schools that everyone should read and discuss. And never has there been a more timely book release than these two books coming out right as Betsy Devos is talking about walking back Title IX in our schools at the same time that women’s rights are once again under fierce attack by our current administration and legislators. These are the right books at the right times, and they are powerfully good book at that.

The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed releases October 10th from Simon Pulse

I happen to have a spare copy of The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed in ARC form that I picked up at ALA and I think this book is good and important, I’m doing a give away. If you live in the U.S. do the Rafflecopter thingy by Friday.


a Rafflecopter giveaway

Sunday Reflections: Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Lead Pipe, aka on “Due Process” in Literature and Yes, Another Discussion of MOXIE

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A teen stumbles on a body in a field. Or their best friend is missing. Or they get a mysterious package in the mail. What do they do? They almost never call the police. Never. In the great tradition of Scooby Doo, they investigate themselves, because of course they do. In fact, if they didn’t, there would be no novel.

While investigating they touch everything. They move important information. They don’t talk to each other about what they find, let alone the authorities. Yet I have never read a review that suggested a mystery novel was a problem because the main characters didn’t follow due process.

In case you are wondering what I am talking about, a recent Kirkus review of Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu complained that this novel was a problem because it embraced vigilante justice and ignored due process. I have already written my thoughts about this book and this review earlier this week, but I can’t help continuing to think about the concept of due process. (See Let’s Talk about MOXIE by Jennifer Mathieu)

If we demanded that our main characters followed the letter of the law in every novel that we read the entire mystery, thriller and horror genres would cease to exist immediately. Poof, they are gone.

We read about teen crime fighters, teen spies, teen hackers and more, but a teen girl sharing with others that she was the victim of an attempted rape is a line you can not cross?

Sexual crimes are largely under-reported. Do you know why? It’s because of the ways that we treat victims who come forward. They will be questioned about what they wore, what they drank, where they were, their sexual history and more. They will be treated as if it is all their fault. Due process does not favor those who come forward and ask for justice for the sexual crimes committed against them.

moxie

The fact that this reviewer insists upon due process in a FICTIONAL NOVEL meant to empower young women highlights how loathe we are to give a voice to the victims of sexual violence. I have never seen this insistence of due process in any other type of novel, nor have I seen a fear of vigilante justice, even in novels that actually include vigilante justice. Because we understand that novels are, well, fiction.

So here I am days later still grappling with this review but not because of the review itself, but because of what it reinforces about rape culture. We don’t believe victims. We hold conversations about sexual violence to a different standard then any other discussions about criminal behavior. We ask things of the survivors of sexual violence that we don’t ask the survivors of any other crime.

But this review is written by a woman? Yes, yes it is. And women are raised in the same patriarchal society that teaches us that the voice of men and the concerns about men’s futures are more important than the voices of the victims of sexual violence. It’s hard work breaking down that internalized misogyny. It’s work that even the most feminist of feminists are still doing. News, media, churches, our own families – they reinforce the patriarchy from the moment we are born and it is hard and constant work to break that down and to choose to give women equal footing. That is, by the way, what Moxie is doing, it’s doing the hard work of breaking that down and empowering teen girls by reminding them that they deserve to have a voice. But even in a book designed to empower and give teen girls a voice, many are asking but what about the men? It’s hard to center the female voice because we have been taught that we can’t, that we shouldn’t.

For another great discussion of Moxie, check out this Booklist review: Girls to the Front: Jennifer Mathieu’s MOXIE

And that refusal to listen to and center the female voice – even on occasion – is part of the reason why there is a group of 12 male senators writing a secret healthcare bill that will dramatically impact women’s healthcare choices and costs. It’s why male senators continue to ask female senators to be quiet or “less hysterical”, despite the fact that the data continues to show us that even when women speak less than men, they are perceived as dominating the conversation.

It’s why we have a review demanding that a fictional novel become a how-to-manual when it involves a female main character accusing a male character of rape (actually, attempted rape if we are going to precise).

I was a middle school child who tried to tell the adults around me that I was the victim of sexual violence. I followed “due process” and nothing ever came of it. It was swept under the rug, as these things often are, and my voice was taken from me. I never got justice. In fact, I have spent the rest of my life trying to navigate and juggle family situations in a way that keeps me safe from having to be around the person who violated me. The work was put on me, a child, because every adult around me – including law enforcement – failed me. I now talk about what happened to me in coded ways so as to protect myself from any legal repercussions from the person who violated me as a child. If you have read this blog long enough you will realize that I never say who or what relationship I have with this person; I do this so that this person can never come back and sue me for character assassination. Now I protect him even though no one protected me. That’s what it is like being the victim of sexual violence and trying to follow due process.

I imagine what it would have been like for me if I had read a book like Moxie during the time that I was being abused. If I would have felt more empowered to ask for help sooner, to demand justice more fully, to give myself a voice instead of growing old in shameful silence. I wonder what it would be like to have had people stand up with me and walk out of a school in a show of solidarity and support instead of having a family that complained that I was being unfair to my abuser and making the family uncomfortable and strained. Moxie is not supposed to be a how-to-manual, because no novel is by definition, but it is an empowering and inspiring one. And for that I am forever grateful. Teenage me is glad that today’s teens will have this book that reminds them that they don’t have to be silent, that they don’t have to center men, and that they can choose to be advocates and activists.

If you can read a mystery novel and not complain about the lack of due process then you should be able to read a novel about female empowerment and not complain about the lack of due process. If not, you should probably take some time to reflect and ask yourself why.

Let’s Talk about MOXIE by Jennifer Mathieu

moxieTrigger Warning: Sexual Violence

This past year was a rough one for The Teen. I got repeated texts from my daughter asking me to please come pick her up at school because she didn’t feel safe. She came home and talked about boys touching her and her friends in the hallways, catcalling, asking them to send naked pics and telling them to suck their d*cks. As a mother and a sexual abuse survivor, it was so hard to watch my daughter go through this year.

During the last few weeks of school 15 girls were sent home for wearing school spirit t-shirts as opposed to the uniform polo shirts. Fifteen. But during an assembly where they were being taught CPR nothing happened to the boys who yelled out to the instructor crude comments about sucking and blowing. Absolutely nothing.

I called the school. I wrote to the admin. I asked them to address their sexual abuse policy and how it was being implemented. I shared with them stories about what was happening to my daughter and her friends.

And in the midst of all of this, I read Moxie.

Moxie is the story of a high school where the girls are going exactly through what my daughter was going through. This book was personal. So I after I read the book, I ran into The Teen’s room and said, “you need to read this right now.”

In Moxie, our main character, Vivian, begins a revolution to call out and raise awareness of harassment and injustice the girls in her high school face. It begins when she finds some old zines in her mother’s closet. She posts her own zine and asks her fellow students to show up on a specified date with stars on their hands to raise awareness. And several do. Over time, the movement evolves. Others post their own zines. Many of the girls hold a bake sale to raise funds for new uniforms for a female sport that isn’t supported in the same way that the HS football team is. When the bake sale is banned on campus, they hold an event off campus. They go from supporting one female sport to all female sports. Their advocacy is a work in progress as they learn, grown, regroup and figure out what it means to be involved and an advocate. I found this process to be incredibly realistic, that is the nature of waking up to injustice and choosing to be vocal. No one is a perfect advocate, ally or activist; we are all learning as we go. So of course these teenage girls are imperfect in their attempts. In fact, I appreciated the way the girls talked and worked out the kinks as they went along in their journey. Character growth is an awesome thing.

In a recent review by Kirkus, there were some harsh criticisms leveled again Moxie and the way these girls approach speaking out about their experiences. The reviewer complained that boys weren’t given a voice and that the book didn’t really address the issue of due process vs. vigilante justice. I disagree with this review.

Kirkus Quote: Vivian’s incensed reaction when her boyfriend suggests the anonymous accuser might be lying ignores the American judicial system’s core tenet of due process.

For one, Vivian has a boyfriend with whom she has many important conversations about these issues, including that of believing the victim. In fact, they have a very good discussion when one of the football players is accused of rape regarding false accusations and the important of believing the victim. It’s also important for us to note that false accusations are incredibly rare, in large part because of the harsh realities that victims must face when they do come out and share their story. We as a culture are quick to blame victims while even convicted offenders like Brock Turner will receive very little jail time as we are more worried about what happens to men who rape as compared to what happens to the girls that they rape. Vivian’s message is believe the victim, and that’s an important message. Victims are re-harmed time and time again because no one will believe them.

Kirkus Quote: But there are troubling moments when Vivian excludes willing male participants, seemingly suggesting that achieving female empowerment requires gender separation.

First, I’m not sure I view this quote as entirely accurate. For example, towards the end of the book, I felt that the girls were in fact thankful for the guy’s who participated in their walk out. As for the criticism that this book doesn’t embrace the activism of feminist men, I reply with this thought: why can’t a book about female empowerment be a book about female empowerment? One of the things I am learning as an ally is that my voice should never rise above that of the group or persons I am trying to be an ally for. In the work of feminism, this is true of the male voice. I appreciate the allyship and support of men when it comes to fighting for equal rights and sexual safety, but the male voice should not be louder than the female voice in this discussion because then nothing about the dynamics have changed. We currently have an all male leadership working to make laws about women’s healthcare and reproductive choices and male senators keep telling female senators to be quiet and sit down – now is the time to raise and amplify the female voice in the discussion of female rights and safety. Men do not lack a platform or a voice, so just this once maybe we can agree to empower our daughters and give them a voice and let men take a back seat. Is that too much to ask? I don’t think it is. I think it is the only way that the dynamics will change. It’s time to listen to women when we talk about women’s rights and bodies and experiences. This is a book that amplifies the female voice in the discussion of female experiences of oppression and sexual violence.

Kirkus Review: Further, the novel fails to educate readers that qualified police investigators, not school officials, must be alerted in accusations of criminal behaviors.

This quote is of particular interest to me because this what not actually the experience of some of the girls and their parents at our school this year. In fact, when a teen girl was held down in class as a boy tried to touch her and another boy tried to video tape it, her mother called the police to report the incident. She was told it was a school and not a police matter. Schools are required by Title IX to protect all students, including to protect them in instances of sexual violence. Unfortunately, schools are failing our students in this regard every single day. 1 in 4 of our daughters will be the victim of some type of sexual violence before they graduate high school. Much of this will take place in our schools. In fact, the police, schools and the judicial system keep failing them.  There are far more guilty Brock Turners who will serve zero to little time after being found guilty.

As the mother of a teenage daughter who went through the exact experiences shown is this book, I feel Moxie is a powerful and important and relevant and inspiring story of how girls can join together to fight for their rights and safety. It’s a novel, not a hand book, but it’s definitely an inspiring starting point that says to girls, you can change the dynamics. What a powerful message that is to receive when you live in a world where you don’t feel safe at your school.

There are other powerful messages and discussions in this book. The characters change their minds about a lot of things as they learn and grow. They come to regard each other differently as they see each other as complex and dynamic people. There is, in fact, a powerful story about a cheerleader and how their stereotypical views of this person change when they receive new information.

I loved this book. It is the book that my teenage daughter and I needed in the midst of this school year. And I know, because I have worked with teens for 23+ years, that her experience was not unique. The first time a boy ever reached out and grabbed my breast was when I was walking through the hallways of my middle school. It was not the only time. Go ask any woman and they will probably be able to share similar stories as the stories that you read about in Moxie. And that’s why this book matters.

I highly recommend it. I’m buying it for every teenager I know.

Publisher’s Book Description

An unlikely teenager starts a feminist revolution at a small-town Texan high school in the new novel from Jennifer Matheiu, author of The Truth About Alice.

MOXIE GIRLS FIGHT BACK!

Vivian Carter is fed up. Fed up with a school administration at her small-town Texas high school that thinks the football team can do no wrong. Fed up with sexist dress codes, hallway harassment, and gross comments from guys during class. But most of all, Viv Carter is fed up with always following the rules.

Viv’s mom was a tough-as-nails, punk rock Riot Grrrl in the ’90s, and now Viv takes a page from her mother’s past and creates a feminist zine that she distributes anonymously to her classmates. She’s just blowing off steam, but other girls respond. As Viv forges friendships with other young women across the divides of cliques and popularity rankings, she realizes that what she has started is nothing short of a girl revolution.

Moxie is a book about high school life that will make you wanna riot!

This book comes out in September 2017

Sunday Reflections: That’s Me in the Corner . . .

TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL VIOLENCE

svyalit

This year was more triggering for me then I ever could have imagined. 8th grade, the worst year of my life. The year of betrayal at the hands of a man who swore to keep me safe, a man I trusted. The year my teenage daughter was now entering into. This was the year I dreaded since learning I would become a mother, and to daughters.

I thought at the beginning of the year, if I can just keep her safe this year then everything will be okay. If we just can make it through the 8t grade, she’ll be safe.

It turns out, that is a lie.

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough

This election peeled off the scab that had formed over the wounds of my own experience with sexual violence. As election night drew near, my heart sank. I drove through my town and watched as more and more signs for Donald Trump went up, despite the fact that we had all heard the audio of this man openly boasting about sexual violence. I heard pundits and friends and family dismissing this behavior as locker room talk. I read the letter sent out by my church from Franklin Graham assuring me that the only right way to vote was for the sanctity of life.

But whose life?

You see that’s what this election has made clear, we do not value the sanctity of all lives equally. We made that clear when we put a man in the White House who is on record as saying that he can grab any woman he wants by the pussy. A man who filled his cabinet with at least 3 men who have been accused of domestic violence. A man whose first act as president was to sign a piece of paper in a room full of men that rescinded some of the rights of women both in healthcare and in the workplace.

Every whisper
Of every waking hour
I’m choosing my confessions
Trying to keep an eye on you
Like a hurt, lost and blinded fool, fool
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I set it up

So I look at my daughter and I realize, even if I get her safely through this 8th grade year, if she can get through this year without being touched by a man against her will, she still isn’t safe. Not really.

Last year, as the election drew to a close and it was announced that Donald Trump would be the 45th president, I wrote a letter on my FB page to the church universal. I poured out my heart to the universe about how I would not be able to go to church the following Sunday knowing that the church didn’t care about me, a survivor of sexual violence. It was me pouring out my pain and my fear and the rejection I felt from my safe place, my faith, because they had just voted a man into the highest office who said out loud the very things victims of sexual violence have to live with. It was angry, it was real, and it was raw.

My best friend unfriended me. My church abandoned me. I was told I was a sinner who needed to get right with God. I was left standing, alone, in my despair as I realized that power, a Supreme Court judge, and a few key issues were more important than the safety of women, the safety of my daughters. It was in this moment that I truly I understood my place in the Christian faith, and my sorrow knew no bounds. I was an outsider in this place I was supposed to call my home, my family.

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough

All of those feelings came surging back again this week as more and more news came out about Bill O’Reilly. I have never personally been a big viewer of Fox News, but I know that it is the channel endorsed by my church and most of my Christian friends. I also knew about the sexual harassment accusations and ousting of Roger Ailes. And now comes news of Bill O’Reilly. And I am reminded again, many people are willing to sacrifice the safety of women for whatever it is they perceive they gain by propping up these men, by looking the other way. For Bill O’Reilly, it’s rating and money. For Donald Trump, it’s power and money. The safety of women, it appears, can be easily bought.

What do I tell me daughter as she reads, once again, about the sexual harassment of women? Brock Turner. Bill Cosby. Donald Trump. The Baylor football team. Bill O’Reilly. It’s everywhere. A new name comes up before the old name is even able to leave fully formed from our lips. The list grows longer. The world grows less safe as we become more aware of how prevalent sexual harassment, abuse and violence really is.

This world feels fundamentally unsafe for women. We’re willing to look past crimes against them because we want comfort, power, a conservative Supreme Court judge . . . We are willing to sacrifice women at the altar of male power. The truth of it burns deep into the core of me; I am a fire that can not be quenched any longer with platitudes and niceties. I am rage. I am despair. I feel like I might finally understand what it means when we describe God as a vengeful God, as a heartbroken parent, as a rejected bridegroom . . . I feel cast aside, and I alternate between despair and a need for vengeance. I want to rain down a cleansing fire and hold our daughters in our hearts and whisper to them, you are loved, you are valued, you are safe.

How do I help my daughter feel like she is precious in the eyes of God when the church is willing to sacrifice her to the wolves? How do I make her feel valuable in this world when men in power call her a host and pass laws that make her powerless over her body? How do I make her feel safe when legislators and judges try to explain away rape by trying to say it’s not legitimate rape? How do I make her feel confident and motivated and worthy of an education when schools punish girls for having bodies and put the responsibility of boys education on them somehow by calling girls distractions? How, how, how . . .

How do I raise a daughter who is whole and healthy and confident and chosen when everything about this world seems designed to tell her that she is none of those things, and doesn’t deserve to be?

The Vice President of the United States recently revealed that he can’t have dinner alone with a woman, preventing women from being involved in business and government as his equal. We are lesser objects, temptresses, bodies to be feared, not minds and heart and voices to be included and respected.

When I was twenty, I was engaged to the man who is now my husband. We have been married 22 years this year. But at the time, I was living in Southern California, renting a room from a family in my church. They called me their daughter. Their children called me sister. This arrangement was made because I wasn’t safe in the house I was living in. For two years, I called their house my home and I called them family.

One day, the mother came to me and told me that she and the kids were going on a two week vacation and I would have to find somewhere else to live while they were gone. It was then that I knew that it was all a lie. I was not family, I was not a fellow Christian, I was as I have always been a female body that couldn’t be seen as anything more than a sexual object, a temptation, a lesser being. I packed up my belongings and went to the only place that was open to me, the place that they had supposedly been keeping me safe from for the last two years.

That was 24 years ago and the world feels less safe now than it did then. Then the church universal still pretended to care about the sanctity and safety of women, but now the curtain has torn and the sheep have taken off their costumes to reveal the wolves underneath. The church no longer feels like a sanctuary but a pit of vipers thriving off of my fear.

I close my eyes at night and I see the leaders of the church as monsters, gnashing their teeth at the tether of female safety, willing to sacrifice us all for power. The 44-year-old sexual assault survivor, the 8th grader whose mom just wants her to be safe, the 8-year-old who doesn’t yet understand what it means to have wolves in office. Women are all on the sacrificial altar when it comes to maintaining money and power.

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In this lifetime, 1 in 4 women will be the victims of sexual violence of one kind or another. Many of us have been fighting hard to raise awareness and to help lower these statistics. But now, we have put a predator in office who has surrounded himself by others who appear to hate women, and most days it feels like we have lost the fight. How do we tell the current generation of boys growing up how to treat a woman when we have contradicted ourselves by the men we put in power? How do we tell them we value consent and respect when they can go on YouTube and hear their president speaking the way he does about women? We have legitimized the very thing I have been fighting again.

I recently started going to another church. I listen every week waiting to hear someone say that what is happening in our world is not okay. I’m waiting for a man – any man –  to stand at the pulpit and say, without hesitation or doubt, but in the boldness that comes from speaking the truth, that sexual violence against women is not under any circumstances okay. That women shouldn’t be given a numeric value, that women’s health matters, that consent is the only acceptable option.

I’m waiting for the letter from Frankly Graham that says the only right way to vote is for the candidate that values the sanctity and safety of women. That it is never acceptable to have a sexual predator in our highest government office.

I’m waiting for the world to tell me that my daughters deserve to be safe and loved and respected.

I’m desperately waiting.

faith and Spirituality

I need to know that my church, that my faith, values me. Values my daughters.

I need to know that moving forward, we will no longer continue to tolerate propping up men who abuse women – not for ratings, not for profit, and not for power. Not for a Supreme Court justice. Not for a majority in Congress. Not for the power to make laws that make men richer.

That’s me in the corner, sitting on a pew, waiting for my church to tell me that I am safe among them. But slowly, so slowly, I am losing my religion. Because I refuse to take my daughters to a place of worship that thinks their value and safety is something that can be sacrificed.

And now, I finally understand the song. I’m losing my religion, though I am trying desperately to hang on to my faith.

Title and quoted lyrics are from LOSING MY RELIGION by R.E.M.

#SVYALit (2014)

The Sexual Violence in YA Project, using YA literature to discussion sexual violence in the life of teens

#FSYALit (2015)

The Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit Discussion, using YA literature to discussion a diversity of faiths in the life of teens

Sunday Reflections: Wrestling with Nate Parker and the Narrative of Forgiveness

sundayreflections1When I started high school, I completely had to cut myself off from a part of my family in order to protect myself from the man who had spent the previous year molesting me. I was not universally supported in this decision. Many people considered it an inconvenience to the family. Many others remarked that I was hurting this person. Very few people were concerned about my safety or well being, which is often the case with sexual violence.

We live in a world where we still care more about the ramifications of sexual violence charges on the perpetrator then on the results of sexual violence on the victim. Judges, for example, give lenient or almost non-existent sentences because they are worried about how it will impact these lives of these young men. Brock Turner will serve little to no time. And he is but just one example.

I have thought about this a lot this week as I have wrestled with the news of Nate Parker and reading IRREVERSIBLE by Chris Lynch.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say this: the man who abused me when I was in the 8th grade is now a part of my life. He went to therapy. I went to therapy. I have chosen to forgive him and have a relationship with him. But it was my choice. And it is not always an easy relationship. It’s been 30 years, but I still wrestle with many of the effects of being sexually abused. And there are both spoken and unspoken rules to our relationship. He doesn’t get to pretend that my childhood was okay, because it wasn’t. He doesn’t get to act like nothing happened because it did. He knows that I talk openly about being a victim of sexual violence and he doesn’t get to complain about that because this is the truth of my life.

So if I have forgiven and chosen to have a relationship with my abuser, why am I so hesitant to easily forgive public figures for their crimes of sexual violence? The answer is because of this: in the public discourse, we still focus to much on dismissing and coddling the perpetrators of sexual violence and this is a huge problem for victims everywhere. Our focus on perpetrators as opposed to victims continues to support rape culture and victim blaming, making it harder for victims to come forward and get the legal and emotional help that they need to survive.

Also, I think that we need evidence that perpetrators have done the work necessary to understand their crimes and seek true forgiveness. It’s one thing to say your sorry because you got caught and need to save public face, it’s quite another to understand that you have truly harmed your fellow human beings and contributed to a culture that makes it harder for victims of sexual violence to get justice and support. I’m sorry I got caught is not the same thing as I did an evil thing.

How we discuss and handle sexual violence publicly is incredibly important. It defines our culture. It can make it easier or harder for victims. Traditionally, our culture has made it incredibly hard for victims. And even though there is more discussion about sexual violence, we are still wrestling with victim blame and perpetrator supporting. How we talk about these issues in the media sends both explicit and implicit messages to everyone about how we should respond to accusations and victims of sexual violence, and right now we are still not doing a very good job with this.

Nate Parker’s charges of sexual violence occurred in 1999. Do they matter today? We don’t get to decide that. Unfortunately, the only person who does get to decide that took her own life because of the many ways she suffered as a victim of sexual violence. But now that this information is public, we very much have a responsibility to all past and future victims to discuss the ways in which we publicly wrestle with sexual violence. How we talk about what happened then now matters because it can either reinforce or dismantle rape culture.

When we talk about Woody Allen, Nate Parker, Bill Cosby and more, we’re not just talking about individual cases. We’re talking about about sexual violence as a whole and how we can change our culture so that victims can get the justice and the support that they need. Because Nate Parker’s case has become public it is no longer a private matter, but it’s a part of a larger discussion that helps us define as a culture how we are going to respond to sexual violence. It sets the tone for the next victim who comes forward seeking justice and support. We have failed victim after victim after victim. It’s time that we change the conversation and start supporting them, which is why I can’t separate the art from the artist. It’s not just about the art, it’s about our culture.