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Book Review: Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake

Publisher’s description

girl made ofFor readers of Girl in Pieces and The Way I Used to Be comes an emotionally gripping story about facing hard truths in the aftermath of sexual assault.

Mara and Owen are as close as twins can get, so when Mara’s friend Hannah accuses Owen of rape, Mara doesn’t know what to think. Can her brother really be guilty of such a violent act? Torn between her family and her sense of right and wrong, Mara feels lost, and it doesn’t help that things are strained with her ex-girlfriend, Charlie. As Mara, Hannah, and Charlie come together in the aftermath of this terrible crime, Mara must face a trauma from her own past and decide where Charlie fits into her future. With sensitivity and openness, this timely novel confronts the difficult questions surrounding consent, victim blaming, and sexual assault.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

BILLY STARS

There’s what I tweeted after I finished this book. What a powerful and memorable read. I read a LOT of books. Often, as the weeks and months pass, the details get lost to me. I’ll remember I liked something, but not necessarily all of the reasons why. Or I’ll forget characters’ names or how the book made me feel. But this book? This book will stay with me. All of it.

 

Relationships in twins Mara and Owen’s world are closely-knit. They attend an arts magnet program with all the most important people in their lives. Hannah, Owen’s girlfriend, is one of Mara’s best friends. Charlie, Mara’s very best friend, is also her ex-girlfriend (Mara is bisexual; Charlie is nonbinary). And Owen’s best friend, Alex, has always been there, but Mara finds herself turning to him more and in new, unexpected ways. When Hannah says that Owen raped her at a party they all were at, Mara is devastated. She knows her brother would never do that. But she also knows Hannah would never lie about that. She turns to their small group of friends, including both Hannah and Owen, as she tries to process what happened. Mara has her own reasons for fiercely thinking that “believe girls and women” is a good policy (beyond it just being a good policy). She’s held on to a secret for years, a secret that ruined her relationship with Charlie. Mara and Owen’s parents believe Owen when he says he didn’t rape Hannah. They urge Mara to understand the need to be united on this, to not talk to anyone about it, to make sure they all have the story straight. But Mara is sick of not talking about things. She stands by Hannah, especially when Hannah comes back to school and is repeatedly greeted with, “Hey, slut, welcome back.” Mara, Charlie, and Hannah all have truths to tell. They rely on each other, and the support of girls (particularly in their feminist group at school, Empower) to find the strength to not be silenced. 

 

This masterpiece is gutting. It’s not just the characters, the dialogue, and the writing are all wonderful—they are—but that the story is so real. So true. So common. Maybe not the specifics, but the general story. This is in incredibly important read about the aftermath of a sexual assault, about consent, rape culture, family, friendship, and feminism. A powerful, heartbreaking, but ultimately uplifting read. 

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781328778239
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/15/2018

 

 

#YAAtoZ: Consent in YA, a guest post by author Sara Baysinger

Welcome to February, where we are discussing the letters C and D as part of the #YAAtoZ Project. Today we’re talking consent with author Sara Baysinger.

For a complete look at the #YAAtoZ posts, go here.

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Consent. It’s a loaded word with crystal clear meaning, yet somehow the lines still get blurred for *certain* people who don’t really care to see the lines at all due to their own selfish desires.

Let me clarify these lines for those who are confused.

When things get a little steamy between a boy and a girl, and the boy listens to a girl’s verbal and nonverbal cues, and when he asks her, “Is this ok?” even when he thinks he understands her verbal and nonverbal cues, and when she says she’s uncomfortable and he’s immediately hands-off until she’s ready—THAT. IS. CONSENT.

For more posts on consent, please visit the complete Sexual Violence in YA Lit (#SVYALit Project) Index

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No assuming she’s into it just because he is.

No thinking that if given a moment, she’ll enjoy it.

No getting off for his own pleasure and thinking she’ll be fine when it’s over.

Consent is when both partners are seeking permission, and both partners are clearly granting that permission.

So what does this have to do with YA books? I’ll begin with my own experience.

I was a homeschooled kid, raised in a foreign country. I didn’t get out much, and with two older sisters, I didn’t know a whole lot about boys or how they work. That is, until I found books. Books with swoony romance. Books with bad guys and good guys. Books that showed me that as long as the guy is a good, God-fearing man, the woman should do whatever he tells her.

Did you just get triggered by that last line?

Me, too.

Unfortunately, it’s true. Being homeschooled in a conservative household, I only had access to a few books by certain authors. And I’m not going to shine a spotlight on these books, because that’s not the point of this blog. But while my parents did not raise me in a patriarchal household, the books I read certainly did steer me down that road, where the road signs say a wife should be submissive to her husband, and a man has dominance over a woman—as long as—again—he’s a God-fearing man.

It wasn’t until years after high school that I woke up and realized we’re all equal, and a man has NO SAY WHATSOEVER in a woman’s preferences, discomforts, or choices, especially in something as important as sex.

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And then I started reading more books that I usually wouldn’t have read as a teen. And I found stories that promote feminism and equality. I found books where the man respects the woman’s choices. Where Rhysand loves Feyre, but never pushes her to be with him until she verbally and nonverbally makes it known to him that she wants him. Where Warner backs off from Juliette completely until she verbally and nonverbally makes it known to him that she wants him. And then I was able to write about Kalen (from The Vanishing Spark of Dusk), who never pushes Lark into anything intimate until she verbally and nonverbally makes it known to him that she wants him.

Books teach us about life, even fiction books. Especially fiction books. They influence us. They pull us through life-changing experiences that all happen inside our heads. And YA books that cover consent—they teach us how important it is to listen to our inside voices. They teach us to listen our bodies, heed our intuition, and respect the boundaries of ourselves and our partners.

Ultimately, they teach us when to use consent. (Spoiler alert: ALWAYS).

From Concordia University in Texas http://www.concordia.edu/page.cfm?page_ID=3142

From Concordia University in Texas
http://www.concordia.edu/page.cfm?page_ID=3142

And while I regret the brainwashing of the books I read earlier on in my teen years, I’m glad I found books that taught me that it’s perfectly okay to say no.

About The Vanishing Spark of Dusk:

Stand up.

When Lark is stolen from Earth to be a slave on the planet Tavdora, she’s determined to find her way back home to her family, no matter the cost. Placed in the household of a notorious slave trader, Lark quickly learns her best assets are her eyes and ears. And if she’s brave enough, her voice.

Be heard.

Kalen is the Tavdorian son of a slave trader and in line to inherit his father’s business. But his growing feelings for Lark, the new house slave who dares to speak of freedom, compel him to reveal his new plan for the slave ships returning to Earth—escape. Together, they just might spark a change that flares across the universe.

Fight back.

Buylinks: https://entangledpublishing.com/the-vanishing-spark-of-dusk.html

 

About Sara Baysinger:

sarabaysinger

 

Sara was born in the heart of the Andes Mountains in Ecuador where she spent her early life exploring uncharted lands and raising chickens. She now makes her home among the endless cornfields of Indiana with her husband and two children…and she still raises chickens. Her dystopian novel BLACK TIGER was self-published in 2016. When not getting lost in a book, Sara can be found gardening, devouring chocolate, and running off the sugar-high from said chocolate. You can visit her online at www.sarabaysinger.com.

 

Author Links:

Author Website: https://sarabaysinger.com

Author Twitter: https://twitter.com/sarambaysinger

Author Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sarabaysingerauthor

Author Street Team/Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/baysingerbookbrigade/

Author Instagram: @sarabaysinger

Author Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/sarambaysinger/

Author Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3149743.Sara_Baysinger

Newsletter Link: https://sarabaysinger.us13.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=6faa8239e9b9862ca599822d1&id=34536cc669

Book Review: Consent by Nancy Ohlin

consentPublisher’s description:

In this sexy and intriguing novel, an intense—and passionate—bond between a high school senior and her music teacher becomes a public scandal that threatens the reputation of both.

Bea has a secret.

Actually, she has more than one. There’s her dream for the future that she can’t tell anyone—not her father and not even her best friend, Plum.

And now there’s Dane Rossi. Dane is hot, he shares Bea’s love of piano, and he believes in her.

He’s also Bea’s teacher.

When their passion for music crosses into passion for each other, Bea finds herself falling completely for Dane. She’s never felt so wanted, so understood, so known to her core. But the risk of discovery carries unexpected surprises that could shake Bea entirely. Bea must piece together what is and isn’t true about Dane, herself, and the most intense relationship she’s ever experienced in this absorbing novel from Nancy Ohlin, the author of Beauty.

 

Amanda’s thoughts:

Oh, boy. I will be so curious to hear feedback from actual teens on this title. As an adult reading this, I was scowling the whole time. I don’t like the word “sexy” up in that description, nor do I like the words “romance,” which I’ve seen in a few other reviews. Usually I don’t look at reviews on a book until after I’ve written mine, but I poked around a little this time and my scowling continued. You wanted their relationship to work out? You’re saying, wait, wait, it’s not that creepy–she’s nearly 18 and he’s only ten years older? AND HER TEACHER. And underage. And he’s TEN YEARS OLDER.

 

That said, Ohlin certainly doesn’t present this as really romantic or even okay. She also doesn’t paint anyone as clearly the villain. Both Bea and Mr. Rossi have justified their relationship, and the thoughts they have about it are complicated. But there wasn’t one second while reading this that I wasn’t thinking, this is statutory rape. She is underage. He’s much older. He’s her teacher. I wanted to yell at her. And at him. And at the friends that Bea eventually convinces to help lie for her and cover for them. And at Bea’s oblivious and undeveloped dad. And her loser brother, for that matter. That’s a lot of yelling, I know.

 

When the book opens, Bea is being interviewed by the police. Other bits of the interview are interspersed in the narrative. We see that she’s lying to the police about what actually happened. Bea is at the top of her class, despite not seeming to have any real drive or ambition, or even putting in much work. She’s looking at applying to Harvard, but really only because her best friend, Plum, wants her to apply there with her. She’s never had piano lessons but is a prodigy, playing in secret at home when her dad isn’t around, worried it will trigger him because her piano prodigy mother died while giving birth to Bea. Bea says she’s not a slacker and is not depressed, but has little motivation for anything and carries a heavy weight of guilt over her mother’s death and what happened to their family after.

 

When Mr. Rossi shows up to substitute for the music teacher on leave, Bea pretty much has insta-feelings for him. He’s young(ish), British, attractive, and a skilled piano player. Instantly, Plum is asking if Bea has a crush on him. Bea has sudden and incessant thoughts about Mr. Rossi, after only seeing him one day. He takes an interest in her after he hears her play piano and mentors her, aghast that she isn’t applying to any conservatories and shocked that she’s never had a lesson. They meet up outside of school, first at a cafe and then eventually at his house. He wants her to play for his professor friend at Juilliard and takes her to NYC for the weekend. Yes, they go on a trip together. Yes, things happen on that trip. Yes, I yelled at Bea. The whole time all of this is happening, Bea and Plum talk about him as though he’s a boy their age, as though this is fine. They of course mention the risk and everything, but mostly think it’s okay because Bea’s nearly 18, he’s only a sub, and they’re obviously in love. This is special. It’s not creepy. It’s not predatory. It’s not statutory rape. She’s consenting. Isn’t she? 

 

Mixed into the story are references to Nabokov’s Lolita; composer Robert Schumann and his relationship with this piano teacher’s daughter, Clara; the forbidden love in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera;  and other stories of age difference, like both Plum and Bea’s parents, giving readers more to think about regarding age differences and consent.

 

When things fall apart, as we know they will have to, and their relationship gets discovered, things go from bad to worse. People get pulled in to lie for them. Bea and Mr. Rossi make a REALLY BAD choice at school. Bea’s dad, a lawyer, is concerned and gets involved, but it’s debatable if he really understands what’s been going on as Bea continues to lie to him. Even when Bea has her eyes open to the potential pattern going on with Mr. Rossi, she still thinks they will end up together, still continues to lie to authorities to protect him. The ending was rather abrupt. I was reading this on a tablet and assumed I still had quite a bit to go. I wanted to see more of Bea dealing with the aftermath of their relationship being exposed and the fallout. An epilogue shows us how she’s moved on, but I wanted to see her get there.

 

This is a book that will make you uncomfortable. It might make you furious. It will definitely make you sad. When we talk about consent, as we so often have in our Sexual Violence in Young Adult Lit project, it’s important that that conversation includes the legalities of age of consent and examines what statutory rape looks like. Some readers may read this story as a doomed affair. They might indeed find it “sexy” or “romantic.” But others, especially adults, will see a vulnerable and naive girl being preyed upon by a man far older than she is–a teacher–and deluding herself into thinking there is anything okay about what’s going on. A powerful, complicated look at consent that offers plenty of fodder for great discussions. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781442464902

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Publication date: 11/10/2015

“Our kisses were seismic”: Positive sexual experiences in LGBTQIA+ YA books

Part of the Sexual Violence in Young Adult Literature Project has included posts looking at enthusiastic consent, positive and healthy sexual experiences, and on-the-page consensual sex scenes (check out those posts here by Karen Jensen, Christa Desir, and Carrie Mesrobian). While it’s important to look at and discuss rape, consent, abuse, and violence, it’s equally as important to present plenty of healthy, positive, and enjoyable experiences for teen readers to show them what desire looks like and how it can play out. The field of books about LGBTQIA+ teens is growing in leaps and bounds. We are lucky that we can hand so many books to teenagers where the characters have happy and fulfilling relationships, where things are not all doom and gloom, and where sexual behaviors actually take place on the page, rather than some fade to black scenes. There is power in representation, in being seen, in seeing hope and happiness.

 

two boysOne of my favorite books that falls into this category is David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing. In it, Craig and Harry, former boyfriends and now best friends, set out to break the world record for the longest kiss (32 hours, 12 minutes, and 10 seconds). Their kiss is recorded and streamed live to a worldwide audience. Levithan writes, “They are kissing to show the world that it’s okay for two boys to kiss.” And kiss they do.

 

Here are two of my favorite parts:

“Harry has kissed Craig so many times, but this is different from all of the kisses that have come before. At first there were the excited dating kisses, the kisses used to punctuate their liking of each other, the kisses that were both proof and engine of their desire. Then the more serious kisses, the its-getting-serious kisses, followed by the relationship kisses—that variety pack, sometimes intense, sometimes resigned, sometimes playful, sometimes confused. Kisses that led to making out and kisses that led to saying goodbye. Kisses to mark territory, kisses meant only for private, kisses that lasted hours and kisses that were gone before they arrived.”

 

“Two boys kissing. You know what this means … When we kissed, we knew how powerful it was. Our kisses were seismic. When seen by the wrong person, they could destroy us. When shared with the right person, they had the power of confirmation, the force of destiny … And even as it becomes commonplaces, the power is still there. Every time two boys kiss, it opens up the world a little bit more. Your world. The world we left. The world we left you. This is the power of a kiss: It does not have the power to kill you. But it has the power to bring you to life.”

 

gone gone goneHow about a bit from Craig and Lio in Hannah Moskotwitz’s Gone, Gone, Gone:

“He pushes me up against the counter. I’m cold everywhere he touches me, except my mouth, my mouth is burning against his mouth. I’m all wet. I’m melting.”

 

“…I kiss him in my kitchen like I’ve never kissed anyone in my life. It feels a little hilarious, like I’m trying to sweep his whole body into mine. Starting with hands, then arms, then lips.”

 

“We are in the bed, squeaking on the mattress. We are all arms and legs and mouths. I’ve never kissed like this before. I feel like I’m falling into him.

‘I like your hair,’ he says.

‘Mmm.’

His hand underneath my t-shirt. I shiver. ‘However far you want to go, Craig.’

‘Yeah?’

‘It’s fine with me. I’m ready.’

He kisses me hard, for a long time teeth are against my lips.

He whispers, ‘Li? Can we just sleep tonight?’

I can’t say I’m not a little disappointed. But it’s all right. There will be other nights. There will be. And again and again and again.”

 

about a girlSarah McCarry’s About A Girl has some great scenes too:

“… But the unmapped landscape I had cross with him that night in his room compared not at all to the country in which I now found myself, to this girl who moved beneath me and above me like a serpent, lithe and strong, her muscles like cables snapping beneath her skin, the exquisite softness of her mouth a sweet counterpoint to the hard plans of her body …. I looked deep into the bright honey of her eyes and found that I had lost myself altogether, that had she not whispered my name over and over as she kissed me … I should have forgotten it altogether, and it was only the sound of my own name in her mouth, her tongue shaping it as she shaped me, that brought me back to myself, and not long after that there was nothing left for her to say at all, and I was nothing more than a body singing, a body reborn and born again, utterly hers in the dark.”

 

 

I asked on Twitter for people to share with me their favorite YA relationships/scenes/books featuring enthusiastic consent and healthy, positive relationships. Thanks for all of the wonderful input! Let us know in the comments or on Twitter your favorite books, relationships, and scenes! 

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Coercion and Sexual Violence in LGBTQIA Lit, a guest post by Nita Tyndall

by Nita Tyndall (@NitaTyndall)

 

We don’t talk enough about coercion as a form of sexual assault, and we specifically don’t talk about it in regards to LGBTQ literature—narratives, as harmful as they are, of boys “wearing girls down” or talking them into sex are seen as commonplace, even acceptable and, on occasion, romantic.

 

We don’t think of queer couples when we think of coercion. We think of a guy pressuring a girl into sex, to keep going, to go further. This narrative is everywhere. It’s in books, it’s in movies, it’s in songs (looking at you, “Paradise By the Dashboard Light”.) Coercion in queer books becomes even more problematic, because oftentimes with power dynamics at play, characters may not only coerce their partner into sex, but into coming out.

 

We do not think of two girls when we think about coercion. When we think of coercion with girls, we think outright bullying, pressuring, non-sexual, non-queer stuff. We do not think of romantic relationships, but we should.

 

While coercion can happen between romantic relationships of any gender, I’m discussing coercion today in girl/girl relationships depicted in YA lit, most notably in A. S. King’s Ask the Passengers and Julie Anne Peters’ She Loves You, She Loves You Not. Both books show instances of coercion, though in different ways and from different points of view.

 

KING1In King’s Ask the Passengers, Astrid Jones is a seventeen-year-old trying to figure out her sexuality and what it means to her. Throughout the novel she’s in a relationship with a girl named Dee Roberts, who is out.

 

Astrid and Dee’s relationship is problematic from the beginning, from when readers are introduced to Dee. While this interaction is played off as a joke, it’s clear Astrid is uncomfortable with how fast Dee wants to move, and also, that this isn’t the first time this has happened:

 

 

 

“Now she’s laughing while she kisses me. ‘You’re not going to tell me to back off again, are you?’

‘Mmm. Hmm,” I manage while still kissing her neck, her ear. ‘Back off,’ I say. I bite her earlobe.

So far in my life, Dee is the only person who wants to totally ravish me. I have to stop her all the time.

 

While Dee never overtly pressures Astrid to come out, (another behavior addressed in Peters’ book), her behavior does continue.

 

“True.” She kisses me sloppily and it makes my insides twist up and we make out for a few minutes and everything is going great until she jams her hand into my pants and I have to stop her from going too far because I don’t want to go that far.

She slaps the car seat and says, “Dammit, Jones! Just shit or get off the pot!”

I decide Dee is now fine to drive home.

 

When Astrid calls her on this behavior, Dee is upset, insisting she isn’t like that or a date rapist even though she’s acknowledged previously that Astrid is scared of her.

 

“Is that how you want to make love to me the first time? Forcing yourself?” I’m crying. I know I’m crying about everyone who’s trying to control me, but I can’t explain that to Dee right now.

“I wouldn’t have ever done something that made you feel horrible. Jesus! You make me out like a date rapist. You know I’m not like that.”

“You were last night.”

“Stop saying that. I was not.”

“Dude, I had to stop you. If I hadn’t stopped you, what would have happened?”

 

Dee’s behavior isn’t viewed in a vacuum to Astrid, instead, she’s presented as another person in Astrid’s life who is trying to control her or make decisions for her. On some level this is understandable, on another, not, because it conflates sexual assault with other people in Astrid’s life who are pushy.

 

She chews on the inside of her cheek. “I just don’t get what the big fucking deal is. I mean, we’ve been together for over five months now. I’m pretty sure I love you!”

Wow. That was… gutsy. Not romantic, but… wow.

“Oh,” I say.

“Oh? That’s all you’re going to say?”

“No,” I say, trying to be gutsy, too. “I’m also going to say that if you—if you think you love me, then shouldn’t you treat me like you love me and respect me? And be patient with me?”

I realize that I’m saying this not just to Dee but also to my mother. And Kristina.

And Ellis. And Jeff. And maybe even myself.

 

Dee’s behavior does change near the end, and she ends up respecting Astrid, but the obvious power dynamic is still unnerving, and the behavior brushed off because Dee is a girl, though Astrid does comment on this at one point during the novel:

 

But what’s the difference between Jeff Garnet and Dee Roberts right now? Last week, Jeff’s pressing me up against his car like some big jerk and tonight Dee’s doing the same damn thing.

 

Astrid recognizes Jeff as a jerk, though. He isn’t redeemed. Dee is.

 

PETERS1Coercion takes a different form in Peters’ SHE LOVES YOU SHE LOVES YOU NOT, again with a power imbalance, though this time it’s age instead of experience and the protagonist is the coercer rather than the love interest.

 

What’s particularly harmful in this book is Alyssa’s coercion of her ex, Sarah, is never seen as anything wrong. Apart from her mother calling her a stalker at one point, Alyssa faces no repercussions for this behavior—her dad kicks her out for being gay, but the coercion is never addressed, even though it’s clear. Alyssa is momentarily ashamed of her actions, but never is this addressed within a larger scope:

 

 

“I felt humiliated. Ashamed. Why? I’d never made Sarah do anything she didn’t want to do. She’d decided. Fifteen was old enough to decide.”

 

You kissed her. Looking back, she may have resisted, but it wouldn’t have mattered. You didn’t want to see. You took her in your arms and kissed her so urgently.”

 

Alyssa’s behavior extends into stalking her ex, as well, told through second-person passages.

 

“You called and called. You texted her. You IM’d, even though she asked you not to…  You drove by Sarah’s house for an hour, maybe two. It was growing dark, and you drove past her house again and again, calling on your cell and texting.”

 

While the above behavior is not coercive, it does speak to the characterization of Alyssa, of her tendency to blatantly ignore her girlfriend’s wishes no matter the context.

 

There’s another danger in Alyssa’s behavior, though also never overtly dealt with in the book, and that’s of her thoughts on another girl who she presumes to also be gay. While the character, Finn, does admit she’s queer later in the novel, Alyssa’s thoughts beforehand also ring an alarm bell:

 

She says, “When did you know?”

‘Know what?”

“That you were…” She can’t even say it.

“A lesbian?”

She nods slightly.

“I’ve always known. Haven’t you?”

The change in her eyes goes beyond shock. More like absolute terror.

Oh my God. She hasn’t acknowledged it yet. How could she not know?

Finn gets up and mumbles, “We should go back.”

I think, You should come out.’ (p. 109)

 

Coercion or pressuring someone into coming out, or assuming their sexuality, is a problem that extends beyond YA literature. The narrative of forcing someone out of the closet or insisting they’ll be happier if they are, particularly if the person doing the pressuring is already out, is extremely problematic. Choosing whether or not to come out is a heavy decision, and insisting that you know better than the person who’s coming out, or making them feel like they have no choice but to, is not only incredibly disrespectful but speaks volumes about our treatment of other queer people: That you can only be happy if you’re out, or that staying in the closet is something to be ashamed of. That other people can make that decision for you, or pressure you into making it. Upholding such narratives as okay or romantic, especially to teenagers, is awful.

 

We need to address coercion in YA, especially with queer relationships. We need to understand that this is not merely a heteronormative issue, that it is sometimes not as obvious as “Come on, just have sex with me.” That it can happen when both partners are the same age or the same experience level and it can happen when they are neither of those things. That it can happen when you feel like you can’t say no, because no one’s given you a handbook for what to do when your girlfriend asks you to do something you’re uncomfortable with and it’s not like she’s a rapist, right? We need to dispel the notion that the only coercion girls are capable of is bullying, that the boy with more experience is always the coercer. That if your partner is out and experienced and you aren’t then somehow you’re inadequate or not enough. That your partner gets to decide if you need to come out or not.

 

We need, as Dahlia Adler pointed out in her post, more positive depictions of consent. But we need depictions of coercion, too. Maybe if we have them, maybe if a teen is able to see that behavior played out on the page, they’ll recognize it, maybe they won’t ignore that gut feeling that tells them something is wrong if their partner does the same thing. Maybe they’ll stop themselves before they try to pressure their partner into sex, maybe they’ll think about the repercussions of that, of what it means.

 

Maybe, hopefully, they won’t think it’s acceptable or romantic anymore. Maybe they’ll realize:

No one can make decisions for you about how ready you are sexually, likewise, no one can make decisions over if you’re ready to be out or not.

 

Meet Nita Tyndall

IMG_1490Nita Tyndall (@NitaTyndall is a tiny Southern queer with a deep love of sweet tea and very strong opinions about the best kind of barbecue (hint: it’s vinegar-based.) She attends college in North Carolina and is pursuing a degree in English. In addition to being a YA writer, she is a moderator for The Gay YA and a social media coordinator for WeNeedDiverseBooks. You can find her on tumblr at nitatyndall where she writes about YA and queer things, or on Twitter at @NitaTyndall. She is represented by Emily S. Keyes of Fuse Literary.

Why Heteronormativity in YA Hurts More Than You Think, a guest post by Dahlia Adler

by Dahlia Adler (@MissDahlELama)

When I first started reading LGBTQ YA, everything I read was m/m. I didn’t know of any other books other than what fell into my lap, and I wasn’t actively seeking it out, and what I happened upon were boys falling for and hooking up with boys. Some of these books included references to the guys having sex with phrases like “He climbed on top of him,” and OK, I knew what that meant when it came to boys having sex with boys, and there was no confusion there.

 

Then I read my first YA that included a romance between girls.

 

To be clear, I loved a lot about this book that I read—a lot—but in it, the love interest consistently goes too fast for the main character, and the main character stops her and tells her each time, and usually has to physically restrain said love interest in order to do said stopping. And then they move on and are couple-y, until it happens again, until eventually, the main character is ready.

 

I hated that so, so much.

 

I’m not questioning whether it’s realistic—I’m sadly sure that it is—but to me, it was utterly terrifying to see in a relationship we’re supposed to root for the entire book. If a guy kept grabbing a girl’s boob and she had to keep making him stop, would we think that was okay? If a guy kept trying to enter a girl until she pushed him away, would we think that was okay?

 

And yet here were two girls in that equivalent position, and in a couple we would never expect to be endgame if they were heterosexual in YA, and people were totally cool with it, even applauding the main character’s strength in holding her own and maintaining some control in the relationship.

 

Would we ever put it on the girl to hold her own in heterosexual YA?

 

And the bigger question: what if she couldn’t?

 

In heterosexual couples, you have at least the perception if not the reality of a sizable imbalance of power due to gender dynamics. Whether it’s men on the whole being taller and/or physically stronger due to more testosterone, or just having the kind of social capital in a patriarchal society that allows them to go back to the locker room and do the kind of damage with words a girl rarely gets away with or even attempts to, we know they have an added responsibility with care and consent. We know men doing what they want to do without regard for where the girl is at is wrong. We know they must respect “no means no.”

 

But what happens when there’s no guy in the pairing? Or what happens when both halves of the pairing are guys?

 

When the gender dynamics suggest equality, does consent still matter?

 

Spoiler: YES. Every bit as much.

 

When we talk about heterosexual sex, especially in YA lit, we talk about “P-in-V intercourse” as the endgame, the big deal, the milestone loss of virginity. Everything else is treated as a step on the way, if it’s acknowledged at all. But when your endgame is something else, when sex for you doesn’t have those parts—well, we rarely see or acknowledge that in YA, and that has consequences all along the path from confusing to invalidating, and beyond.

 

When what is sex for queer kids is “only foreplay” for straight kids, is consent still as important?

 

Spoiler: YES. Every bit as much.

 

And yet, reading YA, I think these messages can get really, really blurry. And blurry, for a queer kid who’s new to navigating sexual relationships and doesn’t know how to ensure a safe space, can be a very dangerous thing.

 

under the lightsThese were things I had in mind a lot when I wrote the sex scene in Under the Lights, my most recent YA novel. Vanessa and Brianna are approximately the same height, and both athletic. Their physical imbalance is negligible. However, their imbalance with regard to sexual experience is not: Vanessa is a virgin, while Bri has had past partners. Bri takes the lead once Van makes it known she wants to have sex, and part of taking that lead is also taking responsibility for the consent conversation. To paraphrase Spider-Man, “With sexual power comes sexual responsibility.”

 

“Is this okay?” she murmurs.

I open my mouth to say yes, but I’m not sure it is. I think it is. And when her fingers brush the right spot over the fly of my jean skirt, it’s obviously my body thinks it’s plenty okay.

“Guess not,” she says, but she’s smiling as she slides her hand back up to my waist, settling it in the curve there. “See? Only what you’re okay with, Park. Always. I promise.”

 

Whether the participants are straight, queer boys, queer girls, queer non-binary people, or any combination of the above, when writing people having sex (especially teens), I think we do a great disservice by glossing over the existence of a power dynamic. Especially the first time, the existence of one is nearly always present; sometimes we just have to dig a little deeper to find it. Writing YA lit is an incredible opportunity to show what consent can and should look like, how much closer it can make you, how sexy it can be. If YA sex scenes often seem like wish fulfillment, well, that’s an aspect I’m okay with teens reading and thinking, “That’s what I want and I’ll settle for nothing less.”

 

Meet Dahlia Adler

DAHLIA

photo credit: Maggie Hall

Dahlia Adler is an Associate Editor of Mathematics by day, a blogger for B&N Teens by night, and writes Contemporary YA and NA at every spare moment in between. She’s the author of the Daylight Falls duology, the upcoming Just Visiting, and Last Will and Testament, as well as over five billion tweets as @MissDahlELama. She lives in New York City with her husband and their overstuffed bookshelves.