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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.

Misrepresentations of Violence in Julie Anne Peters’ Rage: A Love Story, a guest post by Megan Honig

by Megan Honig (@vongmeggz)

rage coverRelationship violence—sexual, physical, and/or emotional—among LGBTQ young people is underdiscussed and, unsurprisingly, underrepresented in teen literature. Because there are so few books depicting LGBTQ relationship violence, Julie Anne Peters’ Rage: A Love Story, a book about two teen girls who enter into a violent, unhealthy relationship, is still notable six years after its publication.

Unfortunately, the picture Rage paints of a lesbian abusive relationship is distorted and incoherent. Characters are built around two recognizable tropes—abusers hit; survivors stay—but these tropes are divorced from a broader understanding of how abuse functions in intimate relationships. The result is that a book that aims to depict domestic violence in a lesbian relationship actually mischaracterizes and conceals violent behaviors.

The central relationship in Rage is between Reeve and Johanna. Judging by reviews, it is most often read as a story where Reeve is an abuser and Johanna her target. It is easy to read the book this way because tropes about domestic violence point uncomplicatedly to Reeve as a perpetrator and Johanna as a survivor. “What’s wrong with me,” Johanna asks early on, talking about her stressful workplace, “that I stay and no one else does?” Later, bearing a visible mark from having been hit, Johanna covers up the truth with a classic lie: “I fell down the stairs.” These sound like popular understandings of what intimate partner violence looks like. But when read carefully, the story becomes much murkier.

When Rage opens, Johanna knows Reeve only from a distance. She fantasizes about Reeve in segments called “Joyland,” imagining the two of them together in a variety of passionate sexual and romantic scenarios. The two finally meet when Johanna is assigned to tutor Reeve’s brother Robbie.

Reeve initially wants nothing to do with Johanna, but Johanna persists in trying to get closer. Johanna follows Reeve home one day and witnesses intense family violence. Later, after Reeve has explicitly told her “Don’t follow me!” and “I don’t want you coming to my house. Ever. Again,” Johanna goes back to her house.

Reeve, meanwhile, hits, bites, and shoves people at the slightest provocation. If Johanna has any reaction to seeing Reeve hurt others, it isn’t conveyed. There is, in fact, jarringly little reflection or contexualization overall. Johanna does react to Reeve’s family situation, but only by vowing to help her out of it—in direct contradiction to Reeve’s stated wishes.

Johanna slowly insinuates her way further into Reeve’s life until, midway through the book, we reach the pivotal scene that leaves Johanna with a black eye. For a date, Reeve goes to Johanna’s house and Johanna cooks dinner. Early in the evening, Reeve gets frustrated and decides to leave. Johanna grabs Reeve’s wrist to stop her. To get away, Reeve punches Johanna in the face.

This is the scene that is meant to position Johanna as the survivor. Afterwards, we see her bearing the mark of having been hit—a classic symbol of physical abuse. But in fact, Johanna is the one who has engaged in violent and threatening behaviors: stalking, violating explicitly stated boundaries, and finally, attempting to physically control Reeve by grabbing her. Reeve’s hitting, in this moment, is not an act of abuse but an act of self-defense.

Later, Reeve’s behavior aligns more with typical acts of relationship violence. She comes to Johanna’s workplace and sabotages Johanna’s job. She manipulates Johanna into spending her already limited funds on Reeve. And, yes, she hits and bites and hits again. But the story remains, at its core, troubling. A book that claims to depict relationship violence between two lesbian teens encourages Reeve’s act of physical self-defense to be read as violence while letting Johanna’s acts of stalking and physical aggression pass without comment.

Two popular misconceptions about abusive relationships are at play here. One is the myth that leaving an abusive relationship is easy, a sentiment often expressed with the handwringing lament, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” To stay, according to the logic of this myth, is to choose—freely, deliberately, and perversely—to be abused. But abusive relationships are often very difficult to leave. Survivors stay not because they want to be abused but because they are being manipulated.

This dynamic is well illustrated through a different relationship of Johanna’s. Johanna’s friend Novak, who has a boyfriend, nevertheless flirts with Johanna and deliberately uses Johanna’s attraction to Novak to manipulate Johanna into giving her time, energy, and living space against her better judgment. Every time we see Johanna on the brink of saying no to Novak, Novak touches Johanna deliberately, playing on Johanna’s romantic and sexual desires with the intention—and effect—of making it hard for Johanna to deny her requests.

Johanna’s persistence with Reeve is also informed by her romantic and sexual desires. Johanna’s role with Reeve, however, is very different and much more sinister. Unlike Novak, Reeve isn’t manipulating Johanna—she’s telling Johanna very clearly to leave her alone. We are told early on that Johanna is “the one who stays” but when she follows Reeve home repeatedly, against Reeve’s wishes, Johanna isn’t staying—she’s stalking.

The second myth at play here is that abusers are easy to identify. According to this myth, the only abusive relationships that exist are ones where the abuse is immediately obvious to onlookers. Abusers, by this logic, are monsters; anyone who appears kind, well-intentioned, or in any way sympathetic could not commit abuse.

The reality, however, is that abusers are often outwardly charismatic and commit violence only in secret. Abusers leverage the myth that abusers are monsters by insisting that a committed activist, or a valuable community member, or a compelling artist couldn’t be capable of abuse. One look at current events tells us that this is a chillingly effective strategy.

In Rage, Reeve reads as an abuser because her violence is exaggeratedly apparent. She hurts people constantly and blatantly, in scenes that are, when read carefully, difficult to make sense of. Consider the passage in which Johanna sees Reeve kissing another girl:

Britt was moaning and breathing hard, and then she went, “Ow!

“You bit me!” Britt said.

“Did I?”

“I’m bleeding. You did that on purpose,” Britt whimpered. “Why’d you do that? I never did anything to you.”

Reeve said, “You asked for it.”

Britt crumpled to the ground and started to cry.

Why does Reeve bite Britt? Is it an act of sexual aggression, as Reeve’s “you asked for it” seems to imply? Of anger or revenge, as Britt’s “I never did anything to you” seems to indicate? The text offers no explanation. The scene feels, more than anything, like an incoherent collection of tropes about relationship violence, and one can only draw the circular conclusion that Reeve hurts people because she is an abuser, and an abuser is a kind of person who hurts people.

The assumptions around which the central characters are created are rooted in these two myths: that abusers irrationally hurt people and that survivors irrationally stay in abusive situations. The result is both incoherence—Reeve’s strange and chaotic hitting—and masking of violence—Johanna’s stalking, portrayed as victimhood.

From her author bio, it seems as if Peters may not have intended to depict a relationship where one partner abused the other. The jacket flap tells us,

The spark for Rage was ignited via a “why don’t you write a story about…” request from a devoted teen reader in an abusive relationship. After firmly and repeatedly turning down the inquiry, Ms. Peters began to feel drawn to the challenge of portraying a relationship in which neither party was wholly victim or villain…”

Maybe Peters recognizes that Johanna too behaves violently, and maybe her intention as an author is to create a situation where both parties are equally at fault. The problem with that approach, however, is that the idea of “mutual abuse” in LGBTQ relationships is another dangerous myth. A partner who acts out physically in response to another party’s violent behavior is not equally at fault. But it is common for an abusive partner to convince a survivor she is at fault, or to convince authority figures or service providers that she—the abuser—is “the real victim.” This is particularly a problem in same-gender relationships because of prevailing myths about gender. If you believe that men can’t really be targets of abuse, or that women can’t really perpetrate abuse, than “mutual abuse” becomes an easy—but false—explanation for whatever violence has occurred.

There are a few things Rage does well. One is to illustrate the challenge of being a young lesbian in a town where possible partners seem scarce, a situation that surely has an impact on Johanna’s persistent attitude toward Reeve. Another is to depict a teen character for whom finances are a consistent stressor and concern—another situation that is chronically underrepresented in teen fiction. But overall, Rage fails more than supports its teen audience. Many people enter into their first romantic or sexual relationships in adolescence, and teens—especially LGBTQ teens—need tools to help them navigate these often complicated and emotionally intense waters. Rage does not provide such tools; in fact, it makes some kinds of relationship violence harder to perceive.

Rage stands out not because it is a book that addresses violence in lesbian relationships well but because it is one of the few teen books to address this subject at all. As representation of LGBTQ characters grows in teen publishing, I hope that this subject too will receive broader and more thoughtful treatment. Teen readers need it.

 

Meet Megan Honig

WIN_20150504_134259Megan Honig is a writer and editor and the former Young Adult Collections Specialist for the New York Public Library. She is the author of Urban Grit: A Guide to Street Lit, published by Libraries Unlimited, as well as the popular 30 Days of Street Lit blog series. Find her on Twitter at @vonmeggz