Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Take 5: Sex/Consent Positive Books (The #SVYALit Project)

If we’re going to use YA literature to talk about sexual violence, to discuss what it looks like and the destruction it can leave in its wake, then we must also use YA literature to talk about consent and what healthy sexual experiences can and should look like.  Literature, books, are a window into the world.  Even in the little things, the little moments, they can help us gain a bit of understanding of what life is like.  Teen readers need to know that sex is not always rape and violence and punishment (with things like a pregnancy or STD).  

We know statistically that many teens will choose to engage in sex.*  And even if they choose not to, they are still thinking about it, wondering about it, trying to figure it out.  It terrifies adults, but biology kicks in and this is part of the adolescent experience: trying to figure sex out and trying to figure out who we are as sexual beings. If we want teens to develop positive sexual identities, to develop healthy views of sex, and develop meaningful and consensual ways to discuss and engage in sex with their partners (even if not now, but later in life), then they must also read stories that help them understand what healthy sexual expression and consent looks like.  Here are five of my favorites.

Infinityglass by Myra McEntire

I love this book but what I most love is that this is a book that gives a spot on depiction of what consent looks like.  Our two main characters are starting to get into It when the boy stops, looks right at the girl and says, “So I have a green light to continue?”  It is asking for consent and it is down right sexy.  Just listen to Dune and Hallie discuss their relationship:

“Don’t you want to?”
“Want to what?”
Her hands went to her hips. “Kiss me.”
Caution spun my braind dry. “Not a good idea.”
“Not good,” she agreed. “Great.”
“It isn’t –“
“We’re alone. Legimately alone. Hint. There’s . . . tension, and maybe I’d like to ease it. What’s the problem?”
“Too fast. Out of nowhere. Complications. Cloudy motives.” (page 136)

I love that they spend time thinking about their motivations. I love the way the dynamics of the relationship change as they begin to truly trust and respect one another. Basically, I love this book.

Plus One by Elizabeth Fama

This book is not out yet, but it is all about FREE AGENCY.  The agency to decide how you want to live your life, who you want to become, and yes, if and when you decide to have sex.  There is a great scene in which the girl, Soleil, looks at the boy, D’Arcy, and says, “I want to have sex with you.”  And then they do.  Part way in the act D’Arcy takes a moment to read her nonverbal cues and asks, basically, are you sure you want to keep going.  She says yes, and they do.  It’s great for several reasons: the girl freely and without guilt or shame initiates sex, taking full ownership of her sexuality, and then in the midst there is this great example of how initial consent doesn’t mean continued consent so he takes a moment to confirm that this is what she wants.  There are some negative examples that involve sexual coercion earlier in the book that make for some interesting comparisons and discussion.

Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller

It is true, at it’s heart this is the story of a young girl, Callie, who has been the victim of abuse.  And in the wake of that abuse, she takes control of her sexuality. There is this deeply moving scene where Callie is in the midst of a sexual encounter and something that happens triggers her.  So she looks at Alex and says, basically, if we are going to do this I need you to be fully naked – and he does.  This scene is powerful because Callie has a need, she is able to express it, and that need is respected.  There is another time where they start but Callie pulls away, asking Alex if he is upset that they didn’t, and he is kind and respectful in his answer. There is a lot of god stuff that happens in this book: It’s okay to ask for what you want or need.  And it’s okay to stop or say no.  And even if you have already had sex, that doesn’t mean you always have to have sex because yes once is not yes always.

This Song will Save Your Life by Leila Sales

This book is a hidden gem and I highly recommend it. Lost and alone, Elise finds herself sneaking out at night to DJ at a club. Here she finds her people, and herself.  But there is this great scene where some guys have a very drunk girl pinned up against the wall and they are “making out with her.”  Elise’s friend, Vicky, sees what is happening and intervenes on behalf of the girl.  When the guys tell her no, the girls wants it, Vicky very clearly says that the girl is too drunk to consent to anything – she’s barely able to stand – and she leads the girl away.  This scene is so important because it articulates very clearly what consent is and what it isn’t.  It is also important because it demonstrates how people can – and should – intervene when they see someone being taken advantage of.

So now I am totally going to cheat, but it’s my blog I can cheat if I want to.

Guitar Notes by Mary Amato

There is no sex in this book.  There isn’t even any kissing.  This is the story of two teens with musical ambitions and what seems like nothing in common. At all.  But they are both struggling with various things and they start up an interesting relationship.  It begins with a lot of animosity and a few notes left back and forth in a guitar box.  But slowly, they begin encouraging each other to be true to themselves. This is not a romance, but a story of friendship between a boy and a girl.  It’s a beautiful story, but it is also great because it reminds us all that not every boy/girl relationship has to be romantic or sexual.  When the book closes, you could see how maybe it could develop into a romance, but given the dynamic these two have built I imagine that they would have some meaningful, respectful conversations about sex.  (Along these same lines, I also highly recommend Until it Hurts to Stop by Jennifer R. Hubbard and Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg)

Here are some more sex positive book recommended on a YALSA-BK List Serv discussion:
The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle

Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Darla Snadowsky
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green 
My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick 

Ready or Not (All-American Girl #2) by Meg Cabot

A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson
The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson
Wild Cards by Simone Elkeles
Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins
Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson
Desires of the Dead by Kimberly Derting
The Exiled Queen by Cinda Williams Chima
Roomies by Sara Zarr & Tara Altebrando 
Shiver by Maggie Steifvater 
Such a Rush by Jennifer Echols

Goodreads: Popular Sex Positive YA

*Fewer than 2% of adolescents have had sex by the time they reach their 12th birthday. But adolescence is a time of rapid change. Only 16% of teens have had sex by age 15, compared with one-third of those aged 16, nearly half (48%) of those aged 17, 61% of 18-year-olds and 71% of 19-year-olds.[1] There is little difference by gender in the timing of first sex. (Source: Facts on American Teens’ Sexual and Reproductive Health)

Check out Christa Desir’s, Trish Doller’s and Carrie Mesrobian’s blog for more sex positive depictions in YA.

Please share your favorite titles in the comments and share with us what makes them good examples of consent or sex positivity. 

Sunday Reflections: The Curious Case of Doctor Who Kissing without Consent, and why it matters

More about consent from The Feminist Anthropologist

She was 2 years old.  I had just strapped her into her car seat which held her in pretty tightly.  We were getting ready to pull out of her grandma’s driveway, but we weren’t going far – just to run some errands and such.  “Can Grandma have a kiss?”, she asked.  And the 2-year-old, who always spoke her mind, said no and turned her head away.  That was when the Grandma reached out and pinned her arms down and kissed her any way.  There she was, 2-years-old, already strapped in and now she was being forcibly held down so she could not resist and kissed even though she had just clearly said no, she didn’t want a kiss right now.  But that wasn’t respected.

After she was released, the 2-year-old smacked her grandmother in the face.  Surprised, and angry, she looked at me and said, “You should teach your children it’s not nice to hit.”  And although that is indeed true, my response to her was not what she expected: “You can’t hold people down and kiss them against their will, that’s not nice either.”  That’s the thing, people have a right to say no to being kissed, hugged, or touched in any way.

Consent: “permission for something to happen or agreement to do something”

As my children are growing older, I think often on this day.  To me, as an outsider, I was shocked by how violent the whole encounter was; the way my child’s wishes were totally disregarded and she was held down – disabled by someone more powerful than her – and forced to do something that she didn’t want to do.  I get it, 2-year-olds are cute.  And they don’t stay that little for very long.  Trust me, I am all too aware of how quickly they grow and change.  But when did we develop this notion that just because we want something – just a simple kiss, right – that it’s okay to take it?

Source: ColorLines.com

In Protecting the Gift, Gavin DeBecker talks about one of the most important things we can do to help protect our children from sexual abuse is to let them know from birth on that they have control and agency over their bodies.  This means that we do not force them to kiss or hug relatives when they don’t want to.  Yes, even grandmothers that they may only see on a rare occasion.  It’s a radical notion for some, I have seen it debated often online, but I don’t understand why just because children are small we feel that we can force them to express acts of affection without their consent.  And I can see the danger in setting this precedent where we teach our children even if you don’t want to kiss or hug someone, we do it because it is “nice”.  Or because they – the adult – wants it.  So how do they differentiate when they are a little older and it is a teacher or a coach or some other authority figure – or a boyfriend – asking them to do something they don’t want to do, that doesn’t feel right?  We have taught them that they have to do this thing because we do what adults say, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised when they are confused when authority figures ask them to do things that they think probably aren’t right – they certainly don’t want to do these things – but they have been taught that they can’t say no.

Which brings me to Doctor Who.  Yes, it’s a big leap, so stay with me here.  My two daughters and I started watching Doctor Who this summer and we are BIG FANS.  We have seen all of Doctors 9, 10 and 11 – multiple times.  We may watch an episode almost daily.  Don’t judge.  But I love many things about the Doctor: he is a moral, compassionate being, he seems genuinely accepting of all – not just all races, but all species – he is open to exploration and adventures . . . But over time the Doctor has changed.  In fact, since the introduction of Clara, I find the show to be particularly problematic.  Though I don’t blame Clara, it’s a writing problem.

So this Christmas, we sat together to watch the 11th Doctor’s fond farewell.  We were anxious, a little sad, a little sorrowful because we had grown so fond of him.  And then it happened and to be honest, it was a real let down.

Actually, I had grown worried about it earlier in December when early promo pics had come out:

Please, please, please do not let this be a case of the Doctor does the manly work of saving the day while the girl cooks the turkey I tweeted.  But honestly, that’s kind of what it was.  In fact, the Doctor saved the day AND saved the turkey while Clara did – well, nothing really.  Actually, read these two reviews to get a handle on what some of the problems were (I excerpted the points relevant to my discussion below):

“The sexualization of Tasha’s power and her attempts to assert her autonomy became extremely problematic during the scene when the Doctor kisses her without her consent. When the Doctor releases Tasha she orders him to only kiss her when asked, and the Doctor replies “Only if you ask nicely,” and they immediately give each other bedroom eyes. The Doctor receives no punishment for kissing her without her consent, and her protest at having been kissed without her consent is trivialized and sexualized. It’s not a big deal she was kissed without her consent, the show tells us, because she secretly liked it.

Even more disturbing is the fact that this is the second time in a year I’ve had to write about Doctor Who‘s problematic treatment of sexual assault. Including the scene in “The Crimson Horror” where the Doctor laughs off Jenny’s protest that he forcibly kissed her was bad enough, but including a second scene in which the Doctor is portrayed laughing off a woman’s protest that he forcibly kissed her so soon after receiving a strong backlash to the first is particularly galling, and it’s hard to read it as anything other than a deliberate provocation.”

“Despite her rank and the supposed power of her position, she was easily taken over by the Daleks (don’t get me started to the whole eyestalk in the forehead thing) and when she eventually did manage to fight back her consciousness, the Doctor decided to lay a smacker on her without her consent.”

But more importantly, there was the kiss.  In a moment of celebration, the Doctor grabs Tasha’s face and kisses her.  Please note, he forcibly grabs her face in both hands and kisses her full on the mouth – he has all the power in this moment.  And as the above review mentions, this is not the first time during series 7 that this Doctor has done that.  So much forcible kissing.  And I am glad to see there are people talking about it because we should be talking about it.

We are in the midst of a cultural revolution right now.  Steubenville and other moments like it have opened some real dialogue about how we talk to our teens about respecting other people’s person-hood and the idea of consent.  And it IS an important idea.  A fundamental right.  You don’t get to kiss someone just because you want to.  Not if the are two and you are their grandma and you think they are cute.  Not if they are 16 and you have just bought them dinner and taken them to a movie.  Not because you are more powerful than them.  Not if they are . . . well, never actually.  That’s the point.  Human rights are important.  Bodily autonomy is an important human right if you ask me.  Consent matters.

In addition to all of our regular blogging here at TLT in 2014, we are dedicating the year to discussing important teen topics like sexual violence in the lives of teens and YA literature.  Join us on Wednesday, January 29th for a virtual panel with authors Carrie Mesrobian (Sex & Violence), Christa Desir (Fault Line), and Trish Doller (Where the Stars Still Shine) as we discuss sexual violence in the lives of teens and in their novels – and why it matters that we talk about it. 

Here’s the 411:

We’re going to Google Hangout and do a “virtual discussion panel” with authors Carrie Mesrobian (Sex & Violence), Christa Desir (Fault Line) and Trish Doller (Where the Stars Still Shine) on Wednesday, January 29th at Noon Eastern to discuss Sexual Violence in the lives of teens and YA lit.  You can join us for our virtual panel.  We will also be attempting to record it so you can view it later.  Some of the questions we will be discussing include how writers go about making realistic representations to raise awareness and give teen survivors a voice. These are all good books with some good discussion and I recommend reading them.  In fact, read them before January 29th and join us.

More About Sexual Violence in YA Lit on TLT:
What It’s Like for a Girl: How Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama made me think about the politics of sexuality in the life of girls
Sexual Assault Awareness Month, talking to teens about consent and rape part 1 and part 2
Should there be sex in YA books? 
Plan B: What Youth Advocates Need to Know 
Because No Always Mean No, a list of books dealing with sexual assault
Who Will Save You? Boundaries, Rescue and the Role of Adults in YA Lit.  A look at consent and respecting boundaries in relationships outside of just sex. 
Incest, the last taboo 
This is What Consent Looks Like
Street Harassment
That Time Matt Smith Perpetuated Street Harassment Culture at Comic Con
An Anonymous Letter to Those Who Would Ban Eleanor and Park
Take 5: Difficult books on an important topic (sexual violence) 

Who Will Save You? Boundaries, Rescue and the Role of Adults in the Lives of Teens in YA Lit

Danger, Will Robinson, Danger! Eventually I will tell you what titles I am talking about and why and you will be minorly spoiled.  Not details of individual plots, but a general sense of what happens.  Read on after the jump understanding that. Consider that your spoiler alert.

The Set Up

The last three books I have read had an interesting underlying rhythm to them.  It goes something like this: A girl is in some type of a dangerous situation (abuse at home, in the witness protection plan) when a boy falls for them and tries to pursue them.  Even though the girl says no, saying it puts her (or the boy) in danger, the boy continues to pressure the girl (not for sex, just for a relationship).  She gives in but tries to hide it.  The situation escalates. Then, the boy saves her.   I want to talk about this for a moment. There are two issues that I think are worth discussion in these titles.

First, the disclaimers

Each of the books I am talking about are, in their own right, actually very well written and good reads.  I enjoyed them all and was very satisfied.  I recommend them. Highly actually.  In fact I would, or have, given each title 4 out of 5 stars or higher.

The books in question?

Flawed by Kate Avelynn (Entangled Teen 2012)
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s Press 2013)
The Rules of Disappearing by Ashley Elston (Hyperion 2013)

A Brief Synopsis of Each Title

Note! Danger, Will Robinson, Danger! I will try to have this conversation at spoiler free as possible.  But honestly, don’t read on if you haven’t read the books.

Flawed is about a girl who has a very abusive home life.  She begins a relationship with her brother’s best friend that puts her in incredible danger.  He tries to save her.

Eleanor and Park is a beautiful love story.  Eleanor also has a very abusive home life.  Her relationship with Park puts her in increased incredible danger.  He tries to save her.

The Rules for Disappearing is about Meg, who is not really Meg.  She is in the witness protection program.  Ethan wants to be in a relationship with her but she keeps pushing him away, in part to save herself but also to protect him.  He tries to save her.

Issue 1: The But I Really, Really Want to Be With You Argument and I Promise It Will Be Okay

In each of these book, the girl in question clearly says to the boy in question at some point that she DOES NOT want to be in a relationship with them.  They clearly state, in most cases, that they CAN NOT be in a relationship with the boy because there is danger to them.  Instead of respecting those wishes, the boy persists, he pursues, he pressures her, he assures her that no really, it will be okay.  Even though they have no real understanding of what the problem is, they disregard the girls fear and feelings and words.

It’s important to note here that in each instance, the boy in question does seem to genuinely like the girl and they basically develop meaningful, substantive relationships, although those relationships come with a lot of secrets and angst and push and pull because of the outside circumstances.  So I’m not saying that the boys in question are in any way abusive.  I’m just not sure that it is okay to continue to pressure a girl into a relationship when she has not only said no, please leave me alone, but when she has said that she can’t because IT WOULD PUT HER IN DANGER.  Now obviously, it shouldn’t put her in danger, and that is definitely part of the issue.  But shouldn’t these boys be respecting the things that these girls are saying, and the boundaries that they are trying to establish?  If no means no, then it should mean no here too, right? Not just in sex, but in respecting all of another person’s boundaries.  Isn’t consent about more than just sexual boundaries, but about respecting people’s wishes?  And if we are teaching and talking about consent in any meaningful way, shouldn’t this be part of the discussion?

Finding Joy in the Midst of Chaos

And yet, in each instance, in truth the girl really does want to pursue a relationship with these boys – it just really is a serious threat to their situation.  The relationships are satisfying to their souls and emotional well being.  The relationships (and the boys) help them find a sense of self and peace.  But they don’t make them safe, at all. The thing is, when we are in true relationships, they can help us find that sense of center.  Does a girl need a man to feel whole, happy? No.  But can we find bliss and happiness in romantic relationships? Clearly, yes.

The romance in Eleanor and Park is one of the most organic, beautiful relationships I have ever read on the page.  It builds slowly, authentically.  It moves you.  Park accepts this truly difficult girl for who she is- wild carrot top hair, emotional swings, and all.  In many ways, he, out of all 3 characters, is in fact the one who most clearly understands the situation she is in and respects those boundaries (somewhat) by not coming to her home.  Eleanor and Park truly captures that desperation of teenage love, the ache to simply be near a person, the longing to spend all night on the phone so you can just hear their voice, the way the rest of the world can disappear when you make eye contact, those secret, knowing looks across the classroom.  I was not prepared for how beautiful this book was, or how heartbreaking Eleanor’s home life would be.

I liked Ethan, the young man in The Rules for Disappearing.  I liked Sam, the young man in Flawed.  I just felt really conflicted when each of them continued to press, to push, to insist when our heroine asked them not to.  I wanted them to respect that, to respect her wishes, and to let her come to them if, or when, she was ready.

Issue 2: Who Will Save My Soul?
In each of our titles, the boy ends up running in – often literally – to save the girl. To give credit where credit is due, in 2 out of the 3 cases the girl actually does initially attempt to save themselves with a half-cocked plan (born out of desperation).  But it is the boy who jumps in and saves the day.  In one of the titles there is an actual sense that the boy is saying, “really, that was your plan?”

While this is not intrinsically bad, girls in these types of situations often do need some type of outside help and intervention.  I simply just wish that sometimes the girl could save herself, and possibly with the help of a positive adult role model.  And truthfully, in the end, there are some positive adults in each of these titles.  But I wish sometimes that protoganists would go to a school counselor, teacher or trusted adult and that they would get help that way to let teens in crisis know that they can, in fact, get real help and save themselves.  And overall, I think we need more positive representations of good adults and positive adult/teen interactions in teen novels.

Ironically, in two recent titles (Period 8 by Chris Crutcher and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick), the main protagonists (both male) do seek the help of a trusted teacher and I felt that in both cases, the teacher overstepped their legal bounds and put themselves at risk.  And in the case of Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, it ends up being in many ways truly ineffective and meaningless.  Although it is interesting that in the case of a male main character they ask for help but in the case of a female main character they are, in the end, “saved” by the romantic male lead.  Interpret that how you will.

But in the interest of full and complete analysis, I am reminded of Rotters by Daniel Kraus.  In this book, a troubled teen boy does not turn to any adults for help and does in fact try to take care of his own problems, though in very unconventional ways.  Every single adult, from CPS to teachers, basically fails this young man.

As an adult who works with teens, I read a book on two levels.  On the first level, I read for the pure enjoyment of it.  On the second level, I read and analyze what messages are repeatedly being sent to teen readers.  With each individual title it is not really an issue, but when you look at them collectively we seem to be repeatedly saying to teen readers: boys keep pursuing, girls you need rescuing. 

I think we are also reinforcing the notion that adults are the bad guys, that you can’t reach out to them in a crisis, that they won’t come through for you in meaningful ways.  And while this is sometimes true, I would like to see the message better balanced with some more caring adults who help teens, especially teen girls, save themselves in ya lit.

So now it is your turn, can you give me examples where the girl really and truly saves herself?  And how do we talk to teens about respecting other people’s wishes and personal boundaries? Also, it would be really nice if you didn’t flame me. Thanks.

Edited 5/17/2013 to include Tweet from Pauline Holdworth