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#SVYALit: Author Christa Desir discusses the Voices and Faces Project

Four years ago, I participated in the first Voices and Faces Project survival testimonial writing workshop. Entitled “The Stories We Tell”, this is a two-day writing workshop geared toward survivors of rape, domestic violence, and sexual trafficking.

I have long been affiliated with the Voices and Faces Project. I am one of the founding members and remain president of the board. The mission of the project is to give a voice and a face to survivors of sexual violence so that myths about rape can be dispelled in media, in culture, and more importantly in people’s minds.

The writing workshop is a natural offshoot of this mission. It’s not a “healing” workshop so much as a workshop to teach survivors about the power of testimony in changing culture. The workshop itself is full of important readings: from Martin Luther King to Sandra Cisneros to Primo Levi. And the writing exercises are what ultimately led me to a first draft of FAULT LINE.

The two days in that workshop changed my life. Not just because for the first time I was able to find a voice in my writing, but more because of the stories other people told in that room. Over and over again I heard horrifying stories of unimaginable violence followed by absolutely amazing tales of resilience and survival.

In that room I met a beautiful woman named Sarah who was gang raped with three friends on the Appalachian Trail. This went on all night until she and her friends finally hid in the trees and the perpetrators were too drunk to track them. When she got home and went through the trial, things were equally as bad for her because there were no rape shield laws at that time to protect her from the defense attorney’s horrifying scrutiny of the girls’ sexual past or the media’s printing all their names, ages, and schools in the paper. Her story cut me to the bone and yet her survival has been the thing I keep going back to when I’ve felt that there was little hope for anything ever changing. Sarah changed my life. In the same way that every survivor I’ve ever spoken to or advocated for in hospital ERs has changed my life. They have all become my sisters and brothers. My family in sorrow and survival.

When I sold FAULT LINE, I always knew that half of whatever I earned from that book would go back to the survivor testimonial writing workshop. Because I want other survivors to have access to something like this. I want them to be able to find their own voices and write their own stories. I want them to be in a room with other survivors and know that there is hope, there is a way to make it through, and that they have people who want to listen.

Because of FAULT LINE and my readers and the writing community, I have now been able to fund two additional writing workshops. And “The Stories We Tell” has grown. Other people have participated in it and helped to get more funding. Last year we did five workshops. This year, we have plans for more. I am so proud of the work that we’re doing with survivors and so incredibly grateful for all the people who have come forth to donate, offer assistance, spread the word, help in whatever way they can. You have all helped me and other survivors more than you can ever know.

About Christa Desir: I live outside of Chicago with my awesome husband, Julio, and our three children. When I’m not writing, I am an editor of romance novels. I am also a feminist, former rape victim advocate, lover of coffee and chocolate, and head of the PTA.

Christa Desir is the author of Fault Line and Bleed Like Me

About Lived Through This:

In these pages you’ll meet a community of rape and sexual violence survivors who have been shaped, but refuse to be defined, by their histories of violence. They are brave, and they are outspoken—but, mostly, they are hopeful.
From its insistently resolute opening essay to its final, deeply moving story, Lived Through This is a book that defies conventional wisdom about life in the wake of sexual violence, while putting names and faces on an issue that too often leaves its victims silent and invisible.

Part personal history of Anne Ream’s own experience rebuilding her life after violence, part memoir of a multi-country, multi-year journey spent listening to survivors, Lived Through This is at once deeply personal and resolutely political. In these pages we are introduced to, among others, the women of Atenco, Mexico, victims of rape and political torture who are speaking out about gender-based violence in Latin America; Beth Adubato, a woman who was raped by a popular athlete and then denied justice when her college failed to fully investigate the attack; and Jenny and Steve Bush, a rape survivor and her father who are working together to share Jenny’s testimony of surviving rape at the hands of a veteran in order to alter the US military’s response to sexual violence committed by those in its ranks.

Writing with compassion, candor, and, at times, even much-needed humor, Ream brings us a series of stories and essays that are as insistent as they are incisive. Considered individually, her profiles are profoundly moving, and even inspiring. Considered collectively, they are a window into a world where sexual violence is more commonplace than most of us imagine.

The accomplished and courageous women and men profiled in Lived Through This are, in the words of the author, “living reminders of all that remains possible in the wake of the terrible.” (Published April 2014 by Beacon Press)

About Fault Line:

Ben could date anyone he wants, but he only has eyes for the new girl — sarcastic free-spirit, Ani. Luckily for Ben, Ani wants him too. She’s everything Ben could ever imagine. Everything he could ever want.

But that all changes after the party. The one Ben misses. The one Ani goes to alone.

Now Ani isn’t the girl she used to be, and Ben can’t sort out the truth from the lies. What really happened, and who is to blame?

Ben wants to help her, but she refuses to be helped. The more she pushes Ben away, the more he wonders if there’s anything he can do to save the girl he loves. (Published October 2013 by SimonPulse)

Slut Shaming, part 1 – a discussion by author Christa Desir (Part of the SVYALit Project)

Slut-shaming is defined as:
  1. the process in which women are attacked for their transgression of accepted codes of sexual conduct
  2. making any person feel guilty or inferior for certain sexual behaviors or desires that deviate from the traditional or orthodox gender expectations
Picture from the movie The Breakfast Club

So a few weeks ago, a friend reached out to me and told me about a situation that happened in his high school: a girl was making out with a guy in the hallway, followed him into the guy’s bathroom, and then was raped.

The girl had told the guy she was kissing she didn’t want to have sex, he corroborated this story when a teacher asked him. To repeat: He admitted that she told him she didn’t want to have sex and he had sex with her anyway.
My friend was talking to his students about this afterwards and a lot of them responded with, “That’s not really rape. She followed him into the bathroom. What did she expect was going to happen?”
I can think of no better example to demonstrate the inexorable link between rape culture and slut-shaming. “What did she expect was going to happen?” This is blaming a victim for her transgression in the accepted code of sexual conduct and thereby rationalizing any consequence of her choice.
“What did she expect?” is a very problematic argument with regards to sexual violence. I wrote an entire blog on it here. The bottom line is that she expected to be listened to, she expected her no to be adhered to, she expected not to be raped.
What’s informative about this discussion is that it demonstrates the “us” against “them” mentality that many people cling to in order to separate themselves or their daughters/sisters/wives/etc from the possibility of being a rape victim. If we can point to clothing choices, alcohol consumption, “slutty” behavior, etc. we think we can somehow protect ourselves from rape. This is, of course, ridiculous. I have worked in hospital ERs with children as young as 4 and with women as old as 87. The only protection against rape is stopping perpetrators from raping.
And here’s the fall-out of slut-shaming: it is another barrier to getting help. It is another barrier to victims disclosing rape. It keeps this horrible crime well and truly hidden so that perpetrators can continue to do it. It’s also a barrier to discussions about sexuality, enthusiastic consent, and figuring out what each individual truly wants.
The first time I chose to have sex, I was seventeen. And even in this case, “chose” is a bit of a nebulous word. I relented to the three-month long coercion campaign my boyfriend at the time had pressed on me. I decided to “get it over with.” All my friends had already done it. These are not exactly statements of excitement over having sex. And part of the reason for that is that I never had a sit-down conversation with myself about what I wanted. It was not even a consideration. Nor had I had a reasonable conversation with anyone who might help me figure this out.
Because when I was seventeen, talking about sex never included a conversation about what I wanted for myself. It included lots of conversations about what I’d done, but no one along the way ever asked me, “do you want to have sex?” Nor did any conversation ever include what being sexual felt like to me. My girlfriends and I could get into an extremely graphic discussion about every possible sexual thing we’d done or been asked to do, but not once did the question, “did it feel good to you?” ever come up between us.
I suspect the reason for that is we were all afraid admitting that we were active participants in sexual practices pegged us as sluts. In my group of friends, the unspoken code was that you could do anything sexually, as long as it was for the guy. I somehow dodged the bullet of being labeled a “slut” because everything I did was for my partner’s benefit. And that code would have left me culpable for following a boy into the bathroom and having sex with him, even if I didn’t want to. If I followed a boy into the bathroom, I was expected to have sex with him. What I wanted never came into play.

I have recently finished Jennifer Mathieu’s The Truth About Alice. This book is an important and critical look at slut-shaming, both the reasoning behind it and the consequences of it. It’s excellent because it offers an insight into the girl who is shamed and those who are shaming her. It also demonstrates the mentality of girls hooking up with guys with little thought to what the girls want. And how the insidious code of sexual expectation in girls leaves them with very little real agency. Something I fear is all too true in real life.

We are very lucky that we live in a time where books can demonstrate the very complicated maze that is teenage sexuality. Books allow us to have nuanced discussions about sexual agency and gender expectations. They allow us the ability to dissect choices and not judge characters so much on their actions as look to the motives behind them. How did we get here and how can we change things?
I have been given quite a bit of “feedback” with regards to Ani’s choices in Fault Line. Her hyper-promiscuity after her rape has led many people to be repelled by her. This was a conscious choice. I have met a lot of Anis in my life. The girls who are dismissed as sluts, attacked for their choices, judged for their actions. And I can’t help but wonder if anyone has ever sat down and asked any of them what they really want. Because if we’re really going to start a good conversation here, we need to step back from the question of what teen girls do and start looking at why they do it.

Christa Desir is the author of Faultline and co-moderator of the #SVYALit Project

Take 5: Important Books on a Difficult Topic – Sexual Violence in the Lives of Teens

When I lost my baby, I went into a deep, dark hole.  The only thing that helped me claw my way out of the darkness was to read books about other women having a miscarriage.  It helped me know that I wasn’t alone, that what I was feeling was perfectly normal, and that I could once again – one day – find my way into the light.  That is one of the magical powers of books, they hold our hand on a healing journey and they remind us that the world is big and there are others that do in fact understand what we are going through.  And if you haven’t been through it, they can help shed light on the feelings and emotions that those that have may be feeling.

Statistics indicate that by the time they are 18 years old, 1 out of 3 (or 4) girls and 1 out of 5 boys will have experienced some type of sexual violence in their lives. A troubling statistic to be sure. One that needs to change, to zero.  But it also means that there is a need for books written for teens to include these types of horrific acts.  Not for shock value, but to be the books that remind those teens that they can claw their way out of the darkness.  And to remind those of us that work with and care about teens what their lives may be like, and the emotions that come with that.  As the mom of two little girls, my hope is that we will read these types of books, be horrified, and join together to work to make sure that no more children have to experience this type of abuse and the painful emotional after effects, emotions that can plague survivors for the rest of their lives.

These are 5 books that I think we should all read, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel.  Please note, if you click after the jump there will be spoilers for a couple of new titles.  Also, please be aware that the discussion of the titles and of course the titles themselves can be triggers.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Speak is one of the classics on this topic.  It is a haunting tale of the emotional after effects of one girls rape at a party.  So traumatized is she by what happens, she literally shuts down and loses her voice.  It is also about her slow journey to find herself again, and to speak up when the moment calls for it.  Laurie Halse Anderson is an advocate for rape victims and works with RAINN. 1999, Highly Recommended

Fault Line by Christa Desir

Although rape affects its victims greatly, it also affects those that love them.  Fault Line is unique in that it looks at how rape can affect those that love its victims, in this case the boyfriend.  Told entirely from the boyfriend’s point of view, we see guilt and the desire to rescue those we love as they spiral into the dark aftermath of rape.  Fault Line is also important because it reminds us that not all who are assaulted become quiet and withdrawn, sometimes they react by becoming promiscuous and trying to take control of their sexuality by having a lot of sexual experiences.  This is emotionally a very hard read, and it is very frank in its depiction of many sexual situations and strong emotions. It is a unique and important perspective. 2013, Recommended

Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller

Callie has spent her life on the road fleeing with her mother, who kidnapped her from her father.  Along the way, her mother has had various men in her life, one of whom did horrible things to her.  Where the Stars Still Shine is a beautiful, moving portrait of the deep emotional effects of childhood abuse.  It is one of the most well developed emotional portraits I have read.  Like in Fault Line, Callie becomes promiscuous as a way to try to take control of her sexuality and to try and find the perfect healing sexual experience; It gives her a power over herself that this man in her past took away.  But unlike Fault Line, this story is told from the victim’s point of view so we get a deep, nuanced look into Callie’s psyche.  There is a scene where she freaks out during a sexual encounter because it triggers her that just rings truer than most scenes I have ever read.  It is also a book that leads Callie into a journey of healing as she finds people who truly love her.  As a side note, it is also a good depiction of mental illness (her mother).  Also, there are some disturbing, very realistic scenes that depict what has happened to Callie; though they are not graphic in their depiction, they are so spot on in capturing the terror and emotions.  2013, Highly Recommended

Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

There is a rape that occurs in this book, and it is disturbing.  Very disturbing.  But there are also two scenes of street harassment in this book.  On the surface, they don’t necessarily need to be in the book.  But I am glad that Fama included them because it is a powerful reminder of what life for many can be like, how they can have these totally random and unexpected moments where suddenly they find themselves in a perilous position being harassed and frightened by both people they know and complete strangers.  They are effective reminders of what life is like because they don’t need to be in the story, but they are.  Just as these moments shouldn’t be in the lives of our teens, but they are.  When we have written about street harassment here in the past we get a lot of comments from teens who tell us about how they are harassed while walking to and from school and sometimes even in their school hallways.  They way these scenes are included in Monstrous Beauty is a stark reminder of the reality of street harassment. 2012, Highly Recommended

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

Sexual violence doesn’t just happen to girls.  Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is a powerful story of the emotional effects of rape and sexual violence on a boy, Leonard.  Leonard sets out on his birthday to kill himself, but only after killing the boy who did something horrible to him.  There is a powerful scene where Leonard tells a teacher what happened and he looks at him and says, “You know that boys can be raped, too, don’t you?” (not an exact quote from the book, I don’t have it sitting in front of me).  In that moment he has put a name to that which Leonard could not. 2013, Highly Recommended

In these books, the teens don’t always seek out help (in fact, they almost never do).  And the adults don’t always do the right thing.  But the power is in how well they capture the emotions.  And these are, of course, not the only titles on the subject; many would argue sometimes not even the best.  However, my goal is to capture a wide range of experiences and emotions to represent a wider view on the topic.  Share your thoughts in the comments.

More on the Topic in Teen Issues:

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