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In Which I Wrestle with THE WOODS ARE ALWAYS WATCHING by Stephanie Perkins

I am trying to figure out how I felt about The Woods are Always Watching by Stephanie Perkins and I have decided to write about it. Please note, I can’t talk about this book without talking about all of it. So spoilers will abound.



As is often the case for me, fall has become my spooky season. So I went looking for horror to read and, knowing that it’s about to be a Netflix movie, I started with There’s Someone Inside Your House. It was entertaining enough, so I went ahead and read Perkins newest YA thriller, The Woods are Always Watching. And I had a very strong negative emotional reaction to it, which I have been trying to process ever since. As someone who has reviewed books professionally for more than 20 years, I have had a hard time articulating my thoughts on this book. Today, however, I am going to try.

The premise is this: two friends have just graduated and are going on a camping trip in the mountains before separating for college. While in the woods they are pursued by madmen.

The book begins with these two girls who are supposed to have been best friends bitching at one another in the ways that toxic friends do. They have a list of unspoken grievances that come up and they use their words and the past to sling arrows at one another in the ways that far too many of us do. From the get go, this trip seems like a bad idea, but they persist and into the Appalachian mountains they go with a map, an inhaler, and very little experience among them to take a trip of this nature.

Then, one of the girls falls into a hole that is clearly meant to be a trap – but for what – or who? So they separate and the other one must try and make her way back to get help. She runs into a man who she at first thinks is going to help her and slowly she realizes that he is not, in fact, going to help her. There are things about this moment that I like: She has an instinct and trusts it, and her instinct is proven right. This part is a powerful moment.

Meanwhile, back at the hole, a man appears and at first the girl in the hole thinks he is going to rescue her, but he is not. This is where our first instance of sexual violence occurs as the man masturbates while the girl is stranded in the hole, clearly aroused by the peril he has put her in. And the girl, rightly, has a very negative and visceral reaction to this and talks about consent. She spends quite a lot of time in this hole, though she will eventually make her way out of it and attack this man.

Over time it becomes clear that the two men are working together and have a history of finding people in the woods and, of course, they kill the guys and rape the girls. Is this a thing that happens in real life? Yes, though not as often as you might think. You are far more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone you know and trust than you are by a stranger. But also, is it necessary to this story that we include sexual violence? I would argue no, it is not. Outside of the scene with the masturbation, there is no other sexual assault on the page, but there are some very real moments where sexual violence becomes a plot device. These girls are not just in peril, they are in peril from people who they know have a history of sexual violence who are going to do sexual violence against them. I would argue that it wasn’t necessary to this story and it falls into the realm of including sexual violence for plot or character development for the sake of plot or character development, but not adding anything meaningful to the discourse on this topic. It uses sexual violence to motivate in a story in which is wasn’t necessary to drive the plot forward, which happens a lot.

As a person who like to read mystery thrillers, I have thought about the above point a lot. I do not like the inclusions of sexual violence for entertainment, and yet I enjoy reading murder mysteries and thrillers. One of the things that I like about mystery and thrillers is that in the end, you get a sense of justice that you don’t often get in the real world. So I like the process of following the clues and solving the murder, but I also like the sense of justice you get at the end. But I wondered as I read this, why is it okay to use any type of violence or murder as a plot point and yet we push back when the same is done with sexual violence? It’s an interesting question to ponder, but I have drawn for myself a line in the sand that I am done with narratives that use sexual violence as plot or character backstory in ways that are necessary, titillating, or don’t help move the needle in our global conversations about sexual violence. Rape culture is real and the victims of sexual violence almost never get the justice that they deserve and I believe that this point makes a profound difference in how we evaluate narratives that include sexual violence.

At times, I feel like Stephanie Perkins is trying to write a feminist novel that talks about sexual violence in the lives of women. It can and has been done. I feel, however, that ultimately Perkins fails on her delivery here for a couple of reasons. One, the story did not need for the topic to be sexual violence for this story to work. Madmen in the woods pursuing these women could have just been madmen, the sexual violence part was not necessary or handled in a way that made it meaningful in my opinion.

The other way in which I think Perkins fails is this: the girls are ultimately saved by a bear. At one point, the girls rally and they determine they are going to save themselves. Yes, you think! Some female empowerment is happening here. This is a moment I can get behind. And yet, right as they are about to rescue themselves, they are saved by a bear. Is the bear somehow the spirit of the forest or the spirit of justice or the spirit of all the women that have been victims before to come save these two girls? Why does the bear attack the men and not the girls? In the end, I don’t think that I care because the girls, on the verge of saving themselves, have that moment stolen from them by a deus ex machina. As a reader, you want to cheer for these women who have saved themselves from this impending sexual violence that has chased them throughout this story and then you are robbed of that moment of victory.

As the two girls walk away, they talk about how they are forever scarred – both emotionally and literally, as one girl has lost a hand in the course of our story – and how they are forever bonded by their trauma. So these two girls who began are story fighting in stereotypical female ways and were set to go their own way because they felt that their friendship had run its course are now permanently scarred and bonded in trauma caused by two men. Would they have resolved their relationship on their own in fairly normal ways? Perhaps, but we’ll never know. Because now they are forever and always bonded by their trauma.

Another point that really bothered me was the depiction of the two men themselves. The men are stereotypical ignorant, meth head hillbillies from Appalachia who rape and kill. There are not a lot of depictions of people from Appalachia in YA, so it’s unfortunate that one of the few we have gotten recently includes this stereotype. I’m from Ohio and don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of these types of men to go around, but we get so little discussion and depiction of Appalachians in YA that this is not the representation the region needs. Thankfully, the new book In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner has some recent representation of Appalachia as well and he manages to balance some hard truths of the region with great characters and hope.

I have had some behind the scenes discussions with people about this book as I wrestled with what I thought and felt about reading it. I think I understand the attempt, but would argue that in many ways, the author fails to fully reach that intent. At points I felt that the sexual violence was included in a way similar to how men often use sexual violence in their thrillers; it seemed irrelevant and unnecessary. And in the moments when I thought oh I got it, this is a feminist take on this topic, those moments were deflated by some later story developments, including a bear and an ending discussion about trauma bonding. And I just felt the mention that the perpetrators were Appalachian men was unfortunate, because they just could have been any man from anywhere because there are far too many men like this out there in the world and the people of Appalachia get so little healthy representation in YA literature. I’m sorry to say that there was nothing new or meaningful that made this story much different from any other story about women being pursued by men who want to commit sexual violence against them. The fictions shelves, our tv screens and the big screen are littered with stories like these; women are always being pursued by those who want to commit sexual violence against them for the sake of a “thrill”. There was nothing in this narrative that made me think yes, we need another story like this because this one moves the needle or changes the discussion in any meaningful way.

Am I right about my thoughts on this book? I honestly don’t know. I do know that at the end of the day, this isn’t a book I would personally recommend to my teens wanting thrillers and I wouldn’t want to recommend it to my teens asking for books that handle the topic of sexual violence, because there are books that are better both out there for teens. As a survivor of sexual violence, I personally struggled with this book not because I believe books should never talk about sexual violence, because they should and they can do it well, but because I just didn’t think that this book contributed to those discussions in any meaningful way and at times it was, perhaps, harmful to those discussions.

#SVYALit Project: Bone Gap and Survivor Stories, a guest post by author Laura Ruby

One of the best books I have read in 2015 is the upcoming Bone Gap by Laura Ruby. It is a stunning and haunting look at a world where you can easily fall between the gaps. If hard pressed to come up with a if you like, I would say that this is reminiscent of the very best of Ray Bradbury, think Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Today I am honored to have Laura Ruby here guest posting for The #SVYALit Project about Survivor Stories.

I had numerous beta readers for my YA novel BONE GAP—some for their expertise on horses and farms, some for their expertise on myth and language, others simply because they know a good story when they read one and they’d tell me where mine needed work. Out of the dozen-plus people who read this book pre-pub, only one person asked a question that I still can’t get out of my head. Clearly my character Roza is a victim of some sort of sexual violence, he said, but the details are somewhat mysterious. What exactly happened to her?

Well, I told him, Roza didn’t exactly share the specifics with me.

Yeah, okay, maybe this is snotty answer to a perfectly reasonable question from a thoughtful person. And maybe my answer is also a little bit bananas; I wrote Roza’s story, how could she—a figment of my imagination!—choose to keep the gory details of something so terrible entirely to herself?  And wouldn’t it be better for readers to get the whole story in all its humiliating, awful detail?  Don’t we need it to understand her?

What exactly happened?

What exactly?

The idea we are somehow owed the stories of victims of sexual violence is pervasive, and to my mind, rather astonishing, considering our burning hostility toward such victims, our collective tendency toward creepy voyeurism. In one of the more bizarre book reviews I’ve ever read, a reviewer claimed she threw Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist across the room because Gay summed up her own gang rape at the age of twelve like this:

“They kept me there for hours. It was as bad as you might expect.”

The reviewer argues that the details of Gay’s rape are necessary, “Not because I think we need another graphic, sensational account of violence, we need a graphic, realistic account of violence that proves it needs to be taken seriously and stopped.”

And yet, graphic, realistic accounts of sexual violence are everywhere and we still don’t take them seriously. Even photographs and videos don’t stand as proof; we use the evidence to pick apart the stories, to explain away the violence, to discount and dismiss. To blame the victim who got in the car went to the dorm room went to the frat house went to the party went on the date went to the woods with someone she loved.

Even love is used against victims. Even that.

Underneath the belief that we’re owed victims’ stories is the more insidious belief that what the victim really owes us is her/his/their pain. That because you’ve been violated, you must put words to that violation, and through the telling suffer again and again for some greater societal good, or simply to satisfy our morbid curiosity — “OMG, did you hear about…?!”

After the Bad Feminist review appeared, Ms. Gay was moved to write her story in the graphic detail the reviewer had demanded.

I read the whole account with my hand over my mouth.

It was exactly as bad as I expected.

I support rape victims who come forward and bravely recount their stories, as Gay did.  And I support rape victims who choose not to. I’m not a cop or a lawyer, I will not be investigating or prosecuting any cases. I am not owed this kind of confidence. And we, as a culture, haven’t earned this kind of trust. Too often we prove ourselves entirely unworthy of it.

Gay says: “We don’t know how to hear stories about any kind of violence, because it is hard to accept that these things are complicated, that you can love someone who hurts you, that you can stay with someone who hurts you, that you can be hurt by someone who loves you, that you can be hurt by a complete stranger, that you can be hurt.”

In BONE GAP, I didn’t write about the specifics of Roza’s sexual violation because I was more interested in the toll that violation took on her: the all-encompassing shame that sapped her strength and her will, the horror at the string of sociopaths who somehow sensed the nature of her wound and reveled in it, the sheer terror she felt when she finally stumbled into a person she might be able to trust.  Mostly, though, I wanted to write about her refusal to be defined by what was done to her.

If it’s remotely appropriate to ask victims of sexual violence anything, let’s instead ask how the violence affected them, how they have coped since, how we can help.

What exactly happened is that they survived.

Meet our Guest Blogger

Raised in the wilds of suburban New Jersey, Laura Ruby now lives in Chicago with her family. Ruby is also the author of the Edgar-nominated children’s mystery LILY’S GHOSTS (8/03), the children’s fantasy THE WALL AND THE WING (3/06) and a sequel, THE CHAOS KING (5/07) all from Harpercollins. She writes for older teens as well, and her debut young adult novel, GOOD GIRLS (9/06), also from Harpercollins, was a Book Sense Pick for fall 2006 and an ALA Quick Pick for 2007.

Publisher’s Book Description

Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps—gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza went missing, the people of Bone Gap weren’t surprised. After all, it wasn’t the first time that someone had slipped away and left Finn and Sean O’Sullivan on their own. Just a few years before, their mother had high-tailed it to Oregon for a brand new guy, a brand new life. That’s just how things go, the people said. Who are you going to blame?

Finn knows that’s not what happened with Roza. He knows she was kidnapped, ripped from the cornfields by a dangerous man whose face he cannot remember. But the searches turned up nothing, and no one believes him anymore. Not even Sean, who has more reason to find Roza than anyone, and every reason to blame Finn for letting her go.

As we follow the stories of Finn, Roza, and the people of Bone Gap—their melancholy pasts, their terrifying presents, their uncertain futures—acclaimed author Laura Ruby weaves a heartbreaking tale of love and loss, magic and mystery, regret and forgiveness—a story about how the face the world sees is never the sum of who we are.

Publishes March 3rd, 2015 from Balzer & Bray/HarperTeen. ISBN: 9780062317605

Why you need to be following the news about Sam Pepper, a discussion of the YouTube community and teen culture

Teen culture and celebrity is dominated these days by a force that many adults don’t pay enough attention to: YouTube. YouTube isn’t just a place where Tweens and Teens go to watch the latest music video, it is producing legitimate stars who make a serious amount of cash. YouTube culture is so big that the press has recently began running articles about how it is changing the way that tweens and teens become celebrities and many awards shows are including social media and YouTube awards in their categories. There are entire conferences devoted to YouTube, including VidCon which was created in part by John Green and his brother Hank.

It is also important to note that to date 18 YouTube celebrities have been accused of sexual impropriety, often against their teen fans that they meed at these very conferences. See also, The DFTBA Sexual Abuse Scandal.

Which brings us to Sam Pepper.

Sam Pepper is a UK YouTuber who is known for pulling of a variety of pranks. As pranks often do, they often cross a line that puts others into uncomfortable and sometimes into unsafe positions. Some of Sam Pepper’s previous pranks have included handcuffing girls to him against their will and demanding a kiss in order to be let loose. In another incident he used a rope to lasso girls and pull them into an embrace with him.

Earlier this week on Twitter the hashtag #ReportSamPepper went viral as Sam had posted a video called the Fake Hand Ass Pinch. Basically, he approached girls and as he engaged them in conversation he used his hidden hand to pinch their bum. As many observers correctly pointed out, this is in fact sexual harassment and it is something that many organizations are working tirelessly to end. See Stop Street Harassment for example.

But as the rallying cry went out against Sam Pepper, he produced another video with the notation that it was 2 of 3, although it is interesting to note that the original video included no such notation indicating that it was part of a series. In this video, women did the same thing to men.

[Read more…]

In My Mailbox: Looking for Middle Grade Fiction that Deals with Sexual Violence

I often get emails and comments in regards to The #SVYALit Project asking about Middle Grade titles that deal with sexual abuse and violence of pre-teen kids. And each time I get a question, I go looking for some great recommendations. I have even tried to ask author and Middle Grade champion Anne Ursu and she too has had a hard time coming up with some good examples. She found this great list, but it is short on Middle Grade fiction as well.

One of the titles, however, that gets mentioned frequently is I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This by Jacqueline Woodson. I read this title a long time ago, and it is written with a beautiful tongue, as all Jacqueline Woodson novels are. And it is, of course, heartbreaking. The topic is heartbreaking.

“Death happens,” Woodson told Samiya A. Bashir in Black Issues Book Review. “Sexual abuse happens. Parents leave. These things happen every day and people think that if they don’t talk about it, then it will just go away. But that’s what makes it spread like the plague it is. People say that they’re censoring in the guise of protecting children, but if they’d open their eyes they’d see that kids are exposed to this stuff every day, and we need a venue by which to talk to them about it and start a dialogue. My writing comes from this place, of wanting to change the world. I feel like young people are the most open.” (from Woodson’s Wikipedia page)

The brief publisher synopsis reads like this: Marie, the only black girl in the eighth grade willing to befriend her white classmate Lena, discovers that Lena’s father is doing horrible things to her in private.

As two girls become friends, the other begins to realize that one of them is being sexually abused by her father. The process of getting to know one another and share these types of secrets, and then what do you do once you know the truth, is covered with sensitivity and grace.

“When I took these things from the house:
some tapes, some books, my winter clothes,
I did not know that these would become the
things I own.”

Jacqueline Woodson, I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This 

Lena’s story is continued in the follow-up title, simply Lena. In this, Lena and her little sister run away from her father and are searching to find safety, they hope, by seeking out their mother’s relatives. But being a runaway with no money is dangerous, but these girls will go to great lengths to try and find a safe place to lay their head.

“It seemed like someone was always leaving someone, like that’s the way the world worked—people were born and people died, people left and people came. It was like the world was saying you can’t have everything you want at the same time.”
Jacqueline Woodson, Lena 

Woodson is a fabulous and gifted author and she has written eloquently on this topic, you’ll definitely want to read these. And if you know of more middle grade titles that can help adults talk about these tough subjects with middle grade readers, please leave us a note in the comments.

In addition to the topic of sexual violence, Woodson tackles inter-racial friendships, racism and discrimination, runaways, poverty, and more. Definitely check them out.

The #SVYALit Project: First Responders, part 2

When I was in the 8th grade, there was someone in my family who had regular access to me who was sexually molesting me. It was a progressive thing, grooming they call it. It began very subtly and slowly built in a way that made me question if what I thought was happening was in fact really happening. After I completed that year of school, I moved to go live with my mom in another state. So this person no longer had access to me. However, as Christmas approached I was going to have to go visit and I became terrified. I had escaped, and now I was going to have to go back into this place which was my very real version of hell. So I went to the school counselors office.

I’m going to be honest, I went to the school counselor to share my story thinking that when I was done the counselor would look at me and tell me that I was wrong, that I had misunderstood what had happened, because that’s how manipulative grooming can be – causing you to doubt (for a really good example of this please read The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely). What happened, however, was that after I told her my story she looked at me and said, I’m sorry about what happened to you, it must have been terrifying, now I have to call the police. So I waited in her office that day for the police to come. And my mother came. And the thing is, everyone believed me. Finally, someone knew, they listened, and what’s most important is this: they made me feel safe.

I’d like to say that after that moment, everything was fine and justice was served but the truth is, it wasn’t. The person who had done this to me was in the military and they took over the investigation and as far as I know nothing really happened. But one important thing did happen: I never had to go back and see this person. I was safe. There was no more lying in bed at night awake, terrified. That burden of fear and vigilance was gone. I still had a lot to process and heal, but the imminent threat had been removed and I was given a safe space to do that.

The idea of the first responder was first brought to my attention by Christa Desir, who blogged about it earlier today. But whether you are a first responder or someone that a sexual violence survivor chooses to share their story with, how you respond can make a world of difference. How we respond as others choose to share their stories with us can be the difference between making them feel safe or making them feel like they are once again being harmed.

In Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers, Regina is desperately fleeing the scene of an attempted rape when she stumbles to the door of a classmate named Kara. Kara tells Regina that she shouldn’t tell because no one would believe her, so Regina chooses to stay quiet.

“And I feel really bad for you, Regina . . . but there are some things worth keeping your mouth shut for.” – Some Girls Are, page 10

But really, it’s worse than it seems because Kara then uses Regina’s situation to socially annihilate her. It’s horrific. But it’s also easy to do because we know that more often that not, when sexual assault victims come forward in the school setting – especially if the assailant is popular – the victim will be not only be doubted, but they will be bullied, terrorized, and victimized again and again and again. It happens in Canary by Rachele Alpine. It happens in Fault Line by Christa Desir. It happens in Some Boys by Patty Blount. It happens in Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt. It happened in Steubenville. It happened to Jada. It’s part of the narrative that happens. We blame victims, we ostracize them, we re-victimize them, and we deny them the space to be supported, feel safe, and heal. We have taught sexual assault victims that it is better to stay quiet in the way that we respond to them, making it that much easier for our culture to not only reject their truth, but to re-victimize them again and again.

But that is not always what happens. In Live Through This by Mindi Scott the main character finally breaks down and tells a friend. That friends listens to her. She believes her. She takes her home and tells her to tell her family so that she can get the safe space she needs to heal. That friend responded in ways that validated our main character and allowed her to go home and ask for the support she needed to find healing.

In Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens the main character finally tells her family, her sister. And her sister believes her. And this reaction, this supportive response, is one of my favorite’s ever because her sister could just as easily chosen not to believe or to reject her in anger because of who it turns out the assailant is, but she doesn’t. When she hears her sister’s story she responds with grace and love and support.

In our discussions of YA literature, it’s important to look at not only the events of what happened in the story, but how others respond to it. As a culture, we still respond to victims of sexual violence in really harmful and negative ways. We have a tendency to ask, where were you, what were you doing, what were you wearing, were you drinking . . . But the truth is, a person doesn’t deserve to be raped no matter what the answer to those questions might be. The questions are irrelevant. When someone comes to you and shares their story, these are not the right questions to ask. In fact the only right question may be this: “how would you like me to help/support you?”

In Some Boys Are, Regina finally tells someone what happened to her. A boy who has every reason to hate her sees the bruises on her arms and realizes the truth. This boy, he has every reason to hate her and wish karmic retribution on her. But when she looks at him and says, I know you think I deserve it his response is perfect: “Nobody deserves that.”

For many of our tweens and teens, they will be that first responder as a friend chooses to share their story with them. It’s important that we help them understand that nobody deserves that, that they can listen and be supportive. That, too, is why we read YA literature.

Additional Resources:
Sexual Assault: How to Support a Friend
Supporting Someone Who Has Been Raped or Sexually Assaulted
RAINN: Help a Loved One
RAINN: Self Care for Friends and Family Members
The #SVYALit Project Index 

Please note: Individual states have varying laws about who is a mandated reporter. If you are an adult, you’ll want to be aware of what legal obligation you may have if someone shares their story with you.

The #SVYALit Project: First Responders, part 1 (by author Christa Desir)

When I was six years old, I got lost in a mall. I went out to the parking lot to look for my car and got in a stranger’s car instead, someone who told me he could help me. The half hour that followed changed my life, though I said nothing about it at the time. As a matter of fact, I said nothing about it until almost ten years later.

My best friend in high school was the first person I ever disclosed my sexual assault to. Sitting on the floor in her tiny room, she told me that something terrible had happened to her years earlier. So I told her what had happened to me. Also years earlier.
When I go to speak to high school students about the issue of sexual violence, one of the first things I say to them is that there is a really good chance that someone will disclose sexual violence to them at one point in their lifetime. Run the stats and there’s a good chance that someone will disclose sexual violence to every single one of us. But for teenagers, the chance that they’ll be the firstperson that their friends disclose sexual violence to is really high. Because 44% of people sexually assaulted are under the age of 18 (RAINN). And the reality is teenagers tell their friends things first.
So I wanted to talk a little today about how critical it is not to retraumatize a survivor if they do disclose rape to you. And that’s particularly important if you are the first person they disclose to. Words matter. How you respond to rape matters. It can have a huge impact on the journey a survivor takes toward healing. As a rape victim advocate, I was told that the first twenty-four hours after rape are the most important in terms of minimizing rape trauma syndrome.

No, there is no guidebook on the “right way” for friends/family to respond to rape. What helps some people may not help others. And most first responders aren’t professionally trained. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do our best for survivors. The truth is, sometimes “I’m sorry” is enough. Sometimes listening, really hearing, is all a survivor needs from you.
When rape victim advocates talk to survivors in ERs, our primary objective is to give them back as much power as we can. To give them choice. To help them feel comfortable. To let them decide what they need. If a person discloses rape, there is nothing wrong with asking, “What can I do to help?” There is nothing wrong with saying, “I believe you.” There is nothing wrong with just sitting next to them and saying, “I’ll be here whenever you need me.” These words are a big deal. They mean a lot.
I think when someone is disclosing to you, the best thing you can do is let them tell their story. Don’t probe for details. Don’t ask them for more than they want to give you. Don’t insist that THIS SHOULD BE THEIR COURSE OF ACTION. Let them decide what they want to happen. Don’t judge them for whatever choices they made before or after the rape. Don’t ask things that feel like you’re blaming them (How much did you have to drink? What were you doing at that party? Haven’t you heard about that guy?) Offer support. Offer to get them in touch with someone who could help or give them a phone number for RAINN. Be present and focus on what they want and need.

Additional Resources:
Sexual Assault: How to Support a Friend
Supporting Someone Who Has Been Raped or Sexually Assaulted
RAINN: Help a Loved One
RAINN: Self Care for Friends and Family Members

Christa Desir is an author, editor, and rape victim advocate. Her debut YA novel Fault Line is out now. Bleed Like Me will be published by Simon & Schuster in October 2014.

10+ #SVYALit Project Resources

As part of the #SVYALit Project, we have spent a lot of time compiling statistics and looking for resources to help us talk with teens, parents, educators and librarians about the issues.  Today we are compiling some of the best resources we have found to help create a well rounded picture of the issues at hand and how various members of the community are trying to help make a difference in this very important issue. Here are several resources you can consult to get a more complete picture of what sexual violence is, how often it happens, and how we can talk with teens about making healthy sexual choices.


RAINN is the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. This is the go to resource for information on sexual violence and they operate a 24 hour helpline that you can refer victims/survivors to for help and support.


ScarletTeen is a website dedicated to providing real and accurate sex education to teens. They cover a wide variety of topics, including menstruation and pregnancy. This is not just a resource on sexual violence, it is a resource for comprehensive sex and health education. But they also have discussion on things like how guys can prevent rape, what sexual violence is, and navigating consent.

The Good Men Project

In particular, The Good Men Project has a good discussion about teaching consent at various ages as a child grows (this refers to a piece called The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent ages 1 through 21 which I believe originally appeared on Everyday Feminism). This isn’t a conversation you should wait to have when your kids are teens, because you begin laying the foundation early on as you teach your child they can’t take things that don’t belong to them, they have to wait their turn, etc. A Mighty Girl is a somewhat similar type of initiative aimed at empowering girls, they have a resource list of books to help tweens and teens talk about their bodies.

Stop Street Harassment

Street Harassment covers things like catcalling, whistling, and other forms of harassment that mostly women and members of the GLBTQ community experience as they walk down the streets. I would argue that it also includes the same types of harassment that our teens experience in the hallways of their middle and high schools, because those are the streets are teens are walking. I get email often from – again, mostly girls – who share the horrific stories of the verbal abuse and unwanted touching they experience on the way to and from school or in the school hallways. SSH has some great resources to understand what street harassment is and to engage in discussions on how to try and change the culture so that everyone can walk through their daily routine safely. Another great initiative that is addressing the issue of street harassment is HollaBack.

Act for Youth: Sexual Health

This resource has a look at what healthy sexuality is. It includes the WHO definition of sexual health which is defined as “a state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality. It requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.” This resource is important because it helps us all set up the goal posts. In our sex education with teens, this is what we are (should be) striving for.

The Teen Files Flipped: Date Rape/Abusive Relationships

This fully developed curriculum helps teens define date rape and looks at some of the identifying traits of an abusive relationship. It contains discussion questions, curriculum connections and more. It is part of the AIMS series, published in 2002. The CDC also has a Rape Prevention and Education resource and curriculum that you may want to look at.

The Consensual Project: Connecting Through Consent

According the The Consensual Project’s website, the project partners with schools to help teens gain a deep understanding of what consent is. The consent workshops were developed by Ben, who majored in Women and Gender studies. It seems fairly new, so do take a look around and investigate. Also, it has a great resource page.

Sexual Harassment: Prevention in the Schools, a facilitators manual and curriculum for grades 1 through 12

The Pennsyvania Coalition Against Rape has developed an extensive curriculum to help teach students in grades K-12 about sexual harassment. At 261 pages, it is pretty extensive and well developed. You can download it for free in PDF by clicking the link above.

Know the Price: Rape by Intoxication

Know the Price is a campaign recently introduced in San Diego which aims to help teens understand that having sex with someone who is intoxicated is in fact rape. Its underlying message is that a person must be cognitively able to consent in order for it to be consensual sex. This means that you can not have sex with someone who is wasted, unconscious, asleep, etc.

The Voices and Faces Project

According to its website: “The Voices and Faces Project is an award-winning documentary initiative created to bring the names, faces and stories of survivors of sexual violence and trafficking to the attention of the public.” By compiling the various stories of survivors in a permanent archive, The Voices and Faces Project seeks to help everyone better understand the issues surrounding sexual violence and the impact it makes on survivors, their families and their communities.

Project Unbreakable

Project Unbreakable is a Tumblr blog that operates primarily on anonymous submissions from sexual violence victims/survivors. The submissions are pictures of survivors sharing with us what their abuser said to them before, during or after their attack. They are definitely hard to read but such an important part of raising awareness and understanding of the dynamics that take place. There are quite a few Tumblr blogs dedicated to the topic including I Believe You, It’s Not Your Fault, which was recently discussed on NPR’s The Takeaway. Both of these Tumblr projects are run by survivors and encourage the named or anonymous submissions of other survivor stories.

The Consensual Project partners with schools and universities to bring students a fresh understanding of consent. The innovative curriculum, workshops, and website empower young people to incorporate consent into their daily lives. The Consensual Project is committed to helping students connect through consent. – See more at: http://www.theconsensualproject.com/vision#sthash.zl1xgs04.dpuf
The Consensual Project partners with schools and universities to bring students a fresh understanding of consent. The innovative curriculum, workshops, and website empower young people to incorporate consent into their daily lives. The Consensual Project is committed to helping students connect through consent. – See more at: http://www.theconsensualproject.com/vision#sthash.zl1xgs04.dpuf

Sexual Violence Inside (and Because of) the Closet by Anthony Isom (#SVYALit Project)

We live in a fortunate time. Once upon a time, homosexuality was viewed as either a disease or else an abnormality; things have certainly been changing as hatred toward homosexuality, AKA anti-gay discrimination, may not be viewed as abnormal but certainly as backward or retrogressive. This is a good thing. As a young gay man affianced to the love of my life, I both represent and benefit from the steady march of time. 

There is a disturbing trend which marches alongside progress, however, this idea that stories in which gay characters are represented as paradigms of romantic behavior trump those stories which highlight the often painful journey toward acceptance of oneself with which most teens relate. Don’t get me wrong. I adore BOY MEETS BOY or OUT OF THE POCKET or ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE. I am all over the current swell of young adult titles relating the transgender experience, for example: FREAKBOY, BEAUTIFUL MUSIC FOR UGLY CHILDREN, I AM J, FAT ANGIE. Andrew Smith’s GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE is the first book I’ve ever read narrated by a bisexual character, and I think it a major literary achievement not to mention his best published work to date. Gay characters deserve diverse stories and experiences not simply because it is truly representative of our vast world but also because a singular story is always limited and boring. Everyone knows gay people are anything but limited and boring. Seriously.

What then is disturbing about this current trend of promoting gay “happily ever after” stories above stories of rape, incest, child molestation? Once again, gay characters deserve diverse stories and experiences. Thus as I watch the pendulum swing from fierce hatred, erasure, and mischaracterization of gay teens to the wealth of LGBTQ young adult literature our culture experiences I find myself asking, “What about all those gay teens who still have it hard?” I suppose I cannot help but go there because my native state is South Carolina, my native culture is African-American, my native religion Seventh-Day Adventism. Within all three portions of my youth, there is stiflingly little room for the gay man I’ve become. The gay seventeen-year-old who loved his best friend more than he himself could quite articulate nearly perished in the closet he helped society build for him to live inside.

Two books, separated by more than a decade, written about teenage boys and their forays into the greater meaning of their sexual selves truly dig into this topic of Sexual Violence in Young Adult Literature in dynamic ways. There is this bleak moment from Jim Grimsley’s DREAM BOY that takes place just before Nathan, our protagonist, is brutally raped by one of his boyfriend Roy’s best friends:

“Weariness. The hollow place in Nathan is echoing now, the inner wind is ripping him to rags, entering through the place where Dad tore him, the opening that Burke sees now, the wound that does not close. The dark attic fills with the sound that only Nathan can hear, the one note of the one song. He has knelt in this way before, there is nothing to do but let go again, with his head throbbing. It is as if he deserves it, as if both he and Burke understand that he is made for this use; Dad opened a hole in Nathan, and now anyone can use it. He opens his mouth, he makes a circle. Burke pushes inside.”

A great deal of abusive language occurs between Nathan and Roy throughout the book before Burke actually brutalizes Nathan. Like Nathan’s father, Roy often tells Nathan he cannot share their “secret”, that Nathan is not his boyfriend, and even a moment of jealousy occurs between the two boys as Nathan speaks briefly with a girl outside school because Roy has decided, that day, to ignore him entirely. This one poignant sentence sums up much of Nathan’s experience with Roy: “Roy will treat Nathan as he pleases, and Nathan expects the coldness. In the daylight Nathan will be invisible.”

And yet, throughout much of their relationship, Nathan first learns the truth of how he feels about what his father does to him. Another sentence from the book tells us “that what pleases him with Roy terrifies him with his father.” Both times I read this book I could not help but wonder whether Nathan would have felt half the things he did about Roy—the times he glimpsed his father’s rage in Roy’s discomfort, those moments he realized himself unequal compared to Roy—had his father never toyed with him as a child.

Nick Burd’s THE VAST FIELDS OF ORDINARY examines a different type of abusive relationship, one perhaps more akin to millennial experiences. The first time we see Dade Hamilton, our narrator, and Pablo Soto together in a scene, the same language which pervaded Nathan and Roy’s relationship exists here: “We don’t tell anybody about this.” “I already have a girlfriend. I don’t need another one.” This paragraph, taking place directly after Dade professes his love for Pablo (“I love you.”), forces knots in my stomach every time:

“I peered up at him to see his reaction. He’d screwed his face up into a look of disgust. He moved forward and grabbed me, pushed me against the wall, and raised his fist back behind his head. He was ready to punch me. I thought back to the first time he’d touched me, of all the times he touched me, of the way he pushed my face away whenever I tried to kiss him and how that didn’t stop me from trying over and over again.”

Two brief lines of dialogue later, we read this line: “He smacked me across the face. Hard.”

These books need not represent the brunt of LGBTQ youth experiences in this country. Let me be the first to say I am glad this isn’t the case. Yet with the swell of greater human rights, let us not forget how much work is still to be done. In every high school there aren’t just gay teens bursting out of the closet, many of them find themselves doing so due to or in line with abusive relationships because, despite Glee and Modern Family and LGBTQ-positive YA fiction, the reality of boyfriends or girlfriends is still underrepresented. Out of fear of being caught, both Pablo and Roy, each in his way, maintained sexual engagement with Dade and Nathan because it felt good and little understanding as to how to relate to their sexual partner outside of sex existed on their television screens during primetime or in the books they read (or didn’t). As we’ve learned with homosexuality in general, lack of representation breeds fear and encourages malcontent, most of all inside the person realizing how little of themselves they actually see on a daily basis.

Let us not make this same mistake with victims of sexual abuse who also happen to be gay.

Anthony L. Isom writes young adult and children’s fiction, serves as fiction editor for the East Jasmine Review (an online literary magazine), and volunteers regularly as both actor and stagehand at the local Croswell Opera House in downtown Adrian, Michigan. Currently, he is working feverishly toward joining his literary voice with the millions of others speaking to young people worldwide. “As is a tale, so is life; not how long it is, but how good it is is what matters.” 

This is the first in a series that Anthony is writing on the GLBTQ experience in #SVYALit.

What we can learn about the gift of security and foundation from USES FOR BOYS by Erica Lorraine Scheidt (by Christa Desir)

A long time ago, I sat at a lecture where the speaker said, “Don’t be afraid to tell your kids ‘I love you, but no’. This is the very best gift that you can ever give them. It is the gift of security, of them knowing that someone is driving the bus.”

I think about this a lot. Mostly I think about those of us who for one reason or another didn’t have parents who said no. The unprotected ones. The ones with no boundaries, no one driving the bus. Or maybe someone was driving the bus, but only sometimes, and it was erratic enough to feel unsafe.

There are a lot of different reactions to being left unprotected as a child, but at the end of the day, it all ends up in the same place: with the undeniable knowledge that however you’re going to navigate this world, you are on your own.

It’s a tall order for a small child.

When I read USES FOR BOYS, I felt this narrative creep back inside me. The narrative of someone who grew up with few boundaries, with no parent around to say “I love you, but no.” Anna was unprotected. Her early life was peppered with a revolving door of men and/or her mom notably absent. And the gaping hole inside her got bigger with each interaction she had with guys. 
To me, there is a lot of solace in reading a book that lets you know you’re not alone. But Erica Lorraine Scheidt takes it a step further. By Anna so frequently creating her own fairy tale in her mind, desperately trying to control the narrative of her own existence (i.e. posing herself the first time that she goes on a date with Sam), the reader is pushed into considering how we could change Anna’s story, both from her perspective and from her mom’s. We are left to think: at what point along this path could we have made this better so that Anna is not so incredibly unprotected. What lessons could we have offered Anna or what could we have helped her avoid. 
You cannot protect your child 100% of the time. They don’t live in bubbles. It’s a wide world of a lot of shitty things. But there are tools to give them, resources to provide them with enough of an emotional landscape that when confronted with hard things they can get through. People say that kids are resilient. I think they are only if they have enough resources to be. If someone along the way has given them enough of something to cobble together a workable life. They deserve this. And Erica Lorraine Scheidt spends a lot of her time trying to provide this. (Ask her about her job/non-profit). 
This book is about sex and not about sex at the same time. It is about want. It is about seeking wholeness in the only way that Anna knows, through interactions with boys. Over and over again we see Anna trying to fix herself through boys and over and over again it doesn’t work. And to me, Anna’s journey in this book is more about figuring out what she wants than anything else.

But for girls (and boys!) to figure out what they really want, they have to be asked. They have to know that what they want matters. They have to consider themselves as part of the equation in all things that they do. They have to feel protected enough to fail and know that they still have a safety net.

Which is the role of Sam in this book. Sam is the protected one and through him, Anna figures out what she wants. Not because he tells her, but because he asks. A lot. And then his mom does. And Anna finds her way into something that starts to solidify the broken foundation she had been existing on. Which ultimately leaves us with enough hope at the end of the book to believe it might be okay for Anna. That she might have the tools she needs to make it through after all.

Christa Desir is an activist, editor and the author of FaultlineFaultline is the story of a girl (Ani) who was gang raped at a party and how her boyfriend, Ben, deals with his guilt and feelings in the aftermath. She is also the author of the forthcoming title Bleed Like Me. Desir is one of the moderators of the #SVYALit Project and guest blogs with us here on topics involving sexual violence, slut shaming, and consent.

You can join us tonight at 7 PM Central on Twitter as we discuss Uses for Boys with author Erica Lorraine Scheidt using the hashtag #SVYALit. 

Join us for the June USES FOR BOYS Reread and Twitter Chat with author Erica Lorraine Scheidt

Join us in June for the inaugural twitter read-along of the #SVYALIT Project: USES FOR BOYS by Erica Lorraine Scheidt.

Discuss this powerful, haunting book and its stunning contrast of both sexual violence and consent all month with the hashtag #SVYALit with moderators @TLT16, @CarrieMesrobian, @TrishDoller, @ChristaDesir, and @ericalorraine. 

A one hour twitter chat, on June 12 at 7pm Central, will bring together YA authors and sexual health educators in a discussion of sexual agency, sexual assault, and consent in USES FOR BOYS. Join the conversation, using #SVYALit. 


Uses for Boys, St. Martin’s Press 2013, was named a Best First Book for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist and a 2014 Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers. This polarizing debut from Erica Lorraine Scheidt, has been called “grim, gritty, and heart-breakingly real.” 

Here is my (very spoilery) review

In July, we will have our next Google+ Hangout:
When Past Meets Present, a look at the issues in terms of historical fiction and what we can learn from the past

Date: July 30th

Moderator: Christa Desir

Confirmed: Jenn McGowan (MAID OF SECRETS/MAID OF DECEPTION, Katherine Longshore (GILT), Sharon Biggs Waller (A MAD, WICKED FOLLY)

And in August we will be having our next #SVYALit Book Club hosted by author Rachele Alpine, look for announcements in June but it looks like we may be reading and discussing Inexcusable by Chris Lynch.