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The Sexual Violence in LGBTQIA+ YA Literature Project Index

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For the past two weeks, Teen Librarian Toolbox focused on sexual violence in LGBTQIA+ young adult literature. This is part of our blog’s larger ongoing sexual violence in young adult literature (or SVYALit) project.

 

We’re grateful to Vee Signorelli, admin and co-founder of GayYA, and Nita Tyndall, a moderator at GayYA. who have helped us brainstorm, organize, and facilitate this project. This series launched on August 3, 2015 with this introductory post. 

 

Below is a listing of every contributor and a summary, link, and excerpt of each of their posts. We greatly appreciate all of the support we’ve had during this project—every retweet, favorite, or comment we’ve gotten has meant so much. Check out the index and see what posts you might have missed. Please share this index and these posts widely. Not much has been written on the subject of sexual violence in LGBTQIA+ YA literature. This project goes a long way toward helping change that.

 

Meet the contributors to our series and get an overview of the posts:

 

Rob Bittner (@r_bittneris a PhD candidate in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University. He has a history of working with children’s and YA literature in various contexts, including his MA degree and various award committees through the American Library Association. In his post, Violence in LGBTIQ Fiction for Young Adults,” he writes about the obligatory sexual violence scene in YA books.

 

While I understand that authors often include these instances of violence in order to lend a sense of realism to the story, I feel that having an overabundance of such situations in YA gives the impression that to come out as L, G, B, T, I, Q, etc., inevitably leads to violence or unavoidable negative consequences. The same goes for uses of homophobic/transphobic language in novels as a way of realistically portraying the cruelty of homophobic/transphobic individuals. The use of such language, however, also troubles many readers who hear these words being hurled at them in real life. Sometimes I think it’s okay to have a book that contains challenges for characters, and references life’s complexities, without necessarily including scenes of violence and/or homophobic language.

 

 

Eden Grey (@edenjeangrey) is the Young Adult Programming Librarian at the busiest branch library in Kentucky. Eden is a reviewer for Young Adult Books Central and School Library Journal. In her post, “Sex and Consent in LGBT Manga,” she explores the differences between portrayals of sex in lesbian and gay manga and heterosexual romance stories in manga.

 

Should we be sharing these stories with our teens? Is it our place to decide what kind of sex they should and should not have access to? Is the answer as simple as ordering popular and requested manga and placing the explicit ones in the Adult section? These are questions rarely asked or discussed in Libraryland, and that’s really unfortunate. If we’re ordering these manga for our teens we should be discussing the sexual violence in them with readers. We should use this as an opportunity to talk about the issue of consent.

 

 

Dahlia Adler (@MissDahlELamais an Associate Editor of Mathematics by day, a blogger for B&N Teens by night, and writes Contemporary YA and NA at every spare moment in between. She’s the author of the Daylight Falls duology, the upcoming Just Visiting, and Last Will and Testament. In “Why Heteronormativity in YA Hurts More Than You Think,” she examines consent and power dynamics in LGBTQ YA.

 

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

 

 

Marieke Nijkamp (@mariekeynis a storyteller, dreamer, globe-trotter, geek. She holds degrees in philosophy, history, and medieval studies, and wants to grow up to be a time traveler. In the midnight hours of the day she writes young adult stories as well as the occasional middle grade adventure. Her debut young adult novel THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS will be out from Sourcebooks Fire on January 5, 2016. In her post, “Microaggressions and Sexual Violence,” she looks at how microaggressions and sexual violence are closely related as symptoms of a culture that both sexualizes teens’ experiences and others or even fetishizes experiences that deviate from a supposed norm.

 

That doesn’t place microaggressions side to side with sexual violence, but they are closely related. They are a both symptoms of a culture that both sexualizes teens’ experiences and others or even fetishizes experiences that deviate from a supposed norm. A culture where the mere presence of queer characters means a YA book isn’t “clean” and where queer characters making out is still too often perceived as “having an agenda” while a cishet couple is simply romantic.

 

Vee Signorelli (@rausicabklvrspends their time writing, reading, hunting through queer book tags on tumblr, and keeping up with school. They’re a passionate feminist, a huge fan of actual representation in media, and a lover of theatre, mythology, and biology. Vee is the admin and co-founder of GayYA.org. In their post, “Sex and Romance in Trans YA,” they look at the books in which trans characters have sex, get swept off their feet by a dashing love interest, and explain to their date that they’re trans and have them respond affirmatively.

 

Trans YA can have a strong impact on what trans youth understand about themselves. I’ve learned about identity politics through tumblr and non-fiction works, but reading trans YA helped me figure out how I could exist happily in the world. Seeing someone like you go through the things you’re going through, and things you never thought you’d experience can change a lot. Reading about trans characters in romantic relationships helped me see a future for myself and expel most of the seemingly infinite amount of shame I had around being trans.

 

Rachel Gold (@RachelGoldis the author of Just Girls (Bella Books 2014) and the award-winning Being Emily (Bella Books 2012), the first young adult novel to tell the story of a trans girl from her perspective. She has an MFA in Writing from Hamline University and has spent the last 14 years working in Marketing and Publicity. In her post, “Tough Girls Talk About Rape,” she talks about female-female partner/date rape in her book Just Girls and shares her own personal story.

 

I wrote about it because I wish something like this never happens again to another girl in the history of the world. And I wrote about it because that the same kind of partner rape that happened to Tucker happened to me when I was 17 — so I know how confusing and devastating it feels.

 

I know how alone you feel when you’re still trying to understand what the hell happened and wondering if it’s ever happened to anyone else. I know what it’s like to try to tell people and have them look at you like they want to help but they can’t begin to understand what you said. I know what it’s like to be afraid that you’re the only person bad enough for this to happen to.

 

Sarah Benwell (@SWritesBooks) is a queer, genderqueer author. She lives in the picturesque city of Bath. Which is nice, but she’d much rather be off exploring deserts and jungles elsewhere. Having seen a good chunk of the world, Sarah is a keen advocate for diversity in life and on bookshelves, and she loves nothing more than acquainting herself with both. Her debut novel THE LAST LEAVES FALLING is published by Penguin Random House (UK)/ Simon & Schuster (US). In her post, “Why We Need Abuse and Sexual Violence/Abuse in LGBTQIA YA,” she argues for the importance of these narratives as they show us that we’re not alone and that others have walked this same path.

 

And when you’re growing up and you already feel different and misunderstood and scared, books can help. Yes, they might show us some of the worst possibilities – but they allow us to read through to the end and survive. To learn how, to learn that it’s possible.

They show us that we’re not alone. That others have walked the same paths. And if – gods forbid – you do find yourself in similar awful situations, the last thing you want is to feel that you’re the only one, that it’s you.

 

Megan Honig (@vonmeggz) is a writer and editor and the former Young Adult Collections Specialist for the New York Public Library. She is the author of Urban Grit: A Guide to Street Lit, published by Libraries Unlimited, as well as the popular 30 Days of Street Lit blog series. In her post “Misrepresentations of Violence in Julie Anne Peters’ Rage: A Love Story,” Megan looks at one of the few YA titles depicting an abusive relationship between two girls–a book that, unfortunately, conceals more than illuminates abusive behaviors.

 

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

 

Nita Tyndall (@NitaTyndall is a tiny Southern queer with a deep love of sweet tea and very strong opinions about the best kind of barbecue (hint: it’s vinegar-based.) She attends college in North Carolina and is pursuing a degree in English. In addition to being a YA writer, she is a moderator for The Gay YA and a social media coordinator for WeNeedDiverseBooks. You can find her on tumblr at nitatyndall where she writes about YA and queer things, or on Twitter at @NitaTyndall. InCoercion and Sexual Violence in LGBTQIA Lit,” Nita focuses on what coercion is and why “positive” or commonplace depictions of it are harmful, particularly in LGBTQ lit, through examining ASK THE PASSENGERS and SHE LOVES YOU, SHE LOVES YOU NOT.

 

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

 

Cheryl Rainfield (@CherylRainfield) is the author of the award-winning SCARS, a novel about a queer teen sexual abuse survivor who uses self-harm to cope; the award-winning HUNTED, a novel about a teen telepath in a world where any paranormal power is illegal; STAINED, about a teen who is abducted and must rescue herself; and PARALLEL VISIONS, about a teen who sees visions and must save a friend. Cheryl is a lesbian feminist and incest and ritual abuse torture survivor. In her article “The Need For Realistic, Compassionate Portrayals of Sexual Violence In LGBTQIA+ (and all YA) Lit ,” she talks about the importance of realistic portrayals of sexual violence and abuse in queer YA lit and how they can help.

 

I felt so alone and in so much pain as a child and teen; I wanted to die most of the time and did actually try a few times to kill myself. I desperately wanted to know that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t the only one going through these horrific experiences or the only one was queer, and I tried to find that in books. I found small bits of validation, such as a character who was bullied or survived incest or a lesbian character, but I didn’t find enough—which is part of why I write the books I do. I write the books I needed to read as a teen and couldn’t find. I want others to know they’re not alone.

When we feel alone in traumatic or painful experiences—including abuse and homophobia—it makes the pain so much worse. I think when we see reflections of ourselves and our experiences, it helps lessen our pain, reassure us that we are not alone, help us feel healthier and happier, learn new ways of coping and surviving, and feel that we, too, can survive since characters with similar issues did.

 

Amanda MacGregor (@CiteSomething) is a librarian with a MA degree in children’s literature, a longtime book reviewer for School Library Journal, The Horn Book Guide, and Voice of Youth Advocates, and also a contributor at Teen Librarian Toolbox. In her post, “‘Our Kisses Were Seismic’: Positive Sexual Experiences in LGBTQIA+ YA Books,” she shares some of her favorite positive sex/consent books, scenes, and relationships, as well as those offered up by friends on Twitter.

 

While it’s important to look at and discuss rape, consent, abuse, and violence, it’s equally as important to present plenty of healthy, positive, and enjoyable experiences for teen readers to show them what desire looks like and how it can play out. The field of books about LGBTQIA+ teens is growing in leaps and bounds. We are lucky that we can hand so many books to teenagers where the characters have happy and fulfilling relationships, where things are not all doom and gloom, and where sexual behaviors actually take place on the page, rather than some fade to black scenes. There is power in representation, in being seen, in seeing hope and happiness.

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

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

 

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

 

Here are two of my favorite parts:

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

‘I like your hair,’ he says.

‘Mmm.’

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

‘Yeah?’

‘It’s fine with me. I’m ready.’

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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The Need For Realistic, Compassionate Portrayals of Sexual Violence In LGBTQIA+ (and all YA) Lit, a guest post by Cheryl Rainfield

By Cheryl Rainfield, author of YA novels SCARS, STAINED, HUNTED, and PARALLEL VISIONS (@CherylRainfield)

 

cheryl-books-prideWhen I was a child and teen, I lived through daily/nightly rape, torture, and mind control at the hands of my parents and other abusers; my parents belonged to intergenerational, interconnected cults. I was also queer. When people hear that, they often ask me if I’m lesbian because I was raped. My answer—and that of my queer survivor characters—is a resounding no. I was raped by both men and women in the cult, and by both of my parents, grandparents, and other relatives. Each rape traumatized, disgusted, and terrified me, no matter which gender raped me. And if rape could make survivors queer, then there’d be a heck of a lot more queer people in the world since at least 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys have experienced sexual abuse by the time they reach age 18Queer teens experience more rape than heterosexuals and have to face homophobia on top of it—sometimes in the form of rape, being beaten, being turned out of our families and homes, or other forms of hatred and  fear turned on us. I think we need books that talk about these experiences in an honest and real way. LGB teens are four times as likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual teens and half of transgender teens have seriously thought of suicide and 1 in 4 attempt it.

LGBTQIA+ teens (and adults) need to know they’re not alone and it can get better, and LGBTQIA+ survivors of rape, abuse, sexual violence, and torture need to know it even more.

 

#WeNeedDiverseBooks-lgbtq-rainfieldI felt so alone and in so much pain as a child and teen; I wanted to die most of the time and did actually try a few times to kill myself. I desperately wanted to know that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t the only one going through these horrific experiences or the only one was queer, and I tried to find that in books. I found small bits of validation, such as a character who was bullied or survived incest or a lesbian character, but I didn’t find enough—which is part of why I write the books I do. I write the books I needed to read as a teen and couldn’t find. I want others to know they’re not alone.

When we feel alone in traumatic or painful experiences—including abuse and homophobia—it makes the pain so much worse. I think when we see reflections of ourselves and our experiences, it helps lessen our pain, reassure us that we are not alone, help us feel healthier and happier, learn new ways of coping and surviving, and feel that we, too, can survive since characters with similar issues did.

Reading about characters who’ve experienced similar trauma or painful experiences can also help us decrease our shame, self-blame, and self-hatred; increase our compassion and acceptance for ourselves and others; and give us a tool to talk about the issue with others. And we all deserve to have that.

 

Readers have told me many times that because of my books, they were able to talk to someone for the first time about being queer, their abuse, or their self-harm; get help; stop self-harming; have more compassion for themselves or for someone who is a sexual abuse survivor, queer, or uses self-harm; feel less alone; survive the pain they’re living through; feel stronger in their own lives; and even keep from killing themselves. Books help heal.

 

#WeNeedDiverseBooks-everyone-reflections-rainfieldI don’t think there are enough YA novels with survivors of sexual violence written in a sensitive, realistic way, especially from someone who’s been there and knows what it’s like from the inside out; not enough YA books with queer characters; and definitely not enough books with both. And yet there is a need—not only for the queer community, but also for the world to help lessen homophobia and help increase awareness of sexual violence and its effects. An emotionally honest book about painful experiences can help readers whether they are queer or heterosexual, whether they have experienced sexual violence or some other form of abuse, or even if they haven’t experienced any of that at all but know someone who has. Books help us increase compassion and understanding by temporarily slipping into the soul of the character.

 

 

“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” –Joyce Carol Oates

 

cheryl-sometimes-be-own-heroI write about many of the traumatic experiences I’ve been through—rape and incest, self-harm, being queer and experiencing homophobia from a parent in SCARS; rape, being held captive, being withheld food and water in STAINED; oppression, betrayal, and being hunted in HUNTED; homophobic-based rape and gang rape, suicidal thoughts, and depression in PARALLEL VISIONS. I write strong-girl characters, emotionally-strong boy characters, and both queer and heterosexual characters who help each other. I try to write queer characters, characters of color, and characters with mental- or physical-health issues into my books, reflecting our real world. And I also write about many of the techniques I’ve used to heal and cope—creating art, seeing a therapist, talking to friends, reading comics and collecting superhero items, creating my own superhero from myself.

I always write strong-girl characters who have to save themselves. That is what I had to do—rescue myself—over and over again until I was finally safe.

I write honestly from my own trauma and healing experiences, opening up to my intense emotions, bleeding them out onto the page so the reader can feel. So that they understand—whether they’ve been through something similar or not. So that if they’ve been through it, they know they’re not alone.

 

And I show some of the possible side effects from rape, sexual abuse, trauma, and abuse—PTSD, dissociation, cheryl-superman-tanxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, isolation—all things I’ve experienced and know well. It’s important to me to show what the effects of rape and sexual violence are really like. They leave deep emotional scars. It’s not something we walk away from and shrug off like a second skin—the way some movies, TV shows, and comics suggest. And it’s not something that I think should ever be used just for dramatic effect or to make another (usually male) character become a hero. If we don’t show the intense pain, despair, depression, and other resulting effects from  rape and trauma, I think we are doing us all a great disservice by telling survivors, perpetrators, and everyone else that sexual violence leaves no trauma or side effects aside from the physical. I believe that the worst and deepest wounds aren’t physical, but are emotional and psychological. So it’s important to me to write realistic stories of sexual violence and trauma that teens can relate to, and yet are also full of hope and healing.

 

cheryl-rainfield-nobody-knows-im-lesbianIt’s also important to me to write books where the queer characters are happy with their sexuality—not just books where the character is coming out, but books where the story is about something else and the character just happens to be queer—and books where the queer characters are in relatively happy, healthy, consensual relationships, where the tension and strife is coming most from the outside, and a queer character doesn’t get penalized or killed off because they’re queer. I think books with queer characters can help normalize being queer, fight homophobia and hatred, and increase compassion.

Queer readers need books we can enjoy and experience the way heterosexuals can most any time they pick up a book—and heterosexual readers need to be exposed to queer characters as just a reflection of the world we live in.

 

I think there is a great need for LGBTQIA+ YA books that have positive queer characters, that explore rape, abuse, homophobia, and trauma in realistic, sensitive, and hopeful ways, and that include both. I hope to see many more such books in the future. I will keep writing the books I need to. And I hope that you will read, write, or share the books you need to, the books that help you feel alive or the books that moved you. Read on!

 

Meet Cheryl Rainfield

CHERYLCheryl Rainfield is the author of the award-winning SCARS, a novel about a queer teen sexual abuse survivor who uses self-harm to cope; the award-winning HUNTED, a novel about a teen telepath in a world where any paranormal power is illegal; STAINED, about a teen who is abducted and must rescue herself; and PARALLEL VISIONS, about a teen who sees visions and must save a friend. Cheryl Rainfield is a lesbian feminist, incest and ritual abuse torture survivor, and an avid reader and writer. She lives in Toronto with her little dog Petal.

Cheryl Rainfield has been said to write with “great empathy and compassion” (VOYA) and to write stories that “can, perhaps, save a life.” (CM Magazine)  SLJ said of her work: “[readers] will be on the edge of their seats.”

You can find Cheryl on her website CherylRainfield.com or her blog http://www.CherylRainfield.com/blog, on Twitter: http://www.Twitter.com/CherylRainfield, Instagram: http://www.Instagram.com/CherylRainfield, and FaceBook http://www.facebook.com/CherylRainfield.

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

by Nita Tyndall (@NitaTyndall)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

I decide Dee is now fine to drive home.

 

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

 

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

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

“You were last night.”

“Stop saying that. I was not.”

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

 

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

 

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

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

“Oh,” I say.

“Oh? That’s all you’re going to say?”

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

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

And Ellis. And Jeff. And maybe even myself.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

She says, “When did you know?”

‘Know what?”

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

“A lesbian?”

She nods slightly.

“I’ve always known. Haven’t you?”

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Meet Nita Tyndall

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

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

by Megan Honig (@vongmeggz)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You bit me!” Britt said.

“Did I?”

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

Reeve said, “You asked for it.”

Britt crumpled to the ground and started to cry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Meet Megan Honig

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

Why We Need Abuse and Sexual Violence/Abuse in LGBTQIA YA, a guest post by Sarah Benwell

by Sarah Benwell (@SWritesBooks)

last leavesA lot of people really dislike abuse/ sexual violence in YA, and moreso in LGBTQIA narratives. But I want to argue for its place.

I have complex feelings about it. I think it needs to be done right. But I do think it needs to be done.

I get it. I do. For some – with personal experience or not – these stories are triggering. I get that. Truly. And choosing not to read a book is absolutely fine.

For some, the issue is that – particularly where less-represented parts of the spectrum are concerned – the abuse, the unhappy endings, make up most of the narratives upon our shelves. I’ve heard a lot of these complaints lately. And I get that, too. Really.

We, as queer individuals, deserve so much better, so much more, and showing nothing but permeations of that single story is potentially extremely harmful. We need to show positive relationships, acceptance, happy endings. We need stories where our gender and sexuality is not the forefront, because honestly, we’re more than that, and we can be the heroes too.

But I have issues with the idea that we should pull back from narratives which deal – with sensitivity, preferably – with abuse, precisely because we deserve more than that.

Throughout the recent, seemingly endless series of Pride events, I’ve talked to a lot of people about LGBTQIA rights, and narratives and why we need to fight for both. And I’ve met a lot of surprise at the idea that, actually, we still do need to.

“But you have gay marriage now!” They say.

“But, I’ve seen TONS of gay YA. Enough already!”

“It’s not the same as it was back then. You’re accepted. You’re equal. You’re safe.”

Um…

Yeah. No.

Some places are better than others. Some have legislation to protect our rights. Some have open support.  Families and friends and lifelines in place to look out for us. Others are much less safe.

Take South Africa. Cape Town is widely regarded as the LGBT capital of Africa. A glorious safe haven where people can celebrate who they are. Except it isn’t all like that.  My current WIP is a queer narrative set in Khayelitsha, a South African township. In an environment where there are 10 reported cases of corrective rape, in Cape Town alone, every week. 10 reported cases.

In an environment where – despite South Africa being the first country in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the 5th in the world to legalize same-sex marriage – police frequently dismiss cases of sexual violence as women making it up/ stirring trouble. Where victims face harassment from the very people whose job it is to protect them.

Where corrective rape is not as yet classified as a hate crime, and related murders are not investigated as such. Where mutilation and evidence of sexual abuse are too frequently marked on death certificates as ‘cause of death unknown’.

In an environment where attacks are frequent and brutal, and often doled out by people the victims know and trust: neighbours, pastors, teachers, parents, uncles, husbands (from forced marriages). Where if a woman walks down the street holding her girlfriend’s hand, she’s never sure whether she’ll make it to the end of the street.

Where women who are raped and become pregnant are often denied access to their children (by family members or church communities) in case their ‘affliction’ rubs off on the child. They’re shunned by communities unless they conform to heterosexual expectations.

It’s not just SA, obviously (And it’s not just cis women in f/f relationships, either.) We’ve all seen Russia’s anti-propoganda laws in the news, right? And Uganda’s death penalty campaigns.

In fact, there are 79 countries which still uphold anti-homosexuality laws, with punishments ranging from fines to corporal punishment, imprisonment to death.

And almost always, where these are in place, there are portions of the public who are behind them. Who believe we are lesser or dangerous or both.

And honestly, as much as we would like to think so, discrimination and abuse isn’t something that only happens across borders. We have a long, long way to go.

And when you’re growing up and you already feel different and misunderstood and scared, books can help. Yes, they might show us some of the worst possibilities – but they allow us to read through to the end and survive. To learn how, to learn that it’s possible.

They show us that we’re not alone. That others have walked the same paths. And if – gods forbid – you do find yourself in similar awful situations, the last thing you want is to feel that you’re the only one, that it’s you.

And they let others into our scared, confused, different heads to see that we’re not so different after all. Empathy is a pretty powerful tool, and it’s well documented that the way we experience books helps to foster that.

It’s a whole lot easier to ignore the bad things and let them slide if you’re not aware that they’re still a thing. If the rainbow-joy of Pride and legislative wins is all you see. It’s a whole lot easier to disbelieve the other stuff if you do not see it happen.

It’s a whole lot easier to carry out/ justify abuse when you think of people as less-than, or a threat to be conquered.

It’s a lot easier to give up, to not stand up for yourself, not take the next breath, when you’re standing alone.

And I for one don’t wish to leave that to chance.

Yes, I want more, varied storylines. Yes, I want any and all abuse in stories to be treated with the utmost care. But no, I don’t want it to stop. Because if one reader changes the way they think about an LGBTQIA classmate, or one reader who’s lost and scared and hurting finds comfort, sameness or understanding… then it’s absolutely worth it.

 

Meet Sarah Benwell

Sarah Benwell Author Photo credit Jess Howley-WellsSarah Benwell is a queer, genderqueer author. She lives in the picturesque city of Bath. Which is nice, but she’d much rather be off exploring deserts and jungles elsewhere. Having seen a good chunk of the world, Sarah is a keen advocate for diversity in life and on bookshelves, and she loves nothing more than acquainting herself with both. Her debut novel THE LAST LEAVES FALLING is published by Penguin Random House (UK)/ Simon & Schuster (US). Find her on Twitter at @SWritesBooks

Sunday Reflections: Tough Girls Talk About Rape, a guest post by Rachel Gold

sundayreflectionsby Rachel Gold (@RachelGold)

[Spoiler alert and trigger warning: I’m going to talk about female-female partner/date rape in some detail and I’m going to reveal a significant plot point from Just Girls — so please navigate away if you don’t want to read either of those.]

 

Two-thirds of the way through Just Girls, Jess Tucker is raped by her ex-girlfriend the day after they break up. just girlsReaders don’t see the rape scene on the page, but Tucker tells her best friend and the reader what happened a few chapters later.

Why write about this in a YA novel? Because we don’t talk about it nearly enough. Because according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice women age 16-24 are three times more vulnerable to intimate partner violence than any other age group. And because I hadn’t seen a scene like it in a the queer YA I’ve read.

 

I wrote about it because I wish something like this never happens again to another girl in the history of the world. And I wrote about it because that the same kind of partner rape that happened to Tucker happened to me when I was 17 — so I know how confusing and devastating it feels.

 

I know how alone you feel when you’re still trying to understand what the hell happened and wondering if it’s ever happened to anyone else. I know what it’s like to try to tell people and have them look at you like they want to help but they can’t begin to understand what you said. I know what it’s like to be afraid that you’re the only person bad enough for this to happen to.

 

I hope the scene with Tucker gives readers the understanding that it is more than okay to shove someone away and leave — and that if they can’t that there’s help, support and love out there. I hope it shows that it is more than okay to talk about same-sex partner/date rape happening to teens.

 

Dear 17-Year-Old-Me

What happened to me isn’t the same as what happened to Tucker, but it’s close enough. If you want to know how same-sex teen partner rape happens, what’s in the novel is a realistic example.

 

In my case, my girlfriend was a few years older and had a lot more power in our relationship. I was going to break up with her, she pushed sex. I told her I didn’t want to. She told me to do it anyway. She did what she wanted while I froze in shock and horror and tried to figure out if it was okay to hurt my girlfriend to get her off me.

 

(Dear 17-year-old-me and anyone else who needs this answer: Yes, it’s okay to hurt someone you’ve loved if they’re forcing you to have sex. It’s beyond okay to scream and hit and get away from them — to leave and get help. It doesn’t matter if she’s a woman, if she’s your girlfriend, if she said she loves you a hundred times — if you mean “no” and she doesn’t stop, you have every right to stop her. And if you don’t or can’t, it’s not at all your fault that it happened.)

 

I was, for a while, furious and then that slipped away and left me with shame and grief. Like Tucker does in the novel, I got sick afterwards and that had a buffering effect which helped in terms of raw pain but later made it easier to downplay what had happened and not talk about it.

 

Silence Serves No One

One reader told me she appreciated that the rape in the novel happened to Tucker and not another character because Tucker is a tough girl. She said it was good to see that rape also happens to tough girls.

 

I have a tough girl streak and that also made it harder for me to talk about it. I hate being seen as a victim or as weak. As I trace back the roots of my own “people will think I’m weak” fears, I can see how that they’re rooted in the pervasive cultural shame around being raped.

 

I never had any shame about being queer/lesbian. I came out young and brashly. I took a girl to prom (in the 80s). Nothing in the world could make me shut up about being a lesbian or being a trans advocate.

 

And yet I shut up about being raped by a girlfriend for most of 26 years.

 

That’s how pervasive the shame is in our culture. I didn’t want to be “that stupid girl” who got raped.

 

(Dear 17-year-old-me: rape doesn’t make you weak or stupid or bad. You can choose to identify as a victim when that identity is empowering and drop it otherwise. Talking about rape, that makes you a badass.)

 

Being tough or strong is about how you recover and integrate what’s happened to you, not about never getting wrecked by someone. It happened and I’m strong. And those are two separate things — it’s not that I’m strong because it happened or that I’m strong because I survived. I’m strong because I make choices that give strength.

 

JustGirls-TuckerShame and Other Dumbass Cultural Messages

I didn’t talk about it because of the shame, but I also didn’t talk about it back then because I didn’t want people to know that it happens. I hate when lesbians are the bad guys.

 

It is deeply shitty when you fight to come out, finally start dating girls like you want and then rape, assault or violence happens. How do you go back to the same people who looked at you disapprovingly when you came out and tell them what happened?

 

These days you don’t have to. There are great support lines and online resources. See the end of this blog for a list.

 

(Dear 17-year-old-me: If you tell someone and they don’t know what to do or you’re not getting help, tell someone else. There are people who love you and want to help you. There are people who don’t know you but could say really smart things if you just call that support line that you think you don’t need.)

 

Also I REALLY didn’t want to hear anyone say: that’s what you get for having sex at 17. That is beyond bullshit.

 

I was a teen who liked sex (with girls) and that’s why I include sex in my novels — because it can be great to have sex as a teen if that’s what you want. The sex I had between from 16 to 19 was awkward and crazy and wonderful and fun. (Dear 17-year-old-me: good call!)

 

Rape isn’t about sex. It doesn’t happen because you’re having sex and you can’t prevent it by not having sex. And, sadly, just because you’re having sex with girls doesn’t mean you’re immune to someone else’s abuse of power.

 

Rape is about power and violence. Even if the perpetrator is someone you’ve had sex with, even if it involves the same physical actions that have happened during sex — it’s no more about sex than being stabbed with a kitchen knife is about cooking.

 

Many people have written powerful, moving words about what rape is and isn’t, personally and culturally. All I have to add is this: when you’re young and in your first queer relationships, it can feel like you’ve found this amazing safe haven. There is an added layer of sickening violence when the perpetrator was your girlfriend or partner.

 

You can be struggling with the personal destruction of rape itself and feel like you’re not safe or don’t belong in that community you thought was your perfect home. This is why if violence, rape or abuse happens to you, being in a loving community is so important. Please don’t isolate yourself and try to muscle through it alone.

 

I’m grateful to the women who took care of me even though they didn’t know what had happened. I glossed over it as a bad breakup and the physical sickness I had afterward — but I still had a strong community of lesbian, bi and straight women who treated me with care and made a safe place for me to start recovering. I hope that talking openly and writing scenes likes the one in Just Girls will lend strength to loving communities and the people who need them.

 

Stuff I wish I’d known:

I wish I’d told more people. There are three friends I can think of now that I dearly wish I’d told back then. I’ve told them since and they were wonderful about it.

It’s so okay to feel however you feel. Write it, paint it, dance it, speak it — do whatever feels good to you to express it and give your feelings a lot of space.

I wish I’d gotten more help — ideally from someone trained in same-sex sexual violence counseling. If that feels too scary, talk to someone you trust and see if they’ll help you get that kind of support. At 17 I didn’t know how to talk about it beyond saying that it had happened — I needed someone who could help talk me through the stages of recovering and integrating what happened.

I didn’t trust the women I dated for a few years afterward. I went on having sex, but I didn’t connect. I wish I’d had a way to take stock of things and realize that was happening.

For everyone: please learn how consent works — especially if you’re young and having sex. No means no, but a lot of other words and phrases also mean no, like “I don’t want to.” Questions can mean no, like “Can we stop?” Physical gestures like freezing or pulling away can mean no.

If someone tells you rape, assault or partner violence happened to them, helpful responses include:

“I’m so sorry that happened.”

“I’ll listen for as long as you want.”

“Do you need someone to go with you to the hospital/therapist? I’ll go with you.”

“Thank you for telling me.”

I am working on a sequel to Just Girls in which Tucker will get some excellent counseling (in addition to trying some things that don’t work because tough girls often have to trial-and-error things out). She’ll get great sex and deep emotional connections — because what breaks you in one volume of your life is never the whole story.

Nobody gets to write your story but you.

Resources:

Pandora’s Project

Support and resources for survivors of rape and sexual abuse – including an LBGT online forum.

 

National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs

A national coalition of local member programs that works to prevent, respond to, and end all forms of violence against and within LGBTQ communities.

 

San Francisco Women Against Rape

24-hour hotline 415-647-7273

SFWAR is a women of color led, volunteer-based organization that has provided rape crisis services to survivors of sexual assault for over 30 years.

 

Meet Rachel Gold

Rachel Gold is the author of Just Girls (Bella Books 2014) and the award-winning Being Emily (Bella Books 2012), the first young adult novel to tell the story of a trans girl from her perspective. She has an MFA in Writing from Hamline University and has spent the last 14 years working in Marketing and Publicity — but if that makes her sound too corporate and stuffy, you should know that Rachel is an all around geek and avid gamer. For more information visit: www.rachelgold.com.

 

Sex and Romance in Trans YA, a guest post by Vee Signorelli

by Vee S. (@rausicabklvr)

The first time I read a sex scene with a transgender character, I cried.

I was just figuring out that I was trans, and trying to piece together what that meant for me. I thought that no one would ever be able to love me. I thought that maybe it’d be better to kill myself than to live in this way for the rest of my life.

That sex scene changed so much for me.

 

Trans YA can have a strong impact on what trans youth understand about themselves. I’ve learned about identity politics through tumblr and non-fiction works, but reading trans YA helped me figure out how I could exist happily in the world. Seeing someone like you go through the things you’re going through, and things you never thought you’d experience can change a lot. Reading about trans characters in romantic relationships helped me see a future for myself and expel most of the seemingly infinite amount of shame I had around being trans.

 

A lot of trans YA has romance subplots, but they’re usually not exactly romantic or sexy, and oftentimes the cis love interest is weirded out because the character is trans. I want to share the books that I have read that are different. The books in which trans characters have sex, get swept off their feet by a dashing love interest, explain to their date that they’re trans and have them respond affirmatively. I want to share the books that opened new doors for me, the books that made me look forward to the rest of my life, in the hope that they might do the same for someone else.

 

Trans Characters as Romantic Interests

Though cis people often have an odd, voyeuristic fascination with trans bodies, trans people are not depicted as desirable by our culture: trans bodies are things to be reviled and ogled simultaneously. Our culture says that trans people are too freakish—mentally, physically—to ever be found desirable.

 

This is why it is important to have trans characters depicted as romantic interests. The following six books do just that. These are not the books in which the cis character is disgusted that the person they’re attracted to is trans, but the books in which the cis character barely blinks when they find out the person they like is trans. These books can make you squeal and giggle and curl up in a little ball and fill your stomach with butterflies.

 

LOVE IN THE TIMELove in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block

“I’m not what I once was.”

“I don’t give a fuck what you are or were. I just don’t want you to go away. Ever.” -131

 

Description: Her life by the sea in ruins, Pen has lost everything in the Earth Shaker that all but destroyed the city of Los Angeles. She sets out into the wasteland to search for her family, her journey guided by a tattered copy of Homer’s Odyssey. Soon she begins to realize her own abilities and strength as she faces false promises of safety, the cloned giants who feast on humans, and a madman who wishes her dead.

 

Why I’m recommending it: Although it’s told from a cis girl’s POV, this book takes the archetypical sci-fi/fantasy romance, and puts a trans guy as the love interest. Showing a trans character in such a typical romantic storyline normalizes and validates trans people as romantic interests.

 

The Micah Grey series by Laura Lam PANTOMIME

“You’re not odd. This, what you can do… it’s beautiful.” He came close, and wrapped me in his arms. “You’re beautiful.”

 

Description: R. H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass—remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone—are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimaera is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide.

 

Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star.

 

But Gene and Micah have balancing acts of their own to perform, and a secret in their blood that could unlock the mysteries of Ellada.

 

Why I’m recommending it: Spoiler/not spoiler: Gene and Micah are the same person, and Micah is intersex and nonbinary. The romance in the first book, Pantomime, ends badly, but Shadowplay gives Micah an excellent romantic storyline. Also, in Pantomime, it seems like Micah is being portrayed as a “non-human” because he is intersex—something that’s really not OK. But in Shadowplay, it’s made clear that that his abilities have nothing to do with him being intersex.

 

TWOBOYSTwo Boys Kissing by David Levithan

“I like whatever it is that makes you the person you are.” Pg 80

Description: Told from the perspective of two gay men who died of AIDs, Two Boys Kissing follows the stories of several different boys. One of those boys is trans, and just getting into a relationship.

Why I’m recommending it: Avery, the trans boy, is gay. It’s really cool and very validating to see his experience as a gay trans guy included in a book that’s about the varied experiences of gay men. It also lays out one potential roadmap for dating as a trans person in the real world, an important balance to the trans romance in fantasy books.

 

Freakboy by Kirstin Elizabeth Clark FREAKBOY

“My junk doesn’t dictate who I am.”

 

Description: From the outside, Brendan Chase seems to have it pretty easy. He’s a star wrestler, a video game aficionado, and a loving boyfriend to his seemingly perfect match, Vanessa. But on the inside, Brendan struggles to understand why his body feels so wrong—why he sometimes fantasizes having long hair, soft skin, and gentle curves. Is there even a name for guys like him? Guys who sometimes want to be girls? Or is Brendan just a freak? Along with the alternating POVs of Brendan and Vanessa, is Angel, a young black trans woman, navigating her way through her life and a new relationship.

 

Why I’m recommending it: Angel is a young black trans woman, and the depiction of her new relationship is wonderful. Freakboy also delves into her difficult past, and represents the myriad experiences of trans women of color through a supporting cast of several TWOC. The storyline of the main character and their girlfriend may be hard to read for some people, however, as Vanessa, Brendan’s girlfriend, is very weirded out about Brendan being trans.

 

BRAYBeauty Queens by Libba Bray

“I think you’re beautiful. And brave. And really fucking cool. And you can make Charles Dickens puns.” Pg. 247

 

Description: When a plane crash strands thirteen teen beauty contestants on a mysterious island, they struggle to survive, to get along with one another, to combat the island’s other diabolical occupants, and to learn their dance numbers in case they are rescued in time for the competition. This is a fun, satirical, feminist romp, following the storylines of multiple girls. One of the girls, Petra, is trans.

 

Why I’m recommending it: This is a goofy, delightful read, and in it, Petra has a goofy, delightful romance. It’s important to have a trans girl represented that way. The two best-known books featuring trans girls, Luna by Julie Anne Peters and Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher, have some pretty problematic content (the titles are linked to posts detailing the problematic nature of these books). Having Petra’s storyline and romance in this satirical/semi-fantasy book is important to begin to counteract those narratives.

 

Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff BROOKLYN

“We’re in love. You can’t hurt us.”

 

Description: When you’re sixteen and no one understands who you are, sometimes the only choice left is to run. If you’re lucky, you find a place that accepts you, no questions asked. And if you’re really lucky, that place has a drum set, a place to practice, and a place to sleep. For Kid, the streets of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, are that place. Over the course of two scorching summers, Kid falls hopelessly in love and then loses nearly everything and everyone worth caring about. But as summer draws to a close, Kid finally finds someone who can last beyond the sunset.

 

Why I’m recommending it: The protagonist and the love interest in Brooklyn, Burning are never gendered, and both the characters can be easily easily read as trans, of any identity. (When I read it, I read both characters as nonbinary.) That establishes a safe space within the book for trans readers.

 

Detailed Sex Scenes

There is very little information out there for trans teenagers about having sex. It’s hard to even imagine what sex could be like! How do you have sex when you’re uncomfortable with some parts of your body? What safety precautions are important/necessary for sex after you have surgery? How does taking hormones affect sex? What words do you want to use for your genitals? How do you communicate all of that to your partner?

Stories can’t take the place of real, comprehensive sex-ed. So, before I get into those, I want to recommend Girl Sex 101. Though the title may be off-putting for some transgender folks, it is incredibly inclusive and respectful. I would highly recommend it for trans-feminine and trans-masculine folk alike.

Stories do provide something that sex-ed can’t, however: real-world contexts, and characters you love. In the following three books, you will find those.

 

LOVE IN THE TIMELove in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block

Quote: I curl [my fingers] into a soft fist and stroke him the way I used to touch myself before the Earth Shaker, when touch wasn’t something you thought you’d have to do without and when love wasn’t the difference between life and death.

Description: [see above]

Why I’m recommending it: The sex scenes in this book have a strong focus on the romance and sexiness. The scenes are rather dubiously consensual, unfortunately, but this is an important contribution nonetheless.

 

Just Girls by Rachel Gold just girls

Her fingers started touching me so gently I almost couldn’t feel them at first. “You have to tell me if I do something you don’t like,” she said. “Or something you really do. Okay?” pg. 151

 

Description: Jess Tucker sticks her neck out for a stranger—the buzz is someone in the dorm is a trans girl. So Tucker says it’s her, even though it’s not, to stop the finger pointing. Ella Ramsey is making new friends at Freytag University, playing with on-campus gamers and enjoying her first year, but she’s rocked by the sight of a slur painted on someone else’s door. A slur clearly meant for her, if they’d only known.

 

New rules, old prejudices, personal courage, private fear. In this stunning follow-up to the groundbreaking Being Emily, Rachel Gold explores the brave, changing landscape where young women try to be Just Girls.

 

Why I’m recommending it: The sex scene in this book is very detailed. The characters discuss what they are and are not comfortable with, and consent is prioritized. Through Ella’s thoughts we hear all the fears she has about having sex. It’s incredibly sweet and sexy. And it’s also between two girls!

 

KHAOS KOMIXKhaos Komix by Tab

Description: Khaos is a webcomic about eight teenagers navigating gender and sexuality. There’s one cishet character out of the cast of eight. There’s a Charlie, a trans girl and Tom, a trans boy, who both have lovely romantic storylines. I wanted to talk about them here, though, because there’s some NSFW side-stories that are just gold.

 

Why I’m recommending it: The sex scenes in the NSFW side-stories really explore some of the different ways trans people can have sex. The characters have conversations about what they’re comfortable with, and in one case they stop sexytimes to make a list of things they do and don’t want to do. Also, the trans boy is gay and Latino!

 

None of these books are perfect. If you follow me on Twitter or Tumblr, you probably know I’m very critical of trans representation. I have issues with how transness is portrayed in almost every single one of these books. But sometimes representation doesn’t need to be perfect for it to be enough to make a difference for transgender teens.

 

I hope that in coming years there will be so much trans YA that includes romance and sex that this post will no longer be needed. These things should be so common that they don’t need to be hunted down. But until then…

 

Because of the way these books depict trans people romantically and sexually, I would recommend them for: trans teens looking for representation, cis readers who want to broaden their reading horizons, librarians who want to put together trans-inclusive reading lists and collections, and anyone else who is interested in spreading the word about positive transgender representation.

 

On one last note, I wanted to talk about sexual violence (since this is the SVYALit Project, after all!)

 

Sexual violence is a very real thing for trans people. Multiple studies have shown that 50% of transgender people (or one in two) experience some form of sexual violence at some point in their lives.

 

I haven’t read a single trans YA book that reflects this reality. I’m hoping that as more and more trans YA books come out, particularly ones by authors who are themselves trans, more of this will be represented. Sexual violence is a terrible, confusing thing and YA has a unique opportunity to offer guidance to teens dealing with it. (Which the SVYALit Project has done an incredible job of pointing out and utilizing.)

 

In lieu of those books existing, I compiled this short list of resources in case anyone needs them.

Forge

FORGE was founded in 1994 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to provide peer support for those in the transgender community who are survivors of sexual violence. They also provide a lot of resources on how to keep yourself safe going forward.

 

Pandora’s Project

Pandora’s Project’s mission is to provide information, facilitate peer support and offer assistance to male and female survivors of sexual violence and their friends and family. To meet its mission, Pandora’s Project sponsors the internet’s largest support community for those who have been the victim of sexual violence.

Though Pandora’s Project is a resource for all survivors of sexual violence, they are very inclusive, and they have a separate forum for LGBTQ members and a separate forum for teens.

 

Meet Vee Signorelli 

jjuhXav2Vee S. spends their time writing, reading, hunting through queer book tags on tumblr, and keeping up with school. They’re a passionate feminist, a huge fan of actual representation in media, and a lover of theatre, mythology, and biology. Vee is the admin and co-founder of GayYA.org. Find them on Twitter, Goodreads, or Tumblr.

Microaggressions and Sexual Violence, a guest post by Marieke Nijkamp

by Marieke Nijkamp (@mariekeyn)

 

Several years ago, as a LGBTQIA+ youth group leader, I was part of a national research campaign that tracked how straight teens and young adults responded to questions of gay rights and acceptance. The way the campaign was set up, it was meant to be a mirror for the participants. One of the primary questions: what would you do if a friend told you they weren’t hetero?[1]

 

As it turned out, over the course of the night, answers to that question ranged across three possibilities:

  1. I would support them / they would still be my friend.
  2. I would terminate the friendship.
  3. I would be okay with it, provided…

 

And therein lies the rub. “I would be okay with it, provided they aren’t too obvious about it.” “I would be okay with it, provided they don’t start acting too gay.” “I would be okay with it, provided they don’t hit on me.” That comment was made frequently in the case of same sex friendships, but especially among guys. When talking to guys with girl friends, the popular option seemed to be: “I would be okay with it, provided I can watch.”

 

It’s an all too common example of how, for many queer people, the microaggressions we deal with are often unintentionally or intentionally sexual. Even something as deceptively simple as introducing ourselves or discussing our identity can turn into an unwanted sexual discussion. “You’re queer? That’s so hot.” “So how do you, you know, do it?” “You’re asexual? You just haven’t met the right person yet.”

 

(If fact, there seems to be a common belief that just the mere fact that someone is part of a marginalized group means they’re fair game to asking the most invasive personal questions.)

 

(Hint: no.)

 

That doesn’t place microaggressions side to side with sexual violence, but they are closely related. They are a both symptoms of a culture that both sexualizes teens’ experiences and others or even fetishizes experiences that deviate from a supposed norm. A culture where the mere presence of queer characters means a YA book isn’t “clean” and where queer characters making out is still too often perceived as “having an agenda” while a cishet couple is simply romantic.

 

 

MARIEKE

 

And that starts with microaggressions. (Of course that is a chicken and egg comment, because that cishetnormativity also results in microaggressions.) The idea that someone’s sexual integrity—let alone their very identity—exists only for the benefit or the perusal or the curiosity or the scorn of the majority starts with carefully building them up as lesser than. It marginalizes, ostracizes, and it puts queer people at a (in some cases, far) higher risk of sexual assault.

 

As Professor Kevin Nadal of CUNY states, “All of these microaggressions have a significant impact on people’s lives. While some of these experiences may seem brief and harmless, many studies have found that the more that people experience microaggressions, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression, psychological distress, and even physical health issues.”

 

And, although increasingly inclusive, in YA literature too we can see those same microaggressions at work on various levels. In a hundred small ways that may mean nothing to a hetero reader, but will mean everything to a queer one. In a hundred small ways to remind that queer reader that they are other and other than the book’s target audience too.

 

It’s there with every “no homo” or every “that’s so gay.”

 

It’s there every time a queer couple are denied the same on-page romance a hetero couple of has, because their romantic experiences are not seen as the same.

 

It’s there with every erasure of identity.

 

It’s there and we should challenge it. Because inclusiveness is not merely a matter of representation, but of the words we choose. If we want to be able to discuss sexual violence, we have to create a safe, sex-positive environment. If we want to be able to discuss sexual violence, we have to level the playing field.

 

It starts with carefully building up queerness as no longer different but as equal to.

 

It starts with reclaiming, subverting, or exploring problematic language.

I stand and he full on hugs me, none of this one-arm hug with a pat-on-the-back nonsense.

 

Reasons Why I’m Feeling Warm Right Now:

  1. I downed my drink pretty quickly on a fairly empty stomach.
  2. Everyone on the roof is staring at us.
  3. My unspeakable truth.

 

“No homo.”

“No homo,” I say back. (Adam Silvera, More Happy Than Not, p.120)

 

It starts with going all the way (responsibly, consensually).

And then she wraps her other arm around my neck and kisses me so deeply that everything else on my shoulders—on earth—falls away. And then I’m walking backward toward my bedroom, pulling her as our lip meet over and over, taking care to make sure I’m using only enough force to guide and none to pressure.

We slip onto my bed easily, like it’d been waiting for us, like this had always been the plan. (Dahlia Adler, Under the Lights, p. 236)

 

It starts with speaking the words.

“Bisexual, Rachel, I’m bisexual, it’s a fucking word.” (Hannah Moskowitz, Not Otherwise Specified, p. 68)

 

It starts with dismantling microaggressions and understanding that identities are not to be feared nor fetishized, that acceptance is not provisional. Both in life and the stories we tell.

 

(Next step: dismantling the cishetnormative system completely.)

 

Meet Marieke Nijkamp

marieke picMarieke Nijkamp is a storyteller, dreamer, globe-trotter, geek. She holds degrees in philosophy, history, and medieval studies, and wants to grow up to be a time traveler.

In the midnight hours of the day she writes young adult stories as well as the occasional middle grade adventure. Her debut young adult novel THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS will be out from Sourcebooks Fire on January 5, 2016.

Website | Twitter

 

[1] The campaign focused primarily on sexual and romantic orientation and, unfortunately, less so on questions of gender identity. Given that focus and my own limited range of experience, I will be focusing most strongly on microaggressions and sexual violence related to romantic and sexual orientation in this post.

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

by Dahlia Adler (@MissDahlELama)

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

 

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

 

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

 

I hated that so, so much.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Spoiler: YES. Every bit as much.

 

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

 

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

 

Spoiler: YES. Every bit as much.

 

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

 

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

 

“Is this okay?” she murmurs.

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

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

 

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

 

Meet Dahlia Adler

DAHLIA

photo credit: Maggie Hall

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