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sexual violence in ya lit

On Young Men and Virginity

Figure 1. Jamie Fraser, post cherry-busting

Figure 1. Jamie Fraser, post cherry-busting

 

This all starts where everything seems to start. With The Walking Dead and Daryl Dixon. Who is a character not even featured in the source material comic.

I can’t remember if Norman Reedus said this but the idea of Daryl Dixon Is A 40-Year-Old Virgin is a long-time headcanon for fans.

There is a sort of har-har-har involved when dealing with male virginity – or debut sex, if you want to be fancy – and it just gets worse the older the dude involved is. He’s a nerd, he’s awkward, he’s got some awful problem, blah blah blah. Because the larger myth we’re contending with is that Men Are Rapacious Sex Monsters Every Waking Moment.

Yet, the deflowering of Jamie Fraser in Outlander is one of the best things I’ve ever seen (or read). The prospect of seeing Daryl Dixon have sex for the first time (with Rick, Michonne, Carol, Beth or all of the above) makes me get weak in the knees.

And the fact that Perfectly Good White Boy opens with a boy’s first sexual experience with a girl? Well, that also happened for a pretty selfish reason, too.

Here are some disordered thoughts on the matter.

1. In adolescence, I think it’s fair to say that the Hormonal Surge responsible for libidos is often fairly overwhelming for boys. I don’t know if it’s overwhelming for girls – not in a physical sense. I don’t want to generalize that, at least. I think girls have libidos and sexual interests, but I’m not sure they manifest in the same way (and that is the subject for its own post).

2. Though the Surge can be relentless, that doesn’t mean all guys successfully execute all of their sexual urges.  The long pent-up period of desire, though, has an effect on many men for years to come, even when they are in relationships and have actual sexual partners. The desire for sex remains a top physical priority for men, long after the resultant hormonal surge has evened out.

3. Just because guys feel this way doesn’t mean they have no interest in relationships. That they don’t want to be seen or cherished. That they don’t want someone to spend time with outside of sex.

4. However, that guys are comfortable and able to reside inside a mutual relationship is another matter. Wanting that and knowing how to make that function are two different things. The importance of relationship skills is not something we really hammer home to young men.

5. The reason we need to see more fiction that deals with debut sex – and that deals with how young men encounter such sex – is that though mechanistically, porn gives us lots of data, what is important for young people contending with sexual experience and identity is the context in which these decisions are made. A shorter way of saying this is you cannot fully understand what CONSENT means if you only know about sex outside of any kind of interconnected CONTEXT. Porn is staged sex between paid performers. It’s lovely and informative, but it is an act. Whereas fiction has the power to go beyond nudity and show us even more. We can see the naked thoughts and responses of the people engaging in sexual activities.

 

Figure 2. Shh. Daryl's not really a virgin. He's actually in love with Rick.

Figure 2. Shh. Daryl’s not really a virgin. He’s actually in love with Rick.

 

6. Is debut sex always awkward? Do young men always orgasm 10 seconds after penetration? Do there exist young people who find and enjoy sexual pleasure? These are interesting questions. The answers are varied. The myths and stereotypes about male virginity are not. Why do we expect first sex to be competent and masterful? If you’ve never understood your own body’s response vis a vis another person’s body, then of course it’s going to be a little strange. Even if you’re a girl who knows how to masturbate; even if you’re a boy who is comfortable with his body. Every person you encounter in sexual activities has different baggage and needs and histories. Even among grown people, sex is awkward. It’s not a fluid choreographed dance like we see in porn. You have to take your socks off. One of you needs to move up on the bed more. Someone’s phone rings. There is stopping and starting.

7. Being a man in our culture is about competence and leadership and mastery. It’s about being perceived as capable and strong. Yet there is no way a guy having sex the first time can exhibit all those ideals. None. At some level, he will fail on all those counts. No wonder men get up and leave after sex, don’t call the person back, don’t want to acknowledge anything happened afterward. Facing those inadequacies involves a strength we don’t cultivate in boys.

8. Virginity is often lost in increments. Not everyone waits for the Big Night At Prom.

9. Negotiation is something that kids dealing with first sex may not understand. The reasons can be this: there are time constraints, there isn’t much privacy, they don’t have access to things like birth control and lubrication, they haven’t been taught to talk about their bodies in any capacity, much less sexual capacities.

10. If you understand other ways to get girls off besides penis-vagina sex, then why do we care about premature ejaculation so much? Increasing the sexual self-interest and education of girls is a measure I think makes the most sense for moving away from the notion that boys “get” or “take” something from girls via the sex act and the girls are then “robbed” or “diminished.” If sex doesn’t end when the guy ejaculates, then who cares what order things go in?

11. The idea of going around in an obvious state of arousal sounds wretched to me. As a woman, my sexual interest is hidden or capable of being hidden. There are no T-shirt bras for your math class boner.

12. Vulnerability in men is absolutely heart-breakingly sexy. I cannot be the only person to think this. And I thought this as a girl, too.

 

 

Sexual Violence in YA Lit: Chat #2

Figure 1. Charm & Strange (Kuehn), Canary (Alpine) and The Gospel of Winter (Kiely)

Figure 1. Charm & Strange (Kuehn), Canary (Alpine) and The Gospel of Winter (Kiely)

Here’s the link for our second #SVYALit chat with authors Rachele Alpine, Brendan Kiely and Stephanie Kuehn!

Rachele Alpine is the author of Canary, which beings with Kate going to a new school where basketball is untouchable and the athletes are protected and entitled, on and off the court.

Brendan Kiely is the author of The Gospel of Winter, a story about a boy named Aidan trying to understand himself as a victim and survivor of sexual abuse by his priest.

Stephanie Kuehn is the author of the 2014 Morris Award winning Charm & Strange,  where a boy named Win believes he is actually a monster as a way of coping with past traumas.

All three books deal with speaking about the unspeakable, the nature of victimhood and claiming it as an identity, the role of emotional manipulation and isolation, the scope of betrayal caused by sexual assault and abuse, the impact of secondary traumatization on victims who speak up and the notion of hero or institution worship, whether that be the school athletics, the Catholic Church, or the concept of the modern nuclear family.

All three books are beautifully written, complex, painful, and full of mesmerizing honesty. They are great contributions to the field of YA lit in this respect and I recommend all of them to anyone interested in the topics of sexual violence and sexual abuse.

Figure 2. The Sexual Violence in YA Literature project #SVYALit

Figure 2. The Sexual Violence in YA Literature project #SVYALit

 

A few quotes:

“I don’t think liking Win has anything to do with the story.” – Stephanie Kuehn

“Part of the reason why my book is written as a mix of poetry and straight narrative is because intimate moment or moments of really hard times for Kate – I didn’t feel that writing it in the narrative form was really true to her voice.” – Rachele Alpine

“I knew I wanted to do a story that honored in my mind the real courage, the whistle blowers of that community, who spoke up and bore the responsibility of that on their shoulders. Which was young people, originally.” – Brendan Kiely

“There are games, pep rallies, there’s walking around with the athletes’ jerseys on. It doesn’t necessarily mean to be a bad thing. But it’s the athletes that are celebrated and exalted, that assemblies are called for. Leaving a victim as, ‘me against everyone else.'” – Rachele Alpine

“Many people put so much into an institution, that when an institution gets attacked, they feel like on some level that they are being attacked, too.” – Brendan Kiely

“The idea that within this family that there isn’t any safe place to speak up…and the idea that it’s your father, somebody that you’re related to, it’s part you; there’s something really awful about that, that the one person who made you is the one victimizing you, and so what’s wrong with you.” – Stephanie Kuehn

“When you do find the courage to speak out, it might not be the first, or even the second person, who will listen to you.” – Rachele Alpine

“Many of the priests who were abusing children were in fact abused themselves; there’s a perpetuation of this cycle. What may be odd or not odd about this, is that in some cases, some of them experienced this abuse while in the seminary.” – Brenda Kiely

“There’s a lot of pressure to not be vulnerable around adults, for lots and lots of reasons.” – Stephanie Kuehn

“It’s important that she gets to the point that she recognizes that these aren’t her friends and manages to separate herself from them; for her that’s part of the growing process.” – Rachele Alpine

“When a relationship’s violence is tied to sex, then it’s like you’re either a victim or a victimizer and there’s not any room for people to be equal. If you don’t want to be seen as a victim, then you need to be the victimizer. You need to be the one with power.” – Stephanie Kuehn

“If we’re going to do our best to honor the life experience of victims of sexual abuse, it seems to do them an injustice to paint them into this rosier picture as opposed to allowing them their full humanity.”    Brendan Kiely

“While it is consent, and she does agree to it, for her, it’s another thing she has to do to stay with Jack.” – Rachele Alpine

“For any kid who’s victimized, we should care about them, whether they’re the nicest cutest little kid or the worst screaming little brat. It’s up to us as adults to care about them, be compassionate, and protect them at all costs. And when we don’t, it says a lot more about us than it says about the child.” – Stephanie Kuehn

“If we rely on cardboard versions of people, it’s like we have no faith in people. By reading and devouring these stories with people with flaws, people who are flawed who are still trying to do the right thing, to me, that’s a reflection on the human spirit. That’s a great story to celebrate. It’s celebrating how we emerge from the muck.”  – Brendan Kiely

Links to two other books mentioned:

Inexcusable by Chris Lynch
Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Another recap at Teen Librarian’s Toolbox, courtesy of Karen Jensen.

It was a great conversation – thanks to Karen Jensen of Teen Librarian’s Toolbox for organizing and hosting, and Rachele, Brendan and Steph for participating.

 

This Is Very Upsetting

Figure 1. SIGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

Figure 1. SIGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

 

I’m not a YouTube person by any stretch. I didn’t know who Tom Milson or Alex Day are. I don’t follow the artists at DFTBA Records. I’m far from being an expert on internet culture and fandoms. But when a friend sent me this (and this and this and this), and then I read Hank Green and John Green’s reactions, and I learned that this abusive behavior wasn’t just from one individual, I couldn’t help but share my thoughts. Because I was very, very upset. Pissed off. Annoyed. ANGRY.

1) Being creative or artistic doesn’t preclude you being an asshole or being criminal. It’s just your JOB. See: Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Terry Richardson. If any of those dudes did what was alleged while working as janitors, would it make a difference? Making art, while we want to believe it’s all lofty and beyond reproach, is just a job like any other job. And you will find assholes, predators and criminals in any occupation.

2) Hank Green’s video, “Sex, Consent & Culture” is way too glib to be of much help when it comes to a) consent b) sexual abuse and its complicated cultural components. If you are not an authority on the matter, Hank, that’s understandable. But there are plenty of people who are authorities and can speak about these issues without deploying jokes or abstractions. Sit still and interview one of them in a video together, please. I’m glad Hank is ‘gathering resources’ but there is no reason rushing toward a topic where you can’t speak eloquently or with any kind of nuance (missiles? kitties? wtf?) is at all productive; in fact, I’d venture to say this approach is absolutely insulting and offensive, especially to survivors of rape and sexual assault. Summing up consent and sex in three minutes is a fool’s errand. Make it a series, with people who deeply understand these topics, and let them do the majority of the talking. Then maybe you’ll ‘change the world.’

3) Sex and romance and consent ARE incredibly complicated. That they could remain a ‘chase’ while still involving enthusiastic consent isn’t an impossibility for me. Sex is a negotiation like all the other millions of negotiations we enter into as humans. It just happens to be very high stakes and multi-faceted. Being flippant and simplistic doesn’t assist anyone in this matter. Talking about sex and romance and consent and sexual violence by using concrete examples and sharing our own personal stories, biases and limitations is what helps, not summing up the whole situation with a handful of trite generalizations.

4) When you tell me that ‘the girl was 15 and the guy was 22’ then I know all I need to know. He has acted wrongly. It doesn’t matter what she says or did or does. A 22-year-old guy who understands boundaries does not engage 15-year-old girls in anything sexual. Unfortunately, I think this world is probably full of 22-year-old guys who don’t understand boundaries or why this is wrong.

5) If you are uncomfortable talking about sex, sexuality, or sexual abuse and rape, please stop talking and find someone who isn’t. These discussions have been going on for a long, long time, with people who don’t blanch or flinch or make reductive, immature jokes about it. The YA community, in fact, is full of women who WANT to discuss such topics without minimizing them into t-shirt slogans.

6) #SVYALit. Thank you, Karen Jensen, for inviting me to be a part of the Sexual Violence in YA Literature project. If I have an agenda as a writer, it’s that I want to be honest and real about the complex world we live in.

7) The hypocrisy of guys who tout themselves as progressive, defenders of equality and gay rights and feminism, and then serve up the same old retrograde exploitative sexual behavior, makes me want to lay down and die. Though it has precedent: there were plenty of ‘liberal’ guys in the 60’s who were willing to march into tear gas for human rights but still expected the chicks to make rice and beans and fuck them without complaint after the demonstrations were over. I’m at the point where I’d rather just deal with some ignorant dude who has no idea what privilege, rape culture and patriarchy are; at least that person is being an honest asshole instead of a deliberately misleading and devious asshole.

8) I don’t need kitten videos or pictures of Norman Reedus to soothe me out of my anger. Those things don’t get to share the stage with this kind of harmful bullshit. And not being angered by such things might indicate I cease to have a pulse.

9) Thank you for listening. Really.

 

 

Sex/Consent Positive YA Books: The #SVYALit Project

 

While the Sexual Violence in YA Literature project is about rape, rape culture and awareness of the impact of sexual violence, Karen at Teen Librarian’s Toolbox also challenged Christa Desir, Trish Doller and me to come up with our favorite YA books that feature sex scenes that are positive and where consent is clear and enthusiastic. (Here is Christa’s list and Karen’s list!) If we want to imagine into existence the sexual agency and empowerment of teenagers (and adults!), we need to define not just the undesireable but also what we desire.

Karen had no idea that I’ve been privately curating a list of my favorite YA sex scenes for that last few years and now it’s my pleasure to share them with you. (I had to whittle down my list, too, so this may not be the last word when it comes to my Favorite YA Sex Scenes; stay tuned.)

Without further ado:

 

Figure 2. Twenty Boy Summer by Michael Rooker's secret lover I mean SARAH OCKLER

Figure 2. Twenty Boy Summer by Michael Rooker’s secret lover oops I mean SARAH OCKLER

 

Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler

Look, maybe people who read Sex & Violence assume I’m this brittle, edgy badass about sex but I am so romantical and goopy it’s not even funny. And dammit, I love that Sarah Ockler has her girl get laid on a beach under the stars with a sweet boy. And the boy is sweet, too, but not too sweet that I want to barf and tell him to ease off on the poetry-quoting already.

There’s consent and there’s sexiness, but I think this is my favorite line:

At first I hold my breath, my shorts and bikini bottoms clinging limply around one of my ankles like they didn’t run off in time and now have to sit through the whole act without making any noise, lest they be discovered.

So realistic, and wryly funny, but tinged with some little embarrassment, too. In other words, perfect.

Figure 3. Under The Wolf, Under The Dog by Adam Rapp

Figure 3. Under The Wolf, Under The Dog by Adam Rapp

 

Under The Wolf, Under The Dog by Adam Rapp

Okay, so Steve Nugent and Silent Starla’s sex takes place in a supply closet. Both are in a psychiatric ward. And Steve, as the story unwinds, is pretty much filled to the brim with sorrow and fucked-uppery. Maybe, though, that’s why I love this moment of grace and sweetness that Adam Rapp gifts to both of these characters. I can feel Steve’s gratitude in every damn word:

Then she took my clothes off—all of them—just like that, and I was standing there naked, trying to sort of cover my erection, when she started touching me. At first she sort of touched my stomach and then she touched my knees and then she touched the scar on my shin and then she did some other stuff that I won’t gross you out with, and then she took her clothes off, and she has a pretty masterful body, I must say, and her pubic hair was nice and trim and sort of glistening, and then she produced a condom from some unknown region and then she was putting it on me and then leaned back and sort of pulled me on top of her and she made me touch her between her legs for a while and then she pushed my hand away and put my penis inside of her and we made love. 

Oh, Steve Nugent. I love how you try to protect us from the ickiness. I love how you cover up your boner. I love your clinical words. Bonus points for the word ‘masterful.’ And bless your beautiful beleaguered soul for using the phrase ‘made love.’ You are perhaps the one person in the world who gets a pass for saying that.

 

Figure 4. Ordinary Ghosts by Eireann Corrigan

Figure 4. Ordinary Ghosts by Eireann Corrigan

 

Ordinary Ghosts by Eireann Corrigan

This book remains plastered to my brain because it cemented my deep love of Boy Narrators in YA. Emil Simon, where were you when I was in high school? I WOULD HAVE LOVED YOU SO MUCH AND SO WELL.

Ahem. Anyway. As evidence by the Adam Rapp love above, you might have guessed that I’m a total sucker for male vulnerability. And Emil, a virgin when he meets Jade, is full of it. And he’s so funny. And so deserving of more than the sorrow his life has given him. I almost want to write Jade a thank you note for sleeping with him. I also love how everything’s mutual and there’s asking and the whole thing unfolds so beautifully. You’ll have to read the scene yourself-it’s worth the price of the book, no doubt, but here’s a lovely bit to sustain you until you can order your own copy:

We sleep together. I mean we do the other stuff, too, and that’s unbelievable. I understand how people write songs about sex and manuals on it. I get why people buy it. And why people tell you not to have it. Because, I mean, there doesn’t seem to be any point to doing anything else afterward. 

Emil Simon, the man you are going to be pleases me so so much. Yes, I know you don’t really exist. But I don’t care.

 

Figure 5. Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian

Figure 5. Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian

 

Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian

Look, this book has a million other merits, namely for depicting feminism among high school girls in a complex  and nuanced way. So, yes: 50 points for Gryffindor for not being all prescriptive and shit about female friendships and sexual behaviors and sexual equality. But beyond that – goddamn is Natalie Sterling a great character! Idealistic and motivated and annoying and rigid. In denial about how Connor Hughes makes her feel. In denial about her own growing sense of herself as a sexual being. There’s a beautiful scene where she looks at herself naked in a bathroom mirror that fucking KILLS me every time I read it.

And then, as gravy, we have Connor. Who is gorgeous and athletic and nice and libidinous and can’t wait to run his family’s Christmas tree farm. Who keeps on his socks when  makes out with Natalie in secret in one of the sheds on his family’s property. Who never pushes her into anything. Who always listens to what she says. Who carries her up the stairs on his back the night they finally have sex so nobody in the house hears two sets of footsteps. Whose body is bruised and sore for getting beat in his last high school football game, so Natalie must be gentle with him (*swoons, dies*) Here are two sweet bits:

Connor reached to turn his lamp off, but I guided his arm away. I wasn’t scared of the light, of what Connor was about to see. I didn’t want to hide anymore…

Connor kept quietly asking if I was okay. He seemed more unsure than I was, his quivering hands holding onto me, like he was off balance. 

Again, it’s a beautiful book. What Connor and Natalie have could be called hooking up. Yes. It is hooking up. But not hooking up the way stupid news shows depict it. It’s experimentation and negotiation at its finest.

 

Figure 6. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Figure 6. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

 

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

This sex scene should be everything I loathe in YA sex scenes. It fades-to-black. There’s no explicit discussion of birth control. There’s not a ton of physical information offered. It’s penis-vagina sex and it hurts the girl character but she persists anyways.

But it does not matter. DOES NOT. Because Melina Marchetta has created in Jonah and Taylor two characters who are so brilliant and flawed and deserving of sexual healing that the scene flows perfectly in sealing their already-emotionally-intimate relationship in the physical realm. For those people who think they can’t write an absolutely transporting sex scene because they are afraid of graphic details or lavish description, please read this book. You don’t have to deploy every adjective and adverb. You don’t have to spend pages and pages of text on the act. You just have to make characters who are so hungry for love and for each other’s strength that by the time they strip down, we are right there with them, in that dark hostel bed, frantic and crying and not giving a shit about protocol and beauty any longer.

Think of it as literary foreplay, then. So many YA novels already do this, ratchet up the sexual titillation and innuendo and then draw back from actual coitus or anything going beyond second base. (That is even more egregious, if you ask me, than using plummy language about nipples or describing awkward sucking sounds. It’s teasing and it’s bullshit and there’s no THERE there. For more on this line of complaint, see this.)

I will give you no excerpts from Jellicoe Road. Not even one line! You must read it, I’m sorry – there is no way around this. There is a reason I named Evan’s mother in Sex & Violence after this writer. A reason I got a tattoo based on another one of her books. The woman is a gorgeous, gorgeous writer. Plunk down the cash for her book and you’ll see why.

________________________________________________

Now, then. What do you think? Add your favorites in the comments. Let’s make this list longer and longer!

 

Sexual Violence in YA Lit: A Teen Librarian’s Toolbox project

 

Figure 1. First conversation of the series, featuring Christa Desir & Trish Doller, moderated by Karen Jensen

Figure 1. First conversation of the series, featuring Christa Desir & Trish Doller and me, moderated by Karen Jensen

 

I’m pleased announce that our conversation on Sexual Violence in YA Lit has evolved into a series! Many thanks to Karen Jensen of Teen Librarian’s Toolbox for organizing this project; it’s a topic that I think is incredibly important to keep talking about. We’ll be talking about the topic every other month for the rest of 2014 and hopefully, beyond!

Mark your calendars for Wednesday, March 26th, noon Eastern, for the next conversation via Google Hangout. This conversation will feature the following contemporary debut novelists:

 

Figure 2: Charm & Strange (Kuehn), Canary (Alpine) & The Gospel of Winter (Kiely)

Figure 2: Charm & Strange (Kuehn), Canary (Alpine) & The Gospel of Winter (Kiely)

 

Rachel Alpine, author of Canary

Brendan Kiely, author of The Gospel of Winter

Stephanie Kuehn, author of Morris Award-winning Charm & Strange and Complicit (June, 2014)

Join Karen and I as we moderate the discussion by tweeting us any questions you have: @CarrieMesrobian or @TLT16

To see the rest of the conversation schedule, go here.