When Talking About Sexual Consent, YA Books Can Be A Parent's Best Friend

Apr 1, 2016
Originally published on April 4, 2016 7:59 am

You probably remember that discredited Rolling Stone story about an alleged fraternity rape, or the coverage of a Columbia University student who carried around a mattress she says she was raped on; maybe you saw the headlines about two Steubenville, Ohio, high school athletes sexually assaulting a passed-out girl while other students recorded it; and maybe you've heard the recent Lady Gaga hit inspired by campus rapes.

All those stories have helped intensify the conversation about sexual assault at colleges and in high schools. They also raised a question for author Aaron Hartzler, who writes novels for young adults: "What must it be like to be coming of age sexually in the midst of a national conversation about rape culture and consent?"

Hartzler is one of many young adult novelists responding to that national conversation. His 2015 book What We Saw was directly inspired by the Steubenville case. Its narrator, Kate, used to be one of the victim's best friends. "There are all of these voices telling her what she should do, what she should think; to lay low [as] the town circles the wagons around these star athletes," Hartzler says. "And it's sort of up to Kate to figure out what happened, and then if she'll speak up about it or not."

Kate and her boyfriend, Ben, are themselves teenagers trying to decide whether to have sex. "There's a scene ... where she's kind of thinking through all these issues," Hartzler explains, "and she says, you know, 'We've been so wrapped up in our town about what it means to say "no" that I haven't really given any consideration to what it means to say "yes." ' "

According to Christa Desir, a rape victim advocate who also writes novels for young adults, these are real teenage experiences. Desir is deeply involved with something called the SVYALit Project, which is all about using young adult literature to talk to teenagers about sexual violence and consent. One of her novels, Fault Line, is about a boy dealing with his girlfriend's rape. "Sexual agency and sexual identity is part of the coming-of-age thing," Desir says. "Teenagers are figuring it out — and whether they're figuring out that they don't want to do it, or that they do want to do it, all of that is part of who they are as a person."

Getting Into The Classroom

One of the first mainstream books to straightforwardly depict positive, consensual sex was Judy Blume's Forever... . The 1975 novel was nonjudgmental and centered on a girl's positive decision, making it unprecedented in mainstream young adult fiction. It took almost 25 years for a book about nonconsensual sex to have a similar impact, and that book came in the form of Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, about a high school freshman who's raped at a party by a popular senior. Published in 1999, Speak isn't the first young adult novel about sexual assault, but it stands out because it won major awards, became a best-seller and is still regularly taught in high schools and middle schools across the country.

Victor Malo-Juvera, an English professor at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, taught Speak for years in a Florida public high school. "The first time I taught Speak, someone disclosed they had been raped to me," he remembers. "And it was actually a boy." He says that every year he taught the novel, students privately told him similar stories.

The book also provoked intense classroom discussions, like the time a boy informed his fellow students that "no" does not mean "no" — "no" means "go harder." "And before I could say anything, two girls actually came to his defense," Malo-Juvera remembers. He says that was a perfect opportunity to talk to teenagers about consent.

Malo-Juvera ended up writing a doctoral dissertation that focused on how teaching Speak helps teenagers understand rape culture and empathize with victims. He says Speak helped open the door for other young adult novels about roofies, date rape, stranger rape and rape within families.

A Place To Find Answers — And Questions — About Consensual Sex

Three new young adult novels about sexual assault are being released by major publishers this spring: The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith, Asking for It by Louise O'Neill and Exit, Pursued By a Bear by E.K. Johnston. Johnston says she's noticed a change in how today's young adult writers discuss consent.

"It's something that authors are starting to name," she explains. "Whether it's fantasy, whether it's contemporary, whether it's sci-fi — they're starting to actually say the words 'consent, 'rape,' 'permission,' 'yes,' 'no,' those kinds of things."

Consent doesn't even have to be about sex, per se, says Earl Sewell, who has written several young adult novels, including one where a boy pressures a girl to send explicit photos after they start sexting. "I try to do this in the book so that they can see themselves and say, 'What would I do if I were in this situation? How would I handle it?' " Sewell says.

In a world where sex education is often basic, and porn is everywhere, author Christa Desir wants young adult fiction to be a place where kids can find answers and also questions about consensual sex. "What do you want? What's pleasurable for you?" she asks. "And what's pleasurable for your partner? And how can you be intimate and it not be awkward?"

Best-selling contemporary young adult novels like John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower have been celebrated for their scenes of positive consent. But Desir says many of the parents who come into the bookstore where she works part-time aren't comfortable with novels that discuss sex.

Statistically, she says, every single high school student sits among kids who have experienced or who will experience a sexual assault. Author Aaron Hartzler says when it comes to addressing that with your kids, a good young adult novel can be a parent's best friend. "I can guarantee you: You leave a book about sexual consent on the coffee table, you'll have a reader," Hartzler says. "That book will disappear for a week, and then that's your entree."

And maybe it's a way of giving permission to talk about consent.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Over the past few years, conversations about sexual assault have intensified in colleges and even in high schools. Since literature tends to be a reflection of its era, NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered if young people are reading more about consent in the books that are written for them. Now, this is of course a sensitive topic so be warned, there's frank talk ahead.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The incredibly depressing spectacle of teenagers sexually assaulting each other is of course nothing new. Still, we've been hearing about it all over the country. Take Steubenville, Ohio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: This week, a swift verdict in a trial that split a small town...

ULABY: That 2014 ABC News story covered the end of a case in which two star high school athletes sexually assaulted a passed out girl while other teens filmed it on their cell phones. That same year, a Columbia University student made headlines by lugging a mattress she says she was raped on to all of her classes as an art project. Then the Lady Gaga song...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TILL IT HAPPENS TO YOU")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) You tell me, hold your head up.

ULABY: ...Inspired by rape on college campuses that became a top 10 hit. All this raised a question for young adult author Aaron Hartzler.

AARON HARTZLER: What must it be like to be coming of age sexually in the midst of a national conversation about rape culture and consent?

ULABY: Hartzler wrote a book called "What We Saw," directly inspired by the Steubenville case. It's narrator, Kate, used to be one of the victim's best friends.

HARTZLER: And there are all these voices telling her what she should do, what she should think, to lay low. You know, the town circles the wagons around these star athletes and it's sort of up to Kate to figure out what happened and then if she'll speak up about it or not.

ULABY: These are real teenage experiences, says Christa Desir. She's a rape victim advocate who writes novels for young adults.

CHRISTA DESIR: Sexual agency and sexual identity is part of the coming of age thing. Teenagers are figuring it out. And whether they're figuring out that they don't want to do it or that they do want to do it, all of that is part of who they are as a person.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FOREVER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I sure like you.

ULABY: Looking back, two books really changed the depiction of sex in young adult literature. Judy Blume's "Forever" is about consensual sex. It was published in 1975 and made into a movie soon after.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FOREVER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I'm dying to take that thing off.

ULABY: It was unprecedented, a positive story about choosing to lose your virginity in mainstream young adult literature. "Speak" came out almost 25 years later. It's about nonconsensual sex.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPEAK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Was it someone from the school? Who was it? Melinda, tell me.

ULABY: The 1999 novel by Laurie Halse Anderson was also made into a film. It's about a high school freshman who's raped at a party by a popular senior. "Speak" is not the first young adult novel about sexual assault, but it's won major awards and it's regularly taught in high schools and middle schools across the country. Victor Malo-Juvera taught "Speak" for years at public school in Florida.

MALO-JUVERA: And the first time I taught "Speak," someone disclosed that they had been raped to me, and it was actually a boy.

ULABY: Something like that, he said, happened every single year. Malo-Juvera remembers intense classroom discussions, like the time a boy informed everyone in the class that no does not mean no.

MALO-JUVERA: No means go harder. And before I could say anything, two girls actually came to his defense.

ULABY: And what an opportunity, Malo-Juvera says, to talk to teenagers about consent. He wrote a dissertation that showed how reading "Speak" helps students empathize with victims. That book threw open the door for other novels about roofies, date rape, stranger rape, rape in families. And this spring, we're seeing three new young adult novels on the topic from major publishers. One is called, "Exit, Pursued By A Bear." Its author, E.K. Johnston, has noticed a real change in the language around consent.

E.K. JOHNSTON: It's something that authors are starting to name, whether it's fantasy, whether it's contemporary, whether it's sci-fi, they're starting to actually say the words.

ULABY: Words that can be powerful tools for teenagers.

JOHNSTON: Consent, rape, permission, yes, no.

ULABY: So what does consent look like and sound like in young adult literature now?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You sure?

ULABY: It sounds like people checking several times with one another in novels like "The Fault In Our Stars" and "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower." In this scene from the film version of "White Bird In A Blizzard," the consent between two teenagers is clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You OK?

ULABY: Consent does not even have to be about sex per se. Young adult author Earl Sewell wrote a book in which a boy pressures a girl to text him sexy photos.

EARL SEWELL: You know, it's OK, no one will ever know or ever find out. How do I bargain with you to get your consent? You know, and then I tried to do this in the book so that they can see themselves and say, what would I do if I were in this situation? How would I handle it?

ULABY: Handling it, says Sewell, can be confusing in a world where sex ed is often basic and porn is everywhere. Christa Desir wants young adult fiction to be a place where kids might find answers to some important questions.

DESIR: What do you want? What's pleasurable for you? What's pleasurable for your partner? And how can you be intimate and it not be awkward?

ULABY: Awkward's also a good word for how lots of teens and parents feel about talking about this. Desir works part-time in a bookstore that sells young adult literature.

DESIR: And I have parents come in all the time who hold up books and say, does this have any sex in it? OK, well, I'm not going to do that.

ULABY: Even though making choices about sex is part of most teenagers' lives. And statistically, every single high school student sits among kids who have or who will survive a sexual assault. Talking about that, says author Aaron Hartzler, is when a good YA novel can be a parent's best friend.

HARTZLER: I tell parents all the time who say, oh, my kids don't read - I'm like, I guarantee you, you leave a book about sexual consent on the coffee table, you'll have a reader. That book will disappear for a week. And then it's your entree.

ULABY: Or a way of giving permission to talk about consent. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.