Category Archives: Kids

Teaching dating skills to elementary students

Dear elementary school teachers,

My daughter is dating. I know she’s dating because she told me. We talked about it.

I asked her what dating meant to her and what it meant to her dating partner. I asked if they had talked about it before they agreed to date, if they’d discussed what that word, that concept meant to them, what they wanted from their relationship, why they wanted to add this label to it. I asked if they had discussed boundaries and expectations. I asked if they had talked about what this label would change about their relationship with each other – and what it might change about their relationships with other people.

I made sure that my daughter understood that dating someone should not mean that you have to give up other friendships, and that if the person she is dating asked her to stop being friends with others or got jealous of other friendships, it was time to have The Talk – to remind her partner about mutual respect and trust, and boundaries and expectations, and the fact that we don’t own each other, not even when we’re dating.

I know this is unusual, for a parent to have this kind of conversation with their elementary school student about this topic. I wish that wasn’t the case.

Because, you see, this is the exact same conversation I have with my daughter every time she tells me she has a best friend.

Kids in love1

At this age, in this setting, there is very little difference between having a bestie and dating someone. Both need to be grounded firmly in open, honest, respectful communication. Both need to start with conversations about what this label means and why each person entering into it wants to take their relationship to “the next level.” They need to talk about what they want from this next level relationship, what it means for them, what it looks like and how it will affect things like recess activities, lunch time, class activities, etc. Often I even ask if they’ve considered what will happen if/when they “break up” because best friendships rarely last forever. (I always assumed that was the reason all the “best friend” necklaces came with the hearts pre-broken…)

My best friend broke it first.

Today my daughter came home and told me that dating had been banned at school. That the teachers had gotten everyone together and announced that there would be no more dating, that school was for learning and that they were all too young to date anyway. “Maybe when you’re in high school, or college…” As if human beings are ever too young to form and negotiate relationships.

I asked her if “best friending” had also been banned. Her eyes got wide as she made the connection I’m making here. No, they hadn’t. And wasn’t that odd? Why was she being taught that one kind of relationship forming was something she was too young for, too immature to handle? Why was she being taught that romantic love was too complex for her to navigate, while still being allowed, encouraged even to create “best friend” relationships that often devolved into battles for control, bullying and trauma. Why was one form of relationship being legislated away while another with equal potential for harm was being lauded and upheld? Why was she being taught that this one way of identifying with and relating to other students was “bad” or “inappropriate?”

She wanted to know why her teachers seemed so hung up on this word, this concept: dating.

I could only assume that it was because somehow we’ve equated dating to sexual intimacy, and that might scare teachers who are unprepared to see their elementary school students as physical beings who crave physical affection (not sexual attention, just physical touches like hand holding and hugs and heads resting on shoulders – and yes, even kissing because those things feel good…) Or perhaps it was because teachers thought about what dating meant to them as adults, or even high school students when hormones and a lack of real information pushed it toward the sexual and they couldn’t bear to think about their sweet elementary students in that way. That’s fair, but… elementary students by and large aren’t there yet either.

girlfriends

I told her I could only imagine it was because they had forgotten the sweet innocent puppy love of elementary school, the tender hand holding, the doe eyed looks, the silly gifts, the little ways of learning to say I love you, the little ways of learning how to hear I love you, the little ways that felt and what it meant.

I told her I thought maybe her teachers had forgotten this age of exploring, dabbling, trying on new words, new identities… What does it mean to date? What does it mean to be a best friend, to have a best friend? What does it mean to be a girlfriend, a boyfriend? Is it okay to have more than one dating partner? Is it okay to have more than one best friend? What do these words mean? How can be negotiated so that everyone gets what they want from the relationship in a respectful and mutually affirming way?

boyshugging

What does rejection feel like? How can they handle it? What can they do if someone they like doesn’t like them back, or doesn’t like them as much, or not in the same way? What are appropriate responses?

These are all really valid and important questions and skills that students need to practice and learn before they become adults, before they become tweens and teens even, before the hormones kick in and flood their brains and make them forget that before they get sexual, they need to get real. They need to check in and make sure that they are operating under the same set of assumptions, expectations, desires, goals and boundaries as their partner. Whether that partner is purely platonic, romantic or physical is irrelevant IF students have learned to start their relationships from a place of open, honest, respectful conversation and IF they’ve learned how to handle rejection when it comes, because it will come.

I know you all have a lot on your plates already and I’m sure that the idea of having this kind of conversation about dating with your students is terrifying. I imagine you are already hyperventilating over imaginary phone calls from outraged parents.

But what if we simply backed it up. What if we went back to that moment when you heard that students were dating. What if, instead of banning it, you asked the students what it meant to them? What if you led them with questions like the ones I led my daughter with, the same ones we should be asking of students who are forming best friendships, and listened to what they had to say? What if you helped students to think critically about it themselves?

What if you used this moment to remind your students that all relationships – friendships, work partnerships, relationships, marriages, benign acquaintanceships, all of them are founded on the same basic principles, the same foundation of mutual respect, trust and vulnerability. If those are in place, the rest can build from there, but without those it all crumbles.

What if you used this moment to remind students that if they aren’t comfortable having those challenging conversations and being honest with each other about what they want, what they need, what their boundaries are and listening to and being respectful when someone else tells them the same – they aren’t ready to take that next step – whatever it is.

Respect

It’s not their age that limits them, it’s their skills.

So let’s help them practice, now while it’s safe, now while the stakes are low, now while we’re not actually worried about the sexual aspect or the physical aspect. Let’s help them build their emotional relationship skills so that when they start dating “for real” and those hormones have kicked in, communication is a habit, respect is a habit, honesty is a habit, listening is a habit, setting and respecting boundaries is a habit, coping with rejection in healthy ways is a habit…

Why not use this time to make sure that all the elements of forming healthy relationships are there, ready to be utilized before things get messy.

We talk about “teaching to the test” so often, but we forget, life has bigger tests with higher stakes than any politician could dream up. When I look at the statistics on teen dating abuse, on teen sexual abuse, on teen pregnancy and STI rates – what I see is that we are failing our students. I know there is all kinds of weird baggage around the idea of teaching elementary students sexual health education – I get that. (I hate it, but I get it.) But this isn’t that. This isn’t about sex education. It isn’t about sex. It’s about relationships.

How to negotiate them. How to form them. How to maintain them. How to renegotiate them as they grow and change. How to end them if they become toxic. How to spot if they are becoming toxic.

Toxic

This is about the health of our students.

Banning them from interacting with each other in ways that feel natural to them, ways that they see modeled all around them is a failing strategy. But teaching them how to interact in healthy ways, that is something we can all pitch in and do. Helping them slow down and think about the words they are using and the meanings they are creating, that is a life long skill, and its one they desperately need. We all do.

Friendship

Imagine how much pain you would have been spared if someone had only taught you this lesson instead of making you piece it together on your own.

2 Comments

Filed under Kids, Naive idealism, Of Course I'm a Feminist, Things that work

A Matter of Heart

“Death is what happens when your dream ends.”

Who are you? What makes you, you? What is your “one thing,”  the thing that defines you and sets you apart from everyone else? What’s the aspect of you that you absolutely could not live without? What is the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning (I mean, besides hungry children, pets or spouses…) What drives you, motivates you, challenges you and makes you want to push yourself to be better?

What’s the one thing that makes you happy, that sustains you and holds you and keeps you afloat when everything else is falling apart?

Now – what would you do if that one thing was taken away?

amy fellner dominy matter of heart

Would you die for a chance to live your dream?

A Matter of Heart by Amy Fellner Dominy dives deep into ideas of identity and the things we think define us and make us who we are. It challenges us to look inside ourselves for our One Thing, and then look even deeper to see what’s driving that, and then look deeper still…

Abby is a swimmer. Not in the sense that she likes to swim in the summer and splash around in the pool with her friends – she is a swimmer on her way to Olympic gold. She wakes, eats, breathes, sleeps and lives swimming. It’s who she is as much as what she does. Swimming is her one thing, her only thing. It defines her, drives her, pushes her – it owns her.

“I’m fearless in the pool. I’m strong. It’s the only place that I am.”

Until one day… Just before the qualifying meet that she is sure will see her swim into Olympic history, she learns that she can never race again, her heart cannot survive another sprint down the lap lane. Diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, she feels like her heart has betrayed her.

“The Abby I was meant to be is dead. And in her place? Who’s left?”

We watch Abby as she cycles through the 5 stages of grief.

Denial – Clearly she has been misdiagnosed, “It only happened the one time because I let myself get dehydrated.” All she needs is a little rest. She’ll be fine. A second opinion will clear everything up. Her heart is fine.

“I’m Abby Lipman. I’m special… I’ve got talent and drive and heart. I don’t know how to be broken.”

Anger – This is bullshit. It has to be. Nothing is going to take away her dream. And… What about her boyfriend, they were a perfect match, the fittest, blessed by Darwin Himself… “How can we belong to anyone else? No one is fast enough to keep up.” But now that Abby isn’t fast enough to keep up either, will Connor leave her behind? Is she really going to lose EVERYTHING because of her stupid, traitor heart?
“My heart has screwed up everything else. It’s not going to screw this up too.”

Bargaining – It’s okay. She’ll quit taking the medicine that keeps her heart beating steady and strong – but not nearly fast enough to win a race, and she’ll go back to training. All she has to do is win this one race, just this one and she’ll be able to prove to everyone that she’s not really sick.

“I’m not big on praying, but God and I talk sometimes. It never made sense that I should ask God for something that I could work to get on my own. Even now, I’m not asking him for favors so much as explaining how it’s going to be.

Depression – As Abby waits to get the all important second opinion, her depression and anxiety grow. She can’t swim, not fast, not like she wants to, until the doctors clear her. She knows they will, but in the meantime…

“I lay a hand over my heart. It’s beating quiet and regular and slow. Beta-blockers. They’re saving me and killing me at the same time.”

She used to wake up in order to swim, eat so she could swim, keep her grades up so she could swim, lived the straight and narrow so she could swim, went to bed early so she could swim. Everything she did, she did so she could swim. And now… What’s the point of any of it?

“It’s not that I’m losing hope. It’s that I’m losing myself.”

Acceptance – Abby finally comes to terms with her condition, but not in the way you might think. I don’t want to spoil anything here, so I’ll just leave this little tease, “I’m not going to lie to myself. Yes, it’s a risk. Life is full of risk.”

A Matter of Heart explores a lot of topics – not just the idea of identity and what makes us special – and what we do, how we continue if that thing is threatened or taken from us – how do we redefine ourselves when we lose our very core, our center?

It also examines romance and love and relationships, from dating to friends to family and how far we’ll go to get and keep love. How twisted we all sometimes get in trying to live up to other people’s expectations of us, and how deeply we internalize those expectations, making them our own. It explores the topics of first love and fate and destiny and how big it all feels the first time we really, truly fall for someone – and what happens when you go to lean on that love and discover it’s not strong enough to hold you up in your moment of need.

This book also explores second chances and new beginnings. “Why can’t dreams be like people? Why can’t you get a second chance at those, too?” and the ways our dreams carry us through our toughest times and push us to keep going, to survive, even after we think we’ve lost everything that makes life worth living, even after we’ve lost the dream itself.

Just a friendly warning – I finished reading this book while sitting in a public place, bawling my eyes out, desperately searching for a tissue. No one offered me one, they all just scooted a little further away from me on the bench. It’s okay though, I eventually found one in my bag.

This book took me through such a roller coaster of feelings. I really felt connected to Abby. I remember those struggles with identity, and while I never had mine so directly challenged, I think it’s something we can all identify with. We’ve all had our dreams tested, some of us are still being challenged to rise above the obstacles we think are standing in the way of our happiness, our One Thing.

Abby shows us that while death might be what happens when our dreams end, rebirth is waiting if we can only be brave enough to dream again.

A Matter of Heart is available now at all your favorite book sellers. I highly recommend getting your copy now!

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Kids, Things that work

Where are all the periods?

I have two amazing books that I desperately want to review now that I’m done writing my 12 Days of Candy series over on my kitchen blog, but first, I need to talk about periods.

Not the punctuation – but the sometimes messy, often awkward, all too often hidden thing that most women experience every month and entirely too few of us really talk about.

Disclaimer – this is a TMI post. It’s been building for a while because I was worried about writing it, worried about squicking people out and losing readers – but fuck it. Periods happen to 50% of the population and as such I think we need to talk about them. Most important – I think writers need to be writing about them, so while there will be some personal shit in here, this is mostly a post about middle grade and young adult books and a certain something that seems to be missing from an awful lot of them.

menstrual flower

I’ll just leave this here…

It’s on my mind for a couple of reasons – the first is that my oldest is in middle school and many of her friends have started going through puberty and many of them have begun getting their periods – so… the horror stories and drama is starting to trickle in. Girls with cramps so bad they have to go home, girls whose periods show up unexpectedly and bleed through their clothing, sending them home embarrassed and in tears only to have to return the next day to taunting and teasing… Girls being called sluts when people find out they’ve started getting their periods as if having a period is any indication at all about what you are or are not doing sexually…

The second reason periods have been on my mind is because mine has been acting up lately (told you this was a TMI post.)

My period used to be like clockwork – I knew exactly when it was showing up, exactly how heavy it would be on each day it was here and exactly when it would end – by exactly I mean to the second.

Then I had kids and it shifted around a bit – as did EVERYTHING in my body – but I adjusted and got reacquainted with “Aunt Flo” and we fell back into a regular and predictable rhythm. And then… Lately, she’s just been mucking things up. It’s like I’m back in middle school, never quite sure if today’s the day she’s going to arrive, if she’s going to be heavy or light, if I have one hour per tampon or four…

Last month The Bitch (That’s what I call my period when it fucks something up for me, Aunt Flo is just an annoying interruption, and my period is what I’d like it to be…) showed up three hours early and trashed my favorite pair of sheets. I haven’t lost sheets to Aunt Flo in decades.

Today I took the dog for a walk to the post office. The line lasted longer than my tampon/pad combination so by the time I walked back home… Well, it was messy. And once again I felt like I was in middle school. I was embarrassed – I mean, I should know better by now.

As I walked home, knowing I would need a shower and a change of clothes, I kept thinking about all the young adult and middle grade literature I’ve been reading lately. I thought about all the epic female led dystopia that is all the rage in book stores and on the big screen and all the awesome female protagonists that are cropping up across genres and I realized what’s been bugging me about them all – There are NO periods.

None.

Katniss does not go on the rag. She does not bleed in the ring or have to worry about grabbing the napsack with pads and tampons when the games start. All she needs is a bow and some arrows. She doesn’t have to get Haymitch to ask sponsors for emergency period supplies or midol. She isn’t incapacitated by cramps, no one can track her because she’s dripping menstrual blood through the arena… (If you think that’s unlikely talk to someone with a heavy period sometime.)

No one in the Lunar Chronicles seems to have a period either. Cress, the Rapunzel character has been trapped in a satellite for decades, there’s no mention of her captor needing to, or forgetting to bring menstrual supplies. As Cinder and Scarlet fly around Earth they are never slowed or stopped or inconvenienced by the sudden appearance of their period. They never have to steal tampons off a shelve during a supply run.

In Moira Young’s Dust Lands series, Saba travels across her globe, multiple times. She is captured, detained, forced to cage fight, escapes, travels some more… And never once has to stop to deal with her period. Never has to fashion a cloth pad, or gather moss, or slow down for a day or… (Spoiler alert if you haven’t read the series) I remember when she had sex with the wrong guy in book 2, my first thought was, “Great, now she’s going to get pregnant…” But she didn’t, and it sort of makes sense, because if she wasn’t menstruating, then she couldn’t get pregnant. But why wasn’t she menstruating?

No one menstruates in The Uglies either. You’re an Ugly, then a Pretty, then a Wrinkly. And people there ARE having children, so… Someone is menstruating, but it sure isn’t the teens. The Smokies (rebels living in the woods) don’t have to fashion menstrual pads from moss or scraps of cloth or anything like that. There’s no Red Tent situation going on where they all take a few days off together and just bleed and talk and hang out… Because there are no periods.

Annabeth in the Percy Jackson books doesn’t have a period.

I don’t think Hermione ever got a period. (However, I admit, I never finished the series. Please don’t kill me. Just tell me in the comments if I’m wrong about Hermione’s lack of menstruation.)

In fact, there’s basically only one book that I can think of off the top of my head that talks about menstruation and periods – and that’s Judy Blume’s Are you there God, it’s me Margaret? Which is known by most kids as, “The Period Book” because it’s the only one. (Well, aside from Stephen King’s Carrie, but I hope no one is giving that to their pre-pubescent kids as a puberty primer!)

And here’s the thing – I think this matters. I think that this is a serious issue, because I’m watching my daughters and their friends grow up and I’m seeing how much weirdness and shame and misinformation is flying around out there about periods and… It’s not that hard to combat.

Just fucking writing it into the story, because most girls and most women will get their period at some point in their lives and they will have to deal with things like cramps and bleeding through their clothes and having it show up early and being unprepared, and having it show up late and wondering what that means (It’s not always pregnancy! First, you have to have had sex for that to be a possibility, and then there about a million other reasons periods are late.) Most women and girls will have to deal with weird low energy days where it feels like sitting around menstruating is all they can manage, anything more than that just feels overwhelming… Most women will have to deal with things like changes in breast size and tenderness. And yes, many of us have to deal with moodiness and hormone induced emotional fluctuations.

These are real things that most girls and women have to deal with and it would be GREAT if more books could help us be comfortable with it, talk about, and know how to problem solve when it happens to us.

AND I would LOVE for guys to read books where women have to deal with this stuff, it might help the average uninformed guy be a little more comfortable, a little more compassionate and a little more understanding when it comes to periods. We might not be moody because of PMS, we might be moody because we know we are bleeding through and we need you to stop talking to us so we can go to the bathroom and try to salvage the situation, but we don’t know how to tell you that because society has told us we’re not allowed to say, “Shut up, I’m bleeding and I need to go deal with that.”

I would love to read a book where a girl bleeds through and can’t call home and has to stay in school and cope – how does she manage it? Does she borrow spare clothes from a friend or the office, does she tie her jacket around her waist for the rest of the day, does she hide in a supply closet and pray no one finds her, does the teacher she always hated come to her rescue and earn an ounce of respect in the process? What does the next day look like? How does she deal with the ignorant and thoughtlessly hurtful teasing from her peers? What does that gauntlet feel like, and how do you survive it at a time in your life when everything feels like a matter of life and death?

I don’t need a whole book about it, we have Judy Blume. But I think periods need to feature a little more in books and movies with biologically female protagonists. Whether they’re in space, (Seriously, where did Ripley hide her tampons – and no, you can’t store them all up there at once, it doesn’t work that way.) or a dystopian future, or right here, right now, today… Most women and girls have to manage their periods every single month – shouldn’t that be something that most female characters have to manage at least once a book? Shouldn’t that be something more male characters are made aware of from time to time, after all most men know someone who menstruates…

What about the best guy friend who has to buy tampons for his female friend? Can we have that scene? What about the guy who thinks his girlfriend is super aroused only to discover her period has started, what does that look like, for both of them? What about the male sidekick who knows they are in a hurry, the clock is ticking, the fate of the world is resting on her shoulders – and he has to help her cope with debilitating cramps?

This shit happens in real life. Why isn’t it happening in books?

It’s interesting, the book I just finished reading, Every Day by David Levithan should have covered this, it covered SO MUCH else about the human experience, but not this super basic, absolutely common thing that 50% of the bodies his protagonist inhabited would have experienced… A should have had to deal with a period. At least one. The odds damn near insist on it. And yet… All too predictably… No one menstruated in that book either.

When I included a scene in my YA novel where my protagonist makes a point of stocking up on tampons before ditching her mom’s credit card and going into hiding 99% of my beta readers told me those tampons better mean something. It wasn’t enough to have her simply be aware that she’d be getting her period and want to be prepared. It wasn’t enough to simply remind the reader that this is a thing that most women have to deal with. No, it had to mean something.

And yet… I can think of half a dozen MG and YA books that talk about morning wood, spontaneous (and often inconvenient and ill-timed) erections that cause embarrassment for a male protagonist – not because it means anything, but because that is a thing that happens to many adolescent males. Sometimes it is put in for humor, or character growth, occasionally it adds to the conflict and plot development, here’s one more thing this poor kid has to deal with – but it’s there, it’s talked about. It is present. And therefore, so are the coping mechanisms, the survival guides, the tips and tricks to getting through it.

Girls need that too.

They need a guide to tell them how to talk to their peers about periods, to explain what it does and does not mean (It does mean they are developing physically, it does not mean they are sexually available or sexually active.) The same with breast growth – it is an independent bodily function that has no bearing on who the person growing the breasts is, what they are interested in, how smart they are, how capable they are, or whether or not they’d like anyone to try to get in their pants.

The state of sexual health education in this country is abysmal. So, writer friends – we need to help. We need to include little moments of reality in even our most fantastical works. We need to remember that periods and nocturnal emissions and breasts and morning wood and hormone induced emotions are things that are happening to kids as young as 9 and they continue through high school and college and into adulthood.

We need to include these little inconveniences and embarrassments and challenges into our characters – what do they do with them, how does it change them, how do they learn and grow from these experiences?

My family makes fun of me for always being overprepared. But I can trace that character trait straight back to a day very much like this one. A day that ended in a bit of a mess and an emergency shower and a ruined pair of pants. That was the last day I ever left the house without tampons and a pad.(Even if, 23 years later I couldn’t get to a bathroom to use them in time… Sigh.)

A HUGE amount of my inner strength and resilience and ability to take on most challenges stems from the shit I survived while menstruating in middle school. Kids are fucking ruthless. Uninformed & misinformed kids are a thousand times worse.

A few good books sure would have helped.

So, dear readers who made it to the end of this messy post – please – drop the names of any novels you can think of that deal with periods and menstruation in any way in the comments. I’d love to start making a list.

And dear writers who are still reading, please see if you can include a little more of the nitty gritty reality of growing up in your MG and YA novels. The kids these days could use all the help we can give them.

 

 

15 Comments

Filed under Books, Kids, Of Course I'm a Feminist, Rant

Still me, but with less swearing

I am hoping to make it back to TBT today to either post part 2 of the Guns in America conversation, or perhaps another detour about ethics, morality & money.

In the meantime, and in case I don’t make it back – My first article for Everyday Feminism just went live, so you can read about parenting in a post-feminist world over there –

http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/07/make-room-for-bigger-truths

The article is a positive action based piece on helping kids break open their gender boxes a little bit to make room for more of their truth to shine.

Feel free to drop a comment. I’ll be bouncing over periodically to join the conversation.

Cheers.

3 Comments

Filed under Kids, Of Course I'm a Feminist, Things that work

Age Inappropriate

I got in an argument on twitter a couple of nights ago. Shocking, I know.

It was about a topic that I’ve been trying to address for a while now, and that night it boiled over. My brain stayed awake all night working on this post while the rest of me tried to sleep.

It’s once again about semantics, about words and phrases not meaning what people want them to mean.

In this case, age appropriate sex education.

There are two parts to this that people seem to need to get their heads around.

First – too many people hear “sex education” and interpret that as, “teaching kids how to have sex.” Which is super weird to me, because – no. That’s not what it’s about. AT ALL.

In fact, these days it’s mostly only telling kids to “Just say no!” which is completely unhelpful and often harmful.

Kids need, and deserve more than that. Kids have the right to know about their bodies and how they work. They have a right to know about relationships, about intimacy – and all the forms that can take. And they have a right to that information BEFORE it is too late for them to use it, not AFTER the adults in their lives are comfortable sharing it.

And that is the second part that people need get get their heads around. “Age Appropriate” is not what most adults think it is.

This is how the twitter “discussion” started. A very angry man was yelling at an abortion provider that teens shouldn’t be having sex and therefore shouldn’t need abortions. A supporter responded, “So you support universal sex education?”

He screamed back, “Of course, but what’s the point of teaching younger and younger children this? Wait until they’re old enough.”

My response infuriated him. “8 year old girls are getting their periods & being pressured into sex. They need to be educated BEFORE, not after.”

He interpreted my statement to mean that I thought 8 year olds should be having sex and we should teach them how.

Seriously? That’s what you read?

It didn’t matter how many times I sent him the link explaining that we know unequivocally that educating children about their bodies, including the correct names for all their body parts helps predator proof them and protect them, he could only see that I said 8-year-olds were having sex. He just kept shouting back that that was illegal, ignoring my distinction that it is less about it being illegal for an 8-year-old to have sex, and more that it is illegal to have sex with an 8-year-old. Feel the difference – don’t blame the 8-year-old. They don’t know any better, because WE ARE NOT TEACHING THEM.

Here’s the thing –

Our youth live in a world where they are constantly bombarded with highly sexualized images. They are constantly given messages that women should be sexy and crave male attention, that to be a successful male you have to be “getting some” from a hot girl. Sex is everywhere, all around them.

fast cheap sex sells

Wait, what are they selling!?

Watch the Disney channel sometime, and think about the words of Peggy Orenstein who wrote a book about the Princess to pole dancer trajectory that Disney has created for girls. The idea that for girls sexuality is something they perform, it’s about how they look and how they make other people feel, not how they themselves feel or what they want for themselves. And look at the messages those same shows are giving boys about their role, how it shows that they should be the instigator, the aggressor and how no means maybe and maybe means yes.

Dominate

Sexuality – a public performance, or an intimate experience?

Right now the adults in charge seem to be interpreting “Age Appropriate” as “The age WE are comfortable thinking a child might use this information.”

We need to knock that off and start thinking about age appropriate as, “The age a child is curious about a thing.” “The age BEFORE a child NEEDS to know.” “The age when a child is introduced to a thing by society at large and might need help understanding it.”

I had a deep and wonderful and safe conversation with my 8 year old about sex and rape and consent last year, when she was still seven. I didn’t start the conversation, she did. I just answered her questions, with honesty – and yes… I threw the ball a little high. I discarded the tired advice that you give children only enough information to barely answer their question. Instead, I pushed a little, opened the door a little wider and gave her MORE.

That conversation has helped her feel safer about the images she sees in the world around her, it has helped clarify the boundaries that she can set for herself and the ways that she can do that, it helped make her feel strong and empowered and capable. It gave her the words to set boundaries, not just with a firm “no!” but also with an emphatic “yes!”

(Because one of the problems for girls is that we have told them they are the gatekeepers of sexuality and that their job is to say no. Has anyone else ever considered that perhaps the reason girls “tease” or sometimes start out with no, and slide into maybe, and finally cave into yes – thus fulfilling the damaging and rape enabling stereotype of no means maybe and maybe means yes – is because girls by and large have not been taught that they CAN SAY YES? Because girls who say yes are sluts and whores and BAD GIRLS.)

The other thing this conversation did, is it told my daughter that I was safe, that her home was safe, that she had a person and a place where she could discuss anything without shame or fear, where she could get information BEFORE it was too late to use it.

I’ve had similar conversations with my oldest daughter.

These conversations did not destroy my children’s childhood. I did not ruin them by answering their questions respectfully or by giving them a safe space to ask them. Because this is an argument that is thrown at me ALL THE FREAKING TIME when I advocate for educating children about their bodies, about sex & sexuality.

“Why not just let them be kids?” This was the heart of President Obama’s ignorant comments against selling emergency birth control over the counter to all females of reproductive age.

As if giving a child who is clearly already having sex (or they wouldn’t need Plan B) access to medicine to help them not become a mother ruins childhood! Um – BECOMING A MOTHER RUINS CHILDHOOD.

I want to cyber shout that over and over and over again.

You want to protect childhood – you make damn sure children aren’t becoming parents.

“Let them be kids” is the same argument I hear when I advocate for open, inclusive sex education that discusses homosexuality, trans* people, and the full spectrum of gender expression, and other non-reproductive, heteronormative sexual issues.

As if some kids don’t already have parents who don’t fit that narrow heterosexual box. As if some kids don’t already know that THEY don’t fit in that narrow hetero box. As if those kids don’t also deserve healthy, accurate, truthful information about their bodies, their sexuality, their gender expression.

As if we don’t already have kids being bullied to death because they don’t perform their gender and sexuality the way society at large tells them to.

Refusing to teach kids about their bodies, refusing to teach them about sex, refusing to create safe spaces for them to ask questions and get honest, medically accurate answers because it makes US uncomfortable to think about IS NOT HELPING. Refusing to teach ALL kids about the WHOLE rainbow of human sexuality is NOT HELPING.

You may disagree with 9-year-olds having sex – most of the 9-years-old having sex also disagree with it – but denying them information, medical services and a safe space to talk about what is happening is NOT protecting their childhood. It is simply denying them agency in their own lives. And it is creating more space for predators to work.

You may be scared of homosexuality, or not understand trans* people, or be confused by all the variance that exists outside of a very narrow one man, one woman in wedded bliss sexuality – but denying kids information about it, doesn’t help them. It hurts them. And it allows room for bigotry and hate to spread.

Denying a reality you don’t like won’t make it go away. It just makes it darker and harder for the people living it.

I remember a friend who found out in middle school sex ed that she’d been being abused and raped for 3 years. She didn’t know because she didn’t have the words. She didn’t know because it had started so young. And even afterward, it took her months before she was able to really believe it and to feel safe enough to speak it, to name it, to ask for help.

I could share countless stories of kids with parents less liberal than mine who only realized AFTER they’d been abused, assaulted, raped that that was what had happened, because sex ed came too late for them. Or who didn’t feel like they could call it rape, even after they learned the words, because they hadn’t actually said no, because they didn’t know how to say no safely, they didn’t know how to say no without putting themselves in further harms way. Or they didn’t say no because they didn’t really understand that what was happening to them was sex and that they could say no!

The common denominator in the vast majority of child sex abuse is that the children didn’t have the words, the information, the power to get help.

The common denominator is that WE FAILED THEM as a society, because we did not educate and empower them.

And it isn’t just the victims we are failing. I remember a boy in my middle school who really didn’t know that he was walking the halls sexually assaulting girls by grabbing their breasts, who was genuinely shocked when my friend accused him of rape and prosecuted him – because the last girl he’d had sex with that way hadn’t said anything, and anyway my friend had already had sex with another guy, so how could he even have raped her? He didn’t have the words either, he was just doing what the world around him said he could and should do to “be a man.”

While I don’t want to create wiggle room or excuses for people who commit sexual assault or rape – the brutal truth is, they are often victims of social conditioning. Conditioning that tells them that THEIR JOB is to get sexual favors from other people, that tells them their self-worth is counted in the number of notches on their bed post, that tells them that in order to “be a real man” they have to get the girl – at any cost.

Just as many victims of rape are additionally victims of social conditioning which never gave them the tools to be more than passive recipients of sexual attention, that says their self-worth is tied to the number of men who want to “tap that”, that tells them in order to be a “real woman” they have to be pleasing to men – no matter the price.

alcohol date rape drug

Don’t ask, just get her drunk…

This is rape culture.

This is the battle we are fighting. It isn’t about saving kids from sex. It is about educating our youth about this culture. It is about giving them the tools and information they need to make healthy decisions. It is about breaking down the millions of messages they get in the media every day telling them how to perform their sexuality.

sexuality images

Is this the idea of sexuality we want our youth to carry?

So we have a choice – accept those messages and let our children embrace them as Truth, or push back.

And we push back with education. Education that empowers them. Education that helps them question the way the world is presented in movies, on TV and radio, on billboards.

We push back by creating more safe spaces for children to ask questions and get real answers, by empowering more adults to become askable adults.

We do it by ending the wall of silence and shame that surrounds genuine sex and sexuality in our culture and replace it with vast open spaces for real discussions.

We push back by teaching children about their bodies, about bodily autonomy and sexual empowerment, and about the whole rainbow of gender and sexual expression that exists in this world.

We do it by teaching them the truth that sex is supposed to feel good for everyone involved, that the primary reason adults have sex is BECAUSE IT FEELS GOOD, and that if it isn’t feeling good – it’s time to call a time-out.

We push back by preparing our children to live in the world we’ve created, rather than trying to protect them from it.

Face it – if telling our children the truth about our world will destroy their childhood, then we’re doing it wrong and we need to change the world we’re creating for them, not put blindfolds over their eyes and then blame them when they stumble.

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under Kids, Of Course I'm a Feminist, Rant

Double Dog Dare

Last week I read two books back to back in order to do this very special double dog dare review.

The first book was Maureen Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes. The second book was Rachel Cohn & David Levithan’s Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares.

ya truth or dare

Double Dog Dare Ya to read these great books

Both books use roughly the same device to move the story forward – a set of dares that propels the protagonist(s) and pushes them into new territory.

Here’s the cover copy for 13 Little Blue Envelopes:

13 little blue envelopes

Ready for an adventure?

Would you follow the directions?
Would you travel around the world?
Would you open the envelopes one by one?

Inside little blue envelope 1 are $1,000 and instructions to buy a plane ticket.
In envelope 2 are directions to a specific London flat.
The note in envelope 3 tells Ginny: Find a starving artist.
Because of envelope 4, Ginny and a playwright/thief/bloke-about-town called Keith go to Scotland together, with somewhat disastrous – though utterly romantic – results. But will she ever see him again?
Everything about Ginny will change this summer, and it’s all because of the 13 little blue envelopes.

I found this book at my used bookstore and was intrigued by this back copy. To me, it sounded like a stranger had sent the envelope – and that Ginny must be a bit of a dare-devil to go on this adventure.

Reminder to self – back cover copy is designed to sell a book, not tell you what’s in it.

First – Ginny does not get these envelopes from a mysterious stranger. She gets them from her aunt. Her dead aunt. Her dead, eccentric, wild aunt – who disappeared without so much as a goodbye or fare thee well and didn’t resurface until she was knocking on death’s door.

Second – Ginny is most assuredly NOT a risk taking daredevil. No, no, no. She is a shy, quiet, introverted rule follower.

Which on one hand works perfectly for this book – who else but a rule follower would actually follow the rules of this game – only opening one envelope at a time, after the last task/dare is completed. Only packing what the first letter says to pack – as if there will be consequences for disobeying your dead aunt…

But Ginny does follow the rules. And that is important.

Harder to overcome was my disbelief that such a rule follower would go on this journey to begin with, that Ginny would convince her parents to let her and that she would be bold enough to get on that first plane. After that, the book becomes more believable, because after that step is taken, what else is there but to carry on?

That said – I did enjoy this book and I am looking forward to passing it down to my oldest daughter who is currently saving money for a trip to Paris (and, I hope a trip around the rest of Europe while she’s there.)

Reading 13 Little Blue Envelopes is like taking a Eurail pass through Europe, without ever leaving the couch.

Some of the pleasure of this book for me was entirely personal. I too remember the first time I was offered Ribena – on my first stay in Scotland. And I too was not warned that it was highly concentrated “juice”. I also remember my first shower in England, when I was 13. I was shivering, naked in the shower, completely unable to figure out how to make the water hot! I had to call my friend in to explain to me how all the tubes and knobs and buttons worked. Reading Ginny’s adventures was like a flashback of embarrassment. I remember feeling so amazed that the country that gave birth to mine could be so different, that a language I thought I knew and spoke fluently could be so foreign.

Ginny learns a lot on her adventures, about herself and also about the way the world works.

When BudgetAir said the plane would land in Rome, they weren’t being literal. What they meant to say was, :The plane will land in Italy; that much we guarantee. The rest is up to you.” Ginny found herself in a small airport that clearly wasn’t Rome’s main hub.

Following her aunt’s footsteps forces Ginny to use all of her resources, to take risks she would never take otherwise – and to find ways out of all the trouble her aunt gets her into. Like when her aunt tells her to ask a Roman boy out for gelato, “because Roman boys are some of the most amusing creatures on earth.”

Along with the great travel and adventure, this book is really YA at its core – that coming of age, personal awakening, self-discovery book.

Ginny knows who she is at the start (don’t all teens know everything?) but as the book progresses we see her discover new pieces of herself, and old pieces that she’s buried. Adding the additional layer of having to learn new ways in new lands – and discovering that things you thought were universal are actually specific to your life or your country was really a brilliant way to shine a little extra light on the changes we all go through as we enter new stages of our life.

Ginny agrees to go to a pub with Keith, but ever cautious, she follows behind him until,

“You don’t have to follow me,” he said. “We’re a very advanced country. Girls can walk beside men, go to school, everything.”

I liked Keith’s wit and snark. His way of seeing the world as wide open and ripe for the picking, so different from Ginny’s innocent and naive starting point.

She sipped her Guinness to buy herself a second before answering, then tried not to wince or spit. Ginny had never tasted tree bark, but this was what she imagined it would be like if you ran it through a juicer.

I also loved the tone of the book and the juxtaposition between Ginny and her starving artist, Keith. Her reserved, careful nature and his anything goes, good for a laugh attitude.

Keith stepped over onto the next grave, which was a flat stone on the ground. He started to jump around and flail his arms.
“What are you doing?” Ginny asked.
“I’m dancing on this guy’s grave. You always hear about people dancing on your grave, but no one ever does it.”

I liked that he pushed her and challenged her – and she pushed and challenged him right back.

In the end, Ginny discovers that even rule followers can have adventures, and even eccentric artists who seem to go missing right when you need them most have rules. But the biggest lesson for Ginny, and for all teens is that, when push comes to shove, we already have what it takes to be great, sometimes we just need our back against the wall before we realize it.

Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan came next.

I met David Levithan at this year’s Colorado Teen Lit Conference, but I’ve read books by both him and Rachel Cohn previously. I use one of Rachels’ books in my YA sex & pregnancy workshops and often reference David’s in both my YA sex and YA gender workshops.

I admit, I like this device – of using dares to push a character – or set of characters forward. It’s fun.

In Dash & Lily, both characters end up doing things that are out of character, things they would NEVER, EVER do without a push from their daring counterpart. But in each instance, we see the decision being made. We see their struggle to break out of themselves and accept the dare. We see their doubt, their fear – and ultimately their determination. We see them choose the potential benefit of keeping up the game. To me, that made all the difference. I knew what both Dash and Lily wanted from their game. I also enjoyed the back and forth of Dash & Lily and the morphing of the game from straight dares to something closer to Truth or Dare.

So, the cover copy for Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares:

dash lily book of dares

Dare you to read it.

I’ve left some clues for you.
If you want them, turn the page.
If you don’t, put the book back on the shelf, please.

Lily has left a red notebook full of challenges on a favorite bookstore shelf, waiting for just the right guy to come along and accept the dares. But is Dash that right guy? Or are Dash and Lily only destined to trade dares, dreams, and desires in the notebook they pass back and forth at locations across New York? Could their in-person selves possibly connect as well as their notebook versions? Or will they be a comic mismatch of disastrous proportions?

So, in this case – Dash and Lily really do start out as strangers. Because of this the dares begin in a gentle fashion with Lily leading her mystery partner into the game slowly, step by step.

Dash completes the first set of dares, but then – he breaks the rules. Instead of delivering his email address and returning the notebook, he delivers a dare.

Two, I decided, could play this game.

And so it begins, with Dash and Lily taking turns exchanging the red notebook with a new set of clues and dares each time. Along the way they get to know not only each other, but also themselves. There are dares of self-reflection and discovery, and dares that challenge them both to stretch outside their comfort zones.

Snarl (That’s Lily’s name for Dash because he won’t tell her his real name.) Snarl must have had me under some kind of spell because sneaking out in the middle of the night, on Christmas night no less, to a dive club on the Lower East Side was about the last dare that pre-notebook Lily ever would have taken on. But somehow, knowing the Moleskine was tucked away in my bag, containing our thoughts and clues, our imprints to each other, somehow that made me feel safe, like I could have this adventure and not get lost and not call my brother to save me. I could do this on my own, and not freak out that I had no idea what waited for me on the other side of this night.

Lily and Dash are wonderfully, delightfully different. Lily LOVES Christmas, more than just about anything. She loves it so much, she even wanted to become a Salvation Army bell-ringer.

Mom said no. She said those bell people are possibly religious freaks, and we are holiday-only lapsed Catholics who support homosexuality and a woman’s right to choose. We do not stand outside Macy’s begging for money.

Dash on the other hand, well, I’ll let Dash speak for himself.

This was the miracle of the season, the way it put the fuck off so loud in our hearts. You could snap at strangers, or snap at the people closest to you. It could be a fuck off for a slight reason – you took my parking space or You questioned my choice of mittens or I spent sixteen hours tracking down the golf club you wanted and you gave me a McDonald’s gift certificate in return. Or it could bring out the fuck off that’d been lying in wait for years. You always insist on cutting the turkey even though I’m the one who spent hours cooking it or I can’t spend one more holiday pretending to be in love with you or You want me to inherit your love for booze and women, in that order, but you’re more of a role anti-model than a father.

One of the best things about Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares are the quiet, sneaky moments of revelation.

It was Christmas Eve, and I had nowhere to be. I kicked off my shoes. Then I kicked off my pants. Amused by this, I took off my shirt. And my underwear. I walked from room to room, naked as the day I was born, only without the blood and amniotic fluid. It was strange – I’d been home alone plenty of times before, but I’d never walked around naked.

So, maybe this passage struck me so strongly because I’ve always been a bit of a nudist at heart. Or maybe it’s because my own kids are reaching that age where they aren’t so comfortable being naked anymore and it breaks my heart… Or maybe it’s because it brought me back to my high school days and going camping alone in the woods – just for a chance to have this freedom again. And yes, the first time my parents left me alone for a weekend and I got out of the shower and realized… I was alone. I didn’t have to get dressed for anyone.

There is something amazing and empowering and silly and freeing in running around naked and… it is lost to us so much of the time.

There were other great revelations too, about being human and what we want, and what we need – and how we go about getting it.

If Lily wanted to believe there was somebody out there just for her, I wanted to believe I could be somebody in here just for me.

I love this dichotomy, one person looking outside for someone to fulfill them and the other wishing they could just fulfill themselves for a moment. I think we all struggle with those desires – wanting to just be left alone to take care of ourselves and not have to be anything for anyone else (especially as teens when the whole freaking world is coming down on us with their expectations and rules and ideas about who and what we should be.) and also wanting to find someone out there in this big crazy world who gets us. And really, they are two sides of the same coin. When we ask for someone to be there just for us – what I think we’re really asking for is to find someone who gives us the space, the encouragement, the support to just be ourselves and take care of ourselves and love ourselves. Someone who sees in us what we want to see in ourselves.

Throughout the book there are moments of deep wisdom and philosophy. Those questions and thoughts that I remember having so often as a teen – as I tried to piece the world together and bash it into some kind of sense.

It’s hard to answer a question you haven’t been asked. It’s hard to show that you tried unless you end up succeeding.

The last, great thing about this wonderful book was the supporting cast. Dash has an amazing collection of friends, frienemies and one knock-out ex-girlfriends. Lily has an amazing family. Together, they have everything two teens trying to figure out the world could need.

“When you see a flower painted by Georgia O’Keeffe, what comes to mind?”
“That’s just a transparent ploy to get me to say the word vagina, isn’t it? There. I’ve said it. Vagina.”

vagina flower

Tell me what you see.

In the end, I have to say, I enjoyed Dash & Lily a little bit more than 13 Little Blue Envelopes – in part because I found the characters a little more believable – a little more true to themselves. As I said, I really struggled with believing that Ginny would go on the adventure her aunt sent her on. I needed more of her process and decision-making. Interestingly, it’s a line from Dash & Lily that made 13 Little Blue Envelopes work, that sold me on the story – The important people in our lives leave imprints. They may stay or go in the physical realm, but they are always there in your heart, because they helped form your heart. There’s no getting over that. 

Ginny’s aunt was her guiding star, she was the force that allowed her to take risks and be bold and brave – and when she left, Ginny closed off that part of herself. Until 13 blue envelopes arrived to wake it back up.

I think both books are well worth reading. I’ve put 13 Little Blue Envelopes on top of my oldest’s “to read” stack and I’ve talked up Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares as well. Ultimately, I think my daughter will enjoy Ginny’s journey of self discovery and empowerment more right now, but as she starts becoming more interested in figuring out how to balance friendship and romance, truth and daring, Dash & Lily will probably climb the ranks.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Kids

The Big Long Young Adult Pregnancy Post

I spent Saturday at perhaps my favorite event of the year – the Colorado Teen Literature Conference in Denver.

This was my fourth year attending and my third year as a presenter.

I was honored this year to be asked to present two discussions, one on gender representation in Young Adult fiction and another on pregnancy and abortion in YA.

In the discussion on teen pregnancy, I realized I wanted to bring the conversation to a larger audience. This is a big topic and it deserves a bigger light.

Because the conclusion that I came to – after MONTHS of reading very little outside of YA fiction about teen pregnancy and teen parenting is that:

WE NEED MORE STORIES.

The vast majority of books covering this topic that I found covered it from a white Christian perspective. Those weren’t the only stories, but if you took all the books covering teen pregnancy and put them on one set of shelves, covered your eyes and pulled a random book off the shelf, you’d have about an 85% chance of grabbing a book written from a white christian point of view.

Because of this, there were some troubling common themes throughout the majority of the books I read. (Note not all of these themes are Christian, or Caucasian – but seem to reflect a larger cultural zeitgeist. One which does not include a great many people or their stories.)

They include such tired ideas as: “It’s all her fault.” No matter that there was a dude involved – only stupid girls, or very manipulative conniving girls, get pregnant.

Things like – Even though it’s all her fault, and she is the one who will have to carry the physical, mental, emotional (and at least half of the financial) burden of whatever comes next, the guy should have final say in what she does. (Though this theme came up many times, I am happy to say that by the end of these books, the girls almost always made their own choices. But doing so almost always resulted in a loss of support from the guy, from her parents, from her school, etc. The majority of these books implied that there were no good choices available to girls who got pregnant, only varying degrees of bad choices. The guys by comparison all got off pretty easy, even the one who chose to parent the child without the mother had to sacrifice very little to do so.)

One of the books, Detour for Emily by Marilyn Reynolds summed up the overall message best, “I think once you let yourself get pregnant, you have a lot to feel bad about, whether you keep the baby, or have an abortion, or put it up for adoption, you’re left with some bad feelings.”

This is problematic on a couple of levels – one, “let yourself get pregnant”… Most of the couples in these books were using some form of birth control. There were a couple of instances of “heat of the moment” unprotected sex, but overall, I wouldn’t say these girls “let themselves” do anything but have sex. Which leads back to another common theme – pregnancy as punishment for having sex out-of-wedlock. As if a wedding ring has magical powers to make it so you only get pregnant on purpose.

wedding birth control

“With this ring, God shall protect you from unwanted pregnancy…”

Second – while I agree that unplanned pregnancies are a challenge for most people, I disagree that the choice people make has to be riddled with guilt. It reminds me of the time I applied for a job with an organization working to end sexual assault. In order to interview I had to read and agree to a list of beliefs about sexual violence one of which was, “All forms of sexual violence are equally devastating.”

Reading through my own lens I read that as, “You must be devastated by your rape.” Which I wasn’t, and which I refused to be. I brought up their wording in my interview suggesting they make a small change, instead of stating unequivocally that all sexual assault IS devastating, why not say, “can be” which leaves more room for survivors to navigate and accept their own process.

I didn’t get the job, and they didn’t change their mission statement, but the lesson in language stayed with me – language matters. Word choice matters. Messages matter. And the messages we send teens matter a lot.

Which brings me to another disturbing theme in these books. The first question out of every male mouth when the girl first tells them, whether it’s the girl’s sexual partner, his best friend (in the instances where the partner died before the girl learned she was pregnant) or her father.

“Are you sure? How do you know it’s mine/his?”

Because… The very first reaction to a girl becoming pregnant in most of these books was to label her a slut. No matter if she got pregnant the first time she had sex, with the only person she had ever had sex with, or after a string of sexual partners – girls who get pregnant are clearly sluts in the eyes of their peers, and often in the eyes of their parents.

 

good girls get pregnant too

This is NOT a helpful message.

This reaction from the men in these girls’ lives ended up making them highly unsympathetic. Also, from a teen reader point of view, if I was in that vulnerable state and reading books to try to get help deciding what I should do – the message that was repeated over and over was – don’t go to any of the men in your life for help or support! That is a VERY harmful and dangerous message to be giving young women.

Moms in these books had at least a 50/50 shot at responding in a helpful manner. Best female friends seemed to be the best bet though.

The final major theme showed that most girls who choose abortion won’t go through with it because they will get to the clinic and suddenly realize that abortion is wrong! ACK! I’m not saying that there aren’t people who believe this – but most wouldn’t make it as far as the clinic to begin with. According to statistics, most women and teens who choose abortion follow through with that choice – whether that means that they must attend multiple counseling sessions, listen to their doctor read them a script filled with false and scary misinformation about abortion, wait three days, view an ultrasound, travel hundreds of miles, raise the money on their own, use unapproved and unsafe methods to self abort… Women who know they can’t have a child right now, know they can’t have a child and they will do what they need to do to not continue their pregnancy.

So after two months of reading, sighing a lot, reading, screaming, reading, throwing books across the room, reading, remembering and reading some more… I have come up with a partial list of stories that are not being told, that need to be told, that deserve to be told. Partial because, clearly I can’t think of all of the stories. There are approximately 3.4 million unintended pregnancies in the USA each year according to the CDC. Of those, 840,000 are teens. That means that each year 840,000 new young adult pregnancy stories are being lived.

Here are just a few that were missing or severely under represented in the YA books that I studied:

Islamic stories. Jewish stories. Buddhist, Hindu, Mormon and Catholic stories. Animist stories. Pagan stories. Agnostic and Atheist stories.

Latina/Hispanic stories. African American, Asian American, Indian American and Native American stories. Stories from all the many ethnicities, racial identities and cultural backgrounds that exist in this melting pot.

Immigrant stories. What about the stories of undocumented teens for whom accessing medical care is already tricksy. Now they must also deal with this. What about documented immigrants, still new, still struggling with language barriers, additional cultural barriers and uncertainty of their place.

What about the teens who don’t have health insurance? While that number is going down – those people still exist and pregnancy, prenatal care and birth all are ridiculously expensive in this country. Or what about the ones who are insured, but whose PRIVATE insurance isn’t allowed to cover abortion care?

Stories about girls who get pregnant as the result of rape. What about girls who get pregnant via rape in one of the 31 states where rapists are granted legal parental rights? How does that change her choices? Her options? What does that mean in practical terms?

Stories about girls who live in states which require parental consent for an abortion – and for whom that is not a safe option. How does a vulnerable teen navigate the court system in time? How does she afford an attorney to represent her case and convince the judge that asking her parents for permission is unsafe? What does that story look like?

Stories about girls who choose to keep their baby only to discover that their pregnancy is killing them – or that their fetus has complications that are not compatible with life – but only after she is 20 weeks along, when getting an abortion in her state is no longer a legal option. What happens to those girls?

Stories about pregnant teens for whom abortion is not an option – not because they believe it is wrong, but because where they live, there is no access to abortion. This is an increasingly common true story in America. It is one that I have witnessed.  There are many ways this story can go, they are all deserving of their place on the shelf if for no other reason than to remind people that there is nothing “pro-life” about letting women and girls suffer or die because they cannot access medical care.

How about telling a broader range of adoption stories, including girls being pressured and coerced into putting their children up for adoption. Or the girls who choose adoption and then give birth and change their minds? It’s not a common story, but it’s at least as common as girls who choose abortion and then change their minds – and that story was told in many of the books I read, so why not choosing to keep the child after previously agreeing to give it up for adoption? And what are the legal and social ramifications of that?

What of the kin-adoptions, which is the most common form of voluntary adoption, where a close relative adopts the baby? How does that play out? How does it feel to interact with the child you birthed while it is being parented by someone else? What if you don’t like the way they parent?

What about miscarriage and still birth? Or are those seen as taking the “easy way out” because they don’t force her to choose and then live with her choice? But what if she did choose and then, just like with a planned pregnancy that act of nature undoes her choice?

What about the planned teen pregnancy? Yes – they happen. What goes into making that choice? What does that process look like? Is the outcome any different than the teens who become pregnant on accident? Do these teens have parental support for their choice? Financial support?

What about the trans* teen who becomes pregnant? What do that person’s options look like? How are they treated?

Where are the stories about disabled teens who get pregnant – what do those stories look like? How does it change if the father is the one who is disabled, how does that change the conversation?

What about the girls who don’t choose abortion, or adoption, or parenting – what about the girls who find another option, a hidden option…

There was one book which talked about “Option D” for an unplanned pregnancy – infanticide. A book called After by Amy Efaw peeled back the curtain on the teen mother who throws her newborn infant into a dumpster. We tend to call these women monsters, this book helps make them human again.

We need more stories that are compassionate toward pregnant teens and teen parents – whatever road they end up walking.

Also – There are a ton of contemporary YA books dealing with teen pregnancy, but where is the fantasy, the sci-fi, the horror? Where is the genre fiction that deals with, touches on or explores teen pregnancy and teen parenting? We have Unwind by Neal Shusterman. Twilight or whatever the last book was called. Thumped and Bumped by Megan McCafferty, which I haven’t read but seem to be The Handmaid’s Tale but humorous and written specifically for teens.

What of high fantasy dealing with teen pregnancy? Or teen pregnancy in a space opera? Or the Rosemary’s Baby of teen pregnancy books?

And, because it isn’t all bad – what about the stories of teens who get pregnant and aren’t destroyed by it?

What about a story of a girl living her life, reaching for her goals, who gets pregnant and makes her choice and is able to continue with the rest of her journey? What about a story where a teen pregnancy is a part of the story, but it isn’t THE WHOLE story?

What about a story where a teen gets pregnant and makes her choice and feels good about it, and gets support for it from her sexual partner, from her family, from her friends and school. What about a story where a teen gets pregnant and it’s not a crisis?

How about a story about a teen who gets pregnant and is not required to give up her dreams and goals because of it? Nor even to delay them. One of the books I read, No More Saturday Nights by Norma Klein, followed a boy who sued his pregnant ex-girlfriend for custody of the child when he found out she was giving it up for adoption. He was then allowed to keep his scholarship to Columbia, move to New York City with a 5 week old infant, find housing and child care – which he could afford – go to class, maintain his required GPA to keep his scholarship, etc. Not a single book about a pregnant girl gave her this option to “have it all”. In part, that is because none of the books I read offered any of the girls the level of privilege and support that this boy received. So many people were willing to help this boy, give him a chance, offer him support that all he had to give up was wild Saturday nights and a little sleep.

There are so very many stories out there to choose from. Even something as simple as changing the point of view changes the story completely.

One of the books I loved most out of the mix was Things I Can’t Forget by Miranda Kenneally, author of Catching Jordan. Things I Can’t Forget follows a teen girl who was raised in a strict fundamentalist Christian home and church. She is grappling with herself and her relationship with God after helping her best friend obtain an abortion – something she believes with all her heart to be sinful and wrong. She is struggling to reconcile what she did, and why she did it with her beliefs about her God. It is a very compassionate and caring book. If it had been told from the POV of the girl who had the abortion, it would have been a completely different story.

Miranda’s acknowledgements sum it up nicely,

“When I left Middle Tennessee and moved to Washington, D.C., I found that my beliefs began to change. To this day, I don’t really know what I believe, but that’s okay. With this story, I want to show you (teenagers) that your beliefs matter – no matter who you are or where you come from. Your opinions matter. You matter.

“To me nothing was scarier than understanding that my truth wasn’t everyone else’s truth. It took a while, but I discovered that’s okay – it’s better if I do the things I want to do and believe what I want to believe. I hope you find your truth.”

Ultimately, that is the take home from my months and months of reading non-stop pregnant and parenting teen books – there are many stories, many truths. They are all equally valid. They all deserve to be told. And they all come together to help others understand that their story is not the only story, their truth is not the only truth.

We are all here on this marble just doing our best, trying to get by the best we can with the tools we have. And we could all, regardless of our circumstance, regardless of our choices, use a little compassion, a little understanding.

A little less “Are you sure?” and a little more “How can I help?”

And one of the ways we can all help is by expanding the story to let more people in.

 

 

 

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Kids, Of Course I'm a Feminist, Rant