“I have always been keenly aware of how we can use books to talk about important issues. They give voice to the voiceless, they shed light on things that many people can’t really understand unless you have been through it, and they can get us thinking about issues in indirect ways.”
Karen Jensen is a librarian and founder of Teen Librarian Toolbox (TLT), a professional development website for teen librarians. Jensen is currently hosting a series of virtual panels aimed at discussing sexual violence in YA. The panels began in January and will run through November.
Jensen wants people to begin thinking and talking about rape culture, consent and healthy views of sex and sexuality while creating a compilation of resources for educators, parents and teens. But this isn’t a new topic for Jensen: she has been blogging about sexual violence in YA since TLT began in 2011.
“The number of teens I have talked to who have been victims over the years as a librarian just breaks my heart. As does the number of friends I know that have been victims. So I wanted to do what I could to help change the culture and books are what I know.”
Though TLT has only hosted one virtual panel so far, there has already been a lot of positive feedback – people tweeting and emailing, letting the TLT team know that they learned a lot from the panel and appreciated the conversation, and even some who said the discussion caused them to “think differently about the three books we had discussed and some of the issues within them.”
After the success of the first virtual panel, Jensen and the participating authors – Carrie Mesrobian, Christa Desir and Trish Doller – immediately began talking about expanding the discussions by putting together a diverse list of topics and bringing on more authors.
“Carrie made the brilliant observation that we should also talk about books that were sex and consent positive, which of course makes sense. If you want to talk about what unhealthy sex looks like, you also need to talk about what healthy sex looks like,” said Jensen.
Carrie Mesrobian’s Sex & Violence deals with sexual violence, but the victim lacks a voice in the story. Instead, it follows Evan – a boy “somewhat unenlightened and clueless about rape and violence and his own sexual behavior,” according to Mesrobian.
“I think about this topic a lot and think it’s one we really need to create lots of conversations around if we want people to understand what it means in our culture and in our relationships. They need to see where women are coming from; they need to understand their own sexual behavior; they need to realize that talking about this really benefits everyone, in both relationships and sexuality,” said Mesrobian.
Christa Desir, author of Fault Line, has been a rape victim activist for over fifteen years. Participating in the panels was just another way to help those in need.
“To me, it’s always been about creating conversations around the issue, making it okay to talk about, making other survivors feel like they’re not alone. Sometimes you can’t go [at]a difficult issue head-on, so literature can be an invaluable tool.”
Desir believes these panels will help both victims and non-victims in two ways.: by educating people about consent, rape trauma syndrome, and the outright definition of rape; and by developing empathy for non-survivors.
“My hope here is that people who haven’t been victims can gain some insight and sympathy. That when a survivor is behaving in a way you don’t understand, maybe the first thing to do is not blame them, but to try to understand,” said Trish Doller, author of Where the Stars Still Shine.
Doller decided to participate in the panels after a reviewer called her main character Callie a slut because of the way she coped and behaved after being sexually abused.
“All I could think about [was]how horrible it would feel to be a real girl and have someone make a judgment like that about you when just surviving abuse is hard enough. No one should have to be shamed like that,” said Doller.
Jensen hopes for continued success in order to expand and diversify the topics covered.
“Sexual violence is not just a white heterosexual female issue – it can and does happen to anyone [and]that needs to be part of the discussion. I would [also]love to do things like discussing teens and poverty. I have a huge heart for this issue as well.”
Through this, Doller and the others most importantly hope to show victims of sexual abuse that they’re not alone.
“That they have a voice. Even if it doesn’t feel like it right now, you are not alone. You are worth so much. So much. And you are loved.”
“Whether you speak up or keep it to yourself, understand that you were not at fault. Your body is your body and you have full ownership of it. No one has a right to take it,” said Sharon Biggs Waller, author of A Mad, Wicked Folly.
The next virtual panel will take place on March 26. The topic will be Contemporary Debuts, dealing with sexual violence. It will be moderated by author Carrie Mesrobian and attending authors include Stephanie Kuehn (Charm and Strange), Rachele Alpine (Canary), and Brendan Kiely (The Gospel of Winter). The panels are hosted via Google Hangout.
To learn more about the Sexual Violence in YA project, visit the Teen Librarian Toolbox website.