#MeToo and Middle Grade

On October 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted:

If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write “me too” as a reply to this tweet.

Her message unleashed a hurricane of tweets and Facebook posts that swept the internet. Women (and some men) shared their stories of sexual harassment and assault under the hashtag #MeToo. Many of us asked each other Is there any women alive who hasn’t experienced these things? Many men were shocked at the ubiquity of the problem.

The #MeToo movement, which as of this writing in late December, continues to shake the foundations of power in American media and politics, began ten years ago with Tarana Burke, director of the Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity.

She describes the movement she founded this way:

On one side, it’s a bold declarative statement that “I’m not ashamed” and “I’m not alone.” On the other side, it’s a statement from survivor to survivor that says “I see you, I hear you, I understand you and I’m here for you or I get it.”

#MeToo has focused attention on what feminist theorists call rape culture: the fabric of beliefs, social norms, media depictions, and institutional structures that both normalize and excuse male sexual aggression and sexual violence. The underlying message of rape culture is that the female body exists primarily for male pleasure and male domination.

So why am I writing about rape culture on a blog dedicated to books for middle grade readers?

This post is a call-to-action for those of us who care about young people.

Rape culture exists on a continuum from cat-calling to pats on the butt to solicitations for sexy pictures to assault and rape. And these behaviors begin early.

Consider these examples:

(a) A boy chases a girl and tries to kiss her during elementary school. The girl complains and is told, “He does that because he likes you.”

(b) A boy snaps a girl’s bra. The girl complains and is told, “Boys will be boys.”

(c) A school’s dress code forbids girls from wearing spaghetti straps or short skirts because this attire distracts boys from their school work.

(d) A boy grabs a girl’s bottom, and she slaps him. Her peers accuse her of being too sensitive and over-reacting. Others call her a b*$%#.

In each of these cases, an act of harassment, upsetting in itself, is coupled with the message that girls should be (a) grateful for the attention, that (b) this behavior is “normal,” that (c) girls are the cause of boys’ misbehavior, and that (d) girls should be silent and accept this treatment.

These examples show how we confound desire and aggression and coercion so profoundly that our young people grow up believing that men are supposed to be sexually aggressive and not “take no for an answer,” while women are supposed to both welcome sexual attention and be blamed if their own boundaries are violated.

According to a study of 1,300 middle school students conducted by Dr. Dorothy Espelage of the University of Florida, 25% of girls had experienced verbal and physical sexual harassment. In a similar study of high schoolers, that percentage rose to 68%.

Is it any wonder that the percentage of women responding to #MeToo is 100%?

For young adults, sexual harassment and sexual violence are linked to depression, eating disorders, problems in school, and problems with friends. In adults, sexual harassment and sexual violence are a huge part of why women continue to be at a disadvantage in the workplace.

If we, as writers, educators, and parents who value young people, want to make a real difference in the lives of girls and young women, we need to educate ourselves about rape culture (book list below) and make a commitment to calling out instances of rape culture as it affects young people.

This means having hard conversations about everything from the lack of consent depicted in story of Sleeping Beauty to the current wave of actors, musicians, and politicians being outed as sexual predators thanks to the #MeToo movement. We need to be talking about these things with all our young people—boys and girls alike—if we are going to deconstruct the toxic effects of rape culture and move toward true gender equity.

Resources for learning about rape culture

Asking for It: The Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It by Kate Harding, Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2015. In-depth research into present day rape culture.

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakaue, Doubleday, 2015. An incisive case study of rape culture on a college campus.

Yes Means Yes by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, Seal Press, 2008. An anthology that deconstructs rape culture and proposes new paradigms for respecting women’s sexual autonomy.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, Haymarket Books, 2015. A collection of essays including one that responds to the #YesAllWomen hashtag and sexual aggression toward women.

Hey, Shorty! by Girls for Gender Equity, Joanne Smith, Meghan Huppuch, and Mandy Van Deven, Feminist Press, 2011. A guide to combating sexual harassment and violence in schools and on the streets.

Slut by Katie Cappiello and Meg McInerney, Feminist Press, 2015. A play and guidebook for combating sexism and sexual violence.

P.S. I am currently writing a nonfiction book for tween and teen readers about rape culture, which will be traditionally published in Spring of 2019. More details as soon as I am able to share them. You can follow me on Twitter at @amberjkeyser or sign up for my newsletters at www.amberjkeyser.com if you want to be in the loop.

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Amber J. Keyser
Evolutionary biologist-turned-author Amber J. Keyser has a MS in zoology and a PhD in genetics. She writes both fiction and non-fiction for tweens and teens. Her young adult novels include POINTE, CLAW (Carolrhoda Lab, 2017), an explosive story about two girls claiming the territory of their own bodies, and THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015), a heart-wrenching novel of loss and survival (and a finalist for the Oregon Book Award). She is the co-author with Kiersi Burkhart of the middle grade series QUARTZ CREEK RANCH (Darby Creek, 2017). Her nonfiction titles include THE V-WORD (Beyond Words/SimonTeen, 2016), an anthology of personal essays by women about first-time sexual experiences (Rainbow List, Amelia Bloomer list, New York Public Library Best Book for Teens and Chicago Public Library Best Nonfiction for Teens) and SNEAKER CENTURY: A HISTORY OF ATHLETIC SHOES (Twenty-First Century Books, 2015), among numerous other titles. More information at www.amberjkeyser.com.
  1. Sorry, but I disagree with (a) being linked to rape culture. I know a little boy chased by five girls and kissed. He hates it. But I don’t think it’s sexual. It’s just teasing. That said, I still think someone should talk to the girls about playing something everyone enjoys.

    Anyway, let’s open up that the study (from 2012) you reference: 66 percent of boys and 52 percent of girls said they experienced peer sexual harassment. 32 percent of boys and 22 percent of girls admitting to making sexual comments to other students.

    The same study also mentions a 2007 report that states, for grades 9-12, 10 percent of females experienced forced sex, and 4.5 percent of males. A 2006 report states for grades 7-12 reported that 10 percent of boys and 2.5 percent of girls reported unwanted sexual coercion (yes the genders are listed correctly).

    It’s not really surprising to me. We have an increasingly sexualized culture. What used to happen in grade 8, moved to grade 7, then to grade 6. But by writing that do we encourage it? And is it worse or better here than in Europe, where they talk about sex more and show less violence on TV?

    Yes, there are serious issues that need to be addressed but I fear there may be too much of a rush to simplify cause and effect (E.g. Nothing in our ‘culture’ condones an adult touching children in cloakrooms). The few times I’ve broached a serious topic like this in my writing, it’s a past event that’s never describe. Instead I focus on how it affects current behavior.

    Then again, I hate sex in my fiction–healthy or not–no matter the age.

    Note: Sleeping Beauty was originally a tale of rape. And Snow White was 7 in the original story.

  2. Thanks for this wonderful post. I believe there are so many important issues – this one included – that fill the inner and outer lives of middle grade girls (and boys) – that simply don’t appear often enough in their literature. If we hold back from including these issues, we prevent our children from seeing (and being free to discuss) the realities of their own lives. I look forward to more adults realizing that books that include these issues can be immensely significant in our children’s lives.

  3. Such an important topic for all girls to understand. Thanks for talking about this and for the resources. And it’s not just the boys. My sixth-grade teacher came after me in the cloak room and touched me inappropriately several times. It took me years to tell anyone and then found out he had gone after some of my classmates as well. #MeToo