In Saturday’s Links of Note roundup, I pulled together some of the posts making rounds regarding the sexual misconduct scandal within DFTBA records. If you aren’t completely up on what’s going on — and I have to admit, I’m not entirely clear on everything happening either — here’s a piece that’ll give the rundown as it started. This is a story that has many layers to it, and I think that Jeanne has done a pretty good job breaking some more of them down in her post (and the subsequent update she’s linked to). Read this, as well as the comments. Her background is within the fandom perspective, which is an arena I know little about.
But what’s stood out to me over the course of this is less the allegations of sexual abuse — which isn’t to say that’s not important because it certainly is — but instead, I’ve found myself fascinated by an organization which is run primarily (entirely?) by men who serve a primarily teen audience and fan base. There is nothing wrong with that, but it leads to a lot of questions about how those who are older than eighteen can or should interact with their underage audiences. This isn’t only about DFTBA; it’s about any situation where adults work with or for or come in contact with teens in some capacity.
I was a teen girl once. I was a teen girl who loved male acoustic singers, and I was lucky enough to be able to go to a lot of concerts growing up. I lived close enough to Chicago to make this a reality, and I’d earned enough trust to go, whether with an adult or by myself/with a group of friends. I never thought a whole lot about the fact that I was under 18 and going and seeing these men who were in their late 20s and 30s performing. Many times because of my working for the high school newspaper, I was able to get in touch with these artists and set up either web-based or in-person interviews.
I never found it weird to talk with them after a show or ask for an autograph or ask a few questions or even approach them for a hug. It never occurred to me that that could be uncomfortable. I was a teen girl and expressing my interest and my passion for music and the art someone else was making.
One night after a show, I’d had such a good time and had a chance to talk with the singer afterwards, mentioning that I was really bummed I couldn’t go to his show the next night since it was a 21 and older only spot. I’d been there with my mom, and rather than invite me to come to the show anyway, he talked with my mom and said if she was willing to come with me, he’d sneak me in to sell merch for the show that night.
But this was after he talked with my mom.
Of course then it didn’t seem like a big deal to me, but in thinking about that moment now, it was exactly the right thing for him to do. Rather than invite me personally or offer to sneak me in, he asked my mom for approval and asked if she would come with me to do so. He didn’t lead me on and he didn’t try to make promises for me. He set up some clear boundaries and expectations immediately in order to protect not just himself but to protect me, as well.
Barry Lyga wrote two really great posts last week talking about being in the sort of position where he’s regularly interacting with teenagers. The first, which you should read here, set off a lot of questions and discussion. Was he being too strict in having a “no hugs” policy? He followed up with a response to the things people asked or said to him — primarily to those who thought his approach was far too rigid and strict — in this post. The golden piece is this quote: “Why do we presume men are guilty? Dunno, but here’s the thing: until it changes, I’m not going to pretend it hasn’t changed. Change comes first —then hugs.”
What Lyga speaks to isn’t the presumption of guilt. He’s not calling men the problem. He’s instead pointing out that we do live in a world where bad things happen and rather than contribute to that, his policy is simply hands off. Does it mean sometimes a teen doesn’t get what he or she wants? Something that could make his or her day or week or year? Certainly.
In his own words: “A part of respect in a relationship between an adult and a minor is acknowledging the power imbalance and setting reasonable boundaries. We can quibble about the nature and tone of those boundaries, but I don’t think we should quibble about their necessity.”
This is where I find myself most fascinated by the DFTBA community and the events going on within it right now. There is a power imbalance. While we’re most familiar with imbalances that put someone in a position to hold their power over the heads of others, what is going on here is a power imbalance that’s never been considered: those who have power don’t see themselves in that way. It’s not that they should feel guilty or bad for what happened. It’s that the possibility of what could happen in such a position wasn’t at the forefront and wasn’t considered.
There was no blanket manner of dealing with issues that could arise because the idea that they could arise wasn’t something that they thought about.
No matter how cool a 15 year old might be, a 22 year old shouldn’t be anything more than a 22 year old adult with that person. Gender does and doesn’t matter here. It matters because there’s certainly additional power imbalances when it’s a sexually-charged relationship, but it doesn’t matter because there is a clear line of legality regardless of the type of relationship being pursued. It can go either or both ways — older men or older women and/or younger boy or younger girl.
What’s interesting in this particular instance is the language used to describe the teenager. She is not a teenager, nor is she a girl. She’s a young woman. There is a power construct in the word choice, whether intentional or not. Regardless of how cool or polished she comes off, she’s still a teenager. When I think about when I was a teenager, I was fueled by my feelings, especially in regards to how I was being talked to and treated by “cool” adults. I loved that respect and attention.
But it didn’t change the fact I was a teenager and not a young woman.
In thinking about relationships between adults and teenagers, I thought rather than try to deconstruct this further, it’d be worthwhile to build a short reading list of books that explore these relationships. In some instances, the imbalance is clear and the lines of right and wrong are crisp. In others, it’s not as clear. Descriptions come from WorldCat, and I’ve elaborated a little bit, too, about why these books are worthwhile reading and discussion fodder, especially in light of what’s happening in the DFTBA community.
Please feel free to offer up other titles that showcase adult-teen relationships and the power (im)balances within them. I’d love to have a nice resource list because I think that this is a topic that doesn’t get talked about much but offers a lot of places for empowering not just teenagers, but adults, as well.
This Gorgeous Game by Donna Freitas
Seventeen-year-old Olivia Peters, who dreams of becoming a writer, is thrilled to be selected to take a college fiction seminar taught by her idol, Father Mark, but when the priest’s enthusiasm for her writing develops into something more, Olivia shifts from wonder to confusion to despair.
In Freitas’s novel, Olivia wants the approval of her idol so bad, she’ll go to the ends of the Earth to earn it. The problem is that Father Mark takes complete advantage of her desires and manipulates Olivia in the worst possible ways. Olivia is and is not entirely on to what’s going on. She believes that in order to achieve, she has to listen and follow with the instructions she’s given, even if it feels weird or creepy or wrong. What complicates the matter further is how well respected Father Mark is not just in the community, but in Olivia’s family in particular.
The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr
Sixteen-year-old San Franciscan Lucy Beck-Moreau once had a promising future as a concert pianist. Her chance at a career has passed, and she decides to help her ten-year-old piano prodigy brother, Gus, map out his own future, even as she explores why she enjoyed piano in the first place.
Zarr’s novel doesn’t seem like it would have this element to it, but it does. Lucy’s become a little bit smitten with one of her teachers, and there is a clear exploration of what the lines of appropriate and inappropriate are as it comes to their relationship. What I think is most noteworthy here is how much Lucy seeks that approval and admiration from an older male. He’s cool and she loves the attention he can give her. That desire in her is, at times, hard to separate from the fact she’s 16.
Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo
A fifteen-year-old Australian girl gets her first job and first crush on her unattainable university-aged co-worker, as both search for meaning in their lives.
What Buzo’s novel does is offer us the perspective of both the boy and the girl. We have a fifteen year old girl who is enamored by her coworker, who is in his early 20s and who enjoys hanging out and talking with her. But he understands clearly where the lines are in their relationship. He isn’t interested in her beyond talking and being friendly. He won’t pursue a deeper relationship with her and he certainly isn’t interested in leading her on nor holding his power over her head. He thinks she’s cool and she’s very smart, but he’s well attune to their age difference.
Pointe by Brandy Colbert (available April 10)
Four years after Theo’s best friend, Donovan, disappeared at age thirteen, he is found and brought home and Theo puts her health at risk as she decides whether to tell the truth about the abductor, knowing her revelation could end her life-long dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer.
I’ll have a lengthy, spoiler-laden review of Colbert’s novel next week, but it’s a title that fits within this list and does so in a bit of a different way. While we see the emotional tolls that happen in Freitas’s and Zarr’s novels, what happens in Colbert’s novel is not only emotional, it’s physical too. It takes Theo the entire novel to understand what happened to her and what ripple effects it had not only on her own well-being, but on the well-being of her best friend.
Though not for teen readers, Alissa Nutting’s Tampa is another novel worth reading that delves into wildly inappropriate adult-teen relationships. I mention this title in conjunction with the YA ones because I think it gets at an aspect that I haven’t talked too much about, which is gender. While the other novels have an older male at the forefront, Nutting’s flips the script and has an older woman pursuing completely inappropriate relationships with teen boys. This is a challenging and squick-inducing read.
What other titles would you add to the list? While I think there’s a lot worth exploring on the sexual abuse end (Pointe and Tampa fit there), I’d be particularly interested in titles where the power dynamic is on burgeoning non-sexual relationships.