Writing About Sexual Harassment for Middle Grade Readers, a guest post by Catherine Arguelles
In 2016, as #MeToo trended and stories of sexual harassment rose in the media, I came across this study examining sexual harassment in middle schools. While I certainly remembered incidents of catcalls and inappropriate behavior in middle school, it alarmed me to read that nearly half of the middle schoolers surveyed experienced sexual harassment. The study showed that most of the kids experienced sexual harassment verbally, but middle schoolers also reported physical harassment like groping and unwanted hugs and touching.
I read the whole study thinking two things: This happens all the time, and we have to get better about talking about it with kids.
What better way to begin the discussion than with books? I had just finished my first MG novel and was thinking about what to write next.
As the mother of young daughters and a feminist with a degree in Women’s Studies, I wanted my next book to address sexual harassment. The stories in the 2016 study rang true for me. It wasn’t hard to recall my own middle school days where slurs degrading girls and LGBTQ+ folks were commonplace. It also wasn’t hard to remember the crushes of middle school, and how easily they became uncomfortable when feelings weren’t returned.
In my upcoming middle grade novel FLIP TURNS, the main character, Maddie, is a 13 year-old with an admirer who continues to pursue her after she’s turned him down numerous times. When addressing harassment in a Middle Grade novel, I set a few guidelines for myself:
Wrap it in an engaging story. It’s easy to make a book about harassment feel like an issue book, but FLIP TURNS, at its heart, is a mystery. Maddie’s family’s community pool has been vandalized, and Maddie wonders if it’s her unrequited admirer getting even. The mystery keeps the reader engaged, and the swimming element lends authenticity and attracts readers interested in sports. The characters seem like kids solving a problem and searching for clues, not kids about to learn a lesson about sexual harassment.
Use the communication kids use. I love writing dialogue, but I’ve found I love writing texts more! A lot of harassment happens online, so I wanted to be authentic with how kids communicate. Also, communication happens easily these days—an Instagram follow or comment is a lot easier than the days of asking for a home phone number. Kids are more accessible to each other, and if we’re going to talk about harassment, we have to talk about how and where it’s happening with today’s kids.
Name it. Kids don’t always know sexual harassment when it happens. Naming it and explaining why it’s sexual harassment validates the seriousness of the experience. This doesn’t happen until the end of FLIP TURNS, but a character tells Maddie that what she’s experienced is sexual harassment because her admirer continued to pursue her after she’d told him no.
Show the emotional reactions. The attention from Maddie’s harasser causes Maddie to question her decisions and lose confidence. She feels like she should be nicer to him, and she wonders if maybe he’s not as bad as she thinks; maybe she’s overreacting. She also feels like his possible retaliative actions are her fault. It’s authentic and sympathetic to demonstrate this struggle with self-confidence and self-blame that comes from being the target of harassment.
Show other characters’ reactions, too. Often, the reaction to sexual harassment from others, even adults, is to suggest “just be nice” or the dreaded “it’s because he likes you”. Those phrases downplay the seriousness of the experience and blame the victim. So, if a supporting character sees that the harassing behavior is wrong, middle schoolers can feel that if they share their experiences, they’ll also be heard and believed. In FLIP TURNS, Maddie’s best friend, Ez, knows the behavior from Maddie’s admirer isn’t okay, even if she doesn’t know what it’s called. Several times, Ez tells Maddie that Maddie has been nice enough, and her admirer’s behavior is inappropriate. Ez validates Maddie’s experience and provides a model for how a middle schooler might support a friend experiencing harassment.
Provide examples for positive relationships and friendships. One of my favorite parts of writing FLIP TURNS was creating Maddie’s friends and developing her crush on a boy who starts out as a potential friend. It felt very important to offer models of an appropriate middle school romance as well as friendships with kids of different genders. Also, I wanted to include appropriate communication—in one scene, Maddie’s crush asks her for her number instead of sliding into her DMs or finding her contacts through a friend. Consent around communication and access is a necessary part of the conversation around sexual harassment.
I loved writing FLIP TURNS, and I’m so grateful it will be in the hands of middle schoolers. It’s an honor to write for this age group and take on these issues with care and consideration. I’m thrilled to see more MG books with sexual harassment themes like SUMMER OF BRAVE by Amy Noelle Parks and the upcoming HAZEL HILL IS GONNA WIN THIS ONE by Maggie Hornes. I hope these books and FLIP TURNS will inspire conversations about harassment among kids and their adults.
Meet the author
Catherine has worked as a counselor with middle school students, a fundraiser for non-profits, and is the proud parent of two feminist readers and three regal cats. She lives in Northern California. Her first novel, FLIP TURNS, comes out on September 13, 2022. Links: https://linktr.ee/arguellescath Twitter and IG: @arguellescath
About Flip Turns
Thirteen-year-old Maddie just wants her classmate Lucas to leave her alone. He keeps asking her out—as if she hasn’t already said no a thousand times! Focusing on her competitive swim team, the Electric Eels, Maddie tries to ignore him, hoping he’ll stop harassing her.
But then, when someone starts sabotaging Maddie’s family-owned pool—glass on the deck, ketchup in the pool, followed by a “code brown”—Maddie worries it’s her “admirer” trying to get even. After Maddie’s parents rule the problems at the pool just harmless pranks, Maddie and her best friend, Ez, decide to investigate on their own. Could it be Lucas? And how can Maddie get him to leave her alone once and for all? The future of the Electric Eels and Maddie’s family legacy are on the line.
Publisher: North Star Editions
Publication date: 09/13/2022
Age Range: 9 – 13 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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