So I read WITHER (Chemical Gardens #1) by Lauren DeStefano, and … I didn’t like it. Maybe later I’ll do up a post about why, because the reasons are not restricted to DeStefano but rather endemic to the YA dystopia genre as a whole, but for now, I’ll say this: her writing is absolutely beautiful, her way with words something to be aspired to, so it’s a shame that her world-building is so unbelievably shoddy.
At any rate, I was perusing the reviews on Goodreads when I came across a trend that was, well, unsettling. Many reviewers disliked the main character, Rhine. Personally, I did not find Rhine compelling, so I was interested to see what other people had to say about her. What they said is that Rhine annoyed them because what’s the big deal? What the heck was she complaining about? Whereas most people live in abject poverty — Rhine and her brother once found an orphan frozen to death on their front stoop — Rhine now gets to live in a magical fairyland of beautiful clothes, exotic foods, and untold riches. Wah, wah, wah, poor little rich girl, the reviewers say; suck it up.
Fair enough, except Rhine is a 16-year-old child bride, kidnapped from her home and sold to a clueless wealthy man with two other girls, expected to bear his children and offer up sex whenever he wants it.
There’s a word for this, guys: marital rape. The only reason it isn’t statutory is because the laws have been changed to make 13 the age of consent.
There is no amount of strawberries, candies, bubble baths and diamond gowns that makes having to provide sex to anyone else okay. Several reviewers said they would be thrilled to be in her situation, and could not sympathize with her because she was dissatisfied. What’s so bad about having to put out a few times a week — especially when the guy is young and hot — when the alternative is scrounging for food in the ruins of Manhattan? Just lie back, spread ‘em, and enjoy the perks, for pete’s sake.
I don’t even know what to say to these people, except: gross, and ew, and no. It reminds me of the story of a Buffy fan who screamed at James Marsters that she would happily let him rape her — this leads me to believe that when it comes to sexual assault, a lot of people have no effing clue what they’re talking about.
This is a girl who was ripped from her home, who is a virgin, who is afraid, who desperately misses her twin brother, and who cannot be persuaded into thinking that wealth and comfort are an appropriate exchange for giving up her sexual autonomy. And people think she’s crazy.
Yes, this life could be a tantalizing alternative for someone living in poverty — but that doesn’t stop it from being icky, due to the tremendous imbalance of power and control in that situation. It’s even more icky when people think that the choice should be removed, that it’s unreasonable for a girl to not want to be a sex-slave. (This is the part where my inner monologue turns into Sassy Gay Friend: “What – what – what are you doing? Look at your life! Look at your choices!”)
It also ties into a larger social problem, which is this — “It’s not a problem for me, so I don’t see why it should be for anyone else.” Just because one person sees no problem in trading sex for luxury does not make that a valid choice for everyone. This is not an okay argument ever, but I see it all the time, in discussions of gender, or politics, or religion, or pretty much anywhere on the Internet.
These discussions raise huge red flags for issues of consent and sexual autonomy obligation in society that make me really uncomfortable. We are a sexually-liberated society (to an extent) and that is a good thing (sometimes). But do we really want to be in a place that shames a young, terrified girl for saying no to being coerced into sex? Do we want to belittle someone who is hesitant to hand over not just her virginity but the rights to her own body just because someone else gives her stuff? I sure don’t.
Sexual freedom is about the ability to say no, and to have that no be respected, just as much as it is about saying yes without shame.
It frightens me that people are willing to look at a book involving the wholesale trade and enslavement of young girls in exchange for wealth and privilege, and see no problem with it. Maybe it’s “just a book”, but the people writing these reviews are real people who live in the real world, and I’m aghast to see this attitude spreading. I see it on the Internet, but also in scarier places like politics and law enforcement. Look what happens to prostitutes. Look what happens to rape victims (sorry, “rape accusers”).
The premise of this book is absolutely ridiculous, but the social rules are, apparently, all too plausible for many — and that, my friends, is terrifying.