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Laura Steven Gets Real About ‘The Friend Zone’, Revenge Porn, & Victim-Blaming

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Laura Steven Gets Real About ‘The Friend Zone’, Revenge Porn, & Victim-Blaming

This post was written by Laura Steven, author of The Exact Opposite of Okay which is on shelves June 11th »

If you’re in the United States and reading this right now, there’s a 20 percent chance that revenge porn is legal where you live. This means that if a vindictive ex decided to leak your nude photo or amateur sex tape to the world, they would face no legal consequences unless you’re a minor.

Revenge porn – the practice of distributing intimate or explicit photos or video of someone without their consent – has been long been protected by legal loopholes, and still remains fully within the law in ten states. And yet the phenomenon is so widespread it’s practically a pandemic. A 2016 report from the Data & Society Research Institute and the Center for Innovative Public Health Research found that one in 25 people in the U.S. have either been victims of revenge porn or been threatened with the posting of sensitive images. That number jumps to one in 10 for young women between the ages of 15-29. Yes, you read that correctly.

It was these harrowing statistics that led me to write my first young adult novel, The Exact Opposite Of Okay, in which a teenage girl finds herself at the heart of a national scandal after graphic photos emerge of her having sex with a politician’s son. On a garden bench. Not that that’s relevant, or anything, but I feel like my heroine would want you to know. She’s quirky like that.

Izzy is loud-mouthed, and sarcastic, and clever but not in the traditional way. She’s an aspiring comedian, and she uses humor as a coping mechanism. She drinks, swears, has sex, eats a lot of junk food, and generally behaves in all the ways young women “shouldn’t.” She lives with her kooky grandma, Betty, and her wiener dog named Dumbledore. She’s completely ridiculous, and I love her with all my heart. Which is a bit narcissistic, considering she’s basically an extension of me.

Izzy’s sense of humour is like a caricature of my own; I’ve taken my own sarcasm, weirdness, and gentle bullying of my best friends, and amplified it to create Izzy’s voice. I know it’s not going to be for everyone, and some readers would rather I’d tackled revenge porn without all the jokes. But we live in an awful world right now, and above all, I really just wanted to make people laugh. That was just as important to me as tackling a difficult subject. Endorphins, y’all. (I know I’m British and therefore can’t pull off ‘y’all’, but just let me have this.)

Anyway, the book. Through Izzy’s story, I explore sexual freedom, victim-blaming, body-shaming, and a lot of other zeitgeisty feminist issues. One phenomenon I attempt to take down is the toxic notion of the Friend Zone, and how it’s not just a harmless Hollywood plotline for one of the four Chrises to overcome. It’s actually an incredibly pervasive cog in the rape culture machine, used to shame women into having sex with men. It’s gross, and we need to dismantle it. (Watch the above EpicReads video for insight into my own experiences of the Friend Zone. Spoilers, but it involves a Monopoly board where every single square was my face. Yup.)

Even though Izzy’s images are leaked online, the book isn’t a critique of social media. The problem with assigning blame to social media in discussions around revenge porn is that it removes blame from the perpetrator and absolves them of guilt. By saying ‘this would never have happened before social media’, we’re essentially giving the abuser an out; it’s like pleading diminished responsibility. Imagine if we tried to defend a murderer who stabbed his victim to death by arguing, ‘well, this would never have happened if cutlery wasn’t a thing’? It’s just bonkers.

When we use social media as a shield, it means the underlying issue – misogyny – remains unchallenged.  In The Exact Opposite Of Okay, I didn’t want to redirect the conversation from the real problem at hand. I wanted to unpack what would motivate a man (because it’s usually a man) to do that to a young woman, and just how harmful it is to the victim. My intention wasn’t to highlight the damage social media can do – it was to explore the damage male privilege and entitlement can do. Social media is just a vehicle.

Because the thing is, social media isn’t inherently bad, just like knives aren’t inherently bad. Human beings have been hurting each other since the dawn of time, irrespective of the tool we use to do so. Yes, the advancement of technology is providing us with new means to inflict harm, but instead of arguing ‘we should stop advancing technology’, we should be arguing, ‘we should stop inflicting harm’. It’s that simple.

The novel is incredibly politically charged, but I believe all good fiction is. In Why I Write, George Orwell once wrote, ‘The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.’ (He also predicted an imminent pro-Hitler upswing within the left-wing intelligentsia, but I suppose nobody can get it right all the time.)

I genuinely believe the roster of young adult authors working today are the most fearless in the industry when it comes to tackling difficult issues. I read both YA and adult books, and whenever I pick up a YA novel after finishing an adult title, I’m always struck by how much more progressive teen fiction is in terms of race, gender, sexuality, ableism, class… It makes me proud to sit on the YA shelf. (Not literally.)

Activism in YA is something I’m incredibly passionate about, both as a reader and a writer. If you’d like to read more about the tangible political impact of YA, I asked ‘Can YA swing an election?’ for The i Paper here.

I will never stop pushing for social change in my work. When the President of the United States can openly brag about grabbing girls by the pussy and still win an election, we have to acknowledge that something is deeply wrong with our society, and we have to address it at its root. And those roots grow in our formative years – when we’re in school, and just beginning to learn what’s okay and what’s the exact opposite.

This stuff isn’t just teenage melodrama. It really matters.


Find out more about The Exact Opposite of Okay, and add it to your Goodreads shelf!

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