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Of SALVAGE and Slutshelves

Savage CompBetween post-Bologna and pre-WonderCon craziness, I never got a chance to write up a post celebrating the release of Alexandra Duncan’s brilliant, multicultural, feminist, epic sci-fi debut SALVAGE, which was published by Greenwillow Books on April 1st. From the IndieBound description:

Salvage is a thrilling, surprising, and thought-provoking debut novel that will appeal to fans of Across the Universe, by Beth Revis, and The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. This is literary science fiction with a feminist twist, and it explores themes of choice, agency, rebellion, and family. Ava, a teenage girl living aboard the male-dominated, conservative deep space merchant ship Parastrata, faces betrayal, banishment, and death. Taking her fate into her own hands, she flees to the Gyre, a floating continent of garbage and scrap in the Pacific Ocean. This is a sweeping and harrowing novel about a girl who can’t read or write or even withstand the forces of gravity. What choices will she make? How will she build a future on an earth ravaged by climate change? Named by the American Booksellers Association as a Spring 2014 Indies Introduce Pick.

Where in there, you might ask, is the part where Ava’s a slut? I certainly never saw it, but one Goodreads reviewer did, and shelved it with 4 other books on a homemade “slut” shelf. Alexa eloquently explains her reaction on her blog:

Yes, Ava has sex in the book. Once. With a guy she loves and thinks she’s going to marry. If anyone thinks that makes her a slut, what does that mean they think about real girls who are statistically pretty likely to engage in premarital sex? What does that mean they think about women like me? After all, even though I went on to marry my high school boyfriend, we didn’t wait until we were married to have sex.

Now it’s easy to laugh about my book ending up on the slut shelf, but I remember how hurtful that word was to me when I was younger. Someone wrote it on the side of my car once in college for some unknown reason, and it left me in tears. Part of why I wrote Salvage was to let girls know that their worth isn’t tied up in their sexuality. Having sex doesn’t fundamentally devalue you as a person. It doesn’t change the fact that you have amazing things to contribute to the world.

I think this whole slut shelf thing points to a larger problem our culture has with expressions of female sexuality in literature. I’ve written before about how the most common reason that books are banned or challenged in the U.S. is because they contain references to sex. People have been horrified by something as common as girls engaging in a sexual relationship with a partner they love since Forever, by Judy Blume.

And the worst part is, women buy into this. We do it to each other. We’ve all been dismissed for wearing the wrong thing or dating the wrong person or putting on too much makeup or simply making mistakes in our lives. Every woman has been slutshelved at some point. We should understand how hurtful these things are, yet we call each other nasty things like slut and whore. We judge each other harshly for what we wear and whether or not we conform to another person’s idea of what a woman really should be.

I could go on and on quoting Alexa, but I invite you to visit her blog for the full post, and the details of the contest she’s running. We may not be able to change the world in an instant, but we have to pick a place to start. I’m starting with Alexa, and matching the donation she makes to the Freedom to Read Foundation for every entry on her Slutshelf contest.

We’re writers and readers. We know the value of words. Let’s stop using this one.

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