Column: Parents protesting ‘pornographic’ scene in Picoult's 'Nineteen Minutes' ignoring context
**FILE** Atria Books originally provided this undated file photo of Jodi Picoult, who has authored a new novel, "Nineteen Minutes."(AP Photo/Atria Books,Kate Powers)
I don’t know whether you’ve heard, but something upsetting happens on page 313 of the book Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult.
A Gilford father was arrested at a local school board meeting last week after starting a shouting match about the way the school assigned the book. He and a number of other parents – in collaboration with right-wing Laconia activist Josh Youseff – called the scene pornographic.
They’re not the first to protest, and I doubt they’ll be the last.
Parents are upset about the phrase “semen, sticky and hot, pooled on the carpet beneath her.” Polite news reports call it a scene of “graphic teen sex.” But the protesters either haven’t read the book or choose, for political points and sensational headlines, to suppress the full context.
Because the scene on page 313 is not sex. It is a rape. It is the nadir of an abusive relationship woven into the narrative of the book.
Nineteen Minutes follows several residents of a small New Hampshire town in the years, months and hours before and after a school shooting.
We meet Josie, a pretty but shy, intelligent teenager accepted suddenly into the popular crowd having caught the eye of their leader, a star athlete named Matt.
Another character describes Matt as the “uber boyfriend.” But to someone who’s seen a friend wither in an abusive relationship, Matt sets off all the alarm bells.
He demeans Josie, subtly telling her she’s fat, and making lewd comments to his friends in front of her.
He threatens to kill himself if she leaves him.
More than 300 pages into the book, the reader and Josie both know this relationship is not healthy. But Josie is a teenage girl who believes that without this relationship, she’s nothing.
On page 313, the two had been drinking at a party, and they begin to make out. Josie has always insisted they use condoms when they have sex. This time, Matt doesn’t listen.
She tries to roll away from him as he tries to enter her without a condom. She says, “wait.” “He clamped his hand over her mouth and drove harder and harder.”
This is not pornographic teen sex.
This is rape.
The point of this scene isn’t that unprotected sex is amazing, and teenagers everywhere should go out and try it right now, as some parents seem to say.
But the lesson also isn’t that Josie shouldn’t have been drinking. The lesson isn’t that she shouldn’t have ever had sex with her boyfriend before this night. The lesson is that even someone you trust can violate you. And the lesson is, that is never your fault.
The lesson is that anyone – even a smart girl, even a girl from a good family – can be in an abusive relationship and anyone can be manipulated into staying in one.
Yes, the Gilford teacher should have sent parents a notification about the book and the choice of alternate material for their children. But in the full context of this story, why would parents want an alternative? Why not use this book to talk to our sons and daughters about the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships?
It’s apparently easier to work the public into a fever about teenagers learning that semen is sticky than it is to tell them their bodies are their own, their lives have intrinsic value and anyone who hurts them – physically, sexually, or emotionally – does not love them.
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)