Category Archives: violence and bullying

Unsafe on Any Campus? Available for pre-order!

Available from Southern Yellow Pine Publishing

Available from Southern Yellow Pine Publishing

Unsafe on Any Campus? College Sexual Assault, and What We Can Do About It is available for pre-order from Southern Yellow Pine Publishing with an official release date set for July 28, 2016! The retail price is $14.95. Discounts begin with orders of 5 or more (25%) with orders of 25 or more receiving a 40% discount. Contact SYPPublishing for more details.

Unsafe on Any Campus? is an unsparing and unflinching look into the reality of today’s campus life and why it puts students at risk for sexual assault and rape each year. Sam Staley examines in depth why current strategies that rely on the U.S. court system to achieve justice fall short of achieving meaningful resolution, tapping into the personal stories of rape survivors, recent academic research, and his experience as a self-defense coach to frame a bold strategy for dealing with this ongoing scourge. His conclusions challenge the conventional wisdom of advocates, campus rape deniers, and many in the law enforcement community. Long-term success, he contends, requires a comprehensive plan that builds a trauma-centered framework on four pillars—human dignity, personal and bystander empowerment, accountability for offenders, and a narrow and more effective role for the criminal justice system. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the problem of sexual assault on today’s university and college campuses.

  •  How many students are sexually assaulted each year on today’s college campuses?
  • Are today’s students victims of a sexually permissive culture, sexual predators, rampant misogyny among fraternities, and insensitive college bureaucracies?
  • What anti-sexual assault programs really work?
  • What are the six questions every incoming freshman and parent should ask their university or college administration?
  • What are the ten proactive steps parents can take to reduce the risk that their children will experience sexual assault and rape when they enter college?

“This book signals a turning point in addressing rape and sexual assault in college and university environments. It is innovative, practical, and empowering. How we address rape and sexual assault needs to change, and this book will take the reader through the process of understanding human sexuality, rape, trauma, and how we can help ground a new approach that will eliminate this scourge on campus life.”

Ruth Krug, campus rape survivor

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Game of Thrones and rape as a plot device

By SR Staley

A virtual firestorm of debate erupted last month over a rape scene in the popular HBO show “Game of Thrones,” a long-running series based on George R.R. Martin‘s weighty fantasy novels “A Song of Fire and Ice.” I haven’t seen the specific episode, or the scene, but the controversy appears to be over a creative decision by the producers & writers at HBO to make a rape scene between two characters a central event out of a minor one in the books.  Martin has responded on his blog by noting that creative differences between film, television, and books have a long history. This, of course, is not controversial and we’ve blogged on these differences before (see here , here, and here).GameofThronesCast

What is more controversial, or at least worth discussing further, is the role that sexual violence and rape play in storytelling. Martin is quoted in the Guardian newspaper as saying “I want to portray struggle. Drama comes out of conflict. If you portray a utopia, then you probably wrote a pretty boring book.”

Does the pursuit of drama and conflict justify using rape and sexual violence as a plot device? Is rape just a plot device? I’ve struggled with this very question because my novels often deal with sexual violence in some form or another. Systemic rape during slavery is an essential part of the backstory for Isabella in The Pirate of Panther Bayand a motivator for her drive for personal freedom as a pirate. The existential threat to Maria in Renegade is the use of sexual violence and rape to destroy her, physically and emotionally. So, I am very careful to think about how sexual violence and rape figure into the story line and development of my characters. At first blush, I found Martin’s comments flippant and remarkably insensitive.

Of course, rape and sexual violence work as plot devices only to the extent they cause conflict. Ironically, in the value system of Game of Thrones (and most societies before the Enlightenment and emergence of humanism), rape and sexual violence were “normal,” or at least insufficiently deviant to create the conflict that propels story. The fact that readers and viewers are responding to the rape scene in disbelief, anger, and horror because of its depravity is a sign of social and cultural progress. So, in the sense of creating conflict among contemporary readers, rape and sexual violence can be an effective plot device.

But, good stories need more than plot devices. The plot points must move the story and characters forward. This appears to be the essence of the objections to the rape scene in the episode in Season Five of Game of Thrones. On the one hand, rape and sexual violence is a normal part of the story and plot lines. Martin correctly reminds us that his stories are intended portray a medieval world accurately. But this show is not a documentary; it’s a narrative story. The creative question is: Do these scenes move the story and characters forward? Or are they devices used merely to hook viewers through shock?

If they move the characters and stories forward, then rape (and misogyny) serve a creative purpose and are justifiable in the context of the story and storytelling. The decision should not just be about drama and conflict; it should be about story. The writer’s role is to ensure plot points move the characters down the right paths for the story, whether they move into darkness or into light. I can only hope the writers of Game of Thrones have thought through the plot implications, and the system rape and sexual violence isn’t just a plot device to hook viewers through shock.

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Treating Guns Realistically in Children’s Literature

While volunteering for the Tallahassee Writers Association at Downtown Marketplace, an older woman picked up a copy of my book A Warrior’s Soul. My quick summary emphasizes that the story is about school violence and self defense. 

“Does it have guns?” she asked. 
I hesitated–it’s the first time someone had asked that question–but answered “yes.” She immediately put the book down and walked on. 
I was disappointed in her reaction, and it had nothing to do with the lost sale. Like most authors, I write stories that I believe are authentic. A Warrior’s Soul and Renegade are contemporary stories dealing with school violence. The deal realistically with the current problem and the brutal nature of bullying and violence. How can I not have a story that also involves guns?
The real issue should be how are guns treated in the story, and what purpose they serve to the plot. To avoid a role for guns, or other weapons, in a story of violence detracts from the power and realism of the story. Indeed, my experience with teenage readers is that they connect to the stories because they are real, not sanitized parent preferred versions of their world.
The gun serves as a powerful plot driver in A Warrior’s Soul, but it is never glorified. The story direct addresses the mystical allure of guns as a way to even the odds against more powerful enemies. And this is true. Guns are the Great Equalizers. It’s one reason why more and more women buy guns for self-defense.
But guns in the hands of an untrained and inexperienced user–Luke, Lucy, Chuck, Dirk, and the other kids in A Warrior’s Soul–represent a toxic and potentially lethal mix. The plot doesn’t shy away from the potentially tragic consequences of their use in the wrong hands. 
While some, apparently like the woman at Downtown Marketplace, may believe that we should purge contemporary stories for children and young adults of guns, I believe we need plots and characters that see them realistically. Guns are ubiquitous in our society–in film, in our homes, and on the nightly news. Denying this social reality puts our children at greater risk, not less. 
Guns are tools–adult tools–whether they are used for hunting, sport, or self defense. Our children need to understand their power and the circumstances in which they are used appropriately and inappropriately. In A Warrior’s Soul, their use is inappropriate, and the consequences of their use are potentially devastating because of poor decisions made by different characters. This, in fact, is one of the lessons from their story (and a subject of the discussion questions listed at the end of the book). 
Guns are not evil. They are not good. They are tools that can be used appropriately or inappropriately, depending on the circumstances, motives, training, and judgement of their human owners.
Shouldn’t we have more stories like this? Perhaps our children would have a healthier respect for guns as well as each other if they did.
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Fiction and Storytelling as a Way of Visualizing Success

Authors are often surprised by the reactions of readers who seem to find things in our stories or arguments that we didn’t even see ourselves. I’m no exception. In fact, the way readers peel back the layers of my stories and characters energizes me as a writer as well as me personally.

I recently experienced this as I read reviews of A Warrior’s Soul, my middle-grade novel that traces the lead character’s evolution from a self-doubting and fearful victim to a leader willing to use his martial-arts skills to confront his middle school’s bullies. The martial arts could easily be seen as a plot device for ensuring the good guy, in this case Luke, wins, much like James Bond’s gadgets and high-tech weapons allow him to get out of impossible situations. I didn’t see Luke’s story that way, but I could see where some readers (and critics) might.
However, most readers, kids and parents alike, have recognized a more complicated plot line. A Warrior’s Soul is a story about a kid who needs to believe in himself more than anything else. His martial-arts skills, in fact, are useless because he doesn’t believe in himself. It’s only when he develops his own self-confidence that he begins to use the martial-arts skills for what they are: tools for solving a problem. Readers in the real world, it turned out, see in Luke’s story (and his best friend Lucy’s) a path toward resolving a seemingly intractable problem. In other words, my fictional story provided a way to visualize a real world solution.
I didn’t quite think of my story in this way until I read Tori Eldridge‘s excellent book Empowered Living: A Guide to Physical and Emotional Protection (a book I highly recommend). Tori’s book is a slim volume but chock-full of insight, common sense, and hard-earned practical wisdom. Among the nuggets that starting churning through my brain was something I knew from years of public speaking and participating in rigorous sports: Visualization is a critical component of success, even if the visualization is imaginary. As Tori says (p. 31), “The imagination is a powerful tool…. Studies have proven that repetitive visualization of a task results in the same, if not greater improvement than physically practicing the task.” 
And this is what A Warrior’s Soul (and probably Renegade) does for kids experiencing bullying. Luke’s path becomes a way for kids to visualize a way out of a nasty situation, even if they aren’t martial artists. Luke’s courage becomes their courage. Luke’s discovered faith in his own self worth and ability to stand up against violence becomes a way for real kids to think about how they can follow in similar foot steps. When a eighth grade teacher in Florida asked one of her students what he liked most about A Warrior’s Soul, his response was that it just seemed “really real.” He could see himself as Luke.
And adults respond similarly. For example, 
  • Becca Bryant writes at amazon.com: “With bullying being such a huge problem in today’s society I think this book really opens the door to teach not only young boys that they have a voice but also girls.
  • Pamela Wilson writes: “I would recommend this book to any pre-teen/teen boy or girl. It shows them what bullied children are going through, and positive ways to resolve the situation.
  • Adrian Moore writes: “I think this book will help teach kids to take charge of their problems, when adults can’t help them.
Honestly, I was taken aback at first by these comments (which are small parts of their larger reviews) because I didn’t intend for the book to be a “how to” guide on dealing with bullies. In fact, I include a disclaimer at the beginning so that it wouldn’t. This was supposed to be a good story with good characters, albeit grounded in a contemporary public school setting. 
What I’ve come to realize, however, is that fiction serves a very important role in the real world by allowing readers, whether young or old, to visualize, and perhaps even take, different paths toward solving problems in their everyday lives. That’s a very powerful, and humbling, insight into the power of our medium. 
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Dealing with Violence Against Women & Girls

One of my epiphanies writing Renegade centered on the role of violence in the lives of our children, both young and old. I’ve always wanted realism to be an essential part of my writing, stories, and characters, but I didn’t realize the degree to which violence was intertwined with the plots I seemed to instincitvely develop until I finished Renegade. Equally important, however, was a foundational value embedded in my stories: Violence doesn’t win the war. (For more on this, see my interview over at Writers4Higher (October 6, 2012).) Violent tactics might win a battle or two, but the ultimate solution has to involve either neutralizing the violence or avoiding it altogether.

This is why martial arts figure so prominently in Warrior’s Soul and Renegade. Martial arts is used as a self-defense technique, not a tool of aggression and domination. Even in The Pirate of Panther Bay, while violence is an unavoidable part of the plot–this is a pirate story!–it’s the love story and Isabella’s self-reflective discovery of the objective value of preserving human life that trumps the violence in the end.

In the modern world, however, the most practical way for individuals to defend themselves against violence, particularly bullying, is through training in self-defense. And martial arts provide the most comprehensive and effective way to develop the mental and physical skills necessary to neutralize the threat of violence.

This, of course, begs the question: Why don’t we see more people studying martial arts? Only about 1% of the US population has participated in some form of martial art. Moreover, most of these students are men and boys. Why don’t we see more girls studying martial arts?

I may be a good researcher, but I don’t have all the answers and I was curious. So, I convened a Roundtable consisting of some very acccomplished female martial arts practitioners and instructors and started asking them questions. The first question–why don’t we see more women and girls studying martial arts–is now live on my web site (www.srstaley.com). I will be posting the discussion on four additional questions throughout the winter and spring.

Hopefully, this roundtable will be begin a much broader discussion on the role of violence in our society and the ways we need to defend our selves against it for the purpose of defeating it. We owe it to ourselves and our children, and especially women and girls.

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Is Violence Necessary in Children’s Literature?

Conflict is the essence of story, but does conflict need to include violence and physical aggression in children’s and young-adult literature? I’ve discussed this issue before in a youtube video and take the issue up in print over at Blogging Authors in a guest post published today. My short answer is “yes.”

As much as we may want to purge violence from our lives and our kids lives, the truth is that violence is a part of our reality. The recent shocking videos of bullying ranging from Karen Kleiner bus monitor case in Greece, New York to an ambush of a kid in Chillicothe, Ohio High School are ample evidence of this. But, it’s not just bullying–child soldiers populate rebel armies in Africa, children are being massacred in Syria, the drug trade ravages inner-city neighborhoods in the US as well as abroad. Systematically ignoring this violence when it is part of our every day lives does a disservice to our readers.

I know this might sound self-serving–after all I write young adult novels about pirates, bullies and martial arts–but I also think the forthright way in which my stories grapple with real world violence is one of the reasons why readers (and parents) appreciate them. Indeed, several of the reviews of A Warrior’s Soul have recognized that the main theme is that violence is not the answer.

Dealing with violence is inevitable if authors want to seriously address real issues facing kids (and their families). Our responsibility as authors is to embrace this as fact and deal with it in an ethically and morally responsible way by writing engaging stories with characters that either make the right decisions or face the consequences of making the wrong ones.

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How I know I’ve Hit My Target Audience

Oneof the biggest challenges writers face is knowing whether or not they’ve hit the mark with their target audience. One of the most valuable pieces of information book reviews provide is insight into whether you are hitting the right notes for potential readers. In this sense, whether the review is glowing, positive, or negative is less important to me than whether the readers/reviewers picked up on the intended themes or tone.

Two pieces of feedback recently brought this home for me for A Warrior’s Soul. The novel is grounded in martial arts, but I was hoping the story and characters would have broad appeal. As a writer, while I wanted the martial arts to be real, martial arts really served as a vehicle for moving the story; it’s an integral part of the plot and emotional arcs of the characters. But I was concerned that the broader theme of bullying, self-defense, respect, and personal courage might get lost in the fight scenes, action, and pace of the story.

The first tidbit of feedback came from an eighth grade boy. He had been given the book by his teacher. He finished it in 24 hours (a good sign). When the teacher asked him what he liked best about the book, he said: “It just seemed really real to me.” Bingo!

The second piece of recent feedback came from a review posted on the blog LiveTeachCreate maintained by another middle school teacher (in a separate city and state). The reviewer starts her review:

When I first began to read this it was hard for me to get into because I knew nothing about the culture or detail behind any form of martial arts. I quickly got past that and took the book for what it truly was, a story of how a young teenage boy deals with the struggles of bullies that seem to not be noticed.

All I could do was say “YES”!

I then gave a big sigh of relief.

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When Reality Meets Fiction: Guns & Vigilante Justice

A sad story playing out in Oklahoma City reminds me of how fiction and reality sometimes collide. Part of my “style” in writing fiction is to make the stories relevant to contemporary times and issues. This is true for my historical novels, like The Pirate of Panther Bay, as well as my contemporary novels like A Warrior’s Soul. In the Pirate of Panther Bay, the story is set in the 1780 Caribbean Sea but the lead character, Isabella, grapples wth very contemporary problems of violence, death, and discrimination. In A Warrior’s Soul, Luke and Lucy struggle with contemporary manifestations of bullying and gang violence.

So, when I heard about Oklahoma City pharmacist Jerome Ersland’s murder conviction last week I had to pause and think about the implications for my characters in A Warrior’s Soul. The AWS trio of friends–Luke, Lucy and Chuck–must grapple with issues like whether weapons should be used (including a gun) to face down tough guy Dirk and and how far they can push their belief that self-defense justifies violence. These are apparently the same questions Ersland faced when two armed robbers broke into his store and he shot and killed one of them. A jury convicted Ersland of first degree murder (murder with the intent to kill).

The case itself is complicated. The problem for Ersland was that he just didn’t chase one of the robbers out of his store. He returned to the one that he apparently injured, and shot him five more times. Ersland claimed the 16 year old was still moving and threatening him, but the prosecutors argued (apparently successfully) that the kid was unarmed and couldn’t have resisted. What made the case worse for Ersland is that he is a former military officer. The jurly likely figured his training prepared him to make decisions in these situations rationally and not out of fear, haste, or emotional distress.

In my martial-arts classes, my instructors continually emphasize the importance of appropriate force when protecting ourselves from an assailant. Our training, when deployed effectively, can kill someone, and we have to take responsibility for the tools and skills we learn. That, I hope is a lesson that comes through in A Warrior’s Soul. Training and preparation are the keys to ensuring we don’t over-react (or under react) under distress and we use appropriate force as a last resort and when no other alternative exists. 

The Ersland case is a strong reminder as a writer that I have certain responsibilities for depicting the action and behavior of my characters. I shoud respect the fact that the consequences of not treating their actions seriously can have tragic implications if they were applied in the real world.

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