June 28, 2018

How Abusive Relationship Erotica Infiltrated a Girl Scouts Camp via iBooks

Before relocating to Washington, DC I was a Girl Scout Camp Counselor in a state down south. Summers of hiking, canoeing, a bunch of s’mores and growing strong girls were unparalleled and incredibly rewarding.  One summer, I became a Unit Leader—female counselors ages 14-17 that help lead energetic yet nervous eight to ten-year-old girls who were terrible at trying to covertly plan tent parties behind our backs.

About halfway through the summer I started hearing about this new book the counselors were reading during their breaks on their iPhones, either through the fan fiction app Wattpad or on iBooks.

The book was called After by Anna Todd and it started as One Direction Fan Fiction. One Direction?! Books?! Count me in! The counselors started reading on their phones during breaks and soon the entire staff was discussing this complicated romance. I decided I’d check it out. A quick search through iBooks finds it easily and the reviews are glowing. I download it during my break and start to read.

I’m not too far into the first book when I read content so shocking I drop my phone from where I sit, charging it in the camp office. I’m too stunned to worry about a crack in the screen. The book started out with Tessa, an 18-year-old, innocent, high-achieving freshman in college who is excelling academically, in a long-time committed relationship, and has a fairly strong sense of self. Tessa then meets Harry Styles/Hardin Scott, a bad boy based off of the One Direction band member. It all seems like a light-hearted young adult fiction novel, but not too far into the novel, graphic sexual content colors the pages.

Explicit sex scenes interrupt a romanticized story of emotional and physical abuse.

I’m reading lines such as, “his hand raises into the air and I flinch,” and, “I know I am cruel at times… well, all the time, but that’s only because I don’t know how else to be,” and I’m confused. And why didn’t anyone warn me? They said it was a great love story, no one mentioned the written pornography or blatant emotional manipulation used to keep this girl in a sexual relationship. He’s portrayed as a tortured soul, so what, he’s allowed to torture her? That’s romantic?

What truly concerned me though, and prompted me to speak with my supervisor at the camp, was the way these 14 to 17-year-old girls were emulating this relationship.

Walking the campers from archery to swimming, I overhear one of the 16-year-old counselors chatting with a 14-year-old counselor. The first girl says she wants her boyfriend to treat her the way Harry/Hardin treats Tessa. “Even when he hit her?” the second girl asks, and the first responds, “not the hitting, exactly, just the way he loves her and the sex.” The second girl thinks about it for a minute and then says, “yeah, me too.”

These strong, confident girls are seeking a physically and emotionally abusive relationship because it’s being presented to them as normalized and romanticized. Not only did I not want this spoken about around the 8 to 10-year-old girls we are growing and leading, but I also did not want this relationship or this graphic sexual content to be the norm for these girls, whose brains aren’t fully developed and who are having their views of sex and healthy sexuality shaped by unhealthy narratives.

I disclosed this book and its popularity amongst the camp counselors to our camp director and thankfully, we were able to keep this from the younger girls as well as address it with the counselors. Our Girl Scout council was great at providing literature about unhealthy and abusive relationships and helping counteract this narrative.

But I can’t help but think of the thousands if not millions of young girls reading either this exact content (which has a six-figure book deal as well as a movie coming out in 2019) and other content just like it. The New Adult fiction genre, full of written pornography, is targeting young girls and is readily available on iBooks.

But it doesn’t stop there, iBooks has a vast library of erotic literature supporting rape myths, normalizing adult-with-teen-themed and incest-themed exploitation, and perpetuates degrading, racially charged sexual stereotypes. Somehow, in this crucial time of denouncing sexually exploitative practices in hopes of dismantling our culture of sexual assault and harassment, erotic, verbally pornographic literature has slipped through the cracks. iBooks has the power to stem the flow of harmful narratives – harmful to our self-esteems, harmful to relationships, and harmful to societies.

I’ve seen some of the damage these books and easy access to this content can have, and it pains me to know it’s impacting millions more. Please, support our campaign to improve iBooks by donating today.

You can also take action by emailing iBooks executives below:

Madison Darling

Director of Operations

As Director of Operations for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, Madison advances mission of NCOSE through ensuring compliance with local and federal nonprofit regulations, optimizes office processes for efficiency and effectiveness, manages relationships with office service providers, conducts the Defender Program as well as the Hill Society, coordinates the Sexual Justice Advocate Intern Program, and helps support the organization’s development efforts. Madison also speaks regularly on activism theory and techniques, the impact of community groups on fighting sexual exploitation, and the public health harms of pornography.

Madison has been working in non profit operations since 2010, when she founded and ran the Suicide Prevention Organization (SPO), an organization which was recognized by the Alabama Department of Public Health as a community leader on teen suicide prevention in the educational setting, serves as the basis for pending Alabama legislation, and is currently entering its eighth year of active operation. During her time leading SPO, Madison traveled across the state of Alabama giving over three hundred presentations on the topic of teen suicide prevention as well as on starting similar programs using sustainable methods. Madison then continued onto Blanket Fort Hope as the Education Coordinator, where she developed a training curriculum on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking. Additionally, Madison owned and operated a sole proprietorship, Darling Matters, where she was approached by the Birmingham Police Department to build a peer-to-peer mentoring program to improve officer wellbeing. After building out the framework for this program, Madison went on to construct then execute the first ever Alabama Forensic Institute for the University of Alabama’s College of Communication and Information Sciences, which continues teaching public speaking skills to high school students and connecting them with college scholarships today.

Madison earned a Bachelors of Social Work from the University of Alabama (magna cum laude with University Honors). Madison is certified in Mental Health First Aid by Mental Health America, and is a registered notary in the District of Columbia. She relocated to Washington, D.C. in August of 2016 and when not at the office, Madison enjoys taking in a comedy show, finding the best local ice cream places, and relaxing on her front porch with a good book.

Further Reading