I recently attended a community workshop on the topic of sexual consent. Taught by a man and a woman, the class focused on fostering a safe, productive discussion about what consent means, how it works, how to give it, and how to ask for it.
As part of the two-hour lesson, the pair drew and explained a diagram, a grid split into four parts, each square representing a broad feeling on the spectrum of sexual experience. The first two were familiar in the dialogue we collectively have about sex and sexual assault: enthusiastically consenting to something and enjoying it, and adamantly refusing something and not enjoying it.
The third square was a bit trickier: the idea that you could want something, ask for it, and not like it. The room erupted in chatter as participants tossed around their personal thoughts on intimacy, bodily autonomy, and communication – a buoying thing to witness during a year where high-profile sexual assault cases have dominated the media and our cultural conversations.
But it was the final category on their grid that was the most contentious, one that the workshop organizers barely touched on, claiming that an entirely separate class could – and should – be devoted to the feelings and experiences it evoked. I got the impression they (rightly) felt unqualified to unpack all of complex, dangerous ideas that sprung from that final, fraught quadrant. It was the realm of psychologists and counselors, not well-meaning workshop organizers. It was the idea that something you refused, something that was forced on you, could make you feel good. Put more simply – and even more uncomfortably – the idea of potential pleasure in violation.
"Here be dragons," one instructor said, pointing to the unvisited square drawn out in green marker on the white board. I recall a sense of relief that the topic wouldn't be pursued, this dangerous idea that it was possible not to be traumatized by a consent violation.
Chelsea Rooney's debut novel, Pedal, bravely confronts all the dragons we refused to face that day. The book explodes our standard narrative of perpetrator and victim by delving into a more nuanced examination of motivations and reactions. Rooney's imperfect protagonist, 25-year-old Julia Hoop, is a hard-drinking, chain-smoking psychology graduate student pursuing scientific research on the subject of pedophilia. She affectionately nicknames her subjects "The Molestas" – women who qualify for her study precisely because they don't feel traumatized by the sexual molestation they experienced as children. "I'm looking at deconstructing current victim/survivor models of trauma theory," Julia claims, insisting there is a sort of tyrannical "oppression by diagnosis" that asks survivors to feel an act a certain way because of what they've endured.
"The only shame I feel is because I do not feel any shame," says one Molesta. "The molestation didn't feel wrong for me. And it never has."
To say that Julia's research is controversial – even offensive – is an understatement. In unflinchingly pursuing it she risks her health, her stability, and her relationships. Her thesis adviser, Bob, is unsure of whether or not he believes in what she's doing and demands some time apart. Her boyfriend, Thierry, dumps her. Yet Julia is insistent; "Slap the label of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on any girl who'd had her clitoris touched as a child and you've got a generation of disempowered females looking for saviors," she says. Most problematically, Julia possesses a troubling empathy for adults who desire children, one that hints at the experiences of her own youth.
Julia's morbid fascination leads her to pose as a pedophile at an official meeting of Minor Attracted Adults, or MAAs. The gathering takes place at a warehouse space in industrial East Vancouver, where attendees share coffee, muffins, and stories. "In here is an open place where you can feel free to express all the things you can't express out there," says the organizer. At the meeting she runs into Smirks, who she recognizes as a friend's new roommate – much to his discomfort. She inevitably attaches herself to him in order to better understand his attraction to prepubescent girls.
Smirks is depicted not as the sex-offender monster we so commonly see in the media, but as a mournful, muscular, poet-type with "shaggy, golden-brown hair," resembling a "Caravaggio model." He's described as "so smart!" and "so handsome!" His strange allure and Julia's immediate desire for him inspires an invite to join her on a cross-country bike trip.
The bike trip provides the narrative meat of the novel – that old authorial trick of a character discovering themself on the open road. Julia plans the grueling 6,000-kilometre trek around visiting the three cities (Banff, Redvers, and Kingston) from which her absentee father – whom she refers to as "Dirtbag" – has called since he left her, her sister, and her now dementia-afflicted mother. Dirtbag is an undisputed rapist and abuser, and Julia's thesis advisor allows her the time off, believing that the journey will, in therapeutic terms, give Julia the closure she needs.
"Bob was old-school psychology, imagining that finding my abuser and holding him accountable would help me heal. For Bob, 'healing' would mean the end of my pedophilia curiosity." There is an obvious tension between this standard therapeutic model and Julia's own, and the fact that Smirks is her companion, coupled with her lust for him, further complicates the purpose of the trip.
"It could form a new conversation. One in which there is no victim. No oppressor," Julia tells Smirks when he questions her journey to find her father. "Don't you see how beneficial that could be?"
If Pedal has any agenda, it is to uproot our deeply embedded notions of what victims are "supposed" to feel and do, and how perpetrators look and act. While the book certainly doesn't excuse violation, it starts a difficult conversation about motivation, suggesting that demonizing abuse does not successfully do the job of understanding and preventing it. In this way it is a deeply uncomfortable, polarizing story, one that has the potential to be celebrated by those who loathe the caricature we've made of rapists (creepy, inhuman monsters who jump from bushes and dark alleys) but also one critiqued for its impulse to humanize those with the urge to abuse. It's not necessarily that Smirks is a "likable" character – a particularly disturbing sex scene does a good job of solidifying that – but that he is a fully fleshed-out one, not merely a leering face in a newspaper crime story.
There aren't any real answers here, of course. Pedal is the sort of valuable book that ignites debate, but doesn't conclude it. Beyond anything, the novel wisely asserts that sexual abuse and trauma are not problems as simplistic and easily solved as we want them to be. Until we are able to have the hard conversations about their complexity we will be no closer to preventing their pervasiveness.
As Julia herself puts it, "the truth is not simple." And nor should be the literature that pursues it.
Stacey May Fowles is the author of Infidelity, a novel.