If conservatives are hellbent on one thing, it’s ... canceling story time? Stopping adults from reading to children for free? Canceling library events? Well, that’s the case when the folks doing the reading are in drag, apparently. As Daily Kos continues to cover, anti-drag extremists have been making waves across the nation as Republicans have pushed anti-queer and explicitly anti-trans bills on both the state and federal levels.
Thanks to the likes of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, for example, we’ve seen a proliferation of Don’t Say Gay bills aiming to silence and demonize queer folks and our histories. We’ve also seen an absolute barrage of anti-trans bills seeking to ban gender-affirming health care, bathroom access, and the opportunity to participate in sports teams that align with one’s gender identity. It’s a hateful mess.
Alongside all of these discriminatory bills, we’ve heard a cacophony of anti-queer “grooming” rhetoric. Extremists are convinced queer people are trying to “groom” young children into being queer by having them read books by and about LGBTQ+ people, learn queer history, and maybe have a story read to them by a drag queen. In reality, none of this is grooming, and it’s an insult to actual survivors of grooming to even suggest it.
I was lucky enough to have writer Alisson Wood sit down with Daily Kos for an email interview about her experiences as a survivor of grooming—by a high school English teacher, not a drag queen, mind you. In her smart, thoughtful, and aching coming-of-age memoir, Being Lolita, Wood examines rape culture, sexual abuse, sexual violence, and her own trajectory of coming to terms with the abuse she survived as a teenager.
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This interview has been edited for clarity, length, and flow.
MH: How did cultural conversations around MeToo impact your book?
AW: Being Lolita was softly marketed as a MeToo book, in that the phrase wasn’t in the copy but definitely came up when my book was in conversation or when I was interviewed. It seems like it was a very long time ago, but it wasn’t at all. While I know there are things that have changed since the explosion of women’s stories going public, I worry that not enough has actually happened in the way we address sexual abuse and rape in the legal system, in schools, and in places of worship. In the ways that matter concretely.
MH: What resonates with you, as we look back on half a decade since the start of the movement?
AW: Before MeToo, I had a piece published in The New York Times called “‘Get Home Safe,’ My Rapist Said.” It was a first-person essay in the Sunday print edition, it even had a big illustration. So it was a big deal, it went viral.
But it was in 2015, so well before MeToo had gained traction and was being covered in the mainstream media. And within a day I heard from hundreds of people. The messages were all one of three kinds: my favorite ones were simply “congratulations! What a great essay!”; then it was women writing to me sharing their own experiences of rape and sexual assault because they had never read someone’s story in this way before. This was by far the bulk of messages. And then it was angry men accusing me of a being a whore/liar/slut/crazy. By Monday night I gave my email over to a friend to manage and locked all my social media accounts.
MH: How did this experience impact how you felt when your memoir debuted?
AW: When my book was getting ready to come out, I braced myself for messages like before. I talked about it a lot in therapy—how to emotionally manage hearing women’s stories, being called a liar, and maybe even being threatened by strangers on the internet. I felt really prepared. And while I have heard from thousands of women who have also been groomed and abused, or are currently in an abusive relationship with a man in a position of power, I have gotten very few messages from angry men. I’m very grateful for that. I think that maybe MeToo has made that kind of reaction less cool?
MH: What was it like debuting during the pandemic? Do you feel the pandemic impacted the way you connected with readers?
AW: It was pretty awful. I spent seven years writing my book, which was not a pleasant experience—people like to assume that it gave me catharsis or was healing, and it wasn’t. It was incredibly draining and hard. I’d been engaged in the literary community for a few years by then, hosting a reading series in NYC, I’d founded a literary journal, so I felt like I knew what would happen: a big party for your book launch, lots of interviews and readings and book festivals around the country, that whole circuit. I had already begun saving Twitter threads by other writers talking about what to bring when you’re on a book tour.
And then, nothing. None of that happened. I didn’t do a single in-person event for my book for over a year. And they didn’t even have my book in stock—I wasn’t the shiny new thing.
It wasn’t that I was sad that I didn’t get to celebrate the book—although I was—it was that promoting this book was emotionally exhausting. Every day for months I talked about my trauma, read from a book about my trauma, and tried to write even more about my trauma to pitch somewhere to get coverage for my book, which was about trauma. And I was doing it all from my apartment, all by myself, because it was August of 2020 and there were no vaccines.
When a book is so heavy, having exciting things to look forward to helps make the process more manageable. I didn’t get to sign anyone’s book in real life, get a hug from a friend that was really proud of me, or go to a literary party. The things that you really look forward to, the fun parts, were lost.
MH: What has the biggest joy of debuting been?
AW: The best part of my book being published has unequivocally been hearing from readers, even though it’s hard sometimes. It’s hard to be faced with how many other women this has happened, and is happening, to. But it means so much.
The first time I got a message from a reader I cried. She said something to the effect of, “I feel seen, I feel understood, I thought I was alone and I’m not.” And that was something I wish I had had when I was 17, so to know I made an impact on someone else, it’s overwhelming. I’m so grateful readers found my book.
MH: Republicans are insistent that openly queer people and family-friendly drag shows are efforts to "groom" or "exploit" vulnerable minors into being queer. What would you say is the real common denominator in grooming and exploitation?
AW: Grooming is the start of exploitation—it is the beginning of a trauma, the first step to even more damaging actions. Grooming is a precursor to sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. Not only can you not “teach” someone to be queer, but being queer isn’t harmful to anyone. It’s more of the right demonizing homosexuality because they think becoming gay is the worst thing that could happen to anyone. And as a queer woman, I can assure you it is not. Minors are in far more danger from heterosexual men than anyone else. Child Protective Services data says that 88% of all perpetrators of sexual harm are men, and 93% are known to the victim.
MH: What do you think the biggest misconception is about surviving sexual abuse or sexual assault?
AW: I think the biggest misconception about surviving sexual abuse is that you exist in a binary—you either remain broken or are fully healed. I exist in a gray area, as does every other victim I know. Setting these sorts of expectations is harmful both because they dehumanize victims but also create this idea that healing is possible. While I believe it gets better, through therapy, time, and processing, I don’t know if I believe you can ever be fully healed. What happens never goes away. It will always be part of you and your story.
MH: What would you tell people who think abortion (or reproductive health care more broadly, like access to contraception) is a state rights issue?
AW: It is wildly unfair for women to have their bodies, and so their lives, controlled by geography, and at the whims of people in power, usually white men who have no business making any decision about my body. It is immoral and cruel. Our citizenship is to the United States, not our governor. Homicide is the leading cause of death for pregnant women, and pregnancy is a grueling process for the body. It’s dangerous for women. Forcing someone to carry a child and give birth is just wrong. It’s just another way our culture shows that we don’t care about women. We just want to control them.
MH: What are some recent (or forthcoming) books you recommend?
AW: I loved Some of My Best Friends by Tajja Ibsen, Body Work by Melissa Febos, The Red Zone by Chloe Caldwell, and Heartbroke by Chelsea Bieker.
You can request a copy of Being Lolita from your local library or order it here or here.