Monday, March 14, 2011

Testing Positive: On Teen Sexuality and Mixed Messages

So it looks like we’ll be talking about sex all this week on The Book Lantern. From book covers to plot lines, teenage sexuality is one of the most hotly debated topics in YA literature today. From the time of Eve onwards, women and sexual power have been inextricably linked. The question of how a woman is supposed to wield her sexual power has changed with each era, but the idea of woman as the embodiment of sexuality has not.

The problem with discussing teen sexuality is that it’s such a touchy issue. Teens have sex, sure, but nobody likes to talk about teens having sex. But the fact is, the birth rate for American teens between the ages 15 -19 is 4.25 percent at last estimate. That means at least 42 girls of every thousand is having sex. In truth, according to the latest figures, about 46% of high school students in the US have had sexual intercourse at least once.

Now let’s look at the primary target audience for young adult literature. Why, that would be teens aged 15-19! Primarily in the developed First World countries. Where, surprise, surprise! over half of the teens are sexually active. And yet, maybe one out of every hundred YA books deals openly and positively with the issue of teenage sex.

Kody Keplinger had a blog post up the other day, about the representation of teen sexuality in teen-oriented media. Being a teenager herself, and the author of a YA novel that deals explicitly with teen sexuality, she is understandably the advocate of a realistic approach towards the portrayal of teen sex. Unfortunately she is one of the few voices raised in support of positive sex in YA literature. Most YA authors avoid this sensitive topic by skirting the issue of teen sex in their book altogether.

I’ve spent the last week reading YA books with sex in them, just for this post. I asked a bunch of people, friends and friends of friends on Goodreads who read copious amounts of young adult books, to recommend teen books with sex-positive messages. I got maybe six recommendations. Yes, that’s right, six. In a genre that produces hundreds, if not thousands of books every year.

Here is what is disturbing about this dichotomy. Sexuality, for a teenager, is a very important topic. How they perceive sex in the developmental years, will forever influence the way they think of sex. That means, when you write a book, especially a hugely successful book, with direct or subliminal references to sex, you are imprinting those ideas in an impressionable mind. Teenagers need validation, as much as anybody else. And a lot of that validation comes from the books they read and the movies they watch. Media is the cultural milestone by which they measure their worth.

So if you tell them that sex is only acceptable within the confines of marriage, what you are doing is implanting a feeling of guilt in these teenagers. If you tell them that a girl who has been sexually active with more than one partner is a slut, you are implanting a feeling of guilt in these teenagers. If you tell them that true love means being chaste and controlled, even in the throes of blinding passion, you are implanting a feeling of guilt in these teenagers. The end result is a concept of sex as guilt-inducing and dirty, acceptable only with certain moral strictures and within the sacrament of marriage.

These ideas do not conform to the reality of teenage sex. In the real world, sex is a natural conclusion to physical attraction. In the real world, few boys will be willing to buy your virginity with a ring. In the real world, sex is not always about expressing true love; sometimes it is merely an exploration of sexuality.

In this morass of conflicting messages, the true sufferers are teenage girls. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that girls are the only gender to have troubles with their sexual identity. But historically, the demonization of a woman’s sexuality has been much more widely prevalent; it’s women who have been categorized over and over again as either chaste maidens or promiscuous sluts. The raging patriarchy of this classification may not be as obvious in today’s world, but that it is still there is made obvious by the tone of YA literature today.

Let’s look at that shining beacon of maidenly virtue, Bella Swan. Twilight is one of the most dangerously regressive works on teen sexuality that I have ever read. For most of the series, the physical aspect of Bella and Edward’s relationship is hardly explored. Edward is portrayed as a ‘gentleman’, one who will spend night after night with Bella just for the pleasure of watching her sleep, without ever pushing the bounds of their sexual attraction. When Bella does, in fact, finally express the desire to take their relationship to the next level, he cuts her off. He uses sex as a weapon for forcing her into marriage, the only circumstance under which sex is acceptable and right.

What message does this send to teenage girls? Firstly, that having sex out of marriage would be disrespectful to a woman – which leads back to the original concept of a sexually active single woman being a slut. Secondly, that in order to have ‘morally correct’ sex, you MUST be married, regardless of how young or immature you are. Thirdly, that boys who wish to have sex with you outside the confines of marriage are not ‘gentlemen’ a word whose connotations were supposedly wiped out in the Victorian era. And last, but not least, that women are weak and willing, subject to their baser desires, while it is the duty of the man to hold strong and resist temptation until the marriage has been solemnised. I have no words to describe the misogyny of this work of ‘literature’.

Thanks to Twilight, suddenly teenagers are little Mormon clones, repressing their sexuality and reverting to the mores of the Dark Ages.

But while Twilight is one of the worst offenders, it has spawned a host of similar emasculated ‘gentlemen’ heroes. From Hush, Hush to Starcrossed, there are too many instances of teenagers madly, passionately in love, but unwilling to express it with anything more sexual than a chaste kiss. I’m not saying that every YA book should be filled with descriptions of teenage sex. But let’s be realistic. If you throw a couple of teenagers together for a night with no parental supervision, and if said teenagers are in love AND physically attracted to each other, what are the chances that they will not make love?

This is one of the reasons I really admired Amy Plum’s Die for Me. There is no sex in this book, but there is a good reason why there is no sex in this book. When the hero cuts short their make-out session, the heroine wants to know if he doesn’t want to have sex with her. Instead of responding with passionate declarations of his ‘chaste’ love or proposals of marriage, the hero says that they will eventually end up making love, but for now, he doesn’t think they know each other well enough to progress to that step. This is a smart, sensible reason for holding off on sex. It doesn’t imply that there are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ grounds for having sex, it merely shows the hero as being a responsible boyfriend, while not deriding his partner’s sexuality.

On the other hand, Aimee Carter’s The Goddess Test, was one of those icky books that left me with an urgent desire to scrub my brain with soap multiple times. The hero and the heroine do have sex in this book, but they do it under the influence of an aphrodisiac. The heroine was in love with the hero, sure, but apparently, it took drugs to free her of her inhibitions and lead her to the consummation of her desire. Subliminal message – it’s okay to have sex with the guy you love before you marry him... but only if you’re both involuntarily under the influence of drugs.

There are some books which do send a responsible, sex-positive message. There is no hiding sex behind closed doors in Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series, one of the very, very few paranormal YA books with a sex-positive message.  Right from the first book, when Seth presents Ash with a STD test to prove he’s healthy, this book has been open about sex, without ever coming right out and describing it (although I’ve only read the first two books, so I can’t say anything about the remaining three). I’m also told that Rachel Caine’s Morganville Vampires has a well-handled sex scene, but I haven’t read it, so don’t take my word for it.

Interestingly, one of the more positive portrayals of sex comes from the Vampire Academy series. While a lot of people (including me) have objected to the idea of a teacher-student relationship, it cannot be denied that Rose and Dimitri are, in fact, madly in love with each other, violently physically attracted and therefore sex is the natural culmination of their relationship. It may not be right for a lot of people, but it is definitely realistic, and so I will give it brownie points.

Surprisingly, sex-positive messages in contemporary YA fiction are a lot less infrequent than in paranormal fiction. Simone Elkeles, Melina Marchetta, Rachel Cohn, Meg Cabot and Kody Keplinger have all written hugely successful books that feature sex-scenes, either as part of character/plot development, or as an exposition on teen sexuality and choice.

This leads me down an interesting avenue. Contemporary fiction writers must deal with society as it is. Paranormal authors have the freedom to tweak their worlds to fit their notion of how it ought to be. So is this how some YA authors believe the world ought to be? Repressed about sex and preaching a Victorian moral code? Is this how YA PNR authors would like teens to react to the notion of pre-marital sex? As something dirty and forbidden outside the confines of marriage, instead of the expected and natural culmination of a love affair?

One thing that has always worried me about YA fiction is the obliviousness of some authors to the subliminal messages that they are sending to their readers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the YA PNR sub-genre, which has been receiving so much attention of late. As a YA author, you are shaping the ideologies and beliefs of a very impressionable age group. And yet, how many of these authors stop and think, wait, is this really how I want my fifteen-year-old to react to sex? Do I want her to see it as something beautiful and intimate, or as a dirty little secret to be hidden away from her Edward and Patch-adoring peer group?

Sex is a precarious subject to handle at the best of times. In a world filled with conflicting religious, social and cultural mores, it becomes doubly difficult to distinguish between right and wrong, especially for hormone-filled teenagers. In this situation, it becomes not just desirable, but necessary for YA authors to assure their reader base that sex is not bad, that sex is not dirty and that having sex does not make you a slut. You’re never going to be able to stop teenagers from exploring their sexuality, no matter how many pro-abstinence books you write; wouldn’t it be better all round to ensure that you write role models who help them make informed, healthy choices that lead to happy fulfilling relationships?


  1. This is a very good point. Although, I have to say, if the Mormon YA authors weren't such sexist creeps I can also see their point to some extent. Personally, I like to read a lot of clean books and don't like to read books that just throw something like sex or drugs in it to make their book more "realistic" or "gritty". I tried to go down the route by writing a novel like that, and honestly, I didn't get past the synopsis. And I don't think I ever will.

    I agree with you that books should be open and honest and all of that, but I also like the idea of a clean book with tension there, but just not acted on. I don't know, maybe I'm a chaste cowardly person, but I simply don't like it when sex is thrown around like that.

    There are authors who have handled it well, I'm sure, but I haven't read any book like that. Why is it that all clean books are shoved under upper middle grade, while everything else with questionable content but characters too young to be in Adult fiction is thrown in YA?

    I'm not saying that books with sex in them is bad. I'm just saying that I'm waiting for a decent clean book. Not a Judy Blume (which are nice and all, but really are middle grade), or a Twilight (which is clean but horrible).

    I have to look way too hard for decent books in the library. And I have to look even harder for decent books that I can actually read.

  2. Great article, Vinaya. I wish there were more positive portrayals of teenage sex in the genre, particularly in YA PNR. However, I think there is a huge link between the authors in this field and how sex is treated in their writing. I know you speak to this a little bit but I think our underlying assumption is that the authors who are writing YA PNR are capable of writing a realistic yet positive sexual relationship for their teenage characters. Maybe a large number of them aren't?

    Perhaps their religious upbringing alienates them from the teenage experience of the majority of people. Or maybe they are applying their adult religious ideals to their YA work to present "good examples." In either case, I feel like most YA authors (at least in the PNR genre--you are spot on about contemporary YA being much better) are only describing the teenager that exists in religious communities.

  3. That was a very well written post! You expressed your views so eloquently. :)

    However, being a teenager myself I did want to say something - I think that the use of impressionable needs to be defined.
    I DO agree that books and other forms of media have the power to affect the way people think and act. However, I don't think that teenagers are necessarily that impressionable. I for one, have never once read a YA book that had sex elements and then stopped to think about how it affected my view of sex. I also don't agree with this statement: " If you throw a couple of teenagers together for a night with no parental supervision, and if said teenagers are in love AND physically attracted to each other, what are the chances that they will not make love?"
    I'd say the chances aren't as low as you may think. Most of my friends and the other teens and people my age that I know wouldn't go that far in a situation like that. Sure, you could say that I don't know what happens behind closed doors, and that's true, but I know my friends and that just isn't the way they roll. This isn't coming from a religious perspective either - most of my friends aren't religious at all.

    But besides my two cents, that was a really well written post and I enjoyed reading your views on the subject!

  4. Just wanted to say that I'm impressed by your blog and all the articles on it. I only just discovered this place today. I'm a big YA lover and it's so much fun to read discussion posts that refer to tons of characters and books I actually know.

  5. Well said! It is, unfortunately, all too rare to see sex treated openly and honestly in YA. One of the few that I think handled the issue of teen sex well was " Pretty Face" by Mary Hogan. The two teens actually *talk* about having sex and making sure they are ready. And even the very limited description of what happened is pretty realistic.