Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about sex.
I discovered something quite shocking but not surprising recently. In England and Wales, sex education is not compulsory. While a form of sex education is given in Scottish schools (and as someone who received that sex ed, I can tell you it was almost entirely useless), Catholic schools are allowed to use a form that encourages abstinence and does not discuss contraception. Our current government recently shelved plans by the previousgovernment to introduce compulsory sex education in primary schools. In America, the situation is a whole lot more depressing, with lies filled shaming used in abstinence only education and ignorance preferred over education. If you haven’t read Jessica Valenti’s “The Purity Myth”, I heartily recommend it for a more informed and detailed discussion of the phenomenon.
Why am I discussing this? Because I honestly think sex education is one of the most empowering things we can give to younger generations, particularly women, and it’s very obvious to me that our culture, including our literature, is failing teens on this issue. Out of the top ten most banned and challenged books in USA according to the ALA, seven were done so because they were considered “sexually explicit”. Ironically, one book banned for this reason was a book explaining pregnancy to children, because nobody wants to spoil the illusion of the storks and the cabbage patches.
Sex is a big part of a teenager’s life, whether they’re doing it, planning to do it, longing to do it or just happy to not have it be a driving force. I’m not sure there’s a person alive who isn’t aware of this. We also live in a society that has a really weird and contradictory attitude towards sex, particularly for women. Sex is everywhere and the sexualisation of young people, mainly women, is unavoidable, yet the portrayals of realistic sexual relationships are much harder to find, or even censored (see the controversy around the movie “Blue Valentine” receiving and NC-17 rating for an oral sex scene between a married couple).
I was looking through the list of YA books I’d read over the past two years and struggled to find an instance of a successful mainstream YA that featured a teen couple making an informed, concise and mature decision to have sex. I could remember a whole lot of fetishizing of virginity, of using sex as the ultimate prize, of a strange obsession with sex whilst staying pure. I also remembered a lot of slut-shaming, with an admittance of sexuality being enough to shame a female antagonist, whilst men were referred to as “players” or “studs”. Unfortunately, I also recalled too many instances of women being grabbed, pushed down and intimidated by the so-called romantic hero. I’ve talked about these issues at length before, but I feel they bear repeating.
This is a series of post that will talk about the stud/slut double standard, the slut-shaming of women, the fetishizing of purity, the importance of good sex (careful now), why YA needs to do sex right, and the books that do it right. I’ll also be looking for recommendations from you, our friends and readers, and hoping we can have an interesting discussion on where the future lies in this area. My first post, on the slut-shaming of women and the sexual double standard seen in many YAs, will be live next week, with each new post following every week, and ending in an open discussion of sex positive YA.