Monday, October 29, 2012

Sex in Mainstream YA - Sluts, the shaming of young women & the sexual double standard.

Here’s a little experiment you can try right now. Pick a popular YA romance of the past 6 or so years. Search for it on Amazon or Google Books, and open up the function to search within the book. Search for the words “slut” and “whore”, or any other derivative of those words. Then search for “player” or “man-whore” or “stud” or whatever the male equivalent is these days. Count how many times they appear.

House of Night: Marked (PC and Kristin Cast). Ho/ho-bag = 5 mentions. Slut = 3 mentions.

House of Night: Betrayed (see above). Ho = 5 mentions. Slut – 2 mentions

House of Night: Chosen. Ho/ho-bag = 9 mentions. Slut = mentions.

House of Night: Untamed. Ho/Ho-bag = 3 mentions. Slut = 2 mentions.

House of Night: Hunted. Ho/ho-bag = 2 mentions. Slut = 1 mention.

House of Night: Tempted. Ho/ho-bag = 2 mentions. Slut = 1 mention.

Fallen (Lauren Kate): “Not everyone at Sword & Cross is a whore of a jock.” (Page 60).

Evermore (Alyson Noel):

-          On Damen (the romantic hero): “Because the truth is, that’s just Damen. He’s a player.” (Page 62).

-          “Damen’s a player. Pure and simple.” (Page 85).

Born at Midnight (C.C. Hunter):

“Why is he old news?” … “Because he left me for some slut who would put out, that’s why.”

Whispers at Moonlight (C.C. Hunter):

“Sometimes I have sex on the brain,” Miranda admitted. “Well, I mean, I think about it. Does that make me a slut?”

Crescendo (Becca Fitzpatrick). Ho = 2 mentions. Slut = 2 mentions. Whore = 2 mentions.

-          On Patch (the romantic lead): “He really did see us as conquests. He was a player.” (page 186).

-          On Marcie (the female antagonist): “New cheerleading uniforms. The squad wants ones with bare midriffs, but the school’s too cheap to spring for new ones, so I’m fundraising.”
“This should be interesting,” Vee said. “The term Slut Squad will take on a whole new meaning.” (Page 217).

I’ve written extensively about the Hush Hush series (which I still refuse to call a saga) and my distaste for it, particularly with the slut-shaming tactics used in the characterisation of the female antagonist Marcie. This character, essentially pitched as the polar opposite of heroine Nora, is barely given the dignity of a three dimensional character. In lieu of complexities, nuance and anything resembling a real emotion, Marcie is characterised solely as the “slut”. She’s bad because she has sex (or is at least promiscuous in her behaviour) and she acts sexually because she’s bad.  She wears provocative clothing, is open about her sexual desires and kisses Patch AFTER he’s broken up with Nora (who breaks up with him because he can’t feel anything for her sexually due to being a fallen angel, even though he admits he feels for her emotionally, thus cementing Nora’s priorities). Honestly, Marcie ended up being my favourite character in the book because I felt so sorry for her. I felt even sorrier for her when I saw the reactions of some fans of the book on GoodReads:

Of course, nobody puts their view of Marcie across clearer than the book itself:

Marcie puts out,” said Vee. “That’s the only reason. She’s a pig. A rat.

A pig.

A rat.

Marcie Millar is not even worthy enough to be considered a human being because she is the “slut”.  Is it any wonder that these books angered me as much as they do, and this is only the tip of the sexist, slut-shaming, rape culture iceberg that this book romanticises, uses and abuses?

The most disappointing but entirely unsurprising element of this characterisation of female sexuality is that it entirely contrasts that image we’re given of the romantic hero, Patch. For a long time, I considered Patch to be the single most insulting thing ever created for YA. Sadly, he no longer is but he’s certainly still in the top five. He’s the archetypal bad boy whose heinous actions, words and treatment of other characters, particularly women, is overlooked because they’re characterised as “bad boy” actions, and said actions deem him sexy. This is the character who holds his supposed one true love down on a bed as she struggles to break free and describes how he’s been trying to kill her. All of his actions are forgiven because he’s the designated love interest, including his sexual promiscuity. Of course, because Patch is a man and therefore cannot be the same sort of threat to Nora that her supposed nemesis Marcie is (I’m not kidding, she’s actually described as her nemesis, as if she’s Loki or The Joker), he’s described as a “player”. Sex is a game that men play, according to this series, but for women it’s a tool to lessen their worth as a human being.

Unsurprisingly, Patch cannot stay promiscuous if he wishes to remain the love interest, because polygamy hasn’t quite become fashionable in YA, due to the law or something. The “I can change him” plot-line is nothing new, and of course the personality free Nora is somehow everything Patch has been looking for in a woman/victim. The frustrating thing for me is that the jerk of a hero seldom actually changes once he’s got the girl. He remains a jerk! It’s not so much “I can change him” as “I can settle”, and often this is incredibly problematic. From the abstinence porn of “Twilight” to the straight up romanticising of domestic abuse that is “Beautiful Disaster” (which I still classify as YA since the author was happy to do so when it made her money), the angel/bad boy pairing begins to feel a little like Stockholm Syndrome.

Nora, of course, is a virgin, and remains one throughout the first three books. It’s hard not to come to conclusions when presented with the evidence – the stud, the slut and the virgin. The skank arch nemesis and the pure heroine who is her opposite. When the only real reason we are given to dislike Marcie is that she dares to be open sexually, that creates a very obvious dichotomy that’s hard to ignore. Nora, and indeed the entire series, is utterly obsessed with sex. She seems to have no real connection to Patch beyond the purely physical (indeed, most of her descriptions of him rest on how handsome he is) and spends a lot of time talking about sex with her friend Vee, but she’s not actually having sex. That’s fine, and perfectly normal for a large portion of teenagers. Indeed, slut-shaming is sadly not rare amongst young people, but realism hardly applies to the series.

The realism debate is one I have issues with, particularly when it’s in a book with angels. Literature is often a reflection of the values of our world, both good and bad, but it can also be a subversion of them. Besides, if the novel insists on positioning its heroine as the moral arbitrator then has her breaking her own established rules, that’s not just a reliance on damaging tropes, that’s lazy writing.

Of course, “Hush Hush” isn’t the only culprit of this phenomenon. The “House of Night” series by P.C. and Kristin Cast features the token “bitch” Aphrodite, a young woman who is shamed and derided repeatedly by almost everyone for pretty much everything she does, including being open with her sexuality. This is rather ironic given that the series’s heroine Zoey is akin to Anita Blake for teenagers as the series progresses. 

Here’s a laughable line from the first book “Marked” that I swear could have come from a purity rings seminar:

“I doubt if there’s a teenager alive in America today who isn’t aware that most of the adult public think we’re giving guys blow-jobs like they used to give guys gum (or maybe more appropriately suckers). Okay, that’s bullshit and it’s always made me mad. Of course there are girls who think it’s ‘cool’ to give guys head. Uh, they’re wrong. Those of us with functioning brains know that it is not cool to be used like that.” (Page 67).

A few points I must raise here. One, it’s ironic to hear this lecture in the novel where the woman is the clear instigator of the oral incident. Two, Zoey presents an interesting contradiction of terms here – women are so silly and stupid that they end up being used by men for sex, yet also think it’s oh so cool to engage in it in the first place. Finally, it’s particularly interesting to note that “a 2005 report showed that teenagers who took abstinence-only education classes and pledged their virginity were not only less likely to use condoms, but also more likely to engage in oral and anal sex” (Jessica Valenti, “The Purity Myth”, Page 120).

Let’s talk about sluts for a moment. There’s a particularly memorable part of Valenti’s book where she tries to look for the definition of the word “slut”. There is no set definition for how someone can be defined as such, it’s purely objective depending on who’s using the word. For one person, having multiple sexual partners throughout one’s life may be enough to have the slut label attached to them. For someone else, something as simple as sex on the first date or indulging in sexual activities beyond the missionary is slutty. In YA, I mostly see the term “slut” attached to women who display anything remotely resembling sexual desire, or even just wearing revealing clothing. I own a lot of short dresses and make a lot of dirty jokes – how many YA novels would label me a slut?

There is nothing healthy or sensible about shaming young women for having sex, expressing sexual desire or even just thinking about sex. Forcing women into a passive role in a relationship, one that both fetishizes and degrades sex, is an unmanageable contradiction that spills out into the real world. It should be a pressing concern for every woman to spot these commonly used tropes and call them out. I doubt they’re used as often as they are out of some plot to single-handedly sign every teenage girl up to the abstinence movement (unless you’re Tony Abbott fan-girl Alexandra Adornetto). It’s mostly lazy writing or the misguided attempt to use common romance dynamics featuring angels and bad-boys. However, that’s no excuse. Slut-shaming should be as extinct as the dinosaurs.

Next time, I’ll be talking about YA’s fetishizing of purity and sex – the unattainable standard. 

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