Friday, December 21, 2012

Sex in Mainstream YA - "Your Hymen is Not a Treasure!": Fetishising Purity & Sex.

I hated “Halo”, the first novel in a paranormal romance series by Australian teenager Alexandra Adornetto. The only reason it wasn’t flung against the wall in a fit of rage was because it was an electronic copy. I found the novel to be a terribly written, barely plotted mess that revelled in pushing a religious message regarding women and relationships, and in slamming feminists in one instance. My co-blogger Katya, a stronger woman than I, has read the second in the series and her review of “Hades”, which can be found here, confirms my worst fears as well as adding delightful new ones. Hurray for slut-shaming (and homophobia in the final book “Heaven”)! 

I try to keep author and text separate as much as I can when I review, although there are instances where I just find it impossible, and this is one such instance. Adornetto wrote this particularly disgusting piece for an Australian news website, where she describes virginity as a “gift” that “remains unwrapped”, talks of teenage girls as if they are too emotionally and intellectually stunted to make decisions for themselves, shames two strangers for propositioning friends of hers, and declares her support for professional misogynist and Australian politician Tony Abbott. Abbott received worldwide mockery recently after being on the receiving end of a fifteen minute smack-down from PM Julia Gillard regarding a steady stream of disgustingly sexist comments he has made throughout his political career, including standing by signs that called the Prime Minister a “witch” and a “man’s bitch”. I highly recommend watching the entire clip here. For the record, I wouldn’t trust Tony Abbott as far as I could throw him. Not just because I’m a woman but because I’m also a decent human being.

What Adornetto does in her work and in articles like this (including one where she declares Edward Cullen “has raised the bar” in terms of the perfect man) is almost deify a woman’s virginity. She stereotypes young men as well but her “concerns” are most definitely aimed at her own gender. This is an increasingly commonly used tool of the Christian right and one that should be examined very closely.

Let me get this out of the way before I continue – there is nothing wrong with remaining abstinent. If you choose that path for yourself then that’s fine. Nobody should pressurise anyone else into doing something they feel uncomfortable with. However, that also means that nobody should shame anybody else into remaining abstinent, particularly through lies, double standards and concern trolling. Personally, I don’t think one’s virginity is a “gift”, nor do I consider it my defining characteristic. As I previously discussed, the virgin/whore complex that paints anything resembling open sexuality as dirty and bad is incredibly harmful to women, and this worshipping of the hymen fits in perfectly with that mind-set.

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, most YA writers aren’t so blatant in their approach. Once again, predictably so, I bring the conversation back to “Twilight”, the pioneer of YA abstinence porn. The “Twilight” series (still refusing to call it a saga) is an interesting series in many ways, because it spends three books orchestrating intricate circumstances and reasons as to why Bella and Edward can’t have sex (all of which could have been solved with the solution of having Bella on top, but I digress). Edward is so super strong that he could possibly kill Bella through the sheer power of his thrusting, and will only have sex with her once they’re married (side note but was anyone else annoyed with Bella’s desire to become an immortal vampire as soon as possible before she became a nineteen year old crone yet still considered herself too young to get married? Priorities, people!). Bella is essentially blackmailed into marriage, finally gets her fade-to-black moment, and then gets pregnant, giving a whole new meaning to the warnings of the “Mean Girls” health-class.

“Twilight” follows a similar path to “Halo” yet doesn’t deify virginity so much as the big event itself. While Bella actually wants to have sex, she and Edward explicitly remain virgins until they’re legally wed. It’s not difficult to read into the subtext there. The cherry popping is built up as the climax (no pun intended) of Bella and Edward’s relationship, far more so than their wedding.

Here’s another game for you to play: name five hobbies that Bella and Edward have in common, or five interests that they share. You can’t include school activities or homework. Name five ambitions they share for their future together. Honestly, I can’t name anything for any of these categories except for their mutual attraction. It’s lust, not love, which makes the building up of the sexual act itself unsurprising in context. “Twilight”, “Halo” and their ilk talk or true love and passion, but seldom actually depict it.

I actually started writing this post a few weeks before the whole New Adult and teen erotica talk started, and had forgotten that I hadn’t actually finished and posted this particular piece. The big scary issue around the topic of sex is about choice. Who chooses to have sex, who chooses to abstain, and are these choices backed up with the appropriate attitudes and support? Of course, the choice element is often pushed aside for dramatic effect. Bella and Edward physically can’t have sex because it might kill her. Ever and Damen in Alyson Noel’s “Evermore” series suddenly encounter a plot point that means a single touch from the heroine could kill her beloved. Turning the very act of sex, and even touching, into something killer is the world’s least subtle metaphor.

Building up sex, something that happens every day, as the payoff of your story, the climax (no pun intended), is hilariously low-stakes, but it’s also quite disturbing. The unhealthy contrast of fetishized virginity combined with portraying sex as the ultimate pay-off creates a completely unattainable double standard. Having sex doesn’t make you a bad person, and neither does abstaining. It’s your choice to do what you want to do, and I hope your choice is well thought out and responsible. Given the traditional elements present in mainstream YA of the past few years, I’m not surprised that sex is looked at so strangely, particularly when written by older writers. In contrast, Kody Keplinger wrote her first book “The DUFF” while still in high school, and tackles sex very head-on and unflinching. She looks at sex as what it is – sex. It’s not the Holy Grail, and it’s not the harbinger of the apocalypse. It’s a weird, awkward, fun but natural act of humanity. 

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