The prevalence of ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ in young adult literature and schoolyard banter is enough to make a feminist mother weep. Our daughters learn early the same sexually oppressive messages that we learnt: that female sexuality is a prize to be given to (or taken by) a man.
These are notes from the Kid You Not Podcast, Episode 10 as well as my own notes.
You won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.
The sex in TV and movies can be simultaneously explicit and evasive. Sex, particularly non-committed sex, is typically presented as fun and advisable; rarely is it awkward or silly or challenging or messy or actively negotiated or preceded by discussion of contraception and disease protection. There’s always plenty of room in the backseats of those limousines, and nary a pothole in the road.
— Peggy Orenstein, Girls and Sex
You may have heard the phrase, “Children’s literature is both a mirror and a window,” meaning when children (indeed anyone) is exposed to someone else’s story, two things happen:
- We get a glimpse into someone else’s experience via the ‘window’
- We see ourselves reflected back via the ‘mirror’.
Since stories function as windows, they also function as ‘super-peers’ — teaching us not only how others live in the world, but also providing scripts on how to live a good (or a not so good) life.
Though writing about porn in particular, Peggy Orenstein’s description of the nuanced interaction between ‘media’ and ‘consumer’ is explained below:
Media has been called a “super peer,” dictating all manner of behavioural “scripts” to young people, including those for sexual encounters: expectations, desires, norms. In one era, they learn that you don’t kiss until the third date; in another, they learn that sex precedes an exclusive relationship. Bryant Paul, a professor of telecommunications at Indiana University Bloomington who studies “scripting theory,” explained, “I’ll ask students, “Think about how you learned what to do at your first college party. You’d never been to one, but you knew that couples would go off to someone’s room.” And they’ll say, “Yeah, from American Pie and all those movies..” So where are they learning their sexual socialization, especially in terms of more explicit behaviours? You’d be foolish not to think they’re getting ideas from porn. Young people are not tabulae rosae. They have a sense of right and wrong. But if they’re repeatedly exposed to certain themes, they are more likely to pick them up, to internalize them and have them become part of their sexual scripts. So when you see consistent depictions of women with multiple partners and women being used as sex objects for males, and there’s no counterweight argument going on there…” He trailed off, leaving the obvious conclusion unspoken.
Over 40 percent of children ages ten to seventeen have been exposed to porn online, many accidentally. By college, according to a survey of more than eight hundred students titled “Generation XXX,” 90 percent of men and a third of women had viewed porn during the preceding year. On one hand, the girls I met knew that porn was about as realistic as pro wrestling, but that didn’t stop them from consulting it as a guide. Honestly? It pains me to hear that the scatological fetish video Two Girls, One Cup was, for some, their first exposure to sex. Even if what they watch is utterly vanilla, they’re still learning that women’s sexuality exists for the benefit of men. So it worried me to hear an eleventh-grader confide, “I watch porn because I’m a virgin and I want to figure out how sex works”; or when another high-schooler explained that she watched it “to learn how to give head”; or when a freshman in college told me, “There are some advantages. Before watching porn I didn’t know girls could squirt.”
— Peggy Orenstein, Girls And Sex
Porn-viewing teenagers are not tabulae rosae and neither are book-consuming children.
- When children see only white people in books (with the odd token black kid) they learn that white is the norm.
- When children are heavy readers and find, without counting, that 2 out of 3 characters are gendered male, they learn that when women and girls take up 50 per cent of the space, they are taking up too much space.
- When children see that only men read newspapers in picture books they learn that newspapers — and keeping up with current affairs — is a male concern.
- When children see only heterosexual parents they learn there is no other upright way to live.
- When children don’t see doing their share of caring and housework — in books as in real life — they learn that women are naturally better suited to household duties.
To writers I would say: To what extent must this particular story be a window on this real, imperfect world, and to what extent can you provide a better, aspirational one while maintaining a recognisable milieu?
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEX IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the semi-autobiographical Little House series with her daughter Mary from the 1930s, had a real life which wasn’t quite the fairytale depicted in the stories or in the Disney miniseries. Laura Ingalls married “Manly” Wilder at the age of 15. Manly was at the time 25. This age difference and the marriage of a bride so young was common and acceptable in that time and place, but by the 1930s had become a taboo subject in a feel-good story for children. The real age difference was therefore never mentioned.
Would this age difference be acceptable in a book for children today? We see in children’s literature what is considered acceptable at time of publication, with an extra tendency to sit on the conservative, didactic side of acceptable. In other words, children’s books tend to be slightly more conservative than the dominant culture, then move on. A bit like churches.
For more on Laura Ingalls Wilder, listen to Stuff You Missed In History Class Episode December 23, 2013.
Fast forward to 2016/2017.
One way to discover what Americans are concerned about is to delve into the books they read. Or more tellingly, the ones they reject. […] “America seems to be very exercised about sex,” Mr. LaRue said.
— Banned Books Week, NYT
THE INFLUENCE OF JUDY BLUME
Judy Blume’s Forever (1975) revolutionised the way sex was portrayed in teenage literature. Forever wasn’t actually a groundbreaker, but it is the groundbreaking book best remembered today. Before Forever we had novels by Norma Klein and others. They equalled its content though weren’t quite so well written.
The striking thing about Forever is how clinical and de-eroticised the sex actually is. There really is nothing titillating about it, despite how much it was banned at the time. First you seek advice by going to the clinic like a good girl… The female is assumed to take sole responsibility to take birth control. Although this ideology is very much of its time, this book provides a sensitive treatment of sex, and helped quite a lot of young women worried about the hygiene and practicalities of the sex itself. Even though sex is much more a part of YA literature these days, it’s still hard to find stories which address young girls’ concerns in such a practical manner rather than the emotional side.
Also, the idea that health of the family is the girl/woman’s responsibility has hardly gone away. You can find daily examples of advertisements, for health food, for dentists, for glasses, which are aimed at women. Just this morning I had a newsletter in my inbox advertising a (dodgy) app which helps to ‘educate mothers’ about health for the sake of our families:
It’s only now that I’m middle aged that I realise the extent to which the AIDS epidemic influenced the messages my generation received about sex, coming of age in the 1990s. We received no real sex education; we received scare mongering. We put condoms on bananas and took notes about all the different kinds of STDs. We were made to line up boy-girl-boy-girl in a shockingly heteronormative exercise, then told that this was a visual representation for how disease and infection can spread through a community like wildfire. The clitoris was not mentioned once.
There wasn’t much to be gleaned from YA literature of that time, either. That, too, was influenced by the AIDS epidemic, and authors became leery of writing sex scenes in their books for teenagers. The 1990s was when the Sex Novel evolved into the AIDS novel. An early example was published in 1986. It was called Night Kites, by M.E. Kerr.
Fast forward to 2004. AIDS is under control, or at least feels like it. It’s only now that we get Melvin Burgess’s Doing It, with a gritty exploration of sexuality.
RETRIBUTION AND SEX IN MODERN YA NOVELS
Sex is no longer a taboo subject and is therefore more common. But it is never, even today, something that just happens; it’s almost always a key aspect of the plot and there are always consequences. If the sex is reckless then invariably the female protagonist has a pregnancy scare or ends up pregnant. Despite the fact that now it is more common to depict protagonists having sex, it has not become normalised.
An example of this kind of morality occurs in a subplot of Numbers by Rachel Ward. The male character dies, then lo and behold, the female character is pregnant. [I’ve noticed a lot of war stories contain this plot. The male has to go off to war, and it’s discovered that the woman left at home is going to have his, or someone else’s baby.] Sex cannot pass by unnoticed.
In Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, the two main characters who are deeply in love have sex. The boy dies; the girl gets pregnant.
In Twilight Bella and Edward get married, have sex, and Bella dies (sort of). Again, huge consequences. In Twilight, the absence of sex is the sex. [The Erotics Of Abstinence.]
With the notable exception of the Twilight Series, the culture has moved on from the idea that sex must only happen within marriage, but hasn’t moved all that much further; sex is still something you do only within a loving, secure relationship. You must think carefully and deeply about birth control first.
In the literature of antiquity, sex is almost a last resort for the expression of love, and it seldom ends well. It’s the classic pitfall of the Old Testament.
TITILLATION OR VOYEURISM?
Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma is about incestuous sex between a brother and sister. In this case the brother ends up dead. Contemporary teen culture has no trouble with eroticism. This story provides more than simply titillation, instead putting the reader in the situation of a voyeur. That’s one of the main differences between the seventies and now.
WHERE ARE THE BOOKS ABOUT THE TEENAGE MALE SEXUAL EXPERIENCE?
Most experiences of sex in YA novels are female experiences. There’s the notable exception such as Melvin Burgess’s Doing It, mentioned above, but that was precisely so notorious because no other book before had presented sex from the perspective of a teenage boy. As erotic and explicit and pornographic as this book is, it’s still explicitly didactic: “This is not the way you treat girls.”
A large proportion of YA readers are girls. There is now an alternative for learning about sex as a teenager: The Internet, magazines. But perhaps it is not the ‘good girl’s option’ to look to other types of media. There is something more wholesome-feeling about reading a novel compared to watching a film, say. Or Internet porn, which is made with a male audience in mind.
SEX IN THE WORK OF ROBERT CORMIER: A DIFFERENT FUNCTION
Robert Cormier’s Fade presents all forms of deviation: incest, rape, prostitution, voyeurism, in an incredibly harsh and provocative way which truly questions the intrusion of sex in the lives of teenagers. This book provides no solace or emotional understanding.
INTO THE RIVER BY TED DAWE
Into The River is a New Zealand young adult novel which caused a furore when it won a big literary prize. It would probably have otherwise gone under the radar.
This story is social realism done very well. Speculative fiction goes so well in YA stories because adolescence is an overwrought time. Everything is at full throttle. When that tendency is explored in social realism sometimes it becomes melodramatic. But in a magical world, that same drama seems almost persuasive.
Though explicit, the sex scenes are in context. The moral panic that came about is often directed at prize winners.
Compare the content of Into The River with Singing My Sister Down, the short story by Margo Lanagan. Why are more gatekeepers not outraged over that? Lanagan’s short story shocks equally, but it contains no sex. So it seems to be sex that shocks people. Also violence and drugs, but mainly the sex.
There is a real sweetness about the main character of Into The River. There’s no real message, but Dawe holds a mirror up to society and asks the reader to take a hard look.
THE FEMINISATION OF SEX IN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE
Depending on your ideology, whether we like or not, to some extent the sex in YA literature is gendered. A lot of the most commercial fiction seems to have the aim of tucking its girl readers into particular feminine roles — sexual and gender roles. For example, in YA fiction that appeals to girls, sex is emotional. [Girls are often passive, too, waiting for boys to ask them out, not learning about themselves.]
THE CULT OF VIRGINITY
The Gossip Girl series has been described as Sex In The City for modern teenagers. Although there is sex, it is littered with consequences and always for the girl. The character Blair spends the entire first novel gearing up to have sex with her boyfriend, who she has been seeing for two years.
(For more on the Gossip Girl series, series such as this have been criticised by Naomi Wolf. This paper further delves into the role of these books and the impact they may/may not have on teenage girls.)
A book of short stories called Losing It, written by many prominent different children’s authors, write about lots of different ways of losing virginity. So many books revolve the plot around two people having sex and one of them is a virgin. Losing virginity is like a gate through the door into adulthood. Virginity is a strong symbolic obstacle.
PREGNANCY AS REPURCUSSION
Malorie Blackman’s Boys Don’t Cry is a rare example of a story about teen pregnancy that is not all about the girl. He doesn’t know his former girlfriend has had a baby when she turns up one day and leaves him with their baby.
The books featured above are the Big Books about sex and teens, and there are almost certainly lesser known books which take a more mature [less didactic, more naturalistic] view of teenage sex.
Sex in YA fiction is largely heteronormative and has only just started to branch out into stories about other sexualities.
That said, one of the earliest (the earliest?) was published in 1969: I;ll Get There, It Better By Worth The Trip by John Donovan. Unfortunately, LGBTQ novels of the 1970s always seemed to end with the gay character killed in a car accident. They became known as ‘Death by Gayness’ books. The lead character presumably died as punishment for being gay — not the sort of message anyone would have taken heart in.
The first YA novel to deal with lesbian identity was Ruby by Rosa Guy in 1976. But Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden (1982) remains more iconic.
Am I Blue: Comng Out From The Silence (1994) was the first YA anthology dealing with gay and lesbian issues.
These days many YA novels include/star a LGBTQ character and the queerness is not the problem. They more and more just happen to be gay. An example of this is David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (2003). In this story the homecoming queen is also the star quarterback.
See the paper Creating Realms of Possibilities from Dail and Leonard
And Creating A Space for YAL With LGBT Content In Our Personal Reading from Katherine Mason
Connecting LGBT To Others Through Problem Novels from Hayn and Hazlett
10 Of The Best Teenage Novels With Gay and Lesbian Characters from Books For Keeps
The Heart Has Its Reasons by Michael Cart was published in 2004 and is a groundbreaking study of LGBTQ literature.
House Of Holes has been recommended in major publications as a good example of erotica for a teenage audience. Erotica, of course, is a different thing from ‘the odd sex scene that crops up in typical YA’.
the good news is that there is nothing inHouse of Holes that we wouldn’t want our youth to read. Indeed it is exactly the sort of filth that you would want them to read first (if you don’t mind exposing them to something so decidedly heterosexual).
In the traditional sex talk, parents don’t say much about pleasure—presumably neither party wants to get into details. But wouldn’t it be nice for parents to have a way to convey our highest ideals on the subject? House of Holes will introduce impressionable readers to many interesting sexual possibilities without a whisper of stereotype or slur.
TRENDS IN THE 2010s
In the past YA novels have been very careful with their depictions of sex, usually alluding to it with a lovely romantic “fade out”. However, I’ve noticed a difference in the past few years as more and more novels are being more umm, specific, in the descriptions of sex. In addition to including these moments, characters have also had discussions about their feelings, whether positive or negative, towards sex and their sexual identity. I’ve also noticed an increase in a discussions of consent regarding sex as the couple in question has a healthy chat prior and often the subject of protection is addressed as well.
What’s Going On Inside Of Me? Emergent female sexuality and identity formation in young adult literature, by Evelyn Baldwin
Emily Maguire is an Australian author, including of YA novels such as Taming The Beast. In this article she explains what it was like to be a teenager, sex-drive-wise.