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.
– Daily Life
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.
— A Librarian
***CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS***
THE 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 kidlit what is considered acceptable at time of publication, with an extra tendency to sit on the conservative, didactic side of acceptable.
For more on Laura Ingalls Wilder, listen to Stuff You Missed In History Class Episode December 23, 2013.
THE INFLUENCE OF JUDY BLUME
Judy Blume’s Forever (1975) revolutionised the way sex was portrayed in teenage literature. 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 hygenics and practicalities of the sex. 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 female’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:
RETRIBUTIONAL REPRESENTATIONS OF 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.
— Paris Review
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, 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 incredibly didactic: “This is not the way you treat girls.”
A large amount of teen readers are girls. There is 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.
SEX IN THE WORK OF ROBERT CORMIER: A DIFFERENT FUNCTION
In 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.
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 heteronormative and has only just started to branch out into stories about other sexualities.
See the paper Creating Realms of Possibilities from Dail and Leonard
Also Would You Want To Read That? Using book passes to open up secondary classrooms to LGBTQ Young Adult literature from Emily S. Meixner
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
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.
– The New York Review Of Books
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.