I found myself wanting to write a way-too-long comment on Jen’s latest entry about sex in YA and realized that hey, this is a group blog. I can write my own whole freaking post about it!
My introduction to sex in fiction was Stephen King’s It, fifth grade.
For those of you who have not read this epic work of American folklore — yes, I mean every word — it contains several graphic sex scenes. The most iconic one involves a (sexually abused) 12-year-old girl losing her virginity to her six male friends in an underground cave to save the world.
Message: Sex heals. Sex is magic, especially for virgins. A real friend gives her male friends magic sexual healing when they really need it? You only ever need one girl in the group because mainly girls are for sex? (And for being really good with a slingshot. Got to give the King some credit for that one.)
I’m not sure if I got all the messages right, but the scene made me cry, NOT because Bevvie was having sex with six boys but because they were all such GOOD friends. And this trauma would bind them together forever. And what preteen doesn’t want to believe that it’s possible to make and keep lifelong friends who will fight to the death for you? I was curious about the sex, but I didn’t for a second think it was realistic or normal, and I didn’t really CARE about it because I wasn’t ready to care about it yet.
Early in that book there is also a reference to a more adventurous sex act that flew right over my head until I reread it many years later. I remember being confused by it but not at all disturbed by it because I had no idea what it meant.
Lesson: Readers latch onto what resonates with them. Not everything lands with every reader in the same way.
Okay, seventh grade. Time to get serious. Time for some Flowers in the Attic.
Yep. Sometimes, among friends, I enjoy giving dramatic readings from this book, especially the scene where the brother rapes the sister but secretly she lets him. If you’re still wondering where Todd Akin got his ideas about “legitimate rape,” it might just be that he’s a V.C. Andrews fan.
Message: I’m not even going to try.
This book is offensive — for its prose more than its sex scenes — but both are horrible. It was available at every grocery store in Birmingham, Alabama. I devoured the whole series.
Lesson: Smut is everywhere. Kids seek out smut because it is so, so fascinating.
Outcomes: I never had sex in high school, or in an underground cave or attic for that matter. I was not scarred for life. I still think incest is gross.
Still, if YA had been more prevalent in my youth, I might have made different reading choices. For the record, I don’t regret reading It. Like I said, the stuff I wasn’t ready for mostly flew over my head, but my time with Andrews could have been better spent with YA authors who had a young audience in mind.
There’s a gulf between the asexual books of elementary school and adult literature. YA with sex-y scenes that don’t veer into pornography or realistic, well-examined scenes that include sex (i.e. John Green’s Looking for Alaska) can be a healthy bridge between those two worlds.
The sexual content in Tennessee Williams, which we read in ninth grade, threw me for more of a loop than anything in King or Andrews. So, no, I don’t think middle school is too early to start reading YA lit that includes sexual content. The thinking about it is already happening, the doing of it is sometimes happening, and kids are getting not-so-thoughtful takes on sex in all the rest of the media they consume. Literature with honest portrayals of sex (and the problems around it) can serve as an antidote to some of this, and it can pave the way to the critical reading of sexual content in adult literature.
(As a sidenote, I’m aware that not all high-schoolers are studying adult literature in high school, but that’s a subject for a whole other post.)
For that reason, DP, when I read your comment about taking Green out of a middle-school book fair, I question it. I understand the desire to empower parents to be aware of their kids’ reading choices, and I get that LfA is not necessarily for a middle-school audience, but I think it might be the right book at the right time for some middle-schoolers.
My own school went from 5th-12th grade, and the library contained tons of adult literature, which often dealt with sex, and everything was available for check-out to anyone at any time. I believe with all my heart that readers read what they’re ready for, and that the great thing about a book is that if it gets to be too much, it can be closed. Yes, teachers and librarians can steer their students’ reading choices and discuss troubling content with their students, but I’m a fan of access.
My own bridge between the asexual books of elementary school and the adult literature of high school was smut. Smuttier than V.C. Andrews? Oh, yes. I would much rather have my middle-schooler reading Looking for Alaska than a romance novel she picked up at Jewel-Osco (or Twilight for that matter, which doesn’t contain sex scenes, but which, for my money is way more troubling than LfA). If you haven’t seen John Green’s vid, “I Am Not a Pornographer,” check it out.
I have yet to write a YA sex scene, maybe because that wasn’t part of my own YA experience. And yes, I think there are still plenty of teens of whom that’s true. There’s nothing wrong with not writing (or reading) about sex if it’s not your YA cup of tea.