My current novel draft is realistic contemporary YA fiction, and so I’ve been reading a lot of realistic contemporary YA novels lately. For the most part, I’ve been impressed with what people have recommended to me: I’m finding YA authors who are willing to deal with big questions (how do we make meaning of life? how can we respond to the reality of suffering? how can we relate to each other?) in stories that are engaging enough to keep me up until 3 a.m. There’s no shortage of great writers in YA fiction today, and the bar for excellence in craft is set incredibly high.
At the same time I’ve admired current realistic YA writing overall, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about the treatment of sex in the genre overall. It’s no secret, of course, that there is more sex in YA fiction than there was…well, at any other time in the not-so-long history of YA fiction. But I guess I associated sex mostly with the likes of the Gossip Girls series more than with idea-driven books like, say, John Green’s.
The most common problem religious critics have with sex in books is that of pornography: that even made-up sex can cause real arousal, and that on-demand arousal can cause significant spiritual and social problems. Today, though, I want to skip over that discussion entirely to talk about what roles sex seems to be playing in the stories I read in the lives of the characters. What does sex mean to them–and what does that mean for us?
Content advisory: there will be some sexual details in my discussion of YA texts.
What is sex like in books?
What role does sex play in society and relationships in many current YA books?
I have three main observations:
1. Sexual initiation is often treated as an important rite of passage.
YA books typically focus on coming-of-age arcs, and sex is often part of the way characters and authors alike draw a line between naive youth and more experienced young adulthood. In many books, the trope of virginity is used comically as a juvenile state characters want to escape, though with the caveat that they’d like their sexual initiation to be memorable or noteworthy in some way. Even an awkward sexual experience or a sexual experience with a poorly chosen partner, though, still counts. After all, heartbreak and embarrassment are part of the road to maturity.
Because of the coming-of-age frame, the first sexual encounter typically has more to do with a protagonist’s journey toward maturity than with the relationship with the partner. While the partner may be important to the character, the ultimate fate of the sexual relationship in question is typically given far less structural weight than the maturation of the protagonist.
2. Within relationships, sex is typically an exchange of gifts between partners.
In a consumer culture, it’s no surprise that the physical pleasure of sex is treated a commodity with its own inherent value. That is, instead of longing being inexorably wrapped up in the Beloved, today’s teen protagonists typically have independent interests in sex as a good and in their specific romantic interests as people.
Within a relationship, then, sex operates neither as climactic end nor as promise of endless fidelity. Sex is an exchange of gifts, founded not only in biological impulse, but also in each partner’s altruistic affection for the other. Each person knows that the other wants sexual pleasure (and perhaps also the status that comes with sexual initiation) and at some point, an exchange of gifts is made.
3. The quality of sexual experience is often attributed to technique.
What makes sex satisfying in the books I’ve been reading? Here I’m seeing a more variety, but I have noticed many passages where sexual satisfaction is connected strongly with technique. Comic moments come when characters have or notice unskilled attempts at sexual contact. In one scene I read, one character observes a friend’s very public display of affection and wonders out loud whether he’s trying to turn his girlfriend on or give her breast a cancer screening. In another book, the protagonist’s new girlfriend attempts to give him oral sex but fails to produce so much as an erection–until the couple go to ask for advice from a sexier and more experienced girl, who demonstrates on a toothpaste tube and thereby enables them to have an incredible, pleasure-filled encounter.
This latter example is particularly telling, I think, because of its very absurdity in the real world. It’s highly unlikely that a teenaged male is going to need specialized, instruction-based treatment to get an erection, and it’s fairly unlikely that a given way of moving is going to make more of a difference in real sexual relationships than the basic trust and affection partners share. And yet, YA novels often seem to attribute sexual satisfaction to technique rather than to investment.
What problems might such views create?
The more I think about the depictions of sex I’ve read in current realistic YA fiction, the less convinced I am that their potential arousing or pornographic effect is their main tension with my values. Part of that, of course, may be a simple product of age: I simply do not find the sexual experiences of nerdy teenage boys particularly arousing. But I’m also feeling more and more that our cultural attitudes about sex matter in part because they can both reveal and reinforce larger problems in our culture.
The importance of sex as a rite of passage and sign of maturity in YA fiction reminds me of the collapse of other rites of passage and the weakening of ways to define maturity in terms other than increased experience or freedom. I don’t think writers are turning to sex because they want to corrupt the rising generation: I think they’re turning to sex in part because it’s difficult to find viable alternative languages for discussing maturation. And that makes me sad.
In the same way, I think a gift-exchange model of sex is the sad byproduct of a culture without faith in promises more broadly. When we are all busy keeping our options open across many aspects of life, it’s natural that storytellers would focus on current exchange rather than lasting commitment. In a world where lasting commitments to employers, to neighbors, or to belief systems are unusual, it must be difficult to tell resonant stories about people for whom romantic commitments have time-based weight. Immediate experience seems to matter more because relationships of any kind last less. And again, I find that tragic.
I think that backdrop of fundamental human disconnection might also explain why technique is so important in the view of sexuality I see in a lot of YA lit. If we had greater trust in relationship commitment, we could simply assume that emotional intimacy and intensity lead to sexual fulfillment. But our insecurity about the committing power of love lends itself to an obsession with technique. If we cannot have stable relationships, we at least want pleasure and we have to hope it can come without the intensity of betting one’s life on a lover.
Why does this matter? Because the assumptions and values that permeate fiction guide members of that culture. We don’t necessarily notice the influence of stories on our individual decisions, but stories often shape the way we choose to frame decisions in the first place. I think many current YA books may be harmful in the frames they offer readers for thinking about sexual choices specifically and life choices more broadly.
The cockroach-on-ice-cream metaphor for objectionable “parts” of a book or film (whether language, violence, or pornographic sexuality) has been an enduring trope in Mormon culture, but when it comes to sex in YA fiction, it misses the biggest dangers. Individual scenes with potentially arousing sexual details are not nearly the problem in these works as the overall portrayal of how sex fits into life and relationships, and even of what life and relationships are fundamentally about.
Mormons often seem to long for Cleanflicks versions of mainstream culture, where the basic structure remains but with objectionable parts taken out. But skipping a few scenes isn’t enough when the basic architecture of many books is so out of harmony with gospel values. When it comes to finding better books, clean isn’t nearly enough to ask for. We need more stories that are built on radically different assumptions about what it means to grow, to give, and to live richly on this earth.