Sex in Young Adult literature? Really? How might that go?
There isn’t a woman of a certain age who doesn’t remember her teenage encounters with Judy Blume’s Forever. A recent glance at that book reminded me how remarkable it was compared to other titles I read in my teenage-hood. I could link to any number of other writings that emphasizes the role of Forever in this conversation. But since then? Or how is it portrayed? Same openness? Explicitness? Without shame?
If we are going to discuss how girlhood is imagined in Young Adult literature, from any lens but particularly from a feminist standpoint we need to consider the representation of sex in YA. When I first started tracking representations of desire, of sexual desire enacted particularly by girls I was operating from an assumption that consensual sex (with Forever being a rare example of explicitness) took place off page. And perhaps this is primarily the case. But if you are going to present a story that is authentic, in some cases addressing desire and sexual pleasure needs to be a part of this.
In my quest to examine the many ways sex is addressed in YA literature I came across Firsts by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn. Firsts is interesting in that the main character has sex – a lot of it – outside of a relationship, which is not usual in Young Adult fiction, In the media panic surrounding ‘hooking up’ girls are generally constructed both as ignorant of risk, and victims of culture. However, as media directed towards youth YA literature is less likely to position itself as demeaning to its audience by suggesting they are unformed and therefore ignorant. Still girls in YA who have sex outside of relationships are secondary characters, characterized by the main character as sluts – reinforcing slut-shaming and normative beliefs of sexual behavior. But Mercedes is different.
Mercedes has decided to provide a service; relieving boys of their virginity and helping them plan the perfect first time for their girlfriends. She has come to understand that
Virginity is supposed to be something a girl gives up only when she is ready and feels comfortable, something a girl discusses at length with her friends and flip-flops over a million times in her mind before actually doing it. A guy is expected to be born ready.
…they’re not. They’re just as scared as their girlfriends, maybe even more so because the onus is on them to be gentle, make it last, make it memorable. And most of them haven’t a clue (p. 33).
This is a particularly interesting position – that boys are as unfamiliar, and as unready to engage in sex as girls. And yet expected to be more prepared, more knowledgeable.
Where are they supposed to get this knowledge? Porn? As one character says “ ‘He kept saying all these positions he wanted to try. I guess he was watching porn and got these ideas’” (p.20).
For a title with a female protagonist this is a nice challenge to status quo, normative positions about young adults and sex.
Mercedes also has a regular partner, who is “not my friend, nor my boyfriend” (Flynn 2015:12).
She engages in sex with Zach, while forestalling any conversation regarding a relationship with him.
I want to be just fast enough for Zach to have to run to catch up, because if I stay ahead, I won’t ever have to see retreating back (p.18).
While in the first pages of the novel she seems comfortable with her choices, and her relationship to sex the above quote is a hint that she has her own hang-ups regarding her choices. She displays her discomfort in relationship to her choice to provide a “service” of ridding boys of their virginity. “Ten guys was my absolute ceiling. It’s in the double digits.” (Flynn 2015: 23). In this sense there is a suggestion that there is an acceptable number, which veers into the normative slut shaming surrounding panics regarding hooking up.
Additionally the novel delves deeply into the emotion of hooking up, versus the emotions of sex in a relationship as a way to suggest that a) emotional detachment is not possible or b) even desirable. Mercedes uses an argument of control to emotionally justify her sexual decisions,
I know it is better this way, being in control. The one in control calls the shots, and the one in control sets the pace.
Most important of all, the one in control doesn’t get hurt. (Flynn 2015: 35)
These hints early on in the novel indicate that Mercedes is using sex and her justifications as a way to avoid a larger hurt. This plays into a narrative of the sexually acting out bad girl being an at-risk girl. For all of the challenging of notions of girls needing to make losing virginity a significant event, and that boys have their own needs towards learning in sexual situations Mercedes path still reinforces beliefs in girls as relationship oriented, as being desired objects rather than desiring subjects.
This is particularly clear during the climatic moments of the novel. Mercedes clarifies to a friend that she used sex to protect her self, to avoid making connections to people. She negotiates her own identity through this lens, saying, “sex is my normal” (Flynn 2015: 291), while she still struggles to understand saying:
when I was the one who had it, even for a few minutes, I felt powerful. And the more guys I slept with, the more I craved it (Flynn 2015: 305).
Sex is a way for her to challenge the status quo, to enact power, while at the same time she is shamed by it through blackmail indicating she doesn’t have power.
In Young Adult literature the girl’s relationship to sex is either in a long-term relationship based on love or one of danger. Mercedes is both. In the beginning of the novel she represents a version of girl power that quickly morphs into a clear Ophelia. That said her sexual relationship with Zach is a positive representation of desire, and sexual practices (use of condom, consent, female and male enjoyment) that is a relief to see in YA fiction.
Note: For a novel about sex in the novel it manages to be less than explicit, using phrases like “guide himself into me” (p. 5), or “I will him to last long enough to get me off, long enough to offer me some kind of release” (p. 39).