Today’s post comes from Corey Ann Haydu, and it’s about relationships. What are the common relationship narratives we come to expect in YA fiction? Does everything have to be about teens having sex? Corey digs in and questions our expected — and unexpected — beliefs about sexuality in YA fiction, especially as it comes to girls.
Corey Ann Haydu is the author of OCD LOVE STORY and the upcoming novels LIFE BY COMMITTEE and RULES FOR STEALING STARS. She lives in Brooklyn, loves cheese and podcasts, and writes (and eavesdrops) in cafes.
I am an imperfect feminist and an imperfect reader and if we’re all pretty honest these are the only kinds of feminists and readers there are. Because feminism and reading are both explorations and when we explore we mess up.
This is a blog post about trying to be a better feminist and a better reader and a person less motivated by the Relationship Narratives that we’ve been told our whole lives and how YA literature does and does not come into play. This is a post about what we’re telling women about marriage and what we’re telling teenagers about sex, and how literature reinforces an Ideal that maybe doesn’t exist.
This is also a blog post about teen sexuality and our discomfort with it, which, because I am an imperfect feminist and an imperfect reader, sometimes includes my discomfort with it.
A few months back I was part of a reading at a Children’s bookstore. The reading was about relationships in YA literature, and our panel of YA authors each read a flirting or kissing scene from our books.
Then something happened.
Wonderful YA author Mindy Raf read a scene from her recent The Symptoms of My Insanity. It was less than a sex scene. It was more than a kissing scene. It was uncomfortable and funny. It was specific and evocative. It was messy and brilliant. It was too much for the children’s bookstore to have over their PA system, an understandable concern. After her reading we were asked that if we were going to read racier scenes, to read them off-mic, since there were children in the store.
This is a reasonable request. It’s a kid’s store, there are little ones, and our books, like a lot of YA books, were not necessarily appropriate for too young an audience. They didn’t kick us out or treat us disrespectfully. But it was a unique experience and there was something bigger at play, too, in my opinion. What was uncomfortable about Mindy’s scene was its break from the YA sexuality narrative.
Relationship narratives are something I’m thinking about a lot lately. Maybe because I’m in my thirties and in a relationship and am wondering what I am Supposed to be Doing. Maybe because I write about girls beginning to navigate relationships in unexpected ways.
I’m thinking a lot about how the things we see and read intersect with what’s expected of us in life. Lucky for 30-something women, we know exactly what the narrative is in literature and other entertainment for adults. We know what is expected of us if we are to follow the narrative presented in popular fiction. Meet, fall in love, get married. There is an implied goal to every relationship. And an endpoint that signifies the story is almost over. Marriage. It’s what the characters are working towards, and what the reader is instructed to root for, and—if we’re to believe stories and the way they’re told have an impact on our psyches—what we then hope for ourselves. We come to learn that a relationship has a shape, one shape, and that we need to be trying to fit into it.
I’d argue YA literature and media often do the same thing with sex.
It’s important to say that there are thousands of YA books that veer from a traditional relationship narrative. YA is growing and vast and a lot of writers are telling new stories and using sexuality in new ways to create new structures.
That said, a lot of stories aren’t doing this, and it’s meaningful to think about what the predominant place of sex in stories for teens is, and why it’s there. Sex is often used as endpoint in YA, in a similar way that marriage is used as an endpoint in adult literature and media. Sometimes it is heralded as a relationship accomplishment, or sometimes it’s the starting point of a more difficult story about the ways sex can go wrong, but it’s a fixed point around which other things revolve.
And maybe most meaningfully, when we’re talking about sex in YA, we’re talking almost exclusively about about intercourse.
YA relationships often have their own specific shape: meet, fall in like, first kiss, fall in love, first time having intercourse.
There is no messy in between.
And when there is, we’re uncomfortable with it.
A relationship in YA often moves to the Next Level with those two points of sexual contact—kissing and sex. Take Dawson’s Creek. This is neither literature nor incredibly current, but it’s a really strong example of the structure I’m talking about, and who doesn’t like a quick discussion of late 90s pop culture?
The characters in Dawson’s Creek have a first kiss, are boyfriend and girlfriend, and then angst about whether or not to have intercourse. As far as we know, they do not hit any other points of sexuality. They go from making out on the couch, fully clothed to sex, with nothing in between. They don’t worry about the other steps one could take, the other paths that occur while teens are figuring out how lust functions. They kiss and they have sex. If two characters wake up in the morning next to each other, naked, they’ve had intercourse. We know this to be true because it has always been true and the shape is ingrained in us.
We don’t even need to see or read about the sex happening. There’s a fade to black (or in the case of Dawson’s Creek, a fade to a snow globe of Los Angeles) and we understand that if a shirt has been removed or a bed is present, intercourse has occurred.
If two adult characters are in love, have slept together and have gotten through 1-5 difficult obstacles, we need them to get married. It is the conclusion to the journey. It is an answer to a question. It is a tangible, solid thing that we can understand very specifically—this means they are committed to each other forever and will have a family. We are comfortable with this story.
It’s problematic for adults. Marriage isn’t a tangible thing.
But sex? Sex is even less tangible. And the journey there is even less defined, in real life. Sex isn’t an answer at all. It isn’t even a prolonged state, the way marriage usually is. If the marriage Relationship Narrative is problematic and insincere and deceptive, the sex Relationship Narrative for teens is downright criminal. It’s a lie.
Here’s the harder thing to say: I’m guilty of this. It’s important for me to acknowledge this. A misconception about identifying as feminist is that you think you have all the answers to gender and sexuality issues. That you Do It Right. For me, for most feminists I think, that’s not the case. I’m the kind of feminist who is still training herself to see things through the right filter. I mess up, often. I play into familiar tropes and struggle to maintain both my own values and good storytelling and market viability. I have trouble even seeing where my own prejudices are, where I’ve fallen into the same traps as everyone else. Where and how and why I’ve given in to a dangerous structure.
I haven’t yet written the hooking up without intercourse stage of teen sexuality into my books. I’ve cut to black on actual sex. I’ve had the kissing and the implied understanding that sex has occurred and that the relationship is stronger because of it, more valid because of it. I’ve avoided letting my characters explore the messiness of sexuality. To be honest, I think I’m not sure how to do it yet. I’m not comfortable with the line between realistic/honest and graphic or too erotic. It’s a fault of mine, and something to check in with constantly. I have not done a good enough job speaking to the truth of teen, female sexuality. But that checking in and owning up is what being feminist is about for me. Checking in on those reflexes and working on them. Analyzing them. Being open to other people’s analysis of them. Hoping I’ll do better, wondering why when I sit down to write, I don’t want to.
What I’m sure of is that it’s dangerous to tell women that the goal of a relationship, the only way for a relationship to be “real” is to get married. And I know that telling a girl that sexuality is only about intercourse is dangerous. I know that letting sex be a stand in for validating a teen relationship is dangerous. I know that I don’t want to see relationships , especially for teen girls, take only one shape, over and over, because reinforcing an idea with such a specific prescription is hard on all of us. And we have enough stories we tell about teen girls and the boxes they’re allowed to sit in. We don’t need any more.
I loved that uncomfortable moment in the bookstore with Mindy reading about body parts and discomfort and not-intercourse. I loved that there was a specificity and awareness of the main character’s body and the chaotic, hilarious, strange, upsetting, turned-on, conflicted feelings going on in her mind. There was a lack of clarity that felt so much truer than the abundance of clarity that I think we feel pressure to write into young adult sex scenes. Mindy’s non-sex scene captured a truer part of adolescence, something that we don’t want to see. That is not appropriate to be played over the PA system in a children’s bookstore. That makes people tense up and shift around and wonder if it’s okay to admit that there’s something aside from making out and fading to black while the characters have their first time.
I forget a lot of scenes people read in their books during these panels. I’m sure we all do. I will never forget Mindy’s. It was shocking not because it was so sexy or racy or graphic. It was shocking because it was real and because it was an under-represented point of view that still doesn’t have a place in the teen Relationship Narrative.
But like with all things YA, what matters is what the readers need and want and relate to. And although we’re uncomfortable with shifting the narrative, I think the girls aren’t. Even teen Corey, I think, related more to the grey area than anything.
What’s the scene of female sexuality I remember most from my own reading when I was young? Deenie by Judy Blume. A guy attempting to feel her up with her brace on. I believe it was in a hallway. It brought up two feelings for me at the time—the bubbling up of lust and the frantic spiraling of anxiety. The fear and hope. The weird mix of wanting it for myself and being terrified it would someday actually happen in my life.
Re-reading it now, it’s a small, subtle moment. That’s fine. That’s great! Judy Blume did, years ago, what I am struggling to do now. Make clear that there is more to sexuality than only kissing and intercourse in an understandable, simple, clear way that didn’t defy the tone of the book by being “too graphic” (whatever that means). She managed honesty and frankness while maintaining a boundary that she as a writer, and me as a young reader, felt comfortable with. It’s a tiny, masterful moment that makes me want to do better.
We can’t all be Judy Blume. Or really none of us can, but the fact that we all agree she is the queen of navigating sexuality as a teen means there’s probably something to learn there. She didn’t trap us into one notion of what a relationship looked like, and she didn’t tell us sex was a goal that meant a relationship was real or valid or that a happily-ever-after was coming. She didn’t insist there was only the first kiss and the first time with nothing in between. She didn’t seem to have an agenda.
And listen, sex as a teen can make love feel more real, can bring a relationship to the next level. Of course it can! Just as marriage can work out and it can be a valid goal for a 20, 30 40 or whatever-something woman. But examining what literature and media are telling us is vital. And understanding our wants in that context elevates our understanding of ourselves. We have to give teens the chance to evaluate themselves in the same way.
YA literature has a responsibility to make a space for girls to think about sexuality on a broad spectrum. We owe it to girls to give them something we don’t have—more than one ideal Relationship Narrative. Open space where there used to be claustrophobic one-path hallways. A chance to decide for themselves what love looks like, and what sex looks like in all its forms.