The more I write and think about YA, the more I find holes within it. Part of it is knowing I haven’t — and can’t — read everything. But part of it is that there simply are holes in the category.
I turned in a draft of the Q&A that will be a part of Amber Keyser’s The V-Word last week, and after having spent almost a year now reading and thinking critically about the ways that female sexuality are rendered in YA, there are definite places where YA can and should do better. I’ve been keeping an eye on this since writing about positive portrayals of female sexuality last summer, and more, I’ve been keeping an eye on the discussions about sexuality as it’s depicted in YA.
The depictions of sexuality in YA matter because these are safe spaces for readers — teen readers, especially — can think about, explore, and consider what it means to be a sexual being. We don’t talk openly or honestly about sex as a culture, and we certainly don’t talk about it in positive, affirming, and empowering ways with teenagers.
With those thoughts in mind, I thought it might be worth talking about where we’re doing okay and where we could and should be doing better when it comes to sexuality in YA. What are we seeing? What aren’t we seeing? More specifically, I’m talking about female sexuality (and that extends, of course, to gender identity on a larger scale) and I’m talking about more realistic novels than fantastic. Which isn’t to say fantasy or other genre fiction doesn’t add to the discussion. It’s just not my strongest area of knowledge. I’d love any input or thoughts other YA readers may have on this topic, so feel free to think with me in the comments. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive but instead, something that spurs some thinking and discussion.
I’m fully aware there are presses publishing books that explore some of these topics — but accessibility is an issue, especially for teen readers. If it’s not something that’d be easily found on a library shelf, in a classroom, or in a bookstore, getting these books can be a challenge.
Virginity & Sexuality As Choice
When I was working through the books I’d read and doing research on sexuality in YA, one of the topics I had a really tough time with was virginity. It seems counterintuitive for virginity to be a tricky topic to find in YA, but it is. There are a few books in mainstream YA which tackle virginity — Terra Elan McVoy in Pure is an example, as is Purity by Jackson Pearce — but there aren’t many more.
Could it be because if sex and sexuality aren’t addressed in the novel in some capacity that we default our thinking to virginity? In other words, if we don’t know the character is sexually active or that she is living a pure life and that’s one of the subplots, if not the main story plot, do we just assume she’s a virgin and that’s it?
Not every book in YA is going to address sexuality, nor should it. It’d be silly to have these topics shoehorned into every novel and it’d be disingenuous to story, to character, and it’d be unfair to readers who’d be given something that doesn’t need to be there (which then makes reading a chore and makes it feel like a lecture, rather than a pleasurable pursuit). But what I want to know is why virginity outside of a religious/spiritual choice isn’t more common in YA? There’s nothing wrong with that choice, and I know it appears with some frequency in fiction geared toward that readership, but it seems to be the biggest piece of the virginity puzzle in YA when I’m not sure it’s the only piece we should be seeing.
Perhaps the best example of this I could find in fiction was Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi. This book is 22 years old, and yet, it did something really progressive and powerful that I’d like to see in a lot more YA today: Josie, the main character, is being physical with her boyfriend and enjoying it, but she then tells him she’s not ready to have sex with him. He goads her a bit about it, saying that she’s being ridiculous, especially since they’re having a good time, but she pushes back and tells him that her body and her choices about sex are her own and right now, she’s not feeling like she’s ready to have sex for the first time. This is a really powerful scene in the book, and one that made me pause and wonder why we don’t see more of this.
Where are girls who are choosing virginity because it empowers them to do that, outside of a religious choice?
I’d like to see more girls who are choosing virginity because that matters to them and because it makes them feel good to take and have that ownership over their own bodies and their own sexual lives. Not out of fear, nor out of duty. But because it’s exactly what they want.
The last few years have offered up a solid array of titles that explore slut shaming. Jillian and Mariko Tamaki do a great job of this in This One Summer, and there’s an especially good scene when the younger girl, Windy, tells Rose she’s unfairly labeling and judging other girls she doesn’t know — and she’s doing so in context of the sexual lives she knows nothing about. Jennifer Mathieu digs into slut shaming in her debut novel, The Truth About Alice, as well. There are other books that look at it with less focus than these two, but the important thing is that it’s there.
Is prude shaming though?
Perhaps because it’s tied into the fact we don’t see enough virginity-as-choice in YA (whether because of a religious reason or not!), but there’s also little exploration of what happens when you’re shamed because you’re choosing virginity.
I’ve seen bits and pieces of it — and even in Marchetta’s novel, Josie’s boyfriend picks on her when she stops him in that moment — but we need more. I’d love a book like Mathieu’s but showing the reverse: what happens when a girl’s choice of virginity becomes her downfall or the reason that she’s seen as any number of unsavory things? What happens when she asserts her right to choose not to do something makes her the center of bullying or the target of a community’s rage? Or what about when someone is asexual and simply isn’t interested in sex at all?
Even more, there are times when being a virgin isn’t a choice for teens. The opportunities for teens to have sex are far more limited than they are for adults. There’s a lot of ground to cover when it comes to virginity in YA, and I think prude shaming is a large facet within it.
The biggest — and I mean biggest — failure in YA fiction when it comes to female sexuality is in diversity. And I mean diversity of every make, shape, and form possible.
Books that are doing a great job of portraying female sexuality have whiteness in common. It’s exceptionally rare to see a YA novel that tackles sexuality in a positive light that features a character of color. Hannah Moskowitz’s forthcoming Not Otherwise Specified (March 2015) features a queer character of color who is open, honest, and proud of her sexuality. She’s portrayed as enjoying female and male partners. Nina LaCour offers us a mixed race main character in Everything Leads to You, where she’s the center of a lesbian romance.
Both of these are rare sights.
In thinking about sexuality in YA, I had a near impossible job pulling out characters who were disabled discovering sexuality. Indeed, disability in YA already commands but a tiny part of bookshelves as it is, but the only discussion I could think to talk about in terms of a disabled person owning and exploring her sexuality was this powerful post by Kayla Whaley at Disability in KidLit. That isn’t a novel, though. It’s her life. Why aren’t we seeing more books like that?
If we consider mental illness a disability, we might be able to add more titles to the positive portrayals of female sexuality in YA mix — and even then, we’re not getting very far — but for stories featuring physically disabled main characters, the landscape is bleak.
More, we don’t have much diversity in terms of sexual choice itself. I noted above that we don’t see asexual characters (and asexuality is not the same as when we consider a default virgin narrative). We don’t see pansexual or demisexual characters. We don’t see many bisexual characters, though we’ve seen a few more in recent years, including Sophie in Tess Sharpe’s Far From You. We don’t see characters often who make choices outside of the one partner model — there is one I can think of but won’t spoil since it’s a semi-recent title. We also don’t see characters who see their sexuality as fluid and shifting; a lot of that may simply be because the teen years are about exploration and they’re a relatively short period within one’s lifespan, so discovering that fluidity can be tougher.
I’d actually begun an entire blog post titled “Going There: Female Masturbation in YA” a couple weeks ago, after reading this tweet from Andrew Karre:
I’m not sure if it’s because I was paying more attention over the last year or if it’s because I’ve come to dig out the cute way we talk around girls masturbating in YA, but this is something I think we’re seeing more than we believe we are. Could we do better? Absolutely. We can do better in not just seeing it happen more frequently, but we can do better in not being shy about describing what’s going on when a girl’s enjoying solo sex (fading to black or being euphemistic in a way that only those who are clued in know what’s happening).
When I served on Outstanding Books for the College Bound last year, one of the titles I nominated for one of the subcommittees I was on was Rookie: Yearbook One. It seems like a bit of an odd ball choice, but it’s an amazing resource. Besides diving into music and film and fashion and culture, this particular volume offered a really honest and blunt piece about why masturbation is important and why girls can feel empowered by knowing their bodies.
Rookie might not be hitting mainstream YA readers, but the fact that one of the biggest publications for teens, spearheaded by a teen, tackled this topic and found it important enough to feature in their print edition says a lot to me about how this is a topic teen girls are interested in and are talking about.
Beyond Rookie, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see masturbation pop up not just in Sarah McCarry’s All Our Pretty Songs, which I noted in my prior post on this topic, but I’ve seen it in other recent reads. There’s Julie Halpern’s The F-It List. There’s Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Daria Snadowsky (an older title, but a book that is entirely about female sexuality and highly recommended). There’s the classic from Judy Blume, Deenie, as well as Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF.
Then there’s Fiona Woods’s Wildlife, too, out in September, that I can’t recommend highly enough. Beyond featuring masturbation, Wildlife explores numerous facets of sexuality, and it’s empowering and validating in a way teen girls need to read and see, whatever choices they make for themselves.
We can keep doing better with this aspect of sexuality, and I hope that we do. Let’s see more diverse representations here. The majority of these stories are middle class white females — and we know there are many, many more types of girls than that. Let’s see this become a normal thing, rather than something that has to either be danced around or something that, when we read it, sticks out because seeing it called as much is a pleasant surprise.
Or, as I noted in the Q&A, it’d be great if we didn’t have to keep calling it female masturbation, as if it’s something wholly different than masturbation, period.
If you’re still thinking about this, I highly recommend reading Andrew Karre’s follow-up blog post to his tweet, regarding the comments teens in the workshop he and Carrie Mesrobian had. It’s insightful and I think not only shows what is and is not being seen by teen readers, but I think it speaks to why we can and should be having these conversations with teens.
They aren’t dumb.