For today's post, I asked blogger Phoebe North to guest blog. She's here to talk about sex positive relationships in YA genre fiction. You can see more from Phoebe on her website (phoebenorth.com) or follow her on twitter (@phoebenorth).
Hey everyone! I was very excited when Kody asked me to write a guest post here on her blog, because not only is this a fabulously pink space, but because, after Kody's recent blog post on sexuality in YA, I knew I'd found a kindred spirit. As Kody writes (reflecting an experience that was very close to my own):
Let's be frank. Sex does happen in high school. Not for all teenagers, of course. I'll be perfectly honest and say that I never had sex in high school - heck, I graduated before I'd ever even kissed a boy. But some of my friends were sexually active. . . All of this is to say, even those teenagers who are not sexually active are aware of sex.
Accurate representations of the sex lives of teenagers don't exactly abound in young adult literature. Positive representations are even rarer. By "positive," I don't mean books where all teenagers are depicted as horn-dogs, or where sexual behavior is glorified at the expense of love, identity, or religious conviction. Instead, I mean literature that reflects, realistically and rationally, the actual sexual behavior of teenagers, and, more, does it in a way that can help kids navigate thorny problems of their growing sexuality safely and without shame.
Because, as Kody says, all teenagers are aware of sex. And sex it can be a pretty scary thing. Knowing how to juggle budding love with budding hormones is hard--knowing how to do it without getting a disease is even harder. But books can help us know when to trust our instincts. They can help us know what a good relationship looks like. They can even help us learn how to recognize respectful, safe sexual behavior. Books can answer questions for you that you're way too embarrassed to ask your Mom, or your friends, or your health teacher about.
Judy Blume knew this. That's why her 1976 novel, Forever, was so revolutionary. In it, she describes Mike and Kathy, a pair of high schoolers who take the sexual plunge in a loving, mutual relationship. Blume was unflinching in the way she described birth control, body parts, and the way Doing It really feels. She wasn't afraid to show us the bad sides of young love (because it can hurt!), but the reader is never made to feel like anything Kathy experiences is due to her sexual behavior. She's not punished in the novel--we know she made the right choices for her, because we were right there with her as she asked all of the important questions.
Many contemporary authors have followed in Blume's footsteps, braving book bannings to show us the complicated sexual lives of real teenagers. From Melvin Burgess, to Simon Elkeles, to Melina Marchetta, to Kody herself, a good number of authors have demonstrated their commitments to talking honestly to teens about sex by doing just that.
But for some reason, positive representations of teen sexuality are much rarer in YA sci-fi and fantasy. I've always been a huge genre reader, but when I returned to young adult literature several years ago, after a brief stint in academia, I was surprised by how chaste most young adult genre books really were. This was in 2008, at the height of Twilight's popularity. Still, I found it odd that so many writers were relying on traditional stories about Girls Who Waited Until Marriage--stories where best friends were sluts who would invariably end up injured or pregnant or dead because they Did It, stories where girls didn't take charge of their own sexuality, stories where girls didn't follow their instincts, stories where there was a lot of shame around the topic of sex.
This seems weird to me. I can't help but think that, in universes where the impossible is possible, where teenagers can have superpowers or magic at their command, then their sexualities should be at their command, too--that teenage girls should decide when to keep it or when to lose it as part of a mutual, respectful dialogue and not have the decision made for them by their supernatural (and usually supercondescending) boyfriends.
Luckily, not every YA genre novel I've come across has been full of anxious handwringing about sex. I've been happy to stumble across a small handful of books that were actually really strong sex-positive reads. And so I thought I'd share three with you--one classic, one contemporary, and one upcoming book.
- In the Hand of the Goddess by Tamora Pierce. This is pretty much a YA feminist classic--the sequel to Alanna: The First Story, where we were introduced to a plucky young cross-dressing girl knight. In this 1984 follow-up, Alanna grows up big time. She starts seeing (and sleeping with) a handsome prince, and though their relationship isn't perfect, they have great chemistry and seem to genuinely like and respect one another. And Tamora Pierce doesn't pretend like sex doesn't have repercussions. Instead, she has Alanna use magic birth control to make sure she doesn't get pregnant (because she has baddies to fight!).
- Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. Shiver is paranormal romance that shares some features with Twilight--gorgeous, supernatural boy; human girl; rich setting. But in a major diversion from the Twilight formula, our semi-supernatural couple don't wait four books to Do It. Instead, Grace and Sam give in to their carnal desires in the first book. Grace is the initiator, but there's no doubt that their pairing is loving, mutual, and respectful. Stiefvater is careful to make it clear they use protection (condoms), and during the act, and after, they check in with each other to make sure that they're both happy and comfortable with the progression of their relationship.
- Bumped by Megan McCafferty. In this April release, a comedic satire from the author of Sloppy Firsts, McCafferty presents a dystopian future where adult women are infertile and teen girls are prized for their babymaking abilities. This could have been a morality tale--meant to show the dangers and evils of sex, how sex will get you pregnant and reduce your value to nothing more than your uterus. Instead, McCafferty is refreshingly pro-lovemaking. She presents us with many different kinds of sex, and we're never made to feel like the choices our twin protags Melody and Harmony make--whether they abstain or oblige--are the wrong ones. There's also an absolutely hilarious scene featuring a long-expired condom. I don't want to spoil it for you, but it's awesome.
So if you're looking for books that talk honestly and frankly to teenagers about sex, I'd enthusiastically suggest the above. This list is in no ways comprehensive, of course, and I'd love to hear your suggestions for sex-positive genre YA in the comments.