Thursday, May 14, 2009

sex (in young adult fiction): the guest blogs day 4

I met Nora Rawn by exchanging messages via the Internet around the time when Random House/Listening Library acquired the audio rights to Ghost Medicine. Nora is an editor with Random House, and was one of the first people ever to read my first novel. I am very happy that Nora, who is currently in Peru (and I might say she goes to the coolest places on the planet) was willing to offer her take on Sex in YA:

I didn't read many books that involved sex as a teenager; there were a few racy YA novels illicitly checked out of the library and hidden in my room when I was in elementary school, but once I reached middle school I was too embarrassed to even keep doing that. Without anyone to guide me towards YA literature that dealt sensitively with the subject I came across sex in novels only through the adult fiction I read. What I remember most from all of these adult novels are the many venereal diseases contracted by the characters in Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and the uniform giggling that commenced in my English class when our teacher read aloud some of the passages on sexuality in Zora Neale-Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. These were not exactly the most useful take-aways. I learned a fair bit about the sexual practices of American troops abroad in WWII, and confirmed what I already knew about the awkward hilarity that results when flowery talk about sex mixes with teenagers, but I didn't glean any useful information about what sex actually meant--not from literature, at least.

I learned plenty otherwise: from movies (Fight Club: lesson, sometimes you can both possess and yearn fruitlessly to possess the same person simultaneously; Happiness: lesson, sex causes extreme depression, though to be fair so does everything else), from television (Sex and The City: lesson, sexual emancipation goes well with shopping and strong female friendships; Buffy the Vampire Slayer: lesson, having sex with your boyfriend may cause him to lose his soul), from my friends (word to the wise: be careful employing any form of the theoretically neutral, perfectly valid and useful verb 'come' around anyone of age 15 to 17). When I turned on the radio I often sung along, half-unknowingly, to songs about sex, usually only noticing when a song would start playing while I was in the car with my mom, making my love for Garbage or NIN suddenly seem wildly inappropriate. Actually, everything was wildly inappropriate *except* for books, which seemed to exist in a category apart.

And yet books are the one truly safe and thoughtful venue for teenagers to learn about sex and its many ramifications. Do we think Gossip Girl really teaches anyone what intimacy or respect mean? But what is accepted as a matter of course on an hour-long drama can be subject to very real and damaging scrutiny in a novel for high school readers. Something about the printed word scares us as a culture; perhaps it's too immediate and intimate, more so in some ways than a filmed program can be. YA authors take a risk in including mature sexual content in their writing and can certainly narrow the commercial reach of their work by doing so. Their loss is their reader's gain, however. I imagine that most of the teaching, librarian, and publishing world is in support of including sex-education classes as part of the school curriculum (in my ideal world they are, at least). It's time we started broadening our vision of just what 'sex-ed' consists of to encompass not only the practicalities but also the phenomenal change it represents. Rather than be uncomfortable with the subject, we need to address every aspect--the feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, the fear that real intimacy and closeness can instill, the need to know oneself fully and to balance the needs of both partners; the loss and the excitement and loneliness and security that can all come from sex. I know I could have used exposure to more than the blossoming pear trees and trips to prostitutes I had to fall back on as source material. Like it or not, sex is part of teenage life, now as always, and even for inactive teens (which is to say for a great many of them) there is a need to be equipped for future experiences. The more voices and perspectives we have to add to this discussion, the better.

I met Adam "Rutskarn" DeCamp when I got to guest-in at a high school creative writing class. Adam is a hell of a writer, who maintains a blog called Chocolate Hammer. So, when I asked him what his opinion, as a kid and reader of YA, was, here's what Adam had to say about Sex in YA:

There’s no denying that sex is a large part of our culture. It’s no exaggeration to say that at least half of all of our media, from the most garish grindhouse exploitations to the veiled innuendoes of Elizabethan poets, features sexual themes to some extent. It’s little wonder—the subject touches many areas of what makes us human, from our primal urges, to our need to form relationships, to our drive to procreate and raise families.

As a consequence, there is absolutely no sane way to avoid exposing young adults to it.

Oh, sure, I suppose it’s possible to choke off their access to all forms of art, all films, all novels--all forms of expression more sophisticated than pasteboard picture-books and G-rated cartoons. But beyond these, there is almost no safe refuge—not Shakespeare, not religious texts, not even the unbowdlerized forms of our most classic fairy stories.

This is not even to take into account the fact that most kids will actively seek forms of media that contain sexual themes, far from actively avoiding them. The age groups most likely to read Young Adult novels are also the ones that are supremely curious and fascinated by the subject of sexual activity, and they will unconsciously (or consciously) seek it when left to their own devices.

What I’m saying is, there’s no easy or desirable road to sheltering kids of this age from sexuality, literary or otherwise. This isn’t something that can be helped. What can be helped is how maturely, sensibly, and tastefully this material is presented.

Consider this: most kids who can read YA literature can see PG-13 movies without a fuss. Let’s assume (rather conservatively) that 90% of PG-13 movies have references to sex somewhere in them. For every one of these movies that treats the subject with a degree of thoughtfulness or maturity, there will be quite a few that treat it with nothing of the sort. There’s a tendency, in these sorts of movies, to treat sex like an elementary schooler would treat a bad word—with a sort of vulgar, self-conscious fascination that lacks any sort of real understanding of the subject. Let’s say a kid is exposed to these movies on a fairly regular basis.

Now let’s say the same kid reads a novel in which sex is presented, or even described in some detail. Let’s say it treats sex as a powerful, sometimes destructive, sometimes positive force that represents a natural and intrinsic part of who we are. In other words, let’s say it deals with the subject realistically and soberly.

Really, how is this more objectionable?

When moral guardians have knee-jerk reactions to “obscene” subject matter in YA lit, this is often because they don’t treat the subject any more maturely than the Hollywood teen comedies do. Seeding YA novels with references to sex is looked upon by these figures as being akin to handing copies of Maxim to Middle Schoolers—a conflation of honest analysis and pornography that betrays a deep-rooted and almost childish aversion to the material. After all, only the most repressed and homogenous of cultures have managed to entirely quench the discussion of sex among young adults—it isn’t as if a novel that deals with sexual themes is talking about anything these kids haven’t about—if anything, it’s injecting some much-needed maturity into their understanding of the subject.

If I were asked to name a point where sex in YA fiction becomes gratuitous and inappropriate, I’d probably point to the moment where it’s no longer dealt with maturely. When it is portrayed more graphically or gratuitously than is called upon by the narrative, when it forgoes any sense of subtlety or meaning and instead wallows in obscenity and shock value—that is when the material is no longer appropriate for a YA novel. Incidentally, this is the same point where it’s hard to take it seriously no matter what one’s age, where it risks crossing the line between art and pornography.

Really, this whole exercise was just an excuse to use the word "Bowdlerized" in a sentence.