Typing Faster

November 9, 2009

Sex in Young Adult Lit

Filed under: Craft — petertypingfaster @ 3:13 pm

Cory Doctorow recently published his first young adult novel called Little Brother. Apparently it touched off a bit of a shit storm because the lead character in the novel, who happens to be 17 years old, loses his virginity during the course of the book.

That’s a problem for some people.

Sex in fiction, whether it’s in books or on the screen, has always been a bit of a tetchy subject for certain demographics. Personally I’ve never understood why. Sex is a natural part of being human, why shouldn’t it be reflected back at us in our media? Why should we let the fact that it’s a book about teenagers affect what we read in it? Teenagers smoke, drink, mouth off to their elders, and yes, they have sex. That ain’t gonna change, so why should we be so coy about depicting it?

It was these questions that led Doctorow to come up with a “Teen transgressions in YA literature FAQ,” which went a little something like this:

There’s really only one question: “Why have your characters done something that is likely to upset their parents, and why don’t you punish them for doing this?”

Now, the answer.

First, because teenagers have sex and drink beer, and most of the time the worst thing that results from this is a few days of social awkwardness and a hangover, respectively. When I was a teenager, I drank sometimes. I had sex sometimes. I disobeyed authority figures sometimes.

Mostly, it was OK. Sometimes it was bad. Sometimes it was wonderful. Once or twice, it was terrible. And it was thus for everyone I know. Teenagers take risks, even stupid risks, at times. But the chance on any given night that sneaking a beer will destroy your life is damned slim. Art isn’t exactly like life, and science fiction asks the reader to accept the impossible, but unless your book is about a universe in which disapproving parents have cooked the physics so that every act of disobedience leads swiftly to destruction, it won’t be very credible. The pathos that parents would like to see here become bathos: mawkish and trivial, heavy-handed, and preachy.

Second, because it is good art. Artists have included sex and sexual content in their general-audience material since cave-painting days. There’s a reason the Vatican and the Louvre are full of nudes. Sex is part of what it means to be human, so art has sex in it.

That’s pretty good advice for artists in general, but Doctorow doesn’t stop there. He’s got a few more thoughts when it comes to young adult stories specifically.

Sex in YA stories usually comes naturally, as the literal climax of a coming-of-age story in which the adolescent characters have undertaken a series of leaps of faiths, doing consequential things (lying, telling the truth, being noble, subverting authority, etc.) for the first time, never knowing, really knowing, what the outcome will be. These figurative losses of virginity are one of the major themes of YA novels – and one of the major themes of adolescence – so it’s artistically satisfying for the figurative to become literal in the course of the book. This is a common literary and artistic technique, and it’s very effective.

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is all about sex. Kids are going from sexual immaturity to sexual maturity. They’re transitioning from children into adults. Sex is an inherent part of that transition, and denying it, trying to censor it, is a futile attempt to infantilize kids who would otherwise be moving past that point. It’s ridiculous.

Doctorow has a few other things to say on the subject.

As the parent of a young daughter, I feel strongly that every parent has the right and responsibility to decide how his or her kids are exposed to sex and sexually explicit material.

However, that right is limited by reality: the likelihood that a high-school student has made it to her 14th or 15th year without encountering the facts of life is pretty low. What’s more, a kid who enters puberty without understanding the biological and emotional facts about her or his anatomy and what it’s for is going to be (even more) confused.

Adolescents think about sex. All the time. Many of them have sex. Many of them experiment with sex. I don’t believe that a fictional depiction of two young people who are in love and have sex is likely to impart any new knowledge to most teens – that is, the vast majority of teenagers are apt to be familiar with the existence of sexual liaisons between 17-year olds.

So since the reader isn’t apt to discover anything new about sex in reading the book I can’t see how this ends up interfering with a parent’s right to decide when and where their kids discover the existence of sex.

It makes story sense, it makes character sense and it makes social sense to have (tasteful) depictions of sex in YA lit. Time to get rid of these crazy, restrictive, unrealistic social mores and tell real stories.


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