Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Female Sexuality in YA Fiction: Exploring the Range of Experiences


I've been thinking about female sexuality and sexual experience in YA fiction. Two recent posts have had this thought in my mind even more so lately, so I encourage you to take some time to read through this post about the big tropes we see when it comes to girls and sex in ya over at YA Highway and then follow it up with this post about the way we talk about sex and sexual experience when it comes to female characters in YA by E. M. Kokie. Follow up that reading with this post by Malinda Lo about sexual experience in the teen years for further thoughts on the idea of what may be natural and what may be “cringe-worthy.”

I think it's inappropriate when the sexual experiences explored in YA are about the way the story makes the adult reader feel when they read it. In other words, it's uncomfortable to have sex in YA be there for the audience's enjoyment. It should be authentic to the story and to the character. That's part of where my problems with what's being published as "new adult" come about -- many of these stories feel like a means of adult enjoyment of very young sexual experiences. This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be takeaways or reflections upon those sexual scenes in YA for readers. There should be. It just shouldn’t be for the enjoyment of the reader.

If it's real to the story and the characters, sex and sexual experience belongs in YA. I believe this to be exceptionally true when it comes to the female sexual experience because I think that for a long time (and still now), we do a lot of disservice to female characters. Too often, as Kokie points out, the scenes fade out. Or we don't read/see/use terminology in a way that is true or real. A lot of that has to do with the fact as a society, we're too willing to ignore what it is a female actually experiences during sex. More so if it is a teenage girl (because in many ways, we devalue teen girls in general -- that’s another post for another day).

When I do read a sexual experience in YA and I find that the tropes pointed out in the YA Highway post emerge again and again. And often, they're paired with some things that leave me feeling like we're continuing to send sometimes-sad messages to readers. What are those messages, exactly?

We show girls who are afraid to experience sex. They're maybe emotionally prepared, but they mentally remind themselves, for better or worse, that it's going to be painful or it's going to be hard. Rather than allow them to actually experience sex, the girls are reminded that sex is going to hurt and that they are there to be there for their partners -- I'm talking about heterosexual partnerships here, since that is primarily where I am reading these stories.

Her body is not there for her enjoyment. Her body is just part of the process. Much of this, I think, comes because this is what we’re taught socially again and again. These messages pervade our culture and come through the literature, as well. Yes, it can often be authentic to the character. But in many cases, it feels like an easy way around exploring the depths of experience that a female character can have sexually. It can be uncomfortable, but I think it’s important.

A Missing Element of Sexual Experience

I recently read Laura Nowlin’s If He Had Been With Me. On the whole, it’s a solid and good read about relationships and how they shift and change as people grow up. But it was those moments where sex entered the story I couldn't stop thinking about why it was the main character wasn't allowed physical pleasure or why it was those unintended Messages emerged.

The story features a scene with a female character preparing to have sex for the first time with a long-time boyfriend. She was excited about it, since sex was something her friends had experienced but she hadn't yet. In that moment, she pauses mentally and reminds herself it's going to hurt. She reminds herself that she is there for his enjoyment. Her partner climaxes in the scene, but we know nothing about what she experiences physically here. I think it's in many ways true that characters (and people!) don't necessarily have a grip on what's happening to them in that moment, especially since it is a first time, but I do take issue with the fact she's conscious enough of being scared of being in pain and it hurting and being uncomfortable that she doesn't ever get the chance to actually experience sex and experience pleasure. She feels good because she did something good for someone else. She is very fixated on the fact that she is giving the boy her virginity. She gave it for him.

The character does not feel good because she enjoyed sex. She feels good because it was emotionally a big deal. There's a disconnect between the emotional elements of sex and the physical elements in a way that left me uncomfortable because it suggested that her giving her body was what their relationship needed in order to be completely satisfying. She does not get to experience her body. It is a gift for someone else.

But rather than linger on the abundance of stories which tend to do that in YA, I thought it'd be worthwhile to instead turn toward some recent reads that have had amazing and empowering sexual messages for females in the story -- and those readers who pick up the stories. While it's absolutely true and honest that in many ways sex is messy and confusing and awkward, and that the characters in these stories would experience those things (and maybe even be unaware of what their bodies are doing in the moment), I think that showcasing a range of sexuality and sexual experiences is so, so important. As Lo points out in her post, sometimes sex is very natural for a character, even a teenager. It is something they enjoy, look forward to, and don’t find confusing or awkward.

It just is.

Heroines Don’t Have to Be Virgins

Sarah Dessen’s most recent book, The Moon and More, features Emaline, who is in a sexual relationship with longtime boyfriend Luke. Part of the joke of the story is that they have a hard time finding a place to enjoy themselves. Parents, siblings, and home construction mean that their time together alone is regularly compromised. But what's important here is that Emaline enjoys sex. She enjoys having sex with her boyfriend, and even though it's hard for them to sneak away to have their private time, it's something she's not ashamed of and it's something she's not shamed for, either. It is part of her relationship with Luke and it's part of her understanding of herself. Sex feels satisfying, and that is okay. It doesn't need to be a secret or shameful thing. It can be a beautiful, healthy, and rewarding element of a relationship. Emaline gets to still be a hero in the story and not be a virgin. She can also choose, as she does, to let go of the relationship when she needs to. Sex is not a string tying her to someone else. It doesn’t make her regret her choices. It’s just an element of what her relationship with Luke includes. It is not the whole of them.

In many ways, owning her own sexuality empowered her. I give huge props to Sarah Dessen, whose books reach so many readers -- particularly female readers -- in writing a character that can have a sexual relationship with a boyfriend and have it be so normal. There aren't weird feelings and there aren't strange and awkward encounters. Sex just is.


Newsflash: Girls Masturbate, too.

The YA Highway post above mentioned that there aren't really any YA books that talk about female masturbation at all, and I held that in the back of my mind, trying to think of books that do. And they're right -- there really aren't. Judy Blume broached the topic in Are You There God, It's Me Margaret but it's not actually on page as a thing that happens. It is, however, defined as normal.

Then I read Sarah McCarry's forthcoming All Our Pretty Songs. For the first time in memory, there was a scene where the female main character masturbates. On page. It is a very short moment, but it is a very powerful one -- the nameless main character is frustrated and longing for Jack, the music maker, and her outlet in that moment is a personal sexual experience. Reading it reminded me a lot of what happens to Marnie in the HBO show Girls: there's a lot to unpack in both situations. There was a lot of discussion of the moment in Girls after the show aired, about what it meant to see that and whether or not it was true or authentic. I'm going to be really curious what, if anything, pops up in response to McCarry's character doing something similar.

But what I think should come out is just how important that scene was to the story and to readers. McCarry's book is a very feminist novel, with very lush and moving prose, and in many ways, it's a book that's about girlhood and the mythical nature surrounding it. For there to be a scene of female masturbation on page only furthers that. I think teen readers who will pick it up and see that self pleasure for girls is normal, that they can enjoy on the merits of exploring the way their body can feel, is immensely important. It is a normal part of growing up, it is a very normal part of adolescence (and beyond!) and it is a very normal experience to engage in and want to engage in. It is in many ways the "safest" form of sex.

All Our Pretty Songs is the first in a trilogy, and as of this point, the main character's actions and experiences are completely normal aspects of growing up. There's no shame or fear or disgust in what happens -- it's okay. I'm especially fond for the fact that in this book, which does explore those lines of magic and mystery of girlhood, a girl masturbates and it's in a way that's very real to her and to the story. Where there is a story of myth, it's grounded in those moments of realism. Those real moments bring girlhood back to our world.

If you haven’t spent time on The F Bomb blog -- a feminist blog run by and for teenage feminists -- I suggest you do, and I suggest starting with this post on the topic of solo sex for girls. Seeing this moment in McCarry’s book reminded me of what the teen blogger said, and I think it resonates: “[G]irls would gain so much confidence by understanding that THEY are in charge of their sexual pleasure, not men, which would also show girls that they don’t need to have sex for approval. Don’t get me wrong, people will still have sex (and should if that’s what they want to do), but it will be because they want to have sex for themselves, not because society is telling them it is the only way they can have pleasure and feel accepted.”

Seeking Sex Doesn’t Make Her Easy Nor Worthless

Part of what led me to want to read McCarry's book was her stunning piece about the sex in Erica Lorraine Scheidt's Uses for Boys. I really dug Scheidt's book, partially because it was so much about Anna's discovery of self through her sexual relationships -- in many ways, those relationships were painful to read, as she was assaulted, as she was made to feel used, as she never quite felt emotionally fulfilled in the way she needed to be. But the responses that McCarry points out are ones I saw again and again and wondered about myself. Why was Anna worthless because she was sexual? Why was who she was at her core without value because so much of her life was about sex.

That was the point.

Scheidt's book is a look at female sexuality and what it is and is not. Anna seeks it out because that's what she'd been taught to do by her own mother. It's what messages she'd been shown over and over again: if she has sex with a boy, she is good. But it backfires on her in many ways, though there are light moments where the sex in the book becomes something different. In those moments, she's there and she's realizing the value of her body. That she can enjoy sex and enjoy physical pleasure on the merits of that and that alone. That it need nothing more than that.

Readers walking away with the idea Anna is a slut is why, I think, we need more books that showcase female sexuality in its wide and varied forms.

Her Body Can Feel Good

A few other books have caught my attention when it comes to showcasing female sexual experience in a really positive, affirming, and empowering manner. I know it's unfair to talk about books that aren't out yet, but I am going to anyway -- it's a means of putting them on the radar as books worth anticipating because they do something right.

Trish Doller's Where the Stars Still Shine comes out in September, and it's a story about a girl who has been kidnapped by her mother and has experienced a number of terrible things at her mother's hands. When Callie's returned to her father, she meets a boy named Alex. He's everything she could ever want in a guy because aside from being good looking, he really and truly cares about her.

Early on in their relationship, when Callie begins revealing her past to Alex, they becomes more physically intimate. But it's not about Alex here -- it's about Callie. He performs oral sex on her, and does so in a way that empowers her and allows her to regain power and control over her own body and her own sexuality (this is important to the bigger part of the story, which I leave out because it's too much a spoiler). From the book:

I'm scared and shaking so hard and he keeps asking me if I want him to stop, but I don't want him to stop. Then he touches me with his mouth and I melt.

When his body finally moves up over mine, my cheeks are damp with tears because I never believed it could feel good or that I would like it. Right now, in this moment, the absence of shame is shaped like Alex Kosta and I don't want to let go of this feeling.

What I think is so important in this scene is that Callie admits to her own fear, but then she is very open about how good she feels. Not just emotionally, but physically, too. Her body feels good and her body can feel good.

In many ways, what Callie experiences in this scene is reminiscent of what happens to Sloane in Courtney Summers's This is Not a Test. Where Sloane had experienced physical abuse and lost agency over her own body (which emerges not only in her devaluing of herself and her eagerness to die, but in many observations she makes of other people, including Grace and how much she envies Grace's body), it's when Rhys is physically intimate with her she has a moment of realization that her body can feel really good. That even though she's never been allowed to feel that way before, the possibility exists. And she likes that.

It's a small moment in a much larger story, much like Doller's, but those small moments of recognition of the power of physical pleasure and intimacy and ownership of those things are so important for readers -- and the characters -- to see.

Carrie Mesrobian's forthcoming Sex & Violence is another one that does something strong with female sexual empowerment, even though the book is told through the eyes of a guy. There's a girl in the story named Baker who challenges Evan because she's very conscious of -- and confident in! -- her sexual nature. She straddles him. She turns him on. She reminds him that he has weaknesses in his own sexuality because of who he is and because of biology itself.

C. K. Kelly Martin is another author who has offered up very sexually empowered female characters, too, and she's written some incredibly healthy sexual scenes, especially in My Beating Teenage Heart. Though the moments come through the voice and perspective of the male character, it’s clear that the female is experiencing pleasure and valuing what it is her own body can do.

Further Thoughts

I've only touched the surface on books that feature female sexual empowerment, but it's something I've been thinking about a lot, and it's something I hope other people weigh in on here. I am thrilled to see more books that showcase the wide range of sexual experiences and possibilities for female characters.

We DO need those books like Nowlin's above because there are teens who will have first and fifth and thirtieth times where their own physical pleasure isn't so much about the physical moment but about the emotional ones.

We DO need books that explore the value of virginity and what it means to remain pure (either for religious reasons or personal convictions).

We DO need books that don't touch sex at all.

But, we also need books that show female characters experiencing and enjoying physical pleasure. We need books that show it can be empowering. That it can be good. That it can be done alone or with a partner. That it can be safe and that it can be a valuable part of a relationship -- whether it's a relationship that's long term or one that's not.

Just like we need a wide variety of female characters in our stories, those who are easy to like and those who are challenging, we need this variety of sexual exploration in YA, too. It’s honest to the world around us, and it’s honest to readers who deserve to experience via those characters the range of possibilities that exist. That remind them their bodies are their own, and they have the power to do with them what they wish to. That enjoying them is nothing to be ashamed or afraid of.

So I'm curious -- what other books have stood out to you for how they portray female sexual experiences? I'd love to know the good side and the other side, and I'd love to know what moments stand out to you for being surprising or refreshing to see.

26 comments:

  1. This is such a smart post. I was thinking about the sex in Graceling and also in The Fault in Our Stars. Those scenes felt very true to me.

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  2. You must keep your eyes out for Fiona Wood's WIldlife which has just been released here and will probably be in the US in 2014 ...and I am linking to this iv with her: http://www.readings.com.au/news/fiona-wood-chats-to-simmone-howell

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  3. From Barry Goldblatt: check out Alaya Johnson's The Summer Prince and Lauran Myracle's The Infinite Moment of Us.

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  4. I have that Dessen at home waiting to be read when I get a chance to really sink in and enjoy it. I love the way she writes teenagers.

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  5. Tamora Pierce did it pretty well - in the Song of the Lioness series, Allana decides when she *is* going to sleep with the man she loves, and takes appropriate precautions, and enjoys it, and it's a part of her relationship (but not all of it).

    And then, in the "Protector of the Small" series, Kelandry has the opportunity, she has the appropriate protections - and she decides that no, she's not quite ready yet, so she doesn't sleep with the man she loves.

    Kudos also for "Looking for Alibrandi" by Melina Marchetta (and the related film), the guy the heroine loves is pressuring her for sex - and she says no, she's not ready for it. And she doesn't give in, and he's annoyed, but accepts it. (eventually).

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  6. I thought of Tamora Pierce when I read this too, the Alanna books in particular. They were SO unusual to me when I read them as a teen for the first time. I also thought of Daine, particularly the scene in a later (related) series where a character has a crush on (older) Daine and discovers that she's living with Numair without being married...huge gasp from teen me. (They got married later, but whatever.)

    And of course Katsa in Graceling, who I think is the poster child for this in recent fantasy.

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  7. Amy Stern notes that Meg Cabot's READY OR NOT has a frank discussion of female masturbation, as well.

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  8. Fingerprints of You by Kristen-Paige Madonia has a female masturbation scene in it (and the main character, Lemon, is pregnant at the time). I was surprised when I read it.

    I'm glad this discussion is taking place. I think YA fiction needs to represent a broad spectrum of sexual experience, but what I get requests for most frequently are books that don't deal with sex or romance.

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  9. I also think it's important to have books that tell readers it's okay NOT to have sex if they don't want to; I feel like much of our culture tells teens that sex is something that is supposed to happen while they are in high school or college, and there is something wrong with them if they haven't had it yet. Sure, there are plenty of books out there where sex isn't mentioned, but I think there needs to be something that does talk about sex in this way. Does that make sense?

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    1. I 100% agree with you. One of the commenters above pointed out a couple of great examples where this very thing happens.

      The biggest reason I wanted to talk about this, though, is because I think we do talk a lot about what's missing or we do tend to forget that there is a world of girls out there curious, not getting the answers or stories they want to hear or see, and when these things do pop up in YA fiction, it's cause to stop and consider what those moments DO ADD to the books they're reading.

      There are answers and explanations and experiences they're ALLOWED to have. Which, as you point out rightfully, they're just as able and allowed to have no sexual experiences, too. It's their choice!

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    2. Definitely. I completely agree with your post too--I just know this is what I experienced in my reading when I was a teen, so I felt like I was pressured to do this thing that everyone I read about seemed to be doing. I'm glad things have improved since then, about 10-15 years or so ago.

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    3. Kelly, I really appreciated that you address this in your post, and I don't want to sideline the overall conversation, which I think is really important. I think what I really want are more books that cover a wise spectrum of readers and characters, and that address that not having sex is just as much of an active choice as having it. I think all too often what's portrayed is an assumption of virginity, especially female virginity, as a passive default position, rather than a real choice. Anyway, basically I ditto both of you completely.

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  10. Defensive sexuality, where girls only define their sexual identity based on what others desire, is not only counterproductive to girls. It also teaches boys that pushing and pressure are normal and part of the process of sexual negotiation. Then we wonder why consent is such a blurry concept among people.

    That girls are just playing goalkeepers to their treasure just sets up boys to score (sorry, I don't normally do sports metaphors). When we see girls as curious, as having physical responses to sex and desire, as not just being worn down or duped by romantic overtures or even worse, being forced into sexual activities, we promote the idea that girls can be heroes in their lives and not be princess virgins or transgressive sluts or whatever other two-dimensional categories that make for boring stories, anyway.

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  11. This post just destroyed my TBR...in a good way! Thank!

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  12. Carrie Mesrobian and The Rejectionist in the same blog post? Auto-follow.

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  14. kelly, i so appreciate your willingness to think out loud about this.

    the most powerful thing i learned working with sex ed teachers and health professionals is the better equipped a person is to negotiate their own pleasure -- alone or with another person -- the better equipped she is to navigate consent. we don't want one kind of girl. we want diverse stories that reflect girls' myriad experiences and strengths.

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  15. GINGERBREAD by Rachel Cohn (and most of her books, but definitely that one)--the main character Cyd is just unabashedly sexual and in such a self-assured way, it's awesome. I think I remember an oral sex scene in IMAGINARY GIRLS that I thought was a really interesting moment at that point in the story and for the character. And also I loved Lennon in THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE and her curiosity and wanting. I've given a lot of thought to this topic over the past year--I think it's so important to have these sorts of characters and experiences out there and it's something I really try to include in my own writing. Love this post!

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  16. How's about a sex scene where a teen girl wants to go down on her boyfriend? I'd love to read that - something where oral sex on either end is mutual and empowering and part of the foreplay.

    On the other hand, as we've talked about before, it sort of icks me out when teen sex is SOOOO HAAAAAWWWTTTTT. Gross, you guys, gross. I seriously don't want to read that as an adult and, in my opinion, if teens wants to read HAWT SEX (more power to ya!) they can go read the stacks and stacks of awesomely written adult romance. Which is not to say I don't think there should be sex in YA (clutches at my pearls) but I do genuinely think there's a line - and ... there's a level of realism I just ain't buying. Sorry you're NOT having WORLD SHAKING AMAZING PERFECT INTENSE BEAUTIFUL SOULBOND sex at 17. You just aren't. It might be good and special and feel awesome (yes) but it's still going to be, as you point out in the Dessen book, all about logistics and access and fleeting relationships THAT'S the reality of the situation when you're discovering your sexuality as a teen. And so is, like in the awesome Uses for Boys, all of the cultural and social stereotypes that go along with female sexuality. You can pretend that's happening in a bubble, that it's just about the special connection between two people, but it's not. Especially not in high school, especially not as a teenager. And THAT - that - is what YA needs more of.

    My two favorite YA cunninlingus scenes are in Kody Keplinger's D.U.F.F, where she feels embarrassed and squirmy and shocked about it (truth!) and then relaxes and lets it feel good (truth!) and BEST of all in Melina Marchetta's Piper's Son, where a male character discusses how hearing his girlfriend laugh with joy as he goes down on her is the most beautiful noise he's ever heard.

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  18. Oh and special shout-out to Hilary Smith's Wild Awake, which has an amazing sex scene that really captures, I think, the stumbling and joyous wonder of discovery.

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  19. RAW BLUE by Kirsty Eagar had sex scenes which were about the heroine realizing that her body could feel good from sex and the empowerment that gave her over her own body. It was very well done and I thought it deserved a shout out :)

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  20. "Anatomy of a Boyfriend" had plenty of problematic sex, but the final pages do show the main character enjoying solo sex. The sequel, "Anatomy of a Single Girl" does a better job of showing the importance of female pleasure.

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  21. Wow this is such an interesting and thought-provoking post! I agree with basically all that you've written, and I've come to the conclusion that this is a topic that I don't think about enough when reading. But as you've pointed out here, I think few people are aware of this stigma and issue, so I appreciate posts like this that bring issues to the forefront. Thanks for giving books that exemplify your main points - I'll definitely have to read a bunch of these taking what you've said in mind!

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  22. Great post! It is weird, though, that you mention Judy Blume almost touching upon it in one book but not the book that's "the masturbation book" - Deenie. I also recall a moment in Alaya Dawn Johnson's The Summer Prince where it's just a part of life, you know, like it is in real life.

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