Girls and Sex in YA Literature

Mary Ann Harlan's picture

[Ed note: Mary Ann's's essay comes to us as a preview of her upcoming talk, "Virgins, Sluts, and Victims: Narratives of Girls and Sex in Young Adult Literature," at the Midwest Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association.]

 

Be sexy, not sexual.  This is the overwhelming marketing message sent to young girls. Be desired, do not desire.  Although when it comes to institutional control the messages is: do not be too sexy. And when it comes to defining “too” sexy institutional dress codes tend to suggest that having a body is “too sexy” – no skin showing, no tight pants, etc. Girls at best receive a contradictory message regarding sex, at worst they are presented a dangerous narrative of privilege and power that rests with those able to determine sexy, while seeking to control their sexual desire.  Girls are objects of adult gaze, contained by both social messages and institutional policies. The end result is an expectation that they suppress desire, and deny themselves the role of subject in their lives while living as object.

Media as a main circulator of culture promotes this contradictory message.  And yet there is a media that might hold space for challenging the existing paradigm. Young Adult literature holds space as media created for teens, in which their voice as protagonist is representative of youth voices.  However, it is created, marketed, selected, and promoted by adults which leads one to ask: what is the exploration of girls’ desire, specifically within their sexual experiences in young adult literature? Does it continue to perpetuate adult concerns that encourage girls to not be sexual, or is there resistance to this message?

Roberta Trites (2004) posits that sex is an act of empowerment, an embracing of adulthood, in YA literature.  It is one of the “firsts” we participate in as we navigate our adolescence, and it therefore contains significance.  However, in exploring this first, YA literature still perpetuates cultural narratives of youth, constructing the experience within common narratives of risk and resistance (Kehily, 2012, Lewis and Durand, 2016). Many have written on the common narrative trope of being punished for having sex, including authors such as Judy Blume and researchers Roberta Trites, Christine Siefert, and Beth Younger. In regard to risk and resistance on the one hand, YA positions girls who are sexual as at risk – socially and physically; on the other hand, there are YA novels that explore positive sexual experiences that do not end in tragedy, or even end in happily ever afters.  And yet even within this space certain stock characters or narratives emerge.  Below I explore three common narratives through examples from current realistic and romantic YA fiction.

1. The Virgin. The virgin is assumed in current realistic and romantic YA fiction unless stated otherwise.  However, books that center on loss of virginity such as Cherry by Lindsey Rosin in which four young women make a pact to lose their virginity or Giving up the V by Serena Robar explore the virgin and loss of virginity with more depth. In these titles, despite the lack of explicit moralizing found in some titles, virginity is positioned as transformational, the moment of “becoming woman."  Furthermore, both texts suggest and perpetuate the more liberal narrative that it is best to lose one’s virginity at the right time with the right person. While in Cherry, the girls may lose their virginity to a different person, the sex is “better” and they experience more pleasure with the right person. And in Giving Up the V the main character chooses not to have sex and to begin a relationship with the “right” person, while her best friend is content in the loss of her own virginity.

The theme regarding the risk of losing virginity still exists in YA literature.  Seifert refers to this as “abstinence porn” in which girls are put in tempting situations and expected to say no.  Egregious examples of this are less ubiquitous than they were even ten years ago at the height of Twilight (the ultimate risk – death) but appear in subtle ways. The primary risk has shifted from loss of life, pregnancy, or disease to social risk as we will see below.

2. The Slut. Most frequently in YA literature, slut is a slur used to control girls and establish a power hierarchy. The “slut” is either a secondary character, or is being victimized by mean girls (another common narrative). Very rarely are girls presented as “hooking up” outside of a monogamous relationship. And yet in our culture increased casual engagement of youth (girls in particular) in a variety of activities from kissing to engaging in oral sex has led to moral panics regarding hooking up and its relative dangers (Armstrong et al. 2010).  When a female character takes control of her sexual activity in YA literature it very often presents a social risk, serving to send the message that hooking up is dangerous.  In Laurie Flynn’s Firsts, she introduces a main character willing to “hook up" but that character struggles to justify her own choices in who she has sex with and why.  Eventually her choices are exposed and she is ostracized, no matter how she explains herself.  But more important in the implicit message the text sends is the fact that she is uncomfortable, and self-loathing about her “number” and choices as well, therefore hooking up is a danger: one should not be a “slut” as defined through casual sexual encounters.

In other titles the emphasis is on how a relationship can change the narrative.  For instance, if one does have sex it should take place within a monogamous relationship so even if the perception among peers is you are having sex, it is acceptable because it is within the bounds of a relationship. This is the entire premise of Jenn P. Nguyen's The Way to Game the Walk of Shame.  It is more thoroughly interrogated in Daria Snadowsky's Anatomy of a Single Girl in which the character states “it gets confusing wanting someone without loving him” (p. 179).  In this way, even in novels in which girls actively chose sex the idea is that sex should only occur with the right person when one is ready.

3. The Victim. At its core fiction needs a conflict to be resolved.  Often in Young Adult literature conflict involves recovering from trauma, or enduring and moving past trauma.  Sexual assault, harassment, and coercion are often the trauma of the protagonist. The narrative of girl at risk is not new, and therefore the need for protection has long historical roots.  However, YA takes a different approach.  While the sheer number of titles that place girls in danger through sexual assault suggests there is danger in having desire, these titles are often as much about survival and recovery as the danger itself.  Victims in YA lit are girls who remain silent, or who are silenced by power hierarchies. Courtney Summers’ work often explores how social capital is wielded to silence victims, re-victimizing them again.  Most recently in All the Rage, but also in her title Some Girls Are, she lays bare this dynamic.  Sarah Dessen’s Just Listen, and more recently, Saint Anything both explicitly deal with girls who are actively trying for invisibility: one who was assaulted then socially re-victimized, and one whose silence puts her at risk.  Perhaps the core text on this is literally titled Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, in which Melinda spends the entire novel finding her voice.

The messages that could be constructed from these three narratives focus on risk:

  1. The risk of social ostracization, loss of reputation, that one might be thought less of.
  2. The risk of assault, victimization, and re-victimization.
  3. The risk of regret, of not feeling quite right.

The narratives promote monogamy, a romantic approach to sex being connected to love rather than desire; without that connection risk increases. The desire girls primarily express is one of connection and of love.  And yet girls who express this desire as physical are often hurt: rumors spread (Cherry), coerced (Firsts, Giving Up the V), and/or assaulted (All the Rage). In this sense both Trites and Seifert are right that YA lit promotes a social control that reflects adult concerns.

Additionally, within these three narratives there are competing messages.  For instance, in the recent title The Upside of Unrequited (Albertalli, 2017) a discussion of virginity occurs in which the narrative of virginity loss as penetration is challenged. The role of intimacy in the loss of virginity, how oral sex is a part of losing virginity, and what virginity loss means if you are queer lead one character to state ,“’I mean, I think people have this mentality that sex is only real if it involves a penis’” (p. 77). This title in a matter of fact manner allows for a variety of relationships, undoes the transformation narrative of penetrative sex, and focuses on intimacy as a more important function of desire than the actual physical act.  The focus of the text is not on losing one’s virginity but in this conversation, it is disassociated from heteronormative views of virginity long based in patriarchal customs.  And while Cherry promotes a romantic narrative of sex being better with the "right person" meaning the person you love the girls also experience sex without being in love, and are not coerced into it, nor traumatized from the experience. In these texts girls are able to act on sexual desire. This is the resistance Lewis and Durand suggest exists in YA literature. In terms of the three identities in regard to resistance:

  1. The Virgin can choose virginity loss, not only to the person she is in love with, but in other dynamics as well.  While this is more common in books where virginity is not the focus, there are a small handful of titles that offer up a version of sexual activity that does not result in trauma.
  2. The Slut is infinitely more problematic, as the term is derogatory and used to control young women’s desire but within YA literature an emerging and complicated protagonist is appearing slowly: someone who does hook up without risk, and without self-recrimination. It is the lack of self-recrimination that is significant in this narrative and challenges normative positioning on girl’s desires. Snadowski’s title is perhaps the most significant in this area, and it is more common in other genres (fantasy for instance).
  3. The Victim when starting the novel as a victim (rather than becoming one within the novel) has always been in some ways an act of resistance.  The victim in this sense is about surviving, about finding a voice – moving from the object of victim to the subject of survivor and speaking her own truth.

Girls in YA literature frequently inhabit virgin, slut, and victim identities, often within the same text and the same girl. In its many varied voices as category YA literature can provide both a narrative of girlhood that renders them objects, that suppresses their desires and perpetuates social messages of the importance of virginity, the responsibility for keeping one’s self from risk by not engaging in sexual activity, and suggests a high level of risk for assault. But it also presents girls in control of their desires, willing to challenge status quo, and to speak for themselves.

 

Albertalli, Becky. (2017). The Upside of Unrequited. New York: Harper Collins.

Armstrong, E. A., Hamilton, L., & England, P. (2010). Is hooking up bad for young women? Contexts, 9(3), 22-27. 

Dessen, S. (2006). Just Listen. New York Speak.

Dessen, S. (2015). Saint Anything  

Flynn, L. E. (2015). Firsts. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

Kehily, M. J. (2012). Sexuality. In N. Lesko & S. Talburt (Eds.), Keywords in Youth Studies: Tracing Affects, Movements, Knowledges (pp. 223-227). New York: Routledge.

Lewis, M. A., & Durand, E. S. (2016). Sexuality as Risk and Resistance in Young Literature. In C. Hill (Ed.), The Critical Merits of Young Adult Literature: Coming of Age. New York: Routledge.

Robar, S. (2009). Giving Up the V. New York: Simon Pulse.

Rosin, Lindsey. (2016) Cherry. Simon and Schuster. New York

Snadowsky, Daria. (2013) Anatomy of a Single Girl. Delacorte Books for Young Readers. New York.

Summers, C. (2009). Some Girls Are. New York: St. Martins Griffen 

Summers, C. (2015). All the Rage. New York: St. Martins Griffen 

Trites, R. S. (1998). Disturbing the universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press.

Note: This entry focuses primarily on heteronormative characters for two reasons: 1) a tendency within media culture to construct girls through heteronormative eyes, both in what is defined as "girl" and what is defined as "sexy," and 2) I needed to scope my reading so I acknowledge this very significant limitation and that queer girls deserve the same close reading.  Additionally, I purposefully left out popular fantasy, dystopian, and science fiction texts for the purposes of scope. Although they present similar messages, and engage in the construction of girl, the addition of faeries, mortal danger, and physical violence led me to leave them out of this discussion.