I’ve had the idea for this post for a while now, after talking about it with my friend Emmie from Another Night of Reading, but I’ve been kind of scared to actually write and, more importantly, post it, because it’s kind of a sensitive subject. Or, at least, it can be for some people, because it involves criticism regarding the portrayal of virginity in Young Adult literature. Oh, and feminism. Lots of people are offended by that. So, if you don’t feel like reading a feminist and critical take on sex in YA I’d recommend not reading this post. If you do, read on, my friend!
So, let’s start with a little anecdote. A few weeks ago I was reading Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins, which is a YA romance novel, and I found myself pleasantly surprised by the way the book “handled” virginity and sex in general. In the novel, Isla has had sex with a boy before she meets the love interest Josh, and while this is briefly touched upon, it is not made into a big deal. In fact, Isla herself mentions the taboo that is still pervasive in the USA (and less so in Europe, I believe):
“I mean, when you grow up half French, it’s not like sex is this big taboo. And, yeah, you have to be careful and you need protection and blah blah blah, but it’s not that American Puritanical be-all, end-all.”
Besides the fact that this YA story features a girl who is not a virgin when the story starts and, most importantly, is not somehow condemned for this, it also does not shy away from portraying female sexual desire. Both Isla and Josh want to have sex with each other, and this is described as a completely natural thing and, again, not condemned in any way.
All this struck me as a particularly refreshing take on virginity (or lack thereof) and sexuality in YA literature. And that got me thinking.
The fact that I found Isla refreshing says enough about the representation of virginity and sexuality in YA in general. I remembered reading about what feminist scholar Jessica Valenti has called the purity myth: the idea that virginity is somehow related to moral integrity, which is, of course, complete and utter bull shit (excuse my French).
Yet this is a view that is still very pervasive and also exactly what we see in a lot of YA novels. For some reason, virginity and value (whatever that might mean exactly) are linked to each other so often. It’s one of the main reasons why I didn’t like The Selection by Kiera Cass, in fact. Its protagonist, America, is “of value” because of her virginity. Even though the novel seems to be criticising this, the fact that America is rewarded for her virginity (by being allowed to join the Selection) actually makes sure that the novel supports this idea of virginity as purity and a virtue.
Another very common thing in YA is the trope of girls wanting to have sex but suppressing their desire, which ultimately turns out to be the better decision for some reason or another, or they do “give in” to it and it somehow makes them a different person – they feel like they’ve lost something of themselves, that having sex has changed their identity.
I think all of this is problematic, and here’s why: it makes sex into way too big of a deal for girls.
Yes, you should wait until you’re ready and not do anything you don’t want to. It can be a big deal for someone personally, and a first time is probably a milestone in anyone’s life (at that point in time anyway), but ultimately it’s only sex. It doesn’t suddenly change a person’s identity – they are still the exact same person they were before.
And this is where a lot of YA gets it wrong: it sends the wrong message. Having had sex isn’t a big deal – it’s part of life for a lot of people (but not all – and that’s fine too). One of the characteristics of YA has always been that it’s not afraid to break taboos, but for some reason this doesn’t seem to apply to sex. Sex is still controversial and the way it is portrayed in YA is strangely old-fashioned and conservative in comparison to a lot of the other topics YA does manage to talk about.
I’m not saying that every YA novel should feature sex, or that female protagonists who are virgins are a bad thing – not at all. It shouldn’t matter one way or the other. I’m just saying that novels that do feature sex should not paint a skewed picture of what it really is. Society feeds girls enough nonsense as it is.
I could say lots more about this, especially since I haven’t even really touched upon the difference between representation of girls having sex and guys having sex, but I’ll leave it at this. I’d love to hear your thoughts about all this in the comments!