Sex in Young Adult literature – always a contentious topic. Any discussion of trends in the development of YA will discuss the representation of sex, but as I read “Sex and Other Shibboleths” in Michael Cart’s Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism, I was struck by the way the chapter briefly mentions the scandalous representation of the joys of sex and focuses mostly on “its perversion by the interjection of violence in the form of rape and sexual abuse” (145). While these are of course essential parts of the discussion, they are hardly the only aspect of sexual expression worth mentioning in any great detail.
Cart devotes a few pages to discussion of Puritan attitudes towards sex in adolescent literature and the prevalence of cautionary tales before Judy Blume’s Forever was published “as a celebration of the sexual act itself” (144). But instead of an exploration of this celebration, the chapter critiques Blume’s representation of sexual pleasure – does it read like “more tract than novel” (144)? – and then moves directly into an extended discussion of rape and sexual abuse in teen literature.
The puzzling part of this is the way Cart introduces the idea of the necessity of including more explicit sex in YA literature. “Not to include sex in books for contemporary young adults,” he says, “…is to…imply to young readers that sex is so awful, so traumatic, so dirty that we can’t even write about it” (144). Why then is the rest of the chapter about precisely those aspects of sex that are in fact awful, traumatic, dirty?
Even his discussion of “how teens themselves view the sex act” (150) is fraught with this kind of problem. Cart’s treatment of the topic of oral sex, brought to public attention by Oprah in 2002 and Paul Ruditis’s Rainbow Party in 2005, is nuanced in its exploration of how to disentangle what teens thought of it before it became a media focus from what effect this media focus had on the way teens thought of it. He ends by critiquing Ruditis for not fully accomplishing the goal of presenting oral sex as okay and normal, but instead turning the story into a tale “more cautionary than crass” (151).
But after listing some ways in which Ruditis could have avoided this predicament, Cart segues seamlessly from this critique to the exact opposite stance. Ruditis includes a health-issues teacher who is constrained from sharing helpful information about sexually transmitted diseases because the administration only allows her to teach abstinence. Had she been allowed to share statistics, the students would not have wound up contracting oral gonorrhea.
Rather than asking why the representation of oral sex must conclude with disaster, however, Cart says that “we really do need more unapologetically candid and well-crafted fiction about these issues. And it is a very positive thing, I think, that since the turn of the twenty-first century, young adult literature has truly come of age in its willingness to address some of the darker aspects of the human experience with honesty” (152). But why the “darker aspects”? Where is the discussion of the idea hinted at from the beginning of the chapter, that positive depictions of teens enjoying sex are essential as well?
I’d like to turn to another text and another idea about YA literature to think about why Cart may have addressed the issue of sex in this way. Eric Tribunella, in Melancholia and Maturation: The Use of Trauma in American Children’s Literature, argues that traumatic experiences in Young Adult literature serve to further the growth and development of the child into an adult. Experiencing a loss or traumatic event is the “velocity” which propels the youth into a more mature state.
Do books depicting sex without traumatic associations exist? Yes, of course. These books usually do contain trauma of some sort, but the trauma is not necessarily connected to the sexual activities, which are in fact presented as joyful and celebratory. But Cart does not address these. Perhaps Cart’s assessment of the transgression of taboos is colored by the underlying and unacknowledged attitude that trauma is essential to teen development in literature.
The other issues he discusses as becoming more open and accepted in YA literature include class warfare, heroin abuse, and evil’s ascendancy (141), among others throughout the book, such as prison experiences. The predominance of the realism of negative aspects of teen life is in line with what Tribunella writes about, and Cart also motions towards this when describing the YA awards process where “Controversy is not something to avoid.” Seeing a general trend toward permissiveness of disturbing topics when examining how Young Adult literature developed makes sense in this framework.
It does seem natural then to turn to the traumatic when addressing sex as well, but more exploration of sex as sex, not as abuse or power or danger, has its place as well in a chapter with an unmodified “sex” in the title.
4 thoughts on “Can Sex Be Just Sex? Pleasure and Trauma in YA”
Stories are about trauma, or they’re not stories, they’re just wanky mood poems. Sex and trauma seems to be a nice, easy way to make things “gritty and real”. Those are air quotes, by the way. Maybe that’s why YA lit sex defaults to unpleasant experiences, rather than dreamy ones. More story! Better story! The story is what matters, or else it’s just another tract and the YA market has enough of these. Good sex is either at the beginning, because you’re going to lose it, or at the end, Prince Charming. Good sex in the middle of a story is a happy marriage trope.
Of course, if we wanted to help the kids, we wouldn’t let them read the miserable, vampire-glutted hokey, pokey fit-on-this-marketing-curve YA Lit in the first place. We could suggest they read children’s books, which are strong and brave and full of subversive ideas, until they felt tall enough to ride an adult book.
I like that distinction between where in the story the good sex happens. That would be interesting to focus on going forward. Hm… thinking.
The problem, though, is not entirely in the market – which does have a number of good books that accomplish things like helping teens in the way you mean, though subversive ideas are not the only thing teens need from books – but the problem is in how people talk about these books. There is lots of good sex, amid lots of trauma, whether that’s sexual or not, but the conversations about these books tend to center on the traumatic sexual experiences. I’d like to ask the questions you started asking about “good sex,” things like what does it do to the story, what attitudes it displays in how it is presented, etc., and placement in the plot is a good starting point.