21 May 2009

Sex and the Teen Reader

I've been thinking a lot about sex in teen literature lately. I know it's going to be an important issue in my WIP, because of who some of the characters are. And so, like I do with most of my writing problems/concerns/difficulties, I turn back to my own reading.

Sex, not crushes, not romance, began showing up in my own reading when I was twelve or thirteen. I was a huge science fiction fan, and my middle school library happily supplied me with the work of the Golden Age masters. The library had the complete set (and in some cases, first printing) of the Heinlein juveniles. Not to mention a healthy selection of works by Arthur C. Clark, Isaac Asimov, and Frank Herbert. The year was 1994 and most of the books hadn't been checked out (there were those little paper cards in the back) since the mid '80's. The books weren't popular and had only been read by boys, and had clearly not gone through any sort of adult selection or verification process.

You sometimes hear stories of girls quietly passing copies of Forever or Flowers in the Attic among them, reading the "good parts." The boys of my middle school were not so altruistic. The books were read and then returned. You would never have guessed that there was sex between the pages of Herbert's Hellstrom's Hive or Heinlein's Friday (which is NOT one of his juvies, but was shelved with them anyway). There were no clues.

Besides the above mentioned books, the big source of literary sex in my life was my best friend who lived within walking distance of the county library. She checked out a string of romance novels (primarily historic - there's no accounting for taste) and would loan them to me. After a few months, she realized there was no need to read the entire book: the first sex scene would show up about 100 pages in, and something steamy would happen every 30 pages or so after that. This was my first lesson in structure as genre requirement. But these books were contained not only florid prose, but also vanilla sex and gender stereotypes. They were not the truly weird sex of the sci-fi shelves.

In Hellstrom's Hive (which I haven't read since middle school, so I apologize for any inaccuracies in the plot summary) for example, a wacky religious cult in the midwest is secretly the front for breeding experiments that treat human beings (and parts of them) like insects. Sex in this book is not all dreamy and romantic. It's horrifically procreative. Aside from an insane orgy scene (I had no idea what an orgy was at 13), the best (or strangest, depending on your pov) sex in the book is when a hive vixen show up at the FBI agent's hotel room, shoots him full of drugs and has sex with him until he dies. Something about eliminating a threat while obtaining new genetic material. It's a sex horror story, trading on the fear of procreation run amok and lust twisted to evil purposes. Also, it's an AWESOME book for teen girls: this time around sex kills men, and the supposed "goal" of healthy adult sex (procreation) is evilly manipulated by a crazy religious group. Can we pass copies of this out?

The other sci-fi book that shocked me with the strangeness of its portrayal of sex was Friday. Robert Heinlein is known for his all sorts of craziness sex book Stranger in a Strange Land (and also going off the deep end into bizarre racial relation in Farnham's Freehold). In Heinlein's books he argues for sexual liberation, for bi-sexual and homo-sexuality, group living including partner swapping, and in one truly weird section of one weird book for genetic incest (breeding together the world's two greatest math geniuses, a father / daughter pair: they don't actually have sex, it's handled in a petri-dish with a super computer there to fix any dangerously recessive traits, but still!) But these are in his adult novels. His juvenile books are mostly rocket clubs and slower than light travel problems.

But in Heinlein's adult book Friday (as in 'his girl'), super spy / super warrior Friday starts off the book getting caught and gang raped. Shocking yes, but even more so was Friday's understanding of her captors: they were trying to torture her and she pretended to like it. This unnerved one of the bad guys enough that he couldn't finish the job, and Friday ended the next chapter by literally taking the bad guys apart. Barehanded. She has a lesbian tryst, and a run in with some Australians living in a really workaday free love commune (the people with jobs go off to work everyday, while the others stay home and raise the kids and get dinner on the table). Friday saves her moment of emotional breakdown not for her gang rape, but for her betrayal by her commander. She treats sex as a weapon, as enjoyment, and as a way to pass the time. It's a complex series of looks at a complex issue.

Should I have been reading these "adult" books as a kid? Maybe not. But as a way to explore sex and it's related issues, it's got a pretty low incidence of STDs. Considering my own history with sex in books makes me feel more comfortable tackling a more complex and nuanced view of sex in a teen book. Clearly teens are capable of understanding an exploration of difficult topic. I know my characters will be engaging in difficult issues, and sex will have to be one of them. But I'm pretty sure teens can handle it.


At 9:58 AM, Blogger Ghenet said...

I agree, teens can definitely handle it.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Marirosa Mia said...

Yeah. they can handle it.

on another note. I can't believe I didn't discover these books when I was a teen! then again...my library was terrible. didn't have many english books let alone scifi books.

At 11:36 PM, Blogger liznwyrk said...

In my 11th grade Science Fiction class we read The Handmaid's Tale and A Clockwork Orange- certainly rocked my teenage world! And I'm forever grateful.


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