Sexualising Teenage Books

Still from the movie 'The Virgin Suicides'

“We need more, not less, sex scenes in teenage literature, for the healthy development of our kids”. Now there’s a point of view I never thought I’d hear espoused on good old BBC Radio. Sex in children’s books is a minefield in literature, if ever there was one.

Now, I’ll confess to have developed something of a ‘thing’ for podcasts; they’re the perfect soundtrack to my daily work commute. I’m very late to the party, I know, but suddenly I find my phone subscribed to all sorts of podcasts. And last Wednesday, as I was stuck behind a bus that conveniently decided to break down in rush-hour traffic, the guests on the podcast were discussing children’s and teenage books, and the argument was being made for adding more sex scenes into older children’s and young adult literature.

Their point was that in today’s hyper-sexualised and always-online (in Google founder Larry Page’s words, kids today are either “online or asleep”) world, older children and teenagers are getting their sex ‘bearings’ and visuals primarily from porn. As a joke recently doing the rounds on Facebook had it, Porn gives young people an unrealistic and unhealthy idea of how quickly a plumber will come to your house.”  And having porn as the benchmark by which to measure real-life relationships is hardly conducive to realistic expectations and demands.

Thus, the podcasters argued, good young adult literature can, through presenting sex in a more realistic, non-Hollywood light, go a long way towards balancing teenagers’ view of sex. A typical sex scene in teenage literature will put the spotlight on the emotional side of the relationship, apart from the physical. And it might give a franker description of the fumblings and imperfections of young sex.

So. Hmm. Sounds like a good excuse to encourage my authors to include sex scenes and orgasms into their children’s books. But of course the podcast did have a point. One thing that literature does so well is bring up the emotional turbulences of its characters; something that the binary on-off depictions of porn can never do. And surely there is something to be said for the lack of discussion of the nuances of a sexual relationship in the teenage world.

Sex in teenage literature is hardly new. Judy Blume’s Forever, way back in the seventies, had caused a huge stir for its sexual content, featuring as it did not only teenagers who decided to have sex but also a female teenage character who partook in uninhibited sex as a casual physical act with no romantic entanglements. But even much more recently, there have been massive media rows on the subject. A couple of years back there was an uproar over the teenage novel Tender Morsels (Margo Lanagan) because of its more or less graphic depiction of a gang rape.

In the Maltese literary scene, there are at least two teenage novels I can think of that include a rape scene, albeit not graphically and very contained: Simon Bartolo’s Deformity and Loranne Vella’s Magna Mater.

Ultimately, of course, teenagers are hardly going to be told what to read, and a novel will swim or sink depending on how attuned it is to their language, reality and preoccupations. Which, let’s face it, at 14+ are bound to include sex.

How did I end up discussing porn on my first-ever post on eve.com.mt? Bah.