Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Young Adult Fiction's Virginity Problem

I missed the boat on the YA fiction craze--or I at least came to it really late. When series like Twilight and The Hunger Games were really taking off (roughly 2005-2009) I was immersed in academic reading and rarely had time for anything that wasn't assigned in my political science, women's studies, or nonprofit classes. While many of my peers (and girls much younger than me) were falling in love with Edward Cullen, I was connecting with bell hooks, June Jordan, and Margaret Atwood.

By the time I emerged from my literary isolation. Twilight was too popular to be unaware of; especially given that its problematic themes were covered on nearly every feminist blog. Besides, in my direct service work with teen girls, I needed to keep up with what they liked. So I began to be somewhat aware of YA literature and the movies that came from them--aware enough to ask my girls the right questions about the main characters in order to get their wheels turning.

I promise, this isn't some hipster diatribe about how I'm above YA lit. I just want to really clearly outline why I'm late to the party and how I got to where I am now. Anyway, while I was aware of Twilight, I still never jumped into YA. I had a few friends who really like this genre and were urging me to read some, but I couldn't see the appeal especially given the feminist criticism I'd heard. So several people recommended The Hunger Games to me, thinking that I would really like its main character. It turns out that, despite my ignoring them, they were right. Shortly after I saw the movie and really enjoyed it, I sped through the series in just one week. 

Sadly, Katniss Everdeen was a fairly unrealistic introduction to the young women of YA. 

A few weeks ago, I wanted to add some more books to my Kindle Fire. I started with the section called  "100 books under $3.99." (I'm not sure if anyone has hold you this, but you don't get rich as a nonprofit manager and part time feminist blogger.) I knew that dipping in the virtual bargain bin was a risk, but I had to take it. I found a book called Slammed by Colleen Hoover. Overall, it was OK--a decent read about a young woman, Layken, who is struggling with the recent death of her father and a cross country move, all while developing feelings for the guy across the street, Will.

But I'm not here to review the book...I'm here to talk about the teaser included at the back for Hoover's next book, Point of Retreat which picks up where Slammed leaves off and is from Will's perspective. That's where things start to get dicey for me because, you see, Will was entrusted by Layken's mom to protect Layken's virginity for at least a year. Learning this, I started to look back at Slammed differently. I never truly felt that Layken was a strong female character. Her virginity status is discussed in the first book and frequently we see her as someone who not only receives Will's protection, but also acts as if she needs it to survive. However, it was never in a way which made me want to totally put the book down. But with Point of Retreat, there it is in plain language within the first few chapters: a male character who is acting as the guardian of his female partner's virginity. (And it's particularly interesting to me that Hoover chose to make the second book from Will's perspective seeing that the subject matter is focused on something so deeply personal for Layken.)

It got my wheels turning about virginity in YA in general. Like I mentioned, I'm a novice to this genre, and I was spoiled by starting with The Hunger Games. But I do know that Twilight, arguably the most popular contemporary YA book, deals heavily with virginity. I'm still totally unwilling to read the series myself, but I did a bit of research to see what others are saying about Stephanie Meyer's take on the subject. According to Sarah Seltzer at The Huffington Post:
Meanwhile, he [Edward] is equally besotted with her [Bella], so much so that he trains himself to ignore his thirst for her blood, which has an aroma that could make even a good vampire (Edward and his coven have forsworn munching on humankind) go bad. Yet Edward still won't go all the way because he doesn't want to get carried away and hurt Bella with his superhuman strength. Her physical safety becomes a symbolic substitute for her virginity, and Edward guards it with overprotective zeal.

Now that's a real fantasy: a world where young women are free to describe their desires openly, and launch themselves at men without shame, while said boyfriends are the sexual gatekeepers. Twilight's sexual flowchart is the inversion of abstinence-only/purity ball culture, where girls are told that they must guard themselves against rabid boys, and that they must reign in both their own and their suitors' impulses. But even while inverting the positions, Meyer doesn't change the game. Purity is still the goal.
Or take Christine Seifert over at Bitch Magazine,
By extension, readers who interpreted Edward’s reluctance to be near Bella in Twilight as evidence of his innocent “crush” on her are forced to recognize that even Edward—the dream guy—is not at all he’s cracked up to be. Digging into Edward’s mind reinforces the old stereotype that underneath it all, even the best guys are calculating vampires, figuring out how to act on their masculine urges. Edward holds all the power, while Bella—and female readers—romanticizes the perfect man who doesn’t exist....
Such disappointment suggests something about the desire readers have for abstinence messages; it may also suggest readers’ belief that, pre-sex, Edward and Bella were the perfect couple. In reality, the abstinence message—wrapped in the genre of abstinence porn—objectifies Bella in the same ways that “real” porn might. The Twilight books conflate Bella losing her virginity with the loss of other things, including her sense of self and her very life. Such a high-stakes treatment of abstinence reinforces the idea that Bella is powerless, an object, a fact that is highlighted when we get to the sex scenes in Breaking Dawn.
And then there's Neesha Meminger at Racialicious:
Initially, Edward is only attracted to Bella because of her physicality: her smell. This then turns into an inexplicable urge to protect her. So, in this relationship, Bella is safe, protected fiercely, cherished, and her innocence is allowed free roam. She is a child on the cusp of womanhood, exploring her sexuality, her sensuality, her womanchild-ness.
Edward cherishes her fragility and innocence, even as it causes him great pain. At the expense of his own basic, animal hunger, he offers her a safe place to explore her budding sexuality. 
All of these things are really frustrating to me and solidify the concerns that I saw in Slammed and Point of Retreat. (Even that title, Point of Retreat, is the name for when Layken and Will have to stop what they are doing so that they don't go too far and he is able to maintain his status as her virginity protector.) Furthermore, if I'm really honest with myself, there's even an element of virginity and repression in The Hunger Games, although less explicit. We're aware that Katniss is a virgin and while she never has sex within the context of the books, how often does she repress her urges for Peeta or Gale? However at least Katniss' sexuality seems to be owned by her and is not some prized possession that is hoarded by a boy. And her virginity and innocence is certainly not central to her character. But with virginal Layken and Bella, they both seem so passive in something that is supposed to be totally their own.

Of course, YA isn't the only genre that has a weird fascination with female virginity. As Caperton recently discussed at Feministe, romance novels also heavily rely on loss of purity/virginity stories--and frequently on the hymen in specific. She writes:
In the world of heteromance novels, though, the hymen’s usually the thing, and there’s pretty consistent boilerplate for the scene in which our innocent, sheltered protagonist loses hers: She feels an awful tearing deep inside or a pinching that wasn’t as bad as she expected, or he encounters an obstruction halfway in about which he’ll interrogate her after they’re done with the tender lovemaking. Or he gets to a certain point insider her and then has to stop and ask her if she’s okay and strokes her hair off her forehead until she assures him she really does want to do this, and then he busts through her maidenhead like the Kool-Aid Man, and she’s ouchy for a bit and then ends up coming rainbows by the time he’s finished. 
Most significantly, it’s that point, the breaching of the tollbooth halfway down Ladycavern Turnpike, that signifies her loss of virtue–if Innocent Maiden were to tell Lusty Pirate that she didn’t want to do it after all, he could back out and she’d still be a virgin. In romance novels, having only half a dick in you isn’t enough to make you filthy and unmarriageable.

So where am I going with all of this? First, let me make something very clear: it is not the sex I have a problem with in any of this. If these stories were about a young woman simply exploring her sexuality freely, making her own choices, struggling with her desires, I wouldn't even be writing this. But there is always a male involved who is in the driver's seat--an older, more experienced male. I mean, I kid you not, one of the lines from the snippet I read of Point of Retreat when Will was thinking about Layken was a frustrated "She's impossible to control" because he couldn't get her to stop playing with her food. Like a child. Yeah, seriously.

So no, the sex isn't the problem. The problem is the undue focus on female virginity and innocence, the power dynamic at play, the implied shame of non-virginity, and the fact that these things are marketed at very young women.

Teens have very few places in our society where they can gather age appropriate information about sex or explore their sexuality in a safe, healthy manner. All too often, boys use hard core female-degrading pornography as their outlet, while girls are much more likely to seek refuge in novels like Twilight and now even 50 Shades of Gray. I'm not trying to be an alarmist, I swear, but I'm extremely concerned about the situation that is created when these boys and girls begin to date one another and enter into sexual situations with completely different perceptions about what that means, although both with the expectation that the male partner is in control. How could I not be concerned about this--especially given our extremely inadequate sex education and the fact that "enthusiastic consent" is a concept not yet embraced by the general public. 

I'm not sure that there is a simple solution to YA's tendency to overemphasize the loss of virginity. It is clearly a theme which plays well with audiences and as we all know, money speaks louder than anything else. However, for me it serves as one more example of "the purity myth" in action--a term coined by Jessica Valenti in her book of that title which chronicles all the different ways our society is obsessed with virginity and "links a woman’s worth to her sexuality rather than to values like honesty, kindness, and altruism."

Now if only I could get more people to pick up Valenti's books instead of Stephanie Meyer's.


  1. You do make some valid points, but there is one aspect of your argument I don't fully agree with; how women are taught to 'protect themselves from rabid boys'.
    Truthfully, there is some sense to it.Boys may or may not care about the consequences of having sex, particularly involving pregnancies. It is often easy for boys to walk away from it all leaving the girl to look after the baby, and while yes it takes two to tango and it should be the responsibility of both, but it doesn't always work that way.
    So it justifies some of the warnings at times (though it does depend on individual case as well)

    1. Well...that wasn't really my point. That quote you mention was within the block quote from another writer...

      This, right? "Twilight's sexual flowchart is the inversion of abstinence-only/purity ball culture, where girls are told that they must guard themselves against rabid boys, and that they must reign in both their own and their suitors' impulses."

      Read that again. It's saying that Twilight is the *opposite* of the purity ball culture which says girls must control boys' impulses (but equally problematic). I don't really hit on that topic here. I'm focusing on the fact that in YA fiction, there's a troublesome theme of boys being entrusted to protect girls' virginity. I wasn't really writing about how we tell girls to protect themselves from boys.

      But while we're going to talk about it...I'm not sure that it's entirely fair to say that all boys don't care about the consequences of sex. That plays into the "boys will be boys" myth which serves to absolves young men of responsibility by pretending that they are not capable of the same self control as their female counterparts. It all falls into the "women as gatekeepers" of sexuality theory (which you can read more about here: http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2012/3/26/Harvard-gatekeeper-narrative/)

      Sure there are men who walk away after having kids, but part of the problem *IS* that we as a society keep framing things in a way which teaches kids that "boys will be boys" and girls are supposed to be the gatekeepers who keep boys at bay instead of shifting to a cultural narrative which demands better from our sons.

      But again--that is not what I'm writing about here. I'm saying that in YA fiction there are a lot of boys who are put in charge of keeping girls virgins and that's not the solution either.

  2. I just now came across this after searching for 'feminist young adult novels.' I am a young adult, myself, and personally am extremely tired of the focus on virginity. I'm not sure if this is because young adult authors assume that most 15-, 16-, 17-year old girls are realistically virgins, or if this is supposedly the ideal condition of heroines, but nearly every female main character starts out in a book/series as a virgin, and often will 'lose it' (I also hate that term...it implies you'll be tearfully torn from something that you'll miss) at some point in the story. And even if/after they do, sex is portrayed as a really huge deal that is utterly perfect and romantic and seals a bond between the characters that lasts forever. While this can certainly be the case times, in my experience the first time many girls have sex is more awkward than romantic, and often does not have the same meaningful repercussions as novels portray. I would even venture to say that many girls go into sex thinking that it will help keep a boy, or feel inadequate if sex isn't as romantic and awesome as it is described in fiction.
    Secondly, I completely agree with the point that you brought up that these books argue that a woman's sexuality is essentially owned or protected by someone else. While this protection can be a romantic fantasy that's admittedly kind of fun to read about sometimes, it is a little unhealthy for a girl to believe. The choice should be solely their own, and while they should respect their partner's pace (because contrary to popular belief, some guys really do like to take it slow), they need to know that ultimately it is their body, therefore their choice.
    I haven't really read any other feminist blogs about young adult books, but I'm really glad I stumbled onto this one. The same annoyances I had with the genre were put into better words by you, and I'm happy that someone else feels the same way. Hopefully more authors of all genres will become more aware of these things, and I won't have to specifically search for 'feminist young adult books' in order not to wade through novels condemning 'sluts' and 'whores' while promoting female purity (unless the heroine's personal value system is responsible). You would think coming into the twenty first century that sexual liberation would be a given, but I guess most young adult literature is lagging.


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