Wednesday, July 17, 2013

More on Young Adult Fiction's Virginity Problem (A Case Study)

[Content note: discussions of virginity, sexual abuse, and self harm.]

Here's the first of my posts on this subject, if you missed it.

So I took a dive into the virtual bargain bin again. I keep trying to capitalize on my one free Kindle book per month with my Amazon Prime subscription. So I recently downloaded Sometimes Never by Cheryl McIntyre. It was a clueless dive into the bin because all I knew about the book was the Amazon description:
Hope didn't have the best role model when it came to relationships. She’s content with her current no-strings-attached extracurricular activity with the lead singer of her band. She’s never believed in love and commitment. Mason starts his eighth school in five years anticipating nothing more than the usual—boring classes, fighting more than making friends, and girls happily willing to succumb to his easy smile. He’s never put much stock into love at first sight—until he sees her. Regardless of their painful pasts, Hope and Mason discover that sometimes never can become forever. 
I didn't even read any user reviews...I just figured I'd just go for it. While the book broke some of the standard young adult (YA) fiction pitfalls, it was far from perfect in regards to the ever present fixation on female virginity.

This will be spoilery.

The story takes the back-and-forth narrator style where each chapter is told from either Hope or Mason's perspective. (I always like that style because we get to be inside two characters heads.) It chronicles as they meet and an extreme attraction is ignited. McIntyre does a great job of describing this sexual tension and you really root for them to get together. She also beautifully describes the feelings of first falling in love and their excitement, fear, and vulnerability that come along with that. Hope is a girl after my own heart, in that she actively denounces love, but finds herself falling quickly in it.

Overall, I like Hope's character and I think that McIntyre handles some VERY tricky themes pretty well. Hope was sexually abuse at the hands of one of her mom's many boyfriends when she was 12. Her mom, who was a neglectful, mentally ill addict, died in a car crash a few years before the story starts. She never helped Hope with this abuse in any way (we're not even certain if her mom knew it had happened). The emotional and mental scars of the abuse and other trauma from her past have manifested in physical scars that Hope inflicts upon herself. This is her deepest secret--that she cuts her thighs to cope with the emotions she feels.

Mason is a less interesting character to me, overall. But that might just be me...because I don't orient to relating to male characters in stories as much. He has his own sad back story. His father was murdered and his mother keeps moving him and his brother to different cities every year to 6 months. He copes with anger (lashing out and getting in fights--but only with people who are bullying others), being emotionally detached from his peers (but very charming on the surface) and hyper sexual behavior with any girl who likes him.

Where things begin to become troubling for me is how Mason, despite his own flaws, is poised to be some kind of savior for Hope. I feel that it's less about their love growing together and more about how he becomes a pillar of reliability for her. I think McIntyre's intention was to show that they are really good for one another, but it seems overemphasized how important Mason is to Hope.

And then there's the virginity problem. Oi, the virginity problem.

It's made very clear from the start that Hope is a virgin. She jokes and brags about it within the first few chapters. On other other hand, we know that both Mason and Hope's gay best friend/foster brother, Guy, are very sexually active. Granted, there isn't necessarily the coupling of Hope's virginity with doe like innocence (Hope's a feisty, street smart chick) and there's not an unequal power dynamic between her and Mason, like often occurs in YA, but that doesn't erase the fact that Hope's virginity and its "loss" are up front and center. It's especially troubling because the sexual abuse that Hope endured (as she describes to Mason) was non-penetrative in nature, so I can't help but feel like the narrative is somehow constructed to presume that "at least" Hope still has her "virginity." I'm not sure--but I got a creepy vibe in that direction.

To McIntyre's credit she does show how the effects of sexual abuse can carry into healthy sexual situations and how each person has their own triggers. When Mason finds out that Hope is cutting, he freaks out, pins her down, and pulls up the legs of her shorts to see the scars. Hope is extremely triggered and hurt and what follows is several days of her refusing to speak to him or acknowledge him until she finally explains that he can never, ever exert any control over her body like that again. I think this was handled well and served as an important lesson to both Mason and the audience. It might not seem like a big deal to look at someone's scars, but it was an incredibly big deal to Hope, and that's all that matters.

So, again, McIntyre sheds light onto topics that YA authors don't often touch. In this way, I feel she does justice for people who have experienced trauma and who might not often see themselves in the usual protagonist. But my bigger point is that if we use Sometimes Never as a case study of YA going right--it's still kind of wrong. Ultimately, one of the biggest, most important points of the whole story is that Hope eventually trusts Mason enough to have sex with him. Ok, fine...but apparently that's not enough. I guess it needed to be constructed so that it wasn't just sex, it was specifically the loss of her virginity. How disappointing.

It reminds me of something commenter Kat wrote on my other post on this subject:
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 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.
[Emphasis mine.]

I couldn't agree with Kat more. It all conveys troubling messages to teens. McIntyre uses the loss of Hope's virginity and this first sexual act for them to be the point at which their relationship is sealed and we, as the readers, need them to stay together. The stakes are suddenly higher. But is that realistic?

It's all around just a tired narrative.

Ya know, despite all this, I generally enjoyed reading Sometimes Never. As I said above, parts of Hope spoke to the 17 year old me that's somewhere in my brain. And McIntyre does a great job on the relationship elements of the story...the feeling of first love resonated with me greatly. That's probably why I was all the more bothered that there was an emphasis on Hope's virginity.

Why couldn't we just not know if it was her "first time?" Why does it matter? Does that make their love or their story any less special?


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