I read a lot of young-adult fiction because I find most of the old-adult fiction doesn’t really concern itself with things like plot and character anymore, and, generally speaking, that’s what I look for in reading material.
The Harry Potter books, the Hunger Games trilogy and the newly popular Maze Runner series all tell compelling stories that pit young people against impossible odds while looking at issues like responsibility, friendship and perseverance — set in exotic and sometimes dangerous worlds. What they don’t deal with, however, is any kind of authentic sexuality that accurately reflects the intimate feelings of people in their teens and early 20s.
Youth, as some of us remember, is a time of great confusion and complexity — particularly when it comes to sex. This was true in the days of my youth, and it’s even truer today. We old adults tend to forget that, for the young, not everything falls into neatly defined sexual categories. Their bodies are going through major changes; they’re flooded with new and frightening hormones and emotions.
At a time when most young men can be sexually stimulated by the rhythm of a moving vehicle, it would be naive to think those same young men are always at their most judicious when looking for someplace to park their pipe. Young women are similarly driven. Just as many budding queer youth will experiment with the opposite sex in their teens or early adulthood, so too will many straight-identified kids get off in ways that might slide away as they age — or just become better hidden. These are important experiences. It’s through them we learn to define the boundaries of friendship, emotional and physical intimacy, and love. For some adults, these are memories that, even if not often spoken of, are cherished. And for others they are unnatural, horrifying or deeply heartbreaking events. But whether constructive or challenging, they are profound and they are necessary to how we come to understand ourselves and other people.
And yet, do Harry and Ron ever even consider swapping handjobs in their little room at wizard school late at night when they’re alone? Does Hermione ever have to consider performing oral sex on Ron rather than having actual intercourse? Do any of the imprisoned boys in Maze Runner ever hit on the one girl who is placed among them after months of confinement with only their own kind for company? Does Katniss ever get drunk on her mother’s stash of wine with her best friend and practise French kissing and nipple rubbing “just so we’ll know what to do with guys”? Are you kidding? These kids don’t even masturbate.
Hollywood and the world of commercial publishing like things simple. Success is now perceived to be something one achieves by offending the least number of people possible. Artists are discouraged from asking difficult questions of their audience because doing so interferes with the false idea of a satisfied, prosperous, easily defined society that government and corporate interests ask us to believe in. Sex is complicated, so we’ll just have our young adults kill people instead. And all of these books contain quite a lot of killing, which seems to be only mildly morally complex.
However, in taking the easy way out, these creators don’t just irresponsibly sidestep a lot of very interesting dramatic possibilities; they also shirk an obligation that is crucial if one is going to write respectfully for a YA audience. Very few young people have parents who are really terrific about being honest and open about sex. Our society just doesn’t allow it. So if artists don’t help kids deal with the many questions they’re going to face in an authentic way, then who is?
There are now millions of young people in the Western world who have more exposure to sexually graphic material of every kind than ever before. They live in a world where women are worthless if they don’t do anal, nothing is more important than the size of a guy’s dick, and meetings are arranged based on an Instagram of someone’s genitals. The sex they’re seeing is not complex, not authentic and certainly not magical or mysterious. It’s sex as performance, glossy meat in bad lighting generally devoid of humour or humanity.
So when I hear all of these troublesome stories about rape culture, teen sex parties and abuse victims who are frightened to name their authority-figure rapists, I can’t help but think we have a far larger problem than most people are comfortable acknowledging. And I think those whose job it is to reflect our youth back at themselves might help them out by putting their characters in some of life’s more challenging and natural situations while depicting them with some degree of truth.
Just a thought.