Oct 1 2011 11:30am
My first young adult novel, Little Brother, tells the story of a kid named Marcus Yallow who forms a guerilla army of young people dedicated to the reformation of the U.S. government by any means necessary. He and his friends use cryptography and other technology to subvert security measures, to distribute revolutionary literature, to liberate and publish secret governmental memos, and humiliate government officials. Every chapter includes some kind of how-to guide for accomplishing this kind of thing on your own, from tips on disabling radiofrequency ID tags to beating biometric identity system to defeating the censorware used by your school network to control what kind of things you can and can’t see on the internet. The book is a long hymn to personal liberty, free speech, the people’s right to question and even overthrow their government, even during wartime.
Marcus is 17, and the book is intended to be read by young teens or even precocious tweens (as well as adults). Naturally, I anticipated that some of the politics and technology in the story would upset my readers. And it’s true, a few of the reviewers were critical of this stuff. But not many, not overly so.
What I didn’t expect was that I would receive a torrent of correspondence and entreaties from teachers, students, parents, and librarians who were angry, worried, or upset that Marcus loses his virginity about two-thirds of the way through the book (secondarily, some of them were also offended by the fact that Marcus drinks a beer at one point, and a smaller minority wanted to know why and how Marcus could get away with talking back to his elders).
Now, the sex-scene in the book is anything but explicit. Marcus and his girlfriend are kissing alone in her room after a climactic scene in the novel, and she hands him a condom. The scene ends. The next scene opens with Marcus reflecting that it wasn’t what he thought it would be, but it was still very good, and better in some ways than he’d expected. He and his girlfriend have been together for quite some time at this point, and there’s every indication that they’ll go on being together for some time yet. There is no anatomy, no grunts or squeals, no smells or tastes. This isn’t there to titillate. It’s there because it makes plot-sense and story-sense and character-sense for these two characters to do this deed at this time.
I’ve spent enough time explaining what this “plotsense and story-sense and character-sense” means to enough people that I find myself creating a “Teen transgression in YA literature FAQ.”
There’s really only one question: “Why have your characters done something that is likely to upset their parents, and why don’t you punish them for doing this?”
Now, the answer.
First, because teenagers have sex and drink beer, and most of the time the worst thing that results from this is a few days of social awkwardness and a hangover, respectively. When I was a teenager, I drank sometimes. I had sex sometimes. I disobeyed authority figures sometimes.
Mostly, it was OK. Sometimes it was bad. Sometimes it was wonderful. Once or twice, it was terrible. And it was thus for everyone I knew. Teenagers take risks, even stupid risks, at times. But the chance on any given night that sneaking a beer will destroy your life is damned slim. Art isn’t exactly like life, and science fiction asks the reader to accept the impossible, but unless your book is about a universe in which disapproving parents have cooked the physics so that every act of disobedience leads swiftly to destruction, it won’t be very credible. The pathos that parents would like to see here become bathos: mawkish and trivial, heavy-handed, and preachy.
Second, because it is good art. Artists have included sex and sexual content in their general-audience material since cave-painting days. There’s a reason the Vatican and the Louvre are full of nudes. Sex is part of what it means to be human, so art has sex in it.
Sex in YA stories usually comes naturally, as the literal climax of a coming-of-age story in which the adolescent characters have undertaken a series of leaps of faiths, doing consequential things (lying, telling the truth, being noble, subverting authority, etc.) for the first time, never knowing, really knowing, what the outcome will be. These figurative losses of virginity are one of the major themes of YA novels—and one of the major themes of adolescence—so it’s artistically satisfying for the figurative to become literal in the course of the book. This is a common literary and artistic technique, and it’s very effective.
I admit that I remain baffled by adults who object to the sex in this book. Not because it’s prudish to object, but because the off-camera sex occurs in the middle of a story that features rioting, graphic torture, and detailed instructions for successful truancy.
As the parent of a young daughter, I feel strongly that every parent has the right and responsibility to decide how his or her kids are exposed to sex and sexually explicit material.
However, that right is limited by reality: the likelihood that a high-school student has made it to her 14th or 15th year without encountering the facts of life is pretty low. What’s more, a kid who enters puberty without understanding the biological and emotional facts about her or his anatomy and what it’s for is going to be (even more) confused.
Adolescents think about sex. All the time. Many of them have sex. Many of them experiment with sex. I don’t believe that a fictional depiction of two young people who are in love and have sex is likely to impart any new knowledge to most teens—that is, the vast majority of teenagers are apt to be familiar with the existence of sexual liaisons between 17-year-olds.
So since the reader isn’t apt to discover anything new about sex in reading the book, I can’t see how this ends up interfering with a parent’s right to decide when and where their kids discover the existence of sex.