Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Sex and the Teenage Reader — and her Mother


I reread Forever the other day. Yes, that Forever, the one with the penis named Ralph and the pages that open automatically to the sex scenes. (For anyone who has no idea what I'm talking about, though I doubt there are very many of you, Forever is Judy Blume's 1975 teen sex novel, an obsession for my generation and one of the most controversial books of the last several decades.)
Why did I reread Forever? Therein lies a saga.

It began with an email from a friend who asked, "are there books for teenage girls, in which the characters have sex, and like it, and use birth control, and don't have babies?" "I don't want to resort to buying my daughter a copy of Forever," she went on, "because I'm guessing it's hopelessly dated, but is there something more recent that will do?"

All I could think of, believe it or not, was Gossip Girl, and when I turned to my in-house teen expert, she had the same answer. We agreed that, amidst the designer labels, decadence, drinking, and drugs, the first several books of the Gossip Girl series address the complexities of teen sex with surprising nuance. When Serena and Nate lose their virginity together, it's a delightful experience; Blair is determined not to have sex with Nate until she is ready, and walks away from vacation sex with a boy she hardly knows; Vanessa and Dan are awkward and ambivalent, never both ready for the momentous act at the same time; Jenny makes mistakes, but knows to regret them. Not only that, but in Gossip Girl, nobody who has sex gets pregnant (see: current teen fave Sarah Dessen's Someone Like You), dies (like the girls who have sex in horror movies -- see: Scream), or turns into a vampire (see: Twilight).

But I knew that wasn't what my friend was looking for. Though many mothers (see: me) are fine with their daughters reading Gossip Girl, it's not exactly the kind of thing one wants to go around actively recommending (see: designer labels, decadence, drinking, drugs).

So I turned to the professionals. University of Richmond professor of children's literature Elisabeth Gruner offered up a few books that didn't quite fit the bill (Weetzie Bat, Looking for Alaska), and concluded that "I once heard a talk about how teen girls who have sex always either die or get pregnant and there's something to it, sadly."

Jessica Leader, author of the delightful (but pre-sex) tween novel Nice and Mean, immediately came up with some titles (Vegan Virgin Valentine, Anatomy of a Boyfriend and Fair Game -- all of which, interestingly enough, like Forever, are about high school seniors), but agreed that "authors feel pressure that if a main character has sex, it has to be a Thing -- dealt with in some way."

Things were not looking good for positive teen sex in the 21st century -- or at least in 21st -century teen literature. Indeed, I began to wonder if there was something wrong with me for thinking, like my friend, that good sex was something we had a right to expect in books for our teenagers. Were we hopeless avatars of a bygone age, leading our precious daughters down the road to literary and sexual ruin? Had Forever misled us, and our entire generation, into thinking that sex was a reasonable expectation for teenage girls and that the goal was to make it good (i.e. both satisfying and responsible), rather than to make it scary for preventative purposes?

I searched my soul for the gaps between my literary and personal rhetoric -- and didn't find them. This spring, Mara's eighth grade sex education curriculum had a distinct tinge of abstinence, which I adamantly disputed whenever it came up. In a subsequent conversation about drugs and sex (the kind you have in the car, both of you looking straight ahead at the road), I told her that while she could have a perfectly satisfactory life without doing drugs, I was 99.9% certain that she would eventually have sex, and it would be completely reasonable for it to happen in high school -- if she was ready, prepared, and unpressured. There was no disputing the fact that I was a 21st-century mom whose '70s roots were showing.

Meanwhile, on the adult literary front, I read one of the best books I've read this year, and it just happened to be relevant. Anthropology of an American Girl turns a microscope on the life of a smart, sensitive teenage girl in -- you guessed it -- the '70s (and early '80s). Among other things, Eveline Auerbach has sex: lovingly but not passionately with her tortured soulmate of a first boyfriend; ecstatically with her second boyfriend and great love; and numbly, to the point of abuse, with her third boyfriend, whom she allows to seduce her in the shattered aftermath of the second. Anthropology of an American Girl offers no trite lessons, but it feels real. Evie suffers from sex, but sex also gives her incredible pleasure and connection. Most importantly, she owns her sexual desire and makes her own choices.

This, I thought, is the message I want to give my daughter: that sex is part of life, which means sometimes it's the best thing that ever happened to you, and sometimes it causes you terrible pain, but either way you need to make your own choices, consciously, and deal with their consequences, good or bad.

Still, I knew Mara wasn't going to read Anthropology of an American Girl: its 600 pages were clearly written not for teenagers, but for women who used to be teenagers. Which finally brought me to Forever. If Hamann was writing about the experience of being a high school girl in the '70s, and Forever was written in the '70s about a high school girl, perhaps I could find in Forever an accessible version of Anthropology of an American Girl.

Uh, no. Forever is sweet, straightforward, earnest, and, as my friend suspected, dated, with its Planned Parenthood-promoting grandmother and nicknamed penis. I think Mara would read it and roll her eyes, though she might also secretly devour the details (unfortunately, I can't say for sure because she's away, and I'm not going to be the mom who sends Forever to camp!).

At a loss for a conclusion to my teen sex literary journey, I finally turned to blog post by YA novelist Marianna Baer which Leader had recommended. Discussing how to write sex scenes in YA fiction (and providing several good book recommendations along the way), Baer argues that "if we treat our characters with respect, and write the scenes with honesty, we are fulfilling our responsibility. And part of respecting our characters is respecting them as desirous, sexual beings."

Reading her words, I finally had the epiphany I hadn't even known I was seeking. My job is not to find the book with the perfect sexual message for my daughter. My job is to treat my daughter as Baer treats her characters: with respect and honesty, when it comes to books, sex, and everything else.

Finally I knew what to say to my friend: Check out the books Leader and Baer recommend, let your daughter read Gossip Girl and Forever if she wants to, but, most importantly, keep talking with her about books, sex, and everything else. For when it comes down to it, I truly believe that we influence our children more than books do.

Rebecca Steinitz has written for The New Republic, The Utne Reader, Salon, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, Hip Mama, Inside Higher Ed, Publisher’s Weekly, BookPage, and The Women’s Review of Books, among other places. She is a contributor to the anthologies It’s a Girl and Mama PhD and her book Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary will be published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year. In her previous life as an English professor, she taught nineteenth-century British literature, feminist theory, and writing. She now works as a writing coach in the Boston Public Schools. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters.

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Thanks for the link! It occurs to me that John Green's books do OK with sex--not, maybe, intercourse, but at least teen sexuality. David Levithan and a host of co-authors do pretty well with gay teen sexuality and, in Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, with some hetero-sexuality as well. It's out there, but it's not always where we expect (ie, in the books explicitly for teen girls). I'd try Justine Larbalestier and Maureen Johnson's work as well, though again you may not get exactly the kind of thing you find in Forever...
Great, great post, Becca. I've been thinking about this because this summer I read a spate of YA books that were sometimes pretty damn good (including one where having an abortion is the happy ending) but definitely where having sex ruined -- or almost ruined -- the girls' lives. YA books sure seem to be echoing Taylor Swift songs these days.
I love this post. The talking is definitely the most important thing. And those books that aren't exactly what we're looking for are at least good great for jump starting the ever-popular car conversations. It's great to be able to say, "I think it would have been more realistic if..." or "It's bullshit that the male character..." It's definitely the talking that's key.
So great to see the direction this went in! I definitely agree with the conclusion. I did want to add, as you noted in our correspondence, that FAIR GAME actually focuses on a gang rape, but interestingly, one of the protagonists has mostly untroubled sexual experiences of her own. It's a fantastic and thought-provoking book, but I wouldn't want anyone to hand it off to their child as an example of respectful dealings with sex!
This one hit so close to home. I can't bear to think of what's inside those YA books my 13 year old is reading. I'm hoping they're giving her a decent sexual education. It's one thing to have these talks mother to daughter, and other to worry about what's inside literature. "My job is not to find the book with the perfect sexual message for my daughter. My job is to treat my daughter as Baer treats her characters: with respect and honesty, when it comes to books, sex, and everything else." Amen!
As a now mostly grown-up daughter of a mother who did exactly what you're suggesting - kept talking to me, respected me, and encouraged me to make my own choices while giving me the support and information to make them responsibly and safely - I think every single mother or mother-to-be should read your post and take it on board. If you treat children as if their opinions count, as if they deserve respect, and talk to them - I think more often than not they will respond by respecting you back and talking to you.
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