I have many reasons for becoming a Young Adult Fantasy writer. 1) I love to write (duh). 2) I always have and still do mostly read fantasy novels (11-18 readership). 3) I find teenagers vastly interesting both individually and collectively (but not in a perverse way, let’s be clear).
I also suspect I have a bit of an axe to grind. An axe forged by Phillip Pullman, sharpened by Stephenie Meyer and then, more recently, sharpened again by Miley Cyrus. Or, more accurately, sharpened by public response to Stephenie Meyer and Miley Cyrus and by my friend and fellow writer Janine Ashbless’ recent blog post about the film Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. (Younger readers be aware Ms Ashbless is a writer of erotica and that her blog is aimed at adult readers, but following this link should take you just to the blog post in question which contains nothing too “adult” in content.)
Phillip Pullman is one of my favourite young adult writers. His Dark Materials is thought-provoking, heartbreaking and full of pathos with an honestly-presented hero and heroine who, as a reader, I’d kill or die for at the heart of it. Plus, Pullman deserves props for making marzipan sexy. Honesty about the sex lives and desires of young women is a bit of a theme for Pullman which he explores not only through Lyra and Will but also through his Sally Lockhart character and Jenny in The Butterfly Tattoo/The White Mercedes. Pullman’s women, as we feminists like to say, have agency. They accept and celebrate their desire for sex and love.
But is this attitude appropriate really, for young readers? Should YA authors be presenting sex positive characters and themes in our books? Yes it is and yes we should. Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!
Besides being an author, I am also a teacher. In many direct and indirect ways, I encounter attitudes toward teen sex on a regular basis. Empowering young women to have the confidence to say no and take control of their bodies is, and should be, a priority in schools, in homes and in clinics. Because, as a wise person once told me, young women will never feel the power to truly say no and mean it if they cannot also lay claim to saying yes and mean it.
And mean it.
That means admitting girls desire, want, fancy boys, get horny and feel the urge to act on it. That means giving our girls role models in fiction who experience sex as an expression of their own love and passion and not merely as objects of someone else’s. Their own bodies, their own desires and their own experiences which they can initiate, negotiate and celebrate.
Young readers of both sexes cannot get enough of this message and Pullman is far from the only YA author preaching a sex positive message for young people. Stephenie Meyer has come under massive criticism for her representation of Bella Swan as a role model for young women. It bugs me to no end that, living with her adult father, Bella acts the housewife. However, no one can say that Bella does not know who and what she wants. She fights fang and claw to get it. In deference to conventional morality, Bella and Edward marry first but they have pretty explicit, glorious sex which she initiates, negotiates and celebrates.
As Ms Ashbless points out in her blog post, Clary Fray similarly pursues a physical and emotional relationship with Jace in The Mortal Instruments. I have mixed feelings about the books for other reasons, but in terms of giving a positive message to young women about sexual desire, I can’t fault Cassandra Clare for the role model she gives her readers.
Respecting the sexuality of young women and teaching them to respect their own sexuality is crucial for the physical and psychological development of both sexes. A girl who learns that she exists only to fulfill the desires of men and not herself grows up accepting a rape model of relationships. A boy who grows up with the idea that men are the initiators of sex and that girls and women need to be persuaded or convinced to have sex will likely grow up a rapist. And it colours our entire attitude about women about men and about sex.
The recent trend toward depicting the sexual fantasies of young women in fiction and the extreme backlash which has accompanied it shows just how much we need sex positive YA heroines. How many blogs, reviews and memes have crucified the Twilight series? The sheer volume and vehemence of the criticism reeks of misogyny, which is ironic when so much of the criticism claims to be feminist in nature.
Compare this to the outrage over Miley Cyrus’s sexy song and dance routine on the MTV Video Music Awards 2013. People are incensed about her performance. Little Hannah Montana twerking her perky butt all over the place and pleasuring herself with a giant foam finger. Shocking! Yet when Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe got his wand out on stage for Equus, he was widely praised for bravely challenging his child actor image (and for his rock-hard sexy abs). And no one turned ex-Disney poster boy Justin Timberlake into a pariah for ripping off Janet Jackson’s top.
These out-dated double-standards belong in the bottom drawer with the knee-high argyle socks.
I hope that YA heroines continue to be the agents of their own desires. I hope YA writers continue to publish books which explore the fantasies of young women. And when I come across young men who scowl at “that sodding twinkly vampire bollocks”, I simply remind them: “these books are not meant for you. These are the fictional fantasies of young women, and if you’re smart you’ll learn something from them, mate.”