Themes in Young Adult Literature: Gender and Sexuality

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2742

Titles Discussed

Anyone but You by Lara M. Zeises

Fly on the Wall: How One Girl Saw Everything by E. Lockhart

Forever … by Judy Blume

Thematic Overview

The 1970s saw two concurrent developments in the United States. In national culture, a new wave of feminism advancing women's rights aligned...

(The entire section contains 2742 words.)

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Titles Discussed

Anyone but You by Lara M. Zeises

Fly on the Wall: How One Girl Saw Everything by E. Lockhart

Forever … by Judy Blume

Thematic Overview

The 1970s saw two concurrent developments in the United States. In national culture, a new wave of feminism advancing women's rights aligned with a sexual rights movement that prioritized the agency of individuals to make choices about their own bodies. Medical developments such as the birth-control pill further bolstered these movements, helping shift the national view of women's sexuality and ease some of the judgment put on women (and men) who viewed sex as a source of pleasure that could exist healthily outside of marriage. At the same time, young adult literature experienced a boom in the popularity of problem novels, books that attempt to present social problems such as alcoholism, pregnancy, and suicide with candor and sometimes explicit detail to young audiences. These young adult novels, influenced in part by the sexual revolution, featured more honest and straightforward depictions of teenage sexuality than had been the norm throughout the twentieth century.

The increased representations of sexuality within young adult novels, however, did not indicate a total acceptance of these trends. Instead, young adult novels that feature sexuality—especially instances of teenage sexuality without negative consequences, such as unwanted pregnancy or the transmission of disease—have regularly been the target of censorship, facing more challenges in general than novels that depict drug use, violence, or other sensitive and mature topics. The debates around these novels reflect another national trend: the growing ideological battle over whether students should receive abstinence-only education or comprehensive sex education that teaches proper use of contraceptives.

Throughout these debates, two facts have remained consistent: a large number of teenagers do become sexually active, and the rate of sexual activity among teenagers does not necessarily increase either over time or in alignment with societal acceptance of sexuality outside of marriage. Although the 1970s and 1980s did show sharp increases in the rate of sexual activity among teenagers in the United States, a 2011 study found evidence of a steady decline ever since. In 1988, 51 percent of never-married females and 60 percent of never-married males between the ages of fifteen and nineteen had had sexual intercourse; in 2006–10, those percentages had decreased to 43 percent of females and 42 percent of males.

Even so, these are significant percentages, highlighting why teenage sexuality is such an important theme in young adult novels. Not only are many teenagers having sex, they are doing so in the midst of a decades-long cultural and political debate about the appropriateness and safety of that sex. At the same time, as young adult bodies rapidly change and many teenagers engage in their first romantic relationships, their sexual choices and activities become an important part of their identity formation. This experience is further complicated by the disparate messages that male and female teenagers receive from society in general, which tends to encourage male sexuality while problematizing female sexuality.

Seminal young adult author Judy Blume wrote explicitly about young adult sexuality in her 1975 novel Forever …, making it one of the most frequently challenged and censored books for several decades. By the twenty-first century, the range of acceptable depictions of sexuality in mainstream young adult literature had broadened considerably, with novels such as Lara M. Zeises's Anyone but You (2005) featuring explicit descriptions of casual sex, while E. Lockhart's Fly on the Wall: How One Girl Saw Everything (2006) features a protagonist only tentatively exploring the world of sexualized relationships and male sociality. Despite regular censorship challenges, countless modern young adult novels of all genres focus extensively or even exclusively on gendered relations and sexuality, providing young readers with a diverse set of characters, experiences, and points of view.

Works

Judy Blume's classic young adult novel Forever … centers on the decision of its teenage protagonist to have sex, with her deliberations about the choice and the eventual outcome of her relationship taking up the majority of the text. The protagonist, Katherine, is a high school senior who falls in love with her boyfriend, Michael. While Michael has previously been sexually active, Katherine has not, yet she knows through conversations with sexually active friends and through her own self-knowledge that she is ready to take this step. Katherine and Michael date alongside their friends Erica and Artie, who themselves are navigating Artie's realization that he might be gay and Erica's belief that sexual pleasure should be disconnected from romance. Katherine is fortunate to receive honest advice from her parents and grandmother, as well as medical advice from Planned Parenthood, so that she is fully prepared when she enters into a sexual relationship with Michael. Deepening their commitment to one another, the couple promise to stay together forever, viewing their connection as true love. However, when separate summer plans take them apart, Katherine begins to feel distant and finds herself attracted to her older, more sexually experienced tennis instructor. Eventually, she realizes that she must end her relationship with Michael, and while she mourns the end of that connection, she also realizes that it presages further, more emotionally mature romantic relationships in the future.

Forever … adopts an honest and emotionally complex point of view regarding sexuality and gender that was radical at the time of its publication and continues to be refreshing to many readers today. From the start of the novel, it is clear that the narrative will not shy away from the reality or the complexity of teen sexuality; this is made obvious in the opening line, which states, “Sybil Davison has a genius I.Q. and has been laid by at least six different guys” (1). At the same time that Sybil is explicitly said to be sexually active, she is praised for her intelligence rather than belittled or treated as unintelligent for the choices she has made, even as the main characters wonder about her motivations. Katherine's first sexual experience is handled with a similar matter-of-factness. As she and Michael confirm their love for another during an awkward series of encounters limited by Michael's premature ejaculation, the narrative is explicit with physical details, with lines such as “I could feel him halfway inside of me” (101). Sexual encounters in the novel are never singular experiences of pure love or of physical passion; instead, they are moments in which emotional intimacy, shifting self-identities, physical urges, and societal forces all present themselves. The sex is not perfect, and neither is the relationship, destined as it is to end a short while later. Blume, however, embraces these imperfections as aspects of an honest sexual relationship, and as such, she is able to craft compelling characters such as Katherine, who is educated, self-aware, and able to make choices about her own body. Even when those choices result in unhappiness or stress, Katherine still considers them positive experiences on her path to adulthood.

While Katherine makes many intelligent and careful choices regarding her sexuality, the characters of Anyone but You, by Lara M. Zeises, instead find themselves propelled forward by confused and sometimes irrational urges. The story focuses on Critter and Seattle, two stepsiblings who live with Critter's birth mother, Layla, after Seattle's father abandoned their combined family. Critter and Seattle are close friends and allies in their home environment, both struggling with school and both at times angry about the world that has left their mother overworked and their futures uncertain. When Critter begins flirting with an attractive girl at the local pool, Seattle reacts with jealousy and anger, emotions that drive her to shave her head and begin dating a skater boy who is visiting town for the summer. Critter, in turn, finds himself suddenly jealous and begins to experience sexual attraction toward his stepsister. When Seattle's father returns unexpectedly, both teenagers are sent into emotional spirals. While Seattle aggressively tries to convince her love interest to sleep with her, Critter falls for the girl from the pool despite her having a boyfriend. Eventually, Critter and Seattle kiss in a vulnerable moment, their summer romances having ended. While neither knows what to make of the moment of physical contact, they also know that they are close again, once more able to offer mutual support through the difficulties of their lives.

The characters in Anyone but You experience their sexualities and desires as aspects of their larger, more complex and wrought emotions. As a result, their experiences of sexuality appear normalized, even if their decisions are driven by unclear motives. Part of this is accomplished through the direct and uncensored narration, which switches between Critter and Seattle, both of whom talk frankly about each other's bodies as well as their own. Seattle describes wrestling with Critter while swimming together in the pool, only to realize that “Critter had this enormous hard-on” (15) and swim away. Critter, in turn, masturbates in the shower and cannot stop himself from thinking about “Sea's enormous boobs making direct contact with [his] chest” (88). The characters can speak clearly of their bodily desires, even as they feel shame about being attracted to a stepsibling, but they cannot always understand what those desires mean. Seattle, for instance, tries to initiate sex with her summer fling immediately after meeting him, removing her clothes and climbing onto his body. While her desire is clear, her narration makes no indication that she understands why she has this undeniable urge—that she saw Critter hitting on the lifeguard earlier that day and reacted with confused jealousy. In the end, Anyone but You offers a rendition of teenage sexuality that is stripped of the morality lessons on which young adult novels have historically relied. This not a story about learning to form mature relationships or growing from past sexual mistakes. Rather, it is one that lingers on the emotionally and physically charged moments of adolescence, asking readers to accept the characters and their choices with the same frank honesty embodied in the characters' narrative voices.

In contrast to the raging desires of Critter and Seattle, Gretchen, the protagonist of E. Lockhart's Fly on the Wall: How One Girl Saw Everything, feels more alienated from than aligned with her sexuality. At the start of the novel, Gretchen is a reserved teenager at an arts school in New York. She discourages her best friend from spending time with a group of boys she calls the “Art Rats,” and while she has had one short, barely physical relationship and now nurtures a crush on a boy named Titus, her experiences and fantasies remain mild and fairly innocent. After her parents announce their surprise divorce, however, Gretchen magically turns into a fly in the boy's locker room for several days, which gives her uncensored access to male bodies as well as male socialization and secrets. In addition to enjoying the prurient pleasure of viewing her naked peers, Gretchen also overhears a boy discuss having a crush on her, learns that her best friend is secretly dating a nice boy, witnesses homophobic bullying, and discovers that Titus is even kinder and more good-hearted than she first realized. When she turns back into a human, Gretchen engages with her classmates with a new openness and sense of understanding, the boys in her class having been demystified at the same time she discovered her own sexual desires.

Even though Gretchen is not a character navigating explicit sexual relationships, her life is still shaped by how she experiences gender and sexuality. At the start of the novel, she is sitting alone at school while her best friend, Katya, talks to the Art Rats, about whom Gretchen only says they “make [her] nervous” (3). She expresses her hesitance to engage with sexuality or explore the social world defined by the boys in several ways, including her tendency to shut down and refuse to talk when sexuality comes up in conversations and her regressive choice to hold onto her childhood toys and dolls, despite her mother asking her to part ways with them in preparation for their relocation to a smaller apartment. Gretchen's experience in the locker room, however, gives her an unmitigated view into the reality of the teenage male sexuality. While at first she is focused almost exclusively on bodies (having never seen a naked male before, and finding herself suddenly desirous of sexual contact in a way she had not previously been), the long conversations she overhears gradually reveal to her that the boys are as emotionally complex as she is. She witnesses them studying themselves self-consciously in the mirrors and sees the sometimes subtle ways that boys often stand up for their peers in the face of bullying. Gretchen's exploration of gender and sexuality is not defined by actual sexual contact, but it is nonetheless as significant to her as sexuality is to characters such as Critter, Seattle, and Katherine. The world of gendered relations and sexual attraction that she is entering is confusing, and her own desires are not always clear, but she still must honestly confront those differences in order to enter her own young adulthood.

Conclusions

In the popular media, sensational articles about teenage sexuality and “oversexed” teenagers became particularly popular in the early twenty-first century. Despite the rate of teen sexual activity having fallen since the 1990s and teen pregnancy being less common than in previous decades, an increase in explicit depictions of sexuality in mass media aimed at teenagers led many pundits to decry a teenage population that they saw as engaging with sexuality purely for pleasure rather than in the context of romantic love. These criticisms came from a variety of political and cultural positions, from those wishing to prevent teenagers from engaging in sexuality at all to those who feel that the heavily gendered nature of teenage relations, with boys receiving social rewards for sexual activity while girls receive criticism and shame, is itself an impediment to the development of healthy sexuality. At the same time, the growth of social media gave rise to sensational articles about teenagers sending naked photos to one another and accessing pornographic videos at young ages.

In truth, young adults' understanding of gender and sexuality does change over the decades, influenced by political and cultural forces that range from feminism and LGBT rights to conservative abstinence-only education systems. What does not change is that the young adult years are when the effects of puberty become evident, with bodily changes beginning between ages eight and thirteen for girls and between nine and fifteen for boys, and that it is during these years that roughly half of the population will experience their first sexual relationships. While a cultural debate continues around when and how discussion of sexuality and gendered differences might be appropriate, young adults continue to experience these changes, and young adult novels continue to feature complex characters who face their own sexualities with honesty. These novels still face constant censorship challenges, just as Judy Blume's groundbreaking novels faced outcry in the 1970s. Yet the most popular novels with young adults are not the most explicit or the most instructional but rather those that avoid talking down to their audiences, instead presenting sexuality as one aspect of adolescents' rapidly changing lives with the confidence that young adult readers can understand the complexities of these relationships.

Further Reading

  • Hubler, Angela E. “Beyond the Image: Adolescent Girls, Reading, and Social Reality.” NWSA Journal 12.1 (2000): 84–99. Literary Reference Center. Web. 8 June 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=3158179&site=lrc-live>.
  • James, Kathryn. Death, Gender, and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.
  • Sommers, Joseph Michael. “Judy Blume.” Magill's Survey of American Literature. Ed. Steven G. Kellman. Rev. ed. Vol. 1. Pasadena: Salem, 2007. Literary Reference Center. Web. 8 June 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=103331MSA10349830000033&site=lrc-live>.

Bibliography

  • Blume, Judy. Forever …. Scarsdale: Bradbury, 1975. Print.
  • Bullen, Elizabeth, Kim Toffoletti, and Liz Parsons. “Doing What Your Big Sister Does: Sex, Postfeminism and the YA Chick Lit Series.” Gender and Education 23.4 (2011): 497–511. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 June 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=63295061&site=eds-live>.
  • Martinez, Gladys, Casey E. Copen, and Joyce C. Abma. Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, 2006–2010 National Survey of Family Growth. Washington, DC: GPO, 2011. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. 8 June 2015. <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_23/sr23_031.pdf>.
  • Zeises, Lara M. Anyone but You. 2005. New York: Laurel-Leaf, 2007. Print.
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