Beyond Forever: Female Desire and Empowerment in YA Lit
If you’re of a certain age, you will remember reading Judy Blume’s Forever… as a teen—perhaps furtively behind closed doors or brazenly in the school cafeteria. It was the kind of book people passed around, giggled about, and devoured in one sitting. No wonder, as it was one of the first books to talk frankly about sex and, even more revolutionary, acknowledge that sex was something a teenage girl could want and have responsibly without it being wrong or feeling guilty about it.
It’s been almost forty years since Forever‘s publication in 1975, and surprisingly little progress has been made in the realm of female sexual agency and sex-positive portrayals of young women. In the last decade alone, Forever was number 16 of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books from 2000-2009, Rush Limbaugh gleefully called law student Sandra Fluke a slut for speaking in favor of contraception coverage, and Miley Cyrus won out over chemical warfare in Syria as the top headline in August of last year. What all these examples speak to is our society’s intense preoccupation with young women’s sexuality—a preoccupation that tends towards censure. Indeed, society continues to judge women on the basis of their sexual choices and considers having sexual agency as a young woman a shameful thing.
Which makes the recent increase in YA books that speak openly and positively about teenage girls and their sexual desire all the more heartening. Particularly, as they do so in a way that neither diminishes the need to be responsible when it comes to making sexual choices nor avoids discussing the emotional consequences—both good and bad—that come with having sex.
The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle (2014 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Readers) is the natural successor to Blume’s Forever. It is the story of two very different high school graduates who find themselves improbably falling in love. Wren is a well-adjusted A-student bent on pleasing her parents. Charlie has difficulty fighting the demons in his past or accepting the love of his foster parents. Myracle expertly captures the uncertainty, ardor, and innocence that accompany that first headlong rush into full-blown, soul-consuming love. But it is her handling of sexual intimacy that makes this novel stand out. Wren is a virgin at the start of the novel and the ways in which Myracle traces her discovery of desire, her anxiety around having sex, the accompanying vulnerability it elicits, and her subsequent enjoyment of the act itself is both beautiful and remarkably realistic. The emphasis on communication, trust, and mutual satisfaction makes this novel all the more appealing and important for young teens (male and female alike) to read.
One of my favorite series in recent years is Rae Carson’s fantasy trilogy The Girl of Fire and Thorns (2012 Morris Award Finalist). I love it for numerous reasons, not least because Elisa, the protagonist, develops from an insecure, self-deprecating young woman to a thoughtful and wise leader secure in her own decisions. Her personal growth throughout the series extends to her sexual awakening as she learns to appreciate her own attractiveness and understand her desires. In the second book, she pro-actively makes the decision to start drinking a tea meant for birth control while also being the one to initiate a first sexual encounter with the man she loves. Although their relationship is not consummated until the third book, Elisa becomes increasingly more comfortable with loving her own body and advocating for her own desires. Indeed, many of the conversations with her lover navigate around issues of power and control, comfort and compassion, all of which lay the groundwork for a refreshingly healthy and balanced intimate relationship.
The previous two novels focus on sex within loving, monogamous relationships, but we all know that that is not the only circumstance where teens have sex. Nor is it necessarily the only acceptable one. In Leila Sale’s book This Song Will Save Your Life (2014 Best Fiction for YA), Elise Dembowski is a classic outsider who doesn’t fit in. This all changes with a fortuitous encounter late one night that leads her to a warehouse party and the introduction to her life passion, DJing. Char, a dashing DJ, guides her in this pursuit, while also mentoring her in the act of lovemaking.
Elise and Char’s sexual relationship falls somewhere between ‘hook-up’ and ‘friends with benefits.’ While certainly complicated, what stood out to me was the readiness with which Elise embraces her newfound sexuality and the fact that, unlike many hook-up relationships in books and film, the power is not solely in the hands of the boy. The arrangement is mutually satisfying. Granted, the extended nature of their hooking up does lead to hurt feelings on both sides. Still, Elise emerges from the affair at peace with the choices she made and comes to terms with the fact that, like Char, she wanted the comfort of intimacy but not necessarily the commitment. A realization that serves to further empower her as she embraces a more confident, self-loving, and passionate self.
Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince (GLBTRT Top Ten Rainbow List 2014) depicts a future matriarchal Brazil that requires a ritual sacrifice of a Summer King and centers on the deeply complex and compelling relationship between the three main characters. In one scene, June, our protagonist, finds herself alone in nature contemplating both her art and her growing attraction for Enki, the Summer King. She ends up masturbating in the lush surroundings. When I read this scene, I was surprised as, unlike male masturbation, we rarely see depiction of female masturbation in fiction. June is clearly comfortable with herself, her body, and her desire. As female sexuality is so often linked to giving men pleasure, it was incredibly refreshing to see that she also knows how to give herself pleasure. This scene, amongst others, is testimony to the many ways in which this book successfully pushes the boundaries of YA literature.
Have you read anything recently that fits in with this trend? Let me know below!
~Alegria Barclay, currently reading Lauren Oliver’s Panic