My young adult novel is sexy. It features teens who have sex and enjoy it. I sometimes have them in exotically sexy, revealing outfits, that is when they aren’t just plain naked. And I present this as a good thing.
I’ve had my critics, those who tell me that this sort of thing is “sad,” that it’s “not appropriate” for YA, that it sends “the wrong message” to impressionable teens. They can kiss my fully-clothed ass.
First, let’s be clear: I’m writing fantasy. Okay, technically it’s science-fiction, but so far to the “soft” end of the sci-fi scale as to be more like science-fantasy (I may start calling it that). Let me repeat, it’s fantasy. Fantasy allows things reality does not. That means I can have a character who can move things with her mind. It means I can have another character who can influence people’s emotional states. And it absolutely means I can have a character who is a polyamorous pansexual and wears amusingly revealing outfits yet never loses her self-esteem or is thought less of by anyone in the world of my story as a result. Because her sexuality doesn’t define her; her fierce independence and strength does.
Does this send the “wrong” message? That message being, “it’s okay to feel good about your body and your sexuality”? How the hell is that message wrong? Is it because it doesn’t happen in the real world? That’s the whole point. If you are going to say that I shouldn’t send that message in my book, that instead I should somehow tell teens to cover their bodies and suppress their sexuality, then you are contributing to the problem, not me. You warn girls that they will be “cheap” if they dress a certain way, or do certain things. You insist that others will call them “slut.” And you are probably right; others will do that. And they will do it because you taught them to, by making it clear that you agree sexually confident girls are “sluts.” You contribute to the “slut shaming” by warning girls about it, but doing absolutely nothing to stop it.
Boy, sounds like I’m really mad, doesn’t it? Yes, I am. I’m outraged. How dare anyone tell me that my book could “damage” readers? What about the damage caused by the stuff that you like, all the bleak, violent stuff? Oh, no, you say, that’s okay, because the world is violent and readers’ lives are full of despair so their reading should mirror that. I see. And what do you suppose is the result? I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you why I’m angry. I’ll tell you why you don’t get to say one negative word about the sex and nudity in my book.
Because a twelve-year-old girl in Florida climbed to the top of an industrial platform, jumped off, and splattered her life across the concrete.
Why? Because she was being mercilessly bullied. Perhaps the bullying included the “slut shaming” that comes from a sexually repressive society. I don’t know. I do know there were multiple taunts that she should die, that she should kill herself. Until she finally did.
People are now trying to blame social media, but mostly they are wringing their hands, wondering if there’s anything we can do about this rising epidemic of children killing themselves and each other. Sure there is: take a look at the real messages we send, messages in violence-filled, yet “honored” YA fiction, books whose authors insist they are meeting some noble purpose when really they are just emulating the violent movies and games that all send the exact same, very clear message: lethal violence is a valid response to all problems. The bad guys aren’t arrested, they are executed; others who present an obstacle aren’t incapacitated, they are murdered; innocent bystanders get caught in the crossfire yet are given nary a further thought. And, as Colonel Stars and Stripes says in the execrable Kick-Ass 2, “We’re the good guys.”
As for the bullies, they read these books, see these movies, play these games, and get the even more profound message that every single one of them sends: people you don’t like should die. That’s what the bullies in Florida thought. And why wouldn’t they? When their hero, Katniss, reacts to the first killing in The Hunger Games by coldly noting how stupid the young victim was to call attention to herself, not feeling the slightest trace of pity, that’s the lesson the readers who love her learn: some people deserve to die.
Where’s the outrage over that? The silence is deafening. Yeah, you try to blame Facebook and Twitter, but really you’re too busy blaming me because I’m writing a book that says teen sexuality can be a good thing. When instead I guess I should be reserving that accolade for teen killing.
And the girl who jumped? I wonder how many dark, violent books with downer endings she’d read? Books that, in the guise of validating her feelings, simply contributed to the despair and hopelessness. That’s the worst part. These violent books might almost be okay if they ended with a sense of optimism, that things do get better. But many of them don’t. They end as bleak as they begin. They tell readers that, in the end, nothing matters, that we’ll all going to die so who cares.
Not mine. In my book, violence happens, but it’s tragic, and nobody deserves to die, not even the bullies. Violence is something the characters desperately want to avoid. Even the tough action girl, who would rather have sex with people than kill them. My story is about love. Love that keeps the characters strong and whole. Love that inspires them to strive for a better world. And, yes, love that motivates them to get naked and climb into bed (or some other convenient place) for the sole purpose of giving someone else a moment of joy.
What the hell is bad about that?