Tag Archives: sex

What’s Good for the Goose…

Today’s word, boys and girls, is “hypocrisy.” It means not holding oneself consistently to a standard one presents as inviolate. In this case, I am talking about the hypocrisy inherent in the different forms of criticism I have received.

Let’s start with my very well established objection to violence. To be clear, I am not opposed to violence per se, as long as it is within a clear context. Rather, it is gratuitous violence, presented as entertainment, which I find objectionable. Further, it’s not violence as much as killing that upsets me greatly. The idea that the only way to solve a problem is to end a life. To execute your enemies. Life is precious, ephemeral, and once snuffed out, is gone forever. Have we such little respect for it?

We live in a violent world, true. The apologists for violent entertainment point that out as a justification. But do we really need to surround ourselves with fake death when there’s so much real death in the world? The answer, apparently, is yes, as book series like The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner fly off the shelf and get made into blockbuster movies with “plots” that amount to very little more than, “Children get brutally killed.”

Less than a decade ago, teen fiction wasn’t so nihilistically savage. It was uplifting and inspiring, and we had no problem cheering Harry Potter’s brave and often humorous attempts to achieve the heroic status everyone told him was his destiny. But now we have youthful antiheroes being psychologically destroyed, and in many cases outright killed, by a system they never wanted to fight.  It’s the classic illustration of the laws of thermodynamics writ large: You can’t win, you can’t break even, you can’t quit the game. That’s life, kids. No matter what you do, it will crush you. What a bleak message to send to tomorrow’s visionaries. Anyone wonder why this generation is the most disaffected generation in modern history? And why they would try to salve their despair by turning to the very same violent media that engendered it?

What’s the appeal? Why does violence make so many people feel better? Stephen King, in the oft-anthologized “Why We Crave Horror,” suggests that deep down we’re all crazy, and violent horror is a release for these urges that, left unfed, will manifest in much more dangerous ways. I don’t buy it. For one thing, not everyone craves horror. For another, King is a writer; horror is his bread-and-butter, so he has a vested interest in defending, even promoting it. Similarly, comic book writer Gerard Jones has argued that “Violent Media is Good for Kids.” Obviously, he is defending his own work, and he argues the benefits for children who feel “powerless” to find refuge in violent fantasy. But why must fantasies of power automatically involve killing? It’s limited thinking to equate power with violence, and, as result, children internalize the idea that killing is a valid response to problems. This has been documented.

But let’s set objections aside and take the arguments at face value. Okay, violence isn’t harmful, it may even be beneficial. I am certainly able to grant that the vast majority of consumers of violent entertainment are not then driven to commit violence. But we cannot ignore the counter-argument to the apologists. The one that suggests that people with violent tendencies will be driven to act out violently by exposure to violent media. And those who do not have such tendencies, the argument continues, will nevertheless become desensitized. We do see this among children, who are well-documented as having less empathy than previous generations. As I have said before, violent media may well be a contributing factor in the rise in bullying. Children see violent confrontation as the norm. Because, frankly, it is the norm. Spend just five minutes perusing the television and movie listings.

And then there’s the escalation argument. We actually see this one playing out. The idea is that, once something has shocked us, triggered that emotional reflex King and others would argue needs to be exercised (exorcized?), it no longer has the power to shock. To get the same reaction, we need a bigger shock. Decades ago, Dracula was considered terrifying; modern audiences mostly find it laughable. The envelope keeps getting pushed: more graphic, more horrific. A story where people have to hunt each other to death? Eh, that’s old news. Make it children hunting each other. What happens when we become blasé to that? What happens when watching fake murder on the screen is no longer enough? Won’t we be driven to seek out the real thing to feed the demon?

No, say the apologists, and I grant they may well be right. I would like to believe that human rationality will win out. It’s just a movie. Fantasy is an escape, a release, but sane people know the difference. So, again, I shall accept the arguments, for the moment.

Okay, so what’s my point? And what does this have to do with hypocrisy? I have been told that my objection to the rise in gratuitous violence in teen fiction is an extremely insulting perspective. Arrogant, offensive, and sure to prevent me from ever getting published (it looks like they are right on that last one). This outrage comes from people who read, and write, violent teen fiction. They like it. They are offended at my implication that there’s something psychologically wrong with people who get off on that sort of thing. Some have posed the rhetorical question, suggesting that I want everything to turn into some sort of Pollyanna, sweetness-and-light utopia where everybody is happy and gets along and is never angry or hateful and there’s no violence. My response to the people saying that is very simple: “You mean you wouldn’t want that? You prefer a world full of death and hate and despair?” How incomprehensibly sad.

But that sort of reductive response to my position is a gross oversimplification. There are people in my writers’ group who enjoy and write some of the most awful horror imaginable, and they are kind, gentle, compassionate people. They aren’t crazy, or dangerous. They would argue that violence is, ultimately, harmless entertainment, a visceral thrill that gets the blood pounding and pulls us out of the mundane of our lives for a brief moment. Fair enough.

That’s where we get to the hypocrisy. You see, at the same time as people have criticized my for my hatred of violence, for my belief that it can be harmful and at the very least it says something very depressing and disturbing about humanity, I have also been criticized for something else entirely: my attitude towards sexuality and nudity, and especially my assertion that the ideal female role-model is strong, smart…and sexually empowered.

I’ve discussed the changing role of sexual content in my book. It’s been added and removed enough times that my readers must be seasick by now. But the fact remains that the story I want to tell has sex. Teen sex. Underage sex. Let that sink in. My romantic leads are both sixteen years old. The girl is more sexually assertive, and far more experienced. She is from a culture where polyamory is the norm, and has had numerous sexual partners, of both genders, since her very early teens.

She is undamaged by her sexual life, and unapologetic. I present it as a perfectly acceptable way to be. I also have the boy, who is the one making the case for commitment and love and all those things. His case is compelling, and the girl realizes that there may well be something to it. It’s a dance between two equally valid perspectives.

Add to this another character, a thirteen-year-old girl in the process of discovering her sexual identity, and, while that doesn’t play out much in this book, there are two more books in mind. As far as I’m concerned, sooner or later she will have sex. Preferably sooner. Because I intend it to be a major positive turning point in her character arc, with profound story implications.

And then there’s all the nudity. People get naked with abandon. Often there is a symbolic element, particularly in the case of the thirteen-year-old. But I also have a ten-year-old girl who is unabashedly, innocently naked as often as possible. Let me point out that, while different readers have different favorites among my four main characters, all are universal in loving the ten-year-old. None see anything salacious in her nudity, but rather find it a natural part of her character and charm, and they objected vocally when I took it out at one point.

Whoa! Sexually active sixteen-year-olds, with multiple partners? A thirteen-year-old in the beginnings of a same-sex relationship very likely to turn sexual? A ten-year-old running around naked? That’s sick! What kind of perverted mind would come up with this sort of thing, let alone write it? It’s certainly not appropriate for teens, nor even adults. Child pornography, that’s what it is! I should be locked up, or at least put in a mental ward, and kept away from children!

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you hypocrisy. I am going to take up this issue in the next article, coming soon. In meantime, I ask that you re-read all the arguments above as to why stories involving horrific violence are not only not harmful, but may well be beneficial, including to children, because I intend to revisit every single one of them, and explain why my book, with all its sex and nudity, is at least as beneficial to teens as all these books full of death. See you soon.

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Make Love, Not Death

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?

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Boys and Girls Together

It’s been a very interesting week.  A number of circumstances have come together in a remarkable way to challenge my convictions, and, in the end, I am able to stand by them.

My earlier decision to remove the nudity and sexual content from my book met with a surprising amount of disagreement.  Granted, that sort of content is something of a minefield, and could well bar me from getting past a lot of editors.  So be it.  But none of my fellow writers have told me I made the right decision to cut the content—not one—while many were disappointed and said I shouldn’t.  Fellow writers who are parents have universally said they would have no problem with their teens reading my sex scene.  One reader called the scene “adorable”; with that to go on, I can hardly leave it out.  My decision to restore the content has met with approval.

I accept that not everyone will see it that way.  But if books about children murdering each other can be considered suitable for teens—and preteens, for heaven’s sake—then the fact that my book has sexually active teens shouldn’t be any problem, unless someone is willing to argue that teens having sex is somehow worse than teens killing.  I make no apologies at this point for the fact that I am presenting sexual content (and nudity), because I’m making it a positive thing.  My book in no way sends the message that teens should all run out and have random sex, but nor does it say that sex is automatically bad or that it will ruin your life.  Rather I’m saying that it’s okay to have sex, even as teens, if you do it responsibly.

My position on this is borne out by a recent study that came to my attention comparing attitudes toward teen sexuality in the United States and the Netherlands.  The study has raised considerable controversy because it has examined the idea that Dutch parents, instead of forbidding their teens from having sex, are instead permitting the teens to do so in the family home.  It is expected to be kept private and the parents are teaching the teens to be responsible.  People in the US are reacting quite predictably, saying that this sort of moral decay is yet another example of the evil that plagues modern society, and are insisting that allowing your children to be sexually active guarantees there will be teen pregnancy and STDs

Except, that’s unequivocally not the case.  The study has made clear that the incidence of both unplanned pregnancy and STDs in the Netherlands is significantly lower than in the US.  Conclusion: promoting healthy attitudes towards sex encourages healthy behavior.  Teens are having sex, and will do so whether or not we try to forbid it.  So what we should do is make sure they are being safe and let them know that there is nothing wrong with them for doing so.

Now, this is easy for me to say in the abstract, but I recently had the opportunity to put it to the test.  It have become aware that the fourteen-year-old daughter of a friend has been having sex with her boyfriend.  My friend is, of course, running the gamut of emotions regarding this, and I’ve been very careful how I have reacted, but, in all honesty, I think it’s fine.  In fact, I’m proud of her.  Let me explain.

They’d been dating for some time, and, to all accounts the boy is a good kid who is well-behaved and the family likes him (or did, at any rate).  There was no pressure involved: it was a mutual decision.  They have been stringently using condoms, and they are at this point monogamous with each other.  In other words, they’ve been very responsible, which is more than can be said for a hell of a lot of adults.  I encouraged her dad to commend her for being honest and mature about it.  After all, isn’t that how we want kids to be as they grow up?

But, I hear you say, that’s because I don’t have a daughter of my own.  If I did, I’d change my tune.  Well, I can’t say for sure, but I’d like to think that I would raise my kids to have healthy attitudes.  But let me be clear I’ve known this family for years and watched their daughter grow up and I’m very fond of her.  Yet at the same time, I think it’s safe to say that I have the benefit of objectivity.  And from where I’m sitting, I don’t see where the harm is.  I’m happy for them.

I know what you will say in response: the harm is to the girl psychologically.  She’s too young to handle that sort of thing.  What exactly does that mean?  Too young?  Handle it?  Plenty of alleged adults can’t seem to handle sex.  What if they break up?  Then they break up.  It happens all the time; heartbreak is part of life, with or without sex being involved, and people survive it.  Again, what real trauma will there be, unless it comes from an overly judgmental society condemning her?  And I agree, that is a problem.  See, that’s the other point you might make: the harm is to her “reputation.”  She will be known as a girl who has sex, and apparently that’s bad.

You know… a “slut.”  I hate that word, for many reasons.  We love to condemn sexually active girls.  We tell them that boys don’t like that sort of girl.  Are you kidding?  Boys don’t like girls who are willing to have sex with them?  Hello, Earth to clueless person!  Well then, we say, they like them for sex, but they don’t “respect” them.  No man will want to marry a girl if she’s damaged goods.  What is this, the middle ages, where virgin brides are required?  And what if she doesn’t want to get married?   What should she do, become a nun?  We tell girls, “Why would he buy the cow if he’s getting the milk for free?”  How offensive is that!  We are essentially telling girls that they are livestock and their sexuality is a commodity that they should hold out for the highest possible price.  There’s a word for when you exchange sex for material compensation like that: it starts with “p” and ends with “-rostitution.”

What bothers me most is how these sorts of discussions always focus on the girl.  It is the most pernicious double standard.  We are so concerned about girls maintaining their “honor,” but what about boys?  Who worries about their honor?  We teach girls to have respect for themselves (aka keep your legs crossed) but we teach boys to have respect for girls.  It’s all about protecting the girls.  This despite the fact that these days girls are at least as sexually aggressive as boys are.  And studies have shown that the majority of boys want to be responsible, and are concerned about pregnancy and STD’s and, most notably, want to have sex with a girl they love.

Yet there is no male-equivalent term for “slut.”  A girl who has sex is damaged, but a boy who has sex is a lucky stud.  This came to my attention in the form of a recent Twitter brouhaha where someone posted video of a teen girl having oral sex at an outdoor concert.  I was amazed at the number of people calling her a slut, or a whore, or worse (if you can imagine).  But absolutely no derision was pointed at the boy involved.  When someone raised this point in a discussion group, asking why we condemn her but not him, someone else responded, “Because boys are not girls.”  Great, they passed Biology 101, but what the hell does that mean?   It means it’s okay for boys to have sex, but not girls.  Again, the double standard.

The result is girls with really negative attitudes towards their own sexuality, and towards men.  But it’s damaging for boys too.  I saw this illustrated as well, in the case of another family friend, who discovered his eight-year-old daughter had been involved in sex play with the twelve-year-old friend of her brother.  To his credit, my friend did not freak out, and has been reassuring his daughter that she did nothing wrong and things are okay.  Let’s face it, sexual curiosity among children is extremely well-documented, and rarely does it lead to any long term problems—provided we don’t overreact.  What about the boy?  He was, apparently, deeply apologetic and embarrassed.  But I know what people are thinking: Who cares!  He only was remorseful because he got caught, but mark my words, he’ll do it again!  He’s a deviant, a sexual predator who can never be trusted for the rest of his life!  Really?

More like, he’s a confused kid whose hormones are kicking in big time but who is ignored by a society that is obsessed with female sexuality and offers boys no clear support for navigating this emotionally perilous time.  So, absent any clear path, they put on a macho swagger and behave in the only way they see: based on the tacit encouragement that society gives to men to “Get out there and do it (just not to my daughter).”  We can’t escape the double standard.

What we really need to do is acknowledge that teens are sexual beings and encourage them to discover their sexuality in safe and healthy ways.  That’s far more realistic than expecting them to just ignore their screaming hormones.  I believe that fully and it’s reflected in my book, and, alas, it may be an impediment to publication.  But I stand my ground.  In my book the girl is far more sexually experienced than the boy, and is not apologetic about that, nor is she damaged by having had sex at a young age.  It’s part of the society she knows.  It is the boy who is the more concerned about any notions of monogamy, and, while he is not opposed to sex, he wants there to be love involved, which is a revolutionary idea for the girl.  Yet I’m not implying that monogamy is the only valid option; as the two of them come closer together, they will try to find a reasonable middle ground.  It’s all about making choices.

Will I be sending the “wrong” message in my book?  I’m a storyteller, not a therapist, so that’s not my greatest concern.   I am pretty sure that most teen readers like stories that involve sex (that’s why they sneaked a look at their moms’ copies of Fifty Shades of Grey).  But I do not believe my book will make my readers run out and have sex, any more than The Hunger Games made readers run out and start killing each other for sport.  Teens already know what sex is.  They are extremely interested in it.  And a lot of them are already having sex.  Hopefully they are being smart about it.  That’s more likely if we teach them to be smart, rather than trying to shelter them from themselves.  But be assured, they will make these choices, regardless of what we do.

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