Girls love a bad boy- or at least they love reading about them. Bad boys turn up in YA lit over and over again, and readers eat them up. Some of these bad boys are simply misunderstood and have a heart of gold, brought out by their love for the girl. There is definitely something romantic about this notion, and I’ve fallen for it a few times myself. This to me is not a problem. As long as the bad boy has a degree of complexity that goes beyond the bad-boy exterior, I can take some bad behaviour. What does puzzle me, and am seeing discussed among some of my YA-loving friends is why we are o.k. with the sexual violence that is present in some of these stories. I’m not talking about rape here. That’s a completely different issue, and authors like Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak)and Cheryl Rainfield (Scars) handle this extremely sensitive topic well. Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable is celebrating its tenth anniversary, and it was a groundbreaking book, dealing with date rape from the point of view of the accused boy.
These are all amazing books that need to be read and discussed in order for teens to gain a better understanding of these issues- but they are issue books and recognized as such. What I’m talking about is the 50 Shades of Gray like association of passion/hot sex and violence. Steamy scenes that end with the guy dominating a girl in some way, violent or unwelcome physical contact (such as pinching/slapping/biting), and her fear transforming into passion. This is the aspect of sexual portrayal in YA that bothers me. Teens have sex. I know that. I also recognize that in this modern day and age, sex between teenagers isn’t always about love, and sometimes it’s just a hook-up- which is also fine- if both of the parties involved consent to it and understand that it’s a hook-up. In Kody Keplinger’s The Duff, Bianca and Wesley have a friends-with-benefits relationship that isn’t seen in YA. They end up falling for each-other later on, but the sex was 100% consensual, and they knew what they were doing. Scenes where the girl is essentially forced to have sex- even when she does have feelings for the guy are not o.k. and shouldn’t be portrayed as being romantic or normal. The suggestion that violence=passion and that fear isn’t really fear, but just the girl discovering that she probably, maybe, sort-of really wants it isn’t something that should be present in YA.
While Forver by Judy Blume is around 40 years old, it’s still a model of how sex can and should be portrayed in YA. It is a realistic and honest portrayal of two teens realizing that they want to have sex with each other, and all of the complications and complexities that come with that choice. Sex is an emotionally messy thing when you’re a teenager, and YA lit should reflect this honestly and realistically. There has to be a happy medium between the notion of being swept off your feet by a tender kiss from a handsome prince and violent, rough, drag-down sex that borders on rape, because neither idea is one that will ever give a teen an idea of what normal and real actually are.