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Sex and Violence

a brief note - I discuss a bit about Breaking Dawn in this post so if you're afraid of getting spoiled, look away.
One of the questions I often see making the rounds of writing loops, discussion boards, and the general blogosphere is whether sex in young adult books is okay. Honestly, I think it depends on the book. I don't write any explicit sex in The Forest of Hands and Teeth because it's not necessary to the story -- what is important is the tension between the characters. I think a long drawn out almost kiss can almost be more sexy than any kind of sex. (Don't believe me? Watch Bella and Edwards first kiss in the Twilight movie. That's one of the hottest, sexiest scenes I've ever seen.)
Does that mean there's no sex in my book? Depends on who you ask! According to Kirkus, there is no sex (and they found that odd. I find it odd that a review of a YA novel is asking for more sex...). According to some other reader reviews I've gotten there is sex. I tried to write it so that if you want to read sex between the lines you can and if you don't, you won't. Seemed like a good balance to me while still fitting the needs of the story.
So what about violence? I rarely see as many discussions about the appropriate levels of violence in YA novels as I do about appropriate levels of sex. Honestly, I think our society is just more obsessed with sex than we are with violence. And so when I saw a headline that read "Twilight book missing after parent complains" and knew from the referring link that it was about a challenge to Breaking Dawn, I assumed the challenge was due to violence.
As it turns out, I was wrong. The challenge was due (apparently) to the sexual conduct. Yes, that's right, a parent challenged a book in which sex is implied between a married couple. Let me get this straight: womb chewing, multiple bones broken by a gestating baby, blood spewing by pregnant woman who must then consume blood for her vampire baby is okay. Implied sex between a loving married couple is not okay.
Really? THIS is what she wanted to challenge? I mean, I hate to gross everyone out here, but I kind of operate under the assumption that most married couples actually have sex. I also operate under the assumption that most parents have, at least at one point, had sex as well (either before or after getting married - I don't judge). Heck, Bella was older than a LOT of girls when she got married and had sex (totally off the page).
I'm not a fan of challenging books. I also don't have a problem at all with Breaking Dawn or the violence in it. I give full props to Stephenie Meyer for writing the book and concluding her series the way she felt it should be done. But I'm just shocked that the collective fear of sex in YA novels is so strong that it outweighs any problems we have with violence or potentially abusive relationships.
What do y'all think? Are we too obsessed over the sexual content in books? Are we appropriately obsessed with sex but not enough about violence? How can we expect teens to read Romeo & Juliet (sex and violence) and Hamlet (violence) and Lord of the Flies (violence) and The Scarlet Letter (sex and violence) and not think that they're able to handle this content in contemporary books?


( 31 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 27th, 2009 04:16 pm (UTC)
Or what about Kristin Cashore's Graceling? It's really a 12+ book but it's being pushed as 14+ solely because Katsa says she will never marry, yet she and Po have non-explicitly-written sex. Americans are just ridiculously prurient about this stuff.

Mar. 27th, 2009 05:53 pm (UTC)
Really? Is that why hers has that rating? So interesting! I totally understand why my book is 14+ but I find it so fascinating to see how others are rated...
(no subject) - sarah_prineas - Mar. 27th, 2009 07:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dpeterfreund - Mar. 27th, 2009 06:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sarah_prineas - Mar. 27th, 2009 07:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 27th, 2009 04:17 pm (UTC)
Considering HALF the teens polled about the Chris Brown assault on Rihanna think that she was responsible, I think it's time we quit acting like hysterical ninnies about teen sex and start taking a hard look at teen violence. I don't think a book should be challenged for EITHER reason, but it makes me crazy that people think nothing of the 1500 people who die at the end of Titanic, but hesitate because Leo and Kate might get hazily busy before the ship sinks. It's absurd.
Mar. 27th, 2009 05:48 pm (UTC)
What she said.
(no subject) - carrie_ryan - Mar. 27th, 2009 05:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 27th, 2009 04:22 pm (UTC)
dubiously appropriate icon is both appropriate and dubious
I find that attitude fairly insane, myself. God forbid teens learn about sex as portrayed in a three-dimensional relationship, in a book that gives them time to reflect and think. I know I smuggled around a lot of MUCH more explicit books when I was a teen (it was the era of Judith Krantz), and I learned quite a lot! But this never made me more rushed to put any of this into practice.
Mar. 27th, 2009 04:36 pm (UTC)
Re: dubiously appropriate icon is both appropriate and dubious
*dies of your icon*
Mar. 27th, 2009 04:34 pm (UTC)
The sex/violence dichotomy is one I've given thought to for a long time. I think it's upside down that our society pushes violence as OK but sex as something to be hidden.

I should hope that every adult (young adult or mature) would have wonderful, healthy sex as a normal part of their normal lives. That they would know what is acceptable and what isn't and know how to set limits and stick with them and that saying "no" is not unreasonable or cause for violence.

On the other hand, it would be lovely if no one ever had personal contact with violence and if we didn't look on it as an everyday occurance and an acceptable solution to problems or expression of anger. I'd much rather that violence was what we questioned than sex.

Edited at 2009-03-27 04:35 pm (UTC)
Mar. 27th, 2009 05:55 pm (UTC)
I couldn't agree more -- excellent comment, thanks!
Mar. 27th, 2009 04:35 pm (UTC)
My mind = officially boggled. Don't people have anything better to do?!

As a young teen I had a hard time with books that had even implicit, married sex (like Mary Stewart's TOUCH NOT THE CAT, which I love now and can't believe I ever had a problem with) -- that was just where my thinking was at that age, I felt like I shouldn't be reading that stuff. But saying to myself, "I don't think this book is for me at this point in my life and thinking," and saying to the world, "This book is not for any teen, nohow," are two massively different things.

Edited at 2009-03-27 04:37 pm (UTC)
Mar. 27th, 2009 04:41 pm (UTC)
And I bet you didn't follow it up with, "Now bring on the flayings!"
(no subject) - rj_anderson - Mar. 27th, 2009 04:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - carrie_ryan - Mar. 27th, 2009 05:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 27th, 2009 04:45 pm (UTC)
Honestly, I had a problem with the sex on Breaking Dawn- but that was because it wasn't all that... romantic. Kisses in the first three were hotter than whatever the heck happened in BD. But that's something else entirely...

Unfortunately, a lot of the people who will challenge BD or other YA books will also challenge 'classics' on the same grounds. Though you raise a good point with the Shakespeare, I can't remember any lists I looked at while researching censorship including his works.

I think challenging a book in a public library or school based on sex or violence is "too obsessed." If 'you' don't want to buy or borrow the book for 'your' own family... well, that's 'your' prerogative. But not discussing either topic openly will not make either one go away, and, IMO, it's a disservice to everyone.

I definitely think there should be more discussions about violence in YA (and literature in general), not for the purpose of limiting it, but for the purpose of understanding it, and how books can be used to help prevent violence.
Mar. 27th, 2009 06:03 pm (UTC)
I agree -- I think you can really use these books as a way of entering into discussions on these topics. I mean, we send 18 year olds to war and I think we should respect that as teens age they have to learn to make difficult decisions. In fact, I think it's through reading books that we find great entry points to these topics!
Mar. 27th, 2009 05:06 pm (UTC)
Having given the matter more thought now, it's occurred to me that the reason conservative parents tend to challenge books for sex more than for violence is that by and large, they don't see teen violence as being nearly so widespread a problem and nearly such a threat to their children as teen sex is. Especially where girls -- girls who may become pregnant and be left with a baby to care for, or else choose abortion and thus (in the eyes of many conservative parents) be guilty of murder -- are concerned.

I don't think that many conservative mothers of teen girls are worried about their daughters being mauled from the inside out by their own half-vampire babies, however distasteful they might find the concept in fictional form. Ditto for most other fictional violence, which they don't expect their teens are going to want to emulate, or even be able to (to borrow Saundra's example, how do you reenact the sinking of the Titanic?).

But anything too sensuous, that might get their daughters sexually worked up and tempt them to become sexually active before they're ready for it -- that is a serious concern. And I understand that, because I remember being a teenager and the effects such books had on me (which goes back to my previous comment).

Still, I think the antidote to this is not to ban books and tell other people (including other people's children) what they can't read, but to be aware of what teens are reading and prepared to discuss it with them in the context of your own family and in accordance with your own convictions.

And I say that as somebody who actually believes in absolute morality. I believe in right and wrong; what I don't believe is that you can force people to do what is right by hiding the stuff from them you think is wrong.
Mar. 27th, 2009 05:28 pm (UTC)
That is the first explanation I have ever read for this behavior that makes the slightest bit of sense. Thank you.
(no subject) - kathleenfoucart - Mar. 27th, 2009 09:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 27th, 2009 05:13 pm (UTC)
I think that people need to relax. I haven't read a YA book yet that was worse than some of the stuff I see on reality television and you don't hear people screaming about that being inappropriate for their 16 year olds (Tila Tequila, anyone?).

That's not to say that I am a fan of gratuitous sex/violence but as long as it moves along the plot then I’m cool with it.

It just goes back to the Puritan foundations of this country. If we don’t talk about it then our kids won’t think to try it on their own … RIGHT.
Mar. 27th, 2009 06:00 pm (UTC)
Yup, I agree with you on this. I also wonder how many parents *really* know and understand where their teens are in terms of sex and violence -- what their understanding is. I always worry about teens raised in a bubble and not getting the right info from trusted sources (like their parents or schools) but instead from the internet, tv, friends, etc. Sometimes I don't think we give teens enough credit.
Mar. 27th, 2009 05:23 pm (UTC)
When I was in 10th grade, our English teacher told us we were reading a bunch of books about war because we weren't allowed to read about sex until 12th grade. Killing, maiming, and graphic descriptions of people's flesh melting off = okay. A little innuendo? Too much for us to handle, apparently.

I find this very weird. There is no sex scene in Breaking Dawn. Just a little morning-after "omg you're covered in bruises and I ate Esme's favorite pillow!" talk. Which isn't exactly sexy.
Mar. 28th, 2009 03:31 pm (UTC)
Off topic, but I LOVE this icon, Sarah!
Mar. 27th, 2009 06:13 pm (UTC)
Actually, I think I was BETTER equipped to make responsible decisions about sexual activity because I could read about it. I could sit in the safety of my own living room and read about grand passion and go, wow, that's pretty intense, you know what, I think I'll take a pass for now.

I could also read really great stories about mature, good relationships and love affairs and go, "hooking up with some random dude at a party is SO not for me."

If anything, I think reading about passionate relationships made me even more determined to wait until I actually had one.
Mar. 27th, 2009 08:07 pm (UTC)
*headthunk* I don't get it.

Sometimes I think this is fueled by people who are too embarrassed to talk to their kids about sex and, like redqueen said, just hope that if they can just keep all mention of sex out of their kids' hand, they won't think about it. (Or worse, ask questions and make the parents talk about it!)

Also, any time a book like that is challenged, I have this kneejerk reaction that the parent is trying to force their parenting model onto other parents. Who are you to tell other children what they should and should not be reading??

Just my two cents.:)
Mar. 28th, 2009 12:03 am (UTC)
wow, great discussion!

In this day and age where you can get information on anything you ever wanted to know I find a little ridiculous to challenge a book because it may have innuendo or sex.

I think rj_anderson's post is very true. I recently read a book that was classified 9-12 (in the UK) with the main characters being 11 or 12. When I got towards the end the level of violence was quite a shock to the system. I'm a kid's bookseller so read a lot and on all levels but I didn't see this coming at all.

I agree with a lot of the posts that said having an honest and open discussion is much better than hiding everything away. If they want to know teens will find answers themselves. I strongly believe showing sex/love AND the potential consequences in a story is a great way to introduce it to teens.
Mar. 28th, 2009 11:52 pm (UTC)
I think I have an interesting perspective on this, because I grew up in a family that was very open about sex - not in a way that was crude or anything, but if my sister or I had a question (and it was usually me, lol) we would just ask. And my mom would explain, very calmly and rationally.

That said, my parents were pretty careful to keep me and my sister away from movies/books that had gratuitous sex or violence in them - not because they didn't want us to know about it, but because seeing it in that format isn't necessarily the healthiest way to learn about it. And by gratuitous sex I mean R-rated movies with the full nudity and the kids hooking up with random dudes at a party.

I read the scene in Breaking Dawn that has everyone so worked up. It was essentially "It's the Night of the Honeymoon - Bride and Groom Go up to Bedroom - Kiss and Snuggle - Next Chapter."

This is not a sex scene. In my opinion, this kind of fade-out love scene is a great way for parents to discuss healthy sexual relationships with their kids. (I'm not going to debate about whether or not Bella/Edward is a healthy relationship in and of itself - that's opening a can of worms. :P) I do not at all understand the fear even mentioning sex to kids. Kids respect when adults can be frank with them about sexuality - it shows them that they understand the world and the pressures that the world puts on them. It's IMPORTANT, and even though I'm not a huge Twilight fan, I thought SM handled sexuality very well in her books.
( 31 comments — Leave a comment )

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My name is Carrie Ryan and my debut book, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, came out from Delacorte Press in the spring of 2009 with the paperback releasing February 8, 2010. A sequel/companion book, The Dead-Tossed Waves, will be out March 9, 2010. To learn more, visit my website.

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