Sex in Literature

When I read, I submerge myself into a book. I live vicariously through the characters and use their mistakes to learn lessons of my own. I adopt the character’s personalities in hopes of finding mine. I use books to learn.

When books have characters that succumb to gender and societal norms, what does that teach the reader? Should the reader adopt these norms, too? Or should they realize that they are detrimental to society and learn to avoid them? This depends on the style of the book and it’s designated audience. This problem is common amongst young adult novels and adult novels.

Young adult novels are so… sweet. Not literally, of course. But they’re frilly. They include nice characters with a nice plot and the nice girl almost always ends up with the nice boy and they become a nice couple. If you’re a teenage romantic, you soak this stuff up. I know I did when I was 13. In order to recognize the problems regarding these types of books, you need to read between the lines.

Sarah Dessen, a famous young adult author, has 11 books that all revolve around the same topic: a teenage girl falling in love with a teenage boy. Yes, the background information varies per book – each character has his or her own problems and struggles – but the end result is always the same. Let me repeat: a teenage girl always falls in love with a teenage boy. There are no same-sex couples or identity issues in these novels.

If Dessen were to be realistic in her novels, they would be less heteronormative and include identity issues that young girls and boys actually face. Fiction can still be realistic, you know. These gender and societal norms subconsciously implemented into her novels are massaged into the brains of the readers. Young girls and boys then expect their love lives to mirror the characters’, when, in reality, love isn’t always that simple — love works in mysterious ways.

The teenage brain is always soaking up new information so a personality can be formed. Most teens don’t know who they are yet, so imposing a strict guideline in a book can drastically impact their futures. They don’t even realize this.

“Adult” novels, on the other hand, are completely different. In E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, 21-year-old Anastasia Steele is not dealing with her teenage virginity or finding the right man — she’s taking her body into her own hands and experimenting to find out what she likes.

In “Adolescent girl’s sexuality,” Deborah L. Tolman discusses the inhibitions girls face when it comes to experimenting with sex. In Fifty Shades of Grey, Ana takes matters into her own hands; she does not romanticize the idea of sex to the extent where she only wants it to be romantic. She does what she wants with her body, which is what women should be allowed to do. In Dessen’s novels, the circumstances are different. Dessen wants her characters to associate sex with love, which there is nothing wrong with. However, when hormone-ridden teenagers are reading these novels, they are being taught that they should only explore their sexuality with someone whom they are in a relationship with. Casual sex doesn’t even cross their minds.

Although the age range between the characters in both authors’ novels is very small, the age range between the intended audiences is drastically different. Older teens and women who read Fifty Shades of Grey are more likely to understand sex and view sex as an enjoyable act as opposed to something that is solely associated with love. Unfortunately, forcing children to read Fifty Shades of Grey would probably be considered unethical (and might give them nightmares and false perceptions about sex).

Not only are the sexual conditions for each type of novel different, but so is the diction and tone used when describing them. In Dessen’s novel Someone Like You, a 16-year-old girl named Halley Cooke falls in love with a boy named Macon Faulkner (who, unfortunately, is not reminiscent of William Faulkner. Boo, I know). When Halley wants to have sex with Macon, her best friend Scarlett reminds her that that girls like them do not have sex without saying I love you first (Dessen 202). Man, way to be a buzzkill, Scarlett.

On the other hand, E. L. James has no problem including raunchy and explicit diction in her novel… many times. For example:

“He leans down and kisses me, his fingers still moving rhythmically inside me, his thumb circling and pressing. His other hand scoops my hair off my head and holds my head in place. His tongue mirrors the actions of his fingers, claiming me. My legs begin to stiffen as I push against his hand. He gentles his hand, so I’m brought back from the brink … I come instantly again and again, falling apart beneath him … then I’m building again … I climax anew, calling out his name” (James, 195- 196).

Both types of novels contribute to societal norms and expectations. Young adult novels prevent young girls from expressing and exploring their sexuality while teaching them that sex should only be used when you’re in love. Adult novels, on the other hand, understand that women, too, have desires and needs and do not need to rely on love to have sex.

Readers: Did you ever (or do you still) read young adult novels? If so, did you develop any expectations based on the characters and their experiences? Are sex and love mutually exclusive?

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One thought on “Sex in Literature

  1. I find it amazing the effect that novels had on my early social development, as well as other forms of media like movies and TV shows. I remember it was a huge deal for everyone at my middle school to read the Twilight Books (for which 50 Shades is fan-fiction) and to one day hope to be as desirable as Bella. As impressionable adolescents, at a less than ideal middle school, my friends and I viewed Bella as a role model for the ‘perfect girlfriend.’ These novels not only reinforce heteronormativity, but other especially troublesome ideas about allowing a man to beat you up and then forgiving him. Overall, the way novels are so prone to express overt reflections of dominant social discourses should be a concern of parents when learning what their children are reading.

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