Tuesday, March 4, 2014

AWP 2014: A Guy's Take on Sex in YA Fiction

Last weekend I attended AWP for the first time. For those who don't know, AWP is short for Association of Writers and Writing Programs. It is North America's largest literary conference, boasts a big book fair (primarily focused on lit mags, small presses, and MFA programs) and tons of panels (mostly) hosted by people who would sooner be tortured to death than admit they write anything that could be construed as speculative fiction.

As a self-professed genre writer, I felt like people were going to make me wear an armband and put me on a train, but I had a great time, learned a lot and came away with a ton of awesome stories. I attended the explosive and very weird Magic & Intellect Panel. My wife and I watched a dude perfect his slow-motion pelvic thrust on the dance floor each night over the course of the convention. I will share some of these stories in detail over the coming days, but I want to begin by talking about one of the final panels of the convention: How Far to Go: Sex in YA Fiction.

The panel was hosted by Adele Griffin, Emily Lockhart, Robin Wasserman, and Sara Mlynowski, all well-established YA novelists. The reason I feel like I have something worth saying is twofold. Firstly, I was one of five men in an audience of about fifty people, which struck me as unusual. Secondly, I also attended a similar panel earlier in the program: Warning Extreme Content: Sex, Drugs, and Abuse in Young Adult Literature and thought I could compare the two.

I have not read any of these ladies' books, but based on their readings, I feel the four of them nailed teenage girl sexuality. Or at least, four very varied approaches toward it. I say this based on my youth spent in a ballet studio, where I was surrounded by scores of young women who occupied roles in my life ranging from surrogate sisters, idealized crushes, awkward girlfriends, close friends, lust idols, patient mentors, artistic rivals, caustic hell-bitches, and the woman who would become my wife and soul mate. The insight they have given me is invaluable.

The panel offered some priceless advice as well. It observed that good writing about sex in YA can not only steer kids away from bad sexual experiences, but prepare them for positive ones down the road (and what parent doesn't want their kids to eventually have positive sexual experiences)? There was the observation that going into great detail during the act of sex typically does not move the plot forward, and that in YA, where the sex is under a particularly exacting microscope, it’s important for every detail to serve the story. Throughout, all the panelists also had a healthy sense of humor, and they were welcome exceptions to the general rule of being anti-speculative lit.

The panel's biggest blind spot though, as observed by an audience member, was teenage guy sexuality, which is what I thought I would talk about for the majority of this post.

I think the sharpest distinction between girl and guy sexuality, is that while women are simultaneously warned against being sluts and depicted as perfected sexual objects in the media, guys are given one message from the time that they are nine: bed hot women. Not people you connect with, or even people you find physically pleasing. You are to seek out hot women and screw as many of them as possible, as soon as possible. On the one hand, there is no frustrating doublespeak, no ambiguity in that message. But on the flipside, it leaves much less room for self-discovery and personal growth, both sexually, and in general. The disparity in messages also carries over to the way men and women bully each other.

Teenage girls are the cruelest people on the planet. Teenage boys are the most brutal. Girls hatch elaborate campaigns to destroy each other, using both blade of the double-standard. You’re a pathetic prude one minute, and an irredeemable whore the next.  For guys there is only constant blunt-force verbal and (often) physical trauma. You’re a fag. You will die a virgin. How are you gonna get laid looking like that? There is no cunning. There is no deception. The only respite is how casual and flippant the barrage becomes. And the only gold-standard of respect is who you’ve stuck your dick in—nevermind if it meant ruining her reputation or self-esteem in the process.

As adults we know this is bullshit.  Hell, most guys realize it is an appalling falsehood by freshman year. But that doesn’t stop the story. The pervasive, ceaseless social narrative reminding you that who you’ve fucked is what really matters. God help you if you are gay, bi, trans, or simply figuring your shit out. They say that women tend to have more body issues than men thanks to the enduring prevalence of the male gaze in media, but men are also trained to view themselves with the same superficial eye, and if you are chubby, or skinny, or have acne, you are going to be wracked by insecurities. Ditto if you engage in any activity that is considered feminine, like, say, ballet.

As far as physiology goes, I would say that sex is more of a constant distraction and annoyance for guys. Not because our urges are necessarily stronger, or because guys think about sex more than girls, but because we can always get an erection, and the physical element makes our arousal harder for everybody to ignore. Most of the time it’s not a big deal, but at some point in four years, it will be as bad as it possibly can be. Given our more ostentatious anatomy, I think guys tend to think about sex in more superficial terms than most girls. Boners may also partially explain our fixation with boobs—which are the most ostentatious part of a girl’s anatomy. Pro Tip: I know it sounds stupid, but you really cannot overestimate the average teenage guy’s fixation on breasts (in their defense, I am 26 and boobs are still awesome).

What does she look like when she’s naked? How does my penis compare to other guys'? Where can I touch her? These are the questions boys tend to ask when they get stuck in their own heads. Everything else is an afterthought, including: What will feel best? How can I make it memorable? Are we going to have fun? Though, I think that last one eludes almost everybody starting out. Sex is serious fucking business for teens. Which brings me to how to write the deed itself.

In this scenario, I think both genders are on an equal playing field. If the sex act (even something as harmless as kissing) is premeditated, it is inevitably over-thought and horrendously awkward. If equally inexperienced, both parties will do everything cautiously and by stumbling half-measure. Conversely, unplanned make-out sessions (and accompanying sex acts) tend to be unbridled animalistic hedonism. They are incandescent bright spots amidst one of the shittier periods of your life, and it is difficult to overstate the passion or accompanying elation. I think girls tend to keep a clearer head in the heat of the moment, as they tend to be more wary of the threat of gestation, but it really depends on the personalities involved.

So how did How Far to Go compare to the other panel on taboo subjects in YA fiction? I think I have to give the nod to Warning Extreme Content but it scratched a very personal itch. The panel was hosted by Ann Angel ("Not the pornstar!"), Kekla Magoon, and Carrie Jones. It was one of my favorite panels in the entire convention, because the panelists focused less on their own material in favor of crafting broader arguments against pro-censorship organizations. They backed up their arguments with excellent quotes from Chuck Wendig (Blackbirds), Sherman Alexie of (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian) and Carrie Mesrobian (Sex and Violence). And while they still had an excellent sense of humor about their subject matter (especially Ms. Angel), the main reason I think I preferred this panel is because it speaks to a fight I feel very passionately about: the idea that YA fiction should be neutered and bloodless.

To my eye, YA's biggest handicap is that it has to aggressively justify "extreme" content to society. Kids cannot merely grow up. They have to grow up in ways we can all sign-off on. There are already so many damn people lecturing kids—parents, teachers, preachers, people who do not have kids of their own but nonetheless believe that they know how kids ought to be raised—that having another voice shouting at them is a sure way for them to give up reading in favor of games, movies, television, or anything less likely to preach at them. I think that one of the most crucial cultural services that fiction provides is a means to escape those pressures. And those are the kind of books I want to write for young adults.

To put all my cards on the table, I will admit that my own first YA effort, The Harrowing, has a lot of violence with no obvious moral through-line to excuse it. My closest literary approximations are Ender's Game, or to a lesser extent, Hunger Games, right down to the troubling "survival necessitates murder" politics, but my tone is decidedly more manic and quipy than either of those books. There isn't a lot of sex in it; certainly nothing explicit, but it is something I want to explore in future books in the series. I'm working on a much sexier, totally unrelated novel right now, but all the characters are twenty-somethings so it probably won't piss off any parents (and where is the fun in that?).

Enough self-promotion. Did anybody else attend these panels? What did you think? My comment section is sorry and desolate. Light it up.

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