Talk Vomit about sex and relationships in YA lit

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by Mary Stathos

I am 13 years old. I am walking to my locker between classes and my friend Jess walks up to me to give me a book that I absolutely need to read. Smack by Melvin Burgess. The book, which was given to her by our English teacher, is now mine to read. I don’t even know what drug the 14 year old main character and his friends are addicted to (it’s heroin) but nothing about the story is jarring to me. The child sex trafficking, the pain, the trauma, the life revolving around drugs – I breeze through it finding myself somehow longing for this sort of effortless lifestyle that they are living, longing from the freedom the characters have – I do not yet know about the ways that drugs are more of a jail than curfews. There is something about the cover, with the quotes about drugs that I do not fully comprehend that feels cool to be reading. I keep it on top of my books in class in the hopes that someone will ask me about it – a book that I myself do not understand enough to be reading at all.

I am 12 years old. My cousin let me borrow her copy of Speak. She thinks I would like a story about rape and the bullying a victim endures after telling the truth. My mom was worried about the content so she read it first. She told me it seemed inappropriate but gave it back without other comment. I have not even had my first kiss. This is the first time I have read about a character having sex – a drunk girl getting raped at a party. I have no one to talk to about what consent means, about how this both a common and not normal response to sexual assault, no one to ask about what sex does look like. I am inundated with abstinence-only sex education and I still have this very weird idea that condoms are worn around the entire body that won’t be debunked for another 3 years by my high school boyfriend’s much older sister.

I am again 13 years old, reading Twilight for the first of many times – the romance of our generation. Edward watching Bella sleep is the type of romance that I long for. His disgust and simultaneous obsession for her is endearing. I want a boy who won’t leave me alone, who will make me feel the rush – the danger – of simply being around him at all, a boy who is more important than my life, my friends, my family. I want to be a stupid lamb to a sick, masochistic lion. I watch a lifetime video about abusive relationships in health class and watch “Face Down” by The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus on my iPod video at least once a week. I know enough to know that those are wrong but no one explains to me that I can have a mutually respectful relationship, but I am reading a new YA novel once a week.

The actual definition of Young Adult (YA) literature is pretty loosely defined. They are books that are geared toward adolescents (ages 12-18) that cover a wide range of themes that typically center around coming of age in some way. It was meant to sort of bridge the gap between children’s books and adult literature by introducing these more “adult” themes in a context that adolescents are interested in and can relate to. They range from fantasy books to dystopian futures to drug addiction and trauma. The way these adult themes get bridged vary from book to book, but one thing that is present in most of them is a love interest or romance of some kind, because what is more adult really than meeting the love of your life at 15 years old?

I want to be a stupid lamb to a sick, masochistic lion.

I learned that you find love in the mental hospital. I learned that it’s the cool boy who doesn’t give you enough attention at first that is the real love of your life, that the boy who has always been kind to you should be forgotten about, that if you just try hard enough and continue to manifest it, the older girl who has always treated you like a younger brother will kiss you before she leaves for college. And through all of that, the quotes, the “feeling infinite” and wondering if self-harm will really be the most effective way to show everyone the hurt I am feeling inside, the dreaming of getting black out drunk as a child, no one was having the debriefing conversations at the end of these books to tell me that perhaps living your life like you are an adult, longing for the feelings of endless freedom and no rules while you have no ability to comprehend long term consequences, is not healthy. If finding the love of your life is such an adult theme then why are we reading about people our age finding it in even the strangest of circumstances?

I am 15 years old. My relationship looks a lot like the ones I am reading about except it isn’t working out. We talk about getting married even though we have nothing in common. We lay in his bed for hours talking about our future even though neither of us have any concept of what our futures will look like. My freshman year, filled with improv classes, marching band and a low budget production of the Odyssey does not live up to the drama filled books I have read. There are no parties, no drugs, no running away to be almost killed by a murderous vampire clan, just plain old regular high school and it never felt like enough.

When we broke up, I was distraught. I had never planned for this. Everyone’s first love always worked out. I wrote poems, I wrote Facebook statuses, I wrote in a shared journal to my friends, I cried in dance class, I cried on the bus, I cried in homeroom after my sappy break up poem got read over the loudspeaker in one of the meanest acts of bullying I have ever encountered. I probably should have been in therapy but wasn’t and so I did what I knew.

I was hysterical – and the question really became, was I hysterical because it was really that upsetting or was it because I had never once been exposed to a healthy break up or was this the early signs of mental illness seeping out into my life? I would estimate that I read around 100 YA books and I can’t think of a single one that prepared me to handle a break up gracefully. And even if my genetics were at play here, if my heightened emotional sensitivity made me more inclined to publicly weep about the end of a 9 month long relationship, would it have been helpful to have been exposed to other ways to cope with this?

The nature versus nurture debate is an ever expanding topic in psychology. Are we a product of our genetics, our environment, both? The biosocial theory suggests that we are likely a mix of both our biological predisposition (think emotional sensitivity, impulsivity, etc.) and the ways in which we were socialized (think exposure to validating or invalidating environments, trauma, introduction to a variety of ideas, etc.).

It is one of the longest standing debates in psychology. Some believe that we are born with all of these traits predetermined for us, handed down in our DNA and that we will grow up the same way regardless of our exposure to different environments. Others believe that we can learn certain traits. An easy example of this is learning manners in childhood – we do not inherently know politeness as children. In fact, instinctually, we learn to scream and cry for the things that we want until we get them. It is not until we are old enough to learn the words please and thank you that this behavior is adopted.

This was tested in the 1960’s by Albert Bandura in a series of studies coined the Bobo Doll Experiment. Bandura studied children’s behavior with a doll-like toy after observing an adult play violently with the toy. Children who had previously played nicely with the toy acted violent towards it after seeing an adult play violently and receive no consequences, showing that these tendencies can be learned, even when we are not socialized to act in this way prior to exposure to certain types of behaviors. Although, like with all studies, there are limitations to Bandura’s research, we do know that observing behaviors, healthy or unhealthy, can lead to the imitation of them in our own lives.

YA literature serves a purpose to expose adolescent and young adult readers to adult themes in a relatable context. That sentence itself feels like a paradox. Adult themes in a relatable context – for children. These books are taking thematic elements of adult romance, love and sex and making it feel as though it should apply to adolescents who are likely just in their first years of discovering what romance and love is at all.

I am 27 years old. I am not sure I have ever had a truly healthy relationship. My introduction to dating was on how to date like an adult as a child, not develop an identity of my own that feels worth loving. And while this issue is rooted in a societal problem much bigger than just YA novels, its impact was much deeper than just me.

That sentence itself feels like a paradox. Adult themes in a relatable context – for children.

If we know that observing behaviors, whether they are healthy or not can cause us to normalize these behaviors and imitate them in our own lives, then we can look at this and say that there may be a link to the ways that we read about relationships, love and sex at early ages of our development and subsequently how we act and what types of relationships we seek out at these ages as well.

Therefore, we decided to do a survey of 27 participants who read YA literature in middle and high school to take a look at the correlation between the types of books they read, their perception of them at the time they were reading them and the types of relationships they have now.

We found that 48.1% of participants read books that primarily displayed toxic views of sex and relationships. So with around half of people reading mostly toxic portrayals of sex and relationships, 51.8% of participants reported not having a good understanding of whether or not those portrayals of relationships were healthy and 66.6% of participants reported not having a good understanding of whether the portrayals of sexual experiences were or were not heathy.

So with more than half of these readers not understanding whether or not the experiences they are reading about are healthy, what becomes increasingly problematic is how the introductions to unhealthy themes shaped young readers. Our survey showed that 62.9% and 66.6% of participants reported that their views and expectations of relationships and sex respectively were influenced by YA novels

Although 48.1% of participants had opportunities outside of media (books, TV, movies, etc.) to discuss and explore sex and relationships in an open and comprehensive way, 66.6% of participants reported that portrayals of sex and relationships in media had a greater impact on their view of them than outside opportunities.

More than half of participants stated that at least some of the elements of the books they were reading were present in their own relationships, with almost a third (29.6%) reporting significant presence of these elements.

Of the 27 books listed, chosen from a list of popular YA books during the 2000’s, only 14 of them were identified by participants to display themes of healthy sex and relationships, and only 1 series (The Harry Potter Series) was identified by more than 50% of users to identify healthy relationships, while all of the other 13 books’ support of portraying healthy relationships was at or below 9%.

Adolescents are in a phase of life where they are actively trying to define who they are. This is the time where we are separating from our parents and finding our own place in life. We are the most susceptible to outside influence that we will ever be in our lives. Our curiosity is peaking to try out new experiences and yet our ability to understand long term consequences is still low. As we try to explore our limits, define ourselves and understand the world, YA lit is often a window to these possibilities. While variety and diversity in these experiences is important, that does not equate to an overwhelming number of toxic, white heterosexual relationships. With the ability for adolescents to be so easily influenced, knowing that we, by human nature, will model the experiences we see, there is a need and perhaps almost an obligation for YA lit to provide expansive ways to explore the world around us. We are not defined by our relationships, we are more than cis-het romance, in fact we are more than romance at all. I want young readers to know that they are more than an object of someone’s desires.

I am 15 years old. I can’t open a book without reading about a character who cannot find themselves through overcoming a difficult experience, no matter how fantastical, without finding love along the way. I am cast as a wife in a play. My “husband,” a senior, lets me know that we need to practice being married. I make out with him in a movie theater.

I am 24. I run into the senior boy. I make out with him in a bar.

Mary Stathos is Talk Vomit’s creative editor, as well as a therapist. She takes a lot of photos of her cats and calls her mom every day.

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