Today in cringeworthy statistics: Fewer than half of the states in America require sex ed in their public school systems. Of those, only 19 require that the information provided to young students is “medically, factually or technically” accurate.
With such a deficit of state-mandated knowledge relating to sex and STDs -- let alone more complex issues like consent -- how are kids learning about sex?
Their parents, their peers and their own personal experiences are all likely sources. But for kids hoping to read up before wading the murky waters of romance themselves, social media sites and books marketed to teens are brimming with info -- the helpful, the erroneous, and the totally detrimental.
The teen-powered world of Tumblr may have lots of girl-friendly, softcore porn, but it’s also full of “thinspiration.” Similarly, there are novels marketed to teens that directly explain how to report a rape, whereas other YA books may glibly brush over such issues for the sake of the ambiguity that accompanies artistic language. Both approaches serve a purpose, but there are authors who believe clear, explicit discussions of sex serve an important function in the world of teen novels.
Anna Breslaw, former Sex & Relationships editor at Cosmopolitan, belongs in that camp. In her forthcoming YA book, Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here, a quippy, cynical protagonist talks with her brainy, hard-working friend about sexual exploration. Both are new to the game, but Audrey, true to form, decided to Google the baseball metaphor before talking with her friends about her experiences. She learns that first base could mean a handful of things, depending on who you’re talking to, and we learn that Wikipedia is a likely research tool teens can rely on to educate themselves about sex.
Breslaw’s book is full of these funny insights, each with its own lightly moralistic takeaway. Throughout the story, protagonist Scarlett deals with grief, jealousy and her own judgmental tendencies. She weighs the pros and cons of losing her virginity to a close friend; she learns how to kindly express her opinions and desires. None of these progressions are forceful; reading its witty pages is nothing like revisiting the dogmatic world of “7th Heaven.” But, the book wears its values on its sleeve.
“If these are teenagers who are reading the book,” Breslaw explained over the phone to The Huffington Post, “I wouldn’t want them walking away thinking something is OK when it isn’t OK, and could lead to them doing something that’s not good for them.”
She continued, “If I was ever to write a scene in a YA novel where someone drunkenly has sex, and the line of consent is unclear, that would have to be something that would be resolved [...] I would feel shitty about putting a book into the world where the main character doesn’t learn that that’s not OK.”
Which isn’t to say Breslaw advocates for eschewing sex from YA books. Actually, she strongly supports it. “I think you can have 17 sex scenes in a YA novel,” she said, laughing. “A lot of YA clearly is about romance, or crushes, or falling in love for the first time. And sex is a normal part of that. If it’s senior year of high school and there’s no mention of sex, that would be weird to me. It would be like writing an adult novel about a bunch of grown-ups in New York without ever mentioning drinking.”
The topic only gets thorny, she says, when problematic sex occurs. If a YA novel contains rape, or characters with low self-esteem, these aspects shouldn’t be presented plainly as facts of life, but as issues with lessons or takeaways embedded within them. While adults might have an easier time discerning a character’s perspective from an author’s opinion, teens are likely to be more impressionable, Breslaw said.
“It’s not about underestimating teenagers or anything like that,” she said. “I don’t think of it in a condescending way. I was a smart teenager, but if my favorite novel intimated that if you’re too drunk to consent you weren’t [being taken] advantage of, I would’ve believed it.”
The idea that teens are more impressionable than adults is demonstrable beyond Breslaw’s anecdotes. A study covered by Smithsonian Magazine revealed that young people are more “vulnerable,” and are “highly responsive to positive feedback.” Clear-cut advice regarding problematic access might seem heavy-handed to adult readers, but for teens it could shed light on romantic interactions they didn’t even know were detrimental.
One way Breslaw’s characters -- and real-world teens -- navigate their awkward first forays into sex is through the imaginative, often anonymous world of fan fiction. Scarlett writes novel-length stories about her favorite characters from a canceled high school sitcom, inserting herself and her peers into the plots. In doing so, she’s able to parse out her own feelings, and try on identities and interactions before committing to them IRL.
In developing these scenes, Breslaw drew from her own experiences writing online fan fiction in high school.
“My real-life sex life in high school was nothing,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I liked anyone. I had stupid crushes, but I was uncomfortable in my body and with the way I looked. Like a lot of girls, I would imagine. I never inserted myself into fan fiction, but I think that’s why I liked it so much. If you’re uncomfortable with your own sexuality at that age, it’s a safe and fun way to explore your sexuality with characters that have no real stake in your life.”
Breslaw also touched on the fact the fan fiction community is made up of many women, gay men, and people “who are more marginalized in their daily lives, people who are written for less.”
For teens whose sexual interests lie outside of whatever’s being discussed or not discussed at their schools, joining fanfic communities -- and reading fiction in general -- is one way to explore. Which is why the way sex is discussed within these fictional settings matters.
“I think the [fanfic] community would be flourishing a lot less if there were fewer Jonathan Franzens," she added, "but there are not fewer Jonathan Franzens. There are still plenty."