Across discussion boards and blogs, young readers are discussing Patch from the Hush, Hush series (“Why is Patch so perfect? Ohmygah. So freaking sexy.”), Dimitri from the Vampire Academy series (“OHMYGOSHHE’SSOAWESOMEICOULDDIE!”), and Edward from Twilight (verdicts range from “dead sexy” to “creepy stalker”)—all characters from some of young-adult literature’s most popular books. While these comments might be the digital equivalent of notebook doodles, they also illustrate reader reactions to romantic YA novels (and the films based on them) and how those responses resonate with learned ideas of romance and sexuality.
At the same time, these works are shaping what young readers find appealing (Jace from The City of Bones is “sarcastic and cocky and also a totally bad-ass shadowhunter”) and what they don’t (Sam from the Wolves of Mercy Falls series is described by one commenter as “a wussy”). Young-adult literature is an important arena in which teens work through what it means to be in a romantic relationship. For some readers, these books will be their first exposure to mature relationships or frank conversations about sex. Because YA literature has the power to shape, define, and challenge young readers’ conceptions of sex, love, and romance, we need to be aware of the messages these narratives are sending, both intentionally and not.
When we scoured the most popular books based on favorite romantic-fiction lists and discussion forums on Goodreads.com, a social networking site for readers, we found that among the 20 books from two popular romance subgenres (13 paranormal books from six series, and seven realistic novels), radically different “lessons” about sexuality—especially when it came to virginity—were being converged. These lessons seem to fall under two general categories: lessons emphasizing the significance of waiting for sex with a life-long partner, and others addressing the loss of virginity.
Waiting for It
Lesson 1: Virginity is almost always code for moral superiority.
Virginity as code for virtue (and sexual activity as code for moral depravity) has long been a pop culture trope, from Sandra Dee all the way to Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, and Lolo Jones. The recent media slut-shaming of Twilight star Kristen Stewart for cheating on her costar Robert Pattinson is just one example of vilifying a “loose” woman. Feminist writer Jessica Valenti calls this fetishization of virginity “the purity myth” and argues in her 2009 book of the same title that it’s a “cultural ideology that conflates passivity—the act of not having sex—with superior morality.” Perhaps it’s not surprising that YA novels reflect a culture that has long been steeped in purity-myth moralizing. In several books we looked at, girls who engage in sexual activity outside of committed relationships are framed as “sluts,” rendered both unsympathetic and unworthy of being protagonists. For example, Rose Hathaway, a snarky vampire guardian in the Vampire Academy series, is quick to point out in the first book that although she’s “kissed a lot of guys,” she is still a virgin. Mia Rinaldi (a.k.a. “Bitch Doll”), on the other hand, has slept with two boys to get them to spread a rumor that Rose slept with them.
As retribution, Rose punches Mia in the face so hard that Rose “heard a crunch as my fist impacted her nose, and blood spurted out.” The fact that Mia indiscriminately engaged in sex helps readers understand just how depraved she really is; Mia’s sluttiness mitigates and justifies Rose’s violent behavior. Male characters in these YA novels will interact with girls like Mia, but they’ll never pledge themselves to them. Patch, the fallen angel and main love interest in Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush series, spends his time around girls who are regularly characterized as “sluts,” “skanks,” and “anorexic pigs,” but he has no intention of being in a relationship with any of them. Likewise, Cole St. Clair (a supernatural side character in the Shiver trilogy by Maggie Stiefvater) has a reputation for sleeping with the fangirls who follow his band around on tour, but those girls only get to be side characters; they are not the romantic protagonists that readers are meant to identify with.
Instead, the slut characters serve as foils to the pure protagonists, helping readers understand what kind of girl is worthy of love. In Beautiful Disaster, a contemporary nonparanormal romance novel by Jamie McGuire, bad boy Travis Maddox, a champion in his college’s fight-club circuit, has sex with every girl who wants it—and treats them like trash when he’s done. In one particularly misogynistic instance, Travis has a three-way with two girls, only to classify them as disgusting sluts later on. Abby, a virgin, is different because she resists him. When Travis dares to suggest that she might have had sex with another guy, Abby exclaims, “I can’t believe you just said that! That’s a big step for me!” Travis responds, “That’s what all girls say!” To which Abby says, “I don’t mean the sluts you deal with! I mean me!” Only then does his face “light up.” “You’re a virgin?” he asks.
Abby and Travis do have sex before marriage, however, proving that protagonists don’t always have to be pure as an American Girl doll. They can have sex; they can even have hot sex. But unlike those girls coded as “sluts,” Abby waited for Travis and then they got married. The crazy-hot, earthshaking sex they have is romantic and virtuous, not gross or wrong. Other protagonists don’t always realize they are in love until after they’ve done it a few times, but the eventual bliss absolves any previous down-and-dirty hookups. In another nonparanormal romance, The Duff, by Kody Keplinger, main character Bianca is having a sexual relationship with “man whore” Wesley Rush and looks down on “super-skank” Vikki, even though Vikki’s behavior is really not that different from Bianca’s.
By the end of the novel, though, Bianca and Wesley are in love. So all that impersonal hate-fucking they did early in the book? It’s fine. Vikki, on the other hand, has a pregnancy scare that the whole school gossips about, further tarnishing her reputation. Even though Bianca eventually rejects the good virgin/bad whore trope (“It was never my place to judge,” she realizes, regarding Vikki’s sex life), readers are left to believe that while Bianca can be acceptably pure, Vikki will remain the school slut—and no reader would ever mistake her for a heroine.
Lesson 2: Horny girls need chastity guardians.
Young-adult literature is packed with girls who really, really want to have sex, but whose judgment is too clouded to rein in their feelings. Luckily, their male soulmates protect them from their own sordid desires. For instance, in the Vampire Diaries series, it’s Stefan who pulls away from a heated kiss with Elena, and says cool-headedly, “I think that we had better be careful when we do that.” In fact, Stefan is so careful that Elena doesn’t lose her virginity to him until book six in the series—she’s even had time to die in the stories before she gets laid. In Hush, Hush, Patch turns Nora into jelly whenever he touches her: “My brain couldn’t process one logical thought. Patch’s mouth was roaming north, up over my jaw, gently sucking at my skin.”
In Crescendo, after a couple of seriously heavy make-out sessions that Patch forcibly stops, Nora justifies her lusty advances on Patch by saying, “I love you…more than I think I should.” She’s already admitted that Patch is the “worst kind of wrong” for her, but her love and attraction for him makes him so “right.” She constantly pushes aside her better judgment because her attraction is simply too strong. Patch has to be her voice of reason, her guardian, and her conscience. Although both Sam and Grace from Maggie Stiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls series admit they desire one another, Sam, a werewolf, is far more responsible, and can keep his desires in check in ways that Grace can’t. He worries about her parents’ reaction to finding them together, while Grace can’t think of anything but Sam in bed with her. Losing control of her voice, she loudly begs him to “just get in before there’s no more night left” and becomes frustrated that she, “apparently, wasn’t hot enough for him to charge the mattress like a bull.” While it taxes Sam’s strength to resist sex, it makes his love for Grace even more apparent to the reader—he carries the burden of doing what’s best for both of them.
Even protagonists with supernatural powers of their own can’t keep it in their pants. Calla of Andrea Cremer’s Nightshade trilogy is a werewolf alpha, but she still isn’t immune to supernatural hotties. She is betrothed to Renier and describes him as someone who “doesn’t follow the rules” and is “just tempting enough to make [her] wonder whether giving him a taste might be worth the risk.” This temptation is doubled when she meets Shay, a gorgeous human boy. Even though she would be the one to “pay for the theft” of her virginity, she can’t resist either male, and relies on others around her to stop the hormonal rush. Could these storylines with passionate heroines be read as sex-positive? After all, these books—paranormal romances especially—depict women as sexual beings and with desires as strong (or stronger) than men’s.
Yet the male characters who act as guardians of virginity send an implicit message to readers: Girls aren’t capable of restraint and must rely on a soulmate to ensure their own purity. Being abstinent in these books is not empowering for female characters; instead, it’s a consequence of decisions enforced by their male counterparts. Twilight’s Bella may be a thoroughly 21st-century girl with enough raging hormones and horny thoughts to make a 16-year-old boy blush, but she’s completely at the mercy of her own desire. Instead of making active decisions about her sex life, she—like many of her female paranormal counterparts—has to depend on a man to keep her from ruining herself.
Being abstinent in these books is not empowering for female characters; instead, it’s a consequence of decisions enforced by their male counterparts.
Lesson 3: Sometimes it’s okay to have sex—as long as the guy determines when that happens and you’re eternally committed to him.
Male characters frequently determine whether or not a sexual relationship will be acceptable (a committed relationship) or unacceptable (sweaty covert sex). In The Duff, Bianca and Wesley’s nooky only becomes acceptable once Wesley decides to change his man-whore ways. His behavior is the catalyst that allows Bianca to consent to a committed relationship. Similarly, Travis’s decision in Beautiful Disaster to be a better man validates his relationship with Abby. If he had continued to be an emotionally abusive asshole, and Abby had refused to take him back, she would just be the latest in a long line of tramps. Getting married and becoming Mrs. Travis Maddox legitimizes the pairing, but it is Travis who is the ultimate agent in that transformation.
When Sam and Grace of the Wolves of Mercy Falls series finally do have sex—both of them virgins—it is because Sam decides that they love each other enough and it finally feels “so right, so natural, like [he’d] done it a thousand times before and would do it a thousand times again.” Sam has decided that they will always be together: Because their love is pure, Grace’s morality will remain intact. Once a couple commits to each other, they can engage in any manner of freaky sex, as long as their bond is irrevocable. Bella and Edward’s room-destroying honeymoon sex (which leaves Bella bruised) can’t be problematic now that they are married. The push toward happily-ever-after with a sex-filled honeymoon (or at least a commitment to be together for all of eternity) reminds readers that desire can only be expressed in certain socially and culturally sanctioned situations, circumstances that are often defined in ways that require female characters to give up their identities.
Lesson 1: Sex can be pleasurable, but it doesn’t happen by magic.
Paranormal YA might be seen as “cleaner” given that sexual content is far less graphic, hidden beneath flowery descriptions and fluttering heartbeats—but it actually promotes far more negative messages about women’s sexuality. Some realistic novels remind readers that pleasure doesn’t always come easily. In Anatomy of a Boyfriend, high-school senior Dominique Baylor falls in love with book-lover and basketball-star Wesley Gershwin. Dom describes how Wes gets her “the wet-test” she’s ever been, and then “without warning he shoves his second finger up [her] vagina.” Naturally, Dom doesn’t find it particularly pleasurable, nor does she enjoy the first-time sex they have later in the novel, though she does like how close she feels to Wes. Their sexual encounters are never that enjoyable. In fact, Dom eventually learns that her relationship with Wes is codependent, and she learns that with a vibrator, she can do something “for myself, by myself.”
Blue-haired rebel Meg, in Jennifer Echols’ Going Too Far, tells her friend Tiffany, “Sex isn’t that great.” But after she falls in love with John, Meg tells Tiffany, “Now I can see how sex could be really, really fantastic if the guy was slow and caring and thorough and obviously very into you, and if you were in love.” She later finds a relationship that is both sexu-ally and emotionally fulfilling. Rather than depicting virginity as a special gift that a girl gives to her boyfriend, these books demonstrate that mutually enjoyable sex requires honest communication and knowledge of the human body. In addition, the books show what happens when both partners aren’t committed to building a positive and open sex life. Dom’s boyfriend Wes, for example, has no idea what he’s doing, and because Dom is too scared to say anything, their relationship falls apart.
Lesson 2: Realistic teen relationships often end in heartbreak, but losing your virginity to a boy who doesn’t end up being your soulmate doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person.
In contrast to many paranormal romance novels that embody the purity fetishization Valenti identified, sexual relationships in realistic romantic fiction are more likely to function as a rite of passage—a lightning rod for characters and readers to critically analyze the consequences, both positive and negative, of sexual expression. Virginity doesn’t necessarily function as a rigid code of conduct; it is a label imbued with meaning by the characters themselves. As such, it’s a fluid concept that changes as the characters (and readers) mature. And, contrary to what happens in paranormal romance, teens in realistic romance novels often break up.
The girls shed tears, they bitch to their friends, they eat Ben & Jerry’s, but they don’t give up the will to live (as Bella did when Edward left her—for her own good, of course—in New Moon). In Lost It, Tess is devastated when her boyfriend breaks up with her, until her friend Zena puts everything into perspective: “It’s okay that you slept with Ben. Unless you’re like a nun or something, nobody stays a virgin forever.” To which Tess responds, “I feel like I lost something.” Zena replies, “I think that’s the way it’s supposed to feel. For a little while…. It’s something we all lose.” Zena’s words typify the lesson of some romantic fiction: Having sex doesn’t fundamentally change who you are. Sex doesn’t have to mean forever, and characters learn how to move on when teen relationships don’t work out.
Lesson 3: Don’t let anyone disrespect you, especially not the person you love.
Heroines are often so caught up in their daydreams that they forget to demand respect. In Not That Kind of Girl, Natalie realizes that she shouldn’t be ashamed of having a relationship with Connor, eventually asserting “It didn’t matter if I was the kind of girl who had sex…I just need to be okay with the kind of girl I was.” Often the lesson is that they have to respect themselves before anyone else will. In The Duff, when Bianca’s father almost catches Wesley going down on Bianca and then calls her “a little whore,” Wesley stands up for her.
“You aren’t a whore, Bianca. […] What you are is an intelligent, sassy, sarcastic, cynical, neurotic, loyal, compassionate girl.” In Anatomy of a Boyfriend, Dom learns that she doesn’t have to shape her life around Wes’s interests, hobbies, and friends. In Lost It, Tess accepts her breakup with Ben and feels “okay” and “hopeful” and “ready for what comes next.” These messages remind readers that sex is a facet of human activity, and it can be positive or negative, but the act of having sex is completely separate from moral goodness.
In books that subscribe to the “waiting for it” school of thought—often paranormal fiction—female characters can rarely have sex without compromising their moral purity. But not giving in means the characters are in a constant state of distracting, mind-blurring desire. In cases where protagonists (finally) engage in sex, the male partner is the female character’s soulmate, ensuring that she will never have sex with another man for as long as she lives. Every paranormal romance we read (plus a few of the realistic romances on our list) told the same story: Protagonists who want but who can never have sex (at least not without major sacrifices) are the most virtuous girls of all. On the other hand, realistic fiction with romantic elements tends to fall into the “losing it” category, presenting sex-positive messages through female protagonists who explore sexual feelings within the context of respectful, if not star-crossed, relationships.
Young women thoughtfully consider the pleasure and pain (both physical and emotional) of becoming sexually active, recognizing that they can be virtuous with or without intact hymens. The sex-positive messages in these select few YA books remind readers that losing your virginity itself isn’t dirty, bad, or wrong—nor is virginity a personality trait in need of paternalistic protection. We can think of at least two reasons why paranormal romance capitalizes on the purity myth. First, paranormal books are almost always traditional romance novels—and the timid virgin has long been a staple character in that genre. Not all romance novels follow the same formula, of course, but it isn’t unusual to see virginity fetishized as a plot point. By this logic, paranormal romance is simply drawing on genre conventions.
Second, paranormal romance is grounded in escapism. Savvy young readers recognize that their real-life boyfriends won’t be a rich, smart, and attentive ancient vampire trapped in the body of a virginal, Jonas brother lookalike; the suspension of disbelief in imagining that such a boyfriend exists is part of the fun. The purity myth offers escapism for some readers, especially for those who aren’t ready or willing to explore sex for real. Unlike in realistic fiction, where sex is sometimes painful, often messy, and only pleasurable with a lot of work, paranormal romance lets readers imagine soft caresses and chaste kissing. The emphasis on purity also allows less experienced readers to identify with virginal heroines who are lauded for their innocence. Paranormal novels—free from the constraints of the real world—can present a simpler world where sex is always beautiful and soulmates are forever. But these messages can be dangerous when readers accept them uncritically.
Realistic romantic fiction may also operate on traditional romance-novel tropes—love letters, tortured longing, weak knees, handsome jawlines, racing hearts—but the novels typically challenge the notion that sexual pleasure has to be tied up in ideas of morality, purity, and passivity. That message is a positive one for readers who live in a real world where women’s bodies are still sites of political and religious battles, and sexual activity code for moral turpitude. Paranormal romance tends to reinforce the idea that virginity is the impossible state in which all girls must remain in order to be “good.” Sex-positive realistic novels go back decades. Long before there was a crush of paranormal romance, Judy Blume was writing about sex in nuanced and sensitive ways. But comparing Blume’s 1975 coming-of-age novel Forever to the smash-hit paranormal novels of today is startling. Blume’s writing is graphic, yet her messages are far more empowering than the chaster messages of today’s most popular YA romances.
Books as down-to-earth as Forever have been published since 1975, but perhaps not frequently enough. Furthermore, the sex-positive books that have been published do not inspire the kind of fan response that paranormal romance does. If you visit the popular discussion forum “Addicted to YA” on Goodreads, you’ll find only a small handful of discussions about nonparanormal books. (Not to mention the fact that sex-positive books are more likely to result in controversy—Forever is still one of the most frequently challenged YA books.) Sex-positive books also consistently sell fewer copies than paranormal romances.
For example, the virgin-fetishizing first book in the Vampire Diaries series was at 4,792 on Amazon’s sales rankings at the time of publication. In contrast, Anatomy of a Boyfriend, a contemporary update on Forever with a strong and sexually active female protagonist, ranked at 210,497 (still a respectable number, but nothing compared with the sales figures of YA paranormal novels). These numbers seem to suggest that YA readers prefer books with messages that fetishize purity. Is that the case? As 12-year-old Mallory writes on Addicted to YA, “I don’t like to read about sex, because it makes me feel guilty for reading the book because I am a strong Christian and don’t believe in sex before marriage.” Lottie, 19, agrees and calls herself an “old grandma” who doesn’t like sex in books. But as we found, realistic fiction, far from promoting sex, highlights characters who are or who become self-confident, nonpassive, and expressive regardless of their sexual activity.
We’re not suggesting that readers give up paranormal romance or that parents police their preteen daughters who devour every YA paranormal romance on the market. But we do argue that the limited presentation of sex and sexuality in YA paranormal romance reflects and contributes to a cultural ideology in which girls are passive bodies awaiting sexual awakening at the hands of their mate. In general, paranormal romance doesn’t promote positive and healthy choices for young readers; it actually tips the power scales, forcing male characters into dominant, decision-maker positions and female characters into submissive spaces. That said, while realistic fiction presents a much broader view of sex and sexuality, most books are still largely focused on heterosexual experiences. One notable exception is The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth, a 2012 novel that explores a realistic relationship between lesbian Cameron and her straight-identifying best friend. Cameron’s aunt eventually sends her to a reorientation camp where Cameron comes to terms with her sexuality. Other YA novels, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, also explore same-sex relation-ships, but they are few and far between.
Realistic fiction also tackles other tough topics. Speak, the award-winning novel by Laurie Halse Anderson, explores the aftermath of a date rape, which is main character Melinda’s first sexual experience. (Interestingly, Speak is a frequently challenged book. One male challenger called it “soft-core porn,” even though the only sex scene involves Melinda being raped by an older boy at a party.) Realistic fiction may never be as popular as the escapist paranormal fiction that offers simple messages and familiar tropes, but the YA market has recently experienced a shift. While vampires were all the rage five years ago, the hottest books now are dystopian. Futuristic landscapes offer new ways of exploring race, gender, class—and sex. Wither, for example, the first book in Lauren DeStefano’s Chemical Garden trilogy, presents a postapocalyptic world where everyone dies before the age of 25.
The protagonist, Rhine, is forced to marry an old man (a survivor from before the genetic mutation) to save the human race. Rhine rejects this role and searches for a way out of a society that forces girls into sexual relationships for the benefit of others. Books like Wither have opened up the doors for readers to discuss uncomfortable issues, often in metaphoric ways. As we move away from escapist paranormal fantasy worlds into imagined futuristic ones, perhaps we will begin to see more YA books questioning and challenging the purity myth. Until then, we should read critically, looking for ways that virginity and morality are conflated, and question the repercussions of presenting young readers with ideas about virginity that are often unrealistic and frequently dangerous.