Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Sex and YA

I'm curious about your response to this. The following is an article from Newsday on the new trend to up the sexual content in YA - specifically targeted at girls. I think it's a destructive trend and to discount is as harmless and just entertainment is very shortsighted. I'm interested in this not just because I'm a thinking woman who has opinions of her own, and because I've taught teenagers for fifteen years and I hate seeing this teenage generation's outward attitude of "hey, it's just a blow job," and then watch the silent desperation of girls who let themselves be exploited, but also because I'm the mother of a 19 year old, and author of a YA series. And, yes, the sexual content of my series has been a point of dissention between my editor and me. Here's the article:

Sex and the Teenage Girl
What goes on between the covers is now what goes on between the covers of new fiction aimed at young adults
BY TANIA PADGETTNewsday Staff WriterApril 4, 2006

She had the type of body that looked even better naked than in clothes. Soft without being fat, and more delicate than her usual costumes of preppy, neatly creased jeans and cashmere cardigans or short, tight little black dresses let on. She was still a pain in his ass, but they'd been in and out of love pretty much since they were 11 years old and he wanted to get naked with her for even longer.
Sound like a passage from a sex-soaked Danielle Steel novel? It isn't. And the audience isn't the typical adult female romance reader.This book, "Nobody Does It Better" (Little Brown, $9.99), is aimed at girls, ages 14 to 18. It's the latest (2005) in the bestselling "Gossip Girl" series by Cecily von Ziegesar.And that was just page one.Young-adult fiction has come a long way from Nancy Drew, the 16-year-old sleuth whose most intimate encounter with a guy was probably a batting of eyelashes at boyfriend Ned Nickerson.But today's teenage fiction, with its slick covers, eye-riveting blurbs and steamy plots, is exploding off bookstore shelves, fattening anemic publishers' profits and attracting millions of television-worshiping teens. The market has become so lucrative that non-book publishing companies, like MTV, are elbowing into the increasingly crowded niche.But the books' popularity has also given rise to a small chorus of detractors who worry that the content is too racy. In many of the books, teens have sex, do drugs, use profanity, and plot and scheme against each other with glinting treachery.

Naomi Wolf, whose feminist work, "The Beauty Myth," launched her to fame, argued in an essay for the Sunday New York Times last month that today's books for teens "package corruption with a cute overlay."

"The problem is a value system in which meanness rules, parents check out, conformity is everything and stressed-out adult values are presumed to be meaningful to teenagers," she wrote.

In the past year alone, the biggest sellers in the young-adult market have been series, including "Gossip Girl," "The Clique" by Lisi Harrison and "The A-List" by Zoey Dean. And sales are showing no signs of slowing down. Plots are fast-moving and dramatic, but also formulaic: party-hopping girls with runway-model looks, who often leave skid marks racing from one reckless rich and famous adventure to another.Many girls, some as young as 13, gobble these books up, vaulting titles to the top of The New York Times bestseller list and emboldening publishers to start developing movies or television series from their content. Meanwhile, producers of popular teen TV shows, such as Fox's "The OC" and MTV's "Laguna Beach," plan to roll out books based on those series as they try to capitalize on this literary bonanza.

"Books are catching up with the rest of entertainment and becoming much more attractive to the young teen audience," said Leslie Morgenstein, president of Alloy Entertainment in Manhattan, which developed the "Gossip Girl" books. "And the content is no worse than what girls are already seeing on television."

A potent brew. Brisk sales of these books are not surprising. Mix a recipe of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, or hip-hop, and you've created a potent brew that is sure to at least pique teenage interest.It wasn't that long ago when the young-adult fiction market was much like the geeky girl or guy at the high-school dance: around but largely ignored. Ten years ago, the classics, fantasy books and innocuous series such as "Sweet Valley High" dominated sales. But demand for teen books with more adult themes began to coincide with the advent of edgier content on cable television and the boomlet in U.S. teenagers.Between 1990 and 2000, the number of youths between ages 12 and 19 climbed to 32.4 million in the United States, an increase of 4.5 million, according to a survey by Media Mark Research last year using U.S. Census data.That increase also brought a tidal wave of teenager spending income (about $115 million in 2003), which was not lost on the book industry. From 1995 to 2004, book sales in the young-adult market surged 86.9 percent to $444.4 million, according to statistics compiled by Albert Greco, a marketing professor at Fordham University in the Bronx.Joe Monti, a book buyer at Barnes & Noble, said the release in the late 1990s of "Smack," by Melvin Burgess, about British teens on heroin, and "Holes," by Louis Sachar, about a teen sent to summer detention camp, helped change the face of the young-adult market.

"Unlike other books, these tackled tough issues that teenagers face," Monti said. "The sales were incredible." During a recent visit to the B. Dalton Booksellers store in Roosevelt Field, a group of Division Avenue High School students from Levittown were found eyeing the young-adult selections. Katie Duggan, 17; Danielle Yarsinske, 18; Diana Hajjar, 18, and Allison O'Rourke, 17, acknowledged that many of the books are "mindless entertainment," but that hasn't stopped them from snapping up the latest popular titles."I've read all the ['Gossip Girl'] books," said Duggan, a senior. "The characters are rich and live such dramatic lives. And their parents never tell them anything. I sometimes wish my parents were like that."

Hajjar said, "It's like 'Sex and the City' for teens."

"I wasn't a big reader before," Yarsinske added. "But I really enjoy the books."

O'Rourke, who would prefer burying her nose in Shakespeare and other classics, said she doesn't have "a problem with teens reading them."Nor do a handful of parents and librarians who specialize in young-adult fiction and agreed to talk to Newsday. The adult content in these books does not wreck teenagers values, said Barbara Paulinski at Floral Park Memorial High in Floral Park. "I'd like to think [the books] present a teaching moment for parents," she said. Besides "I don't think you get your basic core values from what you read or what you hear. You get them from your home."

"I don't think many of the young adult books are done irresponsibly," said Teri Germano, a librarian at Masters Moriches Shirley Library, in Shirley. "Many are done with reason and sensitivity."That, of course, has only whetted publishers' appetite. But their stampede to snap up young-adult dollars and market share did yield at least one public major misstep. Simon & Schuster's release last year of "Rainbow Party," an unflinching tale by Paul Ruditis of teen oral sex, sparked heated discussion and a slew of newspaper articles about the salacious nature of teen literature. The novel's front cover boasted a photo of opened colored lipsticks; its back cover was filled with provocative blurbs. Many stores refused to stock the title and the much-promised sales never materialized.Barnes & Noble's Monti said he chose not to stock "Rainbow Party" because it was competing with other young-adult fiction that was better written.Bethany Buck, vice president and editorial director of the division that published "Rainbow Party," said the dustup created by the book was "because adults don't want to believe that teens are having sex." She said the company plans to continue publishing books aimed at teens.Morgenstein, of Alloy Entertainment, described the "Rainbow Party" failure as more of an aberration than a controversy. "This company is in the business of creating mass entertainment," Morgenstein said. "At the end of the day, the market draws a line at what is too edgy."Alloy has been at the helm of bestselling teen fiction, he said, helping to produce 40 books last year, 17 of which were national bestsellers, including "The A-List" and "The Clique."TV and movie projectsMorgenstein said the company is in talks with Warner Bros., The WB and Universal to develop "Gossip Girl"; "The Au Pairs," another bestselling series by Melissa de La Cruz, and "The A-List" into television and movie projects.MTV has announced plans to follow suit. Louise Burke, the young-adult book president for the music video network, said it plans to release this month the first installment of four different book series.The books are colorful, well written and move with the same breathtaking pace as an MTV video. "'Gossip Girl' set the bar," Burke said, "but nobody knows teenagers better than MTV. We're planning to take the market down."And that, according to the detractors, is the exact direction where teenage values are heading. Wolf, the author, said she believes pornography is surreptitiously being slipped into the milieu of teens without their parents' knowledge.As a result, "young girls are becoming numb to the sexual experience," said Wolf, who suggested putting rating labels on the books. "They do it with movies. I don't see why they can't do it with books."
Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.


Unknown said...

I have two opinions on this topic. First off, I think YA novels should stick with just kissing for the romance level. After all, these books are directed at younger readers and sex should not be included. But, when I was a teen I was reading adult novels with the full knowledge and consent of my mother. At least I read books instead of smoking or drinking like other kids my age. And I don't believe a book that contains sex encourages anyone to have sex. Believe it or not, but even though I was reading about sexual intercourse when I was 15, I myself did not engage in sex until I was 20 years old.

Teens know far more about sex than any parent wants to admit. I think they feel that if they pretend it doesn't happen, it won't. Doesn't work that way. But I honestly don't think reading about sex will make anyone have it. As I said though, YA novels should stick with just kissing.

Brandy said...

I have to agree with Kathy in the respect the at kids today know more than theie parents want to admit. However, I believe alot of what kids today know are based on misconceptions the media plays a huge part of. We are asking and pushing our teenagers to grow up too fast. My Daughter is 11 years old and I will encourage her to continue to read, but will also read it first before I give it to her to make sure it is approrpiate. I did let my Daughter read Bad Kitty by Michelle Jaffe. The book contained no sexual encounters and I sat down with her afterwards and asked her if there was anything that she had a question about. I'm trying to remain open to her, but guide her as well. I just wish more parents did the same.

Brandy said...

Um, sorry about the typing errors.

Jess said...

I agree with Kathy that kids difinitely know more about sex these days or think they know...unrealistic expectaions abound and movies, even TV will expose them to sex as much as a book, but if the book is YA then the content should be apropriate and to that standard.
As far as letting your kids read Ya or anything else...hey that's a personal/moral decision left up to the parents and no one can claim responsibility for anyone but themselves.

Jeri said...

I can only speak for myself: as a teen, I was definitely influenced by the books I read and what I watched on TV (soap operas) to believe that it was okay to have sex earlier than it probably was.

But maybe I was more impressionable than most teens. I wouldn't say the media made me have sex (my own hormones and a pushy boyfriend took care of that), but it set an example. It opened up the possibility in my mind, and life took care of the rest.

That being said, I have no regrets, and no desire to see any kind of literature censored. I think the key is for parents to keep open the lines of communication, starting at a very young age. The other key is to never let them out of your sight. ;-)

This sort of issue also brings up the inherent conflict between unfettered capitalism and traditional morality, but I won't go there.

moonhart said...

P.C. My teen reads the A-List books and loves them. Why? Because she is a firmly embedded reality. She gets a kick out of reading about the absurd Valley girls with waaay too much money and not enough brains to have them survive working at a real job.

AND she doesn't like to read about sex. She prefers reading about the relationships. This is what she tells me. Now I may be naive, but I don't think so. Not when it comes to her. I'm very open and supportive of my daughter. She understands the difference between reality and fiction. I have taught her the fundamentals of personal responsibility and that actions have consequences.

Some of those consquences are life-changing. Some are death-inducing.

Unfortunately, a lot of kids today are raising themselves. You're a teacher and you see this. I'm a mom and I see this. MOST of the parents are 2 income. They aren't there for their 5 year olds and they REALLY aren't there for their 15 years olds. I know cause they come here and hang. :)

When kids are raising themselves, who sets the rules? The peer group. And where do those kids get there information from? The entertainment industry. Suddenly MTV is your conscious and if The OC kids do it...I can be JUST like THEM! Yippee!!!

I cringe.

My daughter just did a research paper on "The Evolution of the Heroine." She thinks proactive heroines are great for YA readers. Meg Cabot's Avalon High was an AWESOME read for her. Take a girl who bucks destiny to stay true to herself and gets the guy because of it. That is what my kid wants. And that is what I teach her.

This other stuff? It's a bad trend. A VERY VERY bad trend. They are telling our young women to use sex as manipulation, or that their bodies are just another way to climb the social ladder. If girls want to become sexual objects, the guys will have no problem obliging them. And what does that say about our young men?

Overall the midset is ugly. Worse, it's destructive.

Next up: Dora the Explorer lets Swiper swipe her virginity while traveling on The Magic Schoolbus.


Missy said...

I have to agree with Moon on quite a bit of this. The trend is just down right scary and very clearly explains why my friend was asking if I had any good strong heroine based books with little to no sex in them for her 15year old to read.

Now I have to admit I was reading adult books when I was a teen. I think I was 15 when I read John Sandford's Rules of Prey, it freaked my mom out when she found me reading it but by then I knew reality from fiction so we were good after that. Of course then she started reading things first and I was nearly 18 before she let me touch the series again.

Ultimately it's the parents that are going to have to step up and do something by getting more involved in their kids lives. We're parents and part of our job is censoring what our kids read, watch and listen too until they're mature enough for it. And sadly that won't happen and they'll be the first ones to blame these new books for all the problems they ignored.

LauraT said...

whatever happened to the Babysitters Club??? Great article, however surprising and frustrating. I hope it is just a "trend" to fizzle out... and I have got to wonder who else is buying and reading these books, maybe not just young teens?

if movies can be rated R because of sexual content... maybe the books should be rated as well? just so parents kind of know? I am really curious about all of this now...

Jeri said...

I wish more parents were like you, Moon! Your daughter sounds awesome.

This other stuff? It's a bad trend. A VERY VERY bad trend. They are telling our young women to use sex as manipulation, or that their bodies are just another way to climb the social ladder.

I agree. They're told that sex is empowering, when it just ends up being disempowering.

I think the Big Lie when I was a teen was that "Sex = Love." The Big Lie now is "Sex = Sex, and Love doesn't exist."

moonhart said...

You would love her, Jeri. She is a great kid.

Another author and I were discussing this and she brought up the point that by exposing them to this stuff you are again shortening their childhood. These kids are being denied certain milestones or rites of passage to mark their entrance into adulthood. Other than waiting for the drivers license and being able to legally buy alcohol if parents set no limits?

Where are the milestones that give you pause to see how far you have come in life? To let your mind and spirit catch up to the raging hormones? At 15 (barely) my daughter is not allowed to "date."

A group going out to the movies is okay IF I know the kids and where they are. My daughter knows I will call for any reason or for no reason as I see fit. I may even stop by to embarass her and say hi. Funny thing is, most of her friends think that it's awesome to have this funky mom who isn't trying to get rid of them. Sad, but true.

Kudos to PC for resisting her editor's suggestion. That is another reason why we love you. Your stories are those of empowerment for women and soon empowerment for EMERGING women.



PC Cast said...

I'm on my way out the door to a reception for the wonderful poet, Billy Collins, so I'll make a quick comment now and respond in detail later.

Several of you hit on exactly what I find so destructive about the trend of glorifying young girls' sexuality. This is a generation of girls who will soon be women who are being taught to believe that their sexuality makes them powerful. Those of us who are truly empowered know what a dangerous misconception that is. I can always tell when one of my female students has become sexually active because of her devastation when the "relationship" goes bad, which of course, at 14-17 always will. Girls give away a piece of their souls when they give away their bodies. So I think it's irresponsible for authors to help lead young women to destruction. Yes, my series is cutting edge. Yes, it deals with real teenage issues. So if there's sex going on with kids I'm going to paint it realistically and show what really happens, not the dressed-up, ridiculous Hollywood version.

And ratings on YA? Uh, how about parents actually reading what their kids read so that they're aware and they aren't letting some nameless, faceless entity decided what's G, PG, PG-13,R, etc? Then the parent decides what's right or not right for his/her individual household.

Gotta run...

LauraT said...

yeah, really, very good point~! I am still in disbelief that something like this is targeted to girls so young.

PC Cast said...

I'm back from seeing Billy Collins speak. What a great evening! He is a wonderful poet and an excellent speaker. If you have a chance to hear him read his work, be sure not to miss it.

Back to YA and sex (ugh) - I think one of the things that disturbs me most about this subject is that it targets our young women, a generation already dealing with increased titillation in everything from TV to the latest see-through, skin tight clothing crazes. It has taken generations for women to gain respect and acceptance in professional fields. Today the sky is open to these young women, yet they're being brainwashed to believe that their legs must be opened and their boobs must be huge, etc., etc., for them to be important. I honestly believe adult women have to step forward and serve as healthy examples and mentors for their young "sisters" and show these kids the real power women have. Power that is not based on their sexuality, but instead based on their brains and intuition and kindness and moral strength. So that's why these trashy damn YA books piss me off so much, and also why I won't be writing them!

Aine said...

I think this is an interesting topic, and it would be fun to debate the pros and cons. That being said, I'll give you my thoughts on both sides.

I can see why people may be upset to see their children reading such mature material. It is, in my opinion, inappropriate for 13-year-olds. However, when I was 13, I was bored with a lot of YA fiction. I read general adult fiction, though I wasn't into the romance genre. I read mostly science fiction/fantasy.

While I think it is inappropriate for young teenagers, I believe it is fine for 15 and up. I'm 23, and I know one 15-year-old girl, who is more promiscuous than I think anyone should be. This has nothing to do with what she has seen or read. I think adults need to read these novels, because like it or not, their daughter, or daughter's friends, are engaging in similar behaviors. It can be used as a tool (ice breaker) to discuss sex with teens. Discuss the dangers these characters face and what some of the outcomes could be.

Of course, I was never one to wear what the "cool kids" wear. I was my own person, and I did my best to not let others influence me. I was a loner, and I lived in my own world. The few friends I had knew I wasn't into going to parties where alcohol and drugs were available, so I never was invited. They respected my right to refuse that, and I was lucky for that. I know many teens are not so lucky.