I feel like I have some obligation to comment on the essay in today’s NYTBR by Naomi Wolf about the young adult fiction teens are gobbling up. They are, to be blunt, sex novels, whose plots center around 15 year old girls sneaking off behind statues at MoMA to have "semi-sex." Oh, how repulsive!
This is, of course, just another adult outraged at the state of pop culture (read: teen culture), though that doesn’t make it any less legitimate. Wolf’s spin is that it’s not just on television screens anymore; it’s intruded our novels. Weren’t books supposed to be an untouched oasis?
I guess my question is what purpose essays like this serve. Awaken parents to the chilling reality? Aren’t parents hit over the head with this stuff all the time? Is it with the hope that a combination of the monthly "tales from the teen trenches" piece (last month it was Caitlin Flanagan and the teen oral sex epidemic) and an expose on college dorms from Tom Wolfe, parents of the 60’s will get off their butt and install internet filters?
Here’s my theory.
There are traditionally thought to be two groups of teens. Both indulge in the ugly: they drink alcohol, smoke pot, hook up with guys/girls indiscriminately, glorify the slutty girl or the dumb jock (Wolf: "Girls…are expected to compete with pornography, but can still be labeled sluts"), watch hours of MTV, and buy pornography. One group engages in such behavior without a cloud of intellectual confliction. It’s just the thing to do. Another group partakes, yet with a deep moral dilemma. Aren’t they going to be instructing their kids to not drink or do drugs?
And yet there’s this little known third category. This is the group of teens who don’t resolve the moral dilemma by saying "Should I do this?" and then light the joint anyway. Instead, they fake their drunkeness, play up their Saturday night at school, exaggerate their sexual experience. When done right, this earns them a place among the hot, popular kids — after all, to completely opt-out would mean social isolation — and concurrently keeps them from breaking every moral fiber.
Wouldn’t it be more useful for writers like Wolf to stop bashing the lifestyle of that one group of teens — the mindlessly hedonistic — and instead lay out a playbook for this third category, which no doubt is the most difficult to pull off?
It is clear that if the ugly teen culture adult critics love to beat up is going to change, it’s not going to be because of essays in high culture media. Instead it will come from infiltrators within, from the quiet warriors fighting to carve a lifestyle that strikes an impossible balance.
They need all the help they can get.
11 comments on “Teen Sex Novels…And How to Think About Changing Teen Culture”
And then there’s the 4th group of teens who don’t do any of that stuff…
Jacob – Very true! I didn’t include that category because they’re not the target of articles like the one I cited. They don’t suffer the negative effects of teen culture, but they also don’t have the credibility to change it from within, either (it’s not their responsibility in any case).
Am I totally naive to think that the 4th (and even the 3rd) are not such a small majority?
(I’m too old so my own teen years don’t count anymore, and my friend’s kids haven’t reached that age yet)
No, it’s a sizable group, but as I said before, not the target of these kinds of essays.
I should have mentioned the 4th group in the original post.
There is another group, the fourth group. The group that is pressured to go along but has the moral fortitude NOT to. A fifth group is also present. They avoid the temptation to ‘go along’ all together, and hang out together, forming their own group. These groups are also often overlooked in ‘teen novels’, not because they are not important, or numerous, but because the question becomes: how to portray them 1)in an interesting manner and 2)without coming across as ‘preachy’.
I see these Teens in the library all the time. My daughter’s friends (whom I’ve seen from 10th grade until now preparing for HS graduation) are mostly comprised of this group. Good kids all, they wouldn’t dream of ‘going all the way’ even though they enjoy kissing, or getting drunk (they’ve seen too many of their friends ‘messed up’ this way). They care about good grades, they are making plans for college, etc.
Let’s hear it for these teens!
“They don’t suffer the negative effects of teen culture, but they also don’t have the credibility to change it from within”
Who determines what’s credible? Other places and times have not conceded this entirely to the teens themselves in a Lord of the Flies fashion, with different results as well.
Perhaps. My view is that “outsiders” — straight edge teenagers who don’t partake in anything are written off by the worst offenders as social outcasts not cool enough to realize what’s right. Those who straddle the two worlds could probably affect change better.
Being not old yet, but quickly on my way, I can see the same thing repeating from when I was in school. True, porn wasn’t as easy to come by, but I found my share somehow, and my way to a few novels in jr. high that had a page or so of steamy love in them at the school’s library.
The difficulty with this whole thing is that once pandora’s box was opened, (whenever that was) it is pretty hard to close it again. Kids today keep going deeper and deeper into what was once considered taboo.
I think the article, while not speaking to the most relevant audience at least spoke.
I don’t see that much factionalizing, I may very well be one of these unspeakable devils but I have friends that are straightedge and I have friends headed straight for juvy. These days I just don’t see a line between the hip guys and the squares. I spent new years drunk hanging out with my straight edge best friend and another kid who was hoped up on who knows what. Maybe I’m naïve, but I think in this day we all pick our vices and live with others choices.
Keep in mind this is just one teenager… Maybe I have had a unique experience.
I don’t know…I don’t see myself as fitting into any of these “groups.” If I had to choose one, I’d say the third. But maybe my school is a unique one in that its small size gives a chance for people to be on a friendly and even influential basis with others regardless of whether we boast about drinking, smoking, partying, etc. I’ve never boasted about that, but I don’t knock those who do it because it’s not my place to. I’d say on my campus, in my grade, I’m one of the more accepting and tolerant people around…and people respect that.
Teens don’t want to be judged. We stay as far away from that as possible, and if the teens getting judged are the big dogs on campus, the ostracize those doing the judging.
I would argue that the first group is actually in the minority. For teenagers, all socializing is theatrical. To some the part seems natural and fun to play while others have this “moral dilemma.” But i think that most people begin to watch themselves fill this role and there is the split…. some kids in their senior year begin to become disinterested in the theatrics and begin to socialize in a less theatrical manner. (consider uper classmen college kids in their 20’s that might prefer a dinner with alcohol to a frat party) but i would not argue that they do so out of moral dilemma but rather they are the grown-up version of group 1