Friday, November 07, 2008

SF/F Takes on the S-Word

No, not that one. Sex.

Hop on over to read a number of opinions on the place and function of sex within sci-fi and fantasy, and then how the same question applies to YA iterations of the same. Not surprisingly, many of the bloggers who say without hesitation, "Sure, if it moves the story forward" to sex in adult SF/F have a harder time with, "Well, what about the teens?"

This is a question I've been chewing on for a little while myself. Having just finished Kristin Cashore's terrific YA fantasy Graceling, which does happen to feature sex, I wondered about whether to pass it on to a teen I know with a very conservative mom. As I put it to a co-worker, "It's not graphic, but it's hard to mistake for making out."

As you no doubt can tell, a large part of my chickenositude was due to the same feelings as one of the bloggers expresses:
I think that parents are the ultimate filter--they should be reading (or at least reviewing) their child's chosen reading material and giving it the ok. Granted, my parents never did that for me, and I grew up unscathed (for the most part), but it's also about being involved…
The thing about the sex in Graceling is that it was part of an equal and loving relationship, and the main character thinks hard about whether to get that involved from an emotional standpoint before she does it. There are worse examples for our teens out there. Just as another blogger points out,
I think something adults have trouble grasping is that young adults are a lot more intelligent and grown up that we would like to think. True, they don't know everything, even though they think they do, and they're still growing and maturing, but at the same time they're not stupid.
Gah. This is why children's and YA librarianship is not for the faint of heart. Still, maybe this quote sums it up best:
I'm sure that if a teenager wants to read something sexy, I doubt they'll be heading for the fantasy and sci-fi section.


Unknown said...

I would not look for sex scenes in the SF/F section, that's for sure. I'm not sure about including it in YA material, but I do think it's one of the things that keeps adult SF/F from getting wider praise as literature. There is a definate sense that it's kid stuff.

I'm here via the comment challenge. I enjoyed your blog and will be back.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say that I've been lurking for a while without commenting, but I really appreciate your blog. I'm (among other things) a young-adult book reviewer, and it's nice to read the opinions of someone else who's kind of focused on YA books.

In terms of sex in YA books, I'd have to say that I don't object to it, as long as it's not included merely to shock. As you said, adults often don't give teenagers credit for being discerning and engaged readers. If a teenager is uncomfortable with themes presented in a book, chances are he or she will stop reading. Also, they only see what they understand. I remember re-reading one of my favourite childhood books as an older teenager, and noticing (as I hadn't noticed before) that two characters had sex. I missed it as a child because it simply didn't interest me.

Anyway, that's my 10 cents on the matter, and I'll probably go back to lurking, but I just wanted you to know that I read your blog and appreciate it.

Bibliovore said...

Hey, CB and Ronni! Thanks for chiming in.

CB, from the sounds of the discussion, sex is a fairly recent inclusion in much of SF/F, and something that fans and authors are wrestling with themselves, never mind the wider literary world. I think that much of the tendency to see SF/F as kid stuff (and I do agree with you there) has to do with the incredible flights of imagination it takes to produce and enjoy it. Modern literary novels, the kind that win awards, have strong roots in realism right now, so anything that departs from realism is therefore not as good.

Ronni, I think kids today are pretty savvy and understand when sex is happening, even if it's veiled. When a couple is kissing madly and falls onto a bed on TV, for example, it's pretty clear what's next even if they go to commercial.

But it may not even have anything to do with the sexualized media. I remember reading The Hero and the Crown as a young teen (darn near a tween, in fact) and there's some implications that Aerin and Luthe become lovers, which I figured out right away. (Of course, I'd been imbibing a nearly pure diet of romance novels since the sixth grade, so you make your own judgments about my level of knowledge.)

You've also got a good point about the kids' policing themselves when it comes to mature themes or even just emotional complexity. There are other options besides setting the book aside, too. If they're lucky enough to have a trusted someone to discuss such things with, they will go to that person. Or they may go on, because the story is strong enough, and the book itself is the venue for working things out mentally. I remember reading Deerskin--why are all my examples Robin McKinley novels?--and while I was horrified by the trauma, Lissar's recovery did more to instill hope in me that such things did not have to permanently shatter a woman's world than any amount of well-meaning education.

Anonymous said...

Maybe because I read a ton of Piers Anthony in middle school, but I think of the SF/F section as *exactly* where I'd go to find sex!

That said, I wonder, too, how much I should feel obliged to tell parents about potentially sticky subject matter when I'm suggesting books for their children. Generally I keep my mouth shut so long as I'm suggesting books within the age range. I'll only bring it up if I'm suggesting something from the high school or adult sections for a younger reader.

Saints and Spinners said...

I still have the teen-reader me in my head, and I remember definitely appreciating the sex scenes in SF/F books if the books themselves were good. The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword had a couple of fade-out moments that I enjoyed, and my copy of The Mists Of Avalon was definitely dog-eared in certain places. I think I actually preferred it in SF/F to contemporary fiction, actually. Dealing with sex in a fantasy realm made it "safe" for me as a 13 and 14 year old in a way that reading about fictional peers did not.

Saints and Spinners said...

P.S. Can we pretend I didn't use the word "definitely" twice in one paragraph?