Monday, March 21, 2011

Let's Talk: Sex and Female Exploitation in Recent YA Dystopian Novels

I usually publish my thoughts in my Thursday Thoughts feature, but this one couldn't wait until this Thursday.  This is something I have been thinking about for a while, and something I need to say.  I would really like to hear what you all think about this topic, and if you think it is something we should be concerned about as readers and buyers of YA literature for teens.  

Lately I have noticed an increase in sexuality and sex in YA novels.  Now I know this isn't exactly a new trend, but the way sex is being used in these novels is definitely attention grabbing.  Three recent novels are ones that have really gotten me to think about sex in teen dystopian novels thematically.


XVI
In Julia Karr's XVI at the age of sixteen girls are legally able to have sex.  In some cases this makes them the unwilling victims of predators who are often excused for the act because the girl "was asking for it" or because she was a "sexteen" participating in typical "sexteen" behavior.

 Wither (Chemical Garden, #1)
In Wither by Lauren DeStafano, genetic engineering has resulted in shortened life expectancy for humans.  Males only live to the age of 25 while females only live to the age of 20.  This has resulted in girls being kidnapped and forced into polygamous marriages or even the sex trade.

Bumped
In Megan McCafferty's book Bumped we see a world where adults over the age of 20 are sterile, and rely on teenage girls to procreate for the species.  In this novel, bumping, or becoming pregnant has become a seriously commercialized business, where teens have babies to make money.
First, let me start off by saying that I am in no way saying I didn't enjoy these three books.  In fact, I found the books intriguing and ones that I couldn't put down until I reached the very last page.  I wanted to know the fate of the female protagonists, and I ended up enjoying these thought provoking books.  I do, however, want to discuss this trend of sexuality and objectification of women in these novels.  I think it is important to look at these trends and talk about how we feel about them. 

One thing interesting to note about the three titles above is that they are all types of dystopian fiction.  In XVI we have a world strictly controlled by a government that doesn't care for the people and smothers free speech.  In Wither not much is told about the government, but the fact that girls can be kidnapped, killed, or married off to anyone and no one seems to care tells the reader a lot.  In Bumped pregnancy is a commercial business and teen girls are encouraged to have children for the good of their nation.

I have read all three of these books and I did find them to be intriguing concepts.  They are books that stick with you and tend to make you more than a little uncomfortable.  What is interesting in all these novels, is that while your protagonists are strong females, they are living in worlds that exploit teen girls and in some cases they may be seduced by the commercialized exploitation, and in others they choose to fight.

In XVI, Karr's protagonist Nina dreads her sixteenth birthday.  She has no desire to be a sex teen and doesn't look forward to the unwelcome attention being sixteen will give her.  Her only desires are to protect her younger sister and to stay out of the government run FELS program which in essence is an escort service.

In Wither, we first meet Rhine our protagonist after she has been kidnapped and put in a truck as cargo.  She knows the Gatherers have been trying to kidnap girls and make them into either wives or prostitutes to the wealthy.  The really unlucky ones end up dead on the roadsides.  When she is chosen to be one of Linden's three wives, she longs to escape her gilded cage and find the brother she was taken from.  Though she begins to like Linden she uses all of her strength and smarts to try to escape.

One of the most interesting examples of this phenomenon is Megan McCafferty's Bumped.  In Bumped we actually have two protagonists Melody and her twin sister Harmony.  Melody and Harmony were separated at birth.  Melody was raised in a more traditional environment, while Harmony was raised in a secluded religious community (think Amish like).  In their world people are only able to procreate in their teens.  Once they reach adulthood, they are sterile.  In Harmony's community, they marry early, usually around age 13, so they can have children.  In the outside world where Melody is from, people pay teens to deliver and then give up their babies so that many couples can have children.  Both Melody and Harmony, are exploited in different ways.  Harmony is forced to marry some one she doesn't love so she can bear children.  Melody is selling herself and her eggs to the highest bidder so that she can make money from her future pregnancy.  Both of these girls are strong willed and realize that the futures before them may not be what they really want, but in a world so strict for Harmony, and a world so commercialized for Melody, when does a girl really have a say.

All three of these novels deal with women as sex objects or women or girls being exploited.  My question is where is this theme coming from.  Is this a result of media focusing on women and sex, or is there something else.  To be honest, I don't know.  I have enjoyed reading these books, but on another level have been seriously disturbed by them.  I fear for women in these societies, because they have no rights, and no say over their own bodies. 

For those of you that have read these books, or have noticed this trend, what do you think of it?  Why are we suddenly seeing a rise in the sexual exploitation of girls in these novels?  Any thoughts?  Any other novels you have noticed this in?

11 comments:

  1. Totally agree with more sex in teen books. I loved wither and XVI was okay but I do feel that there is push with dystopian and teenagers.

    This brought up in Enclave with breeders, and a comment made by Fade.

    Will I read the books? Yes. Do I like that kids are being pushed more sex ? No

    I haven't read bumped but I want too . As a parent I notice that these books also had no parents at all, this being a dystopian world.

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  2. I too have noticed the lack of parents in these titles. In Bumped the girls both had parents, but it seemed like they were disinterested at best and hoping to profit off of their teens at worst. As a parent I am concerned about this manifestation of sex in these novels, and afraid that it might be a bit too much.

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  3. Of these I've only read XVI, but from that one I felt it was very obviously an extrapolation of modern media and cultural concepts of teenage sexuality. Books aren't the only place where precocious sexuality is being highlighted - pretty much any CW show is dripping with hormones and not too long ago there was a fuss because some of the stars of Glee dressed in their high school personas for a sexy magazine shoot. The society of XVI really isn't that far off from our own - the policing of female sexuality while men get a free pass, attitudes of when the age of consent is, and certain men not having to fear repercussions for assaulting a woman even one younger than 16.

    While I had other issues with XVI, I lauded its premise of tackling these issues that really are contemporary. I don't see much media outside of YA looking at the shades of gray of sexuality and celebrating sex as something that can be positive if it's the right time for you. Other forms of media have embraced the Madonna/whore complex far too much for my comfort.

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  4. I haven't even made this connection, though I own copies of both Wither and Bumped and I've seen XVI all over the blogosphere! It would be interesting to interview all three authors and see how/why they came up with their ideas. I bet at least some of their influences were the same!

    Great topic!

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  5. Angela, you are so right. It is everywhere in the media these days and there are so many teen shows that are advertising teen sexuality. I don't watch a lot of TV at home and I don't watch those shows in particular, but I have seen it while flipping through the channels, or when they advertise the next episode.

    Natalie, an interview is a great idea! I would love to hear what the authors think of the sexuality aspects of their books and if there was something they were trying to draw attention to... Thanks!

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  6. I don't feel any of the books have stepped over a boundary, I do think it is mentioned more but in a general way. I did read Awakened by PC & Kristen Cast and that threw me for a loop. It was way over done.

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  7. I have not read these books, but I am not surprised by this objectification. It is everywhere--TV, movies, Internet, and the culture. Girls are urged to dress and act like sexually charged women. Their models are Sex and the City and Miley. Yea, it makes complete sense to me that this motif is coming up in YA fiction. Then, women are told they should act/dress the way they want. That men just need to control themselves. I think men and WOMEN need to act responsibly. I also think causal sex enslaves women and causes the majority of poverty in our country. Women foolishly think it gives them power...no, it just gives men more power and women fewer choices. Ok. I am done with my rant!

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  8. One thing that I want to say about all three of the novels I mention, is that despite so much of the focus of these novels being on sex, there really isn't any graphic sex scenes in any of these books. So I definitely agree with what Liz says--they aren't crossing the line. The protagonists confront the issue, but there isn't anything explicit in them. A reader hoping to find sex scenes in these books will be disappointed--these books discuss the issue not the act.

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  9. Dystopias aren't really about a science fiction world; they're about our world. All three of these novels contain important messages about the sexualization of childhood and objectification of women rampant in our culture. And they contain strong protagonists struggling against the bounds of their culture. As such, they offer hope for girls subjected to our increasingly anti-girl world.

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  10. I don't think that these books are necessarily anything new and different because they focus on teen sexuality. Their genius comes from the dystopian societies that they represent. Teens (and even tweens) are involved in or at least thinking about sex, and placing what is constantly on their minds in a brave new, scary world is that much more interesting.

    I think these sexual situations are so popular because of the psychological aspect - we enjoy reading about these worlds where women are marginalized because, even those of us in the best of situations, sometimes feel powerless. Especially to teens, the idea of having sex without freedom is a terrifying thought so it sets the stakes for the characters that much higher, making the read more exciting.

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  11. Thanks Mike! I think you are right about how these books offer hope. All of these protagonists take a stand against the exploitation in their worlds. Perhaps girls reading this will realize that they have a right to take control of their own lives. Thanks for dropping by!

    Jessi, I agree that teens will enjoy reading these books because it will make them feel less powerless. I remember as a teen turning to SF and Fantasy because I wanted to escape reality, but also because I could read about girls that were strong, decisive, and could stand up for themselves in a man's world. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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