I’ve been thinking a lot about sex and teenage girls this week.
It’s hard not to when the press have been so gleefully and salaciously reporting on all the details of the Jeremy Forrest abduction case. When the new Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, has had the same papers clutching their collective pearls, at her suggestion that there needs to be more sex in YA novels, to offset the damaging messages teenagers are receiving from the prevalence of porn online.
Talking of which, there was also the Robin Thicke video for his number one single, Blurred Lines, which features three fully clothed man, several nude girls cavorting with children’s toys, having their hair brushed, smoke blown in their faces and told “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two”.
Meanwhile Jinan Younis, a seventeen year old girl who started a feminist society at her school in response to how she saw her friends suffering as a direct result of their gender was met with responses like “feminism doesn’t mean they don’t like the D, they just haven’t found one to satisfy them yet,” from her male classmates.
So, is it any wonder that I can’t stop thinking about sex and teenage girls?
The teenage girl is not a one-size-fits-all entity. When I was fifteen, the girls in my class were busy dealing with their newfound sexuality in different ways. Half of them channelled all these new feelings that they weren’t sure what to do with into fancying some fairly innocuous boybander. I love that there is no power mightier than thousands of girls screaming their heads off at the 02 or Manchester arenas.
Then there were the other fifteen year old girls who all dated men in their twenties because they had money and their own cars. By and large, they didn’t seem unduly threatened by having a relationship with someone older than them. On the contrary, they got off on the social cachet and would callously dump their twenty something boyfriends on a whim. Besides, have you ever spent time with a fifteen year old boy? You have? Then you’d understand why no self-respecting fifteen year old girl would want to go out with one of them. But this is why we have the age of consent to protect all the different types of teenage girls, from the shy ones who write Mrs Harry Styles on their pencil cases to the ones who seem worldly and sophisticated because they date older men, but who you wouldn’t trust to do their homework unsupervised.
When I was fifteen, I vacillated between the two camps. Most of the passion and yearning that turned me inside out on an hourly basis was directed at Morrissey from The Smiths and writing him heartfelt letters when I should have been doing GCSE coursework. But there were other times when I was made painfully aware that I existed in this strange hinterland of not quite a girl, not yet a woman but I didn’t have Britney Spears to articulate that for me.
I had the awkward fumbles at parties that are a teen rite of passage and which left me wondering what all the fuss was about. But there was also the time when I was trying on a dress in a very cool London boutique on a quiet morning when I was bunking off school. All of a sudden the changing room curtain was pulled back by the male shop assistant. Stuff happened, partly because I was curious and partly because I was suddenly in this strange situation that I didn’t have the experience or the maturity to extricate myself from. Afterwards, he let me have the dress for free and I remember walking out of the shop feeling more powerful than I think I’ve ever done in my life. It didn’t fuck me up. It didn’t ruin me. For a week or two, it lifted me up from being an overweight, self-loathing fifteen year old.
But there was another encounter with a friend’s dad in a bathroom that filled me with dread and revulsion. There were times I was flashed at. Times I was told that I might be worth a go once I was legal. Times I was groped and mauled on crowded tube trains, while I was in my school uniform. And those incidents did fuck me up and made me feel that I wasn’t in charge of my own body or what happened to it.
All this was in a time before the internet. Before Facebook. Before selfies. Before the pressure on teenage girls to look sexy without daring to be sexually active, because then you’re a slag and a slut and asking for it, was at the epidemic proportions that it is now.
Also, it was a time when the teen mag ruled supreme. We might not have had Twitter, but we had Just Seventeen. We were armed with information and knowledge. Told time and time again “to be safe, to be sussed, but sex under sixteen is illegal”.
By the time I was working on Just Seventeen in the late 90s, the amount of information and knowledge we could arm our readers with was constantly under threat. I used to hate going into work on the days that a backbench Tory MP desperate for some column inches would rail against the hot bed of vice and iniquity that were teen mags, while making it clear that they’d never actually picked up a teen mag and read it. In between fake ads for Leonardo DiCaprio commemorative plates and perfectly innocent articles on what to do to make your crush notice you, we still had problem pages, we still had articles on sexual health, we still ran real life pieces on relationships and told our readers that “to be sussed was a must but sex under sixteen is illegal”. It was very obvious to me that the main problem the Tory MPs had was our acknowledgement that teenage girls could be sexual beings and that they needed advice and support on dealing with that.
I used to sit on TMAP, the Teenage Magazine Advisory Panel, with other teen mag representatives and some genuinely well intentioned do-gooders and try to explain to them that the Department Of Health ran ads targetting our readers to inform them about sexual health issues in our magazine that we couldn’t run as editorial because the government would try to shut us down.
But now the internet and mobile phones have killed off teen magazines. What they haven’t killed off the need for teenagers to have somewhere to go to get frank, impartial information about everything from their boobs to fancying their best friends to whether they can get pregnant if they do it standing up. The internet is a big, unregulated place where it’s impossible to filter information – which is why a lot of sex education now comes from porn films – so teenagers think that pubic hair is an abomination, blow jobs are mandatory and if you’re not having multiple orgasms then you’re a freak of nature.
In the wider world, from RnB videos to the Daily Mail sidebar of shame to University Facebook pages set up to discuss how rape-able the female student body is, teenagers, boys and girls, are taught that women’s bodies are objects to be pored over, discussed, criticised, used, discarded, belittled. And I’m not going to apologise for coming across as all second wave feminism here. We are sliding dangerously back to a place that I never thought we’d get to, not after all our Take Back The Night marches and riot grrrl fanzines.
I cannot imagine a worse time to be a teenage girl. When eating disorders and self-harming are at an all-time high. When girls are under pressure to send sexy pics of themselves to their male classmates or risk being labelled frigid and tight. And when if you are raped or sexually assaulted, it was probably your fault for drinking or going for a walk with a couple of boys or wearing a short skirt. The onus is still on girls to protect themselves because boys and men are unable to prevent themselves from doing what comes naturally when confronted by the mind-melding power of a female body. It would be much simpler to send out one clear message: don’t rape people.
So, I think teenage girls are getting their rawest deal and this is why I’m so passionate and committed to writing YA novels. My characters have sex. Big whoop. They have awkward, messy teenage sex that causes awkward, messy feelings. They talk about sex. They learn that sex has emotional consequences, good and bad. And sometimes they have sex just because it feels really nice.
That to me is a healthy, important message for my readers. I doubt very much that reading one of my novels has ever forced a teenage girl to go out and have sex but I absolutely know for certain that when they did finally get round to going out and having sex, what they’d read in my novels helped a little bit. And yes, I’ve had reviewers describe the sex in my last YA novel, Adorkable as “gross” and “nasty”. But the gross comment came from a thirteen year old girl and if she thinks sex is gross then I’m happy about that as she isn’t going to be having it anytime soon. The “nasty’ came from a woman in America and says more about her attitude to sex, than it does to my decision to write about two teenagers above the age of consent establishing clear boundaries before they got down to it.
There’s a lot of reactionary nonsense talked about sex in YA novels, but I’m far more worried about the teenagers who don’t read books and what they’re getting up to than the ones who are.
So, what I wish teenage girls knew is that their value and worth isn’t intrinsically tied in to how they look, That’s it’s all right to want to have sex. It’s all right if they don’t want to. But both camps should know how to put on a condom and why getting vaccinated against HPV is non-negotiable. Wider society should be there to provide advice and support and to give teenage girls the space and freedom to realise that their sexuality doesn’t belong to anyone else. It’s their own to do with what they will, at a time that’s right for them.
© Copyright Sarra Manning 2013
AMEN !! xoxo
I first started reading your YA books when I was 12, which seems a little young to me now, but considering I form part of the generation to which this blog post is referring to, seems kind of expected. Going to a Catholic girls school, ‘sex ed’ just didn’t happen, and authors like Malorie Blackman and yourself honestly shaped our whole ideas and expectations of sex. As a feminist, I wholeheartedly agree that there needs to be more realistic sex in YA novels, purely down to the fact that I’ve had to explain to many of my peers, both male and female , what various parts of the female anatomy even are! Being a teenager out there at the moment is a horrifying experience, (I should know, I’m 17!) and everywhere in the media you see alluring women and think ‘should I be more like that? Do I need to look or act a certain way?’ Add that to being confused about sexuality, exams and the bleak future, it’s a minefield.
But seriously, I have spent the whole of my teenage years so far looking to your novels for advice, so THANK YOU!!!
When I was just starting middle school I read Guitar Girl and it was one of my first times reading a book where the main character had sex. I had only just started sex ed and it was still a topic I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, but the book presents it in a way that’s honest. Teenage girls NEED books like that because they contradict the stigmas and lies that are propagated by social media and the “journalistic” media.
I loved this blog post. It points to some very important facts in the daily life of today’s teenage girls that can not be discussed enough.
Well said! I think every generation has its source for information, as a teenager mine was Judy Blume. Hopefully teenages of today will be writers like you… Not fifty shades types, which is completely unrealistic!
[...] I have to say, she’s on point. Very much so. (As is Sarra Manning who is a bit brilliant in this post on the [...]
Nice – I like how you focus on the sources and types of information women are now getting their sex education from.
You’re so right. I have teenage daughters, and I am living with this crap constantly. The pressures they are under are enormous, and I hate the fact that it’s par for course for my 15 yo to be texted by a boy (whom she doesn’t even know well), to have sex, because he’s just become “legal” – she still isn’t. Apart from the proliferation of porn etc online, the fact that today’s teens are constantly attached to their phones and ipods means there is no escape from it EVER. It’s there all the time. And that makes it even harder.
As a 42 year old male who lived a hidden childhood, this is fascinating and fantastically written and informative. I can imagine how hard it is to learn as a teenage girl, and when I look back 25 years ago, I had much confusion as boy but just in a different way.
Really enjoyed this post, I have read your novels from being in that young teenage girl faze (I’m now 22) Your portrayal of sex shows more than what any film or music video would show. I think this goes beyond your YA novels and into your Adult fiction with Neve and Max and Hope and Wilson there’s so much more to being sexual than that actual doing of the deed itself, not to be crude but there can be enjoyment without penetration. I’m not sure anyone can truly be ready to have sex for the first time but surely our young girls shouldn’t feel a pressure that they don’t have an option to wait without being called out for it.
I will most definitely share your novels with the young women in my life so they can be shown sex in a realistic way and a way that MTV or any such portal will never show them.
I love this post. It’s honest and true. It’s got to be the pits being a teenager in this generation. I’m glad I belong to the last one.
I love your YA’s just as much as your adult novels. Thank you for keeping them real.
This has got to be the blog post of the year!! finally someone has summed up the pain of being a teenage girl these days. It SHOULD be something we’re talking about, girls need to know these things. I’m 21 and grew up reading your YA novels, they and others taught me about sex, the messy messy but amazing experience. The stories were real and I could relate. Ive now got big plans to give your books to every teenage girl I know. Thank you Sarra x
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