Mark Oshiro has been reading Tamora Pierce books over on his Mark Reads blog, and he just started The Immortals quartet. Guys. You guys. I loved those books as a teen. Somehow, I DON'T KNOW WHY, they were the only Tamora Pierce books I read back then. How could this be! They were favorites! I supposed I'd always meant to read the Song of the Lioness quartet, but I never did. Luckily, I remedied this when I read them along with Mark.
The first thing that struck me: wow, Pierce's writing style really improved between her first series and her next. Not surprisingly, as that seems to be a running theme with writers. Not that her style wasn't good (it was), it was just less polished; less experienced. That tends to happen with firsts!
Second thing I noticed: oh my goodness, this (now considered YA) book series from the 80's has more sex positivity in its little finger than 75% of the YA I read now has in its entirety.
That is not to say that there's no sexuality or sex positivity in today's YA -- far from it. Just a few posts ago I wrote about Kristin Cashore's work, which was another refreshing exploration of sexuality and reproductive choice in speculative YA without making it about morality. And there is more and more YA released every day that treats sex in a nuanced, frank, realistic way. The books are out there. This makes me happy.
Even so, as I was reading Alanna's story (which, to its credit, was originally written as one long "adult" novel), I couldn't help but feel the absence of relationships where sex and reproduction are dealt with head on, with no mincing around what a special and precious "gift" virginity is, and allowed several characters to take on multiple lovers with no tragedy or horrible jealous slapfights or implication that they couldn't love each one differently and deeply. The protagonist sleeps with at least three different dudes before she decides to be with one of them. None of her lovers are shown to be mistakes or something she regrets. They're men she cares about, but ultimately two just aren't the right match for her in the long term.
It seems so often we come up against characters that clearly want to be sexual, but a plot device crops up that makes it dangerous to have sex. So, it's not that these characters are making the conscious choice to abstain. It's that they want to boink, but the world will end if they do. Or they'll kill someone. Or themselves. Or their head will explode or something, I don't know. It's a very weird take on abstinence, especially when cut with the idea of "remaining pure." The Book Lantern recently featured a post that touched on this, which I rather enjoyed. It's extraordinarily conflicted. All this buildup, this seething mass of we want to BUT WE CAN'T but it's so hard to resist BUT NO EVERYONE WILL DIE but oh my god you're so hot BUT NO! This ties directly in to the romantic idea that this is their one great love. And hey, some people do have one great love. Many have several.
I'm not opposed to setting some sexual tension on a low simmer that eventually becomes a rolling boil. I'm kind of a sucker for it, actually. Neither am I opposed to abstinence if the abstinence is an actual choice and not something conveniently forced on our protagonist. If at any point in the story a character says they don't want to have sex, aren't ready for sex, or flat-out aren't interested in sex at all, I am fully behind that. It's when sexuality is something dangerous and to be feared because terrible things will happen that I get my hackles up. Such plot elements say nothing about sexual agency or choice. It's the equivalent of "don't do it or you'll get an STD and DIE." If characters choose to remain abstinent for any reason, that is fine. I just want to know it's their conscious decision for their personal and sexual health, not because they literally can't have sex with the person they want to have sex with because meteors will destroy Earth if they do.
While reading Tamora Pierce, one other thing stuck out to me: the concept that a female protagonist with romantic entanglements can want and choose both adventure/independence and love/family. And I'm talking about adventure beyond "BEING WITH YOU FOREVER AND LOVING YOU AND YOUR ROCK-HARD ABS IS THE ONLY ADVENTURE I'LL EVER NEED, BABY!" It's incredibly important to me personally that women retain their own personalities and desires beyond defining themselves as "girlfriend/wife of so-and-so." The adventures don't always have to be epic and sprawling, but for all the talk of "finding your other half," we never cease to be whole people with our own interests and dreams. I want to see those. I want girls to know they can be in relationships (or not) and still do their own thing, and I want them to find partners that support that. And hey, if a woman literally only wants to be a wife and mother and do nothing else, then she should get to do that. I just want the option for something else to be there if she needs it.
This is mostly me extrapolating on a lot of ideas that have been floating around my brain lately. As I mentioned, there are most definitely options out there in YA-land featuring sex-positive portrayals and characters who balance love, adventure, and sex. But, in my opinion, there can never be enough. MORE PLEASE.
What say you, readers?