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Friday, November 6, 2009

Cory Doctorow: Teen Sex

My first young adult novel, Little Brother, tells the story of a kid named Marcus Yallow who forms a guerilla army of young people dedicated to the reformation of the US government by any means necessary. He and his friends use cryptography and other technology to subvert security measures, to distribute revolutionary literature, to liberate and publish secret governmental memoes, and humiliate government officials. Every chapter includes some kind of how-to guide for accomplishing this kind of thing on your own, from tips on disabling radio-frequency ID tags to beating biometric identity system to defeating the censorware used by your school network to control what kind of things you can and can't see on the Internet. The book is a long hymn to personal liberty, free speech, the people's right to question and even overthrow their government, even during wartime.

Marcus is 17, and the book is intended to be read by young teens or even precocious tweens (as well as adults). Naturally, I anticipated that some of the politics and technology in the story would upset my readers. And it's true, a few of the reviewers were critical of this stuff. But not many, not overly so.

What I didn't expect was that I would receive a torrent of correspondence and entreaties from teachers, students, parents, and librarians who were angry, worried, or upset that Marcus loses his virginity about two-thirds of the way through the book (secondarily, some of them were also offended by the fact that Marcus drinks a beer at one point, and a smaller minority wanted to know why and how Marcus could get away with talking back to his elders).

Now, the sex-scene in the book is anything but explicit. Marcus and his girlfriend are kissing alone in her room after a climactic scene in the novel, and she hands him a condom. The scene ends. The next scene opens with Marcus reflecting that it wasn't what he thought it would be, but it was still very good, and better in some ways that he'd expected. He and his girlfriend have been together for quite some time at this point, and there's every indication that they'll go on being together for some time yet. There is no anatomy, no grunts or squeals, no smells or tastes. This isn't there to titillate. It's there because it makes plot-sense and story-sense and character-sense for these two characters to do this deed at this time.

I've spent enough time explaining what this "plot-sense and story-sense and character-sense" means to enough people that I find myself creating a "Teen transgression in YA literature FAQ."

There's really only one question: "Why have your characters done something that is likely to upset their parents, and why don't you punish them for doing this?"

Now, the answer.

First, because teenagers have sex and drink beer, and most of the time the worst thing that results from this is a few days of social awkwardness and a hangover, respectively. When I was a teenager, I drank sometimes. I had sex sometimes. I disobeyed authority figures sometimes.

Mostly, it was OK. Sometimes it was bad. Sometimes it was wonderful. Once or twice, it was terrible. And it was thus for everyone I knew. Teenagers take risks, even stupid risks, at times. But the chance on any given night that sneaking a beer will destroy your life is damned slim. Art isn't exactly like life, and science fiction asks the reader to accept the impossible, but unless your book is about a universe in which disapproving parents have cooked the physics so that every act of disobedience leads swiftly to destruction, it won't be very credible. The pathos that parents would like to see here become bathos: mawkish and
trivial, heavy-handed, and preachy.

Second, because it is good art.  Artists have included sex and sexual content in their general-audience material since cave-painting days. There's a reason the Vatican and the Louvre are full of nudes. Sex is part of what it means to be human, so art has sex in it.

Sex in YA stories usually comes naturally, as the literal climax of a coming-of-age story in which the adolescent characters have undertaken a series of leaps of faiths, doing consequential things (lying, telling the truth, being noble, subverting authority, etc.) for the first time, never knowing, really knowing, what the outcome will be. These figurative losses of virginity are one of the major themes of YA novels — and one of the major themes of adolescence — so it's artistically satisfying for the figurative to become literal in the course of the book. This is a common literary and artistic technique, and it's very effective.

I admit that I remain baffled by adults who object to the sex in this book. Not because it's prudish to object, but because the off-camera sex occurs in the middle of a story that features rioting, graphic torture, and detailed instructions for successful truancy.

As the parent of a young daughter, I feel strongly that every parent has the right and responsibility to decide how his or her kids are exposed to sex and sexually explicit material.

However, that right is limited by reality: the likelihood that a high-school student has made it to her 14th or 15th year without encountering the facts of life is pretty low. What's more, a kid who enters puberty without understanding the biological and emotional facts about her or his anatomy and what it's for is going to be (even more) confused.

Adolescents think about sex. All the time. Many of them have sex. Many of them experiment with sex. I don't believe that a fictional depiction of two young people who are in love and have sex is likely to impart any new knowledge to most teens — that is, the vast majority of teenagers are apt to be familiar with the existence of sexual liaisons between 17-year-olds.

So since the reader isn't apt to discover anything new about sex in reading the book I can't see how this ends up interfering with a parent's right to decide when and where their kids discover the existence of sex.

From the November 2009 issue of Locus Magazine



Blogger Bart said...

What I found a bit mysterious is the handling of sex in the Harry Potter novels. The teen characters are cooped up in a prep school with limited adult supervision and are clearly sexually interested. This interest manifests itself, in the most extreme cases, in "snogging".

I finally reconciled this mentally by assuming that parents and authority figures in a magical universe might well choose to set powerful spells upon their children to inhibit all desire for "adult" sexual activity. This was such an Orwellian vision, though, that it made parts of the novels hard for me to read.

Nice job going all the way to realism. Thanks much for your well-written and well-reasoned defense of this approach.

November 7, 2009 12:08 AM  
OpenID troutwaxer said...

Hi Cory,

I'm a 45-year-old adult with two children (one ten and straight, the other 15 and gay) and I loved the book, and so did my ten-year-old. I thought you handled the sex perfectly - it was both realistic and age-appropriate. More than that, I appreciate the fact that you defend it unapologetically. Thanks!

November 7, 2009 8:35 AM  
OpenID slavezombie said...

When children learn, in their English Lit class, that Romeo & Juliet were teens, that people in that epoch married at such early ages, they become flabbergasted. That's how my friends and I reacted to this realization.

The concept of marriage, while I was growing up, came to be chastized as being synonymous with shotgun weddings because I didn't have money for engagement rings, weddings, or housing costs. Maybe American culture has defined some kind of formality in which the parents of the female help out for wedding festivities, but involving parents in teen love causes more friction in the lives of young people when they're mostly too busy coping with the realities of impossible love. If this is the way the young experience their first dose of in-law syndrome, then who can blame a society that discredits the unifying institution of marriage by cheating, divorcing, and marrying their partners out of convience?

November 7, 2009 11:36 AM  
OpenID keireland said...

Yes! thank you so much for posting this!
I wrote a YA story that I stated suggested reading age was 13+ and I got a lecture from one of my readers about how she didn't think that children should read that book because my 16yr old male Main Character was LOOKING at girls and only in the very last chapter did he actually DO anything and it wasn't even on-camera (I don't think she caught that part though). _I_ thought the part that he was offered sex and turned it down and was respected for that was an important thing to leave in the story, since it shows that you DO have a choice. You don't have to do it if you don't want to.

November 7, 2009 3:14 PM  
Blogger china said...

i was just so glad they used a condom! hurrah! also yours was an unusually responsible depiction of sex, emotionally and practically. they weren't pressured into it, either of them. they genuinely cared for eachother. and most shocking, they discussed the relationship implications of what they were doing in bed and out. what good kids! surely any parent would wish their offspring had such a good experience.
i would highly recommend little brother to any adolescent.

November 9, 2009 8:32 AM  
Blogger Michael Gogins said...

While I do not in the least object to your writing about teenagers having sex, even in the middle of a novel instead of at the end, I think you may somewhat miss the point of those who complain here.

They, perhaps, view the depiction of sex in a novel as implicit permission, by an authority figure of sorts (a YA author), to engage in sex as a teen. This of course is not what you are defending, which is rather depiction, not permission.

As a prior young adult, I can testify that young adult authors can be HUGE authority figures to such a person. I, for example, was practically manufactured by the author of Citizen of the Galaxy and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.

Mike Gogins

November 10, 2009 11:02 AM  
Blogger Alissa said...

Little Brother was a wonderful, thought-provoking novel, but the one part of the book that didn't provoke much thought was the brief sex scene.

This controversy could be a good thing. Teenagers might be inspired to read the book to see what all the fuss is about, and discover instead a good book.

November 13, 2009 5:13 PM  
Blogger seraph7 said...

It is obvious that a great many of your detractors have forgotten that they were once teenagers, and no doubt have had experiences of a sexual nature in their teens if not earlier. As with all authoritative figures, it is merely a case of do as I say and not as I do. At least you made mention of the use of a condom which hopefully, if your young readers are as easily influenced by YA Authors as they have been made out to be, will be influenced to be terribly responsible when they perform the act;...or not.

November 16, 2009 1:19 PM  
Blogger Louis Bright-Raven said...


Harry Potter is intended for an all-ages audience. There was no particular need to bring any sexual overtones any further along than Rowling did.

November 19, 2009 1:36 AM  
Blogger Louis Bright-Raven said...


I'm perplexed that you're perplexed about why people are griping about this.

Here you are saying that you don't understand why people are complaining about the sex scene and beer drinking scene and the telling off the parents scenes, but aren't complaining about the cybertech and successful truancies.

To be blunt: these people think you made all that up. That the cybertech stuff is just fantasy. It's beyond their understanding, and if it's beyond their understanding, then their own egos can't possibly accept that a teenager reading your book might get it and look into these methods as legitimate practice to get past firewalls or to remove the GPS chip from their cell phone or what have you. Because don't'cha know the adults are always smarter than the kids...? *wink wink*

But underage drinking, pre-marital sex? No-no. That's stuff we have to put controls on. Nevermind that you're depicting two consenting (near) adults who have the forethought and mutual respect to consider the consequences of their action and choose to use a condom. *snicker* It is, ironically, a prefect demonstration of the very sort of controls the 'authorities' of your book want to place upon your characters.

And that's because those parties who think they are in control seldom truly are, unless we are foolish enough to let them be. And that's really the theme of your book. LITTLE BROTHER a coming of age story, true, but ultimately Marcus' path is about understanding that being an adult means taking responsibility for the choices and actions one takes, and to call into question the choices of others (or the lack thereof) when necessary. Ultimately, we are all responsible to ourselves and to one another as a society.

And sadly, this is something many people in our society never come to terms with, irregardless of their age, and that is becoming more and more prominent in today's world, given the nature of the beast that is the internet and how globally we are interconnected on some levels, yet totally apart in others.

November 19, 2009 2:11 AM  
OpenID prattleonboyo said...

I've been a fan of Corey's since waay back to Craphound and Science Fiction Age when it was still in print. I'm looking forward to reading his first foray into the YA book niche.

December 25, 2009 7:05 PM  
Blogger Mikael said...

I´m reading it now, as well as recommending it to other people.
I can´t believe what I read in this blog though. Europeans sometimes have a way
of saying Americans, spoken in a way that lets you know three dots follow the actual
word. That´s what I´m doing now as I assume the letters from upset sexfearers were
american ones. If they themselves did not occasionally drink and try sex around Marcus
age then all us normal people should become fearers ourselves. My guess is they did.
They just don´t want God to know about it.

February 1, 2010 4:23 AM  

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