Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sex: A Healthy Compromise

Summary: Dominique Baylor meets Wes at a school football game, and is instantly charmed. She pursues him, but he seems hesitant. She just tries harder. Finally, she makes it through his shy, insecure exterior and they fall in love. The rest of the book maps their relationship, from their senior year of high school to their first semester of college. 

Or, to summarize it in one sentence, Judy Blume's Forever, circa 2007. 


It is impossible for me to review this book without comparing it to Forever. That is the obvious comparison, and I think it's an important comparison to make. 

In the world of YA lit, Forever was a groundbreaker. It talked about sex at a time no one was allowed to talk about sex. It described sex at a time when everyone could still pretend teenagers didn't have sex! And, predictably, it became one of the most challenged books in YA history. 

I read it when I was fourteen or fifteen. I picked it up for a few reasons: (a) it is was by Judy Blume, and I had really enjoyed the Rachel Robinson books (b) it was a defining book of the YA genre and, most importantly, (c) it was about SEX. 

And I loved it. Or, more to the point, I devoured it. Stayed up until 3:00 in the morning to finish it. Here, in my hands, for the first time ever, I had someone actually telling me the truth about sex. Not the mechanics they teach in health class. Not the theatrics they show on tv. But an actual, realistic relationship. 

I still have an immense amount of respect for that book. It is daring, and not just about the sexual stuff. It is daring in romance, telling the story of a relationship that didn't work out, and saying that, you know what, that's okay. This isn't Twilight. When Katherine and Michael break up, she doesn't try to kill herself.

I had read a lot of YA before that, and I've read a lot since, and I can only think of a handful of books that are gusty enough to pull off that move. 

Anatomy of a Boyfriend is Forever, for the new generation. It's hipper, a little less dated. But beyond that, it is basically the same. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. I think many books should try to emulate the various elements that Forever explored so successfully--the sex, the break up, the transition to college, the challenge of growing up. 

Of course, I can't fully support such a carbon copy like this. When I say it's the same book, I really mean it. It is the exact same book. But I still enjoyed it. The writing was funny, the characters unique, the emotions real. I just don't think we need any more books like this. The groundbreaking is done. The message is clear: your first love is rarely your last love, and your first time is rarely with your last guy.  

I think that this sub-genre really needs to evolve more, and move past that message. In almost every other YA romance I've read, the couple ends up together. But somehow, when sex is involved, that's no longer allowed. Now it has to be a realistic novel. Now they have to break up, to illustrate that all important lesson. Why? Why can't it be more than that? My real question is this: why does the sex have to define the novel?

I've tried to think of other books where teen characters have sex. Ready or Not by Meg Cabot (not graphic sex). The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot (implied. Chickened out by bizarrely including a chapter of another book to describe the intimacy). This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen (briefly acknowledged that character had sex. Never described it). Forever in Blue by Ann Brashares (not graphic). When It Happens by Susane Colasanti (a large focus of the book. Still not graphic). The Nature of Jade by Deb Caletti (so subtly implied that I did not understand that they had sex the first time I read it). Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer (less than implied, yet still not graphic. And they were married. Doesn't really count. Oh, Twilight, how I love you). 

In not one of those books do they really talk about sex. They all skim over it, like a cut away shot in movies, where you're supposed to just assume it happened because the characters were sitting alone together and vaguely touching or kissing. And there's no medium. Either the book is Forever or Anatomy of a Boyfriend, and it's a Sex Book, capital S, capital B. Or, it's a romance novel, where all the letters are small, and the word sex is mentioned as few times as possible. How can this be? We know teenagers have sex. We see the results every week on such brilliant shows as 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom

Why can't a girl be nervous about sex, but also have an awesome friendship story line? Why can't YA romance be both realistic and fantastical? Most of all, why is YA literature still trying to send out messages? Haven't we learned? It doesn't work. Teens don't read for the lessons, and moreover, they don't need lessons. Don't preach to kids. They're smarter than that. I've railed against this before, discussing the whole "you have sex and you have to get pregnant rule" that seems to have dominated teen relationships on tv. 

I want the best of both worlds. I want sex-free romance that is realistic, where sometimes they fight because they are growing apart or simply growing up. I want sexy romance where they sometimes end up together. I want both, I want either, and, most of all, I want to be done with the lessons. 

Forever is groundbreaking. Anatomy is a good refresher of that. But from here on out, I want more. Do you hear me, YA gods? 


  1. I linked to this post on my blog- hope that's okay. You've written such a great post here! I still remember when I first read Forever. And I don't think anything really came close to it until Anatomy of a Boyfriend.

  2. Thanks so much for the link. I really appreciate any exposure I can get.

    Today, I found the anthology All the Things I Needed to Know About Being Girl I Learned from Judy Blume. It has authors like Megan McCafferty and Meg Cabot discussing Blume's books, including Forever. I'm excited to read it--to see what other authors think of Forever and the whole sex in YA issue.

    Did you like Anatomy of a Boyfriend? Or did you find it too similar to Forever?

  3. I like your blog and of course Anatomy of a Boyfriend had major similarities to Forever. The author frickin dedicated the book to Judy Blume! But how can you say it’s the same book? In Forever Michael and Katherine get together RIGHT AWAY. In AOAB, Dom waits like a hundred pages before Wes mans up and says he likes her. So Forever never goes into what it’s like to like someone and be afraid they don’t like you back. Then in Forever, Katherine dumps Michael in the frickin second-to-last chapter. In AOAB, Wes dumps Dom, so SHE’S the one being heartbroken. And that’s something like fifty pages before the end of the book so we really see what it’s like being that hurt. Plus AOAB ends in college, Forever ends before college blah blah blah. I think AOAB goes to a lot of places Forever doesn’t because the main relationships and timeline are TOTALLy different. My 2 cents.

  4. Thanks for commenting!

    I did notice the dedication, and I respected that she gave credit where credit was due.

    And I will admit, a little bit of what I said is hyperbole. I exaggerated for a few reasons: (1) I wanted this post to be about more than just reviewing this specific book (2) I didn't find the differences between the books significant enough or meaningful enough to really care about them.

    I found the drawn out courtship very tiring. It was realistic, sure, but also rather boring. And yes, Forever ends before college, but both books address the whole "should you go to the same college as your boyfriend?" question.

    I admit, there are differences. But I just don't think the differences are big enough to really matter. In some ways, I think Anatomy of a Boyfriend is better than Forever, and I appreciate that it does go to places that Forever does not. But in most ways, I just think it is a photocopy, a replica of the actual piece of groundbreaking YA lit.

  5. I did like AOAB. I think I read it after reading a number of bland YA books. Or YA books where the romance was so inane. Anyhow, I really did like it- and I think I appreciated the author being so ballsy in writing what she did. AOAB will always get comparisons to Forever, but they are two very different books, written in two very different eras. Both great additions to YA.

  6. And your parallels of the two books are spot on, in my opinion :)


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