A thing you may not know about me: I was a slut in high school.
When I say that, I mean that when I was a YA, I was a person other people called a slut. As far as I was concerned, I was doing my thing and people were haters. As a result, I have a lot of thoughts (some are slightly aggressive thoughts) on the necessity of sex positive YA and doing away with the whole idea of slut as a negative concept. The way I see it is if everyone is being smart and respectful, then do your thing whatever your thing may be.
Unfortunately not everyone shares my attitude and my YA experience heavily reflected the religiously-driven oppressive attitude that is so detrimentally pervasive in regards to human sexuality.
- The summer between seventh and eighth grade I sprouted boobs. Not like training bra boobs, I went straight to a full B cup leaning towards C basically overnight and I have the stretch marks to prove it. When school started post summer break I abruptly stopped being the weird girl who used to gallop around the parking lot at recess and became the big-boobed girl boys wanted to talk to. Unfortunately I hadn’t developed social skills yet so I’d usually respond with an awkward giggle before galloping away. My friends staged an intervention about my behavior and growing reputation. It should be noted that at this point I had yet to have my first kiss.
- I wore a spaghetti strap tank top to an eighth grade school dance. I danced with a boy I’d been crushing on for months. It was that kind of awkward middle school slow-dancing where you lock your elbows and sway with about a foot of space between you. The principle pulled me aside and told me I needed to put on a sweater and cease my lewd behavior if I wanted to stay. To my knowledge no one else was reprimanded for their dress or behavior. On Monday, the school announcements included a bulletin on appropriate, lady-like behavior at school functions.
- I went to a new school when I started high school, looking for a fresh start away from the tiny private school crowd that made up my elementary school. Towards the end of my freshman year I lost my virginity with my boyfriend. We’d been dating for six months, flirting for nine (this is like five years in high school time), he was my first “real” boyfriend and I thought I was in love with him. His mom found out and told all of her PTA (Parent Teacher Association) friends I was a whore. They told their kids. My boyfriend broke up with me that week.
- I went to a party and hooked up with a guy I was friendly with from some of my classes. He tried to get me to go upstairs with him and I didn’t want to. He said (loudly, in the middle of the party) ‘Why the hell not? Everyone knows you’ll fuck anyone.’ He was not the last person to say something like this.
- I was up at the front of the classroom talking to a teacher. A guy ran up and pulled my skirt down (I later found out it was a bet to see what kind of panties I was wearing). I kicked him in the nuts. I turned to the teacher and demanded to know if he was going to do anything. I pointed out that it was sexual harassment. He replied that my response was assault and advised me to dress less provocatively in the future (not that it matters, I was wearing a crew neck tshirt and a calf-length skirt).
- There was a guy I had a thing for. We were kind of friends and we’d made out a few times. I drove him home one night and asked if I could come in. He told me he didn’t want a girlfriend. I told him that was fine, I didn’t want a boyfriend. On Monday he wouldn’t look me in the eye and I had a new locker room nickname. I never found out what it was, but it was bad enough that a friend punched another kid in the face over it. Two weeks later the guy was dating a “nice” girl. He never talked to me again.
- I went to a party and hooked up with a guy I was friendly with from some of my classes. He tried to get me to go upstairs with him and I didn’t want to. I went anyway because what the hell, that’s all I was good for, right? How many people had to say the same thing before I accepted it as true?
These are just a handful of instances that stood out and stuck with me, most of the whispers and comments faded to background noise. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to turn this into a pity party. At this point in my life it’s all water under the bridge, I’ve embraced my fabulousness and am not ashamed of going after what I wanted. Also, high school wasn’t all bad. I had an amazing group of friends who had my back. But it still got pretty bad sometimes.
So how does this tie in to YA? (It does, I promise.) For as long as I’ve been able to read I’ve had a book in my hand (or close by). Reading has always been fun but it’s also been my escape. When life gets too stressful, I bury myself in books. This was especially true in high school. I lived for the stories where the cool guy would take off a girl’s glasses and she’d shake out her hair and they’d stroll off into their happily ever after. I was convinced that there was a guy out there who would recognize all of the things that made me me and love me for them. All I had to do was meet this perfect person and all of the bad shit would melt away (yes, I measured a lot of my self worth by external validation, sue me, I was 16).
As great as these books were (are) and as comforting as my fantasy boyfriend was, there was always something missing. Where were the girls who liked a lot of guys without it being something she had to atone for? Where were the girls who had sex with their boyfriends on a random Wednesday afternoon and it wasn’t a Major Plot Point? Where were the girls buying condoms and researching birth control? Where were the girls having sex with guys they had no interest in dating? I’m sure those books were out there but they weren’t prolific enough that I was finding them (keep in mind these were the days before the internet was a big thing). Hell, it was hard to find a YA book where a “nice” girl had sex at all. If I wanted a sexy read (and I did), I had to head for the adult section. (Which, naturally, only added fuel to the fire when my bag would spill and a romance novel would fall out.)
The message I subconsciously picked up from all of this was that there was something wrong with me. Normal girls weren’t interested in sex more than romance, good girls waited for the right guy and the right moment and then stayed with that guy forever (or at least for the rest of high school and maybe a little college). This compounded the messages I was absorbing every day and resulted in a whole lot of internalized self-hatred. Being the contrary-minded sort of person I am, I developed a ‘oh, you think this is bad? You haven’t seen anything yet’ attitude and acted accordingly. I’m not trying to excuse the trouble I got myself into, I was not a victim, I made my own choices. But looking back, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of my incredibly shitty attitude was a protective shell to keep people from hurting me. Maybe I wouldn’t have been quite so aggressively contrary if I hadn’t felt so isolated and wrong.
What I’m trying to say is that sex positive YA is important (sex positivity being the attitude that consensual, responsible sexual activity is healthy and normal whether or not you’re doing it). It’s necessary for all of the reasons all diverse representation is necessary. It gives girls like me something to relate to, something to hold on to and remind ourselves that we aren’t messed up in some fundamental way for having a sex drive and the gall to embrace it.
Honestly, it’s important for countless other reasons, some of them are covered here in a glorious twitter rant by Ellis (who has also put together a fantastic list of some excellent examples of sex positive YA). It’s important for the same reasons that eradicating the entire idea of sluts and negatively judging girls for their sexuality is important. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a girl wanting to get down in a safe, responsible manner of her choosing (or not get down, or dress however, or like whoever, or any of the million subtle ways we’re policed on a daily basis) and it is high fucking time we stop teaching people there is.