RT: Diversity and sexuality, part four

…continuing on from part three of our round table discussion, we’re talking about diversity, sexual stereotypes in YA fiction, and the responsibility of the writer.

Cait: I do want to respond to Kayla here though: I agree that female characters absolutely can have depth without trauma or abuse, especially sexual. On the other hand, though, the statistics show that an outrageous number of women and girls do experience that in their lifetimes.

For all of you: do you think the prevalence of female characters who suffer abuse could be used to bring attention to the commonality of abuse? Particularly in YA, where women tend to make up the bulk of writers of genre YA?

I think so, if paired with good and responsible writing. Fear of rape and assault is a legitimate part of many people’s lives, so it makes sense that it ends up in our fiction. Another question: how can writers do their part to show these things as negative, and not make them, as Kayla says, the thing that gives female characters “depth”?

Patrice: As someone who wasn’t super sexually active when I was a teen, really not at all until I entered college, seeing all these stereotypes is so annoying and alienating for girls with experiences closer to mine. You’ve all named the most pervasive ones so I won’t go there, but it’s just frustrating that these books are the only ones/majority of the ones we see or at the very least, the ones that get a lot of publicity.

Stereotypes such as the quiet girl who has had no sexual experiences, etc…make the reader, from a similar background, feel as if she’s doing something wrong. As if she isn’t as progressed as other teens when studies have shown that not as many teens are sexually active as pop culture and media would lead us to believe. Because of this I like to write characters who are more in the middle, characters with more intersectionalities, characters where their sexuality isn’t everything.

As for the prevalence of female characters suffering from abuse, I do think a large part of it is, like you said, Caitlin, is because so many YA writers are women. In fact, I’ve heard many YA writers of bestselling books featuring abuse of some kind state that they wrote the book, the story, the character like that because of their own experiences and their desire to shine a light on a subject often pushed to the side and give teens hope, strength to speak out and so forth. Again, like you said, if done well, it’s beautiful, necessary, enlightening, and empowering, if not, it’s horrific and often just plain triggering.

Abuse should never be used to give a character depth just for depth’s sake. I think strong writing is a big part of it. Speak by Laurie Hale Anderson is one of my favorite books. The way she approaches the subject, tells the story, sets up whatever happened to the MC, even though the reader doesn’t exactly know, as something horrific, something bad, and something that is never okay. I recently read Speechless by Hannah Harrington, and though it doesn’t deal with abuse to the MC, it deals with something she did that caused abuse/hate crime to someone else, again, the way she approached the story, the subject sets it up from the very beginning that, even when the MC is forgiven at the end, the reader still understands, clearly, the ramifications of the MC’s actions and that we should all be a lot more careful in what we say/do toward others.

Yes, in those two books the MC gained a greater depth but that wasn’t all. If anything, in Speechless, the MC had no depth, she was disliked from the beginning because of what she did and you saw her go through the process of gaining that depth. I think research is crucial, books should never just be written and published, there should be a process the author goes through, even if they were subject to abuse, to learn more about their chosen subject.

Cait: Great response, Patrice!

Since we’re already verging into this territory, I’ll go ahead and put up the last two questions for this part-two section on the fiction as it is now:

Do YA writers have a responsibility to portray sex safely, or condemn unsafe sexual stereotypes?

In your opinion, is it possible to have blockbuster YA romances that are dramatic, interesting, AND healthy?

Marieke: Tricky. Normally I cringe at books having a responsibility–or even worse, a moral–but I do think as writers we should at least consider how we write (sexual) relationships. Just like I think we should consider how we write gender, and gender roles in the context of sexual relationships. As I mentioned before, for me books were a large part of sex ed growing up, like I’m sure it has been for many of us. But if I had based my education solely on that I would’ve come out with a very eschewed, inequal, heteronormative idea of sex. And while I think we should not be preaching–we can at least show there’s far more to the world than that.

For that matter, I would love to see more stories that include active consent as part of their narrative. It doesn’t even have to be a plotline in and of itself, but I think the use of implied consent, or just no means no, can be more harmful than we realize. Only yes means yes.

And frankly, I should hope it’s possible to have blockbuster YA romances that are dramatic, interesting, AND healthy.

Kayla: Going back to the rape question really quick, I just wanted to say that this part of Patrice’s response perfectly states how I feel on the issue too: “Again, like you said, if done well, it’s beautiful, necessary, enlightening, and empowering, if not, it’s horrific and often just plain triggering.”

As for the latest questions, I think there’s a difference between “preaching” and being aware of what we’re writing. After all, we consume media before we create it, and I think it’s important to deconstruct the ideas, messages, tropes, etc. we’ve ingested our whole lives before, during, and after writing. I would also argue that it’s our responsibility to portray reality, and that means all the diversity of reality, including diversity in sexual relationships, behaviors, desires, etc.

And I definitely think it’s possible to have romances that are dramatic, interesting, AND healthy in YA. My favorite example of such a romance (admittedly not YA) is Eric and Tami Taylor from the show Friday Night Lights. Interesting, healthy relationships absolutely can be written. Whether they can be written in YA and become blockbusters? YES, I have full faith they can.

Cait: It’s definitely a fine line between responsibility and awareness, especially when you try to balance characterization with sensibility! We all know that our characters, especially in YA, are often not the wisest–that’s half the plot in most cases.

I think we, as writers, should always question these high-impact scenes and themes like sex, sexuality, that sort of thing. We need to ask ourselves: “Why did I write this? Is it necessary, relevant? If not, can it be cut? If it is, why? What am I accomplishing? Can condoms or other safe sex practices be incorporated, or is it out of character? If it’s out of character, will there be consequences? Will my character at least worry about consequences?”

One of my favorite examples of a healthy YA relationship is Will and Lyra in His Dark Materials (or is it considered MG because of their ages? I’ve always thought of it as YA). It never gets physical with them besides a bit of kissing, but as we’ve discussed, it doesn’t have to be about actually having sex. What I like about Will and Lyra is that there’s no mixed messages, no manipulation, no misunderstandings. Sometimes those things do happen, but more often than not they feel manufactured to me.

Sarah: You’ve all been so thorough and eloquent already, and it feels a bit weird to be back-tracking, but I do want to jump in on a few things…

“What sort of sexual stereotypes have you seen in fiction? Which sexual stereotypes do you think are the most harmful in YA fiction?” The idea I have the biggest problem with is that there are a fixed, limited set of options for a person’s sexuality. Okay, this is cheating a bit, I’m sort of saying ‘all the stereotypes are terrible’, but what I mean is, because we see so many of these stereotypes over and over, and so rarely see anything outside of these few ‘options’, it would be easy to read this as saying ‘these are your choices. Pick one’. Ugh.

My second bugbear is the idea that sexuality and sex are inextricably linked. I get it. In YA especially, as a large number of readers are figuring all this stuff out for themselves, of course sex is going to be a focus. But exactly because readers are at that point of self-discovery and experimentation, it’s an ideal point to introduce the whole spectrum of experiences, both so that people can identify themselves within fiction, and to build an understanding of those experiences which don’t fit their own.

“How can writers do their part to show these things as negative, and not make them, as Kayla says, the thing that gives female characters “depth”? / Do YA writers have a responsibility to portray sex safely, or condemn unsafe sexual stereotypes?” Hmm, this is tricky. I’m not sure ‘responsibility’ is ever a good place to start with a story, whether we’re talking about dissuading rape culture or diversifying the spectrum of YA fiction, or whatever. That way lies preachiness and restriction and issue-driven plot. But an awareness of the consequences of what we write, definitely, whether that’s plot stuff (if your MC doesn’t think the girl really means no, what are the consequences?) or looking at the industry/what’s already out there and letting it inform what you write next.

Couple consequence with good writing and real characters, and you’re probably golden.

“In your opinion, is it possible to have blockbuster YA romances that are dramatic, interesting, AND healthy?” Yes please. This really needs to be a thing.

Patrice: To answer the last two questions Cait posed, like Marieke said, many books I grew up reading presented a very “schewed, inequal, heteronormative idea of sex” that took me a while to realize wasn’t the norm. I think that’s why books that have overly similar plots, not variety in types of relationships/sexual preferences, bother me so much, because they’re not the norm yet for the young girl reading those books, she just might think they are.

I, too, don’t like the idea of “preaching” however, like Kayla said, “we consume media before we create it.” Deconstruction of these myths is crucial to not promoting but showing readers a realistic world. Sure some readers read these books and know that’s not the norm but there are those who don’t and there are those, like my current reader-self, who crave books with more diversity, for lack of a better word, in terms of relationships, etc..

And yes, it is possible to have blockbuster YA romances that are dramatic, interesting, and healthy. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but maybe that means that we writers and publishers need to work harder at getting these type of books out, because there are definitely readers who want, more importantly need them.

Natalie: “Do YA writers have a responsibility to portray sex safely, or condemn unsafe sexual stereotypes?” I would say more responsibly than safely. I also think something which is lacking overall is the emotional implications of sexual relationships – especially at a young age. I think it’s important to make young adults aware that with sex, comes strong emotions and give them effective tools on how they may handle those emotions. Also to teach them that their actions will also not just spark emotion within themselves, but also others involved.

I think that the standard ‘safety’ of sex – ie STDs and unwanted pregnancy has to be handled carefully as it can come across as preachy and condescending. They have that thrown in their face left, right and centre via other outlets. If we’re going to touch on that, it has to be done delicately so as not to turn them off by thinking they’re being lectured to.

As for condemning unsafe sexual stereotypes. This is a tricky one for me. I think they will find themselves in difficult situations – it’s not what happens to us, it’s how we handle it. I think that by putting our characters into situations and then giving them the growth and thus the strength to remove themselves from those situations can be a highly effective tool. I think this is a better way to handle it that outwardly condemning. Actions speak louder than words, right?

“In your opinion, is it possible to have blockbuster YA romances that are dramatic, interesting, AND healthy?” Well – we all know an exciting plot comes from conflict. You can put that conflict in there and that covers the dramatic and interesting. Healthy comes from the growth in the character. In that sense, yes, I do. To go back to How I Live Now…that would be a great example.

Cait: Good responses, all! I think we’re all on the same page here in our goal as writers to show a full range of experience. We can disclaim now that we don’t want others to stop writing about white, thin, straight, able-bodied characters. We just need to dispel the myth of that character as the norm, the default.

I’m going to go ahead and move to the next section! Part three here is focusing on the future, highlighting good examples, etc. So here are the first two questions:

What would you like to see in the future of YA sexual diversity?

What are some of your favorite YA books that deal with both sexuality and diversity?

We’ll show the final part of the discussion soon–but until then, we’d love to hear your answers on this too! 😀

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