RT: Diversity and sexuality, part three

Hello m’lovelies! First of all, mea culpa. World Fantasy Con ate my internet and I completely flaked out on posting the next installment of our DiversiTheme Roundtable. Fortunately, we have plenty of great comments to entertain you another week, so without further ado: PART THREE.

CAIT: “What sort of sexual stereotypes have you seen in fiction? Which sexual stereotypes do you think are the most harmful in YA fiction?

I put these together because they’re two sides of the same question. As writers we all know that characters often start stereotypically and it’s our job to carry them past that framework. This, of course, doesn’t always happen. Also, ‘sexual stereotypes’ should include the simple prude-whore spectrum and all its intersectional qualifiers–black women are promiscuous, white women are frigid, people with disabilities don’t have sexual feelings and asexual people just haven’t found the right one, etc. You know. As for which is most harmful, they’re all harmful, but think of it this way: if there was one you could just snap your fingers and make disappear forever, which would it be?

I read mostly fantasy and I’m shamefully behind on my recent releases, so I’m not sure what comes up in contemporary fiction. In fantasy, we very often get the extremes: the virgin and the femme fatale who uses sex as a weapon. I also read one recently where it was implied that the female villain, a powerful sorceress, got her main man lackey to do her bidding by promising sex and withholding until he did as she asked.

I understand the impulse to write characters this way. Love and sex can be powerful motivators and villains are often manipulative no matter what their gender is. BUT so many grown men already think that women have a long game, an agenda with their sexuality, that putting this kind of thing in YA or NA fiction for young men and boys to read is only perpetuating the problem. We have to be mindful, not only of our female-presenting readers, but the male-presenting ones as well.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that sexuality seems to get attached to character traits that aren’t necessarily related. Take a book about a seventeen-year-old high school senior girl who is really shy. She’s super shy, therefore she’s never had a boyfriend, therefore she’s never had sex, because shy girls must overcome their shyness before forming a single strong connection–oh wait, she has a best friend. So she’s formed at least one close friendship. So in the previous three years, Main Character only ever had one connection ever?

Obviously this is true for some people and for some characters. But “Shy Virgin Who Has to Overcome Shyness Before Having Romantic or Sexual Feelings” seems like a type and it feels very disingenuous to me based on my own experiences and those of my friends. I’ve had shy friends who carried a serious torch for a classmate. I was shy, but I was also boy crazy. I was too shy to even say the word penis when I was sixteen but I had some very nice topless makeout sessions at the same time.

Oh, that’s another thing–this idea that having characters with sexuality means that characters must have sex. I disagree. Thoughts?”

NATALIE: “Interesting Caitlin, especially your last question. My MC is a 17 year old boy with two VERY sexually active friends. I wanted to make a point of him and his romantic interest both being virgins. Despite the fact they are crazy about each other, they still haven’t slept together by the end of the book because I agree with you that having sexual feelings, doesn’t mean they have to have sex. I also wanted to write a character who was strong enough to not succumb to peer the peer pressure of his friends.

I think that sexual stereotypes need to be stepped away from as they are very much the norm. Esp in mainstream contemp. I think they are seen across the board in movies, books and in the media and are, in my opinion, mostly unavoidable mostly due to peoples fears in breaking the boundaries…from the writer to the agent brave enough to take that book on to the publisher brave enough to publish and the reader brave enough to read. A controversial opinion? Maybe I am being naive? I’d love to know what you all think. I DO think it’s is unfortunate and would absolutely love to see more fiction with diverse characters which will lift the veil and show teach our readers not to be afraid – but to be proud of who they are.

I read mostly contemp YA. I recently read a book which breaks the boundaries – How I live Now by the wonderful Meg Rossoff. In it, the MC falls in love with her first cousin. I won’t ruin in in case any of you want to seek it out but it is the only book I’ve read in which something like that is tackled. It is done so in a delicate, sometimes delicious and longing way.”

CAIT: “That sounds like a great MS, Natalie. That’s something I love to see emphasized in YA–characters making their own decisions, not because one is generally better or worse, but because it’s right for them.

I agree with you that people like their stereotypes. YA is in particularly difficult position because books that offer radical perspectives like “it’s okay to have sex” or “it’s okay to kiss a lot and still not have sex” or “it’s okay for teens to make decisions for themselves about when and how they have sex” so often become the targets of banning campaigns.

I also think that there’s a grey area in publishing for writers who write diverse characters and perspectives without making them a focus of the book. Books that adhere to stereotypes are easy: people know what they’re getting. Issue novels are easy because people know what they’re getting and there’s a marketing strategy built in. But regular genre books who happen to have say, a disabled character where the disability isn’t the point of the book? No one seems to know what to do with those. Same with genre fiction with non-white characters.”

MARIEKE: “I’d LOVE to see more books where a character’s diverse identity isn’t the focus or the issue! That would go such a long way to normalizing what we’ve othered–and maybe we’ve spent far too much time othering the concept of sexuality too. It’s (*gasp*) part of life.

Of course issue books like coming out novels are still very important, it isn’t an issue for everyone. Just like most people with disabilities, at least the ones I know, aren’t constantly aware of their disability or what that must mean to the rest of the world.

As for stereotypes, I’ve had it with the depictions of stereotypical autistic characters who fail to make any connection at all–let alone fall in love.

I also see the same the “use” of sexuality in speculative fiction. Not just as a way for women to exert control, but definitely the other way around too. I recently read a YA fantasy wherein one of the characters commented that she was never abused by men because she fought back. The implications of that are horrifying and as far as I’m concerned absolutely unacceptable.”

KAYLA: “I wholeheartedly agree with basically everything that’s been said so far, especially Marieke’s responses.

For me, I’d (obviously) like to see books featuring disabled characters having romantic/sexual relationships, and even just having sex drives. And I’d LOVE for those desires and experiences to actually reflect the whole spectrum of desires and experiences, but that goes for all characters, really.

I’d also like to see more characters masturbating, showing that it can be (and frequently is) an important part of sexual exploration. Particularly, I’d like to see more female characters masturbating to combat the stereotypes that only boys do that, and that girls are too “above it” or “pure” or some nonsense to even consider it, let alone do it.

Stereotypes/tropes I detest? I hate, hate, hate the idea that a female character can only have depth if she’s been raped/sexually assaulted, which I feel like I see a LOT. That is so incredibly harmful and pervasive in all media. That would probably be the one I would BURN IN FIRE if I could. :)”

We’d love for you to weigh in with your thoughts! What sort of sexual stereotypes have you seen in fiction? Which sexual stereotypes do you think are the most harmful in YA fiction?

4 Responses to RT: Diversity and sexuality, part three

  1. SO MUCH OF THESE THINGS. I don’t want to restate all the above, but basically, I agree with all of it, and am especially tired of the sexual-assault-as-depth thing, which I find infuriatingly prevalent in NA.

    Personally, I’d like to see more of the stuff that falls in between kissing and intercourse – so many YA books act as if after you’ve been making out with your boyfriend for a few months, it’s time to move on to sex, but there is SO MUCH in between, and it all happens in high school in real life, so why not in books? It just seems so absurd to me, but somehow it’s more taboo to write about those things than it is to write a couple having sex.

  2. I very much agree that the “I’ve been raped” thing to add depth to a character is overdone. I think it’s important to ACCURATELY portray rape victims, but I think there needs to be other things that give female characters depth.

    I say “female” there deliberately because I think one thing that isn’t portrayed enough (or even really talked about) is the fact that men (of any age) can be raped. Society as a whole focuses on girls being raped, but it’s never mentioned or dealt with in fiction that guys can be raped as well, and it’s just as traumatic for them as it is for female rape victims.

    • I agree with you, Raven! Obviously I won’t say I enjoy reading books about rape, but it would be really good to see more of those books dealing with the rapes of males.

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