Thursday, July 30, 2009

Age Appropriate

Last week, Dear Author did a survey on what the right age is for allowing girls to read romances. It got me thinking. Boy, did it ever get me thinking.

I wasn't really much of a reader as a kid. I loved watching movies - the stories, the drama, the worlds unfolding - but the real magic of books didn't open up to me until I was twelve. I couldn't sleep one night and my sister gave me a book by Anne McCaffrey. Dragonflight. I read until dawn. And then I kept reading.

Dragonflight isn't a romance by any stretch, but there's definitely some sex between those pages (about two sentences worth in the entire book). That summer I read my way through my sister's bookshelves - McCaffrey, Lackey, Eddings. There were romances tucked inside the stories of magic and adventure, sly little innuendos of love. Sex and the mushy love stuff were acknowledged, occasionally even showcased. They might motivate the characters or be pivotal plot points, but in the sci-fi/fantasy realm, the romance isn't the plot.

It was some time later in my reading education, after I had exhausted my sister's supply, but was still hungry for my next fix, when I tripped across the Sunfire Romances. I had almost forgotten how much I loved these books until a few weeks ago when Kate Diamond reminded me of them. Sweet romances, aimed at teen girls, featuring teen girls in the starring roles - always set during some dramatic slice of history and always seeing our beloved heroine pursued by not one but two studly teen boys. Sort of a cross between The American Girls books and Twilight (only without the bloodsucking and shapeshifting).
(<--Check it out! Merrie stows away on the Mayflower! How cool is that? And now I kinda wanna go back and reread these.)

The Sunfire Romances were my gateway drug.

I must have been about thirteen when I read my first racy romance. It was Johanna Lindsey. (Tangent: Shout out to Sara Ramsey, Golden Heart Winner in the Regency Historical category who read her first Lindsey - Brave the Wild Wind around the same time and got hooked by hook-ups a-horseback. Woot!)

My first was Secret Fire. A Russian prince kidnaps an English heiress and much passion ensues. Much passion. Those were the books with the bodice-ripped covers. The ones I tucked under my pillow and read in secret. I don't know if my mom knew I was reading them. I don't know if she would have approved.

But what, really, was the danger in them? I didn't think they were any more realistic than the stories of dragons and wizards. I certainly wasn't using them as a rulebook for how I should conduct my adolescent lovelife (heh, yeah, still waiting for that Russian prince...).

To be quite frank, I'm not entirely certain how much of them I really understood. I loved the movie Dirty Dancing as a kid. Loved it. Had no idea there was sex in it. Had no idea it was about sex. Didn't understand what "knocked up" meant enough to even realize that Penny was preggers. But the dancing was cool. And the girl that never really stood out got to be a rockstar. She got to get the hot guy and dance on stage. When I saw it again, several years later, I remember being shocked by how much sex there was. Good lord, how could I have missed it? It was right there.

So I kind of wonder how much sex I missed in the romances I read early on.

Those were the old skool romances - abductions! secret babies! - and a lot of them were not about what could technically be called healthy relationships. However, I do feel that my ability to read people and the fact that I am a pretty damn good judge of character both come from the fact that I read everything I could get my hands on. I learned a lot about seeing the motivations behind things and became a student of the quiet dramas in our own lives. I was more emotionally aware than I would have been without those books. And who wouldn't want that for their teen girl?

So what do you say? Is your daughter allowed to read romance? At what age? Are you just happy the kid likes to read at all? Worried that she'll get a glorified, unrealistic view of sex? Or might she gain a more developed emotional awareness? Could she satisfy the curiosity about sex through books so she won't have it too young? Could enabling the fantasy life prevent bad judgement?

I dunno. But I do know that it is a messy tangle in the Young Adult fiction market. Write about it? Don't write about it? Can a YA book really be authentic if it doesn't mention sex these days? Adolescents have to deal with sex. It's a fact of life.

(**Spoilers Below**)
I remember thinking the Harry Potter books came out of the gates strong, by dealing with things that the kids would actually have to face as they grew up in addition to the wild wizardry-ness, but when sex entered the picture it was quickly shuffled offstage. (Or turned into the literary equivalent of a prat fall - something trotted out for a light non-Voldemort moment and an easy laugh.) It felt odd to me because it didn't deal as directly with sex. The characters seem sexually stunted by their lack of awareness of it. (Not that they had to be boinking like bunnies, but the idea of teenage boys never even saying the word? Really? You're gonna buy that? Cuz I've got this bridge in Brooklyn...)

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, you have Twilight. In which sex is glorified to a ridiculous degree. A virgin has sex with another virgin who - by virtue of the fact that he's a vampire - has the physiology of a marble statue and is so freakishly strong he has to make a concerted effort not to crush her fragile human bones into a fine papery pulp. Yet it is in no way uncomfortable. In fact, it is so transcendent that she decides she no longer wants what she has said she wants for the last four freaking books (i.e. to become a vampire herself) because she doesn't want to miss out on the opportunity to have lots more freaky human-vampire sex. What the f*ck?! What the hell kind of message is that sending to our Abstinence-Only-trained kiddies? Wait until you're married, but when you finally do it, you will want to restructure your entire life around the awesomeness that is coitus maximus.

Then there's the Buffy-verse, where sex=death(demonic possession, mayhem, etc.). Or the House of the Night series where Zoey sleeps with (*spoiler*) freaking Loren? What the effing hell? And of course, he turns out to only be using her cuz Nyx told him to (duh.) and then he dies. Grisly nasty death. Honestly, I'm pretty darned confused about the messages were sending the kiddies about sex.

Are romance novels really any worse than the young adult stuff out there? At least some of them these days are about vaguely healthy relationships.

Okay, I'm pretty much done. Longest post ever, yeah. So here's what I wanna leave you with:

What age is the right age to allow your kids to read romance? And which romance would you start them on? What is the right message about sex?

1 comment:

Vivant said...

I loved romantic suspense novels by authors like Mary Stewart when I was in junior high and high school oh so many years - read decades - ago. I think the sex was of the "unconsummated" variety. There was considerably more sex, not necessarily with a romantic attachment, in some of the many literary works I read voraciously in high school, such as Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.

I didn't get into sci fi and fantasy until I was in my 20's. Although their focus is the story, not the romance, there are widely varying levels of romance and sexuality along the way. I recall lending a favorite book to one of my nieces when she was about 12 and then remembering after the fact that there was some sex in it - ack! I doubt that she was scarred by the experience, but I was! The sex in that story was sweetly romantic, but the incident certainly raised the question in my mind about what is age appropriate.

I think it's unrealistic and probably dangerous to act like sex doesn't exist and try to screen kids from it. I'm of the mind that it's good to see examples of healthy (and maybe some unhealthy) relationships, so I'm in favor of letting children begin to read fairly innocuous romances when they're old enough to be interested, and then let their breadth expand as they get older. I think it makes a lot of sense to believe that exposure will help teens make better choices in their own lives.

Wow. I just responded to the longest blog ever with the longest comment ever. Sorry!