I am a child of the 70s, mostly. I remember the latter half of the 60s as well but my generation pretty much came of age during the tumult of The Decade That Ate Its Young, that alternate (and perhaps more politically accurate) name of The Me Decade. There are many things we have now that we didn’t have then. Technology is obvious. The possibility of an African-American or a woman in the White House seemed far-fetched back then. Oh, and we didn’t have books written for and marketed to our specific teen demographic. The term “young adult” didn’t exist as a category of fiction, and when it was used by an adult it was used pejoratively. To be a young adult was to be one step above a delinquent.
Somewhere in all that we still managed to learn about sex. We didn’t really learn all that much about it in school, and our parents weren’t really talking about it, so we picked it up exactly where our parents were afraid we’d pick it up: in books. No, they didn’t think of it like that, they would say we “picked it up off the streets” like some sun-warmed blob of chewing gum. The irony was that those “streets” of books we learned about sex from were often in our own homes.
I was just learning the complicated and confusing joys of puberty when I discovered that some photos in the National Geographic held a strange fascination over my attention. I’m not even talking about the random shot of a semi-nude tribal woman dancing, but certain faces of young women just slightly older than myself. They could be Irish teens waiting on a low stone wall for a bus, or Japanese women modeling Western fashions in Tokyo, so long as they were a few years older I found myself having wondrous strange thoughts about and imaginary conversations with them. I scoured the three or four most recent issues in our house until I felt I’d exhausted myself over these images, then had a sudden realization: there were boxes and boxes full of back issues in our garage! One Saturday afternoon, when no one else was home to witness, I went into the garage.
And lo! like a beam from heaven in the form of a bare and yellow 60 watt bulb, I discovered a box of paperback books that contained the twin volumes that would forever change me: Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House and Dr. David Ruben’s Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex: But Were Afraid To Ask. Vonnegut is a subject I’ve spoken often about and is no concern to us here today. No, it’s that other book, that grail of information spilling out of its chemically bleached pages like a pulchritudinous serving wench exploding out of her Elizabethan bodice. That’s the stuff.
So full of vivid medical descriptions of body parts and how they work! So full of explanations of mechanics that made no sense to me! So full of information that was… totally unsexy!
Here was the perfect book, I thought, that would do what no adult dared to do: tell the truth about everything. And it turned out to be what I didn’t want. So much what I couldn’t use or apply. So unhelpful. If you’ve only had urges and strange sensations and never had a girl or boyfriend, never been on a date, never even kissed, the whole of a book like Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex was as lost as the acts of the son of Judah.
A few years later it seemed like there was another chance to really get the inside scoop on this sex thing when kids started bringing copies of The Illustrated Joy of Sex to school. We even understood the irony of passing that book around in biology class while our otherwise-preoccupied teacher showed us sex-ed films from the 1950s (Emergency Childbirth ring a bell for anyone else?). This time ’round we had less medical babble and more pictures. Yeah, pictures! That’s what we wanted! Skip this foreplay stuff, this weird section called “Pickles,” show us what we all pretended we knew how to do since we were ten, since the day we found our first copy of Playboy in the bushes and took it home to hide under our mattress. Now, finally, we could see it all, we knew everything about sex, and we were happy.
But we weren’t. Something was missing.
Books had given us something we wanted, information in its most clinical and mechanical forms, and we were grateful because they were at least filling in the gaps created by our parent’s ostrich-like behavior, but what we wanted and needed was something that bridged the gap. Explaining that our “urges” and “changes” were natural didn’t help us understand our feelings at all. They didn’t help us figure out what was normal in terms of communicating with the subjects of our desire, what was appropriate and inappropriate in terms of social and private behavior. We were as lost as if given a destination, a road map, and a car without wheels.
We needed more books.
We needed books that told us, showed us what it was like to live these awkward moments. We needed books that explained the emotional trajectory of first kisses and fumbled make-out sessions. We didn’t want first- or second-hand accounts from kids fumbling around aimlessly on their own – accounts we often dismissed as made up but accepted as truth simply because we had nothing else to go by. What do you do when your crush is unrequited? What do you do when a casual friendship flares up in the heat of the moment and turns into a carnal Lust Monster?
Kids today, they don’t know how good they’ve got it. Not only are there Young Adults books, but you can find them about pretty much any topic. Abuse. Drugs. Death and the afterlife.
You can find books about teens wanting, and having, sex. You can read about their desires, and how they go about achieving those desires (or sometimes failing to), and learn a whole slew of lessons without ever having to emulate the characters at all! Imagine! Just like a mystery where you don’t have to murder anyone, or a horror novel where you don’t have to be hunted down by some vengeful spirit or madman, or like some historical epic where you don’t have to fight in a war or suffer from some (then) incurable disease, you can read about sex and interpersonal relations and decide for yourself how to use that information! Amazing! Books are amazing!
And so, while adults continue to wring their hands over the problem of whether or not there is a case to be made for “raunchy” books for teens, we must remember that adults have a long and storied history of this hand-wringing, silence-peddling, censorship-pushing nonsense. Adults will always try to “protect the children” and youth will always find a way around their overbearing protections. The chemical and biological sex drive is there and, for the teen caught in the maelstrom of these awkward and sudden changes, no amount of protective censorship will keep them from seeking out answers. Fortunately for teens today there are plenty of sources Unfortunately, there are still adults out there trying to limit that information.
I say, be young, young adults! Think about sex all you want! Be defiant and delinquent! Read everything and judge for yourself!