Let’s Talk About…Virginity in YA Fiction

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately stewing privately over thinking about various issues/trends in YA books I’ve read, and I want to start discussing them here on the blog. I’ve been whining so much in the past few weeks about how I want more content besides reviews and memes, so…here we go. I hope to hear your thoughts on these topics as well!

One thing I’ve noticed a lot of in YA fiction is the reliance on virginity as a key plot point. Whether virginity helps keep the population under control, or helps the heroine fulfill her destiny, there seem to be more than a few instances where remaining a virgin becomes critical to the novel’s positive outcomes. Lately I feel as if I, as a YA reader, am getting clubbed over the head with the message “Virgin good, slut bad!”

There are a variety of techniques used to keep heroines virgins in books. There’s the “I don’t want to hurt you” technique. This is epitomized by Bella and Edward, where he couldn’t possibly have sex with her because he wouldn’t be able to control himself and might accidentally damage internal organs or something. This is most often seen in paranormal romances where sex is denied because the vampire/werewolf/whathaveyou is FAR too dangerous and therefore they can’t possibly be together. Because sex makes you lose control and that is BAD.

There’s the “if you lose your virginity you fail to fulfill your destiny” technique. The one that most readily comes to mind is Rampant, where Astrid can only be a powerful unicorn huntress if she abstains from sex. Forever. Girls can’t possibly juggle a job AND a sex life, right? In order to be 100% focused on their futures, they must deny themselves love and the natural expression of it and just be happy killing unicorns.

Then there’s the “doomsday” scenario. This is where the girl can’t have sex because Bad Things will happen to her or the people she loves. I spotted this one in The Mephisto Covenant, where having sex meant that Sasha would turn into a homing beacon for the villain and he would instantly be able to track her and kill her. Again, sex = bad.

Bad, bad, bad.

Now, I’m not saying I want to see a bunch of books about irresponsibly promiscuous teenagers. I don’t want to read a book about irresponsible promiscuity, period. I would, however, like to see books where young women make informed choices that reflect what is best for them and their lives. If a girl wants to have sex, and has the maturity and knowledge to do so safely, why not have a book explore that decision?

I’m sure there are books out there that deal with this topic in meaningful ways. I don’t doubt that there are a lot of girls getting good information about sex from books that deal with it in a pointed fashion. What bothers me is the sense that a lot of these messages about the value of virginity are undercurrents that slip past the radar. If you read enough books about sweet, heroic virgins that are better people because they have chosen not to have sex, you start to think that’s the only right choice. It devalues the many teen girls that have chosen not to remain virgins. And if you follow teen sex statistics at all, you’ll know that’s a very high number.

I’m tired of reading books where the protagonist must remain a virgin or bad consequences follow. I’m tired of our culture’s insistence that virginity is something precious to young women. More than anything, I’m tired of these characters’ decisions being taken from their control and passed along to someone else. Whether it’s Edward sticking to his dated chivalrous guns, or an inherited vocation dictating their choice, or even the threat of certain death, young heroines are not being given the power to make their own decisions when it comes to whether they are ready to have sex. Instead, the decision is handed to them by external circumstances, and that’s not something I like to see.

Have you noticed other ways in which virginity is celebrated in YA fiction? Do you think I’m way off base? Sound off in the comments, and let’s get a discussion going.

Review: Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

Book: Rampant
Author: Diana Peterfreund
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release date: August 25, 2009
Source: Ebook borrowed from library
Series: Killer Unicorns #1
Summary: (from Goodreads) Forget everything you ever knew about unicorns… Real unicorns are venomous, man-eating monsters with huge fangs and razor-sharp horns. Fortunately, they’ve been extinct for a hundred and fifty years. Or not. Astrid had always scoffed at her eccentric mother’s stories about killer unicorns. But when one of the monsters attacks her boyfriendâ??thereby ruining any chance of him taking her to the promâ??Astrid finds herself headed to Rome to train as a unicorn hunter at the ancient cloisters the hunters have used for centuries. However, at the cloisters all is not what it seems. Outside, the unicorns wait to attack. And within, Astrid faces other, unexpected threats: from the crumbling, bone-covered walls that vibrate with a terrible power to the hidden agendas of her fellow hunters toâ??perhaps most dangerously of allâ??her growing attraction to a handsome art student … an attraction that could jeopardize everything.

First impressions: From page one, I knew I was going to like this book. Astrid is reading a gag-inducing unicorn tale to her babysitting charges, and introduces us to her feelings on the subject. She’s snarky, irreverent, and convinced that her possibly crazy mother has warped her with tales of man-eating unicorns while growing up. I. Love. Astrid.

Lasting impressions: Diana Peterfreund has managed to blend the most ridiculous fantasy element of all time – unicorns – with the most realistic portrayal of a teen I’ve ever read. Sheer genius.

Conflicting impressions: Virgins! Again with the virgins! Puh-lease. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Overall impressions: One of my favorite scenes in all of comedic film is in the movie Dodgeball, when Vince Vaughn’s character goes to Christine Taylor’s character’s house for the first time and discovers her eerie obsession with unicorns. Do you know why that scene is so damn funny? Because no self-respecting grown woman would surround herself with that much lavender, sparkles, and horned white horses. It would be like carrying a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper into a business meeting.

Astrid would find that scene funny. She practically chokes on the words while reciting that same kind of fluffy unicorn tale to the kids she’s babysitting. You see, in Astrid’s mother’s world, unicorns are fearsome fanged beasts that survive on the flesh of mammals. Astrid, of course, thinks her mother is a whack-job. While everyone else grew up thinking unicorns were majestic, beautiful creatures, she wound up with the mom whose unicorn stories were completely terrifying.

I loved Astrid’s healthy skepticism. It made the story more believable, and allowed her to make all of the snide, disparaging remarks we readers are wont to do when confronted with reading material about unicorns. When I gleefully showed off the cover and first page to my husband, I think he actually considered divorce.

Once I settled into the narrative, things moved right along. Astrid almost immediately encounters a breed of unicorn called a zhi, which not only doesn’t attack her, but bows. Like, might as well wear a skirt and curtsy, bows down to her. Right before lunging its fanged mouth at her boyfriend and roughing him up pretty good. After this near-death experience, Astrid’s boy toy ostracizes her and her mother sends her to Rome for unicorn huntress camp.

I know. Stay with me.

Because Astrid has managed to stay a virgin (sigh), and because she comes from a long line of fancy pants unicorn huntresses, she dutifully goes off to Rome. She figures she’ll spend her time learning Italian and seeing the sights. When she arrives, she’s in for a rude awakening. Her roommate is an even more emphatic huntress than her mother, excitedly blabbing about killing and training and displays an act of Pure Crazy so shocking I almost stopped reading. I’m glad I didn’t.

This book is not lacking in the blood-and-guts department. It’s a book about hunters. They hunt and kill. It’s what they do. So there should be no surprises on the violence front. Perhaps the thing I struggled with the most, however, was how easily Astrid came to accept this part of her duty. Natural instinct kicks in when she gets around unicorns, and I get that killing a beast that’s trying to kill you is easier than killing an innocent puppy. But although she experiences remorse after her first kill, she did seem overly accepting of her killer instince and the training aspects of her time in Rome. I was surprised at how quickly she just jumped on in, especially given her prior skepticism.

Don’t get me wrong. Astrid struggles with this decision. She doesn’t want to commit her entire life to remaining a virgin and hunting unicorns. The difference is that while I bought her struggle over the decision to commit to a life of hunting, I didn’t buy her lack of real rebellion at going to unicorn camp in the first place and killing lots of animals once she got there, despite her life being endangered several times. I wanted her to be a bit more rebellious, other than sneaking out to make out with cute boys.

Which brings me to Giovanni. He’s an American student studying in Rome, who along with his friend, starts double dating Astrid and her cousin, Philippa aka Phil. Giovanni represents all that she can’t have if she hunts – love, sex, companionship. She flirts with using him to take her virginity so she can avoid hunting, and also agonizes over accepting her destiny while still truly loving him.

The boys manage to complicate things in meaningful, and also hurtful, ways. It’s in the exploration of these relationships that Peterfreund shines. Astrid is a teenager – nervous around boys, overanalyzing their every move, questioning the path to physical intimacy. She is insecure about reading the right signals or how to communicate what she wants. I absolutely loved the time she spent with Giovanni, and her internal thoughts just made me want to hug her and tell her that when she grows up she’ll look back on this with a smile. Of course, what dogs Astrid is that she might not grow up with that kind of knowledge. It’s very bittersweet.

The action ebbs and flows, and at times I found the narrative a bit confusing and wandering for me, but I still give it a solid four stars. I liked the exploration of teen sexuality (minus the emphasis on virginity) and the mythology built around the unicorns. There were lots of surprises throughout the pages that made for an exciting read, and I recommend this one to those who like their fantasy with just a hint of mocking.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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