i love it when teenaged girls are empowered by sexuality

So I just finished reading The F- It List by Julie Halpern, which I had been wanting to read for ages. It was one of the group reads for the CCBC listserv in February, and I guess I didn’t have time that month, for whatever reason that I can’t remember. So now that I’m getting much better at finding the time and the headspace to read in a more sustained, thoughtful way (something about being on an airplane last weekend and reading two and a half books in one day flipped a reset switch in me), I went right for it. And I loved it.

This was one of those books that I don’t read enough where I found a lot of myself in the protagonist, which made me feel lots of things, like a) I wish I had read this when I was a teenager, b) I feel like this now, and that’s uncomfortable but also cool, since a lot of what is in YA is actually more accurate, I think, to new adult experience than teen experience, but don’t even get me started on New Adult with capital letters, and c) why is this the only book like this I’ve ever read?

You can click on the book above to get a longer summary, but basically, Alex is helping her friend Becca complete her bucket list while also just living her life, dealing with guilt about having been mad at Becca all summer, and having a family that recently dis-included her father, since he died. What I love about the list is that it includes totally childish things, totally ridiculous things, and totally adult things. It also made me a bit sad (and while that’s as an adult who is more or less comfortable with being empowered when it comes to sex, I think I would have thought similarly as a teen), because having “masturbate” on your bucket list strikes me as the saddest thing in the world, and it horrifies me to think that it might be on other teens’ lists. WHY have you not masturbated before 16? Is this a common thing? Get some, girls! Also, I’m wondering if maybe there is an idea that it only counts when you know what it is? That is interesting. Like, it is fairly common knowledge, if uncomfortable knowledge we prefer to ignore, that children experiment and are most definitely sexual beings when young. That’s not to say they should be seen as sexualized or used as sexual objects (gross, illegal, awful, emotionally damaging – let’s move on), but they have sexuality and do plenty to explore their own sexuality, and probably their peers’ as well. And it’s weird and sometimes wrong but also fairly healthy and normal, I think. So I’m willing to bet that plenty of teen girls masturbated as children or tweens, but it’s different when you’re becoming more aware of what sex means as an adult, as you do when you’re nearing adulthood, and you’re kind of deciding, “I’m going to do a thing, and it’s called masturbating, and it’s kind of taboo but also great and I want to, so there,” not “I’m going to go to my special place,” which is more of a Judy Blume, tween thing to do – which is also wonderful but not really an appropriate level of maturity or understanding if you’re in high school. So that part of the list? Both awesome and sad. Better late than never, I guess?

Okay, that’s more than I ever hoped to write about masturbation in a blog post. On to other things.

So the thing I like about Alex and Becca is that they are girls who are often very crass about sex – I think that’s awesome, because it’s generally guys who are allowed to be that way and girls who are allowed to either be very moralizing and submissive when it comes to sex (I don’t even mean in the fun way – I mean when did you last read a YA book about a girl whose reason for finally having sex wasn’t very linked to her boyfriend wanting to first?) or to be very easygoing (another form of submissive, really) and kind of dead inside, and be very promiscuous because of deep emotional trauma or emptiness. Alex, on the other hand, hooks up with people when she feels like it and doesn’t when she doesn’t. Period. And Becca would, except that she’s exhausted and has Hodgkin’s lymphoma, so she can’t, really. But the way she talks about it, you get the idea that she, too, would like to find love and all that, but she’s not going to let that limit her, whether or not she finds love, to the only kind of sexual experience she can have. She makes horribly off-color jokes sometimes about getting some, and instead of disparaging her or dismissing her as “my friend who can have cancer and that’s why she’s allowed to say really dirty things,” Alex just sees Becca as a person who says such things because that’s her view on sex.

Alex, if anything, is the one who has that more traditional view of sex that you see in books – that of a girl who is damaged inside and can’t see love that’s right in front of because she’s afraid, so she just has sex (meaning the spectrum, not necessarily intercourse) and pulls away when it becomes more. But instead of being characterized as a dead-inside slut, she is still someone who feels very strongly about her sexual choices, who knows when she feels safe doing something and when she doesn’t, and who has complicated feels about an almost implausibly giving boy who has less complicated feels about her. She doesn’t know how to navigate love not because she’s fucked up, but because who the hell even knows how to navigate love or what it even is or how you know when you’re Facebook official in-a-relationship? If someone knows, please tell me. Basically, Alex and Becca strike me as real life people, and that’s probably what turns so many people off of this book. It’s terrifying to see teenagers so comfortable with who they are. Especially girls. Girls having sex because they choose to is awfully scary. It’s also feminism. Feminism is cool that way. When girls do what they want because they can and want to, and fuck the patriarchy, that’s feminism.

In high school, there was a television show that was on for a hot second called Life As We Know It, which I loved. It got canceled for probably the same reasons that this and books like it get challenged or pre-censored by not being bought for libraries: there are teenagers having puberty and sex and impure thoughts. (This show, by the way, is why when I finally watched Veronica Mars for the first time last year, I was less than impressed with Piz. I already loved him from here….and from Private Practice.) I found out at some point during the short series’ run that it was based on a book called Doing It by Melvin Burgess, which I promptly checked out from the library. Honestly, all I remember is that there was sex and a girl named Siobhan, and I could not for the life of me figure out why someone would be named Sigh-oh-ban. I also remember there was a party and probably sex at the party. I should probably read it again. I will, if I can find a copy. And time. The book was about boys, so in that way it was a bit more “allowed” to exist, because boys will be boys, right? But I do recall it was similarly unapologetic, as was the TV show, about how people have sex, and they in fact do not always get pregnant, get chlamydia, and die.

I was talking to my coworker about how happy this book made me, and she mentioned how much we tend to disagree about things like this, because I am all about FUCK THE GATEKEEPERS! BOOKS FOR ALL! and she is like, “yes, but also I am a mom!” and we both try to see each other’s sides, because I can respect both of them and can see how becoming a censorship hypocrite when you are a parent is probably inevitable. But what I wish I had done a better job of pointing out is how this book is not crude for crudeness’ sake. We weeded a book earlier this year because my two coworkers both tried to read it and found it disgusting and over-the-top crude just to be shocking. The F- It List is not that at all. It’s a book about friendship and grief and guilt and family and relationships and hooking up in closets. It just happens to buck a lot of stereotypes while it does it. This book is so fucking refreshing. Please give it a try.

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