It is an honour to open the conference blog with a guest post from Dr Lydia Kokkola, in advance of her keynote lecture Desiring Bodies: Reading the Adolescent Body at the conference in May. To learn more about Let's Talk about Sex in YA, please check out our about section.
Every person’s life story can be traced back to a sexual encounter. Yes, even those conceived with the help of fertility technology can be traced back to decisions about sexual encounters and the outcomes of those decisions. The story of sex is a story of origins. So I thought I would take a moment to reflect on the origins of my “sex book” – Fictions of Adolescent Carnality: Sexy Sinners and Delinquent Deviants – a book which wasn’t supposed to be about sex at all.
Fictions of Adolescent Carnality began life as a book about silences and absences. I’d been working with Holocaust fiction and encountered the work of Ernestine Schlant who opens her discussion of West German literature and the Holocaust by comparing fiction with non-fiction. The former, she asserts, is (or should be) constrained by factual evidence, whereas literature can expose a culture’s conscience and consciousness.
Literature lays bare a people’s dreams and nightmares, its hopes and apprehensions, its moral positions and its failures. It reveals even where it is silent; its blind spots and absences speak a language stripped of conscious agendas. (Schlant, p. 3).
This idea that silence was more revealing than language resonated strongly with me. Silence is often assumed to be a result of repression, of silencing another person. More disturbingly, it arises from a failure to notice that something exists. Silence also arises as an act of power – the refusal to speak. I needed a topic in which these very varied types of silencing techniques were taking place, and that’s how I came to Talk About Sex in YA . Although you’ll know if you’ve read Fictions of Adolescent Carnality that I don’t find the term ‘YA’ helpful in this context.
If you’ve read the book, you’ll also know I didn’t get very far with the whole silencing project. Very early on, I was presenting my ideas about silencing to a conference. I showed how texts turned away from sexual acts, leaving the details shrouded in silence. David Rudd – then executive editor of Children’s Literature in Education – was in the audience and he noted that I seemed disappointed with the fiction for its censorship. He asked me whether I was really calling for erotica for youth, and was I really willing to go down that path? It was a great question, and one that has inspired the talk I’ll be giving during the conference. I want to think about both the fictional bodies in the literature, but also the lived bodies of the readers. Reading is a deeply embodied activity, and the implications of that when we talk about sex with adolescents needs explicating. At the time, however, I knew nothing about embodiment, I simply recognised I needed to change direction. I then read Kim Reynolds’ Radical Children’s Literature, and realised that although I did not know how to write a book about silence, I could write a book that was thematically organised and the end of that story was Fictions of Adolescent Carnality.
So why tell you about the failure of silencing project? Well, firstly, I want to talk to those at the beginning of their academic careers, who often have strange ideas about how books are written. For example, that people write the books they plan to write. If you are just started out in academia, I want you to know that the project you plan to write on and the text you actually produce might be very different from one another. But you can always come back to your original ideas later. The second reason is because there are things I still want to say that I cannot say when I publish academically… but I can say in a blog.
Methodologically, it’s very difficult to show that an author is being silent when they should be writing about a topic. But after analysing nearly 200 novels for Fictions of Adolescent Carnality, not to mention the many I’ve read since then, there are certain absent themes. One of the things I anticipated finding was borne out in practice: a lack of stories that ended happily. However, I was very surprised by quite how unhappy the books were: only Margaret Mahy’s Catalogue of the Universe depicted a couple starting a relationship and nothing much changing.
The second thing I noticed when I was trying to put the corpus together was that it was really hard to find books written from the perspective of a straight boy. There were a few books from the UK. Melvin Burgess was trying to fill the void with his “Nobby book” Doing It (which treats one boy’s grooming and abuse by his female teacher as a bit of a laugh), and Aidan Chambers had created some more sensitively aware male characters. But that was all I found easily. It took me a while before it dawned on me that from the adolescent’s point of view, these books were supposed to be romances. Having read them, I regarded them as primarily falling into the depressing category of problem fiction. But there was no way an unsuspecting teenage boy could know that.
The third area was one on which I have been (rightly) criticised: the lack of diversity in the books I examined. Here the problem wasn’t entirely that the books I could find lacked diversity, but rather that diversity in the characters did not reflect diversity in the story lines. With the exception of Norma Klein, race was so closely linked with violence and rape that I didn’t discuss many examples. Fictional White girls were also raped and abused, but they also enjoyed agency in many books (even though the ending was not happy). Fictional Black girls were raped and abused with fetishized regularity. Diversity in terms of sexual orientation was reasonably well covered, but diversity in terms of class was limited and in terms of disability was absent.
It matters what we write about, but it also matters what we fail to say when we talk about sex in YA.
I look forwards to talking with you all in May!
Reynolds, Kimberley. Radical children’s literature: Future visions and aesthetic transformations in juvenile fiction. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007
Schlant, Ernestine. The language of silence: West German literature and the Holocaust. Routledge,  2004.
Lydia Kokkola works at Oulu University in Northern Finland. Her current two projects are on reading in English as a foreign language and literature for and about Arctic youth. Together with Roxanne Harde, she edited the Routledge collection, The Embodied Child: Readings in Children’s Literature and Culture (2018). Together with Sara ven den Bossche, she has edited an issue of Barnboken on diversity in Nordic Literature for Children and Teens.