Let’s talk about sex, baby . . .

Mandy Hager

As a writer of predominantly YA novels, I’ve been pondering the whole should I/shouldn’t I write about sex for several years. In some instances, the story has demanded that sex is a natural part of the relationship (or sexual abuse has reared its ugly head), at other times I’ve carefully skirted around it. In almost every instance, I’ve erred on the side of caution, not getting too descriptive (or prescriptive). It’s not that I’m a prude, it’s just really hard to write well — and, as Ted Dawe discovered, there are people out there who will deem any mention as an offence.

With my latest novel, Heloise, an adult tale about two real 12th-century French lovers, I’ve had to tackle the challenge head-on. As the result of the discovery of additional letters between the Benedictine nun Heloise d’Argenteuil and philosopher Peter Abelard within the last decade, believed to have been written in the early days of their relationship, it now appears that their first sexual encounter was not consensual. Given that they then went on to have a mutually enjoyed sexual relationship, the process of thinking through the logic in a shift from the shock and shame of the initial rape to a more equal partnership has been a challenge, especially when having to apply the filter of a 12th-century lens.

Readers have responded with shock when the rape takes place, and some have struggled to accept that Heloise could find a way to accommodate this as the relationship developed. I struggled to accept it, too, at first, yet, when I really thought about it, I realised that this is not a 12th-century or even a religious conundrum, this is a very real issue still faced by billions of women (and men) around the world today — including far too many in New Zealand.

According to Auckland’s excellent Rape Prevention Education organisation:

    • In Aotearoa New Zealand, up to one in three girls will be subject to an unwanted sexual experience by the age of 16 years. The majority of those incidences would be considered serious, with over 70 per cent involving genital contact.
    • In Aotearoa New Zealand, up to one in five women will experience sexual assault as an adult.
    • For Māori girls and women, the likelihood of sexual violence is nearly twice as high as the general population. Pacific and migrant women are also at statistically greater risk of sexual violence.
    • There are varying rates for sexual violence offences against males, but large scale international prevalence studies have tended to find a figure of one in seven boys.
    • Repeat sexual violence is a serious issue, with over 25 per cent of adults in victimisation surveys reporting more than one incident, and qualitative research finding that survivors with a history of repeat victimisation are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and have high and complex needs. For women, experiencing child sexual abuse increases the likelihood of revictimisation in adulthood of both intimate partner violence and sexual violence. There is currently a lack of comparable research in Aotearoa New Zealand on the experiences and effects of sexual victimsation of boys.
    • Young people are statistically at the highest risk of sexual assault: the age group 16-24 years is at the highest risk of sexual assault in any age group.
    • In opposition to widespread myths about stranger rape, it is estimated that 90 per cent of sexual violence is committed by someone known to the victim/survivor.
    • Reporting of sexual violence in New Zealand is very low, with an estimated 9 per cent of incidents ever reported to police.
    • Sexual violence has a very low conviction rate in Aotearoa New Zealand, with only 13 per cent of cases recorded by the police resulting in conviction.
    • Media reporting on issues of sexual violence is often under-informed and defends public myths and misconceptions about the dynamics of sexual violence. This misinformation affects society’s shared understanding of and attitudes to sexual violence, promoting false narratives and rape-supportive attitudes in society.
    • In the United Nations Report on the Status of Women published in 2011, Aotearoa New Zealand was ranked worst of all OECD countries in rates of sexual violence.

Let’s just look at this again: ONE IN THREE GIRLS by the age of 16, with those in the 16 to 24 age group the most at risk! What this means is that if you brought together even a small group of your friends, chances are that at least one of them will have been the victim of sexual assault. I can vouch for this: I’ve asked the question among my friends, shocked to hear stories never before disclosed. Almost all admitted they did not consent to the taking of their virginity, albeit due to various levels of coercion, running the gamut from violent forced violations through to alcohol-related or excessive peer pressure (the majority).  Yet, like Heloise, most of these women have somehow found a way to circumvent the very real psychological damage to form warm and loving sexual relationships. Note: most, not all. Some still bear the mental scars and associated issues to this day.

Please don’t get me wrong – I am in NO WAY saying that this mental accommodation makes the abuse or these horror statistics any more acceptable. It is a dire indictment of a system that has failed women from our very earliest years. But any woman who has found a way to rewrite her horror, shame and self-loathing, after an attack such as this, is a hero in my book.

What these ghastly statistics tell us is that young women are not being given the tools (or having the conversations) about how to keep themselves (and each other) safe and, even more importantly, our young men have little or no understanding around issues of consent and what is considered a violation. The online boasting exposed in several different incidents, such as the Roastbuster’s case and the recent episodes at St. Patrick’s and Wellington College, is proof (as if we needed more) that the messages we would hope our young men are receiving are either not being addressed or are not getting through.

Therefore, after consideration of the evidence and the issues, I feel even more strongly that, as writers for young people, we should step up to the mark and fearlessly expose the beast head-on. Moral campaigners won’t like this idea one little bit, of course, but who (in the end) are we writing for? I’m certainly not crafting my work to please the out-moded and dangerous silence preached by organisations such as Family First or those who enforce abstinence without giving young people proper information (see here for further discussion on abstinence-only education programmes). We need our teens to hear all the voices on this issue, particularly those of the victims and vulnerable. They, like those who are silenced over discussions around suicide and other “sensitive” issues, are always the first casualties of censorship in books, as they often are in life.

I’ve been privileged to see first-hand the power of honest open discussion about sex, sexual abuse and issues of consent, through my work with the Dare Foundation. Based on principles of bibliotherapy, the programmes I helped devise for them used two of my novels as the basis for ongoing discussion and life-skills education. One of the books, Smashed, which tells the story of a date rape from the point of view of the victim’s brother, hooked in kids who would never normally sit and listen to a story read aloud. And I’m not just talking slightly reluctant readers here; I’m talking teens, both male and female, who were gang leaders, truants, misfits, criminals, or others identified as vulnerable and at risk. The programmes’ facilitators said they’d never seen the likes of it: staunch or withdrawn participants who opened up, embraced the discussions and really began to understand the numerous complex issues — the safety provided in first discussing only the behaviour of the fictional characters opened them up to more freely interrogate their own. We had many disclosures of abuse as a result of the programme, and examples such as a girl who took the book home to her foster-mother and said “You have to read this; this is my life”. Through the power of words on a page, we can literally change lives.

At the core of what worked here was the over-arching belief that young people are able to make good decisions, and understand the consequences of failing to do so, if handed the information in an inclusive, honest, non-lecturing manner, and allowed robust discussion of the issues. So, too, success was heightened by the idea that engaging with the issues through fictional lives (therefore not threatening the participant) enables empathy to be won and harnessed for the greater good. Assumptions and false narratives can be challenged in climates conducive to open discussion, while refusing to speak of issues with any honesty and openness perpetuates false myths.

If we put up barriers to young people asking the questions and gaining honest answers to their most pressing issues, we run the risk of filling their heads with the kind of dangerous myths that compound the problems and misinformation. If a young person cannot get their answers from open discussion at home (and/or have poorly trained or hesitant teachers to impart sex education at school) just where else can they turn to get their information? Internet porn? The bloody Bachelor? Whispered corridor conversations and peer group pack mentality?

Last year, I chaired a panel discussion on sex in teenage books for Christchurch’s WORD Festival, where writers Ted Dawe and Karen Healey, along with sex therapist, Frances Young, all spoke sensibly about the pros and cons (you can listen to the session here: No sex please, we’re teenagers). It was fascinating (and deeply worrying) to hear Frances speak about her concerns regarding young people’s access to pornography.  If this is where young people go to get their tips on sex, it is no wonder we have such appalling stats and so much gross misogyny. Romance, mutual consideration, the right to refuse consent . . . you will find no evidence of any of these crucial understandings in the world of porn. They (and music videos) reduce women to pornographic body parts, laid bare for the exclusive pleasure of the male gaze and their desires. Shows like The Bachelor, meanwhile, reduce women to fawning accessories or schemers, lining up and competing for the win — a man. What the hell kind of messaging does this give to our young women today? Honestly, it makes my skin crawl.

Unless we allow more thoughtful openness about sex in our fiction, how will these narratives ever be challenged?  What our young people currently have access to is cause for great concern. Think of Twilight, described in this article in The Atlantic in 2012:

“It’s arguably the most notorious complaint about Twilight: That meek, indecisive teenager Bella Swan may be something of a sketchy role model for its largely teenage, largely female fan base. For instance, in 2010, David Cox of the Guardian expressed some concern in a story called (amazingly) Twilight: The Franchise that Ate Feminism.

‘In a climactic argument, [Bella’s two suitors Jacob and Edward] debate what’s best for her,” he wrote. “As they decide her future she sleeps between them, the epitome of submissive passivity. Bella’s fate isn’t only dispiriting; it’s also deceptive. On the whole, beguilement by a teenage bad boy, however courtly his manner, doesn’t lead to eternal love; nor is self-abnegation a reliable route to bliss. It’s therefore understandable that some have questioned the merits of Twilight’s message for womankind.’ ”

Or what of Fifty Shades of Grey? We’d be foolish to think our teens don’t have access to it, just as my generation pored over secreted copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Only this morning, I saw an unacknowledged quote in my news feed that summed it up for me: “Fifty shades of Grey is romantic only because the guy is a billionaire. If he was living in a trailer it would be an episode of Criminal Minds.”

You may take issue with these stances, but if subliminal messages like these are being interpreted thus, it is even more crucial that we offer counter narratives that focus on the long-term physical and mental consequences of such behaviours. It horrifies me to think that young women (thanks to porn) now believe they “owe” their date a blow-job at the very least (as Frances Young asserted) or that young women must be the passive partner and undergo whatever their man desires in order to be thought a “real” woman. It smacks of the 12th century to me.

Yet, if we encouraged a wide range of fictional voices and attitudes to sex to be canvassed in our books for this age group, the black and white thinking (ironically) of Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight might give way to greater nuance and allow discussion, not disinformation and indoctrination. Ted Dawe’s Into the River may have shocked, but at least it opened an opportunity for dialogue and reflection. So, too, Paula Boock’s Truth, Dare or Promise, or Mary-anne Scott’s Coming Home to Roost.  Books that challenge skewed narratives and explore the consequences, doing so through reader-character engagement that provokes empathy for the victims (of whatever abuse), help shape more inclusive and compassionate adults. What’s so wrong with that?

The hard part, of course, is writing about it well. I think part of the reason I’ve skirted around the topic a little as a YA author myself, is that it’s incredibly difficult to write sex well! When I had no choice but tackle it in Heloise, I found the process excruciating. Sadly, it’s easy enough to write about the horrors of sexual abuse — I pour my anger into it — but to find words to describe the act at its most loving, considerate and exciting is a challenge indeed!  Every phrase seems to have been co-opted from saucy Mills and Boones, every act and its response measured against my fear of somehow exposing my own intimate life!

But I believe we must stand up and be counted — do our best to depict every kind of honest emotion and potentially awful or wonderful consequence — if we are to serve our readers. Our young people deserve us to be cognisant of their needs and, to my mind anyway, we do them a disservice if we do not address (in the right place, with the right intentions) one of the most complicated paths to adulthood they will all have to traverse. Does it not seem rather strange that the one thing enabling our species to continue has been hijacked, corrupted, controlled and silenced, deemed “unnatural” since early times, and put into service to oppress women?

And if we do write about the consequences and the damage that is sometimes inflicted, it also behoves us to show a pathway through, a way to heal and survive. YA novels have ever been the place where young people try on adult lives for size, and adolescence is the time when they are looking hardest to break away from childhood to etch out an identity for themselves in the adult world. Let’s not fail them. Let’s think hard about the messages we send out when we refuse to address such a pressing hormonal need or do it badly. Rather than shooting the messenger brave enough to take the plunge, how about we work to illuminate, to evoke compassion, to say to our young people that sex is a gift that is glorious when shared in a mutually satisfying manner, but which also has the power to destroy lives, when allowed to be used as a tool of manipulation, humiliation, power and control.

Mandy Hager is an award-winning writer for adults old and young; her latest YA novel is Singing Home the Whale, and her latest adult novel is Heloise.

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