I don’t know about you, but I feel as though a vast majority of YA seems to portray teenagers as hypersmart, sophisticated creatures who are borderline perfect, or “carefully flawed” in exactly the right and tolerable way. As fun as that fiction can be, I always feel a certain amusement for characters like that, because how many of us actually were that spectacular at that age?
I think part of the appeal of contemporary Aussie YA for me is that it consistently offers teenagers who act like teenagers; whether they’re snarly and vindictive or fumbly and sweet, a lot of them just seem very real. That’s certainly the case with the students in Wildlife by Fiona Wood. Sybilla and Lou are spending one school term doing an outdoor education program, where they find that surviving the wilderness is easy in comparison to surviving deceptive friends, tricky, needy boys, and their own uncharted feelings.
Things I loved about this book: the funny, good-natured byplay between the characters; smart dialogue that zings; the way Lou’s deep and private pain is slowly unpeeled until she’s laid bare and vulnerable; the complex interplay between all the girls; and the way one first love is portrayed in a deeply earnest, embarrassing way. The author’s writing feels fresh and unstudied, and I was startled into both laughter and tears on more than one occasion.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of this book, however, is how sexually frank Wildlife manages to be without being laden down with angst and melodrama, nor breathless with rapture over its magical life-changing properties. Consider these quotes, which I love because of how painfully and truthfully this girl’s first sexual experience is portrayed.
…neither of us mentioned the four-letter word that comes before this three-letter activity in all my schemes and dreams.
Afterwards I feel wobbly and slightly shocked, climbing up from under the rubble to check out the new world…Did we really just do that? I want to hide my face. I want to look into a mirror in private, to check if I’m still me.
Because there’s been so much discussion (read: hand-wringing) recently about how much sex is too much sex, we’ve invited Fiona Wood to share her thoughts on this issue: do realistic sex scenes in YA fiction have value?
I think you’ll be interested in hearing what she has to say.
Girls, Sex and Wildlife
by Fiona Wood
The old virgin/whore binary still casts its shadow deep into the 20th century: sex was something that bad girls allowed and good girls resisted. Boys desired; girls were objects of desire. It’s so far off the mark in its moral judgments and its assessment of experience and, thankfully, contemporary YA fiction is able to reflect that.
Sibylla’s sexual experience in Wildlife emerges from and is integral to character. Sib (who is cisgendered and heterosexual) equivocates about first-time sex as she does about everything. When she and boyfriend Ben do have sex, it’s something she has thought about a lot, is still undecided about, but then falls into spontaneously. And it’s not until after she’s had sex that she decides, actually, no, this is not where she wants the relationship to be. Often that’s exactly what experience is: a not very logical sequence of decisions and recalibrations. And that’s okay. Sex at sixteen is not about happily ever after, it’s about who am I? There’s also a scene in the book where Sibylla masturbates – she understands her own sexual pleasure; it’s puzzling that such a matter-of-fact aspect of female sexuality is so seldom written about. Why is this space left blank? girls might well wonder. Doesn’t it exist? Doesn’t it matter?
Another thing referenced through Wildlife’s characters is that early sexual experiences are unlikely to be particularly wonderful. After having sex for the first time Sibylla thinks,
Orgasm – huh – sooo much easier on your own. Who knew? How do people even coordinate it with all that distracting – sex – going on?
And Lou reflects on her first sexual experiences,
We were all liquid aching and longing. It was fun being beginners together. You only get that once. It took a little while. We were learning a new language, after all.
So, why go there at all? Why not employ an ellipsis and leave the details of sex off the page? To me there has never been a more important time to present some positive representations of sex and sexuality to teen readers. Unfortunately, casual sexism, objectification and crimes of sexual violence are permanent fixtures on the girl-radar. Misogynistic images and messages are prolific and unavoidable. In the last year we’ve also seen new lows in social media with so-called ‘slut’-shaming incidents and their often-tragic consequences. And we desperately need antidotes to this. Fiction can offer some sane counterbalance here – for me that simply means presenting young women characters as having agency, self-respect, and equal rights to pleasure, to initiating sex, to saying yes or no to sex. Readers will benefit enormously from canvassing these ideas before they are faced with such choices and experiences in real life. Sex and the physical and emotional responsibilities that come with it are areas that warrant serious thought, but teachers and parents are rarely the most welcome of messengers. Fiction, however, provides a safe, private place to investigate and digest these ideas at leisure.
And while I was going there… There were other things I wanted to say about sex, but novels are not vehicles for unmotivated blurting of pet beliefs, so I gave Sibylla’s mother the job of working in public health and sex education policy which then allowed me to have Sib recall some of her mother’s enshrined maxims including things about safe sex, and that ‘drunk means no’, that ‘pornography bears no resemblance to lifeography’ and that LGBTG are normal. I really like being able to share a view of the world that presents sex in a positive, warm, fallible, human way, that empowers girls, that questions heteronormative assumptions, and that supports an inclusive normality. It’s not why I write YA but it is one of the privileges of writing for this readership
About the Author
Fiona Wood has been writing television scripts for more than ten years. Her first YA novel Six Impossible Things was shortlisted for the 2011 CBCA Book of the Year, Older Readers. Wildlife is her second novel, and is available online at Fishpond, which offers free shipping internationally.
Wendy’s review also appears on GoodReads. An advance copy was kindly provided by PanMacmillan Australia.
What do you think of frank discussions or depictions of sex in YA fiction? Let us know, we’d love to hear your thoughts!