on the condescension of adults

I will never understand how it is that perfectly reasonable, intelligent, precocious and curious children can grow up into timid, hidebound, ideologically paranoid adults who feel the need to police every errant word that might pass their precious babies’ dewy eyes. And by this I mean: by what reasonable standard can an eleven year old child not be allowed to understand what the word “scrotum” means (especially in reference to a dog’s genitals, and in the most clinical manner possible)? Why is it that sexually curious (and possibly active) fifteen and sixteen year olds shouldn’t be able to read about teenage homosexual relationships (Boy Meets Boy)? What on earth are we trying to “save” these children from? Reading, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, is an act of discovery, one that in some way uncovers some heretofore unknown aspect of our world. Writing is humanity’s best method of conveying all sorts of knowledge, including the bewildering complexity of our human interactions. And reading is perhaps any person’s best chance of entering another person’s head, and really experiencing the world from their perspective. So, to me, it seems like it should be a crime for some wrong-headed adult to restrict any child capable of understanding the material from reading anything they wish to. Yes, I am opposed to censorship of any kind because I at least remember the joy of reading as a young teenager. I know that if my parents had decided to vet my choices before I was allowed to enjoy them, many of my fondest reading experiences would never have happened. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to read the Alanna series when I was twelve because she gets her period and falls in love with a much older man.

By book four, in fact, the Alanna series is rather singular among YA fantasy novels, which tend to be dramatically more conservative than their “realistic fiction” YA shelf mates. Judy Blume was telling young girls about their periods and (possibly ill-advised) sex with boys while YA fantasy authors were cleaning up after dragons and vain wizards. Now, I adore Patricia C. Wrede and Diana Wynne Jones (ask anyone), but at a certain point in my youth I had to wonder: where on earth was the sex? The periods? The sexual uncertainty? Why was it that these issues never seemed to make it into YA fantasy, but were staples of many realistic YA novels? And I think the reason goes straight back to these self-imposed gatekeepers of Young People’s Pristine Minds: librarians, parents and editors. For some reason, fantasy was always seen as skewing younger than more realistic YA, and thus much less adult content was tolerated. (I wrote an essay for Beatrice about the amorphous distinctions between YA and adult fantasy, but those distinctions of qualitative focus are, I think, a little separate from the sex, etc. I’m discussing here.)

But this is all ridiculous. Tweens and teens are perfectly capable of understanding and appreciating the subject matter of Boy Meets Boy or The Higher Power of Lucky. I treasured every morsel of truly adult content I gleaned form my reading in middle and high school. Every serious (not titillating) explanation of a sexual act or interaction was to me a valuable window into a world I wanted to know more about. And when I see adults struggling to board up these windows for kids far more isolated than I ever was, I get furious. Not every child is willing to rebel. Some willingly go along with their parents’ or librarian’s well-meaning (I suppose) damming of their intellectual outlets.

And even when the parents and librarians don’t censor, I sometimes feel like there is far too much self-censorship on the part of authors and editors, especially in fantasy. I mean, why is it that twenty years after Alanna had some decently explicit sex with Jonathon and George do we still see so little in YA fantasy? Why do we have to turn to realistic YA for some decent homosexual relationships? Why are we so afraid of “polluting” young minds with information that we all know, and could benefit ourselves from exploring further? What amazing condescension to these people we were, not so very long ago.

Yes, teenagers know about sex. Yes, they’d like to read about it. Yes, they know what prostitutes are, what drugs are, what death is, what war is, what disease is…THEY ALL KNOW. It isn’t some big fucking secret. Authors should write what they feel compelled to write, without the pinpricks of self-censorship, about subjects they feel are interesting to the people they want to reach, and that audience should in turn be able to read whatever the fuck they want. Does something make you feel uncomfortable? Then stop reading it. Or, even better, keep going. But for god’s sake, don’t you dare tell me or anyone else, no matter how young or impressionable you think they are, what you think they should read.

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4 thoughts on “on the condescension of adults

  1. ruzkin says:

    I agree absolutely, well done. As a kid I was fascinated by sex and sought it out in literature – not to titillate myself, but to learn. My Dad’s sci-fi collection taught me everything that schoolyard stories couldn’t, and I feel enriched for it.

  2. Alaya says:

    Would you believe that Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was my first sex scene? I was floored. I’d never realized that people put stuff like that in books. I wanted more immediately. (And, coincidentally, all that objectivism bs sailed straight over my head, naive twelve-year-old that I was).

  3. ruzkin says:

    That’s a pretty heavy introduction to sex in literature. It’s been about eight years since I read the Fountainhead (so, I was 14) but doesn’t it involve the protagonist climbing in through a window and essentially raping his employer?

    I think my first was Kurt Vonnegut – Galapagos, which was remarkably clinical (unexciting even for a 10 year old), and then followed with Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose, which was pretty shocking at that age. The disparity between the two was a great introduction to how sex can be used in fiction to totally different ends.

  4. Mariko says:

    I love that you posted this one on my birthday. I rant like a mad person about how ridiculous people are when they try to police what teens/kids read. Did you know Alanna was banned from certain schools because of–wait for it, it’s not the sex itself–the anti-pregnancy charm? By the way, someone has offered just that criticism against Racing the Dark on amazon. Said it’s inappropriate because of the sex and Lana’s mum coughing up blood. Bollocks, I say.

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