Strange Standards--by Ellen Jensen Abbott

Here’s the scene: A high school gymnasium set with a hundred display tables. Behind each table sits an author or two. Stacks of books litter the tables. At one table sits an author clutching a Sharpie, awaiting the next chance to autograph one of the books she has written. It’s been a good day, there have been some sales, the authors to her right and left have been interesting to talk to. A woman approaches her table.

Woman: Hello. I’m looking for a book for my daughter. She’s 13 and she loves fantasy. Your books are fantasy, right?

Author: Yes. In my books….(She proceeds with her one minute plot synopsis designed to entice the potential reader.)

Woman: That sounds just like the kind of book she would like.

(Author fights the urge to take off the cap of the Sharpie.)

Woman: One question, though. Are your books appropriate for a 13 year old?

Author: There’s no language, drugs, drinking or sex.

Woman: Great!

Author: I should tell you that the mother is killed in the first 30 pages, and there are lots of battle scenes.

Woman: That’s fine. (She reaches for her wallet.)

This is a scene that’s happened to me countless times. Okay, maybe not countless. I’m not a NY Times Bestselling author after all! But it’s happened enough. And there are two things that really bother me about this familiar interaction.

Number One, I am bothered by the attitude toward violence. When the woman asks if the book is “appropriate” that’s really code for sex, substances and language, probably in that order. Never is she worried if the book might be too violent for her child. When I say “the mother is killed,” it never gets a response. And notice, I don’t say that the mother dies. She is killed. Implication of violence.

“That’s fine” is the answer I almost always get.

Fine? Really?

Given what’s been going on in the world today, you would think that there would be some outcry against the violence, but it doesn’t even register. The book I’m working on now has no violence. I’d like to think that’s a selling point, but if I have any kind of sex or language in it, I’m sunk.

Which brings me to Number Two: the knee jerk aversion to sex in books for teens. Many teens decide during high school to start having sex. According to the Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, almost half of all high school seniors in 2013 reported being sexually active, as compared to to 20% of ninth grade students. ( So lots of teens are making decisions about sex during their teen years. On one level, it would simply be bizarre to ignore this aspect of their lives when writing about teens. On another and far more important level, I worry about who is talking to these kids about sex? For too many parents, it seems to be a taboo subject. What percentage of those sexually active twelfth graders are making the decision to have sex without any input from adults?

For some kids, me included, my best information about sex came from books, not from my parents. And I was discerning enough to recognize the bad sexual encounter from the good one. Books didn’t send me to sex. They taught me about it. And I’m not talking about Our Bodies, Ourselves. I’m talking about books like Forever and many others by Judy Blume, the author best known when I was a kid for taking on the controversial issues. And thank goodness someone did or would I have never known how Anne and Gilbert, Katy and Ned, Laura and Almanzo did once they professed their love for each other!

I wonder what would happen if we were in a world where “appropriate” was a question about violence rather than what is often an expression of love. It seems like we have it backwards.


  1. A. You make a good point. Violence=Bring it! Sex=Very Questionable.

    B. Remember how in ANNE'S HOUSE OF DREAMS, the STORK, the actual, literal STORK, brings Jem??? I know those books were written a hundred years ago, but I remember being like, "What the hell, L.M. Montgomery?" the first time I read it. And every time thereafter. I was very confused about why a giant bird circling over the house was so important until I finally figured out it was the stork. Also, Anne and Gilbert have a total of 7 children. SEVEN! And I feel like the stork might have brought Rilla, too. Anyway, every new arrival is described in these rosy, dreamy, storky terms.

  2. This is a topic that riles me so much. PG-13 movies can have machine guns hosing down dozens of "bad guys", but more than one f-bomb or the suggestion of sexuality and the rating becomes R. Doesn't matter what kind of sexuality either.

    Sex = OMGthinkofthechildren!!!111!!! Unrelenting violence = Meh. (Though, admittedly, there are degrees of gore that will push a movie into the R category.)

    This attitude makes me think of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy fame: a creature so stupid it believes if you can't see it, it can't see you. The anti-sex version seems to be "if kids don't know about sex, sex won't happen to them." The problem with that attitude is obvious, except to the oblivious.

    I picked up the rudiments of sexual intercourse on the playground when I was in third grade. Much of what I learned was grossly inaccurate, but the basics were there. I lived in a very conservative area at the time, so no one was getting their information via, oh, say, sound sex education. To the extent adults were informing us about sex, the info provided boiled down to, "If you have sex before you get married, you'll burn in hell forever."

    Everything was couched in forbidden vagueries. No "heavy petting," for example. But what constituted heavy petting? Who could say? Years later, I would learn the stuff we were doing in Ray Malo's basement after school had doomed us to an eternity of hellfire.

    Sex ed consisted of one very awkward week each spring during which we watched vague, uninformative film strips and looked at cutaway anatomy drawings of body parts. Things were explained so poorly that at one point in sixth grade, a kid asked, "But now does the semen get into the vagina?" We all knew, of course, but we never heard an adult explain it. The kid got sent out of the room and the question wasn't answered.

    In seventh grade, I got lucky. I had a teacher who (in a fit of frustration I later surmised) came right out and told us what was what. "Most of you are probably already interested in sex, some may even be experimenting. And there's a pretty good chance you're going to like it. Sex can be pretty great. But there are dangers, both physical and emotional. At your age, it's much safer to wait. But if you're going to do it, there are ways to mitigate some of the possible consequences."

    That was pretty damn amazing. She told us about STDs and condoms. She even discussed consent, though not in the terms we would use today. It was more like, "Boys, you can't just stick your penis into your girlfriend whenever you feel like it. If she doesn't want to have sex, she doesn't have to. You can take care of your business privately." We all knew what that meant too.

    My point in this long, lurid comment is kids know about sex, they're interested in sex, and as you say, many are sexually active. They're learning on their own about the pleasures and dangers of sex, and sadly because they have to learn these things on their own too many are suffering consequences a little honest education might have averted. Pretending like sex doesn't happen won't protect them. Stories and education that deal with sex in a realistic way can.

    I'll be quiet now.


Post a Comment