I can vividly remember watching Top Gun with my family. I was only ten years old, and the moment Take My Breath Away started playing and the on-screen kissing began, my mother quickly covered my eyes. The memory makes me laugh as much as it makes me cringe. I had been curious about sex from an early age, and her attempts to suppress my exposure to it only made me more so. Regrettably, by leading young people to think that sex is forbidden or shameful, they’re effectively being taught that there’s something inherently wrong, not only with the act itself but also the natural desires that come with adolescence. Yet sex is life force. Next to love itself, sex is one of the greatest connectors between people. We don’t just have sex to have babies. Sex can remind us of what’s good in life, regenerating that life force which becomes dulled by the daily demands of our lives.
A very large part of the problem with children’s understanding of sex and sexuality today, as Peggy Orenstein recently noted, is that the visual imagery of sex, especially porn, which is now more prevalent and accessible than ever, leads girls as well as boys to view sex as purely performance. On the contrary, the more we enable sex to figure in the pages of fictional stories, the more we can potentially see it in a greater, more holistic context, and the more we can aid young women’s and men’s understanding of true and meaningful sex. I’m not advocating using fiction to teach sex, but rather to inspire a greater version of it. The more open we can be about sex in literature, including young adult books (think Judy Blume’s Forever), the more able we will be to push the conversation further so that sex doesn’t have to be something that is “taboo” or makes us laugh nervously or worse, something that puts women, including young women, in a position of pure subservience to their male counterparts.
What we really need is a portrayal of sex in literature that is consensual, respectful and equal. And yet, the very stories that feature the most sex, namely those in the Contemporary Romance genre, depict it in a misogynistic and almost always one-sided way, singularly focused on male pleasure and need. Take for example two bestselling Romance books. In one, the Alpha-Male Gazillionaire extorts sex from a woman who can’t afford her brother’s healthcare, only to wind-up falling in love with her because she’s so amazing and giving (ahem). In the other, the male character (MC in Romance speak) treats his ex dismissively and engages in forcible revenge sex because she lied to him about her age.
Like porn leading girls to view sex as performance, the mainstream “mommy porn” that has long been pervasive—even before the huge commercial success of Fifty Shades of Grey—has an extremely negative effect on women of all ages who consume these books. These Romance writers, nearly all of whom are women, continue to reinforce the patriarchal fantasy that sex means love and love means marriage and marriage means babies. Or even worse, that sex means sacrifice.
But the truth is that sex doesn’t have to make a person fall in love. Sex for the sake of sex and pleasure can be great and is an essential step in coming into what I call True Sexual Openness, which to me is complete sexual communion with another. Yet there’s no way we will be able to get there if we cannot own that which is most natural and vital to ourselves as a whole—the sexual being that resides in all of us, male and female. So long as there are efforts to censor and repress this natural element that makes us human in a fun, beautiful way, the interpretations of sex and how they are acted out in the world will be both dark and insidious.
The power of literature lies in the fact that, unlike the static visual imagery of pictures from the magazine pages to billboards, or the often awkward on-screen portrayal of sex in TV and film to the highly aggressive portrayal in porn, words have the ability to communicate perspective, sensation and emotion—words that can describe in beautiful detail the arousal, the intimacy, the experience, and the intensity of sex. Words that can evoke the sensuous climb to orgasm of a woman, with a focus on her distinct joy and pleasure.
What is needed now more than ever, as we confront yet another generation of young women being objectified and sexualized in media, is an honest, open, and frank discussion about sex. We cannot allow today’s young women to follow in the footsteps of the older generation of women who cling to the fantasies in Romance stories because these stories reflect their own experiences of suppression. The sooner we mainstream an honest, realistic, healthy and balanced portrayal of sex in literature, the better off future generations will be with regard to how they view and approach sex.