Ever since the Judy Mays incident, I’ve been thinking a lot about teenagers and romance novels. Like many authors of more “graphic” romances, my website’s front page includes a disclaimer that my books are meant for people over 18 years of age and suggests those under that age ought to skedaddle.
But do I really believe that? Do I really think that that young people (and by young people, I mean teenagers in the 15-17yo range, perhaps dipping down into the 14yo’s, but not 12yo’s) will be perverted or damaged in some way if they read read my stories? Er, no. I don’t. Not really.
I know that’s kind of going out on a limb. A big chunk of the defense of Judy Mays’ right to write erotic romances under a pen name was predicated on the fact that it wasn’t as though her students were buying and reading them. The corresponding implication is that, if her high school students were buying and reading her books, that would be bad thing and make her writing considerably more morally suspect. It’s one thing if ADULTS are reading “those kinds of books” and quite another if KIDS are.
And I agree, when by “kids” we mean children, tweens, and younger teens. But for older teenagers? Frankly, I’m just not buying the harm here. There seems to be a general notion that if teenagers read sexy romances, they’ll become overly eroticized and more likely to engage in premarital/pre-adult/risky sex. This seems to me to be perilously close to equating the consumption of romance novels (even really hot ones) with straight-out pornography, and I simply don’t agree with that. It also, quite simply, ignores the fact that a sizable percentage (one might even say a majority) of 15-17 years olds are actually engaging in sex, whether we adults approve or not. Arguably, it’s sort of silly to be enjoining them not to READ about sex when they’re actively HAVING it anyway.
Romance novels contextualize sex. They are about more than rubbing body parts together for physical satisfaction (or, at least, they are if they are any good). Romances focus on the development of committed relationships and the expression of love. Are we saying, as a society, we think it’s BAD for teenagers to read about sex in the context of loving, committed relationships? That it’s somehow damaging for them to equate sex with respect, caring, and mutual devotion? Because if we are, then, wow, I think we have a lot of work to do.
As to whether reading romance novels encourages kids to have sex at younger ages, my own PERSONAL experience would argue the reverse and other long-time romance readers I’ve discussed this with seem to have had similar experience. I started reading romances when I was about 15. I cut my teeth on the fairly tame Harlequin category romances of early 80s, but quickly escalated to historical romances. One of my favorite authors back then was Bertrice Small, and let’s face it, her books were among the most sexually explicit you could find in the 80s. I ate them up along with many other very hot romances that would probaby horrify me now if I read them, not for their sexual content, but for their forced seductions and other questionable gender politics.
Notwithstanding the forced seductions and questionable gender politics and explicit sex scenes, I grew into a healthy adult who waited until I was in a steady relationship in college to have sex. And I think one of the reasons I WAITED for that steady, committed relationship with a young man I found incredibly sexy who knew how to push my buttons was because I didn’t want to have sex JUST to have sex. I wanted it to MEAN something. And be good!
I went on to get married just one time (not to my college boyfriend, but hey, not everything works out long-term), and I’m still married to that man (my hero, swoon) more than twenty years later. Despite having read hundred of romance novels in the past 30-odd years, I haven’t become dissatisfied with my sex life (another supposed potential danger of romance novel reading, pfft!).
Now, does this mean I’ll be handing my kids a copy of one of my romances to read when they turn, oh say 15? Probably not. But not because I don’t think they should be reading romance novels of ANY kind. It’s more because there are some places in my mind I’d rather not share with my kids. (Frankly, I might not want them to go there even when they’re 30, lol!)
But other books by other authors? You bet. If they come and ask me for recommendations, I have quite a few on my shelf I’d be MORE than happy to lend them :).