January 15, 2013

Review: Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt


Source: a review copy was provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

The rise of the New Adult category has created an interesting debate about including sex in fiction marketed to young readers, and whether there is room for sex in these stories, or if it’s even appropriate. As in everything in life, the answer to that is that it depends on the context.

Personally, I think that in a world where female sexuality is often seen and portrayed with negative connotations in and by male-dominated environments, having positive representations of sex in stories that are mostly read by young women and teenage girls is a good, and necessary, thing. 

But of course, with the popularity of New Adult stories it becomes obvious that there’s a huge (or hugely vocal) audience claiming for the hypersexualization of stories that mostly have no business being sexualized in the first place. Because as many “adult content” warnings these books include, the truth remains that these are stories marketed to YA readers, that may not all be that young, but most of them are. So even though I think that sex in YA is necessary and can be a positive addition to the story, I’m not sure I agree with stories written with the excuse to add sex in them*.

But what happens when a YA book includes graphic sex scenes in a story where sex plays a main role? 

In Uses for Boys, the main character, Anna, had a somewhat happy childhood with a mother that wasn’t particularly reliable, but who loved her very much. They were a unit, fully dependent of each other. Until one day, when her mother found a series of men and shifted her attention to them, emotionally abandoning her daughter. 

When Anna was 13, she discovered that boys could fill the emotional void her mother left. Too young to understand that touch and sex don’t equal love and care, she became more and more dependent of them. But everyone around her didn’t see past the surface into the lost girl inside, instead, they labeled her a slut, a 13-year-old slut, and further ostracized her. So the emotional abandonment did nothing but grow as the years went by.

The whole book follows Anna through a journey that slowly sees her become more and more alone and isolated, even though she never lacks food and shelter. But this is a story that shows a different type of neglect, and how much it can damage a person. It’s about abandonment, but also about how damaging sex can be when the people having it are too young and doing it for the wrong reasons, about support, prejudices, and the terrible consequences of bullying and slut-shaming. It’s a heartbreaking, poignant story, absolutely relevant and very hard to read. It has a hopeful ending that fits it perfectly, and a message that hopefully will reach readers.  

It also has a lot of graphic sex. And even though the book isn’t really about sex, it heavily relies on it as a conduct of the story. So we have a YA book with graphic sex that’s in no way positive. But it works; it perfectly conveys the message, it’s key to the plot, and most importantly, it’s not romantic sex, gratuitous, or used for titillation. And this, I think, is something we should have in mind before judging the book based on its sexual content, especially because in this particular case, the explicitness of the scenes make the situation even more uncomfortable and painful, and I think the graphic sex was a deliberate choice used that produce that reaction on the reader.

Sex aside, Uses for Boys is a character study about a lost girl who needs love and help, and all the people around her unwilling to show her some compassion. We see her progressively deteriorate throughout the years, and then pick up the pieces, learn to love and respect herself, and come out stronger than any other character in the book. She gets some help by a boy who finally manages to see something besides the opportunity for sex, and a family who sees the broken girl and doesn’t judge her. It’s not a romance, I wouldn’t even call this boy a romantic interest (romance isn’t something Anna needs or is ready to have), but he loves and respects her, which ultimately helps her a lot.

I read the book months ago, and I’m still thinking about it. It resonated with me, because I’ve met people like Anna; people whose behavior we judge without stopping to think about what might be behind it. We see news about girls who commit suicide after incessant bullying and slut-shaming, and I wonder how many of them have stories similar to Anna’s. 

The book isn’t perfect, and I think the almost episodic way in which it’s told makes it less effective. The prose gives the story a melancholic, sad cadence, which can be beautiful, but also boring and slow. And Anna (and maybe her mother) is the only fleshed out character, everyone else is flat and one-dimensional -- too bad or too good, defined by that one character trait necessary to move the story forward, and essentially lacking substance. 

It wasn't an easy book to read, I was highly uncomfortable and I’m not sure what type of reception it will have, but I’m happy it exists.  

I’m not saying all NA books are like that, in fact, most of the ones I've read don’t include explicit sex and feature stories that aren't directly related to sex and romance. 

Review by Brie
Grade: 4
Sensuality: I’m going to say medium, because using McSexy feels wrong.
Purchase: Amazon

Synopsis:

Anna remembers a time before boys, when she was little and everything made sense. When she and her mom were a family, just the two of them against the world. But now her mom is gone most of the time, chasing the next marriage, brining home the next stepfather. Anna is left on her own—until she discovers that she can make boys her family. From Desmond to Joey, Todd to Sam, Anna learns that if you give boys what they want, you can get what you need. But the price is high—the other kids make fun of her; the girls call her a slut. Anna's new friend, Toy, seems to have found a way around the loneliness, but Toy has her own secrets that even Anna can't know. 
Then comes Sam. When Anna actually meets a boy who is more than just useful, whose family eats dinner together, laughs, and tells stories, the truth about love becomes clear. And she finally learns how it feels to have something to lose—and something to offer. Real, shocking, uplifting, and stunningly lyrical, Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt is a story of breaking down and growing up.

Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt
St. Martin’s Griffin. January 13, 2013.

11 comments:

  1. Great review Brie. I haven't read this one yet but it's on my TBR. I expect it will resonate because, although I was a bit older and not quite so active I went through a similar phase of "looking for love in all the wrong places", after my parents split up when I was 15. The motivation was similar if not the number of experiences (and I wasn't branded with a bad reputation - mainly because everyone I knew was doing pretty much the same thing).

    This is the sort of book that should be in high school libraries IMO.

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    1. Thank, Kaetrin. I think this one is more likely to be banned from high school libraries. Just go to Goodreads and take a look at all the reviews talking about how the book is a filthy piece of porn. But I'm not surprised that the message of the book went over some heads. Let me know when you read it!

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    2. I just found out I'm getting a review copy of the Audiobook so I will probably wait for that now - it's not too far away. I suspect (as long as the narration is good quality) that the book will be even more raw in that format.

      I was talking to an ARRA member a while back about Raw Blue and she thought that book should be required reading for girls AND boys in High School - she's from Queensland where schoolies week is big and she told me that there is ++ sexual assault at schoolies and the scenario the book portrays is just as likely to be true.

      From my own experience I think that there are plenty of young girls who feel abandoned emotionally and seek out physical intimacy to replace it. If I had've had an understanding of what exactly I was doing I probably would have done things differently. Not that I was the town bike or anything but I regret I gave myself so cheaply (ie, for a poor copy of affection) when I look back now. Essentially, it's about how you value yourself. If you have sex from a (consenting) place of self-value, that's fine, but when it's from something else, it can (IMO) be unhealthy. I think a book like Uses for Boys would have been very helpful to me when I was a teen.

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    3. I think this book is going to be brutal in audio. I hope the narrator gets it right, I just read a review that mentioned how monotone and detached the voice was, something common in sexual abuse victims, and she's so right. It's also 1st person present tense, so it makes it even more intimate.

      I don't have numbers on assaults during spring break, and even if I had them, the reality wouldn't be reflected since not all cases are taken to the authorities, and some people don't consider date rape and other types of abuse as rape. But I agree that books like Raw Blue would be of great help when educating young people about these subject. I wish that book would be available here, so I could recommend it more, but if anyone reading this is curious, the book is available through Book Depository.

      Fortunately, I didn't have a similar experience to yours or Anna'z, but I did have one sexual encounter when I was really young, and I can relate to the shame and negative feelings that go with it. And more than that, I keep thinking about this girl who committed suicide last year, because apparently she had sex with a couple of guys in her school and she was constantly bullied and slut-shamed. She threw herself in front of a train, she was 15 and living in a foster home. And everything people around her saw, was a sexually promiscuous girl. It broke my heart.

      Also, this book is getting so many negative reviews, and I bet that had the main character been a boy instead of a girl --similar story, different gender-- readers would have been more receptive and less judgmental. Promiscuous boys are bad-boys, hunks, damaged, in need of true love to change their ways; promiscuous girls are sluts, whores, and books featuring them are teen porn, erotica and filth.

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    4. At least where I grew up everyone was doing it so there wasn't really a lot of slut shaming (at least, not that I was aware). But I've talked about it since with a friend who was right there with me and we regret now that we didn't value ourselves enough. The thing was, we were really just children and we hadn't been taught how to value ourselves. It's something I take seriously with my son and if I ever have a daughter, I would absolutely discuss this kind of thing with her.

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    5. Obviously I haven't read the book yet, but it never occurred to me that it would be porn or filth. I knew what it was going to be about from the blurb. Some people just don't get it.

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    6. Or focus on the wrong things.

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  2. Great thoughts on the sexuality in the book-I struggled with the sex scenes because it wasn't about love and I just wanted to leap in and give Anna the loving family she wanted so she'd stop seeking out boys.

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    1. Thank you!

      I think that was the point of the sex scenes: make the reader uncomfortable, so that it was only the other characters judging her instead of us as readers.

      I too wanted to reach in and give Anna a hug and help her.

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  3. I like the way you explained the content of this one and my heart aches for the MC. And I think the story is very relevant to today and some of the experiences young girls are having today. It's tragic and sad, and I'm glad that somebody has given a voice to these young women.

    EXCELLENT review Brie Brie!

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  4. I guess it's an interesting topic that the author chose to address, but definitively not a book for me ^_^; I don't know if it's because I'm too old, but the books that deal with topics such as sex and bullying, they just don't reach me. I just find it sad that teens can be so mean :( Although I know they do depict a reality.

    Good for you though Brie for having an open mind and giving this book a try ;)

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