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
Sensuality: I’m going to say medium, because using McSexy feels wrong.
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.