WORD: No Sex Please, We’re teenagers. Mandy Hager with Ted Dawe, Karen Healey and Frances Young

This session took a good look at what is okay to represent, sex-wise, in literature for teenagers. On stage were YA authors Mandy Hager, Ted Dawe and Karen Healey, and psychologist and sex therapist Frances Young. It was a discussion worth having, and it was interesting to have the point of view from Frances as somebody who deals with the results of dangerous cultural norms being created.

The first question was about whether it is in fact okay to have sex in YA fiction: and is there a personal line you wouldn’t cross? Each of the panel says yes absolutely, and Karen made the essential point early on that positive promiscuity is a good thing in YA fiction. As a teacher, she wouldn’t write explicit erotica under her own name. She’s not worried about other students, but about their parents. And while she wouldn’t write a rape scene, she would write about the aftermath.

Ted Dawe felt compelled by his publisher to hold back with his language in Thunder Road, to allow the book to go into school libraries. However, when he wrote Into the River, he answered to the call of his narrative. “Sex is realistic when talking about teenage males.” His depiction of Devon’s “unglamorous beginning sex” wasn’t to meet a theme he wanted to tackle – he was just writing what Devon would do. He didn’t see the outrage coming: it took the gloss off the book winning the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award.

Frances is very keen on any way to get more moral, ethical information out there about real sex, to support people to be more emotionally available to themselves – so they can actually have the tools to decide whether they are “on” or “off.” She is also keen to have more sex in comics to make it more accessible – not everybody is going to delve into a novel.

The next question Mandy asked her panellists to discuss was their pet hates about the way books talk about sex. Karen Healey is very passionate about removing the shame attached to sex in people’s lives, and removing the shame and disgust for the human body. She notes this is especially important when talking to teenagers. Frances added to this later on by noting that most teens have an awareness of their sexual self by their mid-teens: making it even more important that this positivity is there.

Ted talked a little about the “Harry Potter effect”: the pushing away of realism, in favour of fantasy. He sees his book was tricky because it was a “warts and all depiction of young men.” I don’t think he’s read Karen Healey’s books, so I was very happy an audience member highlighted this later in question time. For Karen, the advantage of fantasy is that it allows her to literalise sex through metaphor. To her, a fraught relationship is even more interesting if one can set fires with their mind. She always strives for emotional realism.

This is where we got into the theme of porn: Frances’ pet hate is porn. “88% of pornography scenes are verbally or physically violent towards women. This is distorting young people’s view of what a sexual relationship should look like.” Frances says parents need to be able to support kids navigate the highways they are seeking out. This part of the talk, her descriptions of porn and the way it is affecting sexual relationships, made me want to remove all the screens in the house as soon as my boys got to age 12.

It got very interesting when we began talking a bit more about consent – the ‘dubious consent’ Ted alluded to. When you put this type of thing in a novel, are you compelled to put a counter-argument? Ted thinks if you do this, you are no longer being an author. Karen disagrees, she will introduce counter-arguments. They agreed that if writers weren’t all different, there would be nothing to talk about!

The role of schools
Educating teens about sex is a full community project, says Frances. You need buy-in, from the principal right down to the teens themselves, and of course their parents. At the moment we are in a public health crisis: she makes the note if you want to know how to talk to your teens about sex, go to Into the Picture. This is being brought into schools in New Zealand through the Public Health service.

As an English teacher, Karen Healey sees the important thing to be teaching research skills, and how to discern bias. It’s important for them to be able to read to learn, if they don’t think they can talk to parents. Karen stresses when talking about film that it is manipulative, she teaches close viewing skills – though she notes that she can’t dissect a sex scene without being fired. Ted similarly tried to impose cultural change through the curriculum, with an attempt to teach Deliverance (the book). His HOD blocked it, and incinerated all 40 copies he’d bought of the book.

Karen and Ted have both been published in NZ and in the USA – Karen has had to dial back sex in YA for the US market (so she can get into book fairs), while allowing the violence in Guardian of the Dead to stay. Ted has had no reaction other than positive reviews with the publication of Into the River in the USA – to his surprise. Frances agreed that there are differences in the way NZ and Australia approach sex in books to how the USA does. She also noted that the correlation of sex and violence together is perpetuating a culture of sexual aggression – the Roastbusters case being a good example of this.

Roastbusters was described recently by the Chief Censor as an ‘example of societal moral decay.’ However, Ted doesn’t think this culture is new at all, but social media has put it on steroids. We explored the concept of ‘differing degrees of rape.’ Karen pointed out that we have so many people walking around not knowing that they’re rapists, thinking because they were drunk, or the girl was, it didn’t count.

David Hill asked a question about teen reviewers: do the writers on the panel find them as judgemental as parents? Karen and Ted saw this differently – Karen says yes, but Ted has never had any complaints. I wonder if this is a gender thing, young women may be more confident in complaining about this type of thing – guys don’t think it is ‘masculine’ enough to be worried about bad language.

As with all sessions in this festival, this has once again left me with food for thought. And that is what a literary festival is for.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

No sex please: We’re teenagers
WORD CHristchurch, 26 August

Karen Healey also appears in:
The Nerd Degree,Sun 28 Aug, 5pm