From the film The Fault in our Stars based on the novel by John Green
One of the most notorious social and cultural changes in the last 25 years can be observed in relation to young people’s sexuality. The media, the internet and social networks have had a great impact in this sense, facilitating access on the one hand to information about all types of themes and perspectives related to sexuality and on the other, to all types of pornography and sexual violence. Research in Mexico, as in other countries, has revealed that adolescent fecundity has increased alongside the number of sexually active teenagers. Despite an increase in information in general about reproductive health and awareness of effective methods of contraception, this does not seem have made a mark on the statistics of adolescent pregnancies or on the percentages of sexually transmitted diseases. It has also been observed that young people are one of the population groups most affected by sexual violence and, in general, the most vulnerable adolescents are those from sectors with the least education and the greatest poverty levels.[i]
In our study we did not intend to investigate adolescent sexuality but it was inevitable that the topic would arise given that our participants were between 14 and 15 years old and therefore found themselves in a crucial stage of life in terms of the exploration of and construction of opinions, representations, perspectives and decisions about relationships, sex and sexual orientation. The most common comments made by these students were about the need of obtaining information, especially about homosexuality, but also about bullying, assault and sexual violence within relationships.
These preoccupations stemmed partly from the reading we did: in Justicia Divina there is an explicit sexual scene as well as references to one of the ghosts as homosexual; in The Girl in Red, the theme of female sexual exploitation permeates the picturebook and there a threat of violence underlies it from beginning to end and Memorias de Idhún highlights the desire and love of mortal enemies Kirtash and Jack for Victoria which leads them to accepting she loves both of them (further on in the saga she has a sexual relationship with each of them).
However, even before giving them these books, references to sexuality emerged almost immediately when we talked about their reading outside school. One participant mentioned, quite frankly, that sexual relations was a topic of interest: ‘just now I’ve read a book that is about adolescents, what has happened to them, how to look after ourselves and all that […] in a sexual relationship, how to protect ourselves, and that’s it.”
At first we thought that perhaps in order to gauge our reaction, two of the participants started to tell us in detail about erotic novels. Later on, as we came to know them a bit better, it seemed to us that in both cases their choice and their desire to talk about these topics had to do with situations in which they found some resemblance with incidents or problems that were affecting them a the time. One girl told us:
[…] I like to read, I just read a book called “Julieta and her toyboys”, it is about sex or that, it talks about how she plays with them because she had, she was very in love with a person, a guy, and he treated her badly, and then she wanted to do the same, she wanted to treat men badly and she is very pretty and has a good body, she played with all of them and did bad stuff like leaving them like… it just sounds vulgar… like turned on […]
The other participant described a book by the Marquis de Sade and later in the project returned several times to the topic of abuse and violence; for example, in his River of Reading he included a book called The Art of Being Young and he explained it was about
[…] how to have a loving relationship without violence, in which it implies that one person does not need to be the subject of violence from their partner, that there should be mutual love and that a person should not be forced to have sexual relations if both don’t want to, because that would be sexual abuse.
Among the rest of the participants there were several allusions to the topic of sexual violence, some more explicit than others, and especially in relation to The Girl in Red, where the first ending leaves the fate of the girl in the wolf’s hands and to the reader’s imagination.
The allusions to homosexuality were less explicit but it became evident that some participants were anxious about their sexual orientation. Even though there now exists more tolerance in Mexico towards the LGBT population, there still exist many conservative cultural and religious sectors characterized by their intolerance and homophobia. Once again, these comments arose in the first session:
There was a bookshop […] I went in and found many books and they all seemed very cool but there was one that caught my attention […] I decided to buy it and I liked it, I began to read, read, read and I got really into everything that was there, like how a young girls can fall in love with someone of their same sex.
It is important to note that these type of comments can raise serious questions for all of those professionals who work with young people, even if it is simply a reading workshop. What should we say about these books? How should we respond? We can listen and be supportive but we cannot and must not take on the role of psychologist or therapist if we are not trained to do so. According to most research ethics procedures, when researchers identify a study participant as perhaps being affected by a particular situation, especially a young person in school, this concern must be referred to the relevant school authorities. Although we had no clear evidence, we felt that reporting our concern was more important than confidentiality regarding the readers’ responses; as it turned out, the person in charge of the students was already aware of these issues.
In the survey carried out in 1992, among the most read books were Born Innocent, Go Ask Alice and What is Happening to my Body? In 1996, the most popular book was Juventud en Éxtasis [Youth in ecstasy] by Carlos Cuauhtémoc Sánchez, who at the time was among the best-selling authors in Mexico. In an article that explores the construction of sexualities and relationships in this “self-help” novel, Daniel Nehring (2009) argues that the popularity of this novel highlights the cultural transformations in terms of sexual relationships in Mexico in the last decades, especially in terms of the tensions between tradition (religious and patriarchal) and modernity.
Some of the books by Cuauhtémoc Sánchez appeared in the 2014 survey but they found a rival in Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James (the film had not yet been released). One afternoon when we arrived at the school, the Head Teacher told us that she had confiscated this book from one of the students. One of the workshop participants told me she was also reading it and defended her classmate:
[…] the Head Teacher was angry because she said those books were not for our age. But well I think it depends how you take it, right, because if you are a morbid person or that sort, well obviously you are going to take it that way but I take it as a distraction, like getting to know about experiences from books, and well I’m reading it, and I don’t bring it to school because yes, they took it away from her […] So I saw it as an injustice because even the Head Teacher herself said that those sort of books it depends how you take it because it’s an erotic book […] that is, yes there are ages for reading some books but for example my mother, I tell her what it’s about and she tells me: well take it this way or that way, right, so she helps me digest it a bit better.
This defence is heartening in the sense that it reveals a mature position on the girl’s part, in which she is aware of the different reasons and ways in which one can approach this type of reading, of the importance of being able to “know about experiences” through books without placing herself in risky situations and of the advantage of being able to talk about these issues with an open-minded person who can guide her, in this case, her mother.
While Lydia Kokkola (2013) argues that in most young adult literature there is an underlying conservative perspective and controlling desire on the part of the adults (who remain anxious about the manifestation of desire in young people), Kimberley Reynolds (2007) notes that there are also “radical” young adult books that not only represent changes in society but also contribute to forming new attitudes and expectations for, and among, the young people. She argues that these books can actually help readers adjust to these cultural and social changes. Hence, in the books written with teenagers in mind, in the 1970s, the informative and didactic messages about sex and sexualities predominated but more recently, despite criticism and censorship, YA novels have begun to approach the topics of desire, pleasure and sexual relationships among adolescents (heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual) with increasing naturalness, without falling into “moral panics” and even with humour. An example would be The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, another of the books most frequently mentioned in the 2014 survey in Mexico, in which a candid, loving and respectful sexual relationship develops between two young people.
The reading of this type of “radical” YA novels, together with an adequate and prepared mediation can provide a safe space for the exploration and the expression of doubts and feelings as opposed to maintaining a silence around dangerous and abusive situations. Perhaps it can also help young people to see themselves as sexual beings, with all that this implies.
"How to have a loving relationship without violence?"
From one participant’s “River of Reading”
[i] General references: National Survey of Health and Nutrition 2012; Campero Cuenca1, L. et al (2013) Salud sexual y reproductiva de los adolescentes en México: evidencias y propuestas, Gaceta Médica de México 149:299-307; National Survey of the Demographic Dynamics 2014 (INEGI); Stern, C. (ed) (2008) Adolescentes en México. Investigación, experiencias y estrategias para mejorar su salud sexual y reproductiva. El Colegio de México.