Saturday, November 14, 2009

She Bop: Masturbation in YA Lit

They say that a stitch in time saves nine,
They say I better stop, or I'll go blind.

This post has taken many days to write and almost never got to see the light of day. I tend to put a lot of the "I" in these blog essays so a post about masturbation is a difficult one to write. But my point, as you will see, is that it should be written about, so it would be silly of me to want others to do so if I can't myself. As members of my family sometimes read this blog I won't stray into the realms of TMI. (Too Much Information.) I wouldn't anyway, come to think of it!

There's always been lots of discussion about sex in YA books--how much is suitable, whether it's suitable at all, whether books containing sex should be in the school library. But what about masturbation? Like most words of a clinical nature that deal with sex, I'm not fond of the word "masturbation", but we have a limited vocabulary when it comes to sex and "masturbation" is vastly preferable to "rubbing one out" or any of the other slang terms, so I guess I'm stuck with it.

I never read a YA book as a teenager, if my memory serves me correctly, that contained or dealt with masturbation. For girls, anyway. I think I may have read one or two with male characters that did. I did read adult books (not xxx adult, just regular adult) that mentioned masturbation in passing, but in hindsight I see that they didn't deal with it in a very sensible way. They were mainstream popular romances by Diana Gabaldon and Elizabeth Chadwick and Jean M. Auel. These books are absolutely stuffed with sex, especially virgin deflowerings of both the male and female variety. In one Chadwick book it was remarked that Guinevere/Elisabeth/Marietta or whatever her name was never masturbated; it was implied that this just Wasn't Done. Of course dear Guinevere/Elisabeth/Marietta came in five seconds flat on her wedding night. Jean M. Auel handles things similarly to Chadwick: her heroine Ayla is turned on watching some mammoths go at it, but doesn't do anything about it until Jondalar comes along. Jondalar "relieves himself", as it's euphemistically put, near the end of The Valley of Horses and feels an incredible sense of shame and loss at having wasted his precious fluid. Diana Gabaldon's Jamie professes to detest the act as well, in Drums of Autumn if I remember correctly.

These are all historical novels, so perhaps the authors believed that this was the way their characters would think due to the times in which they lived. But this explanation doesn't sit well with me. Really, grown men being precious about their fluids? Eighteenth-century lusty Scots detesting the act? I was probably fourteen or so when I read these books, and instead of scoffing (as I am doing as I type) I took it all to heart. The sex-ed teachers only made it worse with their silly cartoons about kids being ashamed in their beds and being struck by lightning. (I had a secular upbringing and I suppose the lightning was meant to represent God, though I didn't realise it at the time. Lightning itself was alarming enough.) These vids were meant to assuage any fears ("don't worry, you actually won't get struck by lightning"), but they had the opposite effect on me. We watched them when we were about twelve, I think. My reasoning went something like this: "if those kids on the tape are ashamed, and the teachers assume we're ashamed, there's probably a good reason for it; ergo, these videos are meant to prevent the freaks who do masturbate from killing themselves. Masterbation is therefore the lesser of two evils. No one normal must be doing it. All right then."

I really did over-think things that much, and being "normal" was a big deal for me at the time.

I outright asked my closest male friend around this time whether he "did it" not and he cried "No! Of course not! How could you ask me such a thing?" Years later over beers I called him out on that. He replied, "What did you expect me to say? We were thirteen. 'Wanker' was the biggest insult around."

You could argue that it's my own fault for being confused due to the books I was reading as they really weren't meant for younger teenagers. Chadwick and Gabaldon and Auel are written for grown-up women and I should have stuck to LJ Smith. But where's the fun in that? I was looking for smut, and there sure isn't any in LJ Smith! I say smut in the most affectionate way, might I add. I loved the Chadwick and Gabaldon books. I still do. I just didn't have any thoughtful YA lit to counteract these ridiculous romantic ideologies like Sex Is For Married Virgins and Love And Babies, and all that rot that goes along with it. Like, Masturbation is Wasteful and Wrong.

You could also ask why on earth I took anything seriously that I read in mainstream romances. Again, I was fourteen and books, even fiction books, were like my religion: therein lies the Truth. I knew that vampires weren't real of course and my wardrobe didn't lead to Narnia (*cry*), but the characters in my books were like real people and I tended to pay attention to what they thought and felt.

I also may have responded, "Really?" the first time someone said, "You know, they've taken 'gullible' out of the dictionary, Rhiannon." I was a dear, trusting child ...

All this muddle could have been undone by one or two thoughtful Blume-esque chapters on the subject in the many hundreds of YA books I was also reading at the time. But no, there was not one book I read that dealt with the subject of masturbation, at least for girls. And we all know that boys get up to far grubbier things than girls do, right? (Which is how I thought then, and occasionally do still think now. Like the other day when I found my dear boy washing his feet in the bathroom hand basin. Thirteen or thirty-five, boys can be bloody gross.)

Around this time I read Tiger Eyes, my very favourite Judy Blume book. I reread it earlier in the year and still loved it, and read the Wikipedia page about it for trivia. Imagine my disappointment when I read this:

Judy Blume states in her book Places I Never Meant to Be that this was the only book she has written that she has voluntarily censored. In the original draft submitted to her editor the character Davey masturbates while thinking about Wolf. Her editor pointed out that the book was likely to be read by many more young readers if the scene was left out. After agonizing over the decision, Blume agreed and removed the passage. This remains the only occasion in which the often censored author has removed a controversial passage from one of her books.

I'm still fuming about this. Younger readers wouldn't have given a damn if that scene was left in--if the book had been allowed into school libraries, which it probably wouldn't. If there is any author that can sort out the confusions of an adolescent in a few neatly penned chapters, it's Judy Blume. If only I'd read Deenie, a Blume book that does deal with masturbation. But I didn't. I don't think I ever crossed paths with Deenie. Maybe the libraries I used didn't stock it for some reason. Funny that.

I managed to sort things out on my own and never did get struck by lightning (phew!), but I'm feeling rather betrayed. Not by Blume as such. Heavens know that she's pushed enough envelopes and copped enough flack for her books over the years. She's done so much good with books like Forever, a book I'm personally grateful for. I'm annoyed at the whole squeamish system; that books that deal with subject matter vital to a certain age group aren't being given to that age group. Are people even writing YA about masturbation now? I certainly haven't come across any.

This might turn into a case of "Fine, I'll write it myself!" But I'm going to have to come up with a more elegant turn of phrase than "rubbing one out."


  1. I came to lurk but I find I must comment.

    This is something I've been thinking about quite a bit lately. By that I mean content in YA books, not rubbing one out!

    The majority of YA books I read seem to have these well-behaved kids who don't smoke, have sex or drink--except for a glass of beer at a party. It makes me wonder if it's because that's the sort of life the authors had or are they intentionally making it PG for the industry?

    It makes me glad when I read a book like 'Pink' by Lili Wilkinson, where the kids go to parties and do stupid things they regret. It makes it seem a little more real in my eyes.

    Thanks for the great post.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Very thoughtful and brave post, Rhiannon. I'm trying to rack my brains now too and think if there are any YA books that deal with this- I think the closest we get is the MC thinking about a person, maybe lying in bed, but nothing actually happening. I personally don't have any strong feelings on it, but as with everything else in a story, so long as it adds to the plot or character development and isn't just written in for the sake of being written in, then yeah! Bring on the masterbation scenes.

  3. Hmmm now that I think of it, I do have one scene in my book that is masterbatey...I don't actually write about it, but you can infer, so well maybe there will be one on the market that comes close

  4. Confession time: although I read Deenie, at the time I had no idea that there were any references to masturbation. (I think I was around twelve when I read it, and *seriously* clueless - I used to just skim over the parts in books that were outside of my frame of reference).

    I can't think of a single other YA title that even mentions it, actually.

  5. This is interesting, because it's a discussion I've had with pals:

    "I outright asked my closest male friend around this time whether he "did it" not and he cried "No! Of course not! How could you ask me such a thing?" Years later over beers I called him out on that. He replied, "What did you expect me to say? We were thirteen. 'Wanker' was the biggest insult around.""

    It IS weird that "wanker" is such a huge insult among the teen set, and no one wants to admit to masturbating, even though it's a common (and normal) thing. Weird.

    Getting back to the post: the only books I recall reading as a teen that featured masturbation were the ones we were made to read in school (ie the books loaded with Serious Themes), and even then the masturbation was only alluded to, if memory serves.

    I think it depends on the genre, though. If I were reading a YA fantasy, a masturbation scene would probably be weird.

    PS I hate the phrase "rub one out". It's so... graphic? Plus it makes me giggle like a schoolgirl.

  6. I don't know why, but the idea of masturbation in books, especially teen books, really just makes me cringe. Although I have to admit that the idea of sex in teen books also makes me cringe. I admit that you're right, and that it's something that probably should be written about that would indeed be helpful for some teens.
    I would have hated it when I was part of the age group that YA is written for.
    I really wouldn't like it even now. I can barely read romances (and by barely I mean I can't really read them at all).
    Like Jade, I think it's weird that teens in YA books rarely ever do bad things. I know when I was a teen I was a heavy drinker. I hated cigarettes (still do), but several of my friends smoked, and most of them did drugs.
    Anyhow, just wanted to comment on this post. But now that I've started, it's actually making me uncomfortable. So the end!

  7. Comment that has nothing to do with this post:
    I just read over at I was a teenage book geek that you have NEVER read Ender's Game. I don't even know how this is possible, given the selection of books that you always read. Ender's Game is AMAZING. You are going to LOVE it.
    Although, I have before seen it classified as YA, and aside from the fact that Ender himself is young, I really can't see why.
    Yay that you're going to read it!

  8. A really interesting post! I can't think of any current YA i've read that includes/covers this. I did read Deenie when I was younger but it went completely over my head! I may have to ponder this some more!

  9. What a great post! You know, I can't think of a YA book dealing with masturbation either. Makes you wonder if authors do it consciously for fear of being banned (remember when Higher Power of Lucky was threatened with that just for mentioning a dog's balls?) by someone out there. Even if the books do not contain such subject matter, kids do know about it...heck they do it! So why not include it regular YA books? Very very interesting post. Good head-scratcher too! Maybe someone needs to go out and right a regular YA book with masturbation with it and see what happens.

  10. This is a really great post, super interesting. I can't really think of any books that have female masturbation in them, but I know that Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie talks about the m-word a little bit. That's the last one I remember. I don't know what to say about YA books not addressing kids who do bad things, because I'm that dork that never did a bad thing until it was perfectly legal to do so.

    As for euphamisms: self love? Lol, I don't have any good ones. When I was in high school my friends and I used to call it "washing the dishes". I can't remember how that one came out, but I still chuckle a little when I hear someone say it! What did you do last night... oh you know, washed the dishes.

  11. Dude, I'm fifteen and I'm still not sure how girls masturbate. I always get that image of the girl from "The Exorscist" jacking off with a cross. Maybe I should pick up Deenie--or, rather, any Judy Blume book. I've only read Superfudge...

  12. As for books with masturbation in it, there's this pretty good independently published one called "EyeLeash" by Jess Scott that has passing references to a girl masturbating.

  13. Great post! An interesting subject, and really well written post.

    I agree with your view on this. It bugs me too that a subject like this gets ignored and censored so much. As much as I love my vampire books, I always think it ironic how you can write books about people drinking blood but not about sex and masturbation! Same thing goes for TV though ; we all know a pair of breasts is more shocking than a guy getting is head chopped off!

  14. This is a great discussion mate. Even if you hadn't had any other reactions to it, its valuable because of Dannie's comment above.

  15. Really interesting post. I'll admit that this is something that I had not given much thought to. The only YA author I can recall having written masturbation scenes that I have read is John Marsden. Was there a scene or at least graphic references in Dear Miffy? Maybe? It has been so long since I read that one. In Marsden's take on Hamlet there is a female masturbation scene as well as male references but I do not think that I would call it bluntly graphic.

    When we were in our early teens I had a friend who used to be very embarrassed about the fact that she was named after Auel's Ayla due to the sexual content in the books.

    The only Judy Bloom book that I have ever read is Are You There God? It's Me Margaret. As I remember it, it is all developing breasts, getting periods, and first crushes with no references to masturbation that I can recall.

    When you start to think about it, it is odd that many characters in YA go from being virgins to sexually active with no mentioned self-exploration in between.

    Also, although completely off-topic, I have not read Ender's Game either despite the fact that it has been on my to-read list for a very long time.

  16. In addition to Sherman Alexie's PART-TIME INDIAN, I can think of three examples in current YA where I've seen mentions of jerking off. In all of these, the act wasn't shown "on-screen"; just mentioned in passing.

    One is in a short story in 21 PROMS, "The Great American Morp" by John Green. The female narrator mentions "jilling off."

    Another is in TWISTED by Laurie Halse Anderson. The male protag takes care of some business in prepartation for a date.

    The third is in an ARC I read for a book that will debut next year. Again, male protag.

    I actually like knowing those details about the characters. I like that it isn't a big deal, that it's just a thing that happens to be part of their lives. That makes it very real.

  17. y'know (can you tell this is my blog-reading morning?)... I have to say that it has recently come up in my mind (um, that is not intended to be a pun). Masturbation and sex in YA, I mean.

    A friend directed me to a great post about sex in YA from a lit agent. Here it is:

    I thought it was a fantastic post on the subject matter and made me think that it would be more than alright to include it in my YA MS (eventually) if the occasion came up. (What, with the world ending and all, my heroine was looking at me with those big brown eyes and basically demanding she not die a virgin, you know.)

    But, I also thought masturbation would be an interesting subject to put in and I definitely have considered putting it into YA. I know I wrote about it in an adult short story before, but you're right. I don't recall every reading about it in YA.

    Thanks, Rhiannon, for always giving me something to think about. :)


  18. Interesting topic. Unfortunatly there is the fear factor to put any book with any reference to sex in the young adult section at the public library I work-which is so sad because that is what teens deal with on a daily basis in real life. I have to put "questionable" books in the adult section and hope that kids can find there way there if I'm not working. So frustrating! BTW a great YA book that I read recently called Repossessed by A.M Jenkins has a masturbation scene that is LOL.

  19. Meg Cabot's book called 'All American Girl Ready Or Not' contains a scene with female masturbation...

    It was a couple of years ago that I read it, kinda shocked me. Not because I don't think that masturbation should be in books, just because it never is!

    Great post by the way!

    Reversing The Monotony

  20. Oh I remember that scene in All American Girl and I have to admit that it was quite eye opening for me as a 14 year old. I totally admired Sam's big sis after that haha.

    Not talking about this topic isn't something just confined in YA books though, but in YA life in general. Or at least that is what I found/find with my girl friends. No one talks about it. Or if it was mentioned in passing, it was done with giggles and an "eww gross". The guys joke about it all the time though, so I guess "wanker" isn't an insult anymore for them in that sense. Maybe my friends are just a conservative lot though.

  21. Well, all the guys I know aren't shy about admitting that they 'jack off'. In fact, the other guys kept making fun of one of my friends because he didn't, till the point that he tried it. I only have one girl friend who ever admitted to doing it, and she was plastered and also told me she loves our other friend's boyfriend, so I'm not quite sure that counts. I've personaly never did it, but if you feel the want to explore, more power to you.

  22. The only YA book I remember that had a kid masturbate in it was "Then Again, Maybe I Won't" by Judy Blume (!). The narrator is a boy who mentions his friend lending him "paperbacks" with "the good parts underlined". Also discussed are his wet dreams and a few very vague sexual fantasies involving his friend's older sister, who gets undressed with the shades up.

  23. Good post! I am in the process of writing a novel centered around a fourteen-year old girl, although I don't think I would necessarily classify it has YA (I guess that will be for an editor to decide one day, if I'm that lucky!). I also read lots of books when I was growing up, and I don't believe I ever did come across anything about masturbation. I'd been doing it myself since I was a toddler though, so I just kind of presumed it wasn't talked about, but the characters did it anyway. There is a very small scene in the novel I'm writing now where the girl "touches herself' under the covers, while her parents are fighting in the next room. In another, a male friend mentions to the girl protagonist that he masturbates when he can't sleep at night. I don't feel the need to make a big deal out of the subject as it's not the focus of my book, but at the same time I don't feel author's should be "afraid" to bring up the subject at all.