Reviews 2015

Virginity in Young Adult Literature After Twilight

Virginity in Young Adult Literature After Twilight. Christine Seifert. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. 157 pages. $60.00 (hardback).

Christine Seifert’s study of the fetishization of female virginity and "abstinence porn" in very recently published YA fiction is a bottom-up study which endeavours to make the voices of the target readers heard by using popularity, as measured by book sales and fan activity or interest in reviewing titles, to select the works included in her corpus. Seifert also uses citations from reviews on Goodreads in each chapter to indicate the ways in which other readers, the "real" readers who are not literary critics, respond to the texts she discusses. Although Seifert uses neither the term "touchstone" nor "influence," her study essentially argues that the publication of the Twilight quartet brought about a marked change in the ways in which adolescent carnal desires are portrayed. The study begins with a summary of Judy Blume’s Forever (1975), a plot which Seifert claims would be unlikely to be published today. She also notes that Forever “did not open the door for other YA authors to openly and graphically write about sex” (2), a comment which leaves me wondering who did open the door to the many books I examined in my own study of adolescent carnality (Kokkola 2013). Where we agree is that virginity is absurdly valorised in some of the best-selling series published in the last decade.

Seifert’s primary goal is to establish the emergence of four tropes in fiction published in the wake of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight quartet (2005-8). The tropes are 1) Innocence and Naïveté Are Inexplicably Attractive 2) Virgins Need Virginity Guardians 3) Virgins Have Destined Soul Mates 4) Danger Is Sexy and Tempting (12-14; capitalisation original), which are lightly theorised in the brief Introduction. Her method is straightforward: using reviews on Goodreads as her guide to find books which are really popular (as measured by the numbers of reviews), she has selected 4-5 series or individual books. These are divided into the following genres: paranormal series, dystopian series and teenage romance novels. No distinctions are drawn between studies of series and studies of individual titles. The following three chapters are structured in an identical manner. First Seifert introduces the series or individual books, using tables to summarise matters such as the characters’ age, levels of danger to one another, sexual activity and how the story ends. Then she summarises the series or novels to demonstrate how they illustrate each of the four tropes outlined in the Introduction, and concludes with a section citing some of the comments made by readers on Goodreads. Chapter Five changes tack by introducing five "sex positive" novels which have proven popular during the same period. She then outlines how each of the novels avoids, or even challenges, the tropes she has established in the previous three chapters, and concludes with citations from Goodreads. I would like to be kind and praise Seifert for her clarity of structure, but in all honesty it is every bit as predictable and dull as it sounds.

Part of the problem with the study is that it is exclusively based on Seifert’s readings of the novels and the discussion boards. The chapter on paranormal series includes a footnote referring to two articles, and that is the entire sum of references to the work of other critics outside the Introduction and concluding chapter, "Beyond Twilight." By presenting her ideas as though they were produced in a vacuum, Seifert not only breaks with established practice; she also closes her argument off from achieving its full potential. For instance, Seifert dubs the obsession with virginity found in these books "abstinence porn" (3), but sadly only in the sense that they are designed to titillate and because they "reduce[] female characters to objects" (3). Had Seifert engaged with scholarly discussions of pornography (or even pornography itself, come to that!), she could have seen that these series are engaging very closely with practices within the BDSM (Bondage & Discipline / Domination & Submission / Sadism & Masochism) community (Paasonen, 2011; Smith and Atwood, 2014). The desire to be owned, to be submissive and to take pleasure from acts that others might consider dangerous are difficult for many feminists to comprehend, and Carol Queen (1996) has shown how this refusal to engage with the submissive’s world view prevents feminist therapists from helping their clients. Had Seifert engaged with the full potential of her own terminology, she could have found her analyses of the books taking her into the previously unheard of world of BDSM porn for teenagers. She could then have considered the impact of normalising sexual desires that are generally dismissed as deviant. The enormous popularity of "abstinence porn" is undeniably worthy of pornography. And this is just one example of the many places where references to other people’s work could have taken Seifert’s ideas so much further and produced a much richer study.

Furthermore, although I found Seifert’s ironic, eye-rolling recounts of the plots of these novels very humorous and in line with my own beliefs and experiences of reading these books, they strongly contradict Seifert’s stated goals. In the Introduction, Seifert has a section titled "What this book is not," which includes a series of claims about what the book does not attempt to do. These include statements such as "Argue for or against abstinence in practice or as an ideology" (17; italics original) and "Evaluate the quality of the books as literature" (18; italics original). So when Seifert writes comments such as "Patch is very controlling, which doesn’t seem to bother Nora as much as it should" (44) or "Travis’s contempt for the girls he uses is repugnant, but Abby doesn’t seem bothered by it" (90), she is very clearly evaluating the quality of the books and the values they promote. I see nothing wrong in making such judgments, but the Introduction does set up a very different set of expectations.

What Virginity in Young Adult Literature after Twilight does do is make a very strong case for the emergence of four tropes which fetishize female virginity. I also applaud Seifert for engaging with real readers’ responses and for choosing to study highly popular texts like Michelle Hodkin’s Mara Dyer series (2011; 2012); Kiera Cass’s The Selection series (2012-2014) and Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster (2011; 2013), which can reveal more about what real readers of YA fiction respond to than elitist discussions of texts rarely read outside academia. Seifert has identified and maps a distinct change in attitude in both authorship and publishing practices. These are worthwhile achievements despite my many reservations about the study as a whole.

Lydia Kokkola
Luleå University of Technology, Sweden

Works Cited

Kokkola, Lydia. Fictions of Adolescent Carnality: Sexy Sinners and Delinquent Deviants. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2013.

Paasonen, Susanna. Carnal Resonance: Affect and online pornography. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.

Queen, Carol. "Women, S/M, and therapy." Women & Therapy 19.4 (1996): 65-73.

Smith, Clarissa, and Feona Attwood. "Anti/pro/critical porn studies." Porn Studies 1.1-2 (2014): 7-23.