Friday, August 29, 2008

Teen sex, incest and other things I was too young to read about

As I approach my one-year blogiversary on September 13, I've been re-posting old stuff from back in the early days of What Tami Said. This post originally appeared on Dec. 10, 2007.

I stumbled upon Her Dark Materials, an article on Slate by Emily Bazelton, and it brought back fond memories of being a young girl and lying across my bed, clutching a book. I was always clutching a book--in the car, at the dinner table, in front of the TV set, in the theatre before a movie. It began in the first grade, when I was among an elite few six-year-olds allowed to graduate early to the "big kids" section of the school library. That meant skipping baby stuff like Hop on Pop to dig into meatier classics like the Nancy Drew, Boxcar Children and Little House series. Then, as now, I lived in my head, and books were the matches that lit my imagination.

Before third grade I left kids books behind. My mom was also a voracious reader and I scavenged the popular titles of the day from her collection. I remember being scared to death by the idea that The Amityville Horror was a true story, and being intrigued by romantic interludes that I didn't quite understand in Sidney Sheldon and Judith Krantz books.

Like Emily Bazelton, I stumbled upon Judy Blume's Forever and V.C. Andrews' Flowers in the Attic series as a child. I believe I was in the fourth grade when I first read Blume's tale of a teenage girl's first sexual experience. I had picked up the book expecting the smart juvenile storylines found in Blume's other books, such as Blubber, Superfudge, or even Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret? I found a little bit more than I bargained for. A worn, dog-eared copy of Forever passed from girl to girl through fourth and fifth grades. We furtively read juicy passages at slumber parties and worked to keep the book away from boys who might reveal the book's frank sexual content to an adult.

Later, in middle school, a friend passed me the first book in V.C. Andrews' Flowers in the Attic series. For the uninitiated, the series tells the story of four children, the product of a secret incestuous relationship, who, after the death of their father, are imprisoned in an attic by their fundamentalist grandmother and oversexed mother. The oldest two children, coming of age confined in close quarters, eventually have a sexual relationship of their own. ...Yeah, I know.

Like the author of the Slate article, I feel a bit of a hypocrite today. Bazelton is shielding her children from Philip Pullman's dark trilogy that contains The Golden Compass for fear of its impact on their fragile young minds. I block BET in my home and drive my stepson and stepdaughter nuts railing against too-racy lyrics in R&B and hip hop. But both Bazelton and I (and most of my friends, I might add) were exposed through reading to topics we were too young to understand...and we survived.

In fact, I recall both Blume's excellent book and Andrews' trashy trilogy fondly. To me they are relics of another place and time--oddly a more innocent place and time when salacious material made barely a blip on a bookish suburban kid's radar. My friends and I were mostly teachers' kids with attentive parents. We never came home to empty houses. Our parents took turns ferrying us to school activities. We were smartypants kids who went to Saturday School and took gifted classes. Our biggest transgression was reading beyond our level and, gasp, sharing books with friends. MTV was just dawning and videos like the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" and Duran Duran's "Planet Earth" were quaintly chaste, compared with today's pimp/stripper anthems. Our environments were generally wholesome, so when we read a salacious Sidney Sheldon passage or heard Prince's Darling Nikki, it thrilled us, but it didn't impact our understanding of right and wrong. Even as I scanned for the juicy bits in books, I was clear that their subject matter was forbidden, not something to emulate myself.

I can't quite articulate why reading racy books was okay for me, but hearing Gucci Mane's "Freaky Girl" isn't okay for my stepkids. Today's kids get a steady diet of the sexy and profane in music, in videos, video games and on television. What was shocking to my friends and I is now the norm. And while my environment, and that of my friends, counteracted our reading material, many kids today aren't so fortunate.

Read What About Our Daughters' post about the dirty lyrics your kids are listening to here:

What About Our Daughters: Another Edition of Parenting Tips From the Childless: Do You Know What Your Kiddies are Listening to?#links#links

Were you a precocious reader? Do you forbid things today things that you did as a child? If so, why the double standard?

4 comments:

JenX67 said...

I really like your blog. I found you through Deesha Philyaw. I have added you to my Generation X (50 Bloggers in 50 States) blog roll. I know I can gain a lot of insight from reading you. Happy anniversary.

Ferocious Kitty said...

Once again you are writing my life, right down to the VC Andrew books and Prince's "Darling Nikki".

I consciously shield my kids from certain music and videos, but not from books. The issue hasn't come up yet. I have books lying around with heady adult subject matter, and to my knowledge my precocious 9.5 y.o. reader hasn't picked any of them up yet. I think there's a big difference, as you point out, between being exposed to something you know is "naughty" and being immersed in a hyper-sexualized culture (i.e., lyrics and videos).

~Deesha (who snuck and read "The Happy Hooker" at age 8/9...and "Wifey" and "Forever" and "Portnoy's Complaint" by Philip Roth, lol)

Faith said...

Oh boy oh boy. I read all of Judy Blume's books. I wasn't even trying to have sex after reading Forever. And Flowers in the Attic creeped me out. My mom liked Prince so that was a big ewwww moment. I chose Michael Jackson because he seemed tamer at the time. I don't have kids and I don't think I'd sensor those books from them. TV and music would definitely needs monitoring. I don't watch or listen to certain things and I'm an adult. Books still leave enough to the imagination and can be skimmed over.

spartakos said...

I was reading well ahead of my age level...I think I read Gene Wolfe for the first time in 6th grade. And as far as books go...I'm not going to discourage my kids from reading anything they can comprehend, and I'm going to make sure they know that they can come to me with any questions about what they've read.
(caveat: I will rule out any blatant erotica/pornography...something that mentions sex is okay, something that is nothing BUT sex is probably not)

On the other hand, I am going to be careful about what visual media (movies, TV, video, magazines, even comic books) they encounter...because while having sexual content (or other adult material, say violence or language) doesn't make something necessarily inappropriate for children...it can be, because it has a more powerful impact, in my mind, because it's so there, it's so accessible. There's no need to imagine it, to translate the words into pictures, to think about what's being written about. It tends to lack context, sometimes. And I think these formats are more likely to present certain subject matters in a different way...not realistically, but seductively. Not describing/discussing them, but almost "selling" them.

I'm going to try to treat my kids the way I wish someone had treated me: by communicating with me at my intellectual level. It'll be hard, though.

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