Expanding the Sexual Gap in Young Adult Literature

Venue: The New Yorker

The young adult life characterized in popular media and literature since its conception in the early twentieth century has tended to focus on a single aspect of development, sex. Although this concept and act typically falls under the categories of unmitigated instinct and irrational hormones, it has opened up new ways of thinking about the growth of the individual in relation to one’s physical and emotional connections to others, namely through ideas of gender and sexuality. In terms of same-sex couples, Bruce Burgett’s essay “Keyword:Sex” points out “However difficult it may be to know whether sexual—that is, genital—relations characterized particular same-sex friendships, it is clear that the meaning of same-sex love gradually changed over the course of the nineteenth century.” As ideas surrounding sexuality, sex, and gender have expanded and transformed, the young adult genre has also renovated itself. Writers have found new ways to unify these sexual differences into a common experience of development into adulthood, rather than alienating them through past conventions of hetero-normative standards. No longer does the boy meets girl, falls in love, has sex, gets married and lives happily-ever-after construct dictate the young adult world and the entrance into adulthood. Instead, alternative narratives, such as Steve Brezenoff’s Brooklyn Burning, that deal with unconventional ideas of gender and sexuality, have re-envisioned sexual individuation. He redefines isolated meanings of physical intimacy, through the omission of genital sex, and instead unifying the physical in the emotional experience.

Brezenoff’s protagonist Kid, an un-gendered homeless teen with no clear sexual preference, builds the world of the novel through Kid’s relationship to the wide city of Brooklyn, and the contrastingly narrowed relationship to Scout, the also un-gendered “you” of the story. The narrative manifests as a love letter from Kid to the city and to this person, connecting the spatial consciousness of an individual in society to the spatial physicality of bodies and sex. As Kid revels in the outside world around him expanding, the physical space occupied by Kid and Scout contracts, so that their shared love occupies the space between them, void of any actual sex. Brezenoff’s connections of spatial awareness, mirrors the idea conjectured by Burgett, claiming “the social and cultural meanings of ‘sex’ vary over time and place” (219). Consequently Brezenoff’s characters manage to construct their own ideas of sex and physical intimacy as they both literally and figuratively find their place within this wider world.

When spatially disconnected, Kid and Scout find alternative physical means to show their affection toward each other. We see Kid continuously doing this through the eyes, once saying “I let myself turn to face you, and you took a step back. Your eyes were right there with me” (Brezenoff, 38). Kid finds intimacy through the act of seeing into another’s eyes. This gives them a physical power over each other unhindered by actual dictionary definition physicality. This continues several times throughout the novel, for instance, in the line “your eyes were leaving again, going wherever they’d been, so I tried to hold them there” (5). Kid harnesses the spaces between them, the city around them, and figuratively creates their own physical space occupied by one another and their love.

The young adult psyche, as typically depicted in this genre, focuses on the individual grasping a sense of self and a connection with others as the world literally expands around them through both new ideas and geographies. Brezenoff tackles this idea through the focalization of Kid and Scout amidst this growing urban cityscape. Kid notices “Your face was near mine in the dark, and I couldn’t imagine how you slept so easy, so deep in this weird place, away from everything” (93). Besides sexual intimacy, Brezenoff diminishes the importance of amplified space, focusing on the value of a narrowed “place” in relation to oneself and others. As these characters place themselves through emotional intimacy rather than through the geographical space, they challenge these adolescent preoccupations with the physical. The final closing of physical space between Kid and Scout, relevantly not through sex, occurs as they literally travel through new geographical space, as Kid relates, “you led me onto and across the platform, and we kissed before the doors closed” (194). They board transportation that moves them swiftly from one place to another. They counteract this, however, through their own physical and emotional connection as they finally kiss and decrease the literal gap in their expanding world.

We see this same trend in re-structuring the physical in John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska. Throughout most of this narrative, the protagonist Miles attempts to conform to the ideological norms of the sexually developing adolescent. At first he heavily sexualizes his female counterpart Alaska, constantly remarking on her body, her clothes, and the amount of actual layers between them, preventing them from sex. These “layers” represent for him the expanding world as well, where there are “too many layers between all of us, too much keeping us from one another” (Green, 152). When he and Alaska have their first kiss, however, these sexual and spatial sentiments change drastically.  He describes the moment as “zero layers” (130) even though he also states “We didn’t have sex. We never got naked. I never touched her bare breast, and my hands never got lower than her hips. It didn’t matter” (131). Miles’ ideas surrounding physical intimacy transforms once he satisfies his emotional space, placing it before the adolescent ideals of physical, or genital consummation.

Green envisions a similar sense of love and development as Steve Brezenoff, however manifested through the heterosexual imagination. The fact that both of these authors can come to relatively the same conclusions regarding the young adult sexual experience, even through alternative ideas of gender and sexuality, ultimately breaks down the restrictions held by the “boy meets girl” narrative. As these barriers deconstruct, the sexual and physical imagination expands, creating new possibilities and norms for the developing adolescent reader. With the ever increasing physical world around them, young adults can find comfort in the reduced physical space they hold with those they love, regardless of gender or sexual preferences.




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