Sybil Davison has a genius I.Q. and has been laid by at least six different guys. She told me herself, the last time she was visiting her cousin, Erica, who is my good friend. Erica says that this is because of Sybil's fat problem and her need to feel loved--the getting laid part, that is. The genius I.Q. is just luck or genes or something. I'm not sure that either explanation is 100 percent right but generally Erica is very good at analyzing people.*
That was the opening paragraph of Forever, Judy Blume's seminal novel about a young woman's first sexual relationship. Anyone who has read the book knows that the story is about Katherine, not Sybil, and that, over the course of the book, Katherine falls in love with a boy named Michael. Katherine and Michael embark upon a tender, responsible sexual relationship. Katherine takes care of her emotions and sexual health. She doesn't have sex until she is ready, despite pressuring by Michael. She makes sure that she and Michael practice safe sex every time. She has orgasms. She is a terrific example for a young girl embarking upon the world of sex, and really shows how Blume accomplished what she openly set out to do: write a book about teenage love in which the characters have sex but are not punished for their actions.
But then there's Sybil.
Poor, fat, brilliant, slutty Sybil.
Cautionary, marginalized, stock character Sybil.
While Katherine's sexuality allows her to be fulfilled and empowered, Sybil's causes her to end up pregnant. What's more, because of her promiscuity she doesn't know who the father is, and decides to give her baby girl up for adoption for which she is clearly remorseful.
Sybil is a minor character who appears in fewer than ten scenes in the book, but her appearances serve a definite purpose and it is no accident that she is the focus of the very first paragraph in the book. She is less of a character than a device, a particular device that represents what to me is one of the most troubling messages that pervades young adult literature to this day: young women's sexuality is dangerous and will lead to bad consequences.
Judy Blume has done some commendable work, I give her credit for the new ground broken with her controversial 1975 novel, but while I believe she was successful in her attempt to show a relationship that doesn't go wrong because of sex, she ultimately undermined the work she set out to do with her emphasis on Sybil. With Sybil's outcome, the message is clear: sometimes, under very certain circumstances, young women can be in charge of their sexuality and have a good experience, but for every ideal story, there is someone -- some girl -- who must pay.
As I will show in later entries, authors of young adult novels haven't deviated very far from this ideology. I am passionate about children's literature, specifically that written for a young adult audience, and it is important to me to offer other perspectives about the sexuality of young women, to tell honest stories that do not condescend to the readers nor compromise the characters by deviating into hysteria about the consequences of sex for young women. This is not to say that there can't be stories with consequences, only that the work Blume set out to do thirty years ago should not be in vain. Her ideas should be pushed farther, allowing for YA stories in which sex is a healthy part of a young woman's life and nobody pays an emotional price. Not just the main characters, but all the characters.
This web site is part of my ongoing project to promote change in the YA industry (which is part of a much larger quest to change attitudes about female sexuality in general in modern society). I dedicate it to Sybil and all the characters like her who have been sacrificed along the way. May they be the last of their kind.
*Blume, Judy, Forever, Simon & Schuster, Inc. 1975
Written material © 2004 Dawn Emerman