Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sex, Drugs, and Goodreads

I've noticed a disturbing trend in Goodreads reviews: people are giving one or two stars to YA books because they include instances of teen sex (and sometimes drinking and/or drug use). Reviewers often complain that a book provides poor role models, is immoral and offensive, or simply is not reflective of modern teen life.

When I read these reviews I want to type in the comment box, do you actually know any teens? According to the National Survey of Family Growth (sponsored in part by the CDC), 42% of teen girls and 43% of teen boys are sexually active. Contrary to the myth that teens are having a lot less sex, these numbers have remained steady for the past ten years.

The adults posting these reviews know this. Maybe their teen isn't having sex, which is well and good, and let's face it, preferable. But there are millions of other teens who have decided to do the deed, often quite responsibly--is it so hard to admit a novel may be reflective of that reality? And, that it may have value as a work of art because it does?

Now, I should cut the teens writing these reviews some slack. And I will. Because the more I read them the more I lose faith in our school systems, not our young people.

Increasingly, these reviews contain no mention of character, plot, or even a gut-reaction like or dislike. The sole reason for giving a book a low rating is the inclusion of sex. Judging a novel on that basis illustrates a definite lack of critical thinking skills. Expecting novels to only reflect your system of values is expecting them to cease to be art.

Good art has always challenged, provoked, reinforced, reflected. Good art investigates what it means to be human. This is something one used to learn in high school. But (sweeping generalization alert) it seems we're focused on training kids to only search out what art means to them personally. There is a place for that response, but there is also a price for using it as the only evaluative tool. We're not teaching our kids to look for a book's impact on society or to appreciate an author's skill. We're not showing them that though a book may infuriate, it may also instruct. We ask, how do you feel about this? and leave it at that.

This is a type of close-mindedness. It creates narrow thinking, a terrible trait to develop as our kids face the challenges ahead.


  1. Thank you for this insightful post. It is a kind of close-mindedness and an insidious kind because it's not immediately apparent that it is.

  2. Ah, thank you so much Loretta. I couldn't agree with you more. I remember back when LiLa posted the 'F Bomb Debate' on their blog and I said something really similar to this for my comment.

    I wonder why there isn't more emphasis on the entire 'intended audience' thought process for the people that write these horrible reviews. Because if the only reason I have for disliking a book is the literal content matter (sex drugs cursing whatevs), wouldn't it be a more reasonable conclusion to say 'It just wasn't for me' ?

    Going OUT OF YOUR WAY to make a negative review is just annoying, not to mention misleading. You nailed it on the head with the 'lack of critical thinking' comment.

  3. Thanks, girls! I was inspired to write this after I saw a friend's fantastic book get some horrible reviews JUST because it has some (very realistic, in my opinion) sex scenes in it.

  4. Great post, L! There are loads of reasons for not liking a book, but the accurate portrayal of teens is just not one of them. Not when the reviews are being posted by adults who are judging the work solely based on content that they deem inappropriate. It's beyond frustrating.

  5. What an excellent post. The part about the teens especially: "Expecting novels to only reflect your system of values is expecting them to cease to be art."

    SO TRUE! I find this sort of self-censorship so disturbing. It's what leads to or at least strengthens the belief that our opinions should decide other people's lives and choices. *shudder*

  6. EXCELLENT POST! Parenting is about teaching your children how to choose between A and B. Eliminating or censoring B only creates a child incapable of making a choice when B eventually surfaces.

    Ok, rant done. Thanks for the great post Loretta!

  7. I do find many books contain a sex scene or drug/alcohol use because it's expected, not because it in any way assists the plot or the characters. I wouldn't give a bad review to a book because of that, but I think overall if an author is doing things strictly to shock readers or strictly because it's become The Expected Thing To Do, the work itself is going to suffer in other respects as well.

    If people are writing these elements specifically to be edgy, my thought then is that if the goal is to shock and offend readers, then don't be surprised when readers are shocked and offended.

  8. Social networking has its upsides, but colluding on behalf of an agenda isn't necessarily one of them. Thanks raising this issue.

  9. FANTASTIC post, Loretta!

    My opinion is this: if a book contains "edgy" content you don't approve of or want your children reading - then that's fine. But calling it "bad" or giving it a low rating because of the content is incredibly unfair. Just because it has sex/drugs/swearing/mature content doesn't mean it's a bad work of art. It means it isn't for YOU.

    Great post and great points, love!

  10. Great post, Loretta.

    Reading is so subjective but people giving low ratings because of sexual/drug/swearing content? Crazy.
    Teens are savvy. Even if they aren't 'doing' it, they know about it. So what's to hide?
    Good fiction is good fiction, regardless of drugs or sex, and these books shouldn't be judged because of it.

  11. Thank you for all your thoughtful responses! You've given me a lot to think about.