Saturday, September 20, 2008

changing sexual norms and Twilight

Fifty and even forty years ago fear of disease and pregnancy were fairly effective in getting most teenagers, at least teenage girls, to view sex before marriage as dangerous and risky.

I remember quite well the film that we were shown sophomore year of high school that was intended to discourage sex. A teenage boy and girl were shown getting into the back seat of a car, the car did some rocking, and the teenagers got out with rumpled clothes; fast forward a few weeks and you see the teenage girl with her doctor getting the news that she has some unnamed, loathsome disease that could render her sterile. While we were amused by the car rocking and rumpled clothes we believed in the disease risk.

But the real fear of sex in the 1950's and 1960's came from the risk of pregnancy. The pill was quite new and hard for teenagers to obtain; with the much higher dosages of the time the pill had more negative side effects; few if any alternatives to the pill were available to teen girls, and the attitudes of the time -- that condoms were only used with prostitutes -- meant that a "good" girl would be offended in the extremely unlikely case that her boyfriend suggested them. Abortion was of course illegal in the 60's, and while some girls found a way, there were often deadly consequences of illegal abortions. If you got pregnant in 1968, your world came to an end, or so it seemed to us at the time. Pregnant girls were thrown out of regular school; the girls who got pregnant and dropped out were the subjects of scandalized whispering campaigns.

Books written for teenage girls in the fifties and sixties, could and did realistically depict ordinary teenage girls, deeply in love with their ordinary boyfriends steadfastly resisting sex, and saving themselves for marriage. The tension and drama of those novels was generated by an accepted tension between fear (of pregnancy and disease) and desire. Few of us who consumed those novels thought this was ridiculous or silly or old fashioned, we found that tension reasonable and realistic, and romantic.

While today there are religious people, including religious teens, that consider sex before marriage sinful, or at the very least undesirable, the type of mortal fear of sex that existed in the 1950's and 1960's has disappeared from popular thought. Diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis are, rightly or wrongly, viewed as easily cured and inconsequential. Even AIDS, an incurable life shortening disease, doesn't work well as a scare tactic because, true or not, popular belief view AIDS as a disease that only affects homosexuals, needle using drug addicts, and poor black people.

It is extremely unlikely that teens would view pregnancy as the life ending event we did in the sixties, when they observe classmates who are pregnant, and know girls with babies going to college. In a time when a conservative, evangelical, Republican candidate for Vice President is open and accepting of her teenage daughter's pregnancy, the idea that pregnancy will ruin one's life and destroy one's reputation are viewed as nonsensical by today's teens.

In this world in which the old dangers of sex no longer hold water with young people, enters Stephenie Meyer and her Twilight series. On her website she writes:
I am also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or Mormon, as we are commonly called—for more info on what that means, see ) and that has a huge influence on who I am and my perspective on the world, and therefore what I write (though I have been asked more than once, "What's a nice Mormon girl like you doing writing about vampires?").
I would argue that Stephenie Meyer writes about vampires because she is a Mormon.

Her religious tradition like most conservative, Christian traditions views sex outside of marriage as sinful, and preaches that young people (male and female) should preserve their virginity until marriage. There are many Christian novels written, published and in bookstores these days that tell stories of romance between young people who remain celibate and do not consummate their relationship until after the marriage vows are complete. None of those novels ever makes it on to the best seller lists -- but the Twilight series has had phenomenal commercial success.

The genius of the Twilight books, is that Stephenie Meyers (as the result of a vivid dream) has found a way to recapture the old fashioned romantic tension between danger and desire, without being viewed as out-dated or absurd. Instead of fear of sexual transmitted diseases or pregnancy, we have fear of the vampire lover who might lose control during sex and devour his partner. By evoking an iconic and well established fantasy creature -- the vampire -- Meyer can deliver her message of abstinence within a framework that seems exciting, dangerous and modern, rather than old fashioned.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of grammar:

"All to often"

Teacher, teach thyself! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I commented on the wrong post. I shall try again.