- Fictions of Adolescent Carnality: Sexy Sinners and Delinquent Deviants by Lydia Kokkola
Lydia Kokkola reviews Anglophone young adult fiction from the 1960s onward that depicts adolescent carnality—the portrayal of youth sexual activity or desire—as part of scholarly efforts to trace the literary and social effects of contemporary views of childhood. Many scholars agree that most writing for youth remains conservative with regard to depictions of sexuality, a point Kokkola confirms in her study. What this book contributes to the field is an examination of how a specific view of childhood innocence—in this case, sexual innocence—functions as the decisive determinant distinguishing childhood from adulthood, and with what effects.
Kokkola’s first chapter establishes the rationale for her study: since portrayals of youth do not reflect real teens but what adults think about teens, fictional portrayals of youth sexuality allow her to examine shifting social beliefs tied to childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Noting how “problem novels” tend to position sex as the problem needing resolution, Kokkola views the genre as perpetuating adolescent stereotypes of angst for specific social purposes. Her second chapter draws well on others’ scholarship, such as Marah Gubar’s work on innocence, which Kokkola takes up to claim that innocence is about what one lacks. If one then has an [End Page 178] experience associated with adulthood, innocence can be lost all at once. In other words, in post-Romantic times, one carnal act renders a child no longer innocent, and thus immediately punishable for entering the exclusively adult terrain of sexuality—an idea Kokkola sees reflected in nearly all writing for youth. Using sexuality as the boundary between childhood and adulthood permits the infinite preservation of an innocent childhood through a seemingly natural categorical determinant: sexual desire. These ideas position youth impossibly: mocked for acting too childishly if they are not sufficiently adult, or deviant if they act adult too soon. In chapter three, “The Calamitous Consequences of Carnality,” Kokkola applies these societal views of childhood innocence to review the various punishments that befall fictional youth who have sex. She finds the adoption books “remarkably dull” given their didacticism about socially acceptable ways to respond to teen pregnancy, with the books on politically sensitive abortion much more nuanced. Overall, the message across these books is repression, a point she acknowledges that Trites and others already have circulated.
The most enlightening and provocative claims of the book are in chapter four, where Kokkola shows parallels between depictions of queer desire and adolescent desire to reveal the many ways society marginalizes both in similar ways. By juxtaposing depictions of adolescent and queer sexuality, Kokkola shows that unlike heterosexual youth whom society designates as “adult” only after acting on their desires, queer youths’ desires alone “plunge them into adulthood” (98), a point which exposes the arbitrariness of sexuality as the distinguishing marker between childhood and adulthood. Reading adolescent fiction through a queer lens, Kokkola sees depictions of cross-generational desire—youth having sex with older partners—as an important example of queer desire, since it foregrounds questions of informed consent and the cultural importance of age and age differences with regard to sex. Kokkola posits that teen readers learn to read through a queer lens in order to read the ways that their desires are rendered deviant in fiction intended for their consumption.
In chapter five, Kokkola extends her claims about adolescent desire as queer by showing how teen sexuality is figured through the love of animals as well as through transformations into animals. Kokkola sees such depictions of youths’ sexual acts while in relation to animals or in the physical form of animals as ways that authors can obscure youth sexuality and its power—is it the animal or the youth that is copulating? At the same time, such writers draw implicit parallels between animals and youth that render youth sexuality as “‘bestial’: wild, untameable and decidely more base than that of adults” (138). Kokkola’s feminist, queer, and age-based analyses in this chapter are potent, but less distinct than those...