- Virginity in Young Adult Literature After Twilight by Christine Seifert
In her 2008 article “Bite Me! (Or Don’t),” Christine Seifert introduced the term “abstinence porn” to describe the titillating but chaste relationship between human Bella Swan and her beloved vampire Edward Cullen, the main characters in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga. This concept—which she defines as “the romanticizing, idealizing, and objectifying of the bodies of young girls” through the fetishizing of virginity (3)—now plays a central role in her book Virginity in Young Adult Literature after Twilight, in which she examines a number of contemporary young adult novels through the lens of abstinence porn. Ultimately, she argues, works that have followed the Twilight Saga’s example use problematic ideas about virginity that, in turn, participate in a larger system of “simplified, stereotypical, and often contradictory messages about sex” (16). While this observation is not in itself groundbreaking, Seifert’s work is notable for its methodical approach and considerations of real readers’ responses, both of which will prove useful to a general audience interested in the implications of young adult literature and its messages about sexuality.
The introductory chapter considers the cultural resonance between Meyer’s Saga and Judy Blume’s young adult classic Forever (1975). While the two texts are seemingly quite dissimilar—Blume’s novel is realistic fiction, while Meyer’s is paranormal romance; Blume’s text offers a realistic (if clinical) portrayal of a young woman’s first sexual experiences, while Meyer does not depict her characters actually consummating their marriage—both works are notable for the larger cultural conversations they inspired about young people and sex. Whereas Forever offered the potential for reframing attitudes about adolescent sexuality and suggested the possibility of sex positive portrayals of adolescent relationships, Seifert argues, the Twilight Saga ushered in a period of retrograde portrayals of virginity as the most valuable way of assessing a young woman’s worthiness as an object of desire.
The introduction goes on to introduce four tropes that inform the Twilight Saga and many books published in its wake: the idea that innocence is inherently attractive, the assumption that young women need men to safeguard their virginity, the belief that virgins are destined to meet their soulmates, and the suggestion that danger is not only desirable but also a form of aphrodisiac. Seifert persuasively articulates these patterns as well as their implications on [End Page 114] a larger scale—that is, as she argues, the prevalence of the virginity fetish in young adult literature indicates cultural values and expectations that objectify all young women, reducing them to their sexuality. “Analyzing how we fetishize virginity,” she notes, “is one way of understanding—and pushing back against—images of young girls as objects” (19).
The subsequent three chapters each tackle a different genre (paranormal romance, dystopian fiction, and contemporary young adult romance, respectively) and follow a specific organizational structure: Seifert identifies the texts she has selected, including a brief discussion of her selection process; she offers a brief summary of each text or series, including charts that highlight the main characters’ relationships, virginity status, and potential danger to one another; and she outlines how these texts illustrate the four tropes she identifies in the introduction. The genres she considers are well-chosen, as they allow Seifert to deal with titles that are likely to be familiar to a general audience. They also allow her to draw useful conclusions about the larger cultural messages these texts portray, particularly in her chapter on dystopian fiction; as she notes, works such as Ally Condie’s Matched trilogy and Kiera Cass’s The Selection series present “female protagonists [who] use desire as a means of rebelling against a society that doesn’t allow them to control their own lives and bodies, but [who] also end the fight just short of changing anything other than their right to be with their soul mates” (60). Such assertions helpfully work to parse the relationships between characters’ actions and their potential implications, both within the texts and for a generation of readers.