*This essay originally appeared on Bust.com*
When it comes to teenagers and their attitude toward cunnilingus, there’s a substantial divide between real-life and fiction.
This is real life:
“He doesn’t go down on me…He doesn’t want to. And I’ve never asked.”
This is fiction:
“‘When I lick you,’ he said, ‘I want you splayed out on a table like my own personal feast.’”
Real teenage girls voiced their experiences with sex in Peggy Orenstein’s 2016 New York Times bestseller, Girls & Sex — and according to the book, their voices weren’t being heard anywhere else. These girls, Orenstein found, have a lot of disappointing, expected, and unpleasant sex, and they don’t talk about it with their partners, their parents, or their health teachers. Teenagers look to popular culture, pornography, and their peers to learn about sex, and their findings are alternately confusing and grim. So where can young adults, particularly teenage girls, look for answers about sex, and for healthy models of romantic relationships?
YA literature offers all these things in spades.
In the last five years, many YA series with strong, capable female protagonists have also featured these protagonists navigating heterosexual romantic relationships where their male partners are excited about oral sex — to provide it to their love interests, not just to receive it. YA literature is geared toward teen girls, who, according to Orenstein, “are at a critical juncture in their development, learning foundational lessons about attraction, intimacy, arousal, sexual entitlement. Those early experiences can have a lasting impact on the understanding and enjoyment of their sexuality.” Some of the most popular YA series in the last few years — Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me trilogy, and Sarah J. Maas’s Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy and Throne of Glass series — all portray sexually positive, equitable romantic relationships, providing young women with examples and modelling that is apparently unavailable to most teenagers.
Shatter Me’s protagonist, Juliette, is the most gifted and dangerous young woman in her dystopian, fascist world — just her touch can overpower and even kill almost any person she comes in contact with. Over the course of the trilogy, Juliette negotiates complicated landscapes: a possessive first boyfriend who tries to define her; a deep-seated inability to recognize and control her super-strength; and a desire to take part in and finally control the efforts of the rebels trying to change her world. As a character, she’s thoughtful, flawed, and evolving. Juliette learns physical control, emotional limits, and thinks about what she wants from herself, from friends, and from romantic partners.
And when she evolves into the arms of a supportive boyfriend, the first thing he does is go down on her.
Including cunnilingus in Juliette’s personal and sexual awakening normalizes oral sex as a fun, pleasurable activity that she engages in with an eager, respectful partner. It’s also a signal of her self-acceptance and newfound self-control. Throughout the trilogy, Juliette has struggled to understand and wield her power. Just prior to her first serious sexual encounter with Warner, she physically and verbally stands up to her possessive ex-boyfriend, and in the process, understands how to manipulate her abilities. It is then significant that Juliette immediately decides to engage sexually with Warner — she is able to articulate what she wants (rather, what she doesn’t want) from her ex-boyfriend, and then what she does want from a new partner. While she doesn’t ask for oral sex, Warner is eager to provide it, starkly contrasting the real-life accounts in Orenstein’s research.
Orenstein observes that “psychologists have warned that girls learn to suppress their own feelings in order to avoid conflict, to preserve the peace in friendships and romantic partnerships… their partner’s happiness was their main concern.” In Mafi’s novels, Juliette defies these common pitfalls, and her reward for asserting herself is a hot, smart, capable boyfriend who wants to please her. And while Juliette is certainly a challenging character, at turns demanding, selfish, and uncertain, she is realistically flawed — and pairing her realistic portrayal with a reciprocating sexual partner is a strong model for teenage girls just starting to understand their own sexuality and how to assert themselves.
But when it comes to sexually egalitarian YA fiction, Sarah J. Maas is leading the pack. Maas’s fantasy series Throne of Glass and A Court of Thorns and Roses feature similar female protagonists — kickass, whip-smart, brave and talented women who possess untapped physical and intellectual gifts. In Throne of Glass, Caelena Sardothian is a trained assassin who physically and intellectually dominates everyone in her path. And the Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy features Feyre Archeron, a human-huntress-turned-High-Fae who must navigate her romantic entanglements and her burgeoning powers and responsibilities in a politically volatile fantasy world.
Feyre’s character is especially interesting as a model for YA readers, particularly in her navigation of sex and romantic relationships. Virginity is not a high priority for Feyre, whose life is consumed with drudgery and worry. She has regular trysts with a local farmer, sex that means nothing to her but provides physical release. After she enters the fae world as a prisoner, she embarks on a relationship with Tamlin, a high lord. Feyre loves Tamlin, though, and the sex that they have is not only tender, but pleasurable for her — Tamlin is also eager to perform oral sex on Feyre. However, Tamlin’s character becomes possessive and unreasonable as the series continues, and Feyre stops sleeping with him, and ultimately leaves him. Feyre’s decision is especially striking for many YA readers, who’ve been culturally conditioned to believe that heteronormative vaginal sex is a symbolic commitment, more important than the quality of the relationship itself. Orenstein also notes that young women feel unable to refuse sex after they’ve “given in” once. Therefore, it is crucial that young women witness Feyre’s ability to separate her self-worth from her sexual history.
Feyre leaves Tamlin, though it is difficult for her, and enters into a friendship with Rhysand, who teaches her about her powers, supports her in her education (including teaching her to read), and puts her freedom and choices first. At the slightest hint of their relationship turning romantic, Rhys flirts with her, teasing about how good he is at providing oral sex. And when the two of them do get together — again, the first thing Rhys wants to do is pleasure Feyre.
Are the youngest YA readers perhaps a bit too young for such explicit descriptions? Perhaps. But girls in middle school and early high school feel that they have to provide oral sex to boys, because, according to Orenstein’s conversations with these young women, “a young man should expect to be sexually satisfied,” whereas young women are uncomfortable with cunnilingus, and view vaginal sex as a “passive” experience, hoping it “doesn’t hurt.” By contextualizing sexual pleasure in a caring, respectful, romantic relationship, an evolving relationship, both Maas and Mafi normalize respect and sexual pleasure for a very impressionable audience.
Crucially, the sexual pleasure of these female characters isn’t positioned as a reward for their behavior, nor is it the end of the book or the last step in their missions. In all these novels, the protagonists are on a personal journey for their countries or their causes or themselves. Their respective romantic partners are important not solely for their sexual relationship, but for their friendship and support; the sexual pleasure they provide the protagonists is an added bonus.
There are plenty of current, amazing YA fantasy reads with strong heroines (The Red Queen, Six of Crows, the Grisha trilogy), LGBTQA characters (Carry On, Six of Crows, King’s Cage), and positive, healthy friendships and relationships (Caraval), and each of these novels grapples with sexual relationships in some way. And that’s important — teenage readers are obviously curious about their sexuality and how to express it. But through their more graphic depictions of female pleasure and sexual relationships, the Shatter Me, Court of Thorns and Roses, and Throne of Glass series all normalize male-to-female oral sex, and position it as an exciting, mutually pleasurable way to engage with a partner. In Girls & Sex, Orenstein laments, “Where is the discussion of girls’ sexual development? When do we talk to girls about desire and pleasure? When do we explain the miraculous nuances of their anatomy? When do we address exploration, self-knowledge?” Since schools and parents and popular culture are failing to do it, it seems that YA authors are the most effective way for young women to learn about assertiveness, relationships, and sex positivity.