Saturday, 7 November 2015

Review: Losing It, edited by Keith Gray

Losing It, edited by Keith GrayLosing It, edited by Keith Gray (review copy) - A collection of fiction short stories by leading teen writers about losing your virginity

Including Melvin Burgess, Keith Gray, Patrick Ness, Sophie McKenzie, Bali Rai, Jenny Valentine, and Mary Hooper, some of today's leading writers for teens are gathered here in a wonderful collection of original stories—some funny, some moving, some haunting, but all revolving around the same subject—having sex for the first time! You never forget your first time and you'll never forget this book!
From Goodreads

An anthology of short stories from eight UKYA authors on losing your virginity, Losing It edited by Keith Gray was an obvious title to cover for Sex in Teen Lit Month II. Having now read it, I think it's a fantastic book, but I'm a little worried about some of the unhealthy ideas that are put across in the odd few stories. Really long review coming up.

Losing It has a wide variety of stories; historical and present day, teenage narrators and adults, both male and female, straight and LGBTQ, and POC characters. The plots are in no-way similar, but all have something to say on having sex for the first time. Losing It isn't very graphic, and I have to say, I was surprised that in some, the characters don't actually have sex; it's a look back on the first time, or decisions are made and it doesn't happen, or we don't find out one way or the other. But it's the focus of each story. I'm going to talk a little about each story.

Scoring by Keith Gray

In Scoring, Jason is the star of his school's football team. Tomorrow is the first final the team has ever made, and their coach has banned all players from having sex, but tonight was meant to be the night that Jason and Tara have sex for the first time. What's Jason going to do?

The story on the whole is pretty good, looking at Jason's confusion over what is the right thing to do: for him, for the team, for Tara, for his popularity. What really struck me in this story is, although Jason is really into Tara and wants to have sex with her, the main reason for wanting to have sex is so he doesn't have to lie about it anymore, that he doesn't feel like an outcast for being a virgin. I know it's a common view - it's not cool to be a virgin, the idea, although not spoken so bluntly, was around when I was at school - but it's just so sad to read as an adult. Jason himself finds it a little unfair that this is how things are.
'"These days if you want to fit in you need to have a girlfriend too - and a good-looking one, not a minger. And she can't be frigid, she's got to let you shag her. Because you can't be popular and a virgin too. I mean, Jesus, who made up all these rules all of a sudden?"' (p15, Scoring by Keith Gray)
I really hate the word "frigid". I'm not complaining about the use of it, because it makes sense for Jason to use it in this context, but the whole idea behind it. That it's a bad thing if a girl says "no" (I say girl for the sake of this story, but I've never heard the word used in relation to a boy), and she'll get insulted for doing so. And "let you shag her" bothers me a little too, as if sex is something that happens to a girl, that she allows to happen, but not something she herself takes part in and can take pleasure from. It's a really outdated idea. Jason is generalising in the quote above, and actually isn't a bad guy. As he goes back and forth trying to decide what to do, at one point he comes to the conclusion that maybe what Tara thinks and wants to do is more important than anything else (that's not the end of the story though, so I'm not giving anything away there), it's just the idea that I have a problem with.

The next two stories I don't have a huge amount to say on, so I'm going to look at them quickly together. The Age of Consent by Jenny Valentine is a mostly humourous story, where Dora, Finn's mother's 73-year-old step-mother, brings up the topic of sex around the dinner table during a Birthday lunch. It's hilarious, all these people gathered, adults and children alike, and this elderly woman discussing how big a man from her past was. This story literally had me laughing out loud, it was so funny! But it takes a slightly darker tone halfway through, and becomes quite thought-provoking. A really powerful story. Chat-Up Lines by Melvin Burgess is another lighthearted story about a boy losing his virginity to an older girl, who isn't aware that he's a few years younger than her. He keeps it quiet, knowing he wouldn't stand a chance if she knew. It's written in such a way that you don't even really consider how crappy it is that he tricked her into bed, but I guess it's kind of realistic.

Different For Boys by Patrick Ness

Different For Boys is a really interesting story. It's an LGBTQ story, and so deals with sexuality and questions about sexuality, and is one of the sadder ones in the book. But it looks at something I had never considered before reading this book last year; when does a boy lose his virginity? Or anyone, really?

This story makes it clear that it's a story. Certain swearwords and anything graphic are blacked-out - when one character, Charlie, swears, he actually asks '"What are these eeeeeee black boxes?"' (p75). It makes the story slightly amusing, because you can have whole sentences where only one or two words aren't blacked out, leaving the reader to guess at what sexual acts, and what how's and why's, are behind them. Though some sentences aren't so heavily blacked out, so it's clear enough what's being intimated.

At the beginning of the story, Ant, the narrator, lists all the sexual acts he has done, when he reaches the last:
'5. And of course we wouldn't be talking about this if I hadn't actually eeeeee. You know, actually eeeeeeee ee eeee ee e eeee, which is pretty much the definition of losing your virginity if you're a boy.' (p74, Different For Boys by Patrick Ness)
But then he goes on to say:
'I suppose my question is, though, where exactly on that list did I stop being a virgin?
Is it obviously number 5? Or can it happen sooner, like on 3? Or even 2?
Are there degrees of virginity? Is there a points system? A league table?
And who gets to say?
Because maybe it's not as clear as all that. Maybe there's more to it. Maybe there are people who'd still say I'm a virgin, even after doing numbers 1 to 5.
In fact, I might be one of those people.' (p74-75, Different For Boys by Patrick Ness)
I found this a really interesting idea. Sex and sexual intercourse don't necessarily have to be the same thing; you can have sex without penetration. I saw on a TV programme once a sex expert saying how straight men don't consider foreplay to be sex, if it doesn't go all the way, then it was "only" this, or "only" that. Yet male gay couples do not have to have penetration involved to class what they're doing as having sex. So perhaps "sex" has a different definition depending on who you are. And if that's the case, could the same be said for when you've lost your virginity, especially if you're a boy? It's an interesting idea, and links to something mentioned in Finding It, a later story by Anne Fine.

Charlotte by Mary Hooper

Charlotte is quite a sad historical story about how a teenage girl tries to provide for her family after the death of her mother. Not only does it highlight how things are much easier for people these days, but the different attitudes towards sex. Specifically sex before marriage.

During a conversation with her neighbour, Mrs Kyle, the older lady says:
'"Your maidenhead is the most precious possession you own. You must keep it for the man you marry."' (p132, Charlotte by Mary Hooper)
Although for some religions and cultures this is something they believe in quite strongly, generally this is such an antiquated idea. A later discussion goes on to show just how bad things used to be if you weren't a virgin when you got married.
'"Once a woman is fallen she is outside the bounds of society," Mrs Kyle went on. "There's a line between rich and poor, you know, and another - a more insurmountable line - between those who are respectable and those who are not. In spite of the poor life I lead, in spite of my miserable circumstances, I have a ring on my finger and so I am classed as respectable. A fallen woman can never be that. No decent man would ever want to marry her."' (p139, Charlotte by Mary Hooper)
That last line gave me such a jolt. It's so hard to imagine now, that a girl would be so looked down on for not being a virgin. It shows how much things have changed. Especially when thought of in regards to the quote from Scoring - '"she can't be frigid"'.

The Way It Is by Sophie McKenzie

The Way It Is is a story with dual narrative, of two teenagers, Sam and Katya, planning on losing their virginity to each other. It's really eye-opening to see how they both think and feel differently about what's to come, and what they have done before.

I did have a few issues with this story, have to say. The following quote is when Sam's Dad is trying to have The Talk with him now he has a girlfriend, and I disagree with what he's saying.
'"Sex for the girl is different," he said. "Seriously, dude, I've been everywhere and done everything and I can honestly tell you it doesn't matter how cool or tough she seems, for girls sex is always an emotional thing as well as... er... So when the time comes, whenever you and she are ready, you need to remember that she's going to need more time before to... to deal with what's happening."' (p151, The Way It Is by Sophie McKenzie)
Is this not just blatant sexism? Sure, sex is an emotional thing for some, but not all. You could argue that he's talking about first time sex, but 1) He said "always", and 2) Even if he was, again, that's not strictly the case. It's a gross generalisation. Ok, sure, maybe it's a good idea for guys to know that they should be respectful and consider the girl's feelings and what she wants, etc, of course, but I don't think it's right to put that idea across with such a generalisation. His Dad does a pretty bad job with the whole conversation, but still, I don't think that's right.

And then later, there's this:
'"Anyway, you're only a slag if you do, like, random guys, like Laura Atkins. Everyone knows that."' (p159, The Way It Is by Sophie McKenzie)
Do I really need to express how angry that line makes me? Do I?

However, I do like how, though briefly, the idea that it's not all wonderful - even before you have sex - is got across.
'"But the touching itself was a bit boring. Both ways - in fact. I mean, what's so great about having your boobs kneaded like dough and someone jabbing his finger inside you?"' (p158, The Way It Is by Sophie McKenzie)
I would have liked it if this was explored a little more - sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not, it's personal and depends on what you like - rather than left just like that.

The next story is The White Towel by Bali Rai, in which Preet, a young Asian girl learns about honour killings through being told a family secret while on Holiday in India. It's quite a disturbing story, but it shows how strongly some cultures feel about the need for a bride to be a virgin on her wedding night. It also dispells the myth of girls always bleeding during their first time. It's a great to show the harsh realities of some countries.

Finding It by Anne Fine

In Finding It, a teacher leads a Sex Ed class. Mrs Abbot narrates the story, and marvels at the way things have changed from her generation to the one she's teaching. How she feels the class is unnecessary, because her students probably know a lot more than she did at their age, know everything she would teach. It's a story that shows the sexual freedom people now have, especially girls.
'But isn't it nice that they can tell each other what they want and what they like?... I just have this memory of trying to please one man after another, and never getting any satisfaction for myself, except the feeling I had done a good job.
On them. Not me.
Fat chance of any of these little ladies sitting in front of me now acting in such a self-sacrificial way. And good for them.'
(p203, Finding It by Anne Fine)
Mrs Abbot goes on to discuss further how enjoying sex herself was a long time coming simply because it wasn't really about the girl back then, and even briefly intimates at female masturbation.
'It must have been years after knowing Peter that I even realised what sex was truly all about.
Could they imagine all those wasted years? Probably not. They'd have to understand that no one explained, and magazines weren't helpful, describing things in such a delicate way that, frankly, unless you already knew exactly what they were trying to tell you, you wouldn't grasp the point. There certainly weren't the pages of bluntly worded advice that you get now to help the tardy on the way to personal satisfaction. I swear that, until I was twenty-five I would have passed exams in differential calculus more easily than I'd have given myself a thrill.'
(p205, Finding It by Anne Fine)
I mentioned before that Different For Boys kind of links to Finding It. Where Different For Boys talks about deciding when you're not a virgin, Finding It talks about the times that don't matter - sometimes including the first - until it does; the time it starts feeling good, when it's with the right person. To me, the way they link is that perhaps Mrs Abbot "decided" she was "no longer a virgin" that first time she enjoyed it.

In some of these stories, I've mentioned things I'm not completely happy with. Now, I don't know what the right thing is to do; for the authors to write these things, they are being realistic, these are the views of teenagers these days. And yet... should authors be trying to change these unhealthy, wrong ideas? I think we can all agree that these things need to change, but where should the change start? Is it an author's responsibility to correct these misleading perceptions? I just don't know. All I know is I feel uncomfortable with the idea of teenagers reading such things, and feeling like such notions have been backed up by a book.

Saying that, Losing It is overall a great anthology with stories for everyone, that really gets you thinking.

Thank you to Andersen Press for the review copy.

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Published: 8th July 2010
Publisher: Andersen Press

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