I would never be a crazed sex-teen!

Someone could write a good teen dystopia based on the screwed-up messages that modern American society sends to teenage girls: If you have sex with boys, you’re a slut. If you don’t, you’re a prude, a lesbian, or a reject. If you dress fashionably, you’re a slut. If you dress conservatively, you’re a prude. If you really are a lesbian, you don’t exist, unless you proclaim your identity, in which case you’re shoving your sexuality on innocent heterosexual victims. If you use contraception, you’re a slut. If you don’t and you get pregnant, you’re a stupid bitch who’s ruining society.

XVI was clearly inspired by some of those messages, but it’s not good. Its problems begin with the phrase that undoubtedly sold the book, “sex-teen.” That is an inherently ridiculous word. It might work in a satire, but in a work intended to be serious, it can only produce unintentional comedy. Luckily for me, the book had lots of that.

Meet Nina, the heroine. Ginnie is her idolized mom, and Sandy is her sex-crazy “best friend.” The quote marks are because… well, judge for yourself:

Ginnie always taught us that thinking for yourself is the most important thing. When I see how Sandy blindly follows whatever the latest Media-induced frenzy is - I know my mom is right. But it's hard being the only person who thinks like me. Sometimes I wish I could just be like everyone else my age and not think at all.

[…]

Her clothes fit her a lot better than mine fit me. As Gran would say, "She's built like an MK lunar pod." Which I'm sure is why her stepdad looks at her the way he does.

[…]

Sandy’s Saturn blue plether pants were so tight there was no way she could have gotten them on over underwear – and it was obvious she hadn’t. […] The outfit made me cringe. I sincerely hoped the Sandy I knew and loved was under the Media-hyped crap she was wearing.

Isn’t Nina charming? Wouldn’t you love to spend an entire book with her?

When I was sexsixteen, I too was judgmental and looked down on many of my peers and thought I was more special than you. But I didn’t despise my friends! I loved my friends! And that, I think, made me merely self-centered rather than awful.

Here’s Nina again, rescuing an apparently homeless person and being more compassionate than anyone ever:

I should have gone. Anyone else would have left him. […] It seemed like the older I got the more I believed that everyone, homeless or not, deserved to be treated at least like a human.

Her friends, of course, are baffled and horrified that she would help a homeless person. But it turns out that he’s actually upper-class and only dresses like he’s homeless so he can sneak around being rebellious, so he is acceptable boyfriend material for Nina. (There is an official ten-tier class structure.) While Nina is currently low-class, she came from a high class and her mother voluntarily demoted herself for political reasons. All the sympathetic characters in the book are high-class or formerly high-class. Only Sandy the wannabe-slut is genuinely low-class.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I plunge into the plot, here’s the background:

Girls who turn sixteen are tattooed with the number XVI and called sex-teens. They are then legally able to have sex. I think that while they aren’t legally required to have sex on demand, they are assumed to be sex-crazy and so they are treated as fair game, and while they could theoretically press charges if they’re raped, those cases will invariably be dismissed. But it’s not very clear. They may or may not also become legal adults in other ways.

I couldn’t tell whether or not boys were tattooed, or if they were tattooed at the same age. I also have no idea why the government was so obsessed with making sixteen-year-old girls available for sex, especially since it turns out that the government also collects sixteen-year-old virgins. Given how central the sex-teen concept is, it’s oddly under-explained.

While modern teenage girls are also under a lot of pressure to have sex, may be called sluts, and can often be raped with impunity, there’s no enormous mystique about how since eighteen is the legal age to have sex, you can only have sex once you turn eighteen and absolutely have to have sex the instant you turn eighteen OMG. If a modern girl under eighteen wants to have sex, she… has sex. Since the XVI society doesn’t strictly penalize underage sex, I don’t buy the way that everyone acts like no one ever has sex before sixteen, and everyone must have it the instant they turn sixteen.

Don’t ask me what the ramifications are for non-heterosexual girls. Only straight sexuality exists in this world. (Only straight sexuality exists in all of the recent teen dystopias I’ve read, but it’s a particularly weird omission for the one which is entirely about teen sex.)

In further implausibilities, there’s an organization called FeLS, which I kept reading as FeLV (Feline Leukemia Virus), a diplomatic corps made up entirely of low-class virgin teenage girls. All sixteen-year-old low-class virgin girls must be available to be selected for it, unless they can buy their way out. Almost none of them ever come back even though the term of service is only two years, but nonetheless it’s supposed to be wonderful and glamorous and all the sixteen-year-olds who are still virgins are dying to become part of it.

I have no idea how the virginity test works, other than that it’s “physical.” I guess they check for a hymen. There are many factors which make this a dubious method of virginity testing. The hymen can be broken in other ways. Some hymens stretch rather than breaking. More significantly, and as I believe most modern American girls know, you can have oral, anal, manual, and intercrural sex without damaging the hymen. (Okay, most modern American girls probably don’t know the word intercrural, but I bet they know the concept.) So the virginity test is meaningless. They’d be better off borrowing King Math's magic broomstick from the Mabinogion and having the girls step over it to see if a baby falls out of them.

The utterly non-shocking twist at the end is that FeLS is actually a sex slavery ring run by and for the government. When Nina finds this out, and her “friend” Sandy is about to join FeLS, Nina tells Sandy what’s really going on so Sandy can make her own informed decision.

Just kidding! Like that would ever happen. Nina actually decides to make sure Sandy fails the physical virginity test by giving her a large, vibrating, brand-name, sparkly pink dildo, the “Sex-teen Sizzler,” which she knows Sandy will be unable to resist.

Nope, kidding again! This is not a book in which girls enjoy their sexuality without men around. What really happens is that Nina doesn’t tell Sandy anything, but decides to get her to have sex with a boy so she’ll fail the virginity test. Cue ridiculous angsting over whether Nina should offer Sandy her own boyfriend for this purpose.

Nina, of course, never has sex, and her boyfriend doesn’t want to have sex either. Her actual best friend, Wei, is sex-teen but still a virgin. All the positively portrayed teens want to stay virgins, while the only teenager who wants to have sex, Sandy, is a dumb slut.

There is a hint of a promising story in this mess of a book, which is that Nina has good reasons to hate and fear the thought of sex and romantic relationships – her mother is in an abusive relationship – and that creates a conflict between her increasingly undeniable sexual impulses, and her desire to both stay safe and rebel against social expectations by avoiding sex and romance.

Unfortunately, all that consists of about fifteen pages total. The rest of the book is taken up by a largely nonsensical mystery plot. Ginnie, Nina’s mom, is murdered, and with her dying breath tells Nina that her supposedly dead father is still alive. Nina and her younger sister Dee, who was fathered by the abusive Ed, are sent to live with their grandparents.

(Ed is a member of another evil government agency, B.O.S.S. I am not kidding. I immediately guessed that Ed killed Ginnie (no else is even presented as a plausible suspect), that he’s not really Dee’s father, and that the only reason Ginnie was with Ed was some idiotic revolutionary plan, because an intelligent woman would never stay in an abusive relationship unless she had a master plan that requires it. Right on all counts!)

At her new home, Nina learns that not only was the “homeless” boy she rescued coincidentally the son of one of the revolutionaries her father was involved with, but the only girl she befriends from her new apartment building is coincidentally the daughter of some more of them. This conveniently allows other people to step in periodically and give Nina bits of information, a little at a time, even though there are at least four people who could have told Nina the entire story at any time.

But aimless plotting, incoherent worldbuilding, an unlikable heroine, clunky prose, and preachiness is not all that’s wrong with this book. There is also the very, very bad decision to attempt future slang by calling vehicles “trannies.” Not only is it a real-life pejorative term, but just picture the mental image I got every time there was a line like, A trannie came out of nowhere, nearly knocking me down. Not to mention lines of dialogue like, “I told him you really like trannies,” “Girly trannie,” and “Sal’s cool. His brother has all those great trannies.”

I also laughed at every use of the word “sex-teen.” Never not funny!

But what bugged me the most were the anti-sex, anti-female desire, and anti-sexy clothing messages, mostly directed at poor authorial punching bag Sandy. Nina is constantly obsessing about the slutty way Sandy dresses and how it will tempt men to rape her. Here’s Gran on the same topic: “Why, two years ago she was as sweet and innocent as can be. Now she’s on the verge of becoming a wild sex-teen!”

Sandy, unsurprisingly, is raped and murdered at the end. At the casket, Nina muses, For all her sex-teen ways, she’d been so naïve and trusting. Victim-blaming to the very literal end!

Terrible. Terrible. Terrible. And there are many terrible aspects I didn’t even mention. Other intrepid readers, should any step up to the plate, will find unspoiled depths of awfulness to plumb.

Scariest of all, judging by the lack of closure to several major plot points, there will probably be a sequel or two. I eagerly anticipate XVII (Semen-teen), and the conclusion, XVIII (Ate-teen).

Thank you very much to the sponsors who made this post happen! If you enjoyed reading this review, please consider making a donation to the organization this review was written to benefit, The Virginia Avenue Project. ("Using the arts to help kids discover their full potential! 100% of Project kids graduate from high school. 95% go to college. 98% are the first in their families to do so!"

If you do donate, feel free to say that Rachel Manija Brown sent you. Please don't say, "I'm here because of sex-teen!" Given the nature of the Project, that could cause some unfortunate confusion. ;)

XVI
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kate_nepveu: sleeping cat carved in brown wood (Default)

From: [personal profile] kate_nepveu


(There is an official ten-tier class structure.)

!!

(Okay, most modern American girls probably don’t know the word intercrural, but I bet they know the concept.)

Count me in with most modern American girls on this one. I am educated!

B.O.S.S. I am not kidding.

How I wish you were.

Sandy, unsurprisingly, is raped and murdered at the end.

Oh for fuck's sake. Actually I was surprised. I guess I hadn't calibrated my expectations to be low enough.

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kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore


WOW. And that got published? Jesus. Fucking. Christ. You must have synapses of solid steel, to read that and still be able to laugh at the book rather than ripping it into tiny tiny pieces!
oursin: Brush the Wandering Hedgehog by the fire (Default)

From: [personal profile] oursin


I will be making contribution but ideally when I am not connected by non-encrypted free hotel wifi, if that's okay
snarp: small cute androgynous android crossing arms and looking very serious (Default)

From: [personal profile] snarp


The phrase "her sex-teen ways" is used in the book? I think that this may be one of the seminal works of literature of the 21st century. I personally intend to work that phrase into everyday conversation whenever possible.

I couldn’t tell whether or not boys were tattooed, or if they were tattooed at the same age.

Judging by the scene at the beginning of the book where a boy has just celebrated his eighteenth (not sixteenth) birthday by getting some sort of surgically-implanted GPS tracer removed, I was assuming neither. Nina's only able to guess that he's eighteen because he's rubbing the spot where it would have been, so there are probably no other visual cues.
royalfireworks: A shot of the famous scene from the film Chariots of Fire, with all the Olympic hopefuls running on the beach. (Default)

From: [personal profile] royalfireworks


...well, I'll never be reading this book, not only because it sounds, y'know, terrible, but also because it can't be nearly as interesting as your review of it! Will see if I can donate once I have something to spare.
torachan: anime-style me ver. 2.0 (Default)

From: [personal profile] torachan


Loved your review!

I clicked over to Amazon and was boggled at the rating. Four stars! And that's not even like based on one lone review or anything. Out of 59 reviews, 13 were 5-star, 27 were 4-star, 14 were 3-star, 5 were 2-star, and there were no 1-star reviews! DDDDDDDDDDDD:




From: [identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com


Wow, that's even worse than I thought it would be!

Someone could write a good teen dystopia based on the screwed-up messages that modern American society sends to teenage girls

This book seems to reinforce those messages more than it critiques them. Maybe not the "doesn't have sex = prude" part, but it seems heavily invested in the rest of them. And you can't just remove one part that way.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


According to the afterword, the author thought that teenage girls were getting sent mixed messages. So, I guess she wanted to send the unmixed message that teen sex is bad and good girls don't do it.

Not actually an improvement, in my opinion.

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From: [identity profile] holyschist.livejournal.com


(Donated!)

But it's hard being the only person who thinks like me. Sometimes I wish I could just be like everyone else my age and not think at all.

Wow, she's delightful.

Isn’t Nina charming? Wouldn’t you love to spend an entire book with her?

I am really admiring your fortitude in doing so for your readers/charity, believe me!

Sandy, unsurprisingly, is raped and murdered at the end.

Of course.

I am boggled, utterly boggled, that someone wrote this. Thank you for forcing your way through it and writing this review for our trainwrecky entertainment!

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Thank you!

I will say this for the book: it was at least entertainingly trainwrecky, rather than "claw my eyes out boring."

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genarti: Baby sloth looking over edge of cardboard box, with text "...duuuude." ([misc] duuuuuude)

From: [personal profile] genarti


...WOW. I expected an incoherent mess, but not to quite that extent of incoherently problematic ridiculousness! Gracious.
Edited Date: 2011-05-31 04:05 pm (UTC)

From: [identity profile] kateelliott.livejournal.com


You earned those donations! I'm continually amazed -- no, alas, I'm not unfortunately -- by the conservatism and conventionalism of a lot of these novels.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Discussion topic: which is the more conservative YA genre overall, dystopia or urban fantasy of the "paranormal romance" type?

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From: [identity profile] coraa.livejournal.com


Wow! Wow! I was expecting bad, but this is worse even than I was expecting! (I was expecting that Sandy would get knocked up or otherwise in moderate trouble, not raped and murdered.)

Incidentally, the subculture of my crazy school was very like this: slut-shaming without much in the way of prude-shaming. (You got prude-shaming from contact with the main body of society, of course, but not much within the church/school itself.) Astonishingly, that did not make it much better; the definition of 'slut' simply expanded to include any behavior they didn't like, resulting in an equally narrow and impossible range of acceptable options.

The bit about wishing she could be stupid and gullible like all her friends almost reads like parody. Shame it wasn't.

When I was sexsixteen, I too was judgmental and looked down on many of my peers and thought I was more special than you. But I didn’t despise my friends! I loved my friends! And that, I think, made me merely self-centered rather than awful.

Incidentally, this was a huge part of my issue with Cyn Balog's Fairy Tale. It was really clear that the main character was utterly contemptuous of her supposed best friend. (It was also indicative of the main character's more general selfishness, so it was consistent characterization, just consistend characterization of someone I didn't much like or want to spend a book with.) I came to realize that, while I can be made sympathetic to loner protags who don't like anyone, I have real issues with people who claim to have a best friend and then treat them like scum.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


I think readers tend to have lines they draw in the sand, and if a character steps over them it's straight into the Moral Event Horizon. Infidelity is a common one. Despising your own friends is one of mine. (Luckily, that comes up less than infidelity.)

Note that both share elements of hurting the ones you (supposedly) love, and of humiliation squick.

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From: [identity profile] penmage.livejournal.com


I'm glad to hear you say that the concept of sex-teen and the consequences are not quite fully explained, because I didn't catch them either, but I assumed it was because I just didn't care that much about the book, so I was mostly skimming and missed it.

From: [identity profile] janni.livejournal.com


Ginnie always taught us that thinking for yourself is the most important thing. When I see how Sandy blindly follows whatever the latest Media-induced frenzy is - I know my mom is right. But it's hard being the only person who thinks like me. Sometimes I wish I could just be like everyone else my age and not think at all.

Alternate dystopic world or not, I will now proceed to be indignant on behalf of all the many underestimated teens who think for themselves quite well, thanks very much.

(Though a teen believing she's the only one who really thinks ... maybe not so unbelievable.)
Edited Date: 2011-05-31 06:24 pm (UTC)

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


I did spend a lot of time thinking I was smarter than most people and looking down on the masses. But I graciously made exceptions for my friends and some other people I respected. And if you march in protests, which I did a lot, you have to realize that even if you're in the minority, everyone at the protest agrees with you.

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From: [identity profile] movingfinger.livejournal.com


On the basis of "trannie" alone, I feel we can bestow on this author the Midden Award for intentional abuse of an English word in a novel.

From: [identity profile] poilass.livejournal.com


Donated, and well worth the money I feel. This sounds *awful*. I'm glad it has such a catchy title so I won't forget to avoid it.

From: [identity profile] asakiyume.livejournal.com


Sometimes I wonder if this culture hate young girls having sex more than has been true in the misty reaches of time. In ballads, for example, girls sometimes get raped and murdered, it's true, but you also get girls coming on to guys, wanting to take take a roll in the hay--and this is seen as natural. Female desire is *natural.*

It's bizarre that on the one hand this culture can obsess about sex and at the same time make desire seem like a bad thing.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


If girls enjoy sex, they're sluts. If they don't have sex, they're losers.

It's like the only way the sex/no sex conundrum can be resolved is if girls have sex that they don't want and don't enjoy. Maybe that's why it so often seems like it's easier to get away with depictions of rape than of consensual sex.

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From: [identity profile] copperwise.livejournal.com


....wow. Just wow.

As much as I still love reading good YA, I believe I'll give this one a wide berth. Thanks for taking one for the team.


From: [identity profile] tekalynn.livejournal.com


Synopsis of the synopsis:

EWWWWWWW.

I admire you for making it all the way through that ghastly waste of paper.

From: [identity profile] innocentsmith.livejournal.com


Her clothes fit her a lot better than mine fit me. As Gran would say, "She's built like an MK lunar pod." Which I'm sure is why her stepdad looks at her the way he does.

JESUS CHRIST. I'm still reading the rest of the review, but I had to stop here and just say: JESUS FUCKING CHRIST. D: WTF, author?!

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


I have to ask: WTF at which part? There's at least two things in there I went WTF at.

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ext_6981: (Default)

From: [identity profile] allie-meril.livejournal.com


Donated!

Thanks for writing the review, it was so awesomely trainwrecky that at some points I did want to scream and throw it at the wall....

From: [identity profile] daidoji-gisei.livejournal.com


I guess they check for a hymen. There are many factors which make this a dubious method of virginity testing.

As a physics geek I am impelled to point out that it works if you simply define virginity as "having a hymen". It's how physics deals with time, by simply defining it as "that thing which is measured by a clock".

Sadly, I don't think anything as neat as relativity is going to come out of this.
rydra_wong: Lee Miller photo showing two women wearing metal fire masks in England during WWII. (Default)

From: [personal profile] rydra_wong


I actually, genuinely misread that as "that thing which is measured by a cock".

Which seemed, in the context of this review, strangely appropriate.

From: [identity profile] icecreamempress.livejournal.com


You know who this protag's destined soulmate is? The HOOKS FOR HANDS guy from that Baratz-Logsted book.

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From: [identity profile] seiberwing.livejournal.com


Sex-teen. This plot sounds like something I'd read on Literotica.
ironed_orchid: pin up girl reading kant (Default)

From: [personal profile] ironed_orchid


I forgot, but I have now donated.

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