rachelmanija: (Fishes: I do not see why the sex)
rachelmanija ([personal profile] rachelmanija) wrote2011-05-31 07:50 am

XVI, by Julia Karr

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

[identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com 2011-05-31 06:16 pm (UTC)(link)
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.

[identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com 2011-05-31 06:24 pm (UTC)(link)
Definitely not an improvement.

It's interesting to compare this and the other dystopias you've mentioned recently to Bujold's Beta Colony. Which is a society where the government controls or regulates lots of things (including the ability to have children), and teenage girls actually do have external markers that show they're able to have sex (I'm not sure if it was ever made clear if men and herms wear the coded earrings as well, or if they have some similar system).

[identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com 2011-05-31 06:30 pm (UTC)(link)
I'm not sure it was explicitly stated, but it seemed clear from context that people of all genders wore some kind of marker of preference/availability.

Beta Colony comes across very differently, partly because there are clear reasons for why it is the way it is, and partly because all the potentially dystopic elements have clearly explained positive and negative sides, so it doesn't seem so black-and-white. Plus, the government is comparatively hands-off - the earrings aren't mandated by anything but social pressure.

[identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com 2011-05-31 06:37 pm (UTC)(link)
The earrings aren't mandated, to be sure, but I bet a lot of people would see a society with forced contraception as dystopic. But you're right, it doesn't come across as one because it's much better thought out than all these one-note dystopias. (It actually seems like a decent enough place to live, all things considered.)

One could probably write a much better dystopian novel by taking a society like Beta and making it a little bit worse in just the right ways.

[identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com 2011-05-31 06:59 pm (UTC)(link)
I don't think any of Bujold's societies are true dystopias, other than Jackson's Whole. I would probably be quite happy in Beta Colony. I would hate Barrayar, but that's not because it's objectively horrible in every respect, but because it has limited roles for women.

[identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com 2011-05-31 07:09 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh, I agree, other than Jackson's Whole they're all meant to be reasonable in their own ways. Even Athos, which is quite functional considering how messed-up the founders obviously were.

I get the impression in the later books that Barrayar is not quite as constraining for women who are not either a)Vor or b)intent on a military career. However, it obviously still has a way to go to catch up to galactic society in general, so no, I wouldn't recommend living there (I wouldn't want to, either).

I don't know about Cetaganda, either - I know I wouldn't want to be a ghem-lord, but we know so little about how anyone below the ghem lives that it's hard to say. Beta Colony, sure. Escobar, Earth, sure. Athos, definitely not for me.

[identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com 2011-05-31 07:15 pm (UTC)(link)
Actually, I would rather live on Barrayar than on Kline Station. Barrayar would be frustrating and confining, but on Kline Station I would either go insane or be tossed out an airlock within a fortnight.

Athos is one of the more positive one-gender societies I've come across. Other than the lack of women (big catch!), it seems very nice and peaceful. Though part of that is that Ethan is the sort of person who likes that kind of society. For more adventurous types, it's a bit dull and stifling.

[identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com 2011-05-31 07:20 pm (UTC)(link)
Ditto on Kline Station. I had kind of forgotten about it.

For more adventurous types, it's a bit dull and stifling.

Rather like Beta, in fact ("mind you, a great place to raise kids"). And they both have governmental control over reproduction (and partially for the same reason). I doubt that Bujold intended this to be a Thing (controlled reproduction=peaceful society), but it's an interesting parallel I hadn't thought of previously.

[identity profile] daidoji-gisei.livejournal.com 2011-05-31 11:33 pm (UTC)(link)
If sex is bad and good girls don't do it, why is the author 'punishing' virgins by selling them into slavery? No part of this book makes sense!

[identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com 2011-06-01 01:37 am (UTC)(link)
You're right! I hadn't even thought of that part. Even the anti-sex message is internally inconsistent!