Sex in the Valley

I read ‘up’ when I was twelve and thirteen years old. I was done with Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden and Wind in the Willows. Instead, I was fascinated with the paperback titles on my much older sisters’ bedside tables: The Godfather. Valley of the Dolls. And their voices when they talked about them sounded hushed and shivery and excited.

As soon as they went out on dates, I spirited those books right into my reading nook at the back of my closet. And read them from cover to cover, over and over and over again. I wasn’t quite sure what sex was but I knew it had something to do with love and kissing. Books were the safe way for me to grapple with all the feelings and confusion about it. I didn’t want to go out and have sex. I didn’t want to get married and have sex. But I wanted to understand what sex was and why it caused people to get hushed and shivery. Oh and if I could figure out what sex had to do with love, that’d be great because it seemed like if you did love someone, then sex was mandatory.

Yeah, that’s what I was thinking about when I hit my teen years. And no, I did not have a chat with my parents about it.

Fast forward a couple of decades, I am standing in a middle school library in the Rio Grande Valley with several classes of seventh and eighth graders staring at me. Even though I had told the Superintendent that Evidence of Things Not Seen was more appropriate to high schools (which was where I visited in the morning), she had placed me at a middle school in the afternoon. Not only that, she had ordered books for all the students and distributed them about a week before my visit. As an author, it’s really cool when a school district invests in your books that way. I was pleased.

Anyway, about an hour before I went to the middle school, I was told that one of the teachers had started reading the book and was very uncomfortable with the subject matter. Could I not talk about the book and do a writing workshop instead? Ever adaptable and wanting to please, I said sure. (One of the risks of being a Young Adult author: You want to please the gate keepers because they don’t ban books anymore, they overlook authors with books whose subject matters make them uncomfortable. See Phil Bildner and Kate Messer)

What is the uncomfortable subject matter in Evidence, you ask? In one chapter, a girl can’t accept the affections of a boy because she is an incest survivor; In another, a girl forces her best friend to have sex with her; in another, a girl (who has been pimped out by her mother) mistakes sex for love and is twisted by the betrayal. These relationships are subplots to the main arc of Tommy Smythe having gone missing. In a way, his missing-ness makes the whole town wobble in all the chapters, especially in the ones where the kids are dealing with sex. I don’t write down to kids.

Okay so there I am in the library with about forty kids and every one of them has my book in front of them. I look at the librarian. I don’t have to say a word. My book is the big elephant in the room. How am I supposed to do a writing workshop and not talk about it?

She asks how many kids have read the book? Three quarters of the room raise their hands. How many have started it? Most of the rest of the hands went up. How many haven’t started the book? Three hands went up. All of them said. “It was taken away before I could start it.” The librarian looked at me. “I think you better talk about the book.”

And so we did. I talked about the genesis of the book and how I wove it together. I talked about how my interview with Karla Faye Tucker inspired the character Karla Raye the girl/prostitute who murders the man who used her. I talked about how most every character in Evidence is inspired by my years as a journalist and by real life events around me.

A boy at one of the tables raises his hand, “Where did the character Izzy come from?”

I took a breath. Izzy is the girl who forces her best friend to have sex with her because she wants to lose her virginity.

“Okay, so when I your age, I felt pressured about sex: When to have it. Who to have it with? How to have it? It seemed like whole world was having sex or about to and I couldn’t figure out where I fit in. Do you guys feel like that?”

Heads nod.

“I only know that pressure from the girls’ side. But I bet guys feel it as much but in a different kind of way.”

A few boys’ heads nod.

“I wrote this chapter because I wanted to show two kids figuring it out. Badly. I wanted to show the difference between intimacy and sex. There’s such a focus on sex and having sex that we miss the hundred thousand ways to be intimate. Holding hands. Talking. Going for a walk. Cooking together. Dancing. Instead we use sex as the only way to be close with another person. That’s what Alex was trying to tell Izzy. Do you get that?”

All of them nod. Yeah they were all staring straight ahead not looking at one another but I wasn’t expecting high fives.

So I went to the Rio Grande Valley and talked about sex with a bunch of middle school kids. No one died. In fact, the librarian thanked me for handling it so well.

“Not a problem. I think kids liked to be talked to straight. It’s also why I don’t hold back when I write. I think they need to peek over the edge at more grown up stuff without the risk of falling.”

Like I did.