How Sexy is Too Sexy?

mllLe8AHow much explicit sex is acceptable in a book required for a college class?  If students have some say in whether they read the book, does that make a difference?

One of my courses includes a list of eight novels about adolescence.  Four or five students will read each novel and will work together to present it to the class.  I speak to them briefly about each book at the beginning of the semester.  They browse the books (I provide them with front and back covers and first chapters), and give me a list of their top three choices; I do my best to accommodate their preferences.

Each year, when ordering books for the coming semester, I look at the list from last time and adapt it, based on how the novels from the previous year went over.  This year, I’m jettisoning three novels from last time and replacing them with new ones.

As I carry out this process, I have a foolish habit.  In the scramble to put together a list of eight books (or, in a recent scenario, forty-five books) on a particular subject or of a particular genre, I sometimes throw in something that I haven’t actually read.  And for “sometimes,” read “often.”  Every time, I regret this decision.  And the next time, I do it again.  This semester I HAD to get my book orders in at a moment when I had NO TIME to do any extra reading.  And so I decided to once again throw caution to the winds, and ordered Scott Spencer’s Endless Love for my course on novels about adolescence.

I’d been meaning for years to read Endless Love, based on recommendations from a number of book critics I respect.  I’d even downloaded and read an excerpt on my e-reader, and was blown away by it, and had been intending to buy and read the whole thing ever since.  I hadn’t gotten around to it, but I figured that my impulse to keep reading, and the general critical acclaim the book has received, and its focus on adolescent love, made it suitable.  So I placed my order, and got myself a copy, and started reading.

Thirty-five pages in, I was greeted with a graphic, dripping, pulsating depiction of teenage, heterosexual anal sex.

The scene is not gratuitous.  It’s fundamental to the fabric of the novel.  It is beautifully, if shockingly (at least to me) rendered.  It is absolutely appropriate to the book.

The questions is, is it appropriate for a college classroom?

Some of my students will be under eighteen; some will be deeply and narrowly religious; some will be really immature.  Others will be able to handle explicit sex scenes and appreciate them for what they are: an integral part of the story.  When I briefly present the book to the class and mention that some of them may wish to avoid it if they’re uncomfortable with graphic sex, many of them will be titillated and will choose the book for that reason.  (This is what happens with Alice Sebold’s Lucky in my memoir course, when I tell them they should avoid it if they are worried about the opening rape scene; the vast majority of students choose it as one of their readings.)  Others will be absent that day, will be assigned the book or choose it themselves, and will be outraged.

Is it worth the hassle?  I’m three-quarters of the way through now; for the last 250 pages, there has been no sex, although I can see some on its way.  (Yes, another concern is that this novel is LONG.)  It’s a really good book, and some of them are going to love it.  If I want to pull it from the course, I need to let the bookstore know, like, now.

What’s a teacher to do?  Trust that they will choose wisely and handle the consequences?  Take the chance that there will be fallout?  Find another book?  What would you do?

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41 responses

  1. Yes, I think. Trust them. They won’t all handle it well, but trust is fundamental for intellectual development. And if they get upset or behave badly about it, those are learning experiences.

    • Ashana: I agree; being upset by something can be an important part of learning. However, I can think of times in my adolescence when I read something I dearly wished I could un-read…

  2. I think I would ditch the book on account of the length, not the sex. ;) I still haven’t read Moby Dick, or Ulysses, or the Brothers Karamazov, or a host of other books I was assigned in college . . .

    I’m not a professor, but as a student, I would think that the disclaimer at the beginning of the course would be sufficient for the students to make a decision. Does it bother you that students might select the novel because of the sex, rather than avoid it?

    • Karen: I haven’t made it through any of those, either, despite several stabs at each…Endless Love is quite a different animal, though, and is compulsively readable. I’m not at all bothered by the idea that they might choose the novel for the sex. In fact, I hope that will inspire some of them to read a longer and more complex book than they would otherwise attempt!

  3. Hi Siobhan,
    I, too, have grappled with the very same issue at the high school level. The truth is kids will read want to read. Case in point, one of my students (h.s. junior) read the 50 Shades series which she said was okay with her parents, though I did not permit her to use it for an independent reading project.
    I chose The Game of Thrones last summer for a summer reading group with students who signed up (other teachers chose other books and also had students sign up to read with them). This novel was recommended to me. I had not read it or seen the television show. So, I was reading it cold, which was part of the summer reading pilot. When I began reading, I thought hmmm… this might be a little racey/uncomfortable. How will I handle it when I get back to school? There was sex, but even more so gratuitous violence. I rec’d an email from a concerned parent. I told her we would not be discussing the sex or violence, but we might touch upon why/how they are necessary to include with the plot. I also told her that if she or her daughter was uncomfortable with the subject matter, it would be fine for her to join another group with reading more suitable for her. She seemed, if not happy, compliant with my response and allowed her child to continue reading and participate in the discussion to follow.
    I have read Endless Love and thoroughly loved it. I agree, the sex at the beginning is necessary to the unfolding of the story. I think as long as they know what they’re signing up for, it’s not a book to be censored. After all, sophomores in high school are reading The Kite Runner, a curriculum-approved novel, with a pretty horrific rape scene.
    I say… keep it! There shouldn’t be fall out at the college level, especially, and if you feel it has literary merit… that’s reason enough for it to remain.
    Let me know how you handle it. Good luck!

    • MM: I’m interested in your discussion w/ the parent in which you said that you would not be discussing the sex/violence in class. My impulse would be to do the opposite, and that’s something that concerns me in this case – because each group is reading a different book, we have little time for whole-class discussions of individual books, and there are a number of problematic things in EL that I would like to address w/ students directly. I haven’t read GofT, but I’ve watched the pilot of the series; as a teacher, I’d feel obligated to address the incest/violence/etc. with the students. What are your thoughts on this?

      • My thought would be to definitely address incest and violence, but not the acts themselves. I think college students are mature enough to have that conversation, some high school students are too, but then there are those who make lude comments about acts just to get a rise out of the students and teacher. By setting the parameters early, I think this will help maintain an adult conversation with your students. With the GOT discussion we talked about how Martin uses sex to characterize women as pawns and property. Our discussion of GOT went really well; in fact, there wasn’t a point that I became uncomfortable about where the conversation was leading. As far as the parent is concerned, if you need to address that, I would reassure a parent that the heart of the conversation will be in addressing the issues themselves which arise out of the content. Let’s face it, kids/ college & h.s. students alike, are exposed to some pretty explicit sex & violence. And, I believe, by giving them a controlled platform to discuss such issues will only help them achieve healthy/thoughtful perspectives on them. In fact, if they were not uncomfortable at least for some of the discussion, I think that might be cause for worry of a whole different kind. Kids today are so desensitized that discussion like this very much has value in the classroom.
        I know we walk a thin line, sometimes, but I’d rather teeter it because the result is usually very meaningful learning.
        I hope this helps :)

    • Same here.
      I’m teaching 10th graders this year in a literature class and we agreed on reading “Looking for Alaska” by John Green.
      And I consider it a great youth novel about friendship and guilt and absolution and even religion. It has been nominated for the German youth literature award twice (and won some international awards, i think).
      But I’m not sure if I want to discuss the scene where Miles is introduced to oral sex with my 15-year olds.
      Considering two of my 14-year olds are already teenage mothers and at least one abortion in class, I’m pretty sure they’ve heard of oral sex before.
      Nevertheless I’m not sure if the book is inappropriate for a literature class. Maybe it is just me, but I feel uncomfortable talking about that stuff with students, even if it is about a fictional character.
      And as a teacher freshman, I don’t feel prepared for having a discussion with parents.

      But it’s a great book. Dilemma.

  4. As a college student, I think you should trust them. I know from high school many of the teachers would baby us as students and shield us from such scenes, and rightfully so considering many of my peers would not have been mature about it; however, for a college class, the students want to be treated like college students. They don’t want to be “babied” anymore and they want to be treated as young adults because they are. I think they’ll be able to handle it, and since you do give a disclaimer before they choose to read the novel then they have the opportunity to reject. If they choose to read it regardless, they will learn for themselves whether or not they would choose to read books with graphic sex scenes in them again.

    • Goalfulchels: I think your last point is a good one: from reading this book, students might give some careful thought to what they want in their literature and what they don’t.

  5. I’m hesitant to offer a suggestion that quite possibly makes more work for you, but give them a disclaimer and let them choose an alternate selection if they’re deeply not comfortable with graphic sex?

    On the whole, though, I think they can be trusted to handle it, in the context in which it’s presented. *Most* of them will have had sex in real life…it’s not like you’re in the position of exposing them to something that their parents haven’t properly explained yet. Literature is about life, and most people have sex in life.

    • Chavisory: do you mean to say that even if they choose the book after I’ve given the disclaimer, I could give them an opportunity to switch books later? I suppose that might work if I give them a very strict deadline (it might also encourage them to read faster…) In fact, giving all students a week to change their minds about their books might be an interesting way to get them started on their reading!

  6. I say go for it. The fact that the scene is not gratuitous and has significant bearing on the story will come out in discussion. This will no doubt be a lively session.

    • JT: I would totally agree with you if we had the opportunities for more whole-class discussions of these books. It’s tricky when these readings and the discussion of them are mostly the responsibility of the students, and my guidance is minimal…

  7. I never assign a book which I have not read myself. It’s always a bad idea.

    If the scene made you uncomfortable, imagine how a parent of an 18 year kid might feel if they pick it up and read it. (I have actually done that before with books my girls read in college, because I love to read.)

    Our society has become obsessed with sex. There are plenty of good, well-written books which have great plots and minimal sex.

    I would not assign the book.

    • Robin: yes, as I explained in my post, I always regret this when I do it. As for a parent of an 18-year-old, I’m not terribly concerned about him or her. Because I am a college teacher, the students, not the parents, are my responsibility.

  8. Again, I am answering from both my teacher and my dean hats. This time, I agree with myself. I say trust the students to make the decision. My only hesitation is the students who might be under 18. I say treat them the say, but know some parents may not be thrilled. In the CA Community Colleges, an underage student who signs up for a college class is treated like an adult, but that does not keep parents from being ticked off when they are told I cannot give them information on their young student. Anyway, you may want to make a general disclosure: Some of these novels may contain explicit sex or violence. If you want to avoid such scenes, alert me when you make your book choice, and I will give you feedback on the nature of the material before your decision is finalized.

    • Patti: yes, I imagine there are some parents who would be perturbed, and that’s always a hassle, but as you say, that’s not our concern on a pedagogical level. I think my deeper issue is with – not to be overdramatic – actually scarring someone. In fact, a colleague responded privately to this post by saying that she has NEVER recovered from reading EL when she was a teenager. I suspect this has something to do with a scene I haven’t reached yet. I therefore have to spend today finishing the book before I make any final decisions…

  9. I work in higher education as an administrative staff and I have to say, yes this is appropriate for college. Not only are the students legal adults, but half of them became sexually active in their early years. By introducing sex through literature, the students are forced to view and discuss this from a literary or theme standpoint, instead of just “Yeah, sex is awesome”.

    • Caitlin: this is an excellent point. I think we are more prone to shying away from disturbing portrayals of sexuality than we are of violence or emotional trauma. This might have to do with the borderline age of our students. Some things are simply NOT suitable for children, and some of our students are barely more than that, chronologically and psychologically. That said, many of them have had sexual experiences, and some of those sexual experiences haven’t been good. Dare I say most haven’t been good? Sex when you’re a teenager is such a bucket of worms… So why shouldn’t they read about this stuff? You’re right.

  10. I love all the viewpoints expressed here and it’s a great learning experience for me. The way I see it is when one asks the question of how much is too much, then it may ‘too much’ to suggest to a 17/18 year old. There’s a difference in sexy and pornography – which is it? That one episode in the book would verge on pornography for me. You commented that you sometimes regret the decision of putting a book on the list that you hadn’t read, which is what happened again in this case, leads me to think that if you had read the book previously you ‘may’ not have considered it for the list. As for me, I don’t think I would suggest it to a 17 year old to read, whether for their own enjoyment or as part of the learning process in university. I’m speaking more from the point of view of a mother and my own moral outlook, which is kind of a biased view, The difficult decision ultimately has to be the teachers. All the best with it!!

  11. Gosh, they’re in college. The course content is important, but it seems to me that college is more about learning how to handle clashing views and mature content. Keep the book. We read The Englishman’s Boy in first year university and people were irked about the language of the wolfers. The prof allowed them to read a different section out loud. They got over it.

  12. Go for it. Then in the presentation, hopefully the students will discuss its appropriateness for teen readers. Let them rip it to shreds or give it high praise as long as they can back up their points. At my school the kids read some pretty races stuff for the IB.

    Is Hate List on your reading list? It too is around 300 pages, but actually a quick read. It is about a girl who survived a school shooting perpetrated by her boyfriend. What I love about this book is its narrative. It goes back and forth in flashback as she begins to work through the trauma. As she recovers it is less and less in the past.

  13. lol in this age, young adults (<24) are way into much more things than anal sex.. if they don't like the book they probably will let you know.. do they have the option of changing books?

  14. This is a question of balance, and it’s hard for any one teacher/professor to manage the issue effectively. If all of the books that students read are tame and respectful of traditional boundaries about what’s OK to put in a story, they will disengage and think that literature is stuffy and removed. But if all of it is extreme and focuses on troubling, high-voltage issues, some students may be traumatized, and all of them will come to think that literature has to have that level of shock value in order to be worth reading. Learning to appreciate literature (whether modern or classical) where the violence and sex are off-stage should be part of the goal for students; learning to cope with some level of on-stage discomfort (think Shakespeare; think Faulkner) should also be part of the goal.

    I would take a pass on novels that are merely using sex and violence as a way to get published. Its pretty much de rigeur to have a major sex scene and a major violence scene in modern novels; helping students see that these are mere conventions too is a useful exercise.

  15. Thanks very much for all the feedback, folks. I finished the book yesterday, and I’m feeling very uncertain about it. The sex is beyond graphic – a colleague describes one scene in particular as being absolutely traumatizing, and I can see why – and because they are mostly responsible for examining these books on their own, with little input from me, I hesitate to include it. I am considering three possibilities:

    1. Pulling the book and replacing it with another.
    2. Pulling the book, but leaving the first pages in the course pack (not including the first sex scene) and using it for an exercise. This would give us a chance to discuss the book in some detail, and might send some of them off to read it on their own time.
    3. Leaving the book on the list but adding a ninth book. Discussing EL with them and explaining my concerns, and allowing for the possibility that few of them will choose it (perhaps subtly encouraging them not to by emphasizing how long it is, that they need to be good readers to tackle it etc.) and then excluding it if there aren’t too many takers.

    Why would I leave it on the list and then encourage them not to choose it? Because I have a feeling some of them might really enjoy it, disturbing scenes notwithstanding. I love the idea that some students who aren’t readers would be intrigued enough to read a 420-page literary novel. And I think some of the more skilled and mature students could conduct a really interesting discussion on it. So I’m interested to see what might happen if I give them the option, but I’d like to give myself an out by increasing the number of other choices.

    Still thinking about it. Your responses have helped! So thanks again.

  16. I like your thought process, and I have another way of looking at this issue to suggest: it’s not our job to go to extremes in a publicly-supported educational institution. That job is for the students themselves. We would not offer readings that are worthwhile but incredibly boring (to young people) — I’m thinking of the poetry of Dryden, for example. Booooring. But significant in the overall story of English literature, and possibly of interest to one or two students in each class. By the same token, we are justified in avoiding extremes of sex and violence (and for that matter, purely emotional extremes). The fact that some students might like a novel like Endless Love does not outweigh the need to create curriculum that is built for emotionally-vulnerable young people. And it has occurred to me that a book like that (haven’t read it myself) would find a more appropriate role in a psychology class — with an instructor skilled enough to manage the challenging reactions that might occur.

  17. I wanted to second what Truvei said–I really appreciate seeing what everyone has to say and their reasons. It’s a great learning experience! On one hand, I think the idea of explaining honestly to your class what your hesitations are and then allowing them the opportunity to choose or reject the book is great–it gives them choice, which I think they would enjoy at this age. I’m not even sure I would let students change their minds if they get into it and decide it’s “too much”–first of all, you DID warn them and they still chose it, and it would be a good learning experience for them overall–what they think they can handle, what they actually can handle, and what they learn from that experience both as students and as perhaps future teachers.

    (I actually read Endless Love yeaaaaars ago when I was probably a very young (and very sheltered and younger-than-my-years) teen and I don’t remember it being traumatizing at all…which I think means I did NOT understand what I was reading. Anyway, that’s not really relevant!)

    I think the *context* in which you want to discuss the book is the most important thing. If the class is based around the idea of “appropriateness” and “censorship” and how, as future teachers, your students would navigate these same questions, then it might be an appropriate book? From your responses I’m getting the feeling that you feel you would have to discuss very “heavy” sex-related topics with the students and you don’t feel like you have time you would want or need to do so. It also sounds like the class would be drifting away from discussing literature/literary devices and more into the sexual lives of adolescents/complexities of sexual lives of adolescents, and that’s not quite what you want. And for *that* reason alone perhaps it’s best to leave it off.

  18. Ooooh, I just saw that Nancy Pearl recommends Susan Choi’s new book My Education as “the best novel about obsessive love that I’ve read since Scott Spencer’s Endless Love”! I wonder if it would make a good replacement?!

  19. I am a 56 year old former teacher. I don’t want to read sex. I certainly DO NOT want to read about anal sex.

    There are plenty of great novels. Cast that one out.

  20. I love your blog and am so happy I found it. OK, now to the post — I am a high school American Lit and creative writing teacher (fiction mostly) in a high school for the arts in Virginia. It’s a public high school but students have to apply to be accepted. I have been teaching, all levels, from elementary to college (used to teach composition) for 26 years. Now — I grapple with these very questions all the time w/ my high school students– who, for the most part, are pretty sophisticated readers. In Fiction class, my philosophy is that my budding writers have to deal with all kinds of writing and all kinds of scenes — yet some of them are only 15 and, like your students, deeply religious, or sheltered or…(our students come from 14 different districts and all sorts of backgrounds!). In my Fiction II class, I assign a book for summer reading that wins a local award –(VCU Cabell First Novelist Award) — so I am always reading along with them for the first time, and occasionally (OK, often), I find myself in your situation, thinking: oh lord, if I had read this in advance, I might not have assigned it! But — I have never had a problem with any of the students. Some of them have not particularly liked reading the tough scenes — explicit sex or violence — and would not have chosen it for themselves. But, I do think they learn from both the writing and the discussion afterwards. IT’s funny — one year the winning novel was about a porn writer who interviews a serial killer (David Gordon’s THE SERIALIST) — and when I mentioned I had assigned it to my high school students, my VCU colleagues were horrified. But, my students loved the book! They understood that it was MORE than gratuitous violence and sex, that it was a commentary on storytelling in all sorts…they asked interesting questions at the Q & A with the author and convinced me that reading all kinds of material is worth it. So — after such a long-winded comment, my thought is to definitely allow the book.

    I love reading everyone else’s comments here. I guess I come at this more as a writer and as a teacher of writing — though in my American Lit class, I have similar decisions to make too (for instance, do we read ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, with its proliferation of the N-word? We do — and we discuss it a LOT, and every year, my students — many of them African American — tell me it’s a “must read”). Anyway — it’s interesting to me that you grapple with this for college students for whom I don’t think I’d give this a second thought! But this conversation has given me many interesting perspectives.
    As a writer, I think it’s important to be able to read /think about and consider all kinds of situations because they form the entirety of human experience. I agree with EB.
    I’ll be curious about your ultimate decision! I’m excited to be following your blog!

  21. Honestly, you should just let them read it. Part of college–at least in my opinion–is challenging your students to be able to think for themselves. If that’s the case, then it would be your imperative to present them with a captivating novel that has elements that could potentially spark discussion. Sure, some will get offended, but now they’ll have the motivation to discuss it in class or write about their opinions on the matter in great detail. Personally, I don’t even think you should warn them.

  22. Don’t pull it! College is not high school anymore (thankfully!). How are the immature students going to learn to grow up if they’re not challenged with their reading every once in a while. That’s what it’s all abou, isn’t it?

  23. Thanks again, folks – in the end, I decided to leave the book on the list, add a ninth book to give them more options, and discuss the issues with them seriously before they make their choices. I’ll report back once things get rolling!

  24. Pingback: Community College Spotlight | How much sex is too much on reading list?

  25. Good move S Curious. The kids already know about sex and god knows they have been having sex, even anal sex for years. And this is college. Many will forgo the pleasures of reading about a week before they graduate (though the pleasures of sex will continue for the remainder of their lives). So cram as much into their heads as you can. They need to appreciate that a book can be every bit as exciting as an R rated movie. For your students fortunate enough to go on and live a considered existence, books such as Lolita, Madame Bovary and Last Exit to Brooklyn will engage them in the years ahead. By the way I have read Moby Dick (three times – twice for pleasure) and the chapter about preparation of sperm whales’ fluids is pretty damn sexy.

  26. Strange and humorous development: I checked the college bookstore website today and Endless Love hadn’t arrived. When I contacted the bookstore, they went back through my requests and replied that I had never ordered it. Clearly my subconscious was unwilling to deal with this book this semester. I will keep all your comments in mind next time I teach this course, or next time I’m struggling with the suitability of a given text!

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