Long time geek, fangirl, mother, and reader. I've got a lot to say, you might not like it all, but it will be honest and hopefully helpful.
Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Trigger Warnings and Some Words about Sex in YA/NA fiction
This book addresses the aftermath of violence and sexual assault, as well as the devastating effects of PTSD. If the mentions of these topics are a potential issue for you I would caution you, but I wouldn’t discourage you from reading.
In fact, I feel this book should be on high school reading list. It is one of the most honest and realistic depictions of teen sex (both positive and negative) I’ve read in a long time. When popular culture and young adult fiction is cramming romantic, and often times unrealistic, sexual fantasies of teen sex down our throats at ever turn, I think it’s important to give kids a dose of realism.
Sex can be a lot of things. Fun, distracting, comforting, invigorating, even violent and traumatizing. It is a spectrum, ranging from beautiful to ugly. Often, especially in popular Young Adult and New Adult fiction, we only look at the two extremes of “making love” and sexual abuse. Sometimes we even see them in the same story, but rarely do I see them depicted with the honestly and realism young readers deserve.
I have nothing against escapism, but I believe it’s important to temper it with realism to foster healthy attitudes about sex and relationships. Especially, when the rates of sexual assault and abuse among teens is reaching epidemic levels. (44% of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 18. [source])
Sex & Violence covers the spectrum of sex, from casual hook-ups, to friendly make out sessions, and even brutal sexual assault. It also addresses the effects of sex on a young person, and creates a great opportunity to discuss sex, violence, emotional health, sexual and emotional boundaries, with young readers be they students, siblings or your own children.
Evan Carter is always the New Guy. His father’s work keeps them moving all the time, all over the country, but Evan doesn’t mind or so he claims. Being the New Guy allows him to perfect his strategy of finding the Girl Who Would Say Yes. What she’s saying yes to is, of course, sex.
See, Evan is a self proclaimed manwhore. He sleeps with a lot of girls, often deleting their phone numbers from his phone afterward. Or his father gets another assignment or job and they move to a new town with new girls, who say yes. That’s his routine, his comfort zone, but everything changes when he sets his sights on Colette, his roommate’s ex-girlfriend.
This is not the same old romantic cliche about how all a promiscuous young men needs is the love of a good girl to cure him of his manwhoring ways. The world of Sex & Violence is realistic, where choices come with consequences, and how devastating they can be on everyone involved. Those consequences are what brings Evan and his father to Minnesota, to a cabin on the shore of Pearl Lake, where Evan meets a whole host of kids with their own problems and where he struggles to find peace and tries to feel safe again. Through therapy and honest self examination Evan finds a the path to personal growth. Where he learns that girls and sex aren’t the answer to his problems. In fact, that meeting a great girl can sometimes makes things worse and his personal issues even more difficult to deal with.
One of the things that struck me the most about Sex & Violence was the beautifully constructed characters. From Evan and his quiet, quixotic father to Baker, the great girl next door, and even the “Stoner Guy” Jesse and Layne, Evan’s boss at the grocery store. None of them feel like characters. They feel like real people you meet throughout your life, at summer camp, while working a part time jobs or at a trailer park kegger crowded with chain-smoking girls who have the scratch voices of 80 year old women.
Every inch of this story has life, and authenticity, which makes it effortless to fall into. I fell hard, for Evan and the motley crue of friends, acquaintances, adults and coworkers who populate his life. Evan’s 1st person narration carried me through the story and invested me in his recovery process. It was an emotional ride, but not a melodramatic one. There’s violence, sex, arguments and breathless moments of sexual tension that left me blushing, but none of it ever seemed over the top. It felt like I was living life along side this brilliant, lonely, mixed-up young man who was so much better than he thought and deserved so much more than he had.
Sex & Violence is a journey, but much like life it ends as a new chapter in Evan’s life begins. Very much like life there is nothing tidy, romantic or simple about it. This is not a romance, or a fairy tale. Its a piece of life, in all it’s messy, beautiful wonder and it is absolutely worth your time to read it.
A bit of Feminist Fangirling and Final Thoughts
I am stunned by how many multi-dimensional, strong and complex women are in this book. Despite it being written from a male POV they still come through loud and clear. In fact, Evan’s life is populated by sexual empowered, outspoken and yet relatable women. Colette, Baker, Brenda (Baker’s mother), his own mother, even Jancita (his boss’ girlfriend and mother of his son) all have depth dimension and voices of their own. Several of the girls he’s involved with are sexually confident and one even complains that her boyfriend calls her sexually aggressive.
Baker especially is opinionated and even rants about the patriarchy on several occasions, but she is no straw-feminists. In fact, her outspoken, non-stereotypical girlie girl behavior is what Evan finds attractive about her. She’s a “dork about history,” and easy to talk to, which he also sees as positives. I love how it’s the girls who challenge him, who are human beings that are the most desirable to him. Which makes a lot of sense, since part of Evan’s growth is learning that other people are just as complex, flawed and fucked up as he is. Holy Feminist Subtext, Batman!
Sex & Violence’s take on the trauma of being the male/outside perspective of sexual assault, and how men cope with an often unspoken sense of responsibility and self blame. It explores the prevalent sense of failure at not having protected the victim, that is deeply tied into cultural expectations of masculinity and strength. It also the exploration of how sex can be just as emotionally damaging for young men as it can be for women. How too often men and women use sex like a recreational drug to distract, numb or cope with other emotional traumatic issues. This is addressed in an honest and realistic way, with none of the typical slut shaming, abstinence propaganda or romantic fantasies that are so often employed in young adult fiction. In fact, we see how each one of those unrealistic belief systems and fantasies can be just as or even more damaging to kids.
I’ve been wanting a story like this for a long time, and as you can tell by my mile long review, it was absolutely worth the wait.