This post is going to deal with some subjects that some of you won’t be comfortable with. This post specifically will deal with sex and sexual themes along with how they relate in terms of age and power imbalances. If you have a hard time dealing with these kinds of subjects, I urge you to think twice about reading this. I feel that this post is important, but I don’t want to put you in a bad place in doing so. I also want to point out that I have very strong opinions about the book I will be writing about.
There’s a book that came out maybe a few months ago or maybe more recently, I’m not sure. The book I’m talking about is All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. Before I get into the general meat of this post I’ll say this: no, I have not read the book and no, I will never read the book.
Wait a minute, Alexa, how can you write a post without reading the book?
It’s pretty damn easy, to be honest. Normally, I wouldn’t be a fan of this either, but considering how the book makes me feel just on its synopsis alone is enough for me to never go near this book. This book, if you’re not aware, is a romance story revolving around a teenage girl (who, I believe is 13 but I can be wrong) and a grown man. That subject alone makes my skin crawl. Like I said, I don’t like making inferences based on what I read in the synopsis. I read a few reviews, though, and it made me firm in my decision.
Not only do the two characters get into a romantic relationship, they also engage in a sexual one.
This is where I draw the line. There is no way that a sexual relationship or a romantic relationship between a teenager and a grown adult is born without a power imbalance. There just isn’t. No matter how “mature” you think you are, my teen readers, there is much to learn. This isn’t an old lady nagging you. This is a, almost, twenty-one year old person who has gone through something similar telling you this.
When I was a junior in high school I was in a relationship with a sophomore in college. It didn’t matter that he graduated from the same high school as me and we were in a show together. It didn’t matter that I was friends with his friends. I was a high schooler and he was in college. The real age difference was only a couple of years, but I would never let myself date someone in high school. When you’re in high school, you have a high school mentality. Everyone wants to think they’re “mature” and an “adult” when they’re in high school, but you’re not. I didn’t widely relate to my peers in high school either, but I had an unusual situation. My father had died only a few years prior and that, along with the usual pressures of being the oldest child in a Korean family made me grow up differently than many of my peers. I often carried a kind of, “I have a bigger fish to fry” attitude, and yet I still acted like a high schooler.
Thinking back on it, I’m still incredibly uncomfortable with how that relationship came to be and how it continued and ended. I was charmed by this guy, I was persuaded into doing things I normally wouldn’t do, and even when I burned that bridge I think I still carry it in my current relationship. Why? Because I didn’t want to disappoint. This is weird because, sure you don’t want to disappoint someone you care about, but this was different. My fear of disappointment was comparable to that same fear I had towards my mother.
When you’re in a romantic relationship the biggest thing that you need is equality. You need to know that each of you are meeting halfway or that there’s a certain form of balance that helps you get through the tougher times in the relationship. How, then, do you do that if you’re afraid of disappointing someone who is comparable to a parental figure? There’s no balance. There’s a great imbalance. By the constant fear of disappointment, you push yourself to do things that you don’t want to do, things you’re not comfortable with, and things that you don’t understand fully. Furthermore, this kind of relationship builds a sort of dependency. The person who is younger is going to be immediately dependent on the person who is older.
In my case, the person paid for everything and was my sole transportation in terms of dates and such. By nature I’m not really a dependent person. I’m rather independent and I would rather do things on my own, however, in that time I found myself becoming dependent and this doesn’t mean just financially, it bled out into the emotional and mental parts of the relationship. I became dependent on his reactions, was he happy? Was he mad at me? It was almost like I was dependent on him because he was the key to my happiness. It wasn’t until I actually spoke of it to my friends that I started to see what was going on.
There’s a term for this kind of thing and it’s called ‘grooming’. I never knew and I might never know of he was grooming me. I think I’d rather like to live not knowing. He might’ve even done it unintentionally, however, I can never look at relationships with a greater age gap than what I had with a positive eye. If I became so dependent on someone who was only a couple of years older than me, then what would I be with someone who was decades older than me? Who was the same age as my father?
Not only that, but this character is in a worse place than I was and I can’t even imagine that her “love interest” isn’t taking advantage of it. Whether or not you want to believe it, this girl should not be in a romantic relationship with someone who is decades older than her with her mental state alone. She’s too vulnerable and she’s too lost. Her father was a meth dealer and this man she “falls in love with” is no better. They’re both not great images of character, but also they are so familiar that I can’t get this disconcerting idea out of my head that she looks to him as more of a father figure.
I’m going to go a bit farther and ask, what was the author trying to do when writing this? I ask this because I can’t help but think what kind of an impact this will have on young readers. Yes, as a writer you are free to write what you will, but you still have the power to impact the lives of young readers. Is the author, then, perpetuating the idea to young teens that it’s okay to get into a relationship with someone who is decades older? Who might push you into doing things that you’re not comfortable with? Who you will fall dependent on? Is this author, essentially,telling young teens that it’s okay to get into an unhealthy relationship?
But, Alexa, it’s listed as adult romance in Goodreads.
That’s even worse! You’re telling more adults that it’s okay to have a romantic and then a sexual relationship with a thirteen year-old child? That’s what you’re perpetuating in your novel. That’s the message that it’s sending. I don’t give two shits if the writing is fucking fantastic. People are praising this work without ADDRESSING THE FUCKING ISSUE . I don’t care who you are, great writing doesn’t excuse the fact that you’re essentially justifying a terrible, unhealthy, unbalanced relationship. Hey, I love Game of Thrones but I’m not at ALL pleased with the number of women that are killed, raped, and brutalized for simple shock factor. This is the same god damn thing. If you’re more worried about how the writing was than the actual material and subject, then we’ve got a problem. You’re glossing over an incredibly problematic message that is being sent out to the general public.
It doesn’t even matter that this is an adult romance because I’m seeing mostly YA reviewers speak about it. I’m seeing young people talk about it. This book perpetuates the idea that a relationship between a thirteen year old and an adult male is healthy and justifiable when it isn’t. I’m not talking about a person in their mid twenties falling in love with someone in their thirties or forties, because at that point in your life both of you have experienced, seen, and thought many of the same things and there is something that you can relate to and even understand. There will probably be lapses in miscommunication, but otherwise I believe that you can find the same wavelength. Teenagers with adults? Not so much. There’s too much of a power imbalance, there’s too much room to develop an unhealthy dependence on that person, and the CHILD is still growing.
I’m tired and frankly disgusted at seeing how this book is being praised. I understand that writing can be incredibly moving and amazing, but I’m more upset that the issue of the age gap hasn’t been mentioned or talked about further. It seems like it’s been brushed under the rug and I can’t understand why. It seems like people want to forget that this is a child and an adult engaging in an intimate relationship. It’s like they want to say, “but they’re just two people who are trying to find their way in life”. Yeah, they are, but you can’t exclude the fact that it’s a thirteen year old with a 30+ year old. It’s like the bible, you can’t just cherry pick things to fit your view and, fuck, maybe I’m doing that but I can’t get over the age gap. I can’t get over the implications of that and I can’t get over the fact that this can impact a young person’s line of thinking. We can get up in arms about Christian Grey because he’s abusive, but apparently if it’s written well enough we can let a huge age gap and problematic relationship slide.
I don’t fucking know. I tried to make this post sound elegant and objective but I know my own experiences are changing how I view this material. This is my reaction and you can choose whether you agree or disagree.