This past winter I went to Mexico, taking the first vacation I had in years. It was a much-needed break from a work-life balance that had slowly but surely gotten knocked completely out of whack.
Instead of living practically all of my waking hours online, monitoring social media, writing, and answering endless streams of emails, I unplugged for nearly two weeks.
It was glorious.
The only electronic gadget I regularly interacted with during that time was my Kindle e-reader.
And even though it was loaded up with a plethora of far more serious reads, I found myself instead downloading a bunch of Sweet Valley High books. Ah, sweet nostalgia.
For those who aren’t familiar with them, the Sweet Valley High series follows around twin California blonde sisters Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. While Jessica and Elizabeth are identical in appearance, their personalities are polar opposites. Elizabeth is sweet, responsible, dependable. Jessica is reckless, feisty, selfish.
The books follow the sisters around as they face the trials and tribulations of high school. It’s all a bit after school special and soap opera. In one book, Elizabeth is abducted by a madman. In another, Jessica decides to run away from home after being exposed to some bad influences (before of course, coming to her senses and tidily returning home before it’s too late – of course).
And there’s always a lot of love life drama. Elizabeth has a steady boyfriend and is in a relationship that’s almost boring — until his father gets transferred out of state and they’re thrust into long-distance longing and short-distance temptation, as local boys attempt to court Liz.
Jessica is with a different guy every week. Plenty of boys are interested in her, but they’re either dangerous and wrong for her, or she tires of them.
Sex Is Dangerous in Sweet Valley High
Reading these books as an adult is a real trip. One thing that sticks out a lot is how much love and romance are played up, but sex is for the most part completely absent.
Really, sex only comes into the picture as a danger that Jessica is repeatedly subjected to. Typically, that’s the point she taps out of whatever romantic interest she’s garnered for some wild child.
They can be rude to her, her friends. Abuse drugs. Run with the wrong crowd. All of this is fine (mostly). But when they start acting as though they want to have sex with her, she’s out. Gone-zo.
Sex is Jessica Wakefield’s breaking point. Pretty much consistently.
When a boy looks like he’s cruising into Pound Town and doesn’t even know where the brakes are, let alone how to use them.
To be fair to Francine Pascal (the author of the books) and to Jessica Wakefield, consent is important. If Jessica isn’t feeling it, then she has every right to say no to sexy times. And honestly, if the books were written that way — that Jessica has agency and is opting out of sex with these young men on her own volition, then I’m sure it would land very differently to me.
But that’s not how they’re written. Instead, sex is framed as an objective threat, one that’s taken for granted that no self-respecting teenage girl would want to engage in. In fact, Pascal at other times makes sure to go out of her way to talk about other minor female characters who have “bad reputations” and hints at their sexual activity with euphemisms (calling these girls “friendly” and depicting boys snickering about it).
It’s clear that more than drunk driving, plane crashes, or a sudden bout of amnesia (yes, one of the major characters has an amnestic event pretty early on in the series), sex is the biggest danger to teens in Sweet Valley High.
And the series takes for granted that no “self-respecting” teenage girl would ever have consensual sex.
Well, alrighty then.
I’m Not in Sweet Valley High Anymore
Reading this series on vacation was like stepping back into a world I’d forgotten. I was big on these books in middle school. And growing up under a strict Catholic upbringing, the extreme sex negativity never struck me as odd at the time I was reading them.
It was just the way things were. And I never thought I’d run into people who felt differently. Let alone dozens of them. Entire subcultures.
The life I live now would have been inconceivable to the girl I was as a young teenager.
I bought all of it, hook, line, and sinker. The preposterous storylines. The melodrama.
Re-reading them now though, the books are remarkable for their absurdity. Comic portraits. Not only for the implausible plots and high drama. But also for the presumption of sex always being a negative.
It wasn’t just Sweet Valley High though. Many sources taught me that sex was dangerous growing up. Enough that it’s amazing to me that I ever unlearned it… even if I’m not sure exactly how.
My new book is out!
Dealing with Difficult Metamours, the first book devoted solely to metamour relationships, full of strategies to help you get along better with your partners’ other partner(s).