Controversial Issues in the Lives of Contemporary Young Adults
In many ways, I believe, the issues for contemporary young adults are not so different now than they have always been for young people - the main concerns still being sex, drugs, and rock and roll. What's changed more than the issues themselves is how they are dealt with by the media, and the arts, including literature.
For example, I remember when the television program Eight Is Enough was first to be aired. There was some controversy at the time because Eight Is Enough was thought to be replacing The Brady Bunch as programming for young people, and there was some question as to whether teenagers should be exposed to this newer, more vivid depiction of American life. Today, the average young adult would find Eight Is Enough laughable, and instead television programming includes shows like Beverly Hills 90210, where we see things like drunk driving, multiple drug use, teenaged pregnancy, and so on. So you can see how popular representation of young adult life has changed. It doesn't mean no one was doing drugs when The Brady Bunch was on the air (you'd almost have had to!). We simply didn't see it in mainstream programming.
One thing that hasn't changed, in television at least, is the use - or, rather, non-use - of foul language. I need to briefly discuss the issue of foul language in Young Adult literature, since it is a sore point for many adults who read my books, Crosses and Weird on the Outside. Yes, my characters use foul language, often to excess. But I haven't invented any new words. In fact, studies show that most people will use a swear word at least sixteen times a day. The fact is, no teenager is going to read Crosses, smack himself on the head, and say, "Fuck! I never thought of using that word before! I'm going to add it to my vocabulary right away!"
I'm not saying it's impossible to write a young adult novel that speaks to teenagers without using foul language in the work. Many authors don't use foul language and still create beautiful, meaningful young adult novels. It happens not to be the way I write, and more importantly, it's not the way my characters talk.
Back to the "controversial issues." Drugs - you have to have them, right? They're part of the famous trilogy of sex, drugs, and rock and roll! No matter what Nancy Reagan has gotten in a huff about, the drugs are there, and many young adults use, or at some time at least try them. Will my books encourage teenagers to try new drugs? I doubt it, but give a hundred lab rats copies of Weird on the Outside, and see if they choose the cocaine instead of the cheese. Then get back to me.
The biggest problem adults seem to have with my work is that much of the drug use in my books is so casual. The characters smoke a joint and go to class, and the day proceeds as normal. The sun sets at night and rises again the next morning. To me, this is honesty. The "just say no" mentality is not only unrealistic but can even be harmful, because it lumps all drugs, and all situations, together.
I remember being taught in high school that "marijuana leads to harder drugs." If this is true, it is only because we are so often dishonest in our teaching about drug use and abuse. We tell young Johnny from day one, "marijuana bad, marijuana bad, marijuana bad," and then one day, sometime between age 13 and 18, he smokes a joint. It's not an earth-shattering experience: the sun still sets that night and rises the next morning. Now we tell him that crack cocaine is bad. And we run the risk of young Johnny thinking, they lied to me about the pot; how do I know they're telling the truth now?
Don't get me wrong, I'm not pro-drug use. In my books, it's clear that, although there is some casual drug use wherein my characters don't seem to suffer repercussions, in the end there certainly are some very serious repercussions. In Crosses, Katie dies, and Nancy spends time in a mental institution. In Weird on the Outside, Tracey has several brushes with death indirectly and directly as the result of drug use. Every action has an ultimate reaction.
But I never say, "Just say no." It's much more honest, and effective, to say, if you smoke a joint, your life will probably not be any different. If you smoke every day, you run the risk of messing up your life. If you smoke crack every day, you run the risk of dying or, in the very least, really screwing up your life.
Incidentally, an article in The San Francisco Chronicle brought up this interesting statistic: "Oddly enough, the drug which sends most teenagers to Emergency Rooms - more than four times as often as cocaine or heroin - is aspirin and aspirin substitutes."
Enough about drugs, on to another issue - sex. There's not much I have to say about it. Many young adults have sex. They always have and probably always will. We can only hope they are safe and responsible. I will, however, tell you about a conversation I had with a family member of mine, because it has to do with what I have to say about reading in general. During my last visit home, I was talking with a male relative of mine, someone who is a decent person, and who I always thought had a good head on his shoulders. We were talking about Crosses, and he was very complimentary. He thought it was great that I told it like it is and didn't pass judgment. He said, "Like that sex scene - me and the guys were like, yeah, that's totally how it is. You get a girl really drunk, and then, after she passes out, you have sex with her." My mouth dropped open. The scene to which he was referring was written as a rape scene. When I said this, my relative looked at me like I was nuts.
Despite this gross misinterpretation of what I'd written, it doesn't mean I shouldn't have written that scene, and it doesn't mean young adults shouldn't read it. It does mean that young adults shouldn't read in a vacuum. Somewhere, at home or at school, there should be some discussion about what they are reading.
The most important thing about reading is that they read, anything. When I was young, I needed to borrow my parents library card until I was thirteen to take out anything from either the young adult or adult sections of the library. And I brought home everything - from Frankenstein to Sybil to The Joy of Sex to Jane Eyre to Grease. It didn't matter if it was good or bad, trash or literature, I read it. Often my parents would examine the stacks of books I'd brought home, and sometimes they would confer anxiously about whether I should be permitted to read something. Ultimately, I was allowed to read
whatever I wanted, and sometimes at dinner there would be some small discussion about what I was reading to be sure I wasn't scarring my young mind forever.
The fact is, reading is good, it's important, and for young adults it doesn't always have to be The Great Gatsby. There are many advantages to allowing young people access to books with controversial content. First, it's entertaining, and readers can live vicariously through the characters. I didn't drink vodka through a straw from a watermelon until I was about twenty-three, but I enjoyed reading about it when I was fourteen. It didn't make me run out and buy a watermelon - hell, where would I have hidden it? Anyway, I didn't have time to get into too much trouble, because, after all, I sti ll had another eight books I wanted to read that week.
Also, a love for reading means young adults will read anything. It's always possible to try a "bait and switch" - "So, you liked Weird on the Outside? Now try this one, it's called Moby Dick, and it's a fun book too!"
Finally, young adult literature is a great catalyst to open the lines of communication between teenagers and adults about the issues in their lives. To bring up issues of sex and drugs directly to young adults is to waste your breath if you are an authority figure. But with a book, you can discuss those same issues in a non-threatening manner.
Perhaps the most serious "controversial issue for contemporary young adults" today is whether they are reading at all. Now, more than ever, there are so many other distractions. There are movies, TV, computers, video games, videos to rent, the Internet and the list goes on. All of these things have their place, but reading is special in that it requires thinking. We need to worry less about the inevitable sex, drugs and rock and roll, and more about whether young adults are reading. Once they're reading, and choosing to read because they like it, the other issues become easier to address and conquer.
Author of Crosses and Weird on the Outside, Shelley Stoehr made this presentation at the 1995 ALAN Workshop. Stoehr's latest book is Wannabe.
Copyright 1997, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Stoehr, Shelley. (1997) Controversial Issues in the Lives of Contemporary Young Adults. The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 2, 3-5.