YA Is Not A Guidebook to Self-Harm, Teen Sex, or Anything Else

Discussing the slew of concerntrolling editorials about how YA is destroying the world, a radio producer recently asked me if I thought YA acts like a user guide to self-harm and other potentially destructive, harmful, or socially undesirable behaviours. It’s a point that gets brought up a lot in these op-eds, and my response, as with most of the YA community, is, of course, ‘no.’ YA is not a guidebook or a handy point-by-point display of how to do things that might harm you or the people around you.

That people read YA and harm themselves is indisputable, but correlation is not causation. Some people read YA in an attempt to find a way out of harming themselves; Wintergirls, for example, is cited by some girls with eating disorders as a wake up call and a profound book to read while struggling to get into recovery. It’s not a book that glamourises eating disorders or makes you think they are a great thing to do, although it does talk about them in detail, because that’s contextually part of the story. That’s what draws you in and makes you feel like Laurie Halse Anderson truly relates to the reader. It’s a book that makes you think about living, and how hard you might want to fight to beat back an eating disorder.

Books about subjects like teenage sexuality, drugs, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide are not designed as do it yourself handbooks for the reader. They’re works of fiction designed to be provocative, to spark conversations, to challenge assumptions, and to make readers think about what’s going on around them, but they aren’t instruction manuals. How anyone could come away with that idea is beyond me. And people seem to have trouble separating these things out from each other in discussions about how YA is ruining the world.

Teen sexuality, for example, is not a bad thing. Educated teens who are informed about their bodies and able to exercise autonomy and choice have the right to do so, and may find reading about sexuality both empowering and useful; and potentially instructive in the sense that it gives them tools to use. If you’re in an abusive relationship, for example, reading a book where a relationship like yours is identified as abusive, abnormal, and not okay may give you the courage to do something about your situation, to reach out for help.

Self-harm, meanwhile, is the result of an illness that may be out of a teen’s control. Reading about it can help her understand why she does it and how she can stop, and it can also make her feel like less of a freak; this happens to other people, here is how they deal with it, here is what they can do if they want help. Likewise with suicide; many teens struggle with suicidal thoughts and feel uncomfortable with the idea of discussing them with people, but may find answers to questions and concerns within the pages of a book. That book could contain details about suicide, but those details aren’t included to show you how to do it. Rather, they’re there to create an anchor to factual reality.

It’s certainly true that some people do start engaging in potentially harmful behaviours after reading YA, but it’s not because of their reading material. It’s because of underlying issues that are not being resolved, whether they be illnesses, high stress, abuse, problems at home, or other things. These issues may draw them to specific books, and may plant seeds of ideas in their minds, but they’re the ones who ultimately choose to make the decisions they do. It is the teen, not the author, who makes the decision, and the book is usually not the catalyst for it, but rather the straw that breaks the camel’s back, or the thing that helps the reader to cope.

The argument that dark and realistic YA covering real-world issues is somehow bad for teens to read because they will pick up the behaviours described within is incredibly patronising and offensive to teens. It suggests that they are incapable of reading about something without wanting to try it, and that they are so easily swayed by their reading material that they don’t stop to think before making any decisions. Adults manage to read books about people doing horrible things (look at how popular the mystery genre is, and specifically books within that genre where killers are the heroes) and not do horrible things themselves, enjoying the books as intellectual exercises or probings into the human spirit.

Why would we deny teens the same opportunity? And why would we suggest that they are incapable of critical thought when they so obviously are obviously able to handle complex issues? Saying that YA is a corrupting influence is nothing new, but it totally sets teens up for failure by stripping them of any kind of independent ability to make their own decisions and choices. If the response to ‘Chris has started cutting himself’ is ‘Chris shouldn’t have been reading bad books,’ you’re missing the point entirely, because the question here is why Chris started cutting himself.

Because he’s fat, and cuts himself as a way of punishment, expression of self-loathing, or coping with stress related to people harassing him about his weight? Because he’s depressed or has another mental health condition and experiences a compulsion to cut? Because he’s having problems at home and cutting makes him feel in control, gives him an opportunity to have something totally within his domain? Because he discovered that it feels good and he wants to know more? Addressing these possibilities is far more likely to lead to a successful resolution of the problem than, say, blaming Cheryl Rainfield for writing Scars.