Sweet Sixteen and Never… by Jeanne Betancourt

Growing up is easier when you have an instruction manual.

By Alagich Katya (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

I’m taking another step back in time to consider a vintage title. Vintage by my own Millennial standards, anyway. Following my review of Working last week, I’m looking at Sweet Sixteen and Never… a book that I read twenty years ago. It is one of those stories that has stayed with me, and was recently awakened in my mind by heated conversations regarding women’s experiences of sex, love, consent and simply navigating a world built primarily for men.

I had written an article covering the confusion that women feel regarding the mixed messages society gives us about gender expectations and sexual behaviour, and received some angry feedback from a male commentator. I felt that he had missed the point of what I was saying, instead seeking to blame women for his own inadequacies, and by extension, the downfall of the entire male race. I had tried to convey the mechanism by which learned expectations of how we are “supposed” to behave colour our actual behaviour and thinking patterns, even if those thoughts and behaviour do not align with our desires.

I considered whether I had missed the mark in attempting to get a complicated point across — it makes perfect sense to me, but that’s because I’ve already viewed the subject matter through my own eyes. There’s a skill in leading the reader to view things through a lens that is not their own, and if I need to work on it (and I am sure that I do), then that’s fine. But this was not reasoned criticism, it was just anger directed at women for the sake of trying to silence. There is too much of this happening right now, and it’s happening as a direct response to women finding their voices to stand up against the injustices they face, and to demand better.

There’s definitely room for writers that can reach out to men compassionately, and without challenging their identity, and those authors may be the missing piece in bringing us all together as humans of whatever gender, to try to sort this damn mess out. I’d like to use this opportunity to recommend an article by Andrew Russell, The Ecstasy of Consent, which approaches the issue in a way that guides the reader towards the positive while denying detractors any hook to grip on to. The message is not lost, because the writing style speaks to men in a way that they will want to hear.

Sweet Sixteen and Never… is part of a large body of work that has fulfilled the same function for a young female audience. It is still a necessary and sought-after genre, but it has the obvious benefit of a 20- to 30-year head start on the counterpart for young men. Reading was one of the biggest influences on my progression to adulthood. My family were extremely conservative, and sex education at school was limited. Ultimately what was lacking was the human element of it, a voice to guide us towards the right conclusion, without dictating what we should or should not do. My parents still saw me as a child when I felt more strongly like a teenager. We give little credit to teenagers and children, but they are not stupid. One thing that they are is curious.

Satisfying my own curiosity was difficult, because my parents heavily moderated the material I could access (to a degree far beyond what is reasonable), and would never discuss such things with me themselves. As far as they were concerned, if they kept me ignorant, I would not deviate from the righteous path — if only they knew. This is explored in Sweet Sixteen and Never…, in the context of a mother-daughter relationship struggling with the balance between protecting a child, and allowing them to make their own mistakes and grow independently. It is books like these that filled the gaps in my own learning experience that I had due to overprotective parents and a lack of appropriate guidance and advice from other adults.

Coming-of-age literature, teen magazines and youth TV programmes were of such importance in my life. They gave me some of the answers I was looking for, but they also helped me to form my own beliefs on difficult and controversial topics, and they spoke to me as an adult. They saw me as a complete person with questions, insecurities, worries, desires and potential. To the author, I was not a blank slate, an incomplete and sub-intelligent being too foolish to comprehend difficult matters. I was a fully-formed person, with my own opinions, my own quest for understanding, and a need to be taken seriously.

Teen literature frequently incurs the ire of conservative groups, and it is obvious to see why. The mere mention of subjects that they wish to keep from youthful eyes is enough to whip them into a frenzy, petitioning every school board, librarian and local politician to Ban This Sick Filth. Yet it is exposure to problematic concepts, in a safer context like the literary world, that gives young people the skills they need to develop into responsible and conscious adults. Without the books and magazines that I read out of sight of my parents’ condemning gaze, without the TV & films watched at a friend’s house after school, I would not have become the person that I am today. Controversial books are an essential part of cultivating future generations — we must accept that our children will read, hear about, and do things that we do not approve of. But they can either experience it now, or when there are actual, serious consequences in adulthood.

As Betancourt puts it:

“I know that my reader/viewers are either experiencing some of these difficult and challenging situations personally, through their friends and neighbours, or through the media. I want to show, in a story, the aspects of the ‘issue’ that I feel kids should be aware of. These are important issues that the media sometimes exploits. I want to explore them. I want to help kids grow stronger and wiser through the experiences of my stories, to see that they have responsibility and power. Through role models from their own age group I want to show kids what they can and should do for themselves and for others.”

Obviously my parents were thrilled at the amount of time that I spent in the library as a child. But if they had paid any attention to the content of some of my choices, they would have had me on a diet of Enid Blyton and Bunty magazine (ironically both problematic nowadays). I’m forever grateful for the freedom I found in our local and school libraries, and within our English lessons. Our minds were stretched, and literature taught us things that can only be learnt through discovering by oneself. In spite of the benefits of attending a fairly progressive school, and accessing challenging books & articles, my childhood was sheltered. I left home at the first opportunity to attend university in a large city. I condensed much of my teenage experience into a single term, which had its problems. But imagine how much worse it could have been if I’d not had the guidance and warnings of books like Sweet Sixteen and Never…

I read with such a hunger that I’ve consumed the entire children’s & young adult section of the local library at least one-and-a-half times. It’s probably the genre that I am most familiar with, even as a 35-year old, supposedly owning it as a grown-up. YA tends to be dismissed far too readily — even titles not explicitly about relationships and maturity contain lessons that we can all relate to, and can make us reconsider our values — at least, the best ones do. While most of my reading is now online, or on politics and personal development, I still find time for teen lit. It speaks to the reader as an adult, and I do still remember what it was like to be a child.

Returning to the book itself, Sweet Sixteen and Never… tells the story of Julie, a teenager considering her relationships with friends and boyfriends, and whether she is ready for her first sexual relationship. Her story mirrors that of so many other girls, yet also plays out the script of learning from others’ stories as well as the one she creates for herself. Her family is relatively standard, quite similar to many of my friends’ families — and so, not very much like mine. Julie lives with her mother, who is also considering her own love life. I get the feeling that Julie is from quite an affluent family, and lives in quite a large, fashionable home — again, like many of my peers growing up, and not really like me. It’s funny how I can relate so well to those with more aspirational lifestyles than my own impoverished one.

The book not only plays out the worries that Julie’s mother has about her wellbeing, and how Julie comes to the choices that she makes, but additionally steps into the mind of Julie’s mother as a sixteen-year old girl, and allows us the external view of Julie managing her mother’s expectations against her own, rather than solely focussing on the conversations and internal monologues that Julie experiences. It attempts to cover all angles, which is useful in building empathy in the young reader. The different stories are told in separate, loosely alternating chapters, bound together smoothly and told in a coherent and flowing fashion. The desire to read on is cleverly induced by the commentary in Julie’s mind as she uncovers the secrets of her mother’s teenage diary, secrets that you, too, will be demanding more of.

There’s a lot to unpack in this story — religious shame, poor life choices, teenage pregnancy and the level of involvement that a parent should have in their child’s life. But Betancourt provides us with the framework necessary to see the hard truth in a sensible and thoughtful light. One of my parents’ greatest fears was that I would copy every single thing I read about or saw on TV. There can be problems with media straddling the line between teenage and adult consumption, which is where nuance is key. This was something lost on my family, who never actually analysed the content of whatever forbidden art it was that I could not access, instead deferring to the “wisdom” of the popular press or The Church. Betancourt has perfected the art of shining a light on a difficult topic without glamorising it.

If you’re looking for a moral to the story, you can find several. But the most important is one that Julie teaches her mother — that the best way to learn a lesson is not through denying the pupil information and agency. Perhaps this text is a good talking point for older adults as well as young ones. Every generation has its moral panics and ideas about what is right and proper. But the younger generation is the one that inherits our problems — and we can make the transition a lot smoother by telling them the truth.

As for the young men, they feature in this story, of course. But their intentions, feelings and actions are not dissected in as detailed a fashion as the female characters. I don’t know if there are any contemporary young adult books that do this from a male perspective, but there should be. Literature is one of the most powerful weapons we have against ignorance and hatred, and we could really do with some more ammunition. It seems to me that teenage boys have been neglected in the literary stakes, and we can encourage them to become better men by redirecting our efforts to be more inclusive of their inner thought processes. I do not know if there are fewer books for boys on this sort of topic due to fashion, perceived lack of interest, or if the genre is neglected due to boys reading less than girls in general. Whatever the answer, we need to ensure that it’s not just the girls who find their Sweet Sixteen.