What I couldn’t tell him was that I wanted, for some desperate reason, for Jillian’s first time to be what mine never was. Jillian was everything I wasn’t – pure, innocent, and unaware of how much pain the opposite sex could inflict, physically and emotionally. (p.34)
17 year old Mercedes is a High School Senior with a secret. She has sex with other girls’ boyfriends; but only those who are virgins. It is, as she explains, her way of paying it forward, a kind of community service. After all, she’s teaching them to be kinder, more compassionate and attentive to their girlfriends, thus ensuring that they will have the positive first sexual encounter that she herself was denied. Her extra-curricular activities are a secret to everyone (except the boys involved that are sworn to secrecy), including her mostly absent mother Kym, who, about as shallow as a toddler’s wading pool, has no idea. Similarly her best friend (and fundamentalist Christian) Angela, and regular Wednesday fling Zach are also unaware of the goings on in her bedroom.
I’ll admit, with this kind of premise we might easily be dealing with a piece of erotic fiction as opposed to the YA I usually review. Trust me when I say that this book is about the least erotic thing I have read all year. In fact, it is achingly sad. YA has always had a rather precarious relationship when it comes to sex. Teachers and parents, who tend to be the ones who choose and pay for the books, were traditionally wary of stories with this kind of content. However, in more recent years, sex scenes have been appearing with much greater frequency. To be fair, most of these scenes are of the fade to black kind, no doubt a nod to the concerns of parents and teachers, although the increasing prevalence of these has at times left me wondering if these scenes were really necessary. More recently I have stumbled upon YA books which have taken this to a new level. These are books which make Judy Blume’s Are You There God It’s Me Margaret look very Enid Blyton. I’m thinking of the soon to be released novel by Irish author Louise O’Neill Asking For It. These stories explore issues of sexuality with a grittiness that is confronting yet wholly crucial for a generation who, unlike any other, has been absolutely bombarded with sexualised images from birth.
With sex as the core focus of this story it may sound strange but the truth is, that this is not really a story about sex. While it certainly does inspire teens to think deeply about why they choose to have sex in the first place, it also asserts (rather disturbingly) that many are doing it before they are ready. Firsts explores the nature of friendship and love. It investigates issues of gender specifically those related to double standards and the persistence of slut-shaming in contemporary society. Mercedes is, as we understand from the outset, profoundly (and possibly irrevocably) damaged, and as readers we continually question the reason for her brokenness. What could possibly have happened to have stripped away her sense of self-worth? What is it which is stripping away at the self-worth of young women all over the globe?
While Firsts is a novel which, because of its very nature, will likely be situated in the upper end of YA, I’d challenge schools to also make it available to students in the lower end of the age group. With the average age of “first time” sexual experiences continuing to drop, I fear that books of this kind are reaching the audiences who need it most too late. Books such as this need to be accessible and they need to be talked about openly by teachers, parents and young people.
Firsts is a story deserving of my highest praise, written with a scythe in prose that gleams, Laurie Elizabeth Flynn succeeded in taking me through a plethora of emotions, raising me up, inspiring me with hope and at the same time leaving me dissolved in a puddle of tears.
**Firsts is available for puchase NOW!**