When teens confront frank detail

WINNER: Ted Dawe's Into the River has been named book of the year at the annual New Zealand Post Children's Book awards.
WINNER: Ted Dawe's Into the River has been named book of the year at the annual New Zealand Post Children's Book awards.

For the usually buttoned up and pinned down boarders of Nelson College for Girls in the 1960s, the last night of the year was wildly exciting.

The matrons kept their distance and anarchy ruled, at least the kind of anarchy that allowed us to stack our mattresses up in one dorm room and spend most of the night feasting on bags of chips, packets of chocolate macaroons and MallowPuffs, washed down with bottles of Fanta and lemonade.

Between gorging ourselves sick on unaccustomed treats, we'd raid other dormitories to create mayhem and return with spoils pilfered from other girls' midnight feasts.

And that is how, at the end of my fourth form year, I encountered D H Lawrence's then notorious novel Lady Chatterley's Lover. Instead of food, a raiding party sent upstairs to the fifth form dorm brought back a well-thumbed paperback.

The loud cries of "But where's the chocolate?" were soon silenced as the noisy drama queen who loved to be the centre of attention began reading us the "good bits".

Soon we were all giggling and shortly after that, silent, apart from a few barely suppressed hysterical gasps. The "good bits" in Lawrence's novel represented new information for most of us, information we were eager to take on board.

Lady Chatterley's Lover was notorious because of its frank descriptions of the sexual activities of Lady Chatterley and her gamekeeper Mellors, and its frequent use of the associated taboo words.

Penguin, the UK publishers of the first unexpurgated version of the novel in 1960, were tried under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act and found "not guilty" on the grounds of the novel's literary merit. I'm afraid the "literary merit" of the book was wasted on us back then in that chaotic dormitory.

Fusses about the racy content of books continue into this century. The latest book to be targeted as unsuitable for teenagers is Ted Dawe's novel Into the River. Dawe won the young adult (15+) category and the top prize of Margaret Mahy Book of the Year in the recent NZ Post Children's Book Awards.

Dawe tells the story of bright, 14-year-old Te Arepa Santos, a Maori boy from the rural East Coast, who wins a scholarship to a prestigious boys' school in Auckland. Because Dawe is a strong writer, the explicit sexual material that forms a very small part of the novel, has a powerful impact. This, and the exploration of themes such as a teacher/student sexual relationship and drug use have caused a furore.

I've read the novel, and followed the online debate. Despite objectors' protests, it is, I'm afraid, unrealistic to believe that teenagers can be shielded from sexually explicit material.

This metaphorical horse has bolted through the gate and is now so far over the horizon that not one flick of its tail remains visible. Any teenager with access to the internet is one click away from everything.

As an English teacher, dealing with literature, ideas and issues, it is obvious that most of the students I teach have seen almost everything. Teenagers are curious - the urge to find out, especially about the "adult" world they're preparing to enter, is part of their developmental job description.

Back in the 60s, we were just as curious. The big difference, of course, is that information about sexual matters is more freely available now.

Back then, in films, and on the shiny new televisions everyone yearned to possess, courting couples were allowed a chaste kiss while married couples were shown wearing neck to ankle nightwear and climbing, separately, into single beds.

Print material was very tame by today's standards. Sometimes the shearing gang who stayed at our farm for the November shear left behind copies of Esquire magazine.

For the short time before they were whisked away by my brisk mother, we were fascinated by the drawings of Alberto Vargas, who created the scantily clad "Vargas Girls".

Occasionally, I got hold of a copy of True Confessions, a cheap and smutty publication that contained what the second half of its title claimed, though probably not the first. However, there wasn't much useful information to be had from True Confessions' innuendo-ridden tales of girls made "cheap" by good-looking Lotharios who drove cars with a column shift and convenient bench seats.

When I set off to university at 17 I was an innocent abroad, pitched into a co-ed environment where there was easy access to alcohol and no adult supervision. I survived, more due to luck than anything, but others didn't.

Among my contemporaries there were unwanted pregnancies followed by ill-fated marriages, at least one risky abortion and quite a lot of disillusionment about relationships. Most of these consequences could have been avoided with less innocence and more practical knowledge about sexual matters.

So I'm not a fan of ignorance or innocence when it comes to sex. Knowledge is empowering. It gives us an awareness of consequences and allows choices to be made. Knowledge makes people, even teenagers, more responsible for their actions.

The reality is that explicit sexual material is out there and is readily available. We adults need to work out how best to help teenagers deal with this material, and the sometimes damaging messages it carries, so teenagers can develop their sexual knowledge and understanding at a pace best suited to their own needs with the long-term goal of being able to create and sustain healthy relationships.

And what about Ted Dawe's novel? For what it's worth, I didn't like it for a number of reasons, including the explicit sexual content, and I won't be recommending it to any of my students on the grounds of literary merit either.