So began a famous Dorothy Parker poem about the differences between men and women. Rather more recently the book A Billion Wicked Thoughts argued that a close analysis of how men and women access and respond to porn sites revealed a key difference: men like porn women like romance novels. Why? Men are hard wired to objectify – to reduce the object of a hunt, be it a mate or a meal, to a set of data points — the old 36 24 36. Women respond viscerally to attractive cues, but then filter that immediate reaction through a set of social filters.
The NYTimes review of this book was hesitant at best, and I neither endorse this study nor claim that if males tend to respond this way that is “good.” but I think there is an important clue here. From thus marriage plot novels of the 19th century on, a great deal of excellent literature has explored the territory between desire and social cues. In fact it makes up the OVERWHELMING majority of upper middle grade and ya books.
The world of the pure hunt — the world of stats, the hunt in pure essence, combat that in some sense speaks to many men is almost entirely absent. And I do think that imbalance that slant — and most importantly the fact that few people who create or share books with young readers see it as a gap — is problematic. We elevate one kind of experience and treat it as all experience. My plea is not for porn, but for seld questioning among adults: when are we really reading for all readers and when are we treating the girl reader (indeed one sort of girl reader) as THE reader? Whether Wicked Thoughts is right or wrong it should prompt us to question which frame we use to define the young people we serve.