It's a bit odd, I know, starting off a new year of Romance Novels for Feminists by reviewing a book that is decidedly not a romance novel. But after I finished reading L. C. Rosen's YA novel Jack of Hearts, I couldn't help but admire how this story of a high school sex-advice columnist helps teen readers recognize the difference between romance and sex, especially when so much in our culture suggests that the two are (or should be) one and the same. And to celebrate, rather than mourn, the rise of hook-up culture among the high school and college-aged, as so many popular press pieces have been doing of late.
The Jack of the title is Jack Rothman, a seventeen-year-old who loves fashion, partying, and sex with boys. In fact, his sex life is the stuff of gossip for many of his school peers, even though "my reputation for sluttiness is only partially deserved" (Kindle Loc 85). Who better to write a sex advice column than Jack? thinks Jack's best friend Jenna. After being kicked off the school newspaper for "pursuing an agenda of aggressive anti-Parkhurst School spirit," Jenna started her own blog, "writing about the stuff the school doesn't want us to know" (123). And one of the things adults decidedly don't want teens to know about is sex.
Jack's sex column advice is direct, personal, and imbued with the belief that consensual sex is one of life's true joys. The questions he chooses to answer aren't the ones I remember being posed in the well-meaning but often shaming or restrictive sex books for teens of my young adulthood. What's anal sex like? Did my boyfriend just break up with me because my first attempt at oral sex went badly? I'm finally ready to come out—how do I ask a boy out? Why do I always start to get feelings for a girl after I have sex with her? Am I unfeminist to want to spank the girls I sleep with?
And the answers are far more Scarleteen ("Sex Ed for the Real World") than Girls and Sex, the 1970 book my mother had left for me to replace the copy of Everything You Every Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask (1969) that I'd stolen from my Dad's bookshelf downstairs and hidden under a chair in my room. Practical details about the mechanics of anal, paired with the story of Jack's first time (both pleasures and pitfalls). Thoughts about what the boyfriend who hasn't called after the bad blow job might be feeling and suggestions for his maybe-former girlfriend on how to talk to him about it. Congratulations on accepting your sexuality, as well as advice about how to talk (or how not to talk) to others about it. Lessons about the attachment hormones that accompany sex, and how to contextualize those feelings so that sex doesn't get mistaken for liking or love. All with a healthy helping of advice about how to enjoy sex safely, and how to communicate with a partner so that everyone's expectations and limits are understood. And what it means to be feminist and kinky.
Romance novels, by their very nature, suggest that people who do not want to be in a committed romantic relationship are a problem that must be fixed. People (especially men or guys) who enjoy casual sex are often regarded in romance as puzzles to be solved, if not villains to be scorned. YA novels often have a similar message about casual sex. But not Jack of Hearts. As Jack explains to a guy he hooks up with:
"I'm not opposed to repeats. I just don't want... the idea of having to worry about someone else before myself. The idea of having to think, 'Wait, is this okay with my boyfriend?' before kissing some cute boy I just met at a party. I'm... too selfish right now. And I'm okay with that, because I'm not, like, getting into relationships and hurting people." (2196)
Jack of Hearts is one of the first books I've read from the point of view of a character who engages in casual sex but who isn't rehabilitated by falling in love, or by falling into monogamy, by book's end. And who isn't the villain because of it. It's okay, especially when you're a teen exploring your identity and your sexuality, to be selfish, to keep your options open. A message that I wish adolescents of all genders could benefit from hearing.
The book also contains a more specific message, one aimed at stereotypically queer young men and those who try to shame them, purportedly for their own good. For even while Jack is happy that his column is helping others, and his new "sexlebrity" is making him attractive to partners old and new, his junior year isn't all unicorns and champagne. Because he's started to get "love" notes, pink origami animals shoved into his locker containing messages that grow increasingly stalkerish as his column grows in popularity. Despite attending a progressive NYC private school, several people—including his ex-boyfriend and the school's principal—keep telling him he should tone it down, stop calling attention to himself, stop playing into gay boy stereotypes. In short, to stop being the "wrong" kind of queer. At first, Jack's quick to hit back against such respectability politics, but as his stalker's messages grow increasingly frightening—and all of Jack and his friends' efforts to discover the stalker's identity come to naught—Jack starts to feel helpless, to hang back, to shine a bit less brightly than is his usual style. The final revelation of the stalker's identity may feel a bit anticlimactic, perhaps in part because Jack's stalker's efforts to control and constrain him only take to an extreme an already existing social message: it's okay to be gay only as long as you're gay in the "right" way. A message against which this novel vehemently protests.
I have to admit that I'm decidedly jealous of today's teens, who get to enjoy and learn from a book like Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts). A book that tries to meet teens where they are, sexually, rather than shame or blame them into pretending that sex isn't important, isn't an appropriate subject for curiosity, isn't a central part of many of their lives. A book that celebrates sex without insisting that it be wrapped in the respectability of romance would have been comforting, reassuring when I was a teen—and might have better prepared me for when romance actually did come calling.
"Ask Jack of Hearts": Attitude.com
"Tone it Down": imgflip
Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts)
Little, Brown 2018