A YOUNG WOMAN PARTIES with a group of teenagers, her friends and peers. She passes out, and is raped, degraded, videotaped and photographed. There is a trial in which it seems like she is being prosecuted for the crime of being a young woman around young men. The complexities of young adult sexual violence have dominated cultural conversations in the wake of harrowing news out of Steubenville, Ohio, which could, unfortunately, be Anywhere, America. It is an all too familiar story.
Young adult fiction, at its best, exposes the complex emotional terrain of adolescence: the joys of maturation; the pain, confusion, and humiliation of growing into a different self. Young adult fiction also tells necessary stories about what happens to girls and boys as they try to make sense of their bodies and their desires, their changing relationships with family, friends, and themselves.
In Erica Lorraine Scheidt’s debut novel, Uses for Boys, she has created what might be considered both a bildungsroman and a coming of age novel, though the two are not quite the same things. Uses For Boys is about a young woman becoming a better version of herself, or, as the case may be, unbecoming one person and becoming someone else, someone older, wiser, and stronger.
Anna is lonely and lost. As Anna’s divorced mother works to support their family and flits between lovers, trying to stay young enough to get a new man, Anna engages in relationships with boys who seem to only want one thing from her — her body. This is something she is willing to give so she might feel less alone, so she might know love. Together with her best friend, Toy, the girls try to determine what the best uses for boys might ultimately be.
Uses For Boys is what some would refer to as dark, others as honest. Anna deals with sexual violence, the torments of high school, an abortion, and an absent mother. After falling for Josh, Anna moves out of her mother’s home but the relationship deteriorates in the aftermath of an unplanned pregnancy.
Only after Anna meets another young man, Sam, who has the family life she has always wanted for herself, does she learn what it means to love and be loved without sacrificing too much of herself and, most importantly, what it means to stand on her own.
A captivating reverie runs throughout the book, capturing Anna’s vulnerabilities and her deepest longings. Early in Uses For Boys, Anna longs for the “tell-me-again times,” when it was just Anna and her mother, and their bond was seemingly unbreakable. Anna muses, “Her bed is a raft on the ocean. It’s a cloud, a forest, a spaceship, a cocoon we share. I stretch out big as I can, a five-pointed star, and she bundles me back up in her arms. When I wake I’m tangled in her hair.” Without over-sentimentalizing, Scheidt subtly reveals the source of Anna’s loneliness: the fractured relationship between Anna and her mother was once whole.
Scheidt’s prose in Uses For Boys is intriguingly narrow, partly borne of the first-person point of view, but also borne of Scheidt’s deftness in writing about adolescent girlhood. Anna is precocious but rarely overly so. Instead, Scheidt has created a beautifully human, recognizable, and compelling character. Scheidt also avoids pathologizing Anna by regularly empowering her as an active participant in her sexual life. Anna is not merely a girl to whom sexual experiences happen. She has desires. She is curious. She is willing to satisfy that curiosity and those desires, and not solely because of her loneliness.
Scheidt has a remarkable sense of how to describe the banal. When Anna is making out with Desmond, a boy from school, she describes his penis as, “Not like a body part, not like a limb or a bone, more like a small animal.” With such elegant turns of phrase, Scheidt captures the mysteries of young bodies in the flush of their sexual power.
This novel is not without its flaws. There are interesting ideas that could have been more deeply explored, such as the parallel between Anna and her mother, a woman who has long found uses for men — often prioritizing them over her daughter’s needs. At times, the rush of what Anna deals with is overwhelming, but not necessarily in a way that rings true. As the novel progresses, there are moments when it seems as if Scheidt is crossing off a checklist of experiences a young woman might encounter without considering if all of these experiences are absolutely necessary to the story.
There is also a lack of true peril when Anna strikes out on her own as a young teenager without so much as a high school diploma. Everything material seems to come quite easily to Anna. She moves in with a boyfriend and then moves into an apartment of her own as if it is that easy. She finds a job. When she needs an abortion, she is supported by her mother and her best friend. Most strikingly, there is no struggle for Anna to get the money she will need for the procedure. Anna always has a safety net, though that safety net is blithely unacknowledged, as if we are supposed to pretend Anna’s circumstances are far more precarious than they actually are. This makes it difficult, at times, to believe there is as much at stake as the narrative implies. Yet despite these flaws, Scheidt’s debut novel is nuanced and warm and deeply moving. It is refreshing to see girlhood written with such empathy and intelligence.
This strong debut has received a disturbing critical reception in certain corners. As they are in life, women are judged harshly in fiction, particularly when it comes to sexuality. In a moving essay for The Rumpus, Sarah McCarry notes that much of the critical response to Uses For Boys, particularly on Goodreads, focuses not on the book but on Anna and her choices. These reviews imply that Anna’s sexuality is the sum of the content of her character. Several Goodreads users refer to Anna as a “slut,” which is always a vague term for a woman who makes sexual choices the insulter does not approve of.
Readers, it seems, wanted a redemptive arc for Anna, where redemption is Anna recognizing that to have unapologetic sex, with more than one person, is beyond redemption — a sin for which she should repent though she will not be forgiven. Sometimes, the line between fact and fiction is uncomfortably blurred. The appalling tone of this critical response is a symptom of the diseased culture that has wrought a community like Steubenville, Ohio; Cleveland, Texas; or any place in the world where young men are raised with the implicit understanding that they have a right to sexually violate young women.
During one of the most disturbing scenes in Uses For Boys, a friend’s stepbrother rapes Anna. She is drunk and confused and, far from consenting to what is happening, she can barely make sense of it. During this assault, Anna wants to remind her rapist that she is in the room with him, that she is more than the body beneath his, that she matters. She thinks, “I want him to see me.” It is a quiet, plaintive moment that communicates so much, about Anna, about what she so desperately wants, about why novels like Uses For Boys are so important. Writing like this allows experiences that are all too often ignored to be seen, to be heard.
Roxane Gay is an author and editor living in the Midwest. Her first collection, Ayiti, was released last year. You can visit her at her website, www.roxanegay.com.