I was really excited to read XVI, since the premise was so edgy and challenging. A dystopian novel in a future where girls’ bodies become fair game at age sixteen, and where lower-class teens aspire to join the Female Liason Specialists (read: high class hookers) as a way of moving up the social ranks. I thought this book had the potential to say something interesting about female sexuality and the virgin/whore paradox, but unfortunately I think Julia Karr failed here. She sets up a really intriguing world, but doesn’t dig deep enough into the foundations of that society or how it applies to ours.
In XVI, Nina Oberon is coming up on her sixteenth birthday, though she’s not looking forward to it because that means “sex-teen”. For some reason, at sixteen all girls become legal and basically become a sexual free-for-all for interested men. Girls who don’t want to have sex or are raped are not believed in court, because they supposedly become so full of hormones at 16 that they always want sex. This could be a really interesting take on the rape culture that we live in: the “she was asking for it” culture that leads to women not reporting rapes and men not being forced to take responsibility for rape. However, instead of exploring this idea further, Karr just kind of states it as fact. The explanation for this system being accepted is “the Media”, which is more pervasive and connected to the government. I think it’s a cop out. Yes, the media is part of what perpetuates this view of women’s bodies as public property; and yes, it’s pervasive, but it’s not the sole cause. People still control the Media, and I wish we had been given more explanation of how the society came to be this way.
I also felt that we needed to see more of the repercussions of this kind of a society. We meet lots of male characters, but almost none of whom are presented as sex-hungry or dangerous. Nina’s friends Mike and Derek are never presented as threats, nor is her boyfriend Sal. But in a society where girls over the age of sixteen are believed to always be “wanting it”, wouldn’t the boys believe that and want it, too? Boys and young men in our society already have a problem with understanding that no means no: even if she’s drunk, even if she’s wearing a skimpy outfit, even if she’s had sex with you before. So how are boys in this book, who are <i>explicitly told</i> that they can have sex with any girl they want and that she wants it too, so miraculously good and pure? Mike and Derek and Sal aren’t presented as outliers, either, they seem to be pretty average. Karr doesn’t use this book to say anything about consent or rape, she just assumes that only bad people rape. Bad people like Ed, Nina’s stepfather, who beats up her mom and watches porn with underage girls in it. I think it does a disservice to send the message that only perverts and abusers rape, when the majority of rapes are actually committed by a friend or acquaintance, someone like Mike or Derek who takes advantage or thinks they’re entitled to sex. Most men who commit rape are “normal” men, not men who you would run away from on a dark street.
Furthermore, let’s look at the girls in this book. Nina never has sex. Her friend Wei never has sex, even though she’s over sixteen. Nina’s friend Sandy, who buys into the “sex-teen” propoganda, is raped and killed. What kind of a message is that? Sandy wanted it, and look what she got. There is one scene where Nina and Sal are making out, and they almost go further, Nina even wants to, but they stop. I understand that Nina is committed to not having sex because of what sex means in her world, but I wish the author had explored teenage sexuality in a positive way as well. She could have had Nina struggle with her desire, and then have her realize that sex doesn’t have to be a bad thing, not if you choose to do it with someone you care about. It ends up having more of a “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and you will die,” message, which I honestly don’t think is what Karr intended.
(One more thing: if FeLS candidates have to be virgins, why wouldn’t Nina just have sex with Sal? That would invalidate her contract. I know she was conflicted about having sex, but surely it would be better than being forced into the sex industry.)
Overall, I thought XVI was bland and I wish it had been more challenging. I really think the author dropped the ball here, turning what could have been a great book about teenage sexuality and consent into a morality tale about why sex is bad. It’s really a shame. If you want a book that touches on many of the same themes but does it better, I recommend Lauren DeStefano’s Wither instead.