Daniel Handler recently published a provocative (or at least provocatively titled) article in the New York Times, “Want Teenage Boys to Read? Easy. Give Them Books about Sex.” Handler is the author of the wildly popular children’s books that appear under his pen name, Lemony Snicket.
Handler is genuinely concerned about the reading habits of boys–and not just because he’s a writer. An exhaustive 2016 study in the UK concluded that boys between the ages of 5 and 18 read less–and less well–than girls do. It seems highly probable that the same is true in the US.
Handler’s solution is summed up in the title of his article: Boys don’t like to read because they can’t find books that contain the topic that interests them the most–sex. Handler is right to point out that young adult novels contain a surfeit of violence, but are sanitized when it comes to depicting anything remotely close to the sexual thoughts, desires, and/or activities of adolescents. (The mere mention of masturbation in a young adult novel can get it removed from school libraries in many communities.)
Whether young adult fiction should or should not contain more sexually explicit material is a complicated and obviously contentious issue, which is better left for another time and place. However, equally problematic is Handler’s apparent belief that only boys have a near-obsession with sex from puberty onward. Absent is any acknowledgment that girls might also be interested in–not to mention confused or troubled by–sex.
If, then, authors of young adult fiction were to follow Handler’s advice, we might likely get a lot of books that portray sex from a male rather than an equally gendered point of view. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that girls are avid readers because they don’t care about the absence of sexually explicit content. A more plausible reason is that girls read more than boys because they are encouraged and praised for doing so.
And this brings us to the problem that lies at the heart of Handler’s article: The mistake of confusing biology with socialization. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in a recent op-ed by the conservative columnist Suzanne Fields. Under the deceptive title of “The Most Destructive Words a Boy Can Hear are ‘Be a Man,'” Fields parrots long-disproved shibboleths of biological determinism. “Anybody who has watched little boys at rough-and-tumble play, taking risks that frighten their mothers and indulging a fascination with machines and gadgets, rather than dolls, understands that such little-boy behavior is rooted in biology,” Fields authoritatively asserts.
Fields also cites Christina Hoff Sommer, the former philosopher and author of the polemical The War Against Boys (Simon & Schuster, 2000): “Women tend to be more sensitive, esthetic, sentimental, intuitive, and tender-minded, while men tend to be more utilitarian, objective, unsentimental, and tough-minded.” That is pure rubbish, the flipside of believing that boys are interested in sex, but girls aren’t. These sorts of putative biological differences have been persuasively refuted by neuroscientists Lise Elliot and Cordelia Fine, among many others.
If we want boys to read more, we should start by telling them that there’s nothing inherently un-cool or emasculating about reading. In other words, it’s not a girls-only treehouse. As for sexually explicit content, boys easily find that material elsewhere. It’s called the internet.