BY NICOLA PRENTIS
As an adult, I read when I can steal a moment back from my day. A book can take months to finish. The bookmark has always fallen out and sometimes I read several pages before realising I'm covering old ground. Books are entertainment, inspiration, education, the best of them might make me cry but they rarely get my full attention now that attention is divided between so many more duties. But the books I read as a teenager, when I could spend an entire weekend curled around one on the sofa, shaped me. From treasured volumes to throw away instalments of teen serials, Judy Blume, LM Montgomery, Francine Pascal and the authors of countless historical romances taught me about myself, boys and sex.
From age 13, I was at the library every Saturday to take out the 6 books my card allowed. I often went with friends so we could maximise the loan number by swapping books between us, queueing up together to borrow the book the second the other girl returned it. At school we had to keep a reading log, a chore for most of the class but a badge of honour to those of us getting through two or three books a week. By age 15, my teen and historical romance reading list had expanded to include horror, Stephen King and Graham Masterton, and bonkbusters, Jackie Collins and Jilly Cooper, but none of those led to the damage the more age-appropriate books did.
The walk to the library, like any walk into town, brought the honking of cars if I wore a skirt. They slowed down to allow craning necks, maybe a shouted comment, even though, at 13, I was probably with my mother. She still looked good, but we both knew that it was my blondish hair and shapely calves that drew their attention. I revelled in it. I was Jessica Wakefield of Sweet Valley High – less sun-kissed, less kissed, but I too wore denim miniskirts 'teamed with' high-heeled 'pumps.' When bad boy Bruce Patman tried to untie the top of the sexy bikini Jessica had picked out, she playfully swatted his hand away. Jessica was a sassy 16-year-old and boys did her bidding. When two boys pinned me to the floor at a friend's house-party and pulled up the sexy, short, tight dress I was wearing, I only escaped more than a groping because someone intervened.
At 17, an older boy, Sean*, was finally mine after I'd longed for him throughout a year of glimpses around town. He looked just like teen heartthrob Jason Priestly of Beverly Hills 90210. I was the same age as Katherine in Forever when she started going out with Michael. Katherine decided to seal their love by having sex for the first time. Michael was patient and understanding and so was Ralph, his penis. The Jason Priestly lookalike's penis was less patient. Every time we were alone together, I felt I had to go that bit further even though I'd stopped being comfortable (slightly post-Jessica's limit) when he had my top off. I eventually gave in because it seemed easier than saying no – again. Where Michael gave Katherine an orgasm just by moving slowly inside her, Sean's Ralph hurt too much to carry on. In fact, I realised years later when I managed to banish the memory enough to lose my virginity, it hadn't even been fully in. Afterwards, Katherine asked Michael to show her what to do for him. I just wanted to be somewhere else. Sean wanted to try again. I asked, "Do we have to?"
At university, in the first two weeks, I met Andy. He brought me a mug of tomato soup in bed when I had flu and then kissed me for the first time, even though I'd told him I was so bunged up I could hardly breathe. I kissed him back long enough, I hoped, to be polite and say thanks for the soup. While Anne of Green Gables rebuffed Gilbert Blythe over and over, he remained her admirer through school, college and beyond. Andy would leave my room so sexually frustrated, he said, that he was bouncing off the walls. We were together six weeks until he dumped me. I told myself, if only I had been able to have sex with him, we would have lasted.
I went through university with a gaggle of Wonderbra-enhanced, short-skirted and flirtatious friends, the modern-dressed versions of the heroines in historical novels. Corseted, breasts pushed up, vying for the attention of a Lord or King, they held out long enough to gain titles and wealth and only then succumbed to his lusts. We got in free to the Student Union 80s night on Tuesdays, Club Tropicana. The bouncers got a quick flash of hoisted up flesh and we saved £2.50. I think we even skipped the line. I once got so drunk that when a male friend took me home at the end of the night, I came to my senses on top of him and didn't know who he was. We never mentioned it afterwards.
My teenage literary heroines lived in worlds penned by women who were living a romanticised story version of what I now know their real lives could never have been. They could never have met many real Michaels or Gilberts, would have been lucky to meet no-one more sinister than the easily caged Bruce, and I doubt any Kings had showered gifts in return for their virtue. As a teenager, I knew the stories weren't real but I still believed in the fiction. I thought you could tease boys and keep them under your playful control. I thought the first time would be special and on my terms. I thought saying "no" would inspire respect at least, if not my own manor house. The girlish books I inhabited taught me nothing about how to deal with male libido as it really is: unromantic, unyielding, always on the lookout for a weak moment.
I wish I could tell the teenagers of the last few years that they're never going to meet a chastely respectful Edward Cullen or a lovesick Peeta Mallark, grateful for whatever bone they throw him. I wish I could warn them: the fiction isn't only the vampires and the Games. As a writer, perhaps I should be writing books for girls that teach them how different, how dark, men can be when they're hot for it. Or, maybe it would take a man to write an honest book for teenage girls. But I still want to make believe. I lie for myself with my charming heroes and my in-charge heroines, despite knowing I risk the next generation of girls falling for the lies like I did.
Nicola Prentis has written for Salon, xojane, AlterNet and Refinery 29 and has had short fiction published.