‘Sex Lives of College Girls’ engenders debate on societal norms

Written by By Ian Urbina , Special to CNN Written by These books are often seen as sending up the very idea of the millennial female. But on the flip side, such books have…

'Sex Lives of College Girls' engenders debate on societal norms

Written by By Ian Urbina , Special to CNN Written by

These books are often seen as sending up the very idea of the millennial female. But on the flip side, such books have often been praised for addressing “real” issues like acne, discomfort with ethnic identity, virginity and sexual experimentation.

So should readers always feel troubled by a novel that encourages girls to talk openly about the nuances of their sexuality?

“Yes, it’s normal for women to have secret lives that have absolutely nothing to do with sex,” said A.M. Homes, author of the acclaimed “The Judgement,” in a 2017 interview. “I would love to see girls going through puberty, or even high school or college, going to doctors about skin problems or hormone levels.

“I think that when you explain everything honestly, girls feel a sense of liberation.”

“The Sex Lives of College Girls,” also known as “Gracie’s Brothel,” is the third book in New York Times bestselling author Linda Fairstein’s four-part book series, making it the fourth in “The Sex Lives of College Girls” as publisher Dutton announced plans to add three more books. The most recent of these was released in July 2018.

With its relatable characters and highly popular set of narrators, “College Girls” has become a phenomenon on social media, generating more than 100,000 comments across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter since its publication in 2016.

The four girls — teenage Gracie, her best friend Abby, and aspiring writers Holly and Emmie — embark on the book’s three central storylines — girl breakups, sex lives and frat boy betrayals — with similar personal narratives.

“I was inspired by this on one level by the fact that these weren’t insular, fairly typical teenage experiences,” said editor Sarah Davison, who read the books on holiday. “You’re seeing real young people are actually being taken seriously by some smart, powerful writers.”

“College Girls” isn’t all about sex. Each of the book’s narrators is trying to find their identity while navigating growing pains in the hot-dog eating world, at a beach house with a bad boyfriend and with a hot dad.

It’s refreshing to see characters who are strong and willing to listen, in addition to getting their orientation checked by a doctor. The book even features character therapy, which no one in the world of print really does.

The books also double as a media event. When the book first came out, it was touted by Josh Liberman, the owner of the Jersey Shore-based Bookworm Tattoo parlor, who tweeted that he’d tattooed three girls’ wrists with phrases like “I love boys,” “not a rapist” and “I’m a feminist.” As of May 2019, Liberman’s tattoo collection had grown to 27: seven men and 18 women.

(Worse: Liberman didn’t have any done after Feminist month last November. “In my book, never a good idea,” he said.)

“Sex Lives of College Girls” references a large swathe of knowledge about sexual frustration. The overall message is upbeat. “We are all the glue of the patriarchy and a destructive force,” said Davison, who gets three questions a day about “The Sex Lives of College Girls.”

In a July 2017 essay for The New York Times, Homes made an indirect connection between “Gracie’s Brothel” and the National Book Awards announced that month. One of the biggest losers in the “Sex Lives of College Girls” was Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” which was deemed an exception to the book trend because it is about “women deciding on their own to rebel against traditional laws.”

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