[Content note: discussion of rape and sexual assault. Plus general plot spoilers.]
It’s been a long time since I read a book where I sobbed really hard at the end (and throughout, really). Or one that left me feeling so gut-wrenched. Erica Lorraine Scheidt’s Uses for Boys is one such book. I was going to save it for my flight, along with some other books. But yesterday, I started reading the first few pages, and I couldn’t stop. I finished it in one sitting. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s one of those books that if I had a daughter or a niece, I would give it to her. I will give copies to my younger cousins instead.
Uses for Boys is Anna’s story: a lonely teenage girl who is let down by just about every adult in her life, particularly her mother. As her mum pursues man after man, marriage after marriage, searching for someone to fill the void of loneliness, Anna is left increasingly on her own. When the story begins, Anna is a little girl. We jump straight into the confusion of her mother’s abandonment, new stepbrothers, new stepfathers. Anna doesn’t really know what a family is, she doesn’t know what love is; not the kind that holds you together, that provides something to cling to as you grow up. And so Anna begins to learn the uses for boys instead, and through them, the uses for sex.
This is not a didactic morality tale. Anna doesn’t simply turn to boys and to sex for comfort, love and a family. But it’s certainly one of the main reasons. Anna has sex to feel wanted, for pleasure, because of pain, because of nameless wanting and needing, because she has no mother and she has no father, because she wants a family, because she wants to be wanted, because it’s sex and she likes it, because it’s sex and she doesn’t like it, because she’s easy to manipulate when no one is there to guide and protect her and tell her all about her own worth, because she’s not easy to manipulate and strong, because she likes the way it feels, because she doesn’t like the way it feels. Anna is raped, and assaulted, and used. She is also loved by a boy named Sam. She is loved by his family too. And she is loved by a friend named Toy, and in her own inadequate way, by her absent mother.
This is not an easy book with easy answers. But it’s written in such a way that flows so beautifully, it makes you lose yourself to the rhythm and logic of Anna’s mind. Anna mentions numerous times how she’d like to climb into other people’s bodies and minds and simply be them. And I felt reading this story that I did just that: that through Scheidt’s writing, I had entered Anna’s body, I understood her logic, and I never judged her. I actually loved her, and admired her, and I had some choice words for the people who wrote those superficial victim-blaming reviews that didn’t get this book, and didn’t get her. It’s hard to explain, but I view Anna as a real person now, and so I feel protective of her. I think this makes sense though, and it isn’t that fanciful, since in some way or another, many teenage girls have been a version of Anna.
The thing about Uses for Boys is that it makes you realise what it means to be a teenage girl and a woman in the world:
I’m a slut before I even touch a penis. Before I even have sex. The space between Desmond Dreyfus with his damp palm over my breast while Carl Drier and Michael Cox watch to my mouth around Joey Sugimoto’s penis is very short. The girl I am now, at sixteen, was always present. She haunted the twelve-year-old me.
Haven’t we all been either sluts or virgins in high school? Haven’t we all been reduced to what’s between our legs, and how we use or don’t use it? Haven’t we all heard stories about girls like Anna, those easy girls, those easy lays, those girls you gossip about and the guys laugh about? And then you grow up, and you realise that girl, that easy fuck, had her own story. She wasn’t a disembodied hole to be screwed. Sometimes she had reasons for having sex, just as others had reasons not to have sex. Sometimes, no one had any reason to have sex and not to have sex, and everyone was simply playing a game of semantics: sluts and prudes, whores and virgins. Shit, I’m so tired of it all. As Anna says, “sex is the easy part”.
The hard part is wanting, needing, comfort, love, family, friends; it’s not how we use our bodies, how we punish our bodies, and how we have our sense of self defined for us purely through our bodies. In Anna’s own words again, it’s “being touched by a boy who knows what loves looks like”. It’s learning that slut and virgin, whore and prude, mean nothing; should mean nothing.
I’ve read some reviews of Uses for Boys. I mainly read the negative ones that simply didn’t get it. Apart from all the victim-blaming bullshit, I realised I was also fighting against the easy categorisation of ‘dark’. I’ve seen Uses for Boys described as a ‘dark’ book. To me, it couldn’t be further from that. There is nothing dark about this book. It is difficult and heart-wrenching and intelligently written and requires you to face the reality of teenage girls having sex (something that apparently a lot of people have a hard time trying to comprehend). It is also beautiful and thoughtful and presents an unforgettable character in Anna. I love her like a sister, friend, like myself, and not like myself. She is everything that we’ve been taught about ourselves as women and girls, and she is everything within us that fights against that, wishing for more. This is not dark, this is light. Anna fights for a story of herself that she wants, she doesn’t settle for the story she’s inherited from her mother, and the one her mother inherited from her own.
Uses for Boys, more than anything, made me want to go hug my own mother and father, and thank them for showing me what love looks like. Because of that, I know who I am, what I’m worth. And I wish every girl who is struggling to figure that out would receive a copy of this book from someone who cares for her. The empathy, the compassion, the sense of overwhelming belief in girls is evident in every page of this book. And girls need to be believed in, in a world that calls them sluts and virgins at the same time – in a world that teaches them all the wrong things about themselves. So until the world changes, I hope for more books like this one.