Discussion Posts

Discussion: The Surprising Sexuality of Bella Swan

Blanket warning: This post will be discussing sex and sexual activity. Bella Swan is a minor in the beginning of the Twilight Saga, and thus this discussion concerns the sexuality of teenagers.

Bella Swan and her sexual awakening

When we first meet Bella in Twilight, she can be described as a pretty sexless and anti-romantic person. We find out through her experiences in the Twilight Saga that she’s never gone on dates, never had anyone express explicit attraction to her, and that Edward Cullen is her first real crush and love interest. She seems pretty analytical, all things considered, discussing her mother’s relationships with her father and stepfather pretty distantly. While she can almost understand attraction–pointing out that when her parents were young and more attractive she can almost understand why they rushed into marriage–she doesn’t openly acknowledge attraction as a motivation for anything until dealing with Edward.

Bella Swan has a very clear sexual awakening in Twilight. The first time she kisses Edward, she describes herself as burning up and suddenly losing control. In fact, throughout the rest of the series this is a common theme. Edward is constantly having to keep their kissing as chaste as possible to protect Bella from his dangerous venom (and his bloodlust) while Bella regularly describes herself as latching onto him, pushing him to go further. Bella experiences tangible sexual desire for Edward and continually tries to act on it, despite Edward’s fears and trepidation. We like to make memes and joke about how dedicated Bella was to having sex with him in Breaking Dawn, but that was just the culmination of a lot of encounters in which Bella’s desire and lust drive their physical interactions.

Bella’s autonomy versus Edward’s

This was an interesting and occasionally disconcerting aspect of the treatment of sex in the Saga. Edward asserts repeatedly that it’s too dangerous to do more than kiss and that he won’t risk it with Bella. He also later on asserts his desire to wait for marriage, placing his sexual autonomy in the way of Bella’s desires. This is actually surprising in a lot of ways. First and most obvious is the subversion of expectations. A lot of YA and New Adult fiction places women in the shoes of the autonomy debate, putting their desire to wait for marriage, love, or another important milestone before having sex for the first time (or just the first time with their partner) out as the obstacle that the man they are seeing must respect. While I don’t think it was Meyer’s intention to comment on the particularly distasteful way society ignores male sexual autonomy and the right of men to say no to sex, it’s still an unusual subversion of societal expectation.

The next reason I find Bella’s sexual desire and lack of care for marriage interesting is because of Meyer’s background. Stephenie Meyer is a Mormon, and the Mormon culture generally encourages waiting until marriage for women and has strict rules regulating sexuality for all young people in general. We see in other parts of Meyer’s writing where the Mormon values come into play, so it’s ultimately very surprising that the main POV character, Bella, who is largely portrayed as mature and wiser than her peers should be pushing for premarital sex against a man’s wishes. She ends up only agreeing to marry Edward because she wants to sleep with him, and a little bit because she wants to be with him forever. She figures their relationship will continue regardless of marriage but his conditions for sex are what finally convince her to marry at all. This is again a subversion of the usual expectations.

I also find Edward’s sexual autonomy interesting in the face of the almost sex positive Bella. Edward Cullen is a man that repeatedly says ‘no’ to sex with a willing partner because of his own values, regardless of which of those values are more powerfully motivating. He has no reason to fear being overpowered when Bella is a human, so he can and frequently does exercise his right to say “no” without fear of repercussions. After all, the biggest reason people will consent to a sexual encounter they don’t want is to avoid the potential consequences of saying otherwise. Edward resists Bella’s attempts to coerce or seduce him in part because he knows she cannot overpower him, as he is a vampire and can absolutely physically stop her if need be. Bella dances dangerously close to interfering with his autonomy by pushing him towards physical encounters he expresses discomfort with. And from Bella’s perspective, she doesn’t seem to be aware that she’s coming close to violating his consent. Again, I don’t think it was Meyer’s intention to point out that women are just as capable of violating sexual trust as men, but an interesting point nonetheless.

Sexuality in the rest of the cast

Sex is absolutely alluded to and explicitly discussed on occasion with regards to the rest of the cast–usually to reaffirm relationships. In particular, Rosalie and Emmett’s relationship is associated with implied sex and Jacob’s perspective in Breaking Dawn references implied sex as well. Unsurprisingly, outside of Bella and Edward’s direct discussions and engagements in sexual activity, sex is discussed without actually being discussed–probably due to the age of the intended audience and Meyer’s thoughts on premarital sex.

Rosalie and Emmett have a tempestuous and loving relationship, which Edward describes as having destroyed houses through sex. Rosalie and Emmett are the most conventionally attractive of the Cullens, and often come across as a heartbreakingly perfect couple. They love one another very much and go on elaborate honeymoon trips, frequently living separate from the rest of the Cullens as a married couple. Additionally, Rosalie’s story involves her assault leading to her death and her desire to have a family, specifically her wish for children. In many ways, Rosalie’s story is more grown up than the rest of the series in is tragedy and in her metaphorical struggle with infertility. It’s not wholly surprising for her character that she and her husband are the most clearly sexual of the characters, but it does stick out as unusually mature against the rest of the series.

Jacob’s perspective also reveals some implied discussions of sex. The first example comes when he himself goes to a park to deliberately attempt to find someone he can get over Bella with. The implication is pretty obvious: he intends to have a one nigh stand. That he doesn’t succeed can’t erase what seems pretty obvious. Thus we have a character without the hangups on premarital sex that Edward–the only other male character that expresses any degree of sexuality–has. Also, since much of the exposition relating to Imprinting is given by Jacob, Jacob does have to discuss sex to a certain degree.

Contradictory messages?

I’d say that as a YA author, having your eighteen-year-old protagonist marry straight out of high school and avoid premarital sex is making a pretty firm moral statement. I don’t know for certain if Meyer set out from the beginning to build a relationship with Bella and Edward that she hoped young girls would aspire to, or if she just couldn’t bring herself to put something she didn’t believe in into her books. From the commentary on the movie, I do know she was at least a little uncomfortable with Bella being sexualized as she was one of the people protesting how “sexy” Kristen Stewart looked during the scene where Edward kisses Bella in her bedroom. Despite this, Meyer wrote a pretty convincing sexual awakening for Bella’s character.

Up until Forks, Bella’s character motivation doesn’t include sex or relationships. She is pretty single-minded about taking care of her mother, and then a little bit about being a good kid. The implication is that before remarrying, Renee wasn’t very good about consistently paying bills and providing food, so Bella honestly had far more important things to worry about than boys (or girls). Her sexual awakening with Edward is actually a pretty interesting idea, then, because in Forks is the first time Bella has time to think about boys, relationships, and sex. And then Bella is repeatedly shut down in these urges by her partner, seemingly in an attempt to protect her. There are plenty of issues with Edward as a partner, we all know this (and I haven’t even read Midnight Sun yet), but I found his desire to save himself until marriage the least problematic thing about him.

How interesting is it that for three books we have the narrative of “Edward desires Bella but is scared of hurting her” before finally having “Edward’s personal choice for his sexuality is to save himself until marriage?” I would have much preferred if that had been out in the open, since without the discussion that takes place at the end of Eclipse, Bella seems to be the victim of being teased by Edward’s allure without ever being granted the payoff of more than a kiss–whatever vampiric danger reasons there are for not going further. Instead, we get the fact that Edward has been struggling with his preference for having sex after marriage without sharing this with Bella, who clearly was willing to respect that as she marries him for this reason. If Meyer was trying to portray premarital sex as a bad thing, she never really got around to it. Bella isn’t even considering sex until Eclipse, despite her growing sexuality, and the discussions she and Edward do have about it isn’t very respectful to the thoughts of either side of the issue.

Final thoughts

I know that it seems awfully pointless to discuss a niche topic in the context of a book series people aren’t enamored with, especially when it’s pretty clear the mos interesting parts of this were not the author’s intentions. I don’t think Stephenie Meyer intended for the Twilight craze to happen at all, especially when you look at the backlash that happened. While there are legitimate issues in the series–capitalizing on the Quileute tribe’s existence while also doing some pretty problematic things with the Quileute characters comes to mind–one thing that cannot be attributed to the series is the hatred of teenage girls that drove the hatred for the series. The vast majority of criticisms for this series came from people whose deep seated hatred of teenage girls led them to find every fault possible (except for the majority of the series’ actual faults). Needles to say, this backlash affected me in a number of ways as I was a teenage girl who initially liked Twilight.

This was not a conscious thought I had upon first reading, but I want us to consider being a teenage girl in a confusing world where half of popular media says relationships and making out and even sex are important and cool parts of being a teenager, while another half of popular media condemns teenage girls for exploring their sexuality however they may be comfortable. As a teenage girl, saving yourself is worthy of mockery and having sex regardless of the context is worthy of slut-shaming. To have a romance series endorsed by mothers as well as teenagers in which the teenage girl explores feeling sexual desire is pretty interesting. She’s not shamed for desiring Edward, it’s only natural after all. And the questions of consent and autonomy are danced around with his desire to save himself for marriage–an unintentional reminder that women are capable of sexual assault as well and that everyone deserves the safety to say “no.”

Do I think it’s revolutionary for Twilight to have included some of Bella’s sexual awakening? No. In fact, I think it’s one of the things that could have been improved if Meyer was a better writer or better re-writer to make a more impressive series. But I do think that Twilight is more notable for the deep hatred it inspired than its writing. I think it’s important to continue to discuss Twilight in the context of what it gave teenage girls and who opposed teenage girls having it. Edward wasn’t a great love interest, but one thing we can say for him is he never forced sex on Bella. He never pressured her, he wanted to wait for marriage. As a result, Bella’s sexual awakening is slower and paced out with her own growing desires and wants. She never has to rush through things because she isn’t having sex. And I think it’s good for teenage girls to have a character whose desires awaken in the first book but isn’t having sex until later, has sex with someone she stays together with and gets to grow with, and is never pressured into the sex.

By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

4 replies on “Discussion: The Surprising Sexuality of Bella Swan”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s