Through all of these events Margaret's parents are by her side, helping her to negotiate her excitement and her fears, congratulating her on each of the steps she makes toward womanhood. And if they give her plenty of support when she gets her first period, by the time she's ready—at age seventeen—to have her first sexual experience, they practically stand by the bed and take photographs to put in the family scrapbook. For despite the fact that the protagonist in Forever is named Katherine, she is really Margaret a few years older, still living in suburban New Jersey, still a good girl with good parents. Forever is the first mainstream novel written for American teenage girls that is not only sexually explicit but also intentionally erotic, and that gives them the exact information—practical as well as emotional—to initiate a satisfying sex life.
Again, consider what had come before. As a teenage girl in the early 1970s who was as desperately curious about sex as Judy Blume had been in the fifties, I read everything I could lay my hands on. I turned to novels for information about sex not because I'm a reader but because when I was young they were among the few places a nice girl could find any. (Love, American Style was risqué, but it was hardly explicit.) To my parents' dismay I read Valley of the Dolls more times than I could count, but Jacqueline Susann's attitude toward human sexuality was of a piece with her prose: whorish and dirty. Goodbye, Columbus commanded my attention, but you don't turn to Philip Roth if you want to learn how to go all the way with a really nice boyfriend.
Adults were quick to stick you with The Bell Jar, which you were supposed to lap up with zesty gratitude because of its racy subject matter, but I smelled a rat from the get-go. Even at sixteen I could tell that the book was overpraised, a stealth weapon of grownups eager to appear progressive in their literary suggestions for teenagers but secretly dying for you to get an eyeful of Esther's first sexual experience: recovering from a suicide attempt, on furlough from a psychiatric ward, she does the deed with an older man and almost hemorrhages to death.
The only books I'd seen that placed sex where I wanted to find it—in the middle of a committed relationship, with the boy treating the girl as if she were a fragile piece of glass, and their love so powerful that it threatened to blot them both out—were the pregnancy-scare books that had been passed from hand to hand among the girls at my Catholic junior high. Written in the 1960s, they invariably involved a supersmart girl (family: respectable, middle-class) and a really neat, ambitious boy (his people would be working-class; their great dream would be for their son to become a college boy). Always they would make a terrible mistake one night; always it would turn out to have been one shot with a bullet: dead rabbit and hell to pay. They would grapple with the most serious kinds of decision-making, and always (this is why we devoured these books and dreamed about them) the couple ended up married at sixteen, living in garage apartments or guesthouses. Books like Too Bad About the Haines Girl and Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones were supposed to frighten us away from sex, lest we become tragic girls ourselves. But they were so clearly built upon a commonly accepted and deeply stirring code of male honor—an almost chivalric set of principles, handed down through the centuries, and still in practice in the American suburbs of the 1960s—that we were dazzled by them, and regarded them as the greatest love stories ever told. Which, in a sense, they were.
And then: Forever. If Hollywood movies of the 1930s taught my parents how to kiss, Forever taught me how to have sex. This was sex the way girls wanted to read about it, the way they wanted to experience it: immersed in romance. Katherine and Michael are college-bound high school seniors from nice families. Katherine's parents are so exquisitely in tune with the physical and emotional progress of her relationship that one wonders if they've planted a wire on her. The grandmother who in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret? sent sweaters with labels that read made expressly for you … by grandma now sends Planned Parenthood brochures with a note reading, "I don't judge, I just advise." Katherine's mother leaves a New York Times article about teen sex on her daughter's pillow one night, and they rap about it the next morning. "A person shouldn't ever feel pushed into sex," Katherine tells her mom. "Or that she has to do it to please someone else …" "I'm glad you feel that way," Mom says approvingly. Was Mom, Katherine asks, a virgin when she got married? No, but she's had sex only with Dad, and she waited until they were engaged.