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Twilight and New Moon: sexual longing in a world of vampire abstinence

Twilight's Edward Cullen and the New Moon movie: What message do they really send?

By Sarah Seltzer / November 18, 2009

New York

If you've been spending time in proximity to teenage girls this week, there's a strong chance you've heard about "New Moon" and Edward Cullen. Edward is the undead hero of the bestselling young adult fantasy/romance "Twilight" series."

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He's reached heartthrob status in a major way, and he's done it while refusing to devour, or sleep with, the story's heroine, like a Jonas Brother for the literary set. And now "New Moon," the second book in the series, is coming to a movie theater near you.

The "Twilight" books, written by Stephenie Meyer, have been heralded as the next "Harry Potter." To bank on the comparisons, "Breaking Dawn," the concluding installation, hit bookstores last summer with "Potter"-esque midnight parties, secrecy, and sales in the millions (although they didn't touch the "Potter" series' numbers, mostly because the fan base is so exclusively female and postpubescent).

There's plenty to cheer about when it comes to young girls reading voraciously. "Twilight" is much in the tradition of teen literature such as the "Nancy Drew" mysteries and "Goosebumps." The books are also rife with allusions to Shakespeare, Austen, and the Brontës, a nice touch that will inspire fans to hit the classics sections of their bookstores.

Is it 'Twilight' for strong heroines?

But what makes the "Twilight" saga particularly fascinating and disturbing are the sexual currents that run through its pages. Like American culture itself, "Twilight" is both lascivious and chaste. Ms. Meyer, a practicing Mormon, has said she draws a line at premarital sex for her characters. But, as New York Times columnist Gail Collins noted last year, boyfriend Edward holds the line, not heroine and narrator Bella. Bella, after all, is so hot for Edward she tells him she's going to "spontaneously combust" and frequently forgets to breathe when he kisses her.

Meanwhile, he is equally besotted with her, so much so that he trains himself to ignore his thirst for her blood, which has an aroma that could make even a good vampire (Edward and his coven have forsworn munching on humankind) go bad.

Yet Edward still won't go all the way because he doesn't want to get carried away and hurt Bella with his superhuman strength. Her physical safety becomes a symbolic substitute for her virginity, and Edward guards it with overprotective zeal.

Now that's a real fantasy: a world in which young women are free to describe their desires openly and launch themselves at men without shame, while said boyfriends are the sexual gatekeepers. The sexual flowchart in "Twilight" is the inversion of abstinence-only/purity ball culture, where girls are told that they must guard themselves against rabid boys and that they must rein in both their own and their suitors' impulses. But even while inverting the positions, Meyer doesn't change the game.