Different for Boys: A Review

Ed Shaw
Reviews 3 mins

Patrick Ness, Different for Boys (Walker Books, 2023)

The bookshops of my city are very good at promoting the latest LGBTQI+ titles. In the window of one of my local bookshops this week was Patrick Ness’s latest: Different for Boys.

Ness is a successful author in a market that nobody published for specifically when I was in it: young adults or teenagers. He writes (amongst other offerings) books about growing up gay – the sort of books that weren’t available when I was doing the same at roughly the same time as him. He’s American-born and at least one of his books implies some exposure to US Christianity as he discovered his own same-sex attractions.

It’s a snapshot of where our culture is perceived to have got to on sexuality.

Different for Boys is a very short volume sensitively illustrated by the Danish illustrator Tea Bendix. It would pass for a book for a much younger age-group were it not for the frequently blacked out blocks of text (covering swear words and sexual terms) and the first sentence on the dust jacket: ‘You know, the way teenage guys talk about sex, you’d think all of us were having it all the time, non-stop.’ It then continues to talk, almost non-stop, about the sexualities of four teenage boys, friends since primary school and now in year 11 (and so just about at the UK age of sexual consent).

Why read what follows? Well because it’s a snapshot of where our culture is perceived to have got to on sexuality:

  • Homophobia is officially not tolerated but is still a powerful force in many young hearts and minds: the character Charlie demonstrates this.
  • Masculinity is still being traditionally defined and pursued – perceived effeminacy will open you up to scorn and bullying, as the character Jack experiences.
  • Virginity is still something you want to have lost, but defining what qualifies as having lost it is as much of an obsession as it ever was (see the opening pages of the book).
  • Loneliness is still the overwhelming experience of teenagers as they explore their unique sexualities, experiment with their own bodies – and others: ‘I didn’t think it was possible to feel lonelier’ is what Ant feels after he is publicly outed at school (p.88).
  • Sex is still both fun and yet not satisfying – as expressed in one of the most poignant sentences in the book: ‘…you think it’s going to make your life less lonely, but it never does’ (p.8).
  • Love is still what everyone is looking for, but its permanence is as elusive as ever: the book sees it experienced, but we are cautioned against reading in a happily ever after ending: ‘…don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying this is the moment where I found the love of my life’ (p.101).

It’s too easy for someone middle-aged like me to perceive that the world contemporary teenagers are living in has completely changed in the last few decades. But, of course, the above list sounds all too familiar to someone who was a teenager in the 1990s. Perhaps the main positive difference is that there are books like this expressing this reality, and helping gay young adults feel slightly less lonely as a result.

If you work with youth and need reminding of what it feels like to be one, or if you need help in empathising with the experiences of gay teenagers today, I’d recommend this book. The blacked-out text doesn’t leave much to the imagination, but it is not an explicit book in either the text or pictures. I’m not sure I’d be giving it to a teenager – not for that reason but because of its presumption that they’ll be sexually active which is, I think, one of the most damaging presumptions out there (although I’m also conscious of the equally damaging presumption, in Christian circles, that they’ll be virgins). That said, it could spark a good open discussion about homophobia, masculinity, virginity, loneliness, sex and love - and give you a chance to speak God’s transforming love into them all.