The Twilight series gets a lot of criticism for giving teenage girls an unrealistic idea of what teenage boys are like. As the average seventeen-year-old neither lives off of animal blood or has a century’s worth of experience holding back all sexual urges, this is a pretty fair critique. Edward Cullen is a terrible representation of young male desire.

But what so many miss in their rejection of Edward is that Bella Swan, the Twilight heroine and narrator, is actually a pretty remarkable thing in pop culture: an openly and unashamedly desirous teenage girl.

Edward Cullen is bizarrely chaste for a seventeen-year-old boy/108-year-old man (depending on how you’re counting). Despite the fact that he is ludicrously gorgeous and alluring, he is a virgin when he meets Bella, and he apparently has never wanted another woman, frequently turning down advances from beautiful vampires and humans without a second thought.

Many are quick to transpose Edward’s restrained sexuality onto Bella, assuming that Bella (and the female readers who identify with her) love Edward because he is sexually non-threatening. According to a Slate article on the problems with Twilight, “These women are going to be shocked when the sensitive, emotionally available, poetry-writing boys of their dreams expect a bit more from a sleepover than dew-eyed gazes and chaste hugs.”

But Bella doesn’t want gazes and hugs and poetry; she wants Edward. Just because Edward is reserved about his sexual desires doesn’t mean that his girlfriend is. Bella is fascinated by Edward’s appearance, by his physicality. One of the most noticeable features of the books’ writing is the endless praises of Edward’s form, of his bodily perfection and desirability. The physical, sexual aspect of their relationship is important to Bella: “If I had my way, I would spend the majority of my time kissing Edward,” she offers in Eclipse.

Bella is comfortable with her desire for Edward, with her own developing sexuality. In a reversal of the traditional teenage sexual dynamic, Bella is the one pushing for more, the one who tries to take their kisses a little bit further every time, and Edward is the one who wants to wait. Bella thinks that they are ready to have sex, and when Edward proposes that they get married first, she finds the idea ridiculous: “People don’t just get married at eighteen! Not smart people, not responsible, mature people!” The implication being that smart, responsible, mature people can have sex outside of wedlock.

While Bella and Edward ultimately do have sex for the first time on their wedding night, the fact that Bella is never ashamed of her sexual urges is important. Bella doesn’t think there is anything strange or embarrassing or degrading about the fact that she wants to further her sexual relationship with her boyfriend, and, rather than teaching girls that teen romance is all about cuddling, she may be showing them that it is acceptable, even healthy for them to feel physical desire. As troubled as the rest of the Twilight series may be, the image of a sexually confident and responsible teenage girl is one our society needs.