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Discussion: The Uncomfortable Truth about Sex in YA Novels

Content Warning & Disclaimer: In this post I will be talking candidly about sex, sexuality, and sexual attraction–specifically as it relates to teenagers. This means I will be discussing fictional characters in their teen years, and possibly classified as minors, who engage in fictional sexual activity of varying levels of consent and understanding. I will also be talking about how we discuss, interact with, and think about teenagers on the Internet today. I will not be explicitly discussing sexual acts, nor will I discuss sexual assault. Any real life examples will be drawn from my own personal experiences as an adult and as a teenager.

Intro: What I’m hearing these days…

I’m not sure what has caused the latest discussions about morality, sex, and “setting a good example,” but they’re happening. And they’re honestly a little confusing. I’ve read multiple sources–ranging from blogs to general articles online to Twitter threads–in which YA has been referred to or assumed to be a “sex free” zone. And while I agree that books with a target audience of 13-18 years old probably shouldn’t have the same level of eroticism that a lot of the most popular romance novels of the day do… YA has always had some sex and sensuality to it. When I started reading YA novels at thirteen, there was definitely sex. Not as visible, sure, and not as often, but it was there. I moved on to adult fiction pretty early, around fourteen years old, and read some salacious sex scenes as a result. It was fine. The world didn’t explode from a fourteen year old reading about consenting people having sex in adult and YA fiction. But purity culture is rearing its ugly head again, and people are talking about YA fiction being sexless which is…incorrect and also a bad idea.

“It’s creepy for adult authors to write about teenagers having sex.”

This isn’t a new discussion, but it’s one I’m exhausted from. Raise your hand if you were on Tumblr when John Green got chased off. I was, too. The gist of that tired issue was that somebody decided it was weird that John Green, an adult man, wrote books for teenagers in which teenagers sometimes think about or initiate sex. Despite the fact that this was nothing new or unusual. I remember wild accusations being thrown about–especially due to the fact that Green’s primary fanbase at the time included a lot of teenage girls. Unlike other adult male celebrities, though, John Green didn’t have young girls coming forward about inappropriate comments or interactions. Nevertheless, Green was effectively bullied off of social media and has since taken a major step out of the spotlight. This is an example to break down why the header of this section is both ridiculous, and to use a tired word, problematic.

1. “It’s creepy for adults to write about teenagers”

This point floats around sometimes on its own and it’s ridiculous. Who else is going to write about teenagers in published fiction? Y’all, teens aren’t out there writing whole novels and getting them published most of the time. Yes, some teenage writers are incredibly talented and have the luck of getting to publish their works. But the vast majority of published fiction is written by adults. It is not inherently creepy for an adult author to write a book about teenagers, for teenagers, or both.

2. “Adults shouldn’t think about nor write about teenagers having sex

Somewhere in the mess that is modern life online, adults became forbidden from interacting with teenagers. In fact, adults are sometimes forbidden from interacting with one another. In the early days of many fan spaces, uncomfortable and sometimes damaging relationships were fostered. Manipulators and abusers who found a place in fan spaces could and did find new victims, and a common dynamic was that of older adults targeting teenagers. In our attempts to find these abusers and weed them out of fan spaces, and online fan spaces especially, some very strict rules of behavior have been laid down that are highly puritanical. The issue isn’t adults interacting with teenagers–the issue is abusive adults manipulating power imbalances to gain the trust of and take advantage of teenagers. Adults can be mentors, friends, protectors, guides, and teachers without taking advantage of or making a teenager uncomfortable. The point of discussing these bad relationships isn’t so that adults and teenagers will never interact, but so that teens and adults can recognize a toxic relationship when they see it and put an end to it.

However, the combination of cancel and purity culture online has made it so teens and adults are never supposed to interact for any reason. And an adult thinking about a teenager at all–who is not a direct relative–is usually seen as strange and wrong. It is perfectly fine for adults to be invested in fictional teens. I don’t know how else to say this. It is fine, and harms nobody, for an adult reader to like and care about a teenage character and their relationships in a book. It’s not creepy to have thoughts, feelings, and opinions about a teenage character’s fictional relationships–even sexual ones. And it’s not creepy for an adult author to include scenes of a sexual nature in a story primarily about teenage characters. An adult reading or writing about teenagers in sexual situations does not immediately mean that same adult will go into fan spaces or other places and try to initiate sexual situations with teens. Stop connecting those dots, they aren’t part of the same picture.

“Teens shouldn’t be reading about sex, anyways, so why should YA writers include it in their works?”

Get out of here with that puritanical nonsense. I’m serious. Ignorance is not safety nor protection, and ignoring that teenagers may have sex is only going to result in teenagers having unsafe sex and putting themselves in dangerous situations to do so. As adults, we may reflect on our choices as teens and think “I wish I hadn’t had sex” or “I’m glad I didn’t start having sex,” but teenagers don’t have that hindsight yet. Telling them “you’ll be thankful when you’re older” is only going to make matters worse. So instead of cleansing all media available to teenagers so they get the idea that sex is a forbidden activity, the responsible course of action is to provide works of fiction that are helpful. Of course, nothing is more helpful than a well rounded sexual education class in which the realities, dangers, and pleasures of sex can be candidly discussed. But many teenagers don’t receive that education, and as a result turn to what they can find. Responsibly written sex in a YA novel isn’t no sex at all–it’s consensual, enjoyable, realistic sex.

It has been demonstrated time and time again that teenagers with positive examples to look to make more responsible choices. A teenager with an abstinence only education is more likely to get into trouble because of lack of knowledge. But with positive and responsible examples to look up to, teens are more likely to make safer choices for themselves. Banning sex in books isn’t going to lead to abstinence in teens–it’s going to lead to consequences such as STDs, unplanned pregnancy, emotional turmoil, and even physical injury.

Acceptable Behavior: Fiction Vs. Reality

This is not a new phenomenon unfortunately. It is in fact rather common for cycles of censorship and debate to take place all across media. For as long as there have been books, there have been rules regarding morality and what “influence” fiction may have on real people. The two sides of the debate generally boil down to this:

  1. Fiction influences reality and real people, therefore fiction should only be allowed to exist if it does not encourage bad behavior and morals.
  2. Fiction doesn’t have any undue impact on reality, but censorship of fiction does.

The truth is, the issue is far more nuanced than that. Ultimately, fiction can and does influence real people. However, censorship is a dangerous slippery slope and morality is subjective. Often times, the books that are censored and banned are only dangerous to the status quo–such as books that depict gay characters in a positive light or show women in leadership. Meanwhile, authors who are known to be racist, transphobic, or otherwise bigoted are championed and remain bestsellers. The truth is, it doesn’t matter as much what you read but how you read it and engage with it.

It is more important to teach young readers critical thinking skills than to ban any book that discusses anything tricky. Rather than forbidding young readers from reading books that portray sex, violence, drugs, or other dangerous behaviors we should be teaching them where to look for answers to their questions. Teens should be able to consult truthful, reliable, and accurate sources–such as trusted family or doctors–when they have questions about safe sex as opposed to being told “don’t do it!” and having the books taken away.

Fiction works through a lot of difficult issues. Many authors process trauma and emotions through their writing, and may include questionable subject matter in their stories as a result. This is why content and rigger warnings are so important. Some readers may also need to process their feelings by reading a story written by somebody going through something similar. For readers who may be triggered by those stories, a good content warning should help them protect themselves.

Final Thoughts

It is irresponsible and ignorant to put forth the idea that YA novels should not address sex, sexual attraction, and sexual activities. I agree that certain levels of eroticism should probably not be put into YA novels for the same reason that young teens should not learn about sex for the first time through pornography: the combination of unrealistic and potentially risky behaviors being portrayed can lead to a young or uncritical consumer not knowing where the line is between fantasy and reality. But instead of censoring YA, restricting sex to adult fiction, or forbidding teens from reading anything with sex in it we should be teaching teenagers to critically consume their media. For example, I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Southern Vampire Mysteries as a teenager–at fifteen and thirteen years respectively for the first book I read in each series. However, I had critical reading skills. When I encountered the sex scenes in each of these books, I was able to draw a line between which parts were included for the story and which parts portrayed real aspects of sex I might encounter. This is what we want for teens: the ability to tell the difference between safe and consensual sexual encounters that they may one day (or currently) desire and engage in, and dangerous or unrealistic encounters that are entirely fictional.

By Catherine

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

3 replies on “Discussion: The Uncomfortable Truth about Sex in YA Novels”

I’m one of those ones who’s on the line of sex being in YA. I’m not going to say that it doesn’t have it’s place in YA since yeah, teens are curious and it’s not unrealistic that teens have sex. What I don’t like is when it’s thrown in just to throw it in there. If there’s no need for characters to be having sex, then don’t put it in there. Not every YA romance needs it – I’ve read plenty of good YA books that didn’t have the characters sleeping together at one point.

I think it’s one of those discretionary things in YA – does it serve a purpose to the storyline and/or character growth? That’s just my opinion on it. I love that you tackled this topic since not many bloggers do!

Liked by 1 person

I feel similarly in terms of sex scenes in general, to be honest! Outside of when I read romance novels (sex scenes are generally expected at a certain point), I prefer to keep sex scenes limited to necessary ones. An unnecessary scene feels out of place and I generally skim them, especially as I find authors that don’t have a lot of experience writing them struggle and the writing feels awkward. I absolutely agree that a sex scene should serve a purpose, and not every romantic plotline needs to have one–or even imply one.

That’s one of the reasons I think this discussion is so nuanced despite being represented as “sex good” and “sex bad” by so many YA novels. Not every teenager has sex, but enough do that the discussion of sex needs to be nuanced to consider that. Some YA novels have relationships that sex makes sense for, and others don’t–so just like every adult fiction novel doesn’t need a sex scene to establish how attached two character are to each other, not every YA novel needs to have the characters have sex to cement their relationship. I just find it disconcerting when people take the stance that YA should never tackle sex at all…

Liked by 1 person

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