Sex in YA

I must be a glutton for punishment. Ever since I tackled the topics of swearing in YA and self-publishing, I’ve gotten a bit wary of making waves. Not because I don’t love a good, well-reasoned debate. Not because I want all of my readers to agree with me. But because a lot of responses on controversial topics are more annoying and inflammatory than anything else. One of the worst ways, I’ve discovered, to get a sensible discussion going is to open it up to comments from the blogosphere at large. This is not an insult to my readers, far from it! But every time I post on something racy, I get a bunch of trolls who are brand new to the blog (first comment) who come just to spew bile. I still get first comments from trolls on my self-publishing post, and it was months ago. They’re just Googlin’ for a bruisin’, it seems.

Why are these topics so frustrating to post about? Because readers a) always ascribe my post content to my private and personal beliefs, and they b) always let their private and personal beliefs dictate how they respond — and set the emotional pitch. Just because I have said, basically, that swearing in YA fiction is okay for the publishers and readers who choose to publish/read it, and that my biggest concern isn’t the swearing, it’s whether the swearing is genuine to the character and moment, one of my readers said that they lost personal respect for me. When I said that books set in America sometimes stood a stronger chance of being published in the American market than books set abroad, some readers assumed I was a self-centered xenophobe in my personal life. (Secrets secrets: I wasn’t even born in America!) Worse insults were hurled when I took on self-publishing.

So it is with a certain dread that I take on sex in YA literature. Why? Because swearing in books is “bad,” according to a lot of parents, PTA groups, librarians, religious organizations, etc., but sex is a whole lot “worse.”

But reader Rhay asked, and so I will try to answer:

Having heard you say that in YA anything goes and that there are publishers that will publish the most overt sex scenes. I have to wonder, how are sex scenes really perceived in the YA market place? Are they cut in the editorial process because of the need to fit a particular market niche (schools, tweens, etc.)? Do editors actually ever ask for sex scenes to be written because of their market niche? In short, can you give any more information in regards to the perception of sex in young adult novels?

First of all, let me say that I am not a religious person, nor do I come to this answer with any kind of agenda. I don’t want to “corrupt” teens or to preach any kind of immorality, nor do I want to influence the moral compass of others. In light of all the stories that we heard during Banned Books Week, though, I have to take the stand that I believe is right.

Ursula Nordstrom, famous children’s book editor, once wrote: “The writer of books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth.” And the truth is, teens have sex. Even if some don’t, most are at least curious about it. No matter what their parents, teachers, pastors, etc. think is “right” or “wrong,” I would wager that there isn’t a single teenager on the planet who hasn’t either wondered about sex or tried it.

Is this crass to think about? I guess. Is it hard for parents to accept that their kids are growing up? I would imagine so. Is it right to try and teach abstinence? People with certain belief systems believe it is right, yes. Is it right to make sure that realistic portrayals of real life exist on shelves so that kids can learn from the experience of characters and make informed choices for their own lives? Absolutely!

But that’s now what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about whether or not teens should be having sex. We’re not talking about whether or not I agree or disagree with sex in YA literature personally. We’re talking about the simple fact that teenagers sometimes have sex.

And therefore, fictional teenagers, who are meant to be relatable to real teenagers, sometimes have sex as well. And just as there are teens in the world who do and who do not have sex, there are publishers who do and who do not publish books about teenage sex. Not only does this choice vary from publisher to publisher, it also varies from editor to editor, book to book, and from one depiction of the act itself to another (ie: suggested sex to more explicit description).

Some books, like the last Twilight installment, BREAKING DAWN, fade out just as two characters are getting close to doing the hanky panky. Other books take a more subtle-yet-suggestive approach, like the close physical and intimate bond that the two main characters in SHIVER share. Other books go full-throttle. Two that come to mind from the last few years: SWOON by Nina Malkin and THE DUFF by Kody Keplinger (a real life teen when she wrote and sold it). These last two titles feature pretty explicit scenes of sexual activity.

So who is right and who is wrong about sex in YA? I don’t care, frankly. For every writer and every kind of sensibility, there is a publisher who will match your project in terms of sexual content. If you’ve got full-throttle sex in your book, I may not be able to sell it to Zondervan (a Christian imprint), but it might do well over at Simon Pulse. And for every kind of sex in YA — from no sex to lots of it — there are readers who will match themselves and their sensibilities to your book.

It is true that you limit your market by having sexual content in your book. There will be school, libraries, state lists, book clubs, book fairs and other organizations who will not stock it, support it, or make it available to readers. That is an undeniable fact. But it should not be cause for you to censor yourself, either, if you really do feel that your story demands sexual content.

In terms of Rhay wondering whether or not editors will add or subtract sex scenes from YA, that’s decided on a project-by-project basis. If you have gratuitous sex, editors may ask you to tone it down. If you fall short of the authenticity of a moment and you could actually do more, an editor might ask you to, ahem, flesh out the scene. And yes, sometimes an editor will say, “Hey, we could be really cutting ourselves out of the school and library market if we leave this sex scene in,” but that decision lies between writer and editor, and has to do with both the integrity of the story and the publisher’s marketing expectations. Either way, I wouldn’t worry about that now, when you’re just writing your manuscript.

Truth and authenticity are important in all children’s books, but in YA especially. No matter what you do, make sure it rings true to real life. The choice to include sex in your teen book is up to you. The choice to publish a book with teen sex is up to your potential editor. The choice to stock that book in bookstores and libraries and schools is up to the people involved in book buying for a business or institution.

But keep in mind, since we’re coming off of Banned Books Week, after all, the key word I’m using here is “choice.” Sex will always be a part of the teen experience (whether the sex is practiced, longed for, or forbidden), and it should be part of the YA shelves. If not on the reading list, it should at least be available to those readers who will relate to it. Who reads it, who teaches it, who recommends it…well, that’s the choice part. And as a writer, you’re free to make your own choices, too. Everything else is just a consideration for you to keep in mind.

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  1. Margo Kelly’s avatar

    A very well written post. Thank you.

  2. Claire Dawn’s avatar

    Definitely.

    There are lots of different types of teens and there should be books for each of them. Some need books without sex, some are looking for books which feature it as a romantic thing, and others are looking for it to be pretty near gratuitous.

    And it’s not like not having sex in YA, will stop anything. In school, all my female friends were reading Loveswept and Mills and Boones, ADULT ROMANCES. If they’re looking for sex, they’ll find it.

  3. Jessie Oliveros’s avatar

    “…there are readers who will match themselves and their sensibilities to your book.” Your audience will find you. This is one reason I think developing a rating system for books is so important. The reader will know what to expect in terms of his or her sensibilities and preferences.

  4. Lynne Matson’s avatar

    Fantastic post. Well-written, well- thought out. I agree with Laura P’s comment: is the sex (ditto for swearing) intrinsic to the character & the story? If not, it shouldn’t be there. Gratuitous content doesn’t make a book edgy (or more appealing to teens). Good writing does!

    Thanks Mary! A super post all the way around.

  5. Gael Lynch’s avatar

    Wonderful post, Mary! I sat in the audience while this topic was discussed today during an author panel discussion. I find people dodging this question all over the publishing industry. I think banned book week provoked some great discussion, but I totally agree with you…if it’s true, you have to chase it. What ends up on the page, in the end, will only happen if it fits.

  6. Patty Blount’s avatar

    I just ordered a Lulu version of my WIP and handed it to my 15 YO to read. He told me it had TOO MUCH SEX in it.

    I still can’t believe it.

    He was embarrassed by it, which I find interesting because most of it was ‘behind closed doors’. I wrote only the scenes that led to the encounter, not the encounter itself.

    So, I’m still not sure how much to show and how much to allude to.

  7. Karen Scott’s avatar

    Great post. Thanks for your honest viewpoint — and for writing and posting it even though the trolls might spew bile. :)

  8. Bekah’s avatar

    I agree- teenagers have sex so of course it’s going to be in their books! They can grab and read Cosmo, which I did in high school, and I can guarantee that is way worse than anything in a book. It’s curiousity at the very least. Personally, I don’t think that adults, I mean parents and mentors, other adults, don’t talk to kids enough. It’s like some says “sex” and everyone just giggles or gives that eye. Look at the movies they watch…

  9. Howlynn Martin’s avatar

    I struggle with it in my books. I see so many angles – and want a balance in what I hope to say to teens.
    I find there are so many odd messages conveyed in what is left out at times, that it stikes me as setting expectations up for failure.
    If a young person reads only pure snow and rainbows, it will harm them to find out they did not live this silly ideal. Yet if they read all glam and hot fun without any real consequence – they to are set up to find a very different world.

    For instance (and please understand I adore the books and in no way mean to be negative- it’s just an observation from comments I have heard from the teens around me)
    In the hunger games trilogy – murder, no how distasteful is presented frequently – yet there is no even oblique sex.
    This is one comment I heard and I really thought it was rather reasonable.
    Katniss and Peeta – on the train – about to die – sleeping each night together. The thought never crosses their minds? That is not real. I don’t want to die without ever even one time – why wait if you have no hope of later.

    They may never have a moment again – they love each other and this may be all they ever have – but the want of that experience is not mentioned.
    I wondered if it had to do with the view that any was too much – or if it had to do with wanting to create these perfectly pure people?(I don’t know and I can’t answer it for them – I told them writers have to make choices)

    My problem was that they showed murder as a subject that could be presented – but sharing a moment of kindness and pleasure for these two was not allowed for whatever reason.

    I don’t like the ‘if you have sex you die and have a horrible life’ message but the ‘all the popular people do’ message is annoying too.

    I want to have some sort of characters who speak up and say – plan the experience with thoughtful consideration of each other – not just ignore it til you accidently fall upon the sword.

    Kids do negotiate – they talk about it any time an adult is not around and if you blend well and don’t get preachy – they are happy to talk about it with an adult. They are tired of slutty sally and polly pure heart. They want to read things that are realistic but not icky. (don’t want medical terms or nasty ) They want to know, but not 2 pages of hump-daddy blech – somewhere there is an acceptable middle.

    They want females who are allowed to enjoy the experience – take charge of the birth control and choose well even if it is not forever – even if they choose no and regret it later – those are more real than the Barbie and Ken love we see so much of in YA.
    (i don’t think that is exclusive kid slang but – barbie and ken have no bikini parts)

    I want to find a respectful place. I don’t want to make parents uncomfortable – but I flat out will not lie to a kid about what to expect and what not to expect. Innocent is fine, but Clueless=prey.

    I seek discussion too but you are right about the very loud typer type who wants to beat you over the head with one extreme or the other.

    It’s funny how much fake murder and fake sex they have seen on TV – but its sex – not murder that gets a book banned. Does anyone else, just wonder about that?

  10. Angela F. Parkhurst’s avatar

    I know when I was a teen I was exposed to sex a lot, not just sex, but the stuff surrounding it. Boys, curiosity, wonder, lust. These are things teens experience no matter how you try to bend it. Even those who are abstinent will struggle with lust and emotions of wanting to do it even though their mind tells them no. YA is supposed to be real. There isn’t a single teen, unless you were hidden in a closet growing up, that isn’t exposed to sex of some sort. You walk into a grocery store and read a Cosmo and its all there.

    Just because they are reading about sex, doesn’t mean they are having it either.

    GREAT post.

  11. Michael Heath’s avatar

    I am writing a YA novel where sex is discussed. Your article gave me insight as to what is allowed (more than what most would expect). I personally would include any explicit sex into a YA novel, but totally agree that sex is part of the teen culture and it is unrealistic to always skip past it when writing to that age group.

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