Sex in Young Adult Fiction

The topic of sex in young adult fiction is going to be controversial, so buckle up! I must be a glutton for punishment. Ever since I tackled the topics of swear words in young adult 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. But writers have questions, and I have answers, so here we go!

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First base or home run? Your comfort level with sex in young adult fiction will dictate your approach.

A Sane Discussion of Sex in Young Adult Fiction

Why are topics like sex in young adult fiction 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 anything that approaches edgy YA. 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.”

Writing About Reality for Teen Readers

But reader Rhay asked about sex in young adult fiction, 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 with regard to edgy YA.

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. Some absolutely don’t, but 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 not 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 young adult fiction. We are talking about the simple fact that teenagers sometimes have sex.

The Decision to Include Sex in Young Adult Fiction

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 edgy YA. 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.

Find a Publisher That Matches Your Sensibility

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 young adult fiction — 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 support edgy YA. 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.

How Much Input Editors Have

In terms of Rhay wondering whether or not editors will add or subtract sex in young adult fiction, 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 the edgy YA aspect 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 decision 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.

Young adult is my absolute favorite category to edit. I would be honored to work as your young adult editor, so let’s talk!

66 Replies to “Sex in Young Adult Fiction”

  1. Very tastefully and tactfully done- It’s good to know that there is a market for YA- no matter how edgy or non-edgy. People who like the kind of realistic portrayal that requires sex and swearing have just as much right to those kinds of books as those who are more conservative and are looking for YA that lacks the above. Great post.

  2. What a great way to analyze the issue without making it personal. As with swearing, I don’t have a problem with it if sex or the swearing is intrinsic to the story and authentic to the character.

  3. I love the intelligent approach you offer here. I missed the self-publishing post and I won’t be searching it out. I can imagine the comments. I totally get what you say about comment trolls!

    Personally, I have only been ‘upset’ about sex in YA when I heard one book with sex in it was required reading for a school somewhere. I wished for that book to be read if it suited the child, not mandatory. But I got over myself quickly. 🙂

    I ‘blush’ when I write my characters kissing passionately, so… for me… the sex will stay out of what I write for now. Maybe someday… It is an important topic/issue and if it helps make the characters more real for our readers, then it should be added. In the ms I am working on right now, adding sex wouldn’t make the story any more believable. but I can definitely see where adding it would benefit a story and it’s reader.

    Thank you for answering this question! It’s one of those that had swirled around in my head.

  4. This is a great topic, thanks Mary. I wondered long and hard about putting sex into my YA novel and decided against it. I’m so glad I did as I live in a very religious area and my book became a hit locally and I gained the respect of the community, something that would not have happened had there been sex in it. I have also decided to keep it out of the second novel I am currently writing. Another thing I had a struggle with due to different laws in this country compared to the country where my book is set, is drinking. My character turns 18 in my book and all 18 year olds in England go out and celebrate by drinking as that is the legal age. Over here, however, it is 21 but the story needed my character to get slightly tipsy on her birthday. Luckily I never had any negative feedback on that.

    On a side note, I read your blog daily, even though I don’t comment very much. You have some wonderful things to tell us about the industry and those people who don’t take your blog in the vein it is intended should be ignored. There will always be people who are confrontational for the sake of being that way. Don’t change a thing 🙂

  5. A very well thought-out and concise approach to what we all know can be an inflammatory concept: kudos! I have heard of both editors who ask that if there is a romantic plot that it be “upped” to make it more obvious and others who ask folks to tone it down — same can be said for swearing, body issues, religious content, etc. but I digress.

    As a YA author and prevention educator, I have no problem with the subject of sex in YA; as you rightly point out, even if they’re not doing it, they’re at least conscious of it and thinking about it. It’s unrealistic to ignore that fact completely, but that doesn’t mean it has to centerpiece in your YA story to make it “believable.” However, when there is sex and sexual content, I think there should also be the thoughts about “afterwards” in order to make it believable, too. The should’ve’s & shouldn’t haves, the worry or contentment, the proverbial condom shot or the freak-out over whether they need to get tested now or in six months…these are realistic, too, and to skip over THAT part of the equation is equally unrealistic.

    Personally, I’m all about the tension of “what ifs” and drama around the sensuality rather than the sexuality, but that’s just me. There’s more than enough room in the YA authorship and readership for those who embrace the topic as well as those who leave it at an embrace.

    Good topic. Great handling!

  6. Very nicely handled. Thank you for your insight. I don’t have an actual sex scene in my MS but there is some cursing which has made me nervous, but it totally fit the character–in fact, leaving it out seemed to ring false to me. Reading this post, and seeing you say to not worry about some of these things now while writing the manuscript, that they are issues that can be handled later with the agent/editor/publisher, was a relief.
    Have a wonderful Wednesday Mary

  7. I’ve been reading your posts for months now, but haven’t commented in awhile. I’m thrilled you approached this topic, and that you were honest about it. I agree with everything you said. I feel sex has a place in YA as long as it’s organic to the character and story. Our goal as YA writers is to create stories and characters our readers (um, the teens not the adults who love YA) can relate to. This is done by realizing that some teens are having sex. We have to be careful that we don’t assume EVERY teen is sexually active, but they usually know someone who is.

    The best part about YA is that it doesn’t just focus on that perfect moment (first time) with the perfect guy, and everyone is in love. It shows the reality of sex during the teenage years, and helps girls figure out if they really are ready to take things in that direction. It gives them the options and sometimes a heavy dose of reality as to what can go wrong (and what can go right).

  8. Thanks for writing this post. I’ve read books that don’t include sex and those that do. I agree with you that as long as it’s authentic to the character and story that these type of scenes should be illustrated. In Kiss It, a book I read earlier this year by Erin Downing, there are two sex scenes. One (where the character is having sex just for the sake of sex) is somewhat explicit and the other, where there is a good connection between the two characters isn’t. Personally, I think that Downing was using the explicit sex in the way that Jane Austen described the failed proposals between Elizabeth and Mr. Collins and Elizabeth and Darcy, in a sort of comedic and “lesson-based” context, whereas when there is a real intimate and loving connection, Downing speaks more to that then to the actual act itself. Sex in this book and others has a place, but I think that you’re right to say that it should the writers, readers, etc choice to write it and to read it.

    Great post! 🙂

  9. I’m so glad that you wrote about this topic, and I think you handled it very well. Not only do I write for young adults, but I counsel them as well. I can tell you honestly that sex is very much on their minds (regardless if they’re having it or not), and I appreciate books that reflect authenticity.

  10. Great post! You nailed the perfect litmus test: is it organic to the story and characters? Another question, does it move the story forward, or is it just a scene that side-steps from the plot? I’m glad you tackled the topic. It makes no sense for people who write for teens to ignore tough issues. There are a lot of things that teens deal with every day that aren’t really easy to talk about. Thanks for not taking the easy way out of this one!

  11. Jackie Yeager says:

    What a great post, Mary! Though you didn’t give your own take on the subject, you helped us all to see that sex in YA has its place just like any other topic that’s out there. Though, I write middle grade fiction at the moment, this post was extremely helpful. It’s good to know that any subject tackled really can have it’s place if dealt with in an authentic manner. Thanks for your insight! 🙂

  12. GREAT post! And you handle the trolls very well.

    You make a very good point about books that reflect real life being available on the shelves. We can talk and preach all we want, but at the end of the day, if kids are interested in something, they’re going to pursue it. I personally would rather give my sons access to information about life and allow them to ask questions and discuss things with me than make them feel like these things they’re wondering about are bad and like they’re wrong or weird for thinking about them.

    On a completely separate note, I hate writing “oochy” scenes. It gives me the willies. Maybe this is why I’m only working on one YA, while I have tons of picture books on the go! Ha, ha!

  13. Nicely said. I agree with, “no matter what you do, make sure it rings true to real life”

    It has to match the characters, the plot, the. . . . everything. For teens, it’s a HUGE issue. I, as a writer, have specific ideas of how it’s handled in my books because I think it is a big decision to be made by anyone, not just teens.

    But to completely avoid the topic in YA or even New Adult books just isn’t realistic.

    Love this topic. I’ll be back to read the opinions of others!

  14. Like the others have already mentioned, I think you handled this well, Mary.

    My books will never have much sexual content because I wasn’t that kind of teenager and we often write from our own experience. And even though I’m not an advocate of sexual content – in any book – I realize it’s unrealistic to expect no one to ever write about it or no publisher to ever publish a book with that in it.

    If you’re a religious person who takes the law of chastity seriously, great. Have the moral fortitude to make your own decisions and choose your own reading material carefully – and teach your children to do the same. Good parents will never need authors, editors, or even librarians to do their parenting for them.

  15. I think you’re bang on with this post. (heh) I think Pam also made a good point up there – teens *think* about sex an awful lot, normally whether they’re having it or not, so it seems like removing sex on principle runs the risk of creating an ‘off’ character or a story that doesn’t quite ring true. I also wonder if there is a book version of ‘playing hard to get’?.. Wherein the readers love it more because the author holds back those juicy scenes? That seems to run counter to most writing advice out there, doesn’t it… 😛
    PS Googlin’ for a bruisin’ the best thing I’ve heard today. Have a good one, Mary!

  16. So who is right and who is wrong about sex in YA? I don’t care, frankly.

    YES. I love this and it’s true for me too. As a writer, I think it really is about what works for the characters and the story. And I think teens will choose to read what makes them comfortable and what they relate to. I think it’s important that there are books that reflect the truth for all teens, not just the truths others feel is “appropriate”. When is life ever appropriate?

  17. I love this post. So diplomatic and reasonable. And right on. Trolls beware…there are no holes in this logic, unless you choose to read it wrong!

    I would like to add that would-be authors should be aware that some agents could be hesitant to take on more explicit things. And in the agent hunt, every possible nibble matters.

    I queried on two edgier books, and a few agents hinted that they liked the book but it was too edgy for them. So, I wrote a book that stayed “more within the parameters of YA” (as one of those agents had suggested), and I got an agent.

    Did this have to do with that specific book idea or the added experience I gained with each book? Maybe. But it’s still something to consider as you try to break in.

  18. About a year ago I commented on a similar post by another agent saying that I felt sex scenes could have a place in a YA book depending on the character and plot. A troll then began to follow me posting on various websites that I was a pedophile and promoted sex with kids. That I was willing to “ruin” the morals of other people’s children to make a buck. Talk about a life lesson in understanding the internet has some unstable people in it.

    At first I was upset. Then I was worried that as a YA author having people call me a pedophile could be bad for my career. Then I realized something. a) my books don’t have sex scenes. b) I do believe that writing books that attempt to shelter kids from everything including sex doesn’t work. They already know life is more complicated than sunshines and rainbows. I fully support a parent deciding they don’t wish their teen to read a book on a particular topic. However, I will fight for the right for that book to exist.

  19. Great post, Mary!

    “Truth and authenticity are important in all children’s books, but in YA especially.” Loved this quote.

  20. First time commenter here and think this is an excellent question, one I’m struggling with myself.

    I’m writing a novel in which a cyberbully who deeply regrets the suicide his careless action caused struggles to live with his guilt. It’s written in his first person POV and yes, he uses foul language. I wrestled with the decision to sanitize his language but it felt stifled. It’s his mind, damn it! He’s an 18 YO guy and the ones I know have filthy mouths.

    Is it right?

    That’s not the right question.

    Is it right for this character in this story? That’s the right question and the answer is yes.

    Great post.

  21. There must be a YA sex vibe in the air (OK…that was all kinds of wrong). I blogged the same topic today. You did it much better. 🙂

    I’m linking my blog here so any reader I have gets a good look at this essay!

    Thank you Mary!

  22. Very well put. Our stories should be about real life, because they’re being read by real-live people. And life is all about choice. In everything. I may hope my teens practice abstinence, but I know they can’t help but think about sex. And honestly, if they didn’t, I’d be very worried. It’s natural. Seriously, survival of the species.

    Thanks for sharing your tasteful thoughts on the subject.

  23. The thing about fiction is that it allows you to explore and experience things that you wouldn’t in real life. All the more true for sex in YA – it’s a great way for teens who are thinking about sex to explore the topic (both the good choices and the bad) from a safe distance until they’re ready to have their own experiences.

    Raise your hand if you read Judy Blume’s FOREVER in middle school with the cover off so that the teachers wouldn’t take it away <>.

  24. Leona Broberg says:

    Thank you so much for your intelligent and honest post. It’s such a natural part of life, I’m always surprised by the uproar it causes. All I can say is I learned a lot from Judy Blume. A lot more than my mother told me. Thank goodness for that!

  25. It almost seems cliche to say great job after reading through all the previous post, but I will say thanks for taking the time to write about this topic. To swear or to sex seems to always be a hot topic in YA and I can’t say that there was any better way to handle the subject than you did. I personally loved where you wrote Frankly, I don’t care (eat your heart out Rhett Butler) But seriously, what resonates here is that it has to all make sense. If your character would naturally swear, then have them swear. If your characters have sex then deal with it… I couldn’t have asked for a better response. Thanks again

    And Leona, where would any of us be without Judy Blume? (Grin)

  26. I’ve been doing research into sexual activity and teens (for magazines) and was amazed at how children are learning about sex. Even before they hit their teenage years, a percentage are viewing porn (mag/online). As they get older, nearly half of teens get their sexual information from porn, online, or friends. More than 60% of kids aged 14-17 have viewed porn.

    So if I, as a parent, can find some great books that might help my daughter learn about the sides of sex that aren’t depicted in porn or from her friends, then I am SO grateful for it.

    Wonderful post. I don’t want to say it, but I can’t imagine how anyone could find offense there!

  27. PS I should add that my daughter is only three! I’m thinking way, way, way forward into the future here.

  28. Truly great post! I agree that sex in YA does need to be a part of the bookshelf. I have scenes in my current WIP that are tastefully explicit. 🙂 I know there may be flack over it at some point, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take at this point.
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

  29. Great post, gives writers something to really think about when adding romance and/or sex in their novels.

  30. I think if you’re going to go to lengths to ‘sanitize’ it, then you’re not really creating ‘young adult literature’, you’re writing ‘children’s books’, which is a different animal altogether. There’s a reason they’re called ‘young adults’, after all.

    It’s sort of unreasonable to expect teenagers NOT to have (or at least think about having) sex, when people used to marry and start families as young as 14-16 not all that long ago (and still do in some parts of the world). Kind of hard to pretend it doesn’t exist when people have been doing it for tens of thousands of years.

    I’ve written YA with and without sex. Even when the characters were the same age, they were very different people in very different circumstances, with different sets of priorities. Just like the characters in books for adults.

    Franziska – that’s how teenagers got their sex education before the internet too. 🙂

  31. Very interesting post, thanks.

    A different but related issue, I guess – one you might have covered before – is smoking. In a novel I wrote about a girl of 14 smoking. It was her private rebellion. However, a friend recommended I take it out. I know that some 14 year olds do smoke. I also know that I don’t want to glamorise it in any way, and that it is not something that they should do. I did take it out but I haven’t resolved it properly in my head yet.

    I know that as a young reader I did notice what my favourite characters did, and might have been just a little influenced to feel that smoking wasn’t so bad after all.

    But that smoking scene just felt right…!

  32. I’ve wondered about this myself and I don’t think anyone should be offended by this post. I have personally never written a sex scene. But when I write heated kissing or making out I always wonder how much is too much. What is too risky? I think you’ve tackled the subject, and at least given me a clearer out look on it. I mean, teens are hormonal.

  33. Brilliant post. Spoken, well written, very democratically and directly – it wasn’t fleshed out, but it didn’t lack either. I appreciate you writing about this b/c it definitely is a taboo topic and YA is a tricky genre already.

  34. As a character in my WIP says, sex “just is”, in all its forms and variations. Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles has some pretty explicit scenes, yet the state of Illinois put the book on their approved state school list. People have to calm down. The world is what it is and books are going to reflect that. They should focus on orienting their children in the manner they approve of and trust that they will hold fast to their upbringing. Really, there’s not a whole lot more anyone can do.

    Sorry to hear you’re feeling a bit of trepidation about posting certain topics, but I for one am certainly glad to see you giving a balanced view of things and look forward to you continuing in that vein. I didn’t see the one about profanity. What date was that posted?

  35. I’ve always known I was a weird teen when I was one oh so long ago (four years ago). As one previous commenter pointed out, it’s still important to remember that not every teen has had sex. Heck, not every twenty-something has. I completely agree we should have books with both, for both types of readers/teens in both types of situations. Honestly when I was a teen, way back in 2006, I hated YA literature because every book I read proclaimed “You are a weird teen. You don’t think about sex. You don’t drink. You’re not rebellious. You actually believe your parents know what’s best for you? You must be insane. That’s not normal.”

    Granted, I knew I was weird even then. But my friends and I weren’t concerned about sex because we just wanted to go on an honest-to-goodness date. We were concerned with holding a boy’s hand for the first time (no hand-holding for me until college).

    So yes, there are teens having sex at very young ages and yes definitely books should be written for them.

    But remember, there are some of us who even at 23 years old haven’t ever been on a date. Seriously, I have like three friends who have never had a boyfriend/girlfriend and they’re successful college graduated women AND men. Granted, we engineers are a strange sub-culture of people, but we’re not all like Big Bang Theory. Some of us do have social graces.

    This is just a long comment to say we should definitely have both types of books and not marginalize either.

  36. Anyone who thinks that most YA authors sexual content into their novels for gratuitous purposes needs their head examined. For my upcoming novel, WANT TO GO PRIVATE?, which deals with high school freshman who becomes involved with an Internet predator, I have AGONIZED, and I really mean agonized, over every single sexual depiction and swear word, right from the very first draft. It even played into how I approached the story. From my research with the FBI and the police, I learned that REAL predators get “very dirty, very quickly.” However, I knew that if I wrote the story too true to reality, it would never make it into the libraries of the kids of an age who really are vulnerable to predators – the middle school kids. So I consciously focused on the seduction aspect of the relationship (which also happens) in order to minimize the sex. But you can’t write about this without including sexual content, because it’s integral to the story.

    Now I’m sure when it’s published some Wesley Scroggins type is going to go through it with a highlighter and try to get it pulled from the shelves. But I tell you, I’m going to tell that WS type to go to his local FBI office or the Youth Division and get them to show him or her an actual chat transcript from a prosecuted predator, like I saw in my research. And then I want them to try and complain to me again.

    As you can see, I get kind of hot under the collar about this! But, seriously, I’ve spent so much time thinking about a single sexual word and wondering if my story can get along without it or if it really needs to be there. I had two middle school librarians read the MS and give me their opinions. When this book comes out, I can honestly can put my hand on my heart and say that everything that is in it is there to serve the story.

  37. Horserider says:

    Great post! As a teenager myself, the way I look at things is if the sex scene fits the characters and the plot, then write it. If you’re writing sex scenes for the “edgy factor” then stop.

  38. I think sex varies for every book and every character in YA. Not everyone wants/is interested in sex. Prime example is Katniss Everdeen. She has enough to worry about. But other books more romance-centered will be a factor most definitely. It’s an issue teens should know about.
    But I think there should be censoring in YA with the details. I just don’t think it’s appropriate for teens to read graphic descriptions of it. And it limits your audience. I’m usually fine with sex in books, I just don’t want to read the details about it. Doing so in YA does limit, as you said.

  39. I’m on board with all of this. We can portray our characters accurately and show that sex is part of the landscape for modern teenagers. I don’t know how graphic that needs to be in your book. In mine, a passing reference was enough. However, someone mentioned drinking. I have questions about that, as well. Drinking is a huge part of many teenagers’ lives. Can that be included without making a big deal about it? Is the inclusion of alcohol in their lives something that will scare publishers away?

  40. The first (and only) time I got a request for the full manuscript of my WiP, the agent rejected it the next day with some comments, including “you can put sex in YA novels.” What the agent didn’t know is that I had tried the book several ways. I had written a couple of explicit scenes (really hoping no one in my family would peek over my shoulder at that time, ha ha), then toned them down, then took them out and did the “fade to black” at the key moment. Ultimately, I decided to leave explicit sex out of the story because it wasn’t necessary for the plot, and also because it wasn’t right for me. But I always wondered if that was the right decision, or if I might be putting myself at a disadvantage in the market.

    What bothered me about the agent’s comment was the implication that “sex” meant a description of intercourse between the characters. Just because there is no explicit sex in my novel doesn’t mean there is no sex. Sexual feelings and desires manifest themselves in lots of ways. Sometimes a look can be filled with as much sex as the act itself. I think we need to allow for that range of feelings, both as writers and as publishers.

    I also agree with the commentors who said YA lit can be a way to help teens explore sex in a safe way. If she’s not willing to come to me, I’d much rather have my daughter learn about sex (someday) by reading Ann Turnbull’s fine novel Alice in Love and War than by watching music videos!

  41. I agree with Mandy P’s post that not every teen is having sex/agonizing over the issue. One of my best friends is twenty-four and still a virgin. But I don’t think I have ever met a teenager, or twenty-something virgin, who didn’t at least think about sex, or fantasize about some sort of intimacy. Even those people I know who don’t believe in sex until after marriage are still thinking about sex in that context. They know what it means, and they’ve made that choice for themselves. And others have made the choice to have sex.

    I think there is an importance in addressing this issue in YA, if it fits within the context of the story. Someone else mentioned HUNGER GAMES, and I just can’t imagine taking it as seriously if Katniss was agonizing about sex rather than worrying about dying. But that’s the story. THE DUFF, on the other hand, was a perfect example of sex fitting into the plot.

    Mary, I agree that it really does depend on the context and the characters. Which is why I am continually astounded as to why this is still such a heated issue. If people don’t want to read the scene, they can just as easily skip over it, put the book down, or decide not to read it. Easy peasy.

  42. Thanks for addressing this topic, Mary. As many have posted before me, it’s important and shouldn’t be taboo. Your pragmatic approach to it was perfect.

    I think that if writers look at their own work pragmatically, it’ll be pretty obvious whether or not to include sex in their novels. Your main characters will know if they’re ready, and if you know them well enough, you’ll be able to handle it appropriately. The writer’s own voice and comfort level is the best indicator of how detailed a sex scene should be. It comes down to trusting your instincts and knowing your characters.

  43. I have written five novels for teens, and only one of those (this summer’s KISS IT – which one commenter mentions above) included sex. I had a really hard time coming to terms with the fact that I wrote a novel with sex in it. Why? Because it embarrassed me. And the reason it embarrassed me is that sex was not an acceptable topic in books when I was a teen – with the exception of Forever, which was deemed “inappropriate” – and that led me to believe that sex wasn’t something that should be talked about, thought about, or mentioned in conversation, books, or otherwise. Ultimately, when I was a teen, sex started to feel like something glamorous because it was such a foreign and unmentionable topic.

    But the fact is, teens are having sex and they’re expecting a lot when they do it (because they don’t know it’s not always awesome), or they’re feeling bad about themselves afterward (because it wasn’t perfect and didn’t fulfill their every need), etc. That’s not fair. I’m not saying sex is a good decision for teens or for anyone (you decide that for yourself), but the fact is, sex is a reality, and my hope is that sex in some novels will show the many sides of sexuality.

    KISS IT was, in some ways, the other side of a lot of books out there where the guys are always thinking and talking about sex, but the girls are chaste, fairy-tale-kiss-chasers. Those books are awesome (I’ve written four of them myself), because it’s one version of reality. But it’s not fair to paint sex as something that only guys want to do. Even if a girl doesn’t actually want to have sex, she is allowed to know that she can think about it and wonder about it and want it without feeling bad about herself. I think it’s only fair to let girls know there’s nothing wrong with them for wondering about something more than a shiver-inducing-perfect-kiss.

    Thank you for posting about this.

  44. Jen Zeman says:

    Beautifully written Mary!

  45. Nice honest approach on the subject of sex.

    I am the parent of a budding teen and luckily we have a very close relationship and talk openly.

    That said, it is sometimes hard to breach topics like sex. However, I charge forward because it’s my job to educate – not a book.

    That is not meant to be negative – a book is entertainment and a fictional character. Same goes with cursing and listen to risque music. People really get there panties in a wad over this stuff.

    My daughter even had a friend ask her if she was Christian because she was listening to ACDC’s Hell Bells?

    So, back on the subject of sex. It exists. People have sex – sometimes even teens – now sometimes even preteens. However, I don’t think listening to Hells Bells makes you a devil worshiper, nor reading The Golden Compass an Atheist, or reading a sex scene make you a slut.

    It is what is is and it would be great if we approached the subject instead of pretending it’s not there. Books with sex aren’t dirty and by no means does one have to read that book if it causes discomfort. If it fits into the story then do it. If not, then leave it out.

    However, I do agree with it influencing the sale and marketing of the book. I think that is why Twilight had such great success and following. Parents felt comfortable letting young girls read it because there are no racy sex scenes. I am curious to see how the movie makers handle the sex that occurs in the last book and still get a PG-13 rating. If they don’t appease the masses then they loose money.

    Bottom Line: dollar, dollar bills y’all.

  46. great, thoughtful post on a sensitive topic, Mary. thanks for addressing this.

  47. Great post. Having just finished reading several YA book with sex, I’ve been wondering about this. Personally I get mildly uncomfortable when I read sex scenes in YA, but at the same time, I think it’s important for teens to be exposed to sex from different viewpoints to help in their decision-making process. The more information they have, the more likely they are to make well-informed decisions. Thanks for tackling this controversial topic.

  48. 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.

  49. “…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.

  50. Lynne Matson says:

    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.

  51. 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.

  52. 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.

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

  54. 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…

  55. 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?

  56. 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.

  57. 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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