Sex in Young Adult Novels and How I Treat It

Sex in Young Adult Novels and How I Treat It

Last night I found a post on my Facebook feed linking to this article by Cindi Madsen. It’s a good reminder that young adult novels are for teens. In the past I read a comment by a woman, somewhere on some article, who claimed she didn’t like YA fiction because there weren’t enough “steamy scenes.” I’m going to be frank here: If you want steamy sex scenes, retreat to the romance section of the adult market or pick up an erotica novel. Not all adult novels have sex in them, either, because the entirety of what it means to be an adult doesn’t rest on this idea that you’re not an adult until you’ve had sex. Both young adulthood and adulthood are much more complex than that. There are teens who want to wait to have sex, just as there are adults who want to wait until they are married to have sex. Even so, I want to talk about the topic of sex in young adult novels, and how I treat the topic of sex in When Stars Die. This is an often-mentioned topic, as a lot of YA writers don’t know how much sex is too much sex. The answer is simple: it all depends on what the publisher itself deems acceptable in a YA novel. You can read other articles about sex in YA here, here, and here.

Let’s start with a simple definition of what young adult literature is, as defined by Wikipedia. *Note: I don’t often use Wikipedia as a source, but it has a solid, easily defined explanation of what YA is, plus an interesting statistic. .01 This is all YA is. It’s fiction marketed toward teens, fiction in the voice of a teen–not an adult looking back upon teen years. It really doesn’t have anything to do with the gratuity of the content presented within the books, such as sex, violence, drugs, swearing, ect., ect., ect. Sex in young adult literature doesn’t suddenly launch it into the adult market category. If it’s two teens having sex, that sexual experience being described in the voice of a teen, it’s still YA. What prompted me to write this article, though, was a comment to Cindi Madsen’s article.


First off, I do want to applaud the author of the comment above for wanting to write about the negative consequences of sex. For some sexually active teens, there are negative consequences, especially pregnancy or regret or what have you. However, for a lot of teens there really aren’t any negative consequences, especially if contraceptives are used. The US has a high rate of teen pregnancies due to lack of contraceptive use. This isn’t the case in Europe, where there is a high rate of contraceptive use. You can find these statistics and more in this article, which presents some surprising facts on teen sexuality.

I’m not going to denigrate the author’s feelings of regretting sex with her boyfriend. However, being a teen has nothing to do with this regret. And if it is, it’s only because we’ve been fed this purity myth, one that states that if you have sex outside of marriage, you are somehow impure; this doubly impacts teens, who are trying to grapple with their own sexuality in a society that discourages teen sexuality. But there are adults who regret having sex with certain people, too. These regrets are based on your own moral compass, and on what you felt during that moment when you had sex. Both teens and adults alike can be pressured into having sex. Overall, though, teens have sex for the same reason adults do: it just feels good.

What I primarily disagree with in the above comment is that sex in YA books NEEDS to be paired with negative consequences. This does a disservice to teens who have had only positive experiences, ones who are likely in serious relationships. Not all YA books are about delivering messages, either. If they are, those are often issues-based books that deal with heavy topics in the first place, like my novel.

YA books are about presenting the realities of today’s teens, including those who have and don’t have sex. Wanting to talk about the negative consequences of sex is fine if you’re writing an issues book based around teen pregnancy or STIs of some sort (and there are YA books based on these things already), but if you’re writing a teen romance-based novel, I do not want an author preaching to me about the negative consequences of having sex. And notice I say preaching. There is a difference in the teen protagonist actually regretting it for whatever reason–and it better be a good, justifiable reason–and the author deliberately wanting teen readers to know the negative consequences. The former is fine. The latter is downright annoying. This brings me to my next point.

Rape AND sex are both present in When Stars Die.  Both have messages. Rape is obviously bad, but sex between two teens doesn’t have to be. Because of this, some people argue that my novel could cross over into the NA category. Truthfully, that annoys me. NA wasn’t even a thing when I began WSD. And when I began WSD, I always had the intention of writing it as a YA novel. WSD IS a YA novel, because it touches upon many coming-of-age themes: uncertainty about one’s identity, awakening sexuality, love, friendship, familial bonds, death, younger siblings, and, basically, how a teen copes with all of these aforementioned themes. Amelia might be eighteen, but she is still a teenager with teen reactions to a lot of what happens to her in my book.

My sex scenes are not gratuitous. One sex scene is basically a woman’s version of a wet dream. Another sex scene is between Amelia and male protagonist, Oliver. If readers think my sex scenes are gratuitous, it is because they haven’t read enough YA books that deal with such topics. In fact, the two sex scenes in When Stars Die are about as heavy as the sex scenes present within Libba Bray’s the A Great and Terrible Beauty trilogy, a, you guessed it, YA series. Let me explain the two sex scenes in WSD. (They aren’t spoilers.) Amelia’s wet dream is basically a fantasy of how she wants her first time with Oliver to be. So there’s kissing, a desire to have sexual intimacy, and this:

Oliver pulls away, reaches down, and thrusts himself inside me.

Amelia wakes up right after this. Of course she has an orgasm, but it isn’t anything explicit. In fact, she doesn’t understand what the feeling is. She only knows that it felt good. I included this scene because Amelia is an aspiring nun. Sex is supposed to be shameful to her, something she shouldn’t desire, but, yet, she does, because she is human, a sexual being, and teens are sexual beings, too.

The other sex scene I include is between her and Oliver. This is as gratuitous as it gets:

Oliver pulls away from me and grabs my hands, urging me to undo the belt buckle on his black slacks.

My hands develop a mind of their own.

Pants down. Bloomers off. And I don’t say no, even as he pushes me to the ground and takes control.

This scene is completely consensual. Amelia isn’t sure she wants to have sex with Oliver, but she basically tells Oliver that she won’t know until she tries. There is a scene break after this where Amelia describes how it hurt a lot, that she couldn’t have that feeling she had when she woke up from her wet dream. I did this because not all teen sex is perfect, ending in that moment we all want. But Amelia doesn’t regret it because the act was still very intimate to her, still very special to her. She chalks it up to inexperience, not to this idea that sex isn’t pleasurable. When I write sex scenes in my books, it’s because teens want sex for the same reason adults do: it. Feels. Good.

If you write sex scenes in your YA book, write them how you want to, but don’t expect all authors to treat sex the same way you do in their YA novels. Sexual experiences vary widely among teenagers, which is what is so great about YA literature. It encompasses experiences from a myriad of teenagers from all different walks of life.

But the one thing I want you to take away from this post is that sex between two teenagers doesn’t always have negative consequences.



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19 thoughts on “Sex in Young Adult Novels and How I Treat It

  1. The whole issue of teenage sexuality is a minefield. I am not sure which country you live in but here in the UK the age of sexual consent for both males and females is 16-years-old, however although 16-17-year-olds may legally enjoy (or not as the case may be) sexual intimacy, they can, not legally read many books which describe sex until they reach the age of 18,so I guess that a young adult novel which may be legal for a 16-17-year-old to read in a particular juristiction may not be legal in another. Do you have a view on this?

    1. I live in the US. Teenage sexuality is a minefield here, too. There are parents out there wanting to ban books with any mentions of sex. They even want to ban Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson because of a rape scene that is not at all explicit. It simply states he removes her pants or whatever and it hurts and he smells of mean and beer. There isn’t even any mention of penetration. It is simply implied. But Speak was revolutionary for the YA genre, opening many doors for authors wanting to tackle tough subjects. The YA of nowadays isn’t your mother’s YA, that’s for certain.

      But what teens can read in the US is largely governed by what the parent deems acceptable. My parents didn’t control my reading habits, so I was free to drift into foreign territory. Tithe by Holly Black was my first experience with a sexual scene in any YA book. I think I was 13. I was disgusted, but I think I was disgusted because the main character was disgusted. Then I read A Great and Terrible Beauty at age 14. I wasn’t fazed by it, probably because the MC herself seemed to enjoy it. I was a little stunned, but this book really got me into reading YA.

      Personally, I don’t think anyone, including parents, should restrict teens’ reading habits when it comes to YA literature. YA literature is a safe vehicle for teens to explore things they’re eventually going to stumble upon in life, like sex. Why shelter them? Why try to maintain this toxic myth of sexual purity? What parents should do instead is talk to their teens about what they’re reading instead of discouraging them from reading it. But this is my take on the whole matter.

      However, it’s interesting to know that reading material with any mention of sex is restricted in the UK. Does the young adult genre exist over there?

      1. I’m a UK teen and the YA genre does certainly exist over here! Also, I’ve never come across anything being restricted before… The YA books available aren’t censored and many contain sex scenes. You’re free to read whatever you like, regardless of age. Books containing sex scenes aren’t illegal to those under the age of 16 and the YA books that do contain sex aren’t illegal! Great post by the way, I found it very interesting – thanks for writing such an in depth article!

      2. I was interested to learn that you grew up in a liberal family who left you free to explore literature for yourself. In the UK it is erotic literature which teenagers (those aged under 18) are prohibited from reading, however the definition of erotic literature is somewhat vage, (what one person regards as erotic may, by another not be so construed). This means that the whole area is a grey one. I recall, as a teenager well under 16 getting hold of a copy of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I had heard that it was “a dirty book” however I was bored to tears with it! There is, obviously a need to protect children from inappropriate material but the age of sexual consent here is different from that at which teenagers may access sexually explicit material. I am not sure how the young adult genre wsells here but there is certainly a big debate about to what extent, if at all teenagers should learn about sex.

  2. When I’m reading YA I don’t mind if there’s alluding to sex… you know that moment when it’s about to happen and suddenly the next moment they’re lying in bed or parting ways… kind of like in movies when it turns to curtains swishing and a ray of moonlight… but I don’t like it to be explicit like what you’d read in an adult novel… for me it’s just uncomfortable imagining teens having sex… and even though I don’t think that if a kid reads it they’ll go do it… I still think there’s better stuff an author can put in there than a bunch of horny teens…

    1. I think if it’s done with a purpose, it’s fine–not overly explicit, of course. But I feel this way about adult novels, too, that aren’t categorized as romance or erotica. If I want a detailed sex scene, I’ll spring for one of those books.

  3. All good points, Amber. I write romance for adults, but with my two published historical novels, both heroines were around 18-19, adult legally, but one young lady might not have been mature enough at the time to understand the consequences of such an act. She did get wiser. I have read YA before (one that comes to mind is P.C. Cast’s House of Night Series) and there is definite sex in it, but it is delicately worded and far from graphic (I think I would almost call it ‘closed door’). With Upon Your Honor, my second book in the Heiresses in Love Series, there wasn’t as much description about sex in it, but it’s set in the Victorian era. I also listened to the characters; it seemed natural to keep the sex scenes to a minimum. I think this rule goes for any kind of fiction. The character will tell you how much detail to include, and it sounds like you listened to Amelia with WSD.

  4. An excellent post. I recently wrote a post on the subject of cultural differences. There seems to be a huge difference between what is acceptable, sex-wise, in the US and other countries, which is something any author writing for the US needs to keep in mind.

    1. There’s especially a fine line in young adult novels, especially concerning publishers. Some small presses, in fact, will put heat ratings on their books, including ya novels.

  5. Thank you so much – you have no idea how invaluable your insight is! As a would-be writer in the genre of both adult and YA romance, I’ve been really stymied by the moral contemplation revolving around sex in a story that is geared towards teenagers 16 and up. I feel that you really hit the nail on the head especially in contrast to whoever it is/was who wrote that sex in YA should carry with it, almost automatically, negative aspects or consequences – which I feel does a great disservice to any teens who might read into that message and end up feeling bad about themselves, about past experiences and/or their bodies. Even as an adult, I can still remember with vivid and sometimes painful clarity how awkward and confusing my own adolescence was – and how much easier it might have been if the whole issue of sex hadn’t been so completely shrouded in mystery. While I think we can all agree that no one would want to promote promiscuity among teenagers, I think the much bigger question remains in how to address not just the physical act – whether by merely alluding to or briefly referring to it – but the emotional fallout, both positive and negative. I’m often surprised by the seemingly puritan approach to sex in the US, even in this day and age, especially when it comes to teenagers – while no one seems to be all too concerned about excessive violence and even access to firearms for the same age bracket.

    1. As someone who did have sex as a teenager and didn’t regret it, I took take massive issue with the writer’s implication that all teens should regret it. Was it great? NOPE! But why would I regret it? The guy wasn’t a jerk. He never spread anything around. I didn’t contract anything. I didn’t get pregnant. It was simple teen curiosity that I did approach knowing full well what I was about to get into, even though I was 16 at the time.

      1. I think a lot of people are totally deluded as to how old – or, rather, young – people are the first time they have sex. I was a late bloomer, but it was mostly because my parents didn’t say jack about sex EVER so it was a weird and scary subject to me. If I ever have children, I’m going to bend over backwards to make sure they know all the ins and outs so that they can make that decisions for themselves, safely, when they feel it’s right for them.

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