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.

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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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