Writer / Reader / Fandom Extraordinaire
Chiara / August 13, 2015 , Thu / books & reading, general

If you have read my book blog, I make it pretty known about my feelings on sex and its inclusion in the young adult genre. But in case you don’t know my specific stance … sex should be in YA. It should be in YA, and it should be in there positively. The days of fade to black “sex scenes” should well and truly be over. The days where the heterosexual couple doesn’t have sex until the third book should well and truly be over. The days where LGBTQIA+ sex scenes barely exist should well and truly be over. The lack of sex positivity should well and truly be over.

Teenagers and young adults have sex. Let’s not pretend they don’t, because that would be utterly ridiculous, and more than a little naive. They have sex. And that sex doesn’t have to be with someone that they are in earth-shattering love with, and that they think they’ll marry and spend the rest of their lives with. So why is that the message that YA books are (for the most part) putting forward? Why are female protagonists feeling lust and desire for their male love interests, and then curbing it until the third book?

Writing for a young audience comes with a level of responsibility. And that responsibility comes into play for a lot of themes, and sex is one of them. Messages that safe sex is the way to go, and that wanting sex at a young age is not a bad thing, and that having sex with a someone you might not spend the rest of your life with is okay are the messages that YA authors need to be putting out there.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that sex should be shoved in everyone’s faces when reading YA, and that it should be promoted, or described in explicit and erotic ways, but I am saying that things need to change.

Here’s an example (this was a fantasy novel, by the way): a heterosexual couple is making out fully clothed, and they fall back onto a bed. End scene. The next scene starts with “afterwards”.

Firstly, after what exactly? After a hot and heavy fully clothed make-out session? After a sexual exploration of the hands or mouth? After sexual intercourse? And if it was sexual intercourse, what exactly happened? Are there condoms in this fantasy world? Or a special herb (all the kudos to Sarah J. Maas for including the contraception herb in her Throne of Glass books)? Did the girl like it? What the actual hell happened after they fell back on that bed fully clothed? Because fading to black to save grace or save readers or save parents or whatever the reason for that fade to black isn’t helping anyone.

It might seem to some that safe sex and sex positivity isn’t the responsibility of YA authors, and that parents or guardians or sex ed teachers should be the ones that take on that role. And sure, they can do that. But YA authors can do that, too. They can show readers that safe sex is important, and that girls can want and enjoy sex. Sex positivity when it comes to girls is all too scarce, and the “we won’t do it until the third book” trope is just perpetuating that. That girls have to wait, and be unsure, and be vulnerable. Yes, of course girls can be those things. But they can also want it now, and be sure that they want it, and be completely unvulnerable.

And beyond that, there’s the fact that sexy times in LGBTQIA+ YA are even more scarce. It’s like there’s a diversity threshold and that kissing is all the wider (hetero) audience is willing to accept when it comes to reading about a relationship that is outside their own experience or attraction. But there comes the responsibility again. What about gay guys and lesbian girls and trans teens and intersex young adults (and everyone in between and beyond) who might not have any idea what they’re doing, or what they should be doing, or what kind of precautions or preparations they need to take when having sex? There needs to be examples of that in the books they’re reading, too. Queer teens need to see themselves, and the thoughts and feelings and to-dos of their sexual experiences, represented in what they’re reading.

I’m just so sick of YA taking sex and making it something completely unrealistic. We need books where girls don’t have to wait until the third book, where the actual act of being safe in a sexual situation is explicit, and that show what sex can be like for people who aren’t cisgender and heterosexual. We need to be so much more open about this because pretending and fading to black is doing no one any favours.

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18 Responses to we won’t do it until the third book, or: sex in YA

  1. Angel says:

    Great post! Lately I’ve been thinking about this too. Of course teens in real life have sex but we basically don’t get enough of those in books.
    Do you have any recommendation of YA books that portray safe sex? I’ve just been looking for those kind of YA books for ages because I’m not comfortable with sex in NA books.

    • Chiara says:

      Thank you very much! And we certainly don’t have enough of realistic portrayals of sex in YA.

      I’ve got two recommendations that have safe sex scenes in them: The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, as well as Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller. Both are told from a female main character’s perspective, and are good books, as well!

      Celaena in Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas is sexually active, and uses a contraception herb (the fantasy world equivalent of ‘the pill’). This same herb equivalent is used in Maria V. Snyder’s Study books.

      There are several other books where I know the two main characters have sex, but any kind of protection is not mentioned, unfortunately.

      I hope these helped, Angel! Sorry there aren’t more titles I can think of right now, but I guess that’s one of the reasons why this post was written.

  2. Beth W says:

    THIS! You’re never taught, as a teen, some pretty damned important things: rape can happen within a romantic relationship (even a marriage!), not every man has a raging libido and not every woman blushes about her naked body, men and women often don’t orgasm at the same time because women’s sexuality is not men’s sexuality and why can’t we accept that?!, sex is not a drive, like hunger and thirst, there is no right way and wrong way of wanting or doing or being, and oh yeah, usually sex with a new partner is the worst, not the best. Seriously, between the virginalized sex in YA books (usually implied), the unrealistic portrayals in most mainstream erotica/romance novels/porn, and the whole “let’s just not talk about it” Victorian-era leftover prudishness, real people are getting hurt, every day. If we can alleviate that with a little honesty (which can be done, even with plot-tension!), why shouldn’t we??

    • Chiara says:

      I cannot add much to your comment, because you pretty much said it all, Beth! I think there needs to be a lot more openness and frankness about sex in YA (and other genres), because hiding from it isn’t helping anyone.

  3. Alyssa says:

    Mmm, okay, this is a really interesting post. I … actually don’t know. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not prickly about reading about sex — A Song of Ice and Fire reader here — but I’m not sure if teens all have sex or are sexually active? I have a couple more years to go to complete my teens, and I’m thinking I might be asexual, and our culture is generally prudish anyways, but I don’t find it necessarily “realistic” that teens have sex. And of course because I have zero experiences, I feel weird writing about it. Like is this even realistic? How do these feelings mesh? I don’t know yet, so I don’t write it.

    But I do agree SO MUCH with your points about not making sex taboo any more, especially sexual activity of non-heterosexual couples. *nods intensely*

    • Chiara says:

      Firstly, I have to clear things up by noting that I didn’t say “all teens have sex”. But teenagers DO have sex – and that’s the point I’m trying to make. I know that not all teens have sex, because of heaps of reasons, and when I was in high school plenty of people didn’t have sex, and didn’t really want to (again, because of numerous reasons). But I believe the notion of ‘teens don’t have sex’ is ridiculous because there are teens having sex, and I knew plenty that did, as well.

      And no one needs to write about it if they feel uncomfortable about it, too. Writing things you don’t know can be weird and uncomfortable, and that’s completely fine. There’s no need to push your own boundaries when it comes to writing.

      But I believe that if an author DOES choose to include a sexual encounter, they have responsibility to present it in a realistic way (with questions and uncertainty, and PROTECTION).

      *joins your nodding*

  4. Katherine says:

    I agree with this! I’ve been finishing a lot of series lately and I’m so over them waiting until the third book. I think that sex is realistic for teens though. One of my favorite books that talks about it is The Revenge Playbook by Rachael Allen, which might not sound like it, but it talks about four different girls and the pressure to have sex (some of which have, some of which are waiting for marriage or the right person). There’s just a whole bunch of different opinions for different people. Also, I think this might be because of the short time span some books cover. Some romances in books end just as the couple finally gets together. I’ve been looking for books with the couple already in a relationship before the book starts and that make take away some of this problem.

    • Chiara says:

      Yay! I am really sick of the third book thing, because I think it promotes a kind of culture that may not be entirely healthy.

      That sounds awesome! Because sex means something different to everyone, and portraying those differences is something that’s really important, as well.

      Oh yeah, of course. Most romancey books really do end just as the couple gets together. I’d actually really like to read about someone in a relationship that isn’t shitty, but has to be navigated anyway, because as much as we all like the “will they get together” plot, there is SO MUCH MORE that comes after that.

  5. This post made me so happy I nearly cried. I feel like I’ve been making this same point for YEARS and no one has seemed to be listening (although, to be honest, I don’t think yelling in my room is going to get anyone to take notice) so to have someone that I admire share the same opinion as me, and write a POST about it. THANK YOU.

    As an 18-year old bisexual female who has grown up from the age of 12 reading YA novels, WHERE IS THE SEX? What happened before the ‘After’ (I’ve seen this happen too much – it’s frustrating), Contraception?, CONSENT?

    YA has the power to do so much – we’ve all seen it with The Hunger Games and Twilight ETC – and impact thousands, millions of people so, I don’t know, why not use that platform to project SEX POSITIVITY to these people.

    • Chiara says:

      Oh, Natalie! *hug* I know all about the yelling, and I kind of just took that and tried to make it sound good in this post, haha! (Also, you admire me? ALL THE POINTS FOR YOU, FAVOURITE)

      The “after” is probably the thing I have the most distaste for. It’s to erasing, and covers absolutely NOTHING about what actually happened. And yes, consent is such an important aspect of any kind of sexual encounter, and sometimes it can be pretty glossed over. And don’t even get me started on contraception. It’s like the possibility of pregnancy doesn’t exist in YA novels.

      Exactly! There is such a wide and diverse audience that reads YA, and that immediately means that the genre (and those behind it) have a responsibility.

  6. Romi says:

    Oh Chiara. You name the problems and you write about them with utter brilliance. My mother’s going to a LGBTIQ training session for her work tomorrow (aged care), a full day thing, and I was talking to her today about recommendng LGBT+ books that might be informative and the like and how your blog is the best resource and our discussions on LGBTIQ+ lit are fantastic.
    This has little to do with your post, though, which is so accurate. I’m not huge on romance in books, not mega romance kind of thing, but how Sarah J. Maas dealt with it in ACoTaR was fantastic, and Kristin Cashore in Graceling was likewise brilliant. I liked, so much, having that awareness of sexuality and sex, and it is important. Not always necessary for me, but it’s important, and your note on LGBT+ books needing it just as much is so on point.
    x

    • Chiara says:

      Eep <3 Your comments are always me absolute favourites, Romi. And the fact you thought of my blog and our discussions means the absolute world.

      I have heard that Graceling deals with it really well, and I want to read it because of that, and the fact that I have heard that its brilliant in other aspects, as well.

      LGBTQIA+ novels can be left in the dust sometimes when it comes to sexual encounters, which I think certainly needs to end.

      <3

  7. So… yes and no. I’m kind of with Alyssa in saying that I’m not all that sure teens actually have sex all that much; perhaps it’s just in my experience, but at least none of the teens I know have had sex. And personally, as someone who writes YA quite a bit, I haven’t written any sex scenes between two teenage characters (or, for that matter, at all) – I tend to draw a lot of my characters from my experiences IRL, so that’s just not something I’ve encountered.

    WITH THAT SAID, yes yes yes to the rest of this post, especially what you said about LGBTQIA+ couples having sex! I have no earthly idea why this is something that’s such a taboo in YA lit (or in general? Not quite sure, as I don’t read much adult fiction beyond the classics). Teens need to know that it’s 100% okay for them to be having sex – even if it’s with someone of the same gender, even if they don’t want to marry that person, even if they’re both fumbling and scared and awkward as hell. It’s all part of the experience, no?

    • Chiara says:

      When I was a teenager (which was, like, three years ago), I knew a lot of people who were sexually active (and some from very young ages, too). That being said, not all teens have sex, of course. I knew just as many people who didn’t have sex as a teenager. But I also think that it’s important to be realistic when it comes to sex in the teen years (teens think about it, and wonder, and question, and do actually have sex), so I think erasure of the presence of those thoughts and feelings and actions can be detrimental.

      Writing can often be influenced by your own experiences, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! I don’t mean to say that every teenage couple should have sex in every YA book, but I do think that things need to change. If sex IS going to be in a book, it needs to be included in a responsible way. And there shouldn’t be sex tropes in YA (that the guy is always the initiator/the girl is always uncertain/etc), because sex means something different to every person.

      I’m glad you agree, Topaz! I have no idea why sexual relationships IN LGBTQIA+ YA fiction are so left out of things. I really do hope that changes in the near future. And yes to everything about the uncertainty and questions and fumbling, because as much as books make out like it’s this beautiful melding of body and spirit … we all know that’s a bit of a farce.

  8. Amber says:

    I know this post is old, but I had to respond. Finally, someone brings up the topic that I have been wondering about. I have only seen a couple of books that actually have sex scenes. I keep wondering what the heck is wrong with adding that type of scene, especially if you are going to write such a heated make-out scene. Your post brought so much life to what some writing is leaving out. I am not saying that all books should have it. I agree quite a bit with what you said, and actually, it gives me the courage to not avoid the scene in my book, especially since I was thinking of trying to avoid it altogether.

    • Chiara says:

      I absolutely ADORE comments on old posts, so thank you for sharing your thoughts!

      I agree that there is a bit of weirdness when it comes to books with extreme and heavy make-out scenes that skip over sex scenes almost entirely. And certainly not all books need sex scenes, but I think they need to be written in a way that isn’t just fade to black if the decision to write one is made.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and that is has given you the courage to write a scene in your own book! That is one of the best things ever.

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