Sex in YA books?

I’m venturing into the Young Adult (YA) genre. I’ve completed my first YA novel, and have two more planned. I’m actively writing the second.

I have to say, I’ve really enjoyed writing from a younger person’s perspective. It has cleaned up my language considerably (although not in real life) and has forced me to be more selective in what situations I write about.

So, yes, it’s a YA book. The protagonist is sixteen for most of the first book, and as adults, I think we all can agree that there is a large number of teens that age that are considering having sex– if they haven’t had it already.

I’m not really interested in debating the morals of when the right age to have sex is, because it’s really based on maturity more than a number. I know plenty of 20-somethings who aren’t mature enough to be in a mutually-fulfilling, monogamous physical relationship. I do believe that jumping into a sexual relationship too soon is rarely a good idea, no matter what age you are. I will agree that sixteen might be a little too young in most people’s eyes, but let’s face it. There are probably a TON of good people you know personally who had sex at sixteen (or before) and turned out just fine.

That being said, of the YA books I’ve read recently, there’s not sex. Sexual tension, yes– well, in Twilight, anyway. (And the fade-to-black doesn’t count as sex in my book, nor does any subsequent vampire-speed-humping.) But other YA books I’ve read are the Hunger Games trilogy, Ally Condie’s Matched and Crossed, Divergent, and I started the Birthmarked series, but I haven’t gotten very far into it. These are mainly paranormal or dystopian books, though, and none that I’ve read recently are present-day-present-world. I can’t imagine anyone having sex in Ally Condie’s world– yet. Anyway. For those of you who read/write YA on a regular basis, is there ever sex, or even situations that lead to it? I can fade-to-black just as well as the next author, but I think some readers want more. I’m not saying full-on-lady-porn more… just something that explores the feelings that a teen might feel in that situation. Tasteful, non-descriptive…

There’s no shame in that, is there?

When I was fourteen, my friend Jenni loaned me her copy of Flowers in the Attic. I was shocked at what I was reading, and I remember that I wasn’t exactly forthcoming with my book of choice back then with my family members. It was shameful for me to read about sex (and incest, of course) back then. I was raised Catholic, and in my mind sex before marriage was bad. Very bad. Very shameful.

I’m older now, and have a much more realistic view of sex. It’s certainly not bad, nor is it something to be ashamed of when it’s done by two consenting parties who understand the consequences and appreciate the natural intimacy created by it. Does that mean “only adults?” If so, “adult” by whose definition? Isn’t a young adult still an “adult?”

My point is, sex can have a place in the lives of teens, can’t it? Or is our society still in denial about what kids– even good kids– do? What about different types of sexual situations in YA? For instance, is it okay to explore the topic if there’s thoughtful consideration behind the choice? If they use contraception? Is it bad to have a sixteen-year-old who hops from boyfriend to boyfriend? But it’s okay if they get married at seventeen? Should I only allude to the act? Do I need to build it up as one of the biggest decisions ever? What if it “just happened?”

I don’t know what the boundaries are…

…and then I have to wonder… who sets those boundaries? Is it the parent that doesn’t want his kid reading about other kids her age having sex? Or are there teens who really don’t want to read about it, either?

Who am I, as an author, really catering to? Because I know that sixteen-year-old me would have loved the story I’ve written solely for the emotional relationship between the two main characters.

I’m asking this all hypothetically, because at the end of the day, I know the stories I want to write, and will likely write them as planned. I just want to know what kind of backlash to expect once they’re published.

7 thoughts on “Sex in YA books?

  1. I’m going to add the discussion from my Facebook wall:

    JP says:

    No- no sex in YA books. They are curious enough about the subject, they can’t fathom the impact/consequences of what they are reading/doing and honestly? Even though sex is awesome- its romanticized and glamorized in books and movies. You never hear the heroine say ” not tonight, I’m on the rag” or “brush your teeth eww breath” or “I’m tired, maybe tomorrow?”…. It’s always “omg” and she’s shy but overcomes it or he is aggressive and pushes her into it and she enjoys it (nooo, that could be rape yanno!?) etc.

    I’m definitely against it

    JP continues:

    My two cents… There is so much that could change their lives so fast that there is no way for them to grasp what could happen… and by the time they understand- that is when they have started to reach adult(thinking past the “now”)… I’m all for promoting safe sex- but abstinence should be taught first along with a healthy dose of self respect in the teen cause having a boyfriend (much less) having sex does not complete you

    I said:

    I like your two cents, by the way, and appreciate you posting it (them?). Sorry, I keep thinking of more questions… is it a hard and fast line of no SEX, or no sexual situations whatsoever (making out, etc)? And again, high-schoolers only, or is there a different imaginary line where kids become adults (like 18 or 21)?

    JP said:

    I think that they would be best(in my opinion) in the kissing phase.. And saying no, explaining why(if pressured) – they are going to kiss, touch, grope (LOL) but need to be strong enough characters to say when… And stop.

    TR said:

    Geez, Lori this is so loaded. All at,once you want parents to help you with what they would want their kids to read but at the same time remember what it was like to be 16.
    In the end I think you’re right- you write what you want, just prepare yourself for the backlash. I think the major objection from a parent standpoint is that you want to be as much in control of where and how your child receives those messages and lessons. Depending on how graphic you are, parents and other authorities could give you a lot of grief. On the other hand parents don’t give their kids a whole lot of information so kids will seek it out wherever they can an they would enjoy reading it (especially if the protagonists are their age)…. And who could blame them. Even the mature ones will read it, the difference will be how they react to it. I would prefer of course, that you err on the side of fading to black. ER, on the other hand may enjoy a more graphic reading experience. I’ll ask. There’s more and I would enjoy talking to you about it if you like. Can’t wait for more reaction to your question.

    I said:

    TR, I would love to meet to discuss it!! I’ve got two busy weeks ahead of me, but maybe we can get a group together at the beginning of April to discuss! As far as the scenes I’ve written, the make-out scenes aren’t obscene or graphic, but i think they evoke the wonder, excitement, curiosity, magnitude, etc. you would expect to feel as a teen in that situation. There is _no_ sex in the first book. What I’m thinking is that _if_ my young protagonist and her loving boyfriend take the leap in later books, the scenes won’t be told “in the moment,” but rather looked back on or discussed in some non-graphic capacity. I want this to be more about their emotional connection, but the fact that they may become sexually active would be a significant component in their relationship, and wouldn’t (nor shouldn’t) be ignored.

    TT said:

    Well………. 🙂 Being a daddy of 3 girls……… I have to say that as a man, my job is to protect my girls and to teach them. I’m supposed to teach them what kind of a man to look for. I certainly don’t always live up to that, but that’s what I’m supposed to do Biblically. Now, all that being said, knowing that content is there, I would not allow my girls to read those books. I have to say they aren’t YA appropriate. It’s the parents’ job to teach their kids about sex, it’s purpose, and how to deal with it emotionally. I think you have to look at the reason you’re writing it. If it’s for you, then you don’t have to publish. If it’s for the audience, then I think you have a responsibility as an author to write appropriate material for the audience, and if it’s for teens, I don’t think you should put controversial material in it. Children are growing up WAY too fast today, and missing out on a lot of what “being a kid” is all about. We’re pushing them harder and faster to learn more, work more, have more responsibility. And they just aren’t built to handle all that. There’s a great movie/documentary called “Race to Nowhere” out there that discusses this from an educational perspective (school and its pressures). So, my opinion is, obviously, leave anything related to sex out of a YA book. Find another way to develop their relationship, since it doesn’t have a place in their lives at that time according to some parents, don’t limit your audience.

    I said:

    I was hoping a daddy would weigh in… and you are the perfect person to do that. 🙂 I’m certain my main character’s dad would have similar opinions, in some respect.

    I’m writing the story because it’s in my head and it’s real and it’s beautiful. I have to write what comes from within… and I do want to be responsible with a message, and wouldn’t dream of writing a book that contained teenage sex just to be sensational… but it’s not an author’s job to censor what other people’s kids read. That’s the parent’s job. Would I like to sell books? Sure. But I think most people know that’s not why I do it. That being said, if I do write this series and include sex (should it fit into the story line), of course I would publish them. Other people would enjoy the story (a few have already read book one and loved it). But, as a parent, you wouldn’t have to buy it. Would it be wrong for it to just be out there? Isn’t that censorship?

    There’s just a fine line here… there’s a new category of books called New Adult, and this sounds like it would be better suited for that category- with the exception that the protagonist isn’t old enough.

    Funny thought- if she isn’t old enough to be in New Adult, is she old enough to have sex? 😉

    Anyway. TT, I’m not saying I disagree with you. I might feel the same way if I had kids. But the people I know who had sex as teens (read: most of the people I know) have turned out to be wonderful people.

    Anyone with teenage sons? Did you ever catch them with a Playboy? Or watching porn?

    Is that irrelevant because of the double standards we have?

    EH said:

    TT I wish more dads were like you! Sooo many parents are taking hands off approach and letting other people raise them. My husband & I are a dying breed of actually raising our own children while monitoring ratings/content on movies, books, Facebook, etc. I personally would not appreciate too much info in regards to sexual situations and have not passed along certain books in particular to my teenagers. I also make it a point to sit down and discuss things they do read/see to make sure they understand or ask questions about things they may not get. Other parents may not do this. I have several teenagers at my house at any given time due to having teenage girls plus work with tweens/teens 6th-12th grades through our youth group at church so I don’t have a problem providing more info or running ideas past the kids if you want. I would love to help you be successful if you decide to continue writing YA books. 🙂

    I said:

    And EH, yes… I do think you’re a dying breed, and it is a shame. I would love to feel comfortable publishing what I want to write knowing that parents would be making the call on the front end. Then I wouldn’t be faced with the ethical dilemma of censoring myself because other people don’t take the time to do that with their own kids.

    And who knows? Maybe the book would be something some parents would let their children read. Maybe their teen already is sexually active… if the characters in my book do decide to do it, it will be respectful, loving, responsible and monogamous. It may not set a good example, but it could set a better example than other things.

    Question: how many of you have watched the Secret Life of the American Teenager? That’s on ABC Family, and I question the messages on that show often.

    SB said:

    I’m a bit out from dealing with this (I sincerely hope!!!) but I did have sex as a teenager and, although I hope my daughter makes better choices than I did… I think it can be handled respectfully. You’re not writing to proselytize. If it happens, it shouldn’t spell doom. It’s something to deal with.
    Having read it, I have pretty strong feeling of what is like to see happen. But knowing you, something horrible will happen and I will cry myself silly. But I’m all in!

    AM said:

    As a parent of a boy, I would hope that as a young man, he would never pressure a girl to have sex. My ideal hope is that he would wait until he was at least out of high school. That being said, I teach at the middle school level, and sadly, sex is a very real topic- even at that age. Ideally, we would all like to see teens wait, but realistically, that’s just not the case. I have 6th graders that have already had sex. It’s sad and scary on so many different levels. I don’t know what to tell you. Part of me hopes that L will wait until she’s at least graduated from high school. Another part of me thinks it would also be responsible to show the conflicting emotions following her first time. Guit, confusion, disappointment in that it wasn’t what she expected it to be, and insecurities with her body. I think those are very real emotions teen girls deal with. It’s never what they expect it to be. I haven’t read enough YA books that deal with teen sex, so I don’t know what else is out there. I do know, based on your previous books, whatever you do decide to write will no doubt be tasteful.

    AM continued:

    Also, there are lots of parents that have NO idea what their kids listen to, read, watch, play. Hell, half the time, they don’t even know where their kids are, who their friends are, or even who their teachers are. It’s sad, but very real.

    ER said:

    ER here, TR’s son. As a current college freshman, I can clearly remember my experiences in high school and middle school. What I think it is important for everyone to remember is that most, if not all, 7th grade children know what the physical mechanics of sex involve, and not by any means by fault of the parents. That’s just kids being kids when they’re going through a time of change and hormones are wreaking ever loving havoc in their brains. Since by high school, everyone not only knows what sex is but (at least speaking for most of the male half) also have strong desire to experience it, I feel that it is almost pointless to exclude the light details of sex in the name of censorship. Sex is a fact of life and it is silly if not down right dangerous to ignore. What I do think is a must is that if you choose to include it into your novel, to handle it responsibly. What was previously stated was that sex is often portrayed as the end all be all with no consequences in a lot of media and as a responsible adult and author, it should be your duty to represent sex as what it is: an act that has several real ramifications. The obvious emotional impacts, positive and negative depending on the relationship, and not to mention the physical impacts such as pregnancy and stds.

    My main point is that most people forget to take into account that kids, through curiosity, media, and everyday happenings, already know a lot about sex but many of them have no idea what the aftermath, both the positive and the negative, could look like. If you are including sex in a novel, you should be be wary about how you portray it.

    THAT BEING SAID. The number one factor of anyone’s behavior, in my 19 years of experience, is their home life. It is ultimately in the hands of the parents for their children to learn to act responsibly and to be equipped for any situation. I’m not saying parents should have to shelter their kids from all of the bad things in the world because if they are older than 15, they probably have heard or seen it already. It is the parents responsibility to teach the child what to do in said situations.

    In closing: feel free to add tasteful sex into your YA novels as long as you you handle the subject with considerations to the possible consequences. In writing about it, it is true that you are writing about something they deal with on a daily basis. Once again to censor it pretending that kids still don’t know what it is, is possibly a futile cause.
    Also, parents: you hold more influence on your children’s development than you think. Though you won’t be able to stop them from finding out about sex and all the other bad things in the world, you can make sure they are well informed to do whatever the right thing may be in that case.

    I said:

    Wow, ER. Beautiful… and it’s obvious your mother did an excellent job of raising you. She’s an inspiration to me, and I hope that I’m like her when/if it comes time to raise children of my own. I love the fact that many of you have brought up the importance of portraying the aspects of sex that are not perfect, harmonious and blissful. 😉 I’m definitely going to take what you’ve all said into consideration. Thank you. And really, ER, thanks for giving me great insight. 🙂

  2. have you ever read francine prose? Touch? I love both Blue Angel and Goldengrove.

    just throwing these books into the comment if you’d like to quickly see what has been published – i know there are millions more, but i read these books – i’m 64 🙂

    David in Maine USA

  3. I think my phone is playing silly buggers or something.

    Anyway what I wanted to say was, we’ve spoken about this before and I’m sure we’ll talk about it again. I think you should aim the books at YOUR audience, not their parents. Although parents may screen the books they let their teens read, I doubt that they’d read the entire book before letting their kids read it. Well not most parents anyway. But I think teenagers will enjoy reading about stuff that they are going through. Experiences and situations that they will find themselves in and can relate to, will let them know that they aren’t the only ones going through those things. And I think you’ve what you’ve written is more than ok.

    I look forward to seeing what other people say.

    1. Nikki, there’s some conversation on my FB wall. I’m getting into my “I suck, I’m wrong, they’re right” frame of mind. I don’t know what to think- Skew their ages? Skip a year in the book? Say to hell with it, this is Livvy’s choice? BAH!

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