Once upon a time, in the land of 2018, I wrote a post about the incorporation of sex into young adult fiction. Unsurprisingly for anything with the word ‘sex’ in the title, it’s one of the most popular posts on this blog. Except, funny story, it was always intended to be a two-parter. Better late than never, right? While part one dealt with the questions of whether sex should be included/discussed at all in YA books and if so, to what to degree of depth, here I’ll be looking at how I think sexual content should be represented/depicted.
Lacking Pornographic Perfection
Let’s get the big one out of the way first. Despite what Hollywood seems to want us to believe, sex is not a perfectly choreographed porno. It can be messy, awkward, unsatisfying, painful, scary and, because no one ever seems to want to show it as such, not what people expect it to be. This is especially true your first time with a new partner and more so your first time ever, a common thing for characters in YA lit.
The whole affair was the precise opposite of what I figured it would be: slow and patient and quiet and neither particularly painful nor particularly ecstatic. […] No headboards were broken. No screaming. Honestly, it was probably the longest time we’d ever spent together without talking.‘The Fault in Our Stars’ – John Green
Although adult romances might often feature passionate and perfect sex where everyone orgasms simultaneously and feels perfectly blissful afterwards, this isn’t really a realistic way to depict sex in YA books. Sure, the desire and emotional connection may be there, but the physical side can sometimes be less glamorous and take time. Even more so if there hasn’t been a gradual process of experimentation leading up to the big moment (something YA lit often leaves out for fear of too much sexual content).
Everything hurts, every single thing including the weight of him and I’m crying because it hurts and he’s telling me he’s sorry over and over again, and I figure that somewhere down the track we’ll work out the right way of doing this but I don’t want to let go, because tonight I’m not looking for anything but being part of him. Because being part of him isn’t just anything. It’s kind of everything.‘On the Jellicoe Road’ – Melina Marchetta
Consistently depicting sex as the ideal scenario often sets young readers up for unrealised expectations and unnecessary fears. While I’m sure there are some teens who do have amazingly perfect sex, it’s important to show all different types of experiences. Authors shouldn’t be afraid to have characters who are unsure about what they’re doing or miss the mark at first. It’s the human elements that make it memorable and real.
Consent & Protection
When it comes to sex, these are two extremely important topics. And yet, for some reason they’re frequently skimmed over in books because they “ruin the mood”. Sex education is terribly lacking in a lot of places. It isn’t fiction’s job to educate teens but it’s something many turn to for guidance and also a safe space for them to pick up new information. As an author, if you’re going to include sexual content in a book targeted at the most impressionable and curious age group for it, you need to do it right. Furyborn by Clare Le Grand features more explicit sexual content than what’s probably suitable in YA, but it does include a sex scene with clearly established consent and contraception. And did those things kill the mood? Not at all. In fact, I would argue it made the interaction even hotter.
Despite the apparent simplicity of consent (to me, at least), a lot of people still fail to grasp the concept. In my own country Australia, it’s been estimated that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 25 men have experienced at least 1 sexual assault since the age of 15. For this reason, it’s so important that YA books featuring sexual content touch on consent, even if only in passing. Nowadays there’s an increasing number of great YA novels being published which deal with sexual assault and lack of consent (e.g. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed, Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake, Asking for It by Louise O’Neill, etc.) Having stories which cover issues such as revoked consent, the inability to consent, or sexual coercion are valuable in helping readers of YA lit understand what healthy, respectful and safe sexual relationships look like.
However, while I appreciate increased discussions around absent consent, I do wish more YA books featured affirmative consent or respect of an unwillingness/inability to give consent. A sweet example, albeit just regarding kissing, can be found in Francesca Zappia’s Eliza and her Monsters. Eliza’s love interest Wallace writes her a note asking if he can kiss her. Eliza wants to kiss Wallace but the idea of it right then makes her anxious, so she writes back:
Yes, but not right now.
I know it sounds weird. Sorry, I don’t think it’ll go well if I know it’s coming. I will definitely freak out and punch you in the face or scream bloody murder or something like that.
Surprising me with it would probably work better. I am giving you permission to surprise me with a kiss. This is a formal invitation for surprise kisses.
See? Consent can be sexy and adorable.
Contraception, on the other hand, is something I find authors frequently fail to mention (especially in YA fantasy). Worse, when it is discussed it’s largely because the lack of it has resulted in unwanted pregnancy.
The most annoying part is that it’s something which can be covered so easily in just two sentences of dialogue or a thought by the POV character. YA contemporaries have a bunch of options to choose from but even in fantasy it’s not difficult to introduce a tea, powder, or the like for that purpose. In Kristin Cashore’s Graceling series characters take a herb called Seabane while in Tamora Pierce’s Tortall universe women wear healer made pregnancy charms. Aside from reinforcing the idea that protection is an integral component of having sex, the inclusion of contraceptives also has the benefit of advocating the sexual agency and empowerment of female characters, a fantastic thing to impart on readers.
Hitting the Emotions Hard
Sexual representation includes a significant emotional and mental dimension. As I mentioned in part one, sex in YA novels shouldn’t be gratuitous and needs to serve plot and character development. Consequently, the emotional representation is arguably more important than the physical. The decision to have sex can be a big deal for teens and there are a wide range of motivations for doing so including fun/experimentation, romantic connection, peer pressure, or distraction from emotional issues. These provide a multitude of avenues for character exploration in YA books. Alongside these are an array of fears, excitements, insecurities, and expectations, e.g. body self-consciousness, worry about sexual performance, doubts about readiness, newfound closeness to a partner, etc. It’s important that YA authors deal with these types of issues in the prelude and aftermath of sexual interactions to provide for more realistic and relatable depictions.
A Bit of Self Love
Masturbation is a normal part of sexual experience. During teen years, when everything is new and different, it’s a great way for young people to learn about their bodies and work out what they enjoy. Having this awareness can be super empowering and allows for more satisfying sexual encounters later in life. Researchers have found that by the age of 14 more than 60% of boys and 43% of girls have engaged in self-love, and it only increases as they get older. So, if we’re talking about representing sex in YA fiction, masturbation is probably something we should be seeing more of. By shying away from it, we’re losing a key component of characters’ sexual journeys and encouraging the idea of it as something taboo or dirty.
Just like with other sex scenes, it’s not difficult to depict masturbation in YA books without heavy graphic detail. A good example of this is by Becky Albertalli in Simon v the Homo Sapiens Agenda in which the MC, Simon, fantasises about his mysterious pen pal, Blue:
I picture it. He kisses me…There’s this electric tingly feeling radiating through my whole body and my brain has gone fuzzy and I actually think I can hear my heartbeat.
I have to be so, so quiet. Nora’s on the other side of the wall.
His tongue is in my mouth. His hands slide up under my shirt, and he trails his fingers across my chest. I’m so close. It’s almost unbearable. God. Blue.
My whole body turns to jelly.
Again, it’s important that these scenes are contextualised within the broader novel. Is it helping us to understand the depth of one character’s attraction to another? Is a character trying to get a sense of their body before taking things further with a partner (e.g. Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Daria Snadowsky) or perhaps it’s a coming of age moment? It would be great to see more positive depictions of this in YA stories, especially for girls as their sexual gratification and language surrounding their anatomy is absent far more often than boys.
The representation of sex in YA books is a complex and diverse topic, and I could easily talk about it for far longer than this. There are so many other elements beyond what I’ve mentioned here – communication between characters about sexual experience, how characters of different sexualities play into representation, virgin/slut shaming, just to name a few!
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not advocating for all YA books to throw in sexual content. There is always a time and a place for it. But just as we need books under this classification which don’t have any sexual content at all, it’s also important that readers have the option to read books which do. Of those, it’s equally key that authors ensure sex is being represented in a meaningful, relatable and realistic way. Based on some of the issues I’ve talked about, there are still a few things young adult books could change or include to better achieve this.
What are your thoughts on the representation of sex in young adult books? It’s completely fine if you disagree with me entirely!
Have you read any YA books with good sexual representation?
Just in case you were interested in reading more on this topic, here are a few of the materials which assisted me with this post:
- The V-Word: True Stories about First-Time Sex (2016), edited by Amber J. Keyser – ‘The Power of the Story: A Conversation between Kelly Jenson and Amber Keyser’