Monday, June 18, 2012

Sex in YA Books

 This topic has come up many, many times on many, many blogs. It has also come up on Twitter and Facebook and Goodreads and who knows what other social networking sites. And every time, I give my opinion.

Frankly, it's getting to the point where I just need a blog post that I can link to and say, "Here. This is what I think about this subject."


Here. This is what I think about this subject:

I feel that sex in YA books is pretty much the same as it is in adult books. That is, I feel like it belongs there so long as it is an actual, functioning part of the story.

I assume that pretty much everybody is having sex. And remember, I'm writing stories for the LDS (clean-cut Christian) romance market. If my characters aren't having sex, they will. Eventually. I also know that this whole no-sex-before-marriage thing is pretty unique and the majority of people over the age of seventeen are having sex, at least intermittently.

I also assume that pretty much everybody ate dinner last night.

I also assume that pretty much everybody cleans their bathroom, at least intermittently.

But I don't need to read about it. If it isn't moving the story forward, I don't need to read about it. Period.

I've never read a book in which a good bathroom-cleaning scene was laid out in excruciating detail. And dinner is rarely discussed for its own sake, it's usually the conversation being had over dinner that takes center stage. Why, then, do authors put so much sex in their books, even when it doesn't move the story forward?

Because it's exciting. Duh.

It piques a reader's interest. It gets a sixteen year old to feel like she's reading something "naughty" and keeps her turning the pages. It lets bored housewives explore a taboo that they wouldn't have otherwise tapped into (I'm looking at you, 50 Shades of Grey) (clarification: I'm talking about you, 50 Shades of Grey. Not looking. Not reading. Not ever.)

It's a cheap way of keeping the pages turning without actually doing a whole lot of work to create good characters, stories or worlds.


There are times when sex (or violence, or language, or substance use/abuse) actually does matter to the story. A girl gets pregnant... there was obviously a preceding act. We need to know about it. Consensual? Not? Safe? Not? Committed, loving partner? Not? Now, that doesn't mean that I need to read all the gritty details. Knowing what order she touched what body parts and how it made him feel at the time makes NO difference to the story (that's the cheap ploy rearing its ugly head again). However, knowing why the sex happened, how it makes her feel afterward and what it means to both partners? THAT MATTERS.

I also think it needs to make sense for the characters. To use a ridiculous, well-known hypothetical, let's look at Hermione Granger. She didn't have sex with Viktor Krum. Even if no sex was detailed on the pages of Harry Potter (and we assume that at least a good percentage of the over-seventeen-crowd was having sex), we would know that Hermione did not have sex with Krum. It just doesn't make sense- it would be at odds with her character. She's careful, deliberate and level-headed. She's dating Krum for two reasons: 90% to make Ron jealous, and 10% because it's a little exciting to be the object of a superstar's affections, regardless of how fleeting she knows it is. Neither of those purposes are served by her having sex with him.

The reasons for sex need to make sense for the characters, regardless of age. The type of sex- consensual, protected, etc- needs to make sense (if Hermione and Ron start going at it, they are going to be safe about it, because that's who Hermione is: she isn't an unnecessary risk-taker. Pansy Parkinson might let Malfoy get away with not putting on a condom because she is obsessed with him in an unhealthy way.).

The consequences- for good or for bad- need to make sense for the characters. And the way they deal with those consequences needs to make sense. It needs to be true to the characters, the situation, the time, the world, everything. Yes, that means that sometimes there will be negative consequences. Sex results in babies and STDs (despite protection, often), regardless of age, race or anything else. Sex also results in EMOTIONS. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but almost always complicated. If these aren't addressed, it's obvious. And I'm a little flabbergasted by the number of characters in books who are having sex and aren't having ANY consequences of any kind, honestly.
Again, this applies to YA and adult books, and can be applied just as broadly to violence and substance use/abuse, too. I am not one for pretending that the world is all squeaky-clean sunshine and rainbows, but I do firmly believe that these things need to have a reason to be in your story.

Other wise it's just another cheap trick.

What do you think? 


  1. I am one hundred percent with you there. As much as I enjoy reading a bit of smut from time to time, I really do think it's out of place in most contemporary literature. The only time I consider it entirely acceptable is when it's for the reasons you mention - story and character progression. As someone who doesn't enjoy romance romance (you know what I mean, with all the hearts and flowers and a dozen red roses) the idea of reading a scene filled with tender touches and I love yous just makes me want to puke.

    I am however, fully okay with sex in books if it's demonstrating the unhealthy or otherwise unconventional relationship between characters. The novel that I am currently working on contains such scenes and, although it never goes into detail *cough*fiftyshades*cough* it's certainly not chaste.

    The bottom line? Give me two hundred pages of UST over a bit of porn any day.

  2. I love this post because no one ever blogs about this kinda stuff. I FULLY agree. Even with the lack of consequences and abundance of sex....what the hell does it HAVE to be there for anyway? All the books that tugged on my heartstrings the most when I was a teenager were the ones that left so much up to the imagination in terms of physical intimacy that I could practically obsess over them and the anticipation, which is something so few people seem to appreciate in their media lately!

  3. I think you're dead on.

  4. So I'm not for graphic sex in YA lit, but I think having sex occur (without icky description) is a necessity. I would much rather read about two 16 year olds who had sex rather than 100 pages of Twilight abstinence porn. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE me some sexual tension (hello Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy!), but I think that by acknowledging that teens have sex, it makes the story real, because it's not just the over 17 crowd having sex, it's the under 17 crowd too, as much as I hate to admit it or think about it.

  5. I only used 17 as a number because it's the average age for Americans to start having sex voluntarily (i.e. fifteen year old rape victims are not a part of that statistic). According to the same research, only 13% of fifteen year olds have had sex, so it felt genuine to recognize that it is almost exclusively older teens having sex, though I obviously acknowledge that it happens younger for some.

    And, again, I only think it's necessary when it matters. YA romance? Yeah, it probably matters a great deal. Sex affects their emotions toward each other, at the very least.

    But in something like Harry Potter? Totally unnecessary. The "romance" (such as it was) was so secondary... no... not even secondary... it was, like, tertiary to the main plot that sex would have been a distraction from the storyline. I'm glad that Rowling didn't put it in.

  6. And this is how I feel about sex in ALL stories. The fact that it occurred, the reactions, the consequences are all relevant. But a blow-by-blow description of the act itself? Almost ALWAYS unnecessary. (The exception to this was brought up by somebody who mentioned that sometimes the way a couple has sex might be more indicative of their relationship and/or problems than anything else. Which I don't completely buy, but it's worth considering.)

  7. 100%

    I don't have a problem with sex in YA, but (as you said) it needs to fit the scope of the plot. Sex for sex's sake is tired, irritating and kind of cheap.

    Great post! :)

  8. Thanks for your perspective. I am one for not having detailed descriptions of sex scenes in ANY book. Sorry, but it isn't necessary (in my opinion--a conservative one). I recently read the book Goddess Interrupted. There is a scene in the book where it eludes to sex, but does not go into major detail. You know where it's going. They kiss, his hand rests on her stomach, they speak sweets words to each other, and then the scene ends. I knew what they did (have sex), but it wasn't laid out there for me to read play by play. That is when I think sex used in books is tender and sweet. Not all about lust and carnal desire. Does this make sense?
    I 100% agree with you about not having sex in a book just for the sake of having a steamy scene to pique interest. That is only deminishing the book and haltling the plot. If any scene, be it a sex scene or, well, anything doesn't push the plot forward, IT SHOULD NOT BE IN THE BOOK! Period.

  9. I don't think your opinion is all that different or more conservative than mine. The Goddess Test was a good example of what I consider "appropriate" sex in a YA book (with the same set of standards applying to adult novels, in my opinion). The sex moved the story forward. I know exactly what they were doing, there was no mystery about what happened, and the sex made sense within the context of their relationship with each other. At the same time, it wasn't graphic or explicit or anything like that. I haven't read Goddess, Interrupted, but I would imagine the style of writing and handling of the situation would be similar.

    Beyond that, however, my personal tastes would much prefer sex to be tender and sweet or based in romance and love, rather than completely lustful or based in manipulation, power, or violence (though I acknowledge that those negative kind of relationships often make for a more interesting story).

  10. This reminds me of the Private series. I skimmed the first book last summer, and the 15-year-old main character loses her virginity to a new boyfriend. No emotions are explored during the scene. Afterward, her emotional response amounted to: "It's gone. My virginity." And that's it. That's all there was to it. I was so frustrated, because regardless of whether the consequences are positive or negative, she's going to have some sort of emotional reaction in this situation.

    Great post!

  11. I see no problem with sex in YA, provided it fulfills the conditions you lay out. One really good example is The DUFF by Kody Keplinger. While it's not super explicit, it does a great job examining the reasons the MC is having seemingly meaningless sex - the MC is aware she's just using the guy to feel good about herself, which might not necessarily be healthy. I really wish there were more books like that out there - I feel like teens need to see that these decisions come with consequences and emotions, and that's not really an aspect that's brought up in school (assuming the school has a comprehensive sex ed program to begin with, but that's a whole other can of worms).

  12. Yup. Every time I write a scene, I ask myself, "is this scene going exactly as the reader assumed it would?" If yes, I skip over it or summarize it. It's a great way to gauge how much romance to include in a scene. If the reader can correctly assume that things are going to be mind-blowingly awesome or horrific and non-consensual, there's no reason to write the whole thing out. Now, if the reader predicts that things are going to be awesome and then, SURPRISE, it turns into a non-consensual nightmare, then yes, we need to be there. In my current WIP, I have a wife who loathes her husband, so she (and the reader) assume bedtime will be a flop. But, surprise, hatred is its own form of intimacy--a very confusing one. I include the scenes where this is discovered, but once the twisted passion is established, it's all "fade to black." You only depict change, and that change should be surprising.

    One good example of this is in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. There is one sex scene, if it can be called that. It's so important for the reader to understand what exactly goes down each time the MC participates in "the ceremony." Was it surprising? Yes. Did it establish surprising facets of each character involved? Heck yes. It's not the last time that sex happens within the story, but after that first scene, sex is just alluded to and summarized. The character relationships have been established, the plot points made. Less would strip the story. More would only sensationalize it. Perfect balance.

  13. And just putting this out there, it seemed pretty obvious to me that when Katniss was crawling into Peeta's bed they were having sex (at least eventually--it's mentioned several times). I think we all know, because we know their characters, exactly how that would have gone. That said, Suzanne Collins leaves that assumption up to the reader, which is brilliant for YA. More mature readers will imagine a more mature relationship, while younger readers might imagine them snuggling. I just love the amount of freedom Collins left for the reader.

  14. That's interesting. I actually think they didn't have sex because of Katniss' characterization. She's hellbent on not having kids, and seemed pretty savvy about what brought kids into the world. I do assume there was more than cuddling happening, but since romance wasn't actually the theme of the book, it didn't need to be discussed.

  15. Agree. I've said it in other places, on other topics, but it applies here, too: If your readers can make the leap themselves, don't hold their hand through it. It comes off as pedantic.

    (The obvious exception to this is a genre like category romance or erotica, where sex is the name of the game and the only reason anybody is even reading the book)

  16. Those are good points. I'm not convinced I'm right about my assumption. Although I imagine access to all the Capitol's goods meant access to birth control. I'm aware I'm roaming around in my own head canon when I say that. I feel the function of Katniss' pillow-sharing would have been the same either way. That is, that Katniss shared a bed with Peeta for comfort. I wish there was a stronger word for that, because there was a depth in the way they relied on each other. Anyway, I agree that what form that comfort took remains unimportant (although fun to discuss.)

  17. I'm not convinced I'm right either. The easy access to birth control as one of the Capitol's pets makes sense, and fits the world. And that's sort of the beauty of the way she handled it; the reader fills in whatever is right for their worldview. Whatever validates you, that's what happened. It's not important to the story, so it isn't there, for better or for worse.