Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sex in YA

The other day I was perusing Amazon reviews (yeah, procrastination leads to useless wanderings) and I found a rather interesting discussion about sex in YA. In short, the reviewer didn't object to the presence of sex in young adult books; rather, she objected to the lack of consequences for sexual behavior. The book in question involves a female protagonist losing her virginity. The reviewer seemed to feel that as a teen, this girl should suffer from an unplanned pregnancy, an STD (despite condom use), or emotional distress, so as to impart the "sex is bad" message to readers.

I found this an interesting and somewhat strange perspective, and I decided to have a look around to see what other YA authors had to say. This is a quote from Sarah Ockler, author of TWENTY BOY SUMMER:

"Not every teen who has sex or experiments with drinking feels remorseful about it. Not every teen who has sex gets pregnant, gets someone pregnant, or contracts an STD. Not every teen who has sex does so while in a serious relationship. Not every teen who has sex outside of a relationship feels guilty, shameful, or regretful later on."

I'm still a teenager, and I'd say this quote applies to 95% of my teenaged friends. Most of them have had sex. Some became sexually active as early as freshman year, although late sophomore/early junior year seems to be the norm. None of my friends have ever been pregnant or contracted an STD. And, having spent a great deal of time talking with said friends about sex and relationships (hey, we're girls, it's what we do), I can confidently say that none of them regret their decision to become sexually active. Of course, I'm not claiming this is true for all teenagers. There are plenty of teens out there who probably regret having sex early in life, or who end up pregnant/infected. But in my experience, there are also teens who have satisfying, safe, and healthy sex lives. (Side note: my friends are all very self-confident people, which makes a huge difference when it comes to sex, because self-confident girls are less likely to have sex solely because of peer pressure.)

And as Sarah said, those teens don't necessarily feel shame. I think this is a hard thing for adults to accept, because we want children to remain innocent for as long as possible. But it's reality. Teens have sex, and sex, even at a young age, can have positive consequences as well as negative. I have friends who are in long-term relationships (5+ years). Sex is not detrimental to their emotional or physical well-being; on the contrary, sex enhances their relationships, and it's an important part of romantic intimacy.

There are people out there who believe (usually for religious reasons) that sex should only occur between a husband and wife. I completely understand this sentiment. I can respect such a belief, even if I don't necessarily hold it myself. So the real question is, what gives us the right (as authors) to shame teenagers who've made such decisions? Is it really our job to preach about whether or not teenaged sex is bad? Teens are smart, and we can tell when we're being preached to. Oftentimes, authors who try to insert morals into their stories come across as unprofessional, unsubtle, and just plain annoying.

For me, the key is separating your character's thoughts and feelings from your own. In other words, don't make your characters feel shame because you think they SHOULD feel shame. You have to get inside your protagonist's head. Would this distinctly unique, flawed character feel bad about having sex? Put your own ideas aside and try to see it from their point of view. If I'm writing about a character who grew up in a small conservative town, where her parents impressed upon her the importance of chastity, she would probably feel guilty about having sex as a teen. Shame isn't the message I personally want to send, but as the author I feel it's my job to forget about "messages" and write a story that's organic for the characters. And if one of my teenaged characters decides to have sex, I'm not going to "punish" them with pregnancy or an STD or emotional damage just to please parents. That being said, all actions should have consequences. If your story includes sex, there should be a reason. But those consequences (positive or negative) need to be natural for the established character.

And it's certainly true that not all teens have sex. Some choose to wait simply because they don't feel ready. My point is, whether or not your teenaged character has sex (and how he/she feels afterwards) should be determined not by your own personal beliefs but by the beliefs of your character.

When I read books, I want stories that are realistic. I don't care about the author's personal views; I care about believable characters, a strong plot, and authenticity, qualities I attempt to emulate in my own writing.


  1. I'm one of those people who religiously believe you can have sex only between husband and wife, but this is a good post. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I'm probably less concerned about the consequences-for-sex angle as I am about consequences for actions and decisions period. I've read, or tried to read, a book or two where decisions didn't seem to have any bearing on anything, no consequences, just a sort of passive floating along. Even if the teen who has sex doesn't have regrets, get pregnant or contract a disease, I would at least expect for the sex to have some kind of impact on some part of them. Otherwise, not much to enjoy in the story.

  3. In my experience, and among my group of friends in high school, several (not all) of the girls who said they weren't ashamed/embarrassed/regretful about a one-night stand or sexual encounter really were but thought they had to act nonchalant. One of my friends opened up to me three YEARS later to tell me how depressed she'd been after a pretty horrific experience (I had no idea, she hid it so well). So, my guess is that even among the most open-minded, level-headed teens, SOME will feel a pinch of remorse, etc. about a sexual encounter. It's our insecurities and darkest feelings that we don't share when dishing with our girlfriends that might need to go on the pages of a book so that teens don't feel alone.

  4. Thanks for this post. It's good to get inside a true teen mind. I don't read books to be preached to either.

    For me I don't want YA to have graphic sex, but sex in general-I'm fine with it. And boy am I uber-aware that sex rarely equals baby.

  5. I want to point out something that is commonly overlooked:

    There are also teens who DO NOT have sex. I was a teenaged virgin, I waited until my wedding night. I do not regret it, and as a teen I didn't feel as though I was doing something weird and/or wrong by NOT having sex.

    This means that virginal teens are ALSO realistic. Teens who abstain for religious reasons or out of personal preference. Those teens are real and characters and stories who reflect those choice are realistic.

    And I knew teens who had sex and DID have negative consequences. Pregnancies, pregnancy scares, abortions, sexual abuse (they found it very hard to say "no" after they had said "yes" previously) and STDs- not to mention CRAZY emotional consequences. Yes, some of them had only positive experiences, but many did not. One of my very dear friends is barren as a result of an STD she contracted at the age of fifteen after her long-time boyfriend cheated on her. She had no idea the long-term consequences of her actions; they were positive for a while, kind of negative, then positive again. Only years later did she realize just exactly what had happened.

    Books telling those stories are ALSO realistic.

    Maybe people who are calling for more "realistic" sex in YA ought to check their perceptions and understand that "realistic" is not narrowly defined, whether for "good" or for "bad."

    1. I agree with that. People who say "virginal/abstinent teens aren't realistic" annoy me just as much as people who complain that teens in books are having too much sex.

  6. Yes! I totally agree. I love this post, it's got me thinking. I'll probably be chewing on this all day.

  7. For me, as long as teens are at least *aware* of the consequences of sex, and take steps to avoid them -- contraception, being responsible, etc. -- I don't mind.

  8. One of the biggest challenges of writing, I believe, is letting your characters be honest characters (not you or your moral ideals), yet write a story that you, with whatever value system you have, can live with. Once it's published, it's out there and you can't take it back. So don't write about a subject you can't let your characters be totally honest about, because it will ring false for the reader. But I do believe you should write about issues you feel strongly about, just don't be preachy about it, and let your characters be real people in that world.

  9. Again, a very well written post on a controversial topic. I think all authors should do as much as they can to get out of the way of their characters and let them act authentically. That said, the characters an author works with will likely be conceived out of some portion of our inner-selves, and so some authors simply do not have the tools to show, in an authentic way, why having sex as a teen might be something good and desirable. But to be preachy about such things, and to only look at them on the surface, is...lame. (Only word I got coming to my mind right now.)

    But one of the things I love about writing, and particularly writing fiction, is it forces me to look at things I've always accepted at face value, and really dig down to the bones of the issue and gain true understanding by looking at it from different points-of-view. Sometimes what I find surprises me.