I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the discussion about sex in YA will never end. Does it belong? Does it not? Does it have to be one way or another? How much detail can the author go into? Does sexuality influence depiction on the page? Should it? None of these questions are going to get answered right now, and the discussion is going to rage on, but I’d like to add my two cents: I don’t mind sex in YA. I just want it to be realistic. I write this as a long-time YA reader who read YA with and without sex before I myself was having sex, and read it afterwards. I think that one of the biggest issues that people have with the idea of “sex in YA” is the way it can often set young adults up for failure or confusion regarding sexuality.
When I talk about sex in YA, I usually use two examples from books that are pretty well known in the YA world: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon and A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J Maas. No, I’m not getting into a debate right now about whether Maas’ books should actually be New Adult or whatever, because the fact is they sit on YA shelves around the country, and that’s just how the cookie crumbled. Both of these books depict young female protagonists of roughly the same earthly age engaging in sex with a male character.But they result in teens feeling very differently about sex–whether they are sexually active at the time or not–and that’s my biggest problem with YA.
From A Court of Mist and Fury:
“Rhysand scooped me up in a smooth moment before laying me flat on the table–amongst and on top of all the paints.”
“The first lick of Rhysand’s tongue set me on fire.”
“I went over the edge again. And only when I was trembling, half sobbing, limp with pleasure, did Rhys rise from the floor.”
“I felt it then, the bond between us, like an unbreakable chain, like an undimmable ray of light.
With each pounding stroke, the bond glowed clearer and brighter and stronger.”
“Rhys roared as he came, slamming in to the hilt. Outside, the mountain trembled, the remaining snow rushing from them in a cascade of glittering white, only to be swallowed up by the waiting night below.”
From When Dimple Met Rishi:
“And…I want you now, Rishi. Now.” Dimple couldn’t believe the world actually left her mouth. Was this what lust was? Did it turn you into this brazen, dauntless person who asked for what she wanted in spite of usually being racked with social anxiety?
“This is between you and me. This is our decision. ”
“This moment felt both hard to believe and completely inevitable. If such a thing were possible.
They were each kneeling and facing the other now. Dimple’s eyes were wide, her lips slightly parted. ‘Do you have…?’
Rishi looked at her, waiting “Have?” and then realization dawned. She meant a condom. Rishi felt his face flush to match hers. “Yeah, I do.”
When she nodded, Rishi unbuttoned his shit, his fingers trembling slightly. It wasn’t that he was nervous for Dimple to see him unclothed. It was that this felt like a solid, intractable line they were crossing. There were no take-backs after sex; there was no way to undo how much deeper they were falling into it.”
“Her bones felt warm and flexible; her joints were held together with laughing gas. Everything felt brighter, shinier. And she didn’t care if that was a cliche.”
So, let’s talk about what we just read. And I write this as a woman who has had sex but was also that super awkward teenager who didn’t know what to expect. I definitely grew up along the time that saw the switch from “OMG your first time is going to be from hell it’ll hurt to bad” to “huh maybe we shouldn’t scare young women” but I think now we are moving, or perhaps should be moving towards, “hey, teens might choose to have sex. We should prepare them for what it might be like, and not let them worry that it isn’t fireworks and therefore they’re doing it wrong.”
For me, neither ACOMAF or Dimple are condemning women for being interested in sex, which is great. But, as someone who has had sex, Dimple rings so much more realistic. Losing your virginity is super weird, regardless of how “well prepared” you are for it. Having sex as a teenager is not going to be some Chapter 55 stuff, ya know? He’s not “sheathing himself” inside you. Give teens and young adults vocabulary they can actually work with in the real world, ya know?
As I write this, I know that there’s a large contingent of the internet that reads books like ACOMAF and other high fantasy books and thinks Chapter 55 is just the greatest thing and the sex is so great, etc etc. These are grown women, often with kids of their own. While yes, you can enjoy it, you also have to realize that it’s not written for you. Or at least, it isn’t written JUST for you. If it’s billed as YA, that means the primary audience is just that–young adults, and teens. If every author wrote their sex scenes in YA for the 45 year old lady getting off on it after dropping her kids off at school, where would we be as a society? Well I know where teens would be–woefully unprepared for what it’s actually like to be sexually active.
Don’t even get me started on #dicksoap and weirdos who sexualize fictional characters, especially those in YA novels. That’s an argument for another day, but just a reminder: “book boyfriends” that are teenagers when you’re a married middle-aged individual make teens super uncomfortable. If the entire fanbase of a “YA” novel is older women, maybe the book ISN’T REALLY FOR YOUNG ADULTS.
Romance novels have their place in the world, erotic too, whatever, but YA literature isn’t necessarily either of those. It’s hard enough to sell some people on the fact that YA should include sex because some teens are having sex, don’t make us work even harder by including sex that reads like a porno and is so unrealistic it is laugh out loud funny.
So what do I want? I want more female friends discussing sex, whether to have it, et cetera. If it’s on the page, I want to be realistic–fumbling, laughter, not knowing what the hell to do the first time. I want them to talk about birth control and condoms. I want them to talk about their worries, and voice their joy, and act like actual teens do when they have sex–they’re teens, not porn stars. Come on.