Sex in YA

WARNING: Contentious topic ahead.

I sometimes get stymied on what I should write for PubCrawl. A writing topic? A publishing topic? A something other topic? When I’m stuck, I often put out a call on Twitter, and thankfully, Twiter came through for me yet again.

What about writing sex in YA?

Megan

What about writing sex in YA indeed? Can you write it? How much can you write? What’s considered appropriate? Is there something that distinguishes writing sex in YA from any other category?

The short answers are: Yes. That depends. That also depends. Yes.

So, as you can see, this might need a little unpacking.

Can you write sex in YA?

Of course you can. There are plenty of YA novels that feature characters and protagonists having sex, most famously Forever by Judy Blume. But I think a lot of the hesitation surrounding sex in YA is due to its complicated relationship with “children’s fiction”, and the pressure many face to write something “clean”.1

Although the majority of YA readers are older teens and adults, YA is still published by children’s imprints, which covers everything from board books, picture books, middle grade, and young adult. YA titles are generally marketed 12+, or sometimes 14+, depending on the content.

As you can see, some people might be hesitant to write about sex for a potential audience of twelve-year-olds.

But I’ve always been of the opinion that you write what is necessary for your own story, and let the market find itself. Children are remarkably good at self-selecting what they’re ready for and what they’re not. And while many children “read up” (i.e. reading about protagonists older than their age), there’s a difference between fiction about 14 year olds targeting a middle grade audience, and fiction about 14 year olds targeting a young adult audience. That difference is not only content, but tone.

When writing for a YA audience, you can absolutely cover the breadth of the teen experience, which includes sex. How sex is handled matters more than if sex is included at all.

How much sex in YA can you write?

Well, obviously erotica is right out. But if you are writing a sexually active teen, then you would tailor your story to include (or exclude) what is necessary. Maybe your character is question his or her sexuality by sleeping around. Maybe your character is looking to take his/her relationship with his/her partner to the next level. Maybe your character has had a history of sexual assault. These are all real concerns for teenagers, and therefore, it’s all appropriate for your book. “How much” does not have a quantifiable response; for some characters, sex may be more part of the narrative than others. For others, it may not be something they’re considering. Adult books are like this: sometimes sex is a large part of the story, sometimes it’s not.

What’s considered appropriate?

The question of “appropriateness” is different from reader to reader, writer to writer, and yes, publisher to publisher. In a romantic storyline between two consenting teenagers, it should be perfectly fine to have sex scenes between the two, but in a book about sex trafficking like Elizabeth Scott’s Living Dead Girlit’s would not be appropriate.2 The level of comfort will vary from person to person, so again, I urge you to be true to your work.

Is there something that distinguishes writing sex in YA from any other category?

Yes.

So…full disclosure, when I first queried Wintersong, I queried it as a YA novel. It is not being published as a young adult title; it is being published as an adult fantasy novel. This was not necessarily wholly my decision, although I support it wholeheartedly. My agent thought that the writing and tone of my book lent itself to an adult title rather than a teen one, and when we went out on submission, we went out to adult imprints, not children’s.

It wasn’t an easy submission process for Wintersong; we received a lot of rejections because the publishers couldn’t neatly categorize my book as romance, fantasy, literary, etc.—the “neither fish nor fowl” problem. You would think that a Labyrinth-inspired historical love story would be easy to package, but it’s not (for many reasons, but we can discuss that at a later date). Had my agent and I gotten no bites in our first round of submission, it’s likely we would have discussed editing my book for a young adult audience.

What would that entail? In my case, it would likely have involved me scaling back the sexy bits. I’ve joked that Wintersong was titled 50 Shades of Labyrinth when I was drafting it. It’s both a joke and not; I set out to write something sexy and erotic when I first started writing. (Whether or not I succeeded is another matter.) But it’s not the sexual content itself that would have had to been scaled back; it’s the way in which the sexual scenes are written.

The biggest difference between writing sex in YA and any other category is the question of explicitness. You certainly have sex on the page in YA, but a lot of times the language is more figurative (with attendant vagueness about body parts doing what and going where), and the focus of the sex scene in YA is more on the emotions than the physicality of the act.

Why? There is no real good answer, to be honest. I believe part of it is some last lingering bits of prudishness that cling to the label due to YA’s inclusion in children’s publishing. And some of it may be due to accepted tropes. A certain amount of “longing” has become part of the YA category, a sort of fierce infatuation and intensity that encompasses and even sometimes transcends physical attraction. As YA developed into its own distinct category in children’s publishing, emotional immediacy became one of its most noticeable and defining characteristics. This may account for why sex scenes in YA are focused on the emotions rather than the physicality of it.

So those are my thoughts! What do you guys think? Sex in YA: appropriate? Do you think there’s a difference between how it’s written in the category compared to adult titles? Sound off in the comments!

Other resources:
  1. For selection into the Scholastic Book Club, for example, the criteria is often minimal swearing, no sex, appropriate levels of violence. There are obviously exceptions to this rule; often New York Times bestselling authors will get their books into the Scholastic Book Club on the strength of their name and popularity, even if the book is very violent or has a lot of sex and/or swearing.
  2. Although I would argue it’s not really ever appropriate to have graphic rape scenes, regardless of category or genre.

8 Responses to Sex in YA

  1. Nicola Feb 8 2016 at 7:42 am #

    This is a topic I have a lot of mixed feelings about; on the one hand, I remember quite clearly being a teenager who was very uncomfortable with the explicit sex in some of the adult fiction I read at school, but on the other, I’m well aware that my experiences do not reflect many teens’ and I am not in favour of censoring normal teenage experiences in fiction written for teenagers. I think YA should reflect the breadth of teenage experience, and therefore there should be YA books with no sex or romance at all, as well as those where sex plays a major role. I don’t think sex should be treated as taboo, but I also know from first-hand experience that there are teens who are just not ready for explicit sex in their books.

    Ultimately, I do think explicit sex has a place in YA, but that sexual representations should reflect the overall tone of the story and the weight the narrative places on sex and sexuality. For instance, when the protagonist and her love interest profess their love for each other in the third act of the final book in a thus-far chaste fantasy trilogy I think the emotional route you describe is more fitting. On the other hand, I don’t see anything wrong with explicit sex in, say, a story about a couple who are considering taking their relationship further sexually and are making out in the opening scene.

  2. Kim Graff Feb 8 2016 at 9:32 am #

    This is a really interesting article, thank you for it! I agree that sex has a place in YA—but not erotica level (and a serious no to any graphic rape scenes in annnny genre/marketplace). I get why some people think sex is a big no-no, but like you said, kids do a good job of deciding what they are ready to read and what they aren’t. And, truthfully, if a kid wants to read something with sex they’ll just pick up an adult book anyway (I know I did when I was a teenager, my uncle unwittingly gave me a box set of the Sookie vampire series when I was a teen one year for Xmas).

    To hide sex in YA is to deny that it happens when you’re a teenager, which isn’t true. I’d much rather read the truth in fiction, experience the fallout of bad decisions in a novel, than have had to experience it in my own life. And I think the same is true for a lot of people.

  3. Laurie Feb 8 2016 at 11:02 am #

    I fall into the prude category, although I realize to keep sex out of all YA novels would not be a reflection of reality. So if more YA novels are coming out with sex scenes, then as a reader (and as a mother of tweens), I would love to see somewhere on the book cover–be it front, back, or spine–the level of sexual content I should expect to encounter. And let’s not forget that just because society paints the picture that everyone is doing it…not everyone is truly doing it. Hopefully the pendulum won’t completely swing the other way, causing people to turn their noses up at those YA novels that depict two teenagers choosing to abstain. 🙂

  4. Leslie Tall Manning Feb 8 2016 at 12:02 pm #

    I am new to this forum and had no idea I’d respond to an article so soon. But this topic is not only relevant in my own writing, but in all writing today.

    As an older writer (52) I have written five young adult and five adult books. Of course, whenever you are dealing with relationship issues in any story, sex should come up–organically. To me it is just like cussing: if every character cusses all the time, it wears on the reader. Same with sex. I believe these scenes should be written simply. Sex does not have to be graphic. Some of the most “sexy” love scenes in books and movies are those that hold back…that let the kiss linger…create hands that move slowly, gently…it’s all about the sweetness of the moment. As for graphic, I don’t need to see the toilet paper after someone has wiped, so I don’t need to see the details of every nook and cranny during sex. Seriously. I can see that all day long on Internet porn if I want, and so can teenagers. If a sex scene doesn’t move the story forward (as every scene should), if it’s just thrown in to add shock value, then you are wasting my time and ultimately my money.

    My latest book I have written for 14 and up. It mentions sex, pot, and alcohol, but none of these are in your face. I basically used television’s “For viewers 14 and up” motto. If it can’t be shown on television for this age group then I don’t go there. And I agree, there is a huge difference between 14 and 16 as far as books go. A book I wrote a few years back that is slated for this summer doesn’t even have any boys in it. And that’s the one my reviewers have loved the most. As writers we have a responsibility to tell a realistic story…while at the same time remember who our readers are.

    Books like “House on Mango Street” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Forever” are popular YA books, not only because they deal with current sexual issues (among other important themes), but because they hit our heartstrings. And that is really the ultimate goal of YA writing: to move the reader.

    If you want to write about sex, that’s totally fine. Just find a way to make it appear natural and necessary. Anyone can write a graphic sex scene. It takes a special hand to make the scene into a memorable moment. A moment that will stay with a reader long after she’s finished the book.

  5. JEN Feb 8 2016 at 1:17 pm #

    I know it’s “normal” for teens to experience sex, and frankly I think that’s so sad. Not only are they giving away something precious without commitment, they also are in danger of pregnancy. (I know, I know, safe sex, but you know that’s not 100%!)

    There are several teens (of different backgrounds) who practice abstinence until marriage, and I would love to see THOSE youth represented more in YA. How do they withstand their own hormones and societal pressures to have sex? And was it worth it? I want to read that book.

  6. Amy S. Feb 8 2016 at 8:55 pm #

    Obviously there are many opinions about sex in YA, but regardless of where one stands, I feel something that would be beneficial would be a sort of content advisory in YA (and younger) books, something sort of like a movie rating. It’s usually hard to know what the content of the book is just from pulling it off the bookshelf (unless it’s made obvious by the blurb), and it can sometimes be hard to even find the content info online. It would make it easier for those hoping to avoid certain content, and might be helpful for trigger warnings as well.

  7. Rowenna Feb 9 2016 at 1:27 pm #

    I think we’re also in a weird “space” with sex in YA because any choice the author makes–which should be about the story s/he wants to tell–can end up with “statement” connotations. Include sex? Well, you’re pushing for edgier and more inclusive and “realistic” lit, aren’t you, you spunky writer (or dragging down society, you devil!)! Have characters who deliberately *don’t* engage in sex? Well, you’re making a statement about what you think teens “should” do, aren’t you, you prudish writer (or taking a stand, you saint!)! Sometimes when writers write, we write to tell a story…and that really is all we’re doing with it. My characters are doing it–or not–because that’s the story they’re living–or not. Not because I’m trying to “say” something!

    So even when the choices I make are driven by the story, there’s a nagging voice of “what will the perception be?” I’m trying to find ways to mitigate that. But yeah, a great topic to think about and explore!

  8. Andre Leneal Feb 24 2016 at 11:13 pm #

    I do find it problematic to describe rape and sexual assault, in a book about sex trafficking, as sex.

    I’m in mid-struggle because my YA sci-fi thriller has a Gay Romeo & Juliet component. Specifically, Queer Youth don’t tend to get their sexuality, libidos, or sexual practices acknowledged, let alone validated as their Straight or Cis Peers do.

    So I’ve felt compelled to affirm but shy regarding its approach. This was great for putting it into perspective.

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