This post builds a little bit off a previous post about sex in literature, and also a little off my earlier series on how to define a YA Novel. It’s about a hot topic in the literary world right now: YA Lit and Sex.
I think that the topic is hot because YA Lit is increasingly prominent in our culture, and because sex in literature is as well. There’s also been a lot of talk lately about how dark YA Lit is becoming, but even with books like the Hunger Games series, which is held up as the ultimate symbol (if not the only one) of dark writing for kids, sex isn’t often something that comes up. At least, I assume; I figure I’d have heard about it by now if all the starving kids were also having sex. And, in part, publishers are realising that literature aimed at young adults isn’t just being bought by young adults. They’re now working to satisfy the adult desire for something a little steamier. There are a lot of great reasons for adults to read YA; I personally used to pluck random YA novels off the shelf during exam time in college, because they were easy on the brain and could be read quickly.
But, yes. For all of these reasons and others, as well, sex in YA Lit is becoming a forefront discussion.
Sex was an issue I faced when I was writing fanfic, especially Stealing Harry and Laocoon’s Children, two stories that rewrote the Harry Potter novels within an alternate universe. Because I was writing fanfic and not trying to sell anything to children, I had more latitude than a pro-published writer would; I was already including sex scenes between adults even when I was writing about Harry Potter as an eight year old. But as the kids I was writing about got older, I wanted to reflect what everloving horndogs a lot of kids are in their teens. So I was glancing off the idea of teens engaging in romantic and sexual situations; I didn’t want to write kiddie porn but I did want to be honest about how teens behave. I lost my virginity in high school; presumably it wasn’t unlikely that a tightly-knit group of friends would have similar experiences. It’s not that I feel kids ought to, it’s just that I feel like whether or not they ought to, a lot do.
I never got there, because that story fell by the wayside, but it has stayed with me, the idea that people in their teens do have sexual urges and sexual encounters. It’s a tricky place to go, because most writers (quite rightly) don’t want to use underage people as devices for sexual titillation, and more importantly they don’t want to be accused of doing it whether or not that was their intent. And I don’t want to add to the weird societal pressures surrounding sex, the conflicting “Have sex now or you’re abnormal!” and “SEX ISN’T SUPPOSED TO BE FUN, IT’S A SIN.”
I believe that people shouldn’t be ashamed of having sex, of choosing their partners and the number of their partners, as long as said partners are consenting and capable of consent. I believe people should be told that they’re supposed to enjoy the sex they have, and if they aren’t, they should be encouraged to stop what they’re doing and seek alternatives, be that different partners or different kinds of sex or no sex at all. And one of the things I discovered while exploring the nature of YA Literature is that it is predominantly about adults who have a message they want to convey to young people — like what we think about sex and how we deal with it as adults.
There’s a fantastic quote by a fellow WordPresser, fozmeadows, discussing adolescent sex in YA:
Sex/y scenes in YA matter because YA novels aren’t contraband. It’s not like sneaking a glance at the late night movie, then frantically switching channels when your parents inevitably walk in during the naked bits, or covertly trying to hide a Mills and Boon under your bed, or having to clear your browser history and check that the door’s locked if you want to look at porn or read slashfic on the internet. You can read YA novels openly – on the bus, at school, at home – and never have to worry that someone’s going to find your behaviour suspicious. Sex/y scenes in YA matter because, by the very nature of belonging to a permitted form of media, they help to disassociate sex from surreptitious secrecy: they make it something open rather than furtive, something that rightfully belongs to you, the reader, because the book was meant for you to read and remember.
Fozmeadows is speaking primarily about the way young women are treated both in the world of YA lit and within the books that compose it, which is entirely appropriate given, well, how young women are frequently treated in YA Lit. But it has a broader application as well: the idea that imbuing the concept of sex into a YA book automatically gives the reader just a little more agency and ownership than they had previously.
It doesn’t matter if the scene is detailed or not, if it’s only fiery kisses or much, much more: the point is that you’re allowed to have it, allowed to enjoy it, and that perhaps for the first time in your life, you’re viewing something arousing that doesn’t make you out to be a sex object in heels, but an active, interesting heroine who also happens to have a love life.
It’s true, too — even books that discuss teens committing complicated crimes in an adult world, like the Heist Society series, shy away from teens committing sexual acts. What really hit home for me about that second half of the quote, however, is the concept of not putting an actual sex act into the book: not having to write explicit sex between underage partners — just the legitimate, unflinching potential for sex to occur, or the mention of it happening. Even the desire for it to happen unhampered by the usual “am I ready?” self-flagellating self-examination that media aimed at teens generally includes (almost exclusively with the eventual answer of “No” at the end) would be refreshing. And Fozmeadows is right: it is enough to show readers that they get to control what happens to their bodies and when, without necessarily baring everything.
I think this is important because even authors writing for adult audiences have trouble with sex scenes, as I talked about last week. So understanding that sex in literature is something that people look for and something that can positively influence the way young people see their sexuality (and those of others) is important. But it’s just as important for writers to know that there is space between “never talking about it” and “explicit sexual description” — that wanting sex and experiencing desire can be just as important as the sex that actually happens. It’s not just teenagers who could use a higher comfort level with discussions of sex and sexuality, after all.