There is something in the air tonight! No idea if it’s a coincidence, but in my blog browsing this week, I came across three posts on the topic of sex in YA literature. Yowsa! Great topic on the heels of Banned Books Week since, as I’m sure nobody would be surprised to know, sexual content is the number one reason books are challenged. This is a tricky one for me because I have a soon-to-be thirteen year old daughter who loves to read, and is just about to jump in to the world of YA literature with both feet. Needless to say, the thought of explicit sex scenes (okay, sorry, let’s be real—right now, ANY sex scenes) in the books she reads makes me cringe and get all jittery. But that is my own issue!
Sex is a reality for teens and young adults; whether they are doing it, wondering about it, or being forbidden from engaging in it—sex is there, like a big giant elephant in the room, and I cannot pretend it isn’t. While it is not an author’s job to parent my children, it IS the job of an author to write the most honest version of their story that they can, with authentic and relatable characters. This authenticity, the fabric of good YA literature, has its origin in real teens all around us. They come from every different value system imaginable, and their sexual experiences range from none at all to the full kit and kaboodle. As such, all of these teens are fair game as inspiration for writers, as are their variety of experiences. So whether I like it or not, sex has a place in YA books because it has a place (of some sort or other) in teenagers’ lives.
That being said, it is a fact for authors that adding sexual authenticity to their work is controversial. If they choose to include such content, the marketability of their books becomes more limited. Book fairs, school libraries, book clubs, etc., may opt not to purchase their work. Teachers may opt not to teach the book in class. Judy Blume gave a talk recently about the difficult decision she had to make about including controversial material in Here’s To You, Rachel Robinson (to be fair, her dilemma was regarding language, not sex, but the same concept applies). She was forced to choose between what she felt was the most honest portrayal of her character, and the various marketing outlets that she might be sacrificing by including something that a mainstream audience might find offensive. She is Judy Blume—we know which way she chose!
If I accept the fact that sex in YA books is inevitable (grumble) and honest, can I go one step further and just throw out a few thoughts about how I’d like to see it portrayed? Teens are looking for characters they can relate to or experiences they can learn from. How about letting them know that it’s not always “romance novel” perfect and can frankly be quite awkward! Perhaps the author could also make sure to touch on the social and emotional issues and consequences that surround sex. And above all, don’t make it gratuitous or use it as a vehicle to sell more books to my kid! We are surrounded by enough of that already. I read a great book this week where the father and son had an embarrassing and cringe-worthy “talk”, but the father managed to get his message across about birth control, disease protection and the fact that “no” always means “no”. Now THAT was some good reality!
As always, book selection comes down to choice. Some authors will write about sex, some will not. Some publishers will publish books with sexual content and some will not. Some kids will read books that touch on this topic, and some will not. As long as there are options and variety out there, I am happy. And while I’m quite certain the amount of sex in the books my daughter will read will always be pushing the limits of my comfort zone (because part of the mom in me wants to deny that she is getting older!), I hope that I can continue to maintain an open dialog with her on the topic. I hope that will influence her choices far more than what she reads.
Then again, I’ve never parented a teen before. What do you think?