Certain folks are uncomfortable with books aimed at teenagers depicting them thinking about or, even worse, having sex.

Problem is many many teenagers think about sex. Quite a lot of the time. And way more of them have sex than most people are comfortable with. In the US of A a rather large percentage of teenage girls wind up pregnant. Last time I looked it was a bigger percentage than any other first world country.

Yet the US of A is the first world country most concerned about books that address these issues. More books are banned here than anywhere else in the western world. And a fair few of them are banned for “inappropriate content” which often enough boils down to sex.

This is the great dilemma of writing for teenagers: the tension between writing to reflect teenage experience or writing to be instructive and good for teenagers. I think teen books that don’t touch on sex in some way are fundamentally dishonest to the experience of being a teenager.

Afterall, even those teens who have no interest in sex are wondering why they’re not like everybody else. They’re getting hassled by their peers for not dating. Sometimes their parents are worried about them too.

Sex is inescapable. And restricting a teenager’s reading to Anne of Green Gables (which, by the way, is kind of a sexy book) and their viewing to the Disney channel is not going to stop them from thinking about it and wondering about it, but it may well keep them from useful information that could help them. And from finding books that reflect who they are.

Cause that’s one of the many fabulous things books do: reflect who we are back at us. Let us know that we’re not alone, we’re not a weirdo (or, at least, not that weird), that there are other people who look like us, think like us, and who are freaked out by the stuff that freaks us out.

The idea of sex is scary and weird and compelling and dangerous and funny—so’s the idea of becoming a grown up. There are teen books that cover almost every possible permutation of that strangeness. That is a good thing.

It seems to me that the tension I mentioned above—between writing to reflect teenage experience or writing to be instructive and good for teenagers—isn’t really a tension. Because if you write well, if you manage to reflect some teen experience and tell a compelling story—story’s key!—then odds are that the book is “good” for them and for any adult who reads it. But not good in a castor oil way. Not good in a what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-grow kind of way.

Meg Cabot’s All American Girl: Ready or Not tackles the whole when-to-have-sex thing. It’s light and funny and I raced through it. Sarah Zarr’s Story of A Girl deals with early sex (the girl is thirteen) with a manipulative older boy (seventeen) and the consequences (she’s branded a slut by her father and everyone at school; the boy goes about his life with no ill effects). In their own way both books are powerful and moving—Cabot’s made me laugh; Zarr’s made me cry—and I wish they’d been around for me to read as a teenager.

I do believe that writers for teenagers have a special duty of care, but then I believe that for all writers: we should strive to get it right, to be honest to the emotions and experiences we’re writing about. We don’t all of us manage it all of the time, but we bloody well try.


  1. lili on #

    yes, yes, yes.

    meg cabot’s ready or not is one of my all-time favourite books. it was so incredibly refreshing to read a teen book where teen sex isn’t punished (like it always was in buffy, for instance).

    melvin burgess’s ‘doing it’ also copped a lot of flak for being sexist and crude and sex-obsessed – but guess what? a whole lot of teenage boys ARE sexisst and crude and sex-obsessed. what the book did was explore how all those attitudes stem from a (really quite adorable) place of deep, deep insecurity. and it was funny.

  2. Rebecca on #

    unless you’re, like, two, sex is everywhere, in some form or another. you can’t escape it. parents who think otherwise are deluded. i hate how it’s such a taboo. it’s like it’s some terrible horrible thing that we must never speak of lest the children be corrupted. or something. sex can be good or bad or anything in between. but some people try to make it out to be practically evil. it doesn’t make any kind of sense.

  3. Ammy on #

    Hell, I’ve noticed this just as much as others do. It seems to be a case of “concerned” adults trying to make all the “right” decisions for their little kids. But the truth is, we’re not little anymore. We KNOW about sex and other things, but for some reason, people don’t want us to read about it in YA books.

    I read All American Girl: Ready or Not, and it deals with sex in a mature way. It’s not all, “Oh hell, just jump in bed!” And teenagers don’t think like that either.

  4. Nichole on #

    I totally agree. I don’t by any means think that teens should be running around having sex all over the place. but it should be included, at least to some degree, in books that teens are meant to relate to. It’s just such a huge part of life, especially as a teen. wouldn’t it be better for teens to learn about sex & “the facts of life” from adults who know, than from their friends who don’t know (and often lie to impress each other).

    I wish I’d had something more geared towards teens when I was younger. my mom (who, by the way, has some pretty strict moral standards) tossed me a romance novel when I was about 13. not that she thought I needed to learn anything from it, but she just thought it was a good book. and it was. but it’s too bad that i didn’t have very many books that geared toward my age group. and no, I didn’t run around having sex as a teen.

    oh, and anne of green gables is totally sexy. man, I love Gilbert!

  5. PJ Hoover on #

    So what are your thoughts on general references to sex in middle grade books? Kids reading middle grade know sex exists. Or does any inference to thoughts of sex belong strictly out of the middle grade market? (Because it’s been a long time for me, but I know kids in middle grade thought about sex.)

  6. Dawn on #

    You’re very right. To exclude sex from Teen books is practically dishonest. One of the characters in the book I’m writing with a friend of mine is a very fine, upstanding woman. The time period that this book is set in and being a Princess holds a certain expectation of not doing anything until after marriage. As the story would have it, she falls in love and doesn’t hold herself back. She does end up pregnant before she gets married. These things happen, though. It doesn’t make her a bad person at all but rather shows that she IS a person after all. So much of life is not all wrapped up in shiny paper and waiting for the right moment in time to show up. Things happen. And I agree–teens need to know that if they do happen, they’re not alone.

  7. Patrick Shepherd on #

    Quite a few schools have some sort of sex-ed classes for those middle grades. So there is absolutely no uncertainty: kids of that age know something about sex. What those classes don’t teach (and can’t) is what an emotional hurricane sex can be. This is the place for literature, stories that can detail all the hopes, fears, and confusion that normally entails with reaching that age and discovering that the opposite sex doesn’t have cooties, and in fact have an irrepressible attractiveness.

    It’s certainly possible to write an engaging YA work that doesn’t touch on the subject, and that’s ok if that’s what the author wants to write, but he shouldn’t be shackled by market and censorship considerations to not write about it. It may be more difficult to write one that does include it in a manner that the teen reader can relate to, which is a valid consideration by the author. But almost of those I’ve read that do have been pretty tasteful, and certainly should not be subjected to willy-nilly censorship. Literature is a window into the real world; closing the window that peers into this area is a great disservice to its readers.

  8. Steve Buchheit on #

    “Let us know that we’re not alone, we’re not a weirdo (or, at least, not that weird), that there are other people who look like us, think like us, and who are freaked out by the stuff that freaks us out.”

    Well, that’s the key point there. We have to make everybody into the same thing we all expect them to be. So nobodyis allowed to be different. So we need ban all those things that give children, those young and impressionable children, the thought that our nuclear family may not be as wonderful as it’s cracked up to be. I mean, if everybody could be happy with who they are, that might lead to not being able to peg people into pre-arranged holes. It would be chaos.

    Mother, did it need to be so high?

    (I thought that I would make this post funny poking the cultural bear with a pointy stick, but it didn’t turn out that way did it? Sorry about that.)

  9. Diana on #

    Eh, I think there can be a range. Contrary to popular belief, adolescents don’t think about sex *all* the time. So sometimes there can be books where the characters think about sex and sometimes there can be books where the characters don’t think about sex. I don’t think that’s “fundamentally dishonest.”

    I read plenty of both as a teen.

    In my YA, the characters think about sex quite a bit. Nature of the beast. Um, literally…

  10. Amy Fiske on #

    one thing that teens have told me about teen books over the years is that, not only to teen books provide a mirror of experience, teen books also provide a safe outlet to learn about an experience vicariously. curious teens can pick up a book like sara zarr’s story of a girl and examine the issues without facing any consequences. book banning does a real disservice to teen readers. it’s not usually the teens who read books dealing with sexuality that go on to become teen pregnancy statistics. quite the opposite, actually.

  11. Chris S. on #

    To be fair, in the US sex is taboo in many more places than just YA books. Look at movies: guns, blood, death – fine. Sex? Not so much.

    I can particularly get behind the idea that books should cover the broad gamut of experiences. Sex is one of those. It can be good, bad, funny — but it’s important.

  12. Corey on #

    Perception is the real villain here. Justine (and likely all of you here) argue that the addition of sensuality enhances the genuine nature of yadfic, and to systematically avoid it where it otherwise might be present is a dis-service to the reader. But now remember we live in a world where the majority of media we take in and are influenced by comes in shapes, colors, and sounds. How many movies and TV shows do they release targeted at young viewers that has sex and sensuality (ooh, stand back Jane Austin) peppered in merely to boost seats sold and prime-time ratings? Not all, to be sure, but a very healthy majority. And the sociological effects of such bombardment are evident in our ever-efficient and light-speed access to the world from a news editor’s perspective.

    The moral implications here are irrelevant: it boils down to two simple points. Is it wrong for books to be banned for being nothing but honest? Absolutely. But is it also a parent’s right to decide what their children are exposed to? Darn skippy. I think the solution is both to educate parents/administrators about the mis-conceptions of books, and perhaps instigate an ESRB-style ‘summary rating’ system. (e.g. rather than making ridiculous notions that people of all ages think the same, state things like ‘this book contains: mild suggestive themes, mild alcohol and drug use’ etc.) This lets authors write what they want to write and lets people make educated choices. Heck, just merely ‘knowing’ in black-and-white what type of material their child may come in contact with may be enough to satisfy most.

  13. Gabrielle on #

    The saddest thing is that now that sex is pretty generally thought of as horrific in YA books, it’s even used to ban perfectly… virgin books.
    I’m thinking about Maureen’s The Bermudez Triangle. For the two people who don’t know, it’s about three best friends, with two of them having a lesbian relationship. When it was banned in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, the parent who complained said it should be because of teen sex. Because of course, they can’t admit it was because of the gay content.
    I think sex should be treated like any other subject in YA books, at least to some point. You can write a wonderful book about sex. Judy Blume’s Forever. Story of a Girl, All American Girl: Ready or not.
    Teens do think about sex (and Diana, I agree, they don’t think only about it, of course), wether their parents are… Ready or not.

  14. sara z. on #

    It’s been really interesting to see my book as being about sex, at least in part, because I never set out to do that. It just came naturally as I thought about this character and her relationship with her father and kind of asked myself, “okay, what kinds of things might happen when a 13-year-old girl who longs for some kind of connection has parents who aren’t paying attention?” that’s how Deanna’s story developed.

    with my second book, I kind of wanted to not mention sex because that’s not really what it’s about, either, but then…the character is 17 and has had a boyfriend for 3 months. they’re virgins, but sexually active (which is probably how things go for most teens), and I could hardly just…NOT mention it. it just didn’t seem possible when you’re trying to write about a whole person who is real and you look at the circumstances of a life and think…What do they think about god? what do they think about their town? their parents? what do they think about sex? it’s all part of the whole package that is a human.

    with my third effort, the character is younger. she’s lived a fairly sheltered life and has honestly not given much thought to sex yet, so that won’t be an aspect of that story, and in that case it won’t be dishonest. some teens are later bloomers when it comes to thinking about sex (I was), and I think it’s nice when books reflect that there’s nothing wrong with THAT, either.

    anyway, yeah, the fear of sex in books will always be a hot topic, i think (and I do think that fear is much greater when it comes to books than movies or TV…somehow writers are supposed to “think of the children!” while people who tend to complain generally accept that filmmakers and TV networks are the devil…)

  15. calliope on #

    gabrielle said:
    The saddest thing is that now that sex is pretty generally thought of as horrific in YA books, it’s even used to ban perfectly… virgin books.

    I’m thinking about Maureen’s The Bermudez Triangle. For the two people who don’t know, it’s about three best friends, with two of them having a lesbian relationship. When it was banned in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, the parent who complained said it should be because of teen sex. Because of course, they can’t admit it was because of the gay content

    just to make this clear, there is no sex in the bemudez triangle. theres one passing thought about it, but theres no description, and it’s about 5 words long. there’s kissing. girls kissing boys and girls kissing girls.

    just wanted to make that clear

  16. Bill on #

    First, books aren’t truly banned in the U.S. Can’t get it at the school library because a) it was removed or b) for whatever reason, it wasn’t purchased? Get it at Barnes & Noble. I know the American Library loves to get a lot of mileage out of “Banned Books Month” (and, look, I’m both an English teacher and a writer), but mostly that’s about locally challenged books in schools.

    Secondly, all fiction is a construct. Writers pick and choose what elements of reality to address in any book. “Realism” is a narrative conceit; you can’t really capture the world. Are you going to wage a campaign to address sleeping more? That’s one-third of our lives? Shouldn’t books have more sleep in them? How about going to the bathroom? Don’t we need more realism there? And don’t get me started on blinking and swallowing. There’s a disingenuousness about the inclusion of sex in teen books. I don’t think writers are being radical or smart: they’re selling the same kind of product sold by Jane magazine and Redbook and heaps of television shows. It’s worth keeping in mind that most things are junk. Don’t give YA “lit” more credit than it deserves.

  17. K on #

    Story of a Girl is really good, but it made me cry.

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