Discussion: Sexuality in YA

Sexuality in YA 

Recently I read a post complaining about the blurred lines between YA and NA, and the mix of sexual content now cropping up in YA. I agreed with the blogger, who entirely disagreed with any sexual content in YA. Afterward, I started thinking on it. There are a couple of YA books that I thought of that do blur that line. It wasn’t meant to be shock value in either book. Rather, it was part of the natural progression of growth into young adulthood.

Bildungsroman is the term used to classify what I would consider the wide range of books that fall into YA literature. Bildungsroman focuses on the moral and psychological growth of the protagonist, commonly referred to as coming of age. The ultimate goal is maturity, and it is achieved gradually and with difficulty but is extremely important. Often the main conflict is between the protagonist and society. This covers every book YA book I know.

The first novel I thought of for this post was a book I read in middle school. I remember the book’s title and premise spreading like wildfire through our school. It was the whispered talk of the town. And I had to get my hands on it. Walking into that library up to Mrs. Almquist to ask if Detour for Emmy was in was one of the scariest moments of my life. I was sure I was going to be struck down or she would deny me to have it. Even better, she knew the book and what it was about – she had to buy it – and her facial expression didn’t change whatsoever. She was most helpful in getting me the book. What is more of a moral and social lesson than becoming pregnant as a teen? Being ostracized and criticized was a great learning lesson for me. It opened my eyes beyond the friendships, loyalty, and back-stabbings I’d already experienced.

Sometimes maturity, growth, and morals comes in direct conflict with what a character has been taught or raised to believe, including sex and sexuality. In Luna by Julie Andrew Peters, Liam is a teenage boy who transforms into Luna in his basement bedroom at night. It is a coming of age that is solely focused on sexuality, gender, and identity.

Another YA novel that hones in on morals and loyalty, identity and maturity is John Green’s Looking for Alaska. Pudge is sent to a boarding school with Alaska and the Colonel, along with a small cast of supporting characters. The novel caused an uproar in many school districts since it was available in their high school libraries and had a scene about oral sex. I didn’t read this book until I was halfway through college, but it had a great impact about being your true self. The educational sex scene was not designed to be subversively teaching teens how to perform oral sex. In fact, the entire lesson ruined that sexual exploit for the character.

The last YA novel that comes to mind that contains a sexual element is a beloved series, Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer. In this series, young Mary Faber goes through adolescence. She learns what it means to have her monthly cycle while at sea with a bunch of men. She grows up at sea and learns all she needs to about the birds and the bees there, while experiencing some compromising situations and exploring her own identity as a budding woman. For me, the story of Jacky’s notorious fame as a pirate was a stronger pull than the sexual identity and content.

These are not books that establish intimate or sexual relationships for the point of sexual content. In these books, the sexual content is a part of adolescence, exploration, and maturity. It is a natural element of the teenage years. These books are far from erotica and for most of them the sexual content is only a blip in the book.

So, I disagree that there should be absolutely zero sexual content in YA. I believe that it should fit the stage of life for which it is written for, primarily the 15-18 year range. There is a line, and in my mind explicit content crosses that line into NA and not YA.

How do you feel about sexuality in YA? Some? None? Doesn’t matter?

14 thoughts on “Discussion: Sexuality in YA

  1. Teenagers are curious about sex and puberty, so I definitely think it’s OK to address those topics in YA. I do think authors have to be tasteful about it. Child pornography isn’t okay. The challenge is finding the line between “okay” and “not okay.”

  2. I don’t mind some because it is for teenagers who are exploring that. I do think it is important to show healthy relationships and healthy choices. It isn’t really a subject you can really talk to your parents about and friends your age are full of craziness so having some representation of emotionally and physically healthy relationships is important. At least that’s what I looked for when my girls were reading YA books.

    • I think it’s important to show healthy relationships too. It is a resource to turn to and see how a relationship should develop. Although there are some books out there – Shackled by Angela Carling, for example – that show all the things to look for in an unhealthy, manipulative relationship. That one is a bit extreme (maybe, who knows, it could happen).

  3. This is a tough one, isn’t it? So I definitely think having sexuality in YA is totally, 100% fine- actually, more than fine, it’s necessary. I grew up thinking sex and just being sexual beings in general was wrong somehow- and my parents had nothing to do with that, they were never weird about it. It was more the messages I was getting elsewhere, I guess. Anyway, I think to present sex as a healthy thing is doing a great service to young people.

    Of course, the explicit stuff is probably a different issue. I think that along the same lines as the first paragraph, it’s really okay to be somewhat descriptive, as long as it is handled well. That is to say, it shouldn’t cross the line into erotica or anything of course, but being comfortable with talking about one’s body and understanding consent, and characters talking through birth control and that sort of thing will always be a plus, I think. Very thought provoking post, Charlie!!

    • I grew up the opposite – somehow, my grandmother and mother made sex – even with someone you love – seem like something…dirty. Unpleasant. It wasn’t until my last relationship that I started getting over that mentality and being comfortable with my body. I definitely believe there is a line and it should be nowhere near erotica.

  4. Quick note (I’m not trying to be annoying, promise!): Luna is transgender, and it’s considered offensive to deadname (give their pre-coming-out name) to transgender people – I know that the novel does that a lot, but that’s also one of the major issues transgender people have with that book.

    The sentence, ‘Liam is a teenage boy who transforms into Luna in his basement bedroom at night’ would therefore be more accurate as: ‘Luna is a teenage girl, who everyone sees as a boy named Liam – the name and gender she was assigned at birth. The only place she can be herself is her basement bedroom at night.’

    Sorry if I sound pushy – not my intention! 🙂

  5. As the mother of a 6 year old, I want no sex in any book she reads ever. Only kidding. I think that YA books that explore sexuality are necessary and worthwhile. Sexuality is a natural part of who we are, starting at a very young age. Questioning and curiosity are natural. I guess I would fall somewhere between Shannon and Katherine. Definitely a thought provoking topic!

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