HE SAID, SHE SAID is a brand-spanking-new feature created and hosted by Rachel (at) Confessions of a Book Geek and Joey (at) Thoughts and Afterthoughts, where formality is thrown out of the window in no-holds-barred discussions on all things bookish.
Following on from our previous discussion about sex in Adult/NA fiction, we’re going to take it back a step and look at the physical, emotional and sexual interactions in Young Adult fiction.
The Birds and The Bees – Sex In Young Adult Fiction
*Warning* This post may contain some explicit content!
He Said: With last month’s discussion tackling sex in NA/Adult fiction, it’s time we shift gears and look at the young-adult perspective. I think the elephant in the room is whether or not YA fiction should have any inkling of sexual representation in the text. But let’s start off with some basics: tell me about your sexual education experience growing up. Was it extremely vague? Did you learn a great deal about the birds and the bees, or was that something you discovered on your own terms?
She Said: I should start by saying that I went to an all-girl Catholic Grammar School, that was founded by nuns. Religion was a compulsory class for the first five years, and sex was only really discussed in the context of marriage, to make babies.
We had a couple of guest speakers each year, who would touch on topics like puberty and (dare I say it) menstruation, but they generally avoided anything too heavy, most likely due to the glare of the old-school teachers at the back of the assembly hall. Then, in my third year (2003 and roughly age 14), a girl got pregnant. There had always been the occasional teenage pregnancy in local High Schools, but never at my school (that I knew of) and never that young. Within a week of it being announced the school had arranged a Safe Sex talk for our entire year group, that included watching a video of a live birth (watching that video was an effective form of contraception!).
But it felt too little, too late.
This was a common practice for our school. We received a (fantastic) drug and alcohol abuse talk after a student was discovered with a bottle of vodka in her locker, and we received a LGBT talk from a former student after senior students had started to “come out” and be open with their sexuality, which must have been difficult considering the religious environment.
I do remember the school becoming more involved and open-minded as I grew older, and I’m sure they’ve moved even further into the 20th Century now, but I imagine it was tough for them too considering the teachings and ethos the school was founded on. When it came to the proper nitty gritty, we relied on friends, family and the media for our sexual education, which could be lacking at best, and misleading at worst. Perhaps because of this, I believe in a more open approach – I think any information provided should be age and maturity appropriate, but I do think it’s necessary and important to talk about sex, sexuality and all of those other “awkward” topics.
He Said: Well, I guess I shouldn’t have posed that question, because it seems like I’m not able to recall anything that stands out about my own sexual education. While I want to say that the traditional system you grew up in has its own merits from a religious standpoint, I think it’s fair to say that being a product of public schooling is also traditional in its own way – so in that sense, we have two key perspectives (sorry homeschoolers!).
My elementary schooling (from ages 4-13) didn’t see a great deal of sexual education. There were some sex-ed units during grades 6-8, where we learned the bare minimum (fertilization, menstruation, what of it, etc.) and to be frank, at the time, I don’t think much stuck. I don’t necessarily fault the schooling, but rather it wasn’t taken seriously by the students themselves because that was the age where penis jokes were a great source of humor and cooties were still the rave. It’s safe to say that I learned nada from elementary school. When I entered non-semestered high school, I only had sex-ed during grade 9, as it was a requirement (later it became an elective). Our health/gym classes were gender-specific and did delve into more specific issues like sexually transmitted diseases, contraception (with tutorials), in-depth puberty changes, etc. I just checked up on the curriculum and it seems that the education system now is a lot more progressive, reform has pushed sex-ed down to younger teenagers to foster earlier learning.
This is fine, I guess, but I do question how much young people are earnestly retaining. There’s a difference between theory and practice, and also a difference in the quality of information you gain from various types of exposure, such as television and online media. When I was younger, I remember seeing various adult programming clips in passing on the old Showcase Network. It was as educational as dramatic television with inklings of pornography could be; and I wasn’t hoping to learn anything from it. These media outlets were widely available to me because I didn’t really come from a sheltered family and my social life was pretty diverse as well. During my pre-high school days, I had a pretty diverse group of friends. In one particular group, a mix of both guys and girls, I often stayed out near midnight, played manhunt (urban tag at night), truth-or-dare and spin-the-bottle, occasionally alcohol was involved (without consent – I know, I must have been so cool?!). While this is a tangent off sexual education, I feel these factors are part of that mentality of “cool things” that are all lumped into the taboo category as a young-adult.
I can’t really say whether or not my education system provided me with much guidance and information, aside from bringing my attention to the idea or the thought of certain things that would be explored in greater detail through using Google. And maybe that’s all educators have to do–not necessarily teach students about sex ed, but point out the elephant-in-the-room.
She Said: I think that elephant is pretty obvious, and the danger of just highlighting the subject and then allowing teens to self-educate is that the information they receive is usually grossly inaccurate and misguided, especially through sources like Google. I think it would also be really overwhelming for a young person who hasn’t got the emotional maturity to understand much of what they will find. Although my early schooling was more religious and traditional, some of us still stayed out late, played spin-the-bottle and drank before we necessarily should have – and I think that’s also a point to make, the sex education system that adults want to teach, and the stuff that kids want to know about, are two very different things. When I was growing up it was like these two viewpoints were constantly battling each other, and you just can’t halt young-adult culture and progression. I have to say though, I remember a whole lot of my sexual education – but I have a pretty good memory in general, so I doubt it’s topic specific.
He Said: From a bookish perspective then, did you ever come across any YA fiction with sexual content during your adolescent years? And how about when you read YA fiction now?
She Said: This is where I need to go rooting through Goodreads… Any YA I read when I was younger didn’t have explicit sexual content, but they would have had some sexual context, notably Jacqueline Wilson’s Girls in Love series, Meg Cabot’s Mediator Series and Pretty Things by Sarah Manning. These novels explored crushes and dating, and other issues that would present themselves in a young adult’s life. At around 15, I jumped from reading YA to reading Adult Chick-Lit, only coming back to YA quite recently. Pushing the Limits (my review) and Dare You To (my review) by Katie McGarry are both marked Young Adult, but I would’ve thought they were verging more towards New Adult. They get just a little more hot-n-heavy than I was expecting (in a good way!) and I really enjoyed them at 24. I’m not sure what I would have made of them at 14.
Although the thought of sexual context in YA fiction is likely very scary for the parentals, I do think it’s important.
He Said: I didn’t read a lot of YA fiction when I was a young adult), so I don’t have much to add from my perspective. I think in the past few years, I’ve come across more YA novels with sexual context, but not so many detailed sex scenes. Perhaps sex is becoming one of the acceptable table topics writers can tap into and still be seen as “serious”. I’d personally argue that YA can have sex scenes in them, as it’s not like schools aren’t delving into these studies at an early age.
The whole concept of parental censorship is definitely a doozy to talk about (seeing as how neither of us are parents) so we’d have an idealistic approach at best. But no matter how many restrictions are enforced, with this being the information-generation in the middle of the digital age, kids don’t even need to be cunning to find things out if they want to.
Ah – you must enlighten me on these different genres, is New Adult the gatekeeper to Adult Fiction? And what makes chick-lit different from other adult novels?
She Said: OK, here’s a quick breakdown:
- Young Adult fiction has a protagonist usually between the ages of 12-18 and can be based in any genre. Romance and relationships can be touched on, but are usually not overly explicit in nature.
- New Adult has only been around for a couple of years, so rather than being the gatekeeper to Adult fiction, it’s more like the gap-filler. The protagonist is usually between the ages of 19-24 and its intent was to cover that early-twenties age range. Unfortunately, when it first came out, it was very sex-heavy, and most of the original New Adult books read like erotica, when really authors could tackle so many more issues within that age range. New Adult has definitely improved of late.
- Adult fiction obviously has an adult protagonist, and can again be in any genre. Chick-lit became a buzz term for books that mostly draw a female audience, books featuring romance and family life, they are sometimes considered to be “fluffy” reads, though that can be a gross exaggeration.
I read the very odd YA novel that had a sex scene when I was a mature YA myself, but I can’t pinpoint the titles right now. They clearly made an impression on me… YA fiction generally has less graphic sex scenes, with more “innocent” depictions of romance and first relationships, which I think is a good thing. Teenagers aren’t sheltered creatures and there’s no point in not discussing sex in fiction, or even first-love in fiction, so long as it’s suitable content for the maturity level of the audience. I have read more YA as an adult with more descriptive scenes, so I wonder if sex scenes in YA fiction are more common now than when I was a teen?
Also, I think there’s an issue in that the YA genre is supposed to encompass 12 to 18 year-olds, those are not only some of the most formative years of your life, but the maturity level of a 12 year-old in comparison to a 18 year-old is vastly different, and I don’t think we can bung all novels for that wide age-range into the same category. Thankfully, New Adult has come along!
He Said: You’ve hit on a perplexing topic for me regarding YA-fiction and its innocent depictions of romance, bringing me back to a topic we talked about in our last discussion – insta-love. I think we can somewhat agree that insta-love is a pretty tacky approach to romance, right? But speaking from a romance-angle only (and from my limited experience of romance in YA fiction), I feel as though most of the romance that I’ve come across is so inexplicably bubble-gum-pop that it often doesn’t delve into some of the deeper, or darker, subject areas that can arise with sexual relationships. This may be a small niche to consider, but with the seemingly unrealistic expectations of insta-love and the fact that this instant attraction is what guides the whole young love concept along, I feel like the genre is staying within a bubble of safe topics and not ones that explore the depth of young people today.
You’re right: teens aren’t sheltered (I find them to be more mature than ever) and it would be refreshing to see some sexual content explored in the YA age-range. I think the distinction between YA and NA being based on the inclusion of more “adult” themes is a fair approach, but once you do that, I feel like you totally eliminate the creative possibility of sex in YA literature. What do you think of using sex in literature as some form of learning module?
She Said: I think it can and should be used. Maybe not learning from a strictly educational point-of-view, because young people are likely to switch off to that. Jacqueline Wilson is one author who educates through her novels, but I only became aware of this as an adult looking back, not as a young person reading her books. I don’t think sex should be “hidden” or not discussed in a YA novel. Are you trying to tell me 16 year olds don’t know about/aren’t having sex? Or that younger teenagers aren’t at least thinking about it? I think how it’s written about is important. Sometimes I feel like sex in books (particularly YA) is glorified. Everyone has a fantastic time, everyone is so experienced, it’s magical, you “release the breath you didn’t know you were holding” blah, blah, blah. I think seeing some more realistic portrayals could be both interesting and more realistic for teens, who may expect these mind-blowing romances and amazing first time experiences in their own lives…
He Said: Right on. Though I’m wondering how much of the audience would actually enjoy learning through experimentation, as opposed to realistically written fiction! Would it be written as more of a second-hand account, as a way to allow teens to explore the experience without taking part (realistic or not)? I guess if it’s written with the finesse of realism, kids will definitely have the heads up on all the feels and all the confusion surrounding it; and perhaps maybe it’ll discourage/encourage them! What’s that I hear…books are contraceptives now? Unreal. But with all that said and done, do you think parents are truly allowed to get mad at YA novels that have sexual context?
She Said: No, I don’t. Bearing in mind we are speaking as two non-parents. I don’t think parents have the right to get “mad” at sexual content in YA novels, but they do have the right to censor what their children read. Movies come with age-ratings, which can make things a little easier, though those are still subjective, but I imagine censoring books is more difficult as the adult would need to read it first to see what they make of it. I would just encourage parents to be a bit more open in what they allow their children to read. It’s a tough issue though, there’s a fear that sex in fiction encourages promiscuity, similarly there’s a fear that a lack of sexual education and exploration results in teen pregnancy due to curiosity and a lack of information. Teenagers are individuals who will form their own opinions and make their own choices regardless of what they are shown, taught or read. At least by being exposed to these issues in a safe and non-threatening way, they can make their own informed judgments.
He Said: Well I couldn’t have said it better myself. I’ll just add that I found a lot of my peers growing up never had parental enlightenment on the birds and the bees, so I feel it’s often unjustified for parents to get irked at the exposure of their teen to sexual content when I seldom see them earnestly approaching the topic themselves. I’m not faulting a parent’s teaching style; to each their own really, but unless kids/parents are super close, I feel like there’s a disconnect in communication and kids (more often than not) learn the minimum from school, and more from multi-and-social media, than from their mom/pops. Further to this, there’s this notion that sexual content in books is a means to hypersexualize teenagers, and like you mention, it’s often forgotten how safe it is to learn about the process of sex through reading. Unless it’s a harsh truth that’s incredibly shocking, parents may be just hyperbolizing it to the extent that they’re making it seem like more than what it is: sex is a part of life. Deal, yo.
(S)HE SAID: We’d like to hear what you think – what is your opinion on sexual content in Young Adult fiction? Do you think it should be included in YA, or disregarded completely? Do you closely monitor what your children read, or will you when you’re a parent? Hit us up in the comments!