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!
There needs to be some sexual content in YA. Well, okay, not NEEDS. But it is realistic.
I’m not saying graphic descriptions or overly indulgent passages, but books where there is no sexual content, specifically romance books, just seem a little unrealistic to me. I don’t think it does any good to shield children from stuff like that and can actually be more damaging as it leaves them ignorant and naive.
I’d rather my kids (when I have them lol) have a healthy knowledge of sex and are well-informed
Hi, Allie. Thanks for commenting!
I agree – I think books that avoid it altogether miss the mark, and as a young adult I avoided those books because I felt like I was being patronised and the writing then felt too young for me. And I definitely agree that children being ignorant to some of these things can cause more problems than open discussion! I’d like to think when I have kids I’ll be open, but I’m sure it’s more difficult than it seems! R x
I loved reading this piece. I didn’t know there were books like thos for young adults. It’s given me some ideas for Christmas. What titles do you recommend for a rebellious 12 year old?
Hi, Aine. Just checkout out your blog – finally a blogger who lives quite close to me, I think?! Thanks for taking the time to comment. It’s been a while since I’ve read that age range, and although I’ve already mentioned some of them, again I would say Jacqueline Wilson – she has a great series for the 12-14 age range called Girls Out Late, Girls Under Pressure and Girls in Love. It handles boys, appearance and weight issues, family issues etc. and is very well done. She also has one called Bad Girls, which I read when I was a bit younger than 12, but it deals with bullying quite well (and being embarrassed by your parents, which at that age, we all are!). Meg Cabot – The Princess Diaries series is probably the most popular, and while it’s very good, The All American Girl series by her would actually deal with relationships, boys and sex (in a suitable way) more so than the former. The Georgia Nicolson series by Louise Rennison is well known for dealing with these issues, and it’s a bit tongue in cheek, with titles like Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging. The content isn’t as “bad” as the titles would have you believe, and they’re very funny. Not Dressed Like That You Don’t by Yvonne Coppard was excellent, if you can get a copy of it, but maybe more for the 14-15 year old. It’s a teenager and a mother’s diary entries that shows both sides of the struggle! As she gets a little older Sarah Dessen books are always popular, and as always I’d recommend Harry Potter. While there’s not as much sex in there, it teaches a lot of great values and is a firm favourite! If you want any help tracking these titles down, or discount codes for online UK stores, let me know. Bargain hunting is my specialty!
She was a massive fan of Jacqueline Wilson but I had to stop her reading the Tracey Beaker type books because they were upsetting her – they always had depressing story lines and my wee one took it to heart! The Princess Diaries sound like something she would get into. Thanks for the offer of bargain hunting, that would be helpful.
Yea, some JW can be pretty hard hitting, The Illustrated Mum got me. In that case, The Princess Diaries or the classic Mallory Towers would be great picks. Mallory Towers might not be as “cool” but I loved them!!
This link has 8 of the books for £9.99 (I think there’s ten in the whole series) – http://www.thebookpeople.co.uk/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/qs_product_tbp?storeId=10001&productId=126817 It’s out of stock at the minute, though they do discount codes sometimes and free shipping if you spend £25, so it’s worth checking to see if it comes into stock. The Works, The Book People or The Book Depository are the sites I use most. Alternatively, there’s always Amazon – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Princess-Diaries-Collection-Sixsational-Seventh/dp/B00G9WG0D4/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1411152755&sr=1-1&keywords=the+princess+diaries+box+set
Amazing thank you!
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Again, fantastic job on the He Said, She Said! I’ve been looking forward to this conversation and I agree with a lot of both points.
As a parent of a young girl – this is hard for me to think about without saying I’m going to just lock her in her room until she’s 30. HA. When I think back to my young adult life – back then, YA books were more in the RL Stine variety and there was very little sex or romance. I read one book as a kid by Judy Blume that introduced sex in high school and it shocked the hell out of me.
What I do remember is that sex was very briefly talked about and we had one education class in elementary school. Beyond that, I learned from movies (Dirty Dancing, anyone?) and from the adult romance novels I was reading, whether my mom knew it or not (she never said). And because I was trusted by my parents, they didn’t ever have to worry about me taking anything literally and experimenting. I have to also mention that I was brought up religiously and ‘the fear’ was really instilled in me. But I had a very close friend get pregnant at age 15 – so I was still aware of the consequences.
I think if parents are open and honest with their kids, and make sure their kids feel comfortable asking questions, like you said – they will make their own choices and decide for themselves. All we can do as parents is make sure they are informed and hope we’ve raised them right. You can’t shelter children these days – there’s too many ways for them to learn things. I will admit my daughter’s teenage years terrify me and I just hope she’s smart, informed, and can always feel like she can confide in me and ask questions. Do I want her to be sexually active that young? Hell no. But I also don’t live in the denial that I can stop it. I will keep an eye on the books she reads and probably limit the ‘older’ YA books until she’s closer to 15-16. But really, a child’s maturity is more about their mindset than their age. I guess time will tell, but I’m already preparing myself for those days. 🙂
Fantastic topic and convo! I really enjoy and look forward to these. 🙂
Hi, Brandie! Thanks for your feedback and comments, I’m going to break down this response:
I don’t think I’ve read any Judy Blume, but my sister talks about them and I know at the time they were considered to be quite risque for the younger generation (and as they’re still big sellers, they must be quite good!). The goalposts for mature content seems to be constantly changing – the content of a 12-rated movie these days (the system used in the UK is to rate movies suitable for 12, 15 or 18 year olds) is very different than it was when I was that age, in terms of sex, violence and offensive language – so I suppose one argument is that we’re allowing more mature content to be seen by younger people and therefore we’re self-perpetuating the curiosity and the “problem”. I guess what also needs to be considered is the sexualisation of the younger generations these days too – young people today are very different than their counterparts 30, 20 and even 10 years ago, and as a result everything these young people consume has changed too, so do we fight against it? Or go with it?
As you’ve pointed out you were reading adult romance without consent, probably at a younger age than the novels were intended for (though your love for romance novels has continued!), as a method of self-learning, and that curiosity is always there, I think. When you say your parents trusted you, was that because you had quite an open relationship and they knew you well enough to know that while you may read about these things that you wouldn’t do them? (Feel free to treat that as a rhetorical question!). With my folks, I’ve always thought that they knew me well enough to know what I would and wouldn’t do, so even though I may have researched/experimented/been curious, I was never really the type of person to do something because of peer pressure or without feeling 100% sure about it. As for “the fear” – that’s so real, right?! There’s a comedian who does a skit about Catholic guilt, it’s hilarious, I’ll find you a link.
I love your last paragraph, your daughter is a very lucky girl! Regarding suitable reading, if she is a reader, you should definitely get her on Jacqueline Wilson – I’m not sure if you’ve ever read anything by her (I started reading her stuff around 8/9) but she is a FANTASTIC author who tackles all sorts of issues, and her stuff is suitable for young girls through to around 13/14 when I started finding some of the writing style too young for me. And I 100% agree that an individual child’s maturity level doesn’t often correlate to their age. I was brought up with adults (there’s 17 years between me and my brother, and 13 between me and my sister), so I’ve always been surrounded by adult conversation and as a result I’ve always been very mature for my age. I’m 24 and the majority of my friends are at least 30. I used to get on better with my teachers than my classmates lol
Love your comment, and so glad you enjoy these posts!!
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Great article, I love that you properly debated out the issues. I think when I was younger the only YA book I read with sex in it was Forever by Judy Blume and I thought that was done in a sensitive way. It felt realistic and wasn’t done for dramatic effect, it was just naturally a part of the storyline and I think that’s the way it should be.
If you write a YA book and leave out sexual activity then I don’t think your books will sound very realistic. However I don’t think they need to be over explicit and I prefer when they aren’t. Books that deal with the whens and the consequences and the letdowns and less than amazing first experiences are a lot more interesting to me than all the detailed descriptions that can occur.
Thanks, Trish! I’m always afraid that these are too wordy, but then we can’t really thrash out these ideas without going into detail, and Joey and I are talkers!! Lol I’d love to read some Judy Blume, I think she’s considered one of the first/original YA authors that tackled some serious issues?
Excellent points. I think intentionally leaving sexual experience/context out of a YA book can sometimes feel intentionally left out when you’re reading it, like something is missing, or the author was afraid to go there. Granted, lots of YA don’t require sexual context at all, but when you’re going to do a romantic contemporary about 17 year olds, please don’t write them like they are 12. I love your last point and completely agree, I don’t mind more explicit content in NA/Adult books, in fact if I’m being honest there are times I seek it out (a well written sex scene can’t be underestimated!), but in YA it makes me uncomfortable, and I prefer more contextual information and relationship building.
Thanks for commenting! R x
[…] month’s features included: Mine and Joey’s second (S)He Said Discussion – The Birds and The Bees (about sex in YA fiction), a list of popular Banned and Challenged Books, I shared more Bloggy […]
[…] we have discussed Sex in Adult/NA Fiction and Sex in YA Fiction, and with the release of the much-anticipated Fifty Shades of Grey movie, we thought it was about […]