Happy Valentines y’all! Let’s talk about sex in teen lit, shall we?
People are going to have some opinions about this one–I can feel it. #SorryNotSorry
I find it very strange that we have absolutely no problem with violence in teen books, but oh man are we afraid of them finding out that sex is a thing.
Spoiler alert: teens know that sex is a thing. Whether you want it to be or not, sex and sexuality is part of the teenage experience. Refusing to talk about teen sexuality is not going to change that. It does, however, leave teens utterly lacking access to the resources and information that would enable them to explore their sexuality in healthy and safe ways.
To be clear–I’m not saying the YA section needs harlequin romance levels of full frontal action, but YA authors shouldn’t feel the need to shy away from the deed. Stories have always been a safe space to expose young readers to the more difficult and complicated aspects of life. They enable readers to learn to understand and navigate these parts of life before they are confronted with them for real in their own life. That’s why Disney movies almost always include death–it is a way for children to learn to navigate loss and grief so they are better prepared for it when it happens in their own lives.
Sex and sexuality are arguably among the more difficult and complex aspects of life, and yet we as a society continue to fail miserably to prepare teens to navigate them. People fear that by talking to teens about sex we are just encouraging them to have it, but by not talking about it we are setting them up for unhealthy relationships and putting their health–mental and physical–at risk. There is no point in a person’s life where they reach a certain age and magically learn what it means to be in a safe and healthy sexual relationship, and by time society deems them old enough to read books (or watch movies, etc) that deal with sexual relationships most people have already been trying to navigate them in their own lives for years.
I don’t know about you all, but I struggled immensely to navigate sex and sexuality as a teen. I was assaulted by one of my high school boyfriends and genuinely did not realize that was what had happened to me for years because it didn’t fit the script society told me sexual assault was suppose to follow. And on the other hand I was constantly reminded that I was allowed to say no, but never that it was okay to say yes. I didn’t start having sex until I was 20, not so much because I wasn’t interested until then but because it always felt like something I wasn’t supposed to do or want. It felt shameful somehow, and even consciously knowing that was just internalized sexist bullshit, I really struggled getting passed it.
I cannot explain how much having the questions and complexities of sexual relationships represented in the books I was reading would have meant to me. Teens need good references for how to navigate the world of sex and sexuality, and YA authors have the power to make a very real impact by dealing with it in their stories rather than pretending it doesn’t exist, or worse by only portraying it negatively.
What sort of experiences should YA be striving to include? I’m so glad you asked. Here is an incomplete list of narratives desperately in need of writing. Please note that all of these ideas go for characters of all sexual orientations, because if my cis-het ass struggled that much I can only imagine trying to make sense of it all while also having your sexual orientation erased and undermined at every possible turn.
YA needs teen characters who:
- decide to have sex
- decide not to have sex
- give and respect consent
- experiment sexually (with or without partners)
- talk about sex with their partners and/or friends
- are in healthy relationships
- recognize and get out of unhealthy relationships
- respect their partner’s decision not to have sex
- practice safe sex
- embrace their sexuality or lack thereof
- learn not to be ashamed or afraid of their sexuality or lack thereof
- are specifically asexual, aromantic, or demisexual
Normalizing sexuality as part of the teenage experience–as part of life–in the stories teens are reading will help normalize it for teens themselves. It will help demystify sex and help destroy the idea that it is something to be ashamed of. It can help teens learn the importance of consent–giving and receiving–and help them understand that sex is nothing something a guy does to a girl, but is rather a shared experience based on mutual consent, desire, and pleasure. YA could reinforce the fact that there’s nothing shameful in having sexual desires, nor is there anything wrong with not having them. Maybe most importantly it could show teens the difference between healthy and unhealthy sexual relationships.
The fact of the matter is we do not get to decide whether or not teens become sexually active. That is entirely up to them. All we as a society can control is how well prepared teens are to navigate their sexuality and make healthy, responsible choices in relation to it. Stories have always been a way to help people learn to understand and cope with life’s complexities before needing to deal with them in their own life. I see absolutely no reason why sex should be any different.