Yep, you read that right. Seeeeeeeeeeeeeex. Sex, vagina, penis, orgasm, clitoris, ejaculation, blow job, oral sex, penetration, any other sexual word you can think of. SEX.
Newsflash: teens have sex.
You might not want to admit it. You might not want to accept it. But you can’t change it. It’s a fact of life. Teens are having sex.
I’m not going to put an age warning on this post because teens should not be restricted from discussing their own sex lives. If we don’t talk about it, if literature doesn’t include it, what does that do to teens? It hurts them. A lot. Let’s see three of the most common representations of sex in YA literature (when sex is included at all):
(This list has been edited after comments from readers. My honest apologies for any previous misunderstandings!)
- Shameful sex: if I’m completely honest, a protagonist who is an “angelic virgin” can sometimes (though obviously not always) become the same person who shames others for having sex. If you don’t want to have sex, that’s perfectly fine! Not everyone is having sex (spoiler alert: I’m a virgin). It’s your choice. Honestly, if you don’t want to have sex, that’s totally kosher. But if someone else wants to have sex? That’s also cool! No one should shame someone for being confident in their sexuality. Which means no slut shaming. Yes, I’m looking at you, Novels That Pit Girls Against Each Other. Nothing kills my reading vibe like a Mean Girl antagonist. See this post by Girls in Capes for some examples of destructive characterizations of a special-protagonist-who-isn’t-like-other-girls. Because, by making your protagonist unlike other girls, you’re subtly saying there’s something wrong with those other girls.
- Edit (1/8/16, 2:20pm): yes, these types of characters (who shame other girls for having sex) are realistic. There are people out there who feel and act in such a way. So it’s logical to include them in some YA novels. We want to be realistic, after all! But I think that we should be using these characters to set an example, to teach a lesson: the “you do you, I’ll do me” idea. Teach readers to stop shaming people instead of making it seem acceptable. Again, these shaming characters aren’t in every book. And every virgin in a book isn’t always a slut shamer! But it does happen more often than I’d like – and it’s hurtful to a teen reader when they see that.
- Wild sex: um, let’s be real. Teenagers aren’t having wildly successful, steamy porn sex. They’re usually having uncomfortable, awkward sex. Things go wrong. Things aren’t always easy at first. It takes a while to get in the groove. Of course there are those lucky times where two people get it just right the first time. But with teens? That’s rare. You barely even know your own bodies, let alone another person’s body. And that’s okay! But these successful sex stories in YA are giving teens an irrational expectation for real life, which can make them feel inadequate when their sex isn’t this hot, wild adventure.
- Painful sex: sex shouldn’t be painful. Yeah, it might be uncomfortable, but it should not always be painful. Girls, you should be a top priority too! The guy’s pleasure shouldn’t come at the expense of yours. I hate books that put a negative spin on sex. Not only does that justify bad sex in real life, but it also scares teens away from eventually exploring their sexuality when they’re ready.
Note (1/8/16, 12:00pm): this is not me advocating the addition of sex to all YA books. Some books have sex and some books don’t and that’s okay. Sex just doesn’t fit into all books and that’s totally fine. But this is me encouraging REVISIONS in how sex is currently portrayed (in books that currently include sex at all).
Honestly, this is not me encouraging teenagers to go out and have wild, unprotected sex. This is me encouraging the world to be more open about something that we can’t prevent. If teenagers want to have sex, they’re going to have sex. It’s our job to make sure that they’re educated and safe about it. And that won’t happen if we don’t talk about it.
So what? What’s my point?
Representation. That’s my point. I want to see better sex representation in YA books.
We’re on the way there. There are fantastic books that are doing a great job with being more open about sex (like one that I just read, The Anatomical Shape of a Heart by Jenn Bennett, and so manymore). But we can do better. I know it.
Some examples of what I’d like to see:
- All different types of sex: uncomfortable, comfortable, inexperienced, experienced, first time, second time, third time, tenth time, heterosexual, homosexual, and every other type in the book. If it’s something that a teen somewhere out there might be doing, it’s something that should be represented in literature. And let’s be honest: teens are developing sexually at all different paces. And every teen should be able to identify himself/herself somewhere in literature. So literature should represent all of these different types of sex.
- Masturbation: dildo, vibrator, jacking off, everything. TEENS DO IT, GUYS. IT’S TRUE. There should be no shame in that. Honestly, it should be encouraged if you’re trying to prevent teens from having sex! After all, you can’t get an STD from yourself. But I’m so sick of teens feeling uncomfortable talking about masturbation. It’s something that basically everyone does, but no one thinks that everyone does it. Because no one talks about it! And that’s just silly. In terms of representation, most importantly, we need to see more female masturbation. Guys are so often seen as sex-craved maniacs who jack off all the time. But what about girls?! Girls need self-loving too.
- All different combinations of experience: an experienced guy and an experienced girl; an inexperienced guy and an experienced girl; an experienced guy and an inexperienced girl; an experienced guy and an experienced guy; an experienced guy and an inexperienced guy; an experienced girl and an experienced girl; an experienced girl and an inexperienced girl. I’m sick of seeing the same thing: an experienced guy and a virgin girl. Not all girls are virgins. And some guys are virgins! Again, everyone should be represented.
- Everything: we need more of everything. I don’t want teenagers to be afraid to talk about their bodies and what they do with them. In this case, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is dangerous and detrimental.
Props to the books that are doing exactly this and adding to healthier sex representation in YA literature. There are more and more out there each day! And I’m so proud of the authors and everyone in the book community for making that happen. We’ve improved so much.
But I still think we have a long way to go. It’s sad that I get so excited when I see a book talking about sex properly. Because that should be normal. It shouldn’t be a surprise to read about realistic sex or masturbation in a book.
We need to be free to talk about this stuff. We shouldn’t stifle teens because eventually? They’ll explode. They need to be free to (safely) explore their sexuality, be free to ask questions, and be free to see what should and shouldn’t happen during sex.
And if we can’t write about this stuff… what does that tell teens? That sex is shameful? That sex makes you dirty? That you should hide your sexuality? That you should hide your pleasure? I’m sick of that.
So… FREE THE SEX IN YA LITERATURE. I WANT TO READ ABOUT ALL THE SEX.
Sex is no longer just for New Adult literature. Teens are having sex, so teens should be able to read about sex.
What do you think about sex in YA books? What are some of your favorite books that have sex representation? Share in the comments!
With lots of bookish love,