Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sex in YA: One Mom's View

I read both adult and young adult titles, with the occasional middle grade book sneaking into my pile.

I am a 30 year old woman. Only in the last year have I embraced YA. Before book blogging, I had no idea the sub-section went farther than books like the Sweet Valley High series. Was I ever surprised.

I'm a mom. I have 3 daughters. My two youngest are under 3 and don't really factor into this discussion. My oldest is 10 and right on the cusp of venturing into the young adult section of the library. I find this coming time when we can discuss these books exciting.

I've heard a lot of talk about what's appropriate content for teens. As YA is a snapshot of teen life, views widely differ as to what should be written about. The inclusion of sex, drugs, drinking, smoking, bullying, pregnancy, rape, STDs and cursing, among many other topics, are often debated. Some believe these topics are taboo and should never even be mentioned in a book written for a teenage audience. Others think you'll never be able to shelter teens from these topics in school and don't think twice about their kids reading about them in books.

I'm in neither camp. I don't believe we can or should pretend like these things aren't topics teens deal with everyday. I also think that while these topics are discussed between teens constantly, that isn't an excuse to give up on monitoring what our children are exposed to. In short, as parents, we should parent.

In my opinion, sex in YA isn't about inclusion, it's about presentation. Teens are impressionable. Read enough stories where the sparkly vampire shows his love by being a controlling psycho, and girls start thinking this is the appropriate way for a boy to show he likes you. It's obviously not, but what a great way to start a conversation about respect and boundaries in romantic relationships. Even books that go against everything you believe in can help you teach your kids, as long as your willing to get involved and talk about these issues.

Sex in YA is the same as it is in adult books. It can be sweet and loving and responsible. It can be scary and damaging and reckless. It's just like real life. It's all about the decisions the characters, and eventually your children, make. This is why it's important to learn as much as possible.

At 10, my daughter should have many, many years to learn about these things before she ever has to face them. I know that isn't the reality. Kids were having sex when I was in middle school, back when slut was a derogatory term and not something celebutantes called one another lovingly.

I would love if YA showed thoughtful decisions when it comes to sex. I'm also completely fine with bad decisions being made. I want possible repercussions considered and sometimes experienced. I want a firm message that, yes, it COULD possible happen to you. That being young doesn't make teens invincible. You may get pregnant, you may get a disease, you may even die. I don't take joy in scaring teens, but this is the reality. Teens need to know what we tell them is really possible. YA is a great venue for them to experience these situations and learn from them. It's also a great place to start opening the doors to talking about these things with kids.

Of course, there are always books that are nothing short of ridiculous when it comes to sex. A book showing a girl having sex with someone she considers disgusting just because he's there, getting pregnant and describing the pregnancy as the best thing that ever happened since she would always have a piece of that boy doesn't promote the type of lesson any parent wants their child to learn. All you can do it discuss it and hope your child has learned enough from you and the multitude of great books that include sex to know that the scenario is flawed.

Teens are curious about sex. YA authors wouldn't write about it if there wasn't interest. Banning books is never the answer. It won't shelter your kids from the issues. Be involved. Monitor what your kids are reading. Talk about these books, even if you aren't comfortable with the subject matter. Rather you talk about it in a hypothetical, fictional sense, than talking about it when your kid is dealing with the real life aftermath.

As a teen, a parent, a teacher or librarian, or any party, what do you think about sex in YA? Can you name some books you think deal with the topic well? How about not so well?


  1. "A book showing a girl having sex with someone she considers disgusting just because he's there, getting pregnant and describing the pregnancy as the best thing that ever happened since she would always have a piece of that boy..."

    I recently read a book that contained this exact situation, and felt...WOW...that just doesn't feel right. My boys are only 4 and 1 so I have some time before this becomes a real issue for me, but I have often felt that if I had girls, some of the YA books I have enjoyed would be questionable reading material for them because of the books' negative portrayals of sex and relationships, and it's on a very rare occasion that precautions and consequences are described before the "act is done". I agree that it is not something that we can keep from our children, and you said it right "we need to parent our children" teach them responsibility rather than just trying to hide these issues and sweep them under the rug.

  2. Jennifer, I am so excited to read this post, and I applaud you for writing it. I'm not a mom, but I am a former teacher of impressionable, middle school students. I think YAL is an *excellent* way to start difficult (and sometimes uncomfortable) dialogue between parents and pre-teens/teens. The key, though, is the parent reading the same book as his/her teen. Even a book that doesn't have the best role model (my mind turns to Twilight, even though I love the book) can serve as a great discussion about why this relationship, decision, etc. is not okay. Speak is an extremely controversial book, but personally, it's one I would want my daughter to read so that we could talk about it. It all goes back to parenting, just as you said. One of the appeals of YAL for teens is that it usually reflects the real-life pressures and decisions they face daily. Because of this, I think YAL can be really educational for parents, too. There are a lot of parents out there with their heads in the sand, and YAL can be a great way for them to connect with their children and use it as a tool to find out what's going on in their children's lives. Because so many kids that grew up during the "golden age of YAL" in the 70s and 80s are still reading YAL and are parents, I think there might be less fear of our kids reading YAL now than there was even ten years ago. Thanks for such an insightful, thought-provoking post!

  3. My daughter just turned 10 this month and she is a voracious reader and always has been.

    Since last summer, she has asked to read the Twilight series and being somebody who has read them, I told her no on many occassions when the topic has come up. Do the books deal with sex in a good way, that I can't answer but what I can say is that for her, I don't think it is appropriate.

    Let's be real here. While the story is very engaging, having sex with a vampire isn't really realistic and in my opinion, not what my 10 year old needs to be reading about. There's plenty of time for that and oh so, so many books she can read instead.

    We only fairly recently had a bit of a sex conversation (which brings up a whole other topic of how much is too much?) and I'm not sure its right for her to be reading about something that she doesn't fully understand yet. And I'm not saying that my opinion is right, but I feel its right for my child.

  4. Brava! As a mom, a YA author & a sex educator, you summed up my feelings on it nicely: take an active role in the discussion your kids are having with themselves and their friends. Books are a great way to bridge the gap and take "for instance" to a shared conversation!

    Sex done not-so-well isn't my favorite topic and lends itself towards "rant" so let me suggest a few good ones, in my opinion: FOREVER by Judy Blume is a classic, LOOKING FOR ALASKA by John Green has a great illustration of sex vs. intimacy, THE LAST SUMMER (OF YOU AND ME) by Ann Brashares has the excitement and angst of friends becoming more, the damage that can happen when it's all wrong is done extremely well in Barry Lyga's BOY TOY, Melissa Marr's WICKED LOVELY has a responsible guy in a couple talking about sex and disease, BRINGING UP THE BONES by Lara Zeises has some powerful, honest punches about sex and relationships, there's a guy's perspective on a first time with his responsible girl-friend in NEVERNEVER by Will Shetterly, and it's not just sparkly vamps that had a "wait until marriage" example: Gail Carriger has fun & frolicks once married and /after/ marriage (*gasp*) in SOULLESS and CHANGELESS. (There are also great examples of gay couples "coming out" to one another in A LOVE STORY STARRING MY DEAD BEST FRIEND by Emily Horner, MAGIC'S PAWN by Mercedes Lackey, TITHE by Holly Black & I have high hopes for the new WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON by John Green & David Levithan.)

    I can only say that what I do not like is when a) "sexy" is matched with psychotic/controlling/stalker/homicidal behaviors for the reasons you mentioned [not that it isn't realistic for some, but it makes this sound like the expected or acceptable norm behavior], b) first kiss becomes first sex with no thought -- or second thoughts -- of consequences/"What If...?"s because I find that unrealistic, & c) when sex, sexuality, gender, orientation, etc. are dismissed from the mind as being "inconsequential" in a story. Everyone thinks about these things, in themselves and in others, whether teens or adults.

    As parents, authors and life teachers, we can take anything we want to from a story but we have to be willing to talk, read & listen.

    Thanks for this!!

  5. I'm a parent, I've been a librarian (and hope to go back to that when my kids are all in school), and since I'm 28 I suppose it wasn't that long ago I was a teen, although my teenage brother swears I'm ancient. :)
    The thing I have the hardest time with in YA literature would be sex. Hormones are raging, and self-control isn't something that is really taught anymore, so to give them just one more excuse seems irresponsible. I agree that a book that shows how you have consequences and that those consequences are anything but silver-lined is great, and can be a great discussion starter. However, books like Gossip Girl really just make me upset.
    The only other thing that drives me nuts about YA is the cliches you find - 'parental units' and the view that they're there solely for the basic necessities (shelter, clothing..). Parents are considered dull, boring, in the way, and ironically are written by people that are old enough to know better.
    Ah...I could go on. I'll stop now. Thanks for a fascinating post/discussion.

  6. Truly excellent post! I just finished reading The Clearing by Heather Davis and I was really impressed how the topic of sex and the act of having sex was addressed and written in the novel.

  7. Great topic
    --worst books so far for me are Numbers, bleeding violet that dealt with sex
    -Best books- shiver by Maggie and Graceling

    I'm not to not let my daughters read certain books but I would like it done tastefully too and want to dicuss them or the topics in the books.

  8. I like those YA books where it shows that the attraction is there, that the feelings are real and okay, YET that you CAN wait. And that just because all the elements are in place doesn't mean you automatically go on to the next step. I wish there were more like that, with the kids wanting to, but knowing it's better to wait.

  9. Jennifer, this is truly a great post -- and an important one at that.
    I think books, just like any other forms of "media" can definitely influence anyone's perspective, especially a young adult's. I feel as if when we're young adults, we're at that age where we're still trying to figure out what should be done, how should this go, what should i do, etc. Sex is something you can not deny -- and you're right, once you reach middle school it's right there.
    Personally, I feel as if the Twilight series, especially Breaking Dawn, is one of the worst ones that address the topic of sex. I can not really think of a YA book that addressed sex in a good way. Maybe Willow by Julia Hoban?

  10. Jillian, thank you for mentioning WILLOW by Julia Hoban. I completely forgot to mention it in my comment, it is a great book for how she dealt with the subject of sex as well as the troubling reality of the disease that Willow suffers from. If you haven't read it yet, then as a parent I highly recommend this book.

  11. Very interesting post.

    I have issues with sex in teen books because while I know it happens (I'm only 29 so I not that only), I don't ever see it done responsibly pretty much.

    One other pet peeve of mine is the almost not there parental units. What happened to the parents of the children in the book? I think that is books reflect society then maybe we need to recheck what we are doing with children because some of what happens in YA books surprises me because I never would have gotten away with certain behavior.

  12. Jennifer, I think this is one of the best posts I've read on this topic. Well done!! I am a mother of a 27-year-old daughter, have worked in a library, and read incessantly. What you have said is well balanced and thought provoking. These are the things that parents everywhere should be considering.

    As a library staff member, I have spoken many times with parents who wanted books removed from the shelves. It's hard to know exactly what to say about censorship to these people without sounding overbearing. What I have tried to say gently is that they are the parent, so read what your children read and use that as a springboard for discussion. They miss opportunities when they demand that other adults monitor what their children read, but they haven't read the material themselves.

    When I review a young adult book, I always try to comment on the good decisions and bad decisions that are shown in the narrative. Are there consequences and are those appropriate? Kids are going to be exposed to many, many things that their parents would be horrified if they knew fully. Young adult literature is such an opportunity to teach and guide, but it's not the only method and not the only reason that these books are written. Well, I've kind of rambled, but I will say that you only have your kids at home for a short time. Believe me, they will grow up, faster than you could ever dream. Don't you want to be able to help them deal with some tough situations while they are still under your roof? Keep the communication lines open. Young adult lit is a good place to start a conversation.

  13. What a great post. I don't actually read much YA, but my daughter's 10, too, and we do read together a fair amount, so as she ages, I'll probably read more YA and less middle school.

    I've always told my daughter that she has free access to my bookshelves. I personally learned about sex from a novel and I survived. Books can be great conversation starters. But I will say that flat out erotica does not stay on the shelves. There are some book that I feel the need to stash away until she's 30.

  14. Great post Jennifer. My daughter is 3 but I look forward to when she wants to read books, I will read them with her and discuss. I think YA books are great for communication with our children.

    Some will always cross the line when it comes to our own values, morals etc. I think it is our job to discuss entertainment to real life and sometimes it is a thin line.

    Sex is not an issue for me but the suicide and bullying stories are.

  15. Thanks for this intelligent, level-headed post.
    I think both GRACELING and FIRE by Kristin Cashore have healthy examples of sex and relationships. The main characters are responsible about sex without acting like puritans. Minor characters also suffer consequences of irresponsible sexual behavior.

    I also recommend every book in the WICKED LOVELY series by Melissa Marr. Some characters are responsible and have positive, healthy conversations about sex, while other characters are irresponsible and suffer consequences. There are both healthy and damaging relationships as well as violence and victimization, but the characters and readers learn from all of it.

  16. At this time I cannot think of any books off the top of my head, but I believe that sex in YA is a good pleace for teens to learn as long as there is someone there to talk with them about it. My cousin is also 10 and she is the only avid reader other than me in our family. So when it comes to books she wants to talk about I will read them and sit and have conversations with her. YA books have created a special bond between her and I and has also shown her that there is nothing that she cannot come and talk to me about whether it is embarrassing or not. I have also given her someone to talk to other than her mom. Although I always tell her that she whould always communicate with her mother expecially on the important topics. But I believe that sex and other controversial issues in YA books given teens an opening to disscuss real life issues with the adults that love them without being overly embarrassed or nervous.

  17. Like you, I'm in neither camp. I think that teens are exposed to it and that censorship is bad, but I also think it's important that, like you said, parents parent. And decide whether or not they find a book appropriate for THEIR child and be willing and ready to discuss the book and what was presented in it after the book has been read.
    This was a great post!

  18. what a great post! i really agree with you, reading the book before your child reads it is the way to go, and then make a decision about wether you think it's appropriate, and if so/if not have a discussion about why and about what's in the story. each child is different and will have a different personality and tolerance and understanding about different issues, and parents need to make the decision about wether their child can handle it or can understand it. my boy is 10 months old so i've got a long time before this becomes an issue for me, phew! :-)

  19. This is a great post about a great subject. I’m a 30 year old mom who also loves to read YA books. Am I ok with sex in YA books. I sure am as long as it is handled in a good manner! I don’t want my kids reading a book where sleeping around is glamorized but in a book where the characters make responsible choices I’m all for it. Teens are going to think about sex even if they aren’t doing it. I remember reading Forever by Judy Blume at like 12 after all my girlfriends were talking about the sex in it. That made me want to read it even more. I totally agree about the poor choices as well. I recently read a book where the protagonist had been grieving over the death of her sister. At a party she got drunk and slept with her boyfriend who then dumped her. She showed regret for this choice which I think is awesome. Maybe a teen will read that and think wow I should wait or just because I’m not a virgin doesn’t mean I have to sleep around now. As for drugs and alcohol use that would definitely be on a case by case basis for me. I want my kids reading books that encourage positive and healthy behavior. Thankfully there are many (many) books in the YA genre that do just that.

    My kids are 10, 5, and 3. With my oldest being a boy and my younger two daughters I think it will be a few years before this is even an issue for us. My son is anti girl at the moment and spends his time reading The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and anything about magic. No romance allowed ;)