Real Talk: Sex in YA

6:20:00 PM

I've had the subject of this Real Talk planned for a while, but Rainbow Rowell's Twitter discussion this past Sunday really solidified my decision to speak on the subject of sex in young adult fiction.

This Real Talk isn't meant to be a sex-ed post, I am not here to censor anything, and I certainly won't drill abstinence into you, or discuss the finer details of the sad fact that porn can now teach middle school aged kids more about how sex works than actual sex education classes… I'm not here to preach, lecture, or bemoan. I'm here to observe and note my observations and begin a discussion -- hopefully a discussion that is very beneficial, open, and gets people thinking. I'm not claiming that my opinions are the end-all, be-all; I'm not putting my foot down and claiming to be right about everything. I know this can be a controversial subject, so I am proceeding with respect and caution.
So with that in mind, I am assuming that if you're reading this you have a) received at least a middle school level of sex education, b) are aware that I am simply discussing the stigma surrounding the concept of sex in YA, and c) are either aware of what sex entails and are comfortable reading about it or are unfazed by the fact that I will be using words like penis and vagina freely. So, there you go.

First off, huge kudos to Rainbow for sticking it to the man -- literally. She called bs on one reviewer claiming her characters weren't believable teenagers because their sex drives were not through the roof. Apparently Park (from Eleanor & Park) isn't a convincing 16-year-old because he, shockingly, doesn't think with his penis and respects Eleanor's romantic wishes. Citing this New York Times article, Rainbow went on to call bs on even more sexism present in the review -- and multiple others: "I'm pretty sure male authors aren't required to make male characters constantly talk about the D just to prove something" (ladies and gents, the very definition of "masculinity so fragile" coming into play here.......but that's a Real Talk for another day) "and two, it didn't bother this guy or the guys in the comments AT ALL that Eleanor never thinks/talks about her clitoris. Like, maybe these guys don't know about the clitoris? It's possible."
Preach it, Rainbow. For one, no author should ever have anything to prove when it comes to their characters’ sexuality. Not only that, but there seems to be this great big expectation among the YA audience that two characters who fall in love mean they will eventually have sex as an act of showing their ultimate love and devotion to one another. And this by no means is a bad thing; in fact, it often is what real-life couples want to do in order to prove their love to one another. But because of this trope, I feel like a modicum of expectations are set forth as a result. How many novels have you read where at some point in the book or series the main character and their love interest have a moment of ultimate passion where they wind up “going all the way”? To me, it sets up somewhat unrealistic expectations of love and sex because of how methodical and structured their relationships can often be. They meet. They are reluctant to give their heart to another. Their feelings win over, and they fall madly, deeply in love. They fight. They love even more. They have sex. Happily Ever After ensues; OR shit hits the fan and something catastrophic happens as a result of their act of passion. It’s a formula that takes many shapes and forms and iterations, of course, but if you look closely enough the basic framework is usually present.
As teenagers, and even pre-teens, we are taught from a very young age that there's this thing humans do in order to make more humans, and it's called sex. But the thing is, humans also do it because they enjoy it, and specifically because they enjoy their partners. I go mushy at a good love scene just like any other hopeless romantic, as long as the characters are doing so consensually and for the right reasons (whatever they may be -- sex should always be for the right reason, whether it is because you are in love or simply because sex, well, feels good. And there is nothing wrong with either reason). But my qualm here is when it is used to define the relationship between two characters. Their love shouldn’t need to be proven, they shouldn’t feel like they have something to prove to one another or to the readers, and I feel like that is often what gets misconstrued in this trope. Sex is what I find myself conditioned to expect from two romantic interests in a book I'm reading, and that shouldn't be something I'm so used to that I flat-out expect it by now.
It’s a fine line to dance between writing a romance novel and a novel with romance in it; but that by no means should diminish the story or set expectations forth for the characters to accomplish in order for their love to be perceived as “valid” or real. At some point the characters will reach a point where they are going to want to explore their feelings for one another on a deeper level, and I believe that should come about in a natural way that is unique to them and their story. If that means getting on one knee and proposing, cool. If that means sacrificing oneself to save the other, okay. If that means changing their Facebook status to "In a Relationship" then okie dokie. And if that means sex, that's fine too. I just don't want young readers to see sex as the only viable way to prove love and devotion to one another, because relationships and love should be defined by so much more than that.
When Jace and Clary have their scene in the cave in City of Heavenly Fire, it seemed too premeditated and expected to me – I mean, who brings condoms to the underworld, totally planning to woo their girlfriend in what downtime?! It didn’t feel spontaneous, it felt as though they were only doing it because they felt they may never have a chance again. Another famous scene, from The Fault in Our Stars, also involved the characters having sex because one of them felt as though they would never have the opportunity to again. Did both of these couples love one another deeply and unconditionally? Absolutely. Was this right? Maybe for them it was. Maybe the haste and pure, unadulterated passion really is what drives these characters to show their love for one another in the ultimate way. But something to keep in mind, at the same time is that sex is such an intimate and personal act that, although it is important to some, isn’t always the ultimate act. I would so much rather watch one character take a bullet for the other to show their love, because sex creates such a stigma where it’s ultimately expected of the characters. As a result, many readers will be left feeling inadequate or as if something is wrong with them if they don’t have a similar experience in real life. I know for sure that in my first ever relationship when I was 15, I went along with half the makeout sessions my then-boyfriend induced because I believed it was just what couples did! As a much more mature 18 year old, I now see that my relationship was a toxic one only based on mutual pleasure rather than the emotional connection I was searching for, and as a result I value the fact that I kept a level head and didn't do anything I would today regret.
The same argument, of course, can be posed for film and television. But the way these scenes and romances are played out across the medium of film versus text is fundamentally different because with film, everything is laid out for you; meanwhile there is a modicum of imagination and subtlety left when portrayed through text.
 There can also be this expectation to toe the line between a well-written young adult sex scene and a flat-out soft porn erotica novel scene. To do so is a delicate and challenging dance, but it’s very possible to accomplish and do it well enough that the author will not piss off middle-aged mothers who form a coalition to ban Twilight from middle school libraries (believe me, this actually happened at my middle school). I just really want to see more sloppy, messy, scenes where the characters are totally at ease with one another and exploring one another and themselves in the process (without becoming a porno movie, of course). Because that’s what real life is like. And of course, some embellishment and leeway is certainly allowed; because it's fiction. I’m just tired of the trope that builds sex up to be this life-changing and world-shifting experience that ultimately defines the validity of a couple’s love. Because that’s just bull.

I know I may have sent a few mixed messages in the past few paragraphs, but what it all boils down to is this: sex is natural. It’s good, it’s beautiful, it’s messy, it’s exploratory, it's awkward, it's awesome, it's personal, and it’s ultimately surrounded by a humongous amount of social constructs that we will often feel the pressure to live up to when it’s just not possible. It’s not supposed to be this incredible, spectacular, fireworks and dancing in the rain experience that makes you a whole new level of human; although that can certainly happen. The concept of virginity and pledging yourself celibate until marriage or until you meet your match and find the perfect partner are both valid and completely acceptable decisions; I respect any decision someone makes when it comes to their body and their partner as long as it is consensual and comes from a mutually respectful place.

I hope what you take away from this post is that sex in YA comes in many shapes and forms, and the most overwhelmingly common trope I see is when it is expected that two characters will eventually have sex as a way to prove their love to one another. So I ask you this: is sex really the ultimate act of devotion, or can any other romantic gesture be just as grand?

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  1. PREACH!
    I couldn't have said it better!
    I too have come to this point where I expect characters to have sex in the end, because that's just what we're conditioned to expect. But it doesn't have to be like that. It shouldn't be like that. Especially when you think that those characters can be as young as 15, and the readers? As young as 12, or even 11 years old. What does that say to young readers, girl AND boy? That a relationship should follow certain steps and end up with this magical night? No!
    Also, I just thought about what I'm about to write next: why does YA even porttray so many sex scenes? Well, there aren't sex scenes in every YA book, far from it, and I get that teenagers do have sex. I might not make a whole lot of sense, but I'm trying to say that sex scenes in NA books make way more sense to me than in YA, especially when in YA, characters go from having their first kiss one minute and sleeping together the next. Is that realistic? Not to me...
    What you can take away from this comment is that I loved your post! I love when people write about controversial topics (I wrote about a few lately^^) because they make people react!
    I'll just end this by saying that I find your new design/layout very nice! Looking forward to reading your thoughts on other subjects!:D

    1. Thanks Sophie! You are one hundred percent correct, about the line between NA and YA blurring lately. I've noticed it too. I really want readers to take away a different perspective than what can often be misconstrued or glorified! Especially the young'ns :P I will certainly be checking out your discussions soon, too!

    2. I remember reading my first sex scene when I was twelve and I was a bit schocked (for the record, it was house of night book #?). Thinking back, I'm so glad I had sex ed and an older sister to lean more about what real sex really is about because it clearly does NOT happen like it did in house of night!XD
      And even for NA, I want to be able to read books where it doesn't all lead to sex, you know? I haven't read or seen many, but the main focus of the ones I DID read is always the relationship. I have yet to see a fantasy or dystopian NA novel. I love YA, but sometimes, I wish there were more stories like YA that had characters our age. How about books with 17 to 20 years old characters? It's like there is no in between.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing, Giselle! This is such an important topic and since it can be kind of difficult to talk about, I really appreciate you going for it! You make such good points, and I definitely tend to think that the most romantic scenes in books aren't the ones that involve sex. Romance comes from trust and interaction, and chemistry and so many other things.. :)

  3. This is a great post!! I've never even realized it, but there is this checklist of milestones in the ya couple which is 1) tell each other you like each other 2) kiss 3) become 'official' 4) have sex ---and it honestly shouldn't have to be this way. It's also so cookie cutter and often doesn't feel representative as a model.

    My hugest beef with sex and YA is this obsession with virginity. Everyone has to be everyone's first everything. And I know lots of teens are out having tons and tons of sex, but I just feels like it puts more pressure of having that 'perfect' first time and first love. And I think that feeling is what makes some authors feel like they need to put sex in, that's it's the ultimate show of affection and romance.

    Such a fantastic post honestly!

  4. Shoutout to first (I think first?) discussion! And on a great topic! I wrote a post about Sex in YA and if it was appropriate (i.e. what's the best portrayal, what is considered realistic, over the top, etc,.), so it was a bit different approach to what you talk about here but nonetheless, I appreciate your post a lot!

    First of all, how exactly could I have missed that Twitter beef?! Oh well.

    Second of all, I love this line "It’s a fine line to dance between writing a romance novel and a novel with romance in it" because there is definitely a difference between the two and it's beautifully written. You're right: sex is different for everyone, but it does seem like every book has this big build up and kind of implied tone when it comes to sexual activity, especially and mostly in YA. I think for virginity or first time with a new person, it's more of an act of devotion and love. However, I know that it can be just as beautiful (or bad) the second, third, fourth, 19898th time.

    I look forward to more Real Talks, Giselle!

    Jess @ Princessica of Books

  5. You got everything in this just SO right Gee. I really agree with everything you said here and I think it did need to be said.

    I love your discussions, Gee! You really have a way of saying things so well. :)

    1. Ahhh thank you so much Tamara!! That means so much to hear, I'm glad you enjoy them! There's many more to come (:


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Giselle has read 5 books toward her goal of 50 books.