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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Does sex belong in YA literature?

By J.R. Wagner

Today I read an open call for unagented manuscripts from a publisher who will remain nameless. On their list of 'likes' when describing what they wanted from their submissions was the following:

  • Sex.
  • Awkwardness.
  • Awkward sex.
Ugh, I thought letting the father of two daughters in me rise to the surface.

Then I thought some more and realized this isn't an easy topic.

YA -Young Adult -Teenagers

They're talking about sex, learning about sex in schools and some are having sex.  Sex is everywhere; television, advertising, radio, song lyrics, magazines, the internet. We cannot hide from sex and we cannot hide our children from sex.

Yet the question remains; does sex belong in YA literature?

Okay, different approach.  Swap out the word sex with violence and what is your answer?

Violence is just as difficult to avoid as sex in today's society -perhaps even more so.

Many YA stories are driven by acts of violence. The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Eragon, The Hobbit.  All these classic YA stories are fraught with violence and in each of these stories it is violence (via war or violence itself) that drives the story forward.  Violence gives the characters a reason to act.  They're acting to either prevent it or avoid it but without it, there is no story.

The same cannot be said of sex.  It just doesn't have the same impact as war or killing.  It doesn't move people to act.  While I'm sure there are writers out there who could convincingly argue the point, I don't believe sex holds the same power as violence so I don't believe interchanging sex and violence is a fair argument.

So we're back to the original question.

Does sex belong in YA literature?

Today I stumbled upon this wonderful quote:

:But censoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them vulnerable. Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them.:

-  Laurie Halse Anderson author of Speak, Twisted and many others

 Her website is loaded with great censorship and book banning information.  I strongly recommend it as a great resource.

So, as we return to the question here: Does sex belong in YA literature?

Simply. Yes.

I believe that virtually any topic can be responsibly interjected into a YA story.



The key is responsibly.  This means the graphic sex scenes belong in Adult literature.  Responsibly means including the emotional side -the trepidation, the anxiety, the moral questionings of a character. .  Responsibly means the characters deal with the emotional consequences that come along with the act if spelling out the act is necessary. A good writer can imply that two characters have had sex all day without ever spelling it out.

Jill is thinking of having sex with Bill but she's nervous because XYZ. Or Bill just had sex with Jill and now he's worried about XYZ.

Sex for the sake of sex doesn't belong in YA.  Authors who don't abide by this simply to be 'edgy' or 'fresh' or 'cutting edge' don't care about their readers.  They care about selling books.  The same is true for grotesque violence and any number of other topics.

The key is how the author weaves it into the story.

Do I truly believe virtually any topic can be responsibly interjected into a YA story?  Yes. And many of the more sensitive topics -the ones most authors are afraid to even touch (gay relationships, religion, rape, abortion, abuse, mental illness -and on and on this list goes) are the very same topics that need to be touched upon in a responsible matter.


These topics are out there right in the faces of today's teens. They can't avoid them -many are struggling with them and searching for a source of solace that could be provided in a book.

Withholding the truth can have many more negative repercussions than the opposite. Ignorance is a dangerous thing.

It just so happens that it is banned books week this week.  If you're curious, HERE is a listing of frequently banned books from the ALA.

So, do you have a different opinion?  I'd love to hear some thoughts from another perspective.

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