Should there be diverse, explicit sex scenes in YA?

Yesterday the wonderful Lucy, Queen of UKYA, hosted another #UKYAchat on twitter. This time the topic was LGBT representation in Young Adult novels, and it was a really interesting discussion including a lot of authors and publishing professionals who I really admire. It’s worth taking a look through the hashtag here.

There were several parts of the chat that got me thinking a lot, in particular about whether there should be LGBT explicit sex in YA.

This is something I’ve been thinking about recently, as I’m working on my second novel The Last Beginning, which features a lesbian romance. I feel a big responsibility towards my teenage audience with my writing, and including diversity of all kinds is one of the most important things I think about when starting a story. It’s the foundations. There wasn’t much LGBT representation in books I read as a teenager, so it’s something I particularly try to address with my writing.

But when actually writing, it’s hard to know what is reasonable, especially with sex scenes, which is a touchy subject in YA in general. I thought it was worth giving my point of view.

When I was twelve I googled sex, checking nervously over my shoulder to make sure no one saw. I found pornography. It was horrifying – all pink, shiny and loud. I closed it, and didn’t google sex again. But I was still curious. I understood the mechanics of sex, but what was it like? How did it make you feel- happy, fragile, relaxed, stressed? What were you supposed to talk about before, after? What was sex like?

The sex that was on tv and in films was short and almost uniformly identical – a fade to black, and then the characters lying in a quiet flush afterwards, panting, bedsheet carefully draped over the woman’s bust.

I tried books, but the best I could find was Flowers in the Attic, which contained a little more incest than was probably acceptable for a teenager’s first introduction to sex. It didn’t answer any of my questions. Everything just made me feel guilty and embarrassed about even asking.

Having been failed by books, films and porn, I did what many teenagers in my generation did and turned to fanfiction to sate my curiosity. Harry/Ginny fanfiction, specifically. I can still remember the exact story where everything clicked for me- the one that made me go, Oh. So that’s what sex is all about. And it took place in a treehouse, which was an added bonus.

Fanfiction has sex, but it also has feelings. It talks about what happens after sex, and what happens after the first kiss (which is often the end point of books and films, but the start of relationships). It answered all the questions I had, and I like to think I grew up into a functional adult, so it can’t have been too detrimental for me.

But fanfiction is written by people on the internet, who might only have been a few years older than I was. There’s often no mention of safe sex or contraception. There is no editing progress to make sure that the impressionable teenage readers are absorbing accurate information. (Saying this, on rereading the above mentioned treehouse fic, it is actually written quite responsibly. I think twelve year old me got pretty lucky.)

However, the lack of control of any content on the internet is why it is so important that there is more widely available scenes depicting sex in YA fiction. The internet is so quickly accessible that no teenager is going to spend hours rooting through book blurbs to find one book that might possible, maybe have a scene with sex in it. They would just google it.

There needs to be a reliable source of information, in a form that isn’t a Sex Education class. I’m English, and my own school Sex Education was very good, but in America it is still legal for schools in some states to provide “abstinence is the only choice” Sex Education – meaning that teenagers are graduating without ever knowing how to use a condom, or what menstruation is, or that they could receive birth control from their Doctor. They could be an adult and feel ashamed for having sex at all.

Those teenagers especially need a source of information that they can access without shame, or at risk of being punished for it: books. One that is free to find in libraries, without having to venture sneakily into the romance section. One where the women aren’t objectified or come second to a man’s pleasure. One with conversations about consent.

If a twelve year old is curious about sex, then it is far better that their explorations lead them to a source which is intentionally written for them, which is accurate and responsible (and preferably not incestuous, V. C. Andrews). However explicit it is, it is always going to be far less scarring than porn.

All of this is exponentially valid for LGBT representation. There are many many more LGBT coming out YA novels than there were even ten years ago.

Improvements can always be made, however – specifically where sex is concerned. I think that it is vital to ensure that there are accessible depictions of LGBT sex in YA in traditional, mainstream publishing.

Not only can it be a very useful resource for young people unsure of their own sexuality, but for teenagers confident of who they are, who may have already come out and are moving onto their first relationships.

We need diverse, explicit books for people who already receive a worse Sex Education in schools, which are bad enough for straight people, so imagine how LGBT teenagers fare. Very rarely does schools education ever focus on safe sex practices for LGBT people. Even more damagingly, LGBT teenagers are going to get a particularly inaccurate and offensive idea of what sex is like from porn.

LGBT sex scenes are also important for straight teenagers, to show them that there is nothing gross or disgusting or scary about it. That gay teenagers are just like them – nervous and inexperienced and probably not taking part in orgies in their spare time.

Abstract, vague sex scenes in YA aren’t good enough. The sex should be addressed clearly, because if a teenager is curious about what exactly is happening in a book or film’s fade-to-black, they will undoubtedly turn to google. While they might find fanfiction or a guide to sex, they will almost certainly also find porn.

YA is responsible for shaping the ideas of a whole generation, and it needs to be done right.

I think this is an ongoing discussion that needs to continue, because I’m still learning too (I wrote an original draft of this post almost a year ago, and since then I’ve learnt so much more that I have added than I thought possible) but I think Lucy summed it up perfectly when she said:

I’m proud of us too!

A rebloggable version of this post can be found here. 

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is a RLF Royal Fellow, freelance editor and screenwriter. Lauren is the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League, and on the board of the Authors & Illustrators Sustainability Working Group through the Society of Authors. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide and been translated into six languages. The Quiet at the End of the World was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2022. She has taught creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

2 thoughts on “Should there be diverse, explicit sex scenes in YA?

  1. Pingback: The Lesbrary

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