Tag Archives: we need diverse books

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. 


The most important post I’ve ever written.

I have something that I guess is an announcement, but I don’t really think of it like that. It’s just something I’ve not mentioned online before. Ever.

My second book, the sequel to The Next Together, which doesn’t have a firm title yet, has an LGBT protagonist. The main character is a lesbian.

I’m not really sure why I’ve not spoken about this before. I think I was just a bit nervous, because I didn’t know what the reaction might be, in general and from people I know. But there has been a lot of talk recently about diversity in fiction – if you’re in any way involved in the YA world you can’t fail to have seen the We Need Diverse Books campaign – so I know that there’s going to a positive reaction from the YA community, at least.

This month my agent read the first draft of my Untitled Mysterious Sequel, and she liked it, and my mum has read it, and was so proud of me that she cried. So I guess I’m ready to talk about it now.

I’ve always had a problem with J K Rowling. I love Harry Potter. I started reading the books when I was 6, was the first person in my class to have read any of them when the first film came out, and I queued up at midnight every release day to get my copies.

I’m a huge fan.

But after the last book was released, J K Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay. I was 15 at the time, and this was a Huge Deal, both to me and to the rest of the world. I couldn’t think of any other characters in my favourite books who were gay. The only LGBT character I could think of at the time was the bisexual (omnisexual?) Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who.

So, it was great. But the more I thought about it, the more disappointed in J K Rowling I became. Why didn’t she mention it in the books? Why not just have a simple line where Dumbledore referred to Grindelwald as his ex-boyfriend? I couldn’t understand it.

If Dumbledore was gay, and I’d known that when the character first entered my life, at the age of 6 or 11 or even 15, that would have made a huge difference. Everyone in my class at school was reading Harry Potter from the ages of 11- 15. A boy in my class, thinking that he might be gay, would have found the ultimate idol in Dumbledore. He’s a gay man who isn’t defined by his sexuality. As a character it’s one of the least important things about him. (Unlike Captain Jack Harkness, where it’s the most important thing.)

To not only have a story with a gay main character, but one who is involved in complex storylines outside of his sexuality would have been groundbreaking, at least for me, as a teenager growing up in a Harry Potter obsessed secondary school. Can you imagine a boy looking up from his copy of Harry Potter and the Half Bad Prince, and calling another boy gay as an insult, then turning back to read about Dumbledore’s adventures? I can’t.

So I couldn’t understand why J K Rowling didn’t put this in Harry Potter, when she had everyone in the world reading her books. I’ve grown more and more sad about this over the last 7 years.

When I started writing, it was immediately clear to me that I needed to do things with my writing beyond telling a story. The right book can shape a childhood, and if I was going to have even the smallest chance (and honour) of writing that book, I needed to make sure I lived up to the responsibility I was being given.

My first book, The Next Together, started because I used to get furiously angry at tv and films which displayed scientists as geniuses, with bad social skills and enormous intelligences. I’m a scientist (I graduated in 2014 with a Masters degree in Chemistry and Physics) and I am not a genius. Nowhere near. I hated that films made it seem that scientists knew everything, about every subject, and had memorised every textbook in the world. Scientists, in my life, were just ordinary people who might be pretty good at maths or biology, but that was it. They weren’t geniuses.

I was angry about this because I thought the ‘genius scientist’ trope would put off teenagers from studying science, because they didn’t think they were clever enough. I got so furiously angry that when I was 18 I wrote a book with approachable, normal characters who were idiots in a lot of ways, but were also research scientists.

That book evolved a lot, but it eventually turned into The Next Together.

When I began writing The Sequel Without A Name, I knew I wanted to tackle another issue, something that brought out just as much emotion in me (emotion fuels the best writing, I find). I remembered Dumbledore.

I decided to write a character who was gay, and have it be mentioned from the very beginning. I wanted this character to have a sexuality, but I wanted the story to have nothing to do with that. I wanted her to have other character traits, adventures,  and a happy ending with a nice girl.

I wanted to write a role model for the teenage girls who would hopefully read that book one day, for all of them, not just those who had already accepted that they might be a member of the LGBT community.

I made a very intentional decision to write this book as a sequel to a mainstream heterosexual romance, rather than a standalone, because when I started researching other LGBT YA books, I was surprised by how many there were, but how few of them I had seen in bookshops. So I wanted to write a book that would hopefully have more of a chance of getting to it’s audience of teenagers, especially those who were too afraid or confused to search out LGBT books for themselves.

If there’s ever the smallest chance that The Next Together gets read, I want the sequel to make it’s way into libraries and schools and children’s hands too. Fingers crossed it does.

I don’t think I’m writing a groundbreaking book, because we’re lucky enough that there are now enough LGBT books to keep a teenager well read for life. (If you’re looking for somewhere to start, The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson is an excellent beginning.)  But I hadn’t mentioned it before, so this is me mentioning it now.

My second novel has an LGBT protagonist, and I’m incredibly proud of that fact. If at least one LGBT teenager reads it and finds themselves the role model that Dumbledore failed to be for people my age (sorry, Dumbles), then I’ll feel like I’ve done something good with my writing. YA writers have the ears of a whole generation, and the huge responsibility that comes along with that. I don’t want anyone to be furiously angry with me in ten years, because I failed to mention in my books that the protagonist of Untitled Book Two has been gay all along.

Authors have a responsibility beyond entertainment, because children read books to learn how the world works, and we have to make sure that the world they read about is as varied and diverse and representative as the real world.

I can’t end this post without saying a huge thank you from the bottom of my heart to my agent, Claire Wilson, and my editor, Annalie Grainger, and the whole of Walker Books. When I told everyone that I wanted to write a book with an LGBT protagonist, nobody missed a beat before saying that was a great idea. After some of the stories you hear about publishing, I feel like the luckiest author in the entire world, and I’m so proud to be part of such a wonderful industry. You’re all my heroes.

THE NEXT TOGETHER, a reincarnation romance, comes out in September. You can add it on goodreads, preorder on amazon, or you can subscribe to my mailing list for updates nearer the time here. The sequel is on goodreads here.

A rebloggable version of this post can be found here.