HE SAID, SHE SAID is a monthly feature created and hosted by Rachel @ Confessions of a Book Geek and Joey @ thoughts and afterthoughts where formality is thrown out the window in no-holds-barred discussions on all things bookish.
Following on from our previous discussion, Part I: Sex in NA/Adult Fiction, we’re going to take it back a few steps and look at the physical, emotional and sexual interactions between young-adults in Young Adult literature.
Segments have been colour-coded for easier reading:
[Discussion Prompts] | [Important Info]
In this discussion:
[She Said] | [He Said]
Disclaimer: This post may contain explicit content.
He Said: With last month’s discussion tackling sex in NA/Adult fiction, it’s time we shift gears and look at the young-adult perspective. I think the elephant in the room is whether or not YA fiction should have any inkling of sexual representation in the text. But let’s start off with some basics: tell me about your sexual education experience growing up. Was it extremely vague? Did you learn a great deal about the birds and the bees, or was that something you discovered on your own terms?
She Said: I should start off by saying that I went to an all-girl Catholic Grammar School, that was founded by nuns. Religion was a compulsory class for the first five years, and sex was only really discussed in the context of marriage, to make babies.
We had a couple of guest speakers each year, who would touch on topics like puberty and (dare I say it) menstruation, but they generally avoided anything too heavy, most likely due to the glare of the old-school teachers at the back of the assembly hall. Then, in my third year (2003 and roughly age 14), a girl got pregnant. There had always been the occasional teenage pregnancy in local High Schools, but never at my school (that I knew of) and never that young. Within a week of it being announced the school had arranged a Safe Sex talk for our entire year group, that included watching a video of a live birth (watching that video was an effective form of contraception!). But it felt too little, too late.
This was a common practice for our school. We received a [fantastic] drug and alcohol abuse talk after a student was discovered with a bottle of vodka in her locker, and we received a LGBTQ talk from a former student after senior students had started to “come out” and be open with their sexuality, which must have been difficult considering the religious environment.
I do remember the school becoming more involved and open-minded as I grew older, and I’m sure they’ve moved even further into the 20th Century now, but I imagine it was tough for them too considering the teachings and ethos the school was founded on. When it came to the proper nitty gritty, we relied on friends, family and the media for our sexual education, which could be lacking at best, and misleading at worst. Perhaps because of this, I believe in a more open approach – I think any information provided should be age and maturity appropriate, but I do think it’s necessary and important to talk about sex, sexuality and all of those other “awkward” topics.
He Said: Well, I guess I shouldn’t have posed that question, because it seems like I’m not able to recall anything that stands out about my own sexual education. While I want to say that the traditional system you grew up in has its own merits from a religious standpoint, I think it’s fair to say that being a product of public schooling is also traditional in its own way – so in that sense, we have two key perspectives. If you were homeschooled, you’re encouraged to comment on your experience with health and sex ed!
My elementary schooling (from ages 4-13) didn’t see a great deal of sexual education. There were some sex-ed units during grades 6-8, where we learned the bare minimum (fertilization, menstruation, what of it, etc.) and to be frank, at the time, I don’t think much stuck. I don’t necessarily fault the schooling, but rather it wasn’t taken seriously by the students themselves because that was the age where penis jokes were a great source of humor and cooties were still the rave. It’s safe to say that I learned nada from elementary school; or perhaps, nothing important enough to stick (the thought was there though!). When I entered non-semestered high school, I only had sex-ed during grade 9, as it was a requirement (later it became an elective). Our health/gym classes were gender-specific and did delve into more specific issues like sexually transmitted diseases, contraception (with tutorials), in-depth puberty changes, etc. I just checked up on the curriculum and it seems that the education system now is a lot more progressive, as though reform has pushed sex-ed down to younger teenagers to foster earlier learning.
This is fine, I guess, but I do question how much young people are earnestly retaining. There’s a difference between theory and practice, and also a difference in the quality of information you gain from various types of exposure, such as television and online media. When I was younger, I remember seeing various adult programming clips in passing on the Showcase Network. It was as educational as dramatic television with inklings of pornography could be; and I wasn’t hoping to learn anything from it. These media outlets were widely accessible to me because I didn’t really come from a sheltered family and my social life was pretty diverse as well. During my pre-high school days before growing into my nerdy hipster ways, I had diverse groups of friends (but I’m not as cool as that sounds). In one particular group, a mix of both guys and girls, I often stayed out near midnight, played manhunt (urban tag at night), truth-or-dare and spin-the-bottle, occasionally alcohol was involved (without consent – I know, I must have been so cool!). While this is a tangent off sexual education, I feel these factors are part of that mentality of “cool things” that are all lumped into the taboo category as a young-adult.
I can’t really say whether or not my education system provided me with much guidance and information, aside from bringing my attention to the idea or the thought of certain things that would be explored in greater detail through using Google. And maybe that’s all educators have to do–not necessarily teach students about sex ed, but point out the elephant-in-the-room.
She Said: I think that elephant is pretty obvious, and the danger of just highlighting the subject and then allowing teens to self-educate is that the information they receive is usually grossly inaccurate and misguided, especially through sources like Google. I think it would also be really overwhelming for a young person who hasn’t got the emotional maturity to understand much of what they will find. Although my early schooling was more religious and traditional, some of us still stayed out late, played spin-the-bottle and drank before we necessarily should have – and I think that’s also a point to make, the sex education system that adults want to teach, and the stuff that kids want to know about, are two very different things. When I was growing up it was like these two viewpoints were constantly battling each other, and you just can’t halt young-adult culture and progression. I have to say though, I remember a whole lot of my sexual education – but I have a pretty good memory in general, so I doubt it’s topic specific.
He Said: The whole concept of parental censorship is definitely a doozy to talk about (seeing as how neither of us are parents) so we’d have an idealistic approach at best. But no matter how many restrictions are enforced, with this being the information-generation in the middle of the digital age, kids don’t even need to be cunning to find things out if they want to. So I think it’s great when young adults explore topics on their own time. From my experience, earnestly self-educating is the stuff that sticks—not the information being forced onto you. Perhaps I was a pretty resilient Internet Googler growing up so understanding the sorting of good versus bad information seemed second nature. Many individuals then (and now), it seems; try to make sense of the first few links they can find with semi-relevant information. With the increasing amount of noise on the web, it can become counter-intuitive to try to learn from the web. But it’s still an invaluable resource to pick up the pieces where schooling might fall short at.
From a bookish perspective then, did you ever come across any YA fiction with sexual content during your adolescent years? And how about when you read YA fiction now?
She Said: This is where I need to go rooting through Goodreads… Any YA I read when I was younger didn’t have explicit sexual content, but they would have had some sexual context, notably Jacqueline Wilson’s Girls in Love, Meg Cabot’s Mediator Series and Pretty Things by Sarah Manning. These novels explored crushes and dating, and other issues that would present themselves in a young adult’s life. At around 15, I jumped from reading YA to reading Adult Chick-Lit, only coming back to YA quite recently. Pushing the Limits and Dare You To by Katie McGarry are both marked Young Adult, but I would’ve thought they were verging more towards New Adult. They get just a little more hot-n-heavy than I was expecting (in a good way!) and I really enjoyed them at 24. I’m not sure what I would have made of them at 14. Although the thought of sexual context in YA fiction is likely very scary for the parentals, I do think it’s important.
He Said: I didn’t read a lot of YA fiction when I was a young adult), so I don’t have much to add from my perspective. I think in the past few years, I’ve come across more YA novels with sexual context, but not so many detailed sex scenes. Perhaps sex is becoming one of the acceptable table topics writers can tap into and still be seen as “serious”. I’d personally argue that YA can have sex scenes in them, as it’s not like schools aren’t delving into these studies at an early age.
But you must enlighten me on these different genres, is New Adult the gatekeeper to Adult Fiction? And what makes chick-lit different from other adult novels?
She Said: OK, here’s a quick breakdown –
Young Adult fiction has a protagonist usually between the ages of 13-18 and can be based in any genre. Romance and relationships can be touched on, but are usually not overly explicit in nature.
New Adult has only been around for a couple of years, so rather than being the gatekeeper to Adult fiction, it’s more like the gap-filler. The protagonist is usually between the ages of 19-24 and its intent was to cover that early-twenties age range. Unfortunately, when it first came out, it was very sex-heavy, and most of the original New Adult books read like erotica, when really authors could tackle so many more issues within that age range. New Adult has definitely improved lately.
Adult fiction obviously has an adult protagonist, and can again be in any genre. Chick-lit became a buzz term for books that mostly draw a female audience, books featuring romance and family life, they are sometimes considered to be “fluffy” reads, though that can be a gross exaggeration.
I read the very odd YA novel that had a sex scene when I was a mature YA myself, but I can’t pinpoint the titles right now. They clearly made an impression on me… YA fiction generally has less graphic sex scenes, with more “innocent” depictions of romance and first relationships, which I think is a good thing. Teenagers aren’t sheltered creatures and there’s no point in not discussing sex in fiction, or even first-love in fiction, so long as it’s suitable content for the maturity level of the audience. I have read more YA as an adult with more descriptive scenes, so I wonder if sex scenes in YA fiction are more common now than when I was a teen?
Also, I think there’s an issue in that the YA genre is supposed to encompass 12 to 18 year-olds, those are not only some of the most formative years of your life, but the maturity level of a 12 year-old in comparison to a 18 year-old is vastly different, and I don’t think we can bung all novels for that wide age-range into the same category. Thankfully, New Adult has come along!
He Said: You’ve hit on a perplexing topic for me regarding YA-fiction and its innocent depictions of romance, bringing me back to a topic we talked about in our last discussion – instalove. I think we can somewhat agree that instalove is a pretty tacky approach to romance, right? But speaking from a romance-angle only (and from my limited experience of romance in YA fiction), I feel as though most of the romance that I’ve come across is so inexplicably bubble-gum-pop that it often doesn’t delve into some of the deeper, or darker, subject areas that can arise with sexual relationships. This may be a small niche to consider, but with the seemingly unrealistic expectations of instalove and the fact that this instant attraction is what guides the whole young love concept along, I feel like the genre is staying within a bubble of safe topics and not ones that explore the depth of young people today.
You’re right: teens aren’t sheltered (I find them to be more mature than ever) and it would be refreshing to see some sexual content explored in the YA age-range. I think the distinction between YA and NA being based on the inclusion of more “adult” themes is a fair approach, but once you do that, I feel like you totally eliminate the creative possibility of sex in YA literature. What do you think of using sex in literature as some form of learning module?
She Said: I think it can and should be used. Maybe not learning from a strictly educational point-of-view, because young people are likely to switch off to that. Jacqueline Wilson is one author who educates through her novels, but I only became aware of this as an adult looking back, not as a young person reading her books. I don’t think sex should be “hidden” or not discussed in a YA novel. Are you trying to tell me 16 year olds don’t know about/aren’t having sex? Or that younger teenagers aren’t at least thinking about it? I think how it’s written about is important. Sometimes I feel like sex in books (particularly YA) is glorified. Everyone has a fantastic time, everyone is so experienced, it’s magical, you “release the breath you didn’t know you were holding” blah, blah, blah. I think seeing some more realistic portrayals could be both interesting and more realistic for teens, who may expect these mind-blowing romances and amazing first time experiences in their own lives…
He Said: Right on. Though I’m wondering how much of the audience would actually enjoy learning through experimentation, as opposed to the grit of realistically written fiction. Realistic or not, would it be written as more of a second-hand account, as a way to allow teens to explore the experience without taking part? I guess if it’s written with the finesse of realism, kids will definitely have the heads up on all the feels and all the confusion surrounding it; and perhaps maybe it’ll discourage/encourage them! What’s that I hear…books are contraceptives now? Unreal. But with all that said and done, do you think parents are truly allowed to get mad at YA novels that have sexual context?
She Said: No, I don’t. Bearing in mind we are speaking as two non-parents. I don’t think parents have the right to get “mad” at sexual content in YA novels, but they do have the right to censor what their children read. Movies come with age-ratings, which can make things a little easier, though those are still subjective, but I imagine censoring books is more difficult as the adult would need to read it first to see what they make of it. I would just encourage parents to be a bit more open in what they allow their children to read. It’s a tough issue though, there’s a fear that sex in fiction encourages promiscuity, similarly there’s a fear that a lack of sexual education and exploration results in teen pregnancy due to curiosity and a lack of information. Teenagers are individuals who will form their own opinions and make their own choices regardless of what they are shown, taught or read. At least by being exposed to these issues in a safe and non-threatening way, they can make their own informed judgements.
He Said: Well I couldn’t have said it better myself. I’ll just add that I found a lot of my peers growing up never had the parental enlightenment of the birds and the bees so I feel it’s often unjustified for parents to get irked at the exposure of sexual content when I seldom see them earnestly approaching the topic. I’m not faulting a parent’s teaching style; to each their own really, but unless kids/parents are super close, I feel like there’s a disconnect in communication and kids (more often than not) learn the minimum from school, and more from multi-and-social media, than from their mom/pops. Further to this, there’s this notion that sexual content in books is by all intents and purposes a means to hypersexualize teenagers. And like you mention, it’s often forgotten how safe it is to learn about the process of sex through reading. The importance is that unless it’s a harsh truth that’s incredibly shocking, parents may be just hyperbolizing it to the extent that they’re making it seem like more than what it is: sex is a part of life. Deal, yo.
(S)HE SAID: Now’s where we turn to you!
- How do you find the current representation of sex culture in young-adult novels?
- Do you think it should be included in YA, or disregarded completely? How encouraged are you to read about sex in YA?
- Do you closely monitor what your children read, or will you when you’re a parent?
Hit us up in the comments below!
This is late–and oh so completely my fault for being occupied with life! But no fear, this monthly feature still lives. With a majority of you readers being YA-fiction fanatics, I do hope that you can share some of your experiences through the prompts or any comments for that matter. Thank you for taking the time to read this (this is definitely shorter in length than the previous discussion–we’re working on it!!)
13 thoughts on “[He Said, She Said] – Birds and The Bees: Sex in YA Fiction”
I just posted my comments on Rachel’s post. I really enjoyed this!
Again, fantastic job on the He Said, She Said! I’ve been looking forward to this conversation and I agree with a lot of both points.
As a parent of a young girl – this is hard for me to think about without saying I’m going to just lock her in her room until she’s 30. HA. When I think back to my young adult life – back then, YA books were more in the RL Stine variety and there was very little sex or romance. I read one book as a kid by Judy Blume that introduced sex in high school and it shocked the hell out of me.
What I do remember is that sex was very briefly talked about and we had one education class in elementary school. Beyond that, I learned from movies (Dirty Dancing, anyone?) and from the adult romance novels I was reading, whether my mom knew it or not (she never said). And because I was trusted by my parents, they didn’t ever have to worry about me taking anything literally and experimenting. I have to also mention that I was brought up religiously and ‘the fear’ was really instilled in me. But I had a very close friend get pregnant at age 15 – so I was still aware of the consequences.
I think if parents are open and honest with their kids, and make sure their kids feel comfortable asking questions, like you said – they will make their own choices and decide for themselves. All we can do as parents is make sure they are informed and hope we’ve raised them right. You can’t shelter children these days – there’s too many ways for them to learn things. I will admit my daughter’s teenage years terrify me and I just hope she’s smart, informed, and can always feel like she can confide in me and ask questions. Do I want her to be sexually active that young? Hell no. But I also don’t live in the denial that I can stop it. I will keep an eye on the books she reads and probably limit the ‘older’ YA books until she’s closer to 15-16. But really, a child’s maturity is more about their mindset than their age. I guess time will tell, but I’m already preparing myself for those days. 🙂
Fantastic topic and convo! I really enjoy and look forward to these. 🙂
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I’m stoked you enjoyed it, Brandie!
There’s definitely a noteworthy shift in what I’ve seen considered YA from then and now. From what I can remember, RL Stine, Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, were all YA books with little-to-no sexual directive. Now, the market for romance; specifically YA-contemporary, has opened up greater dialogue to explore these “iffy” topics that was once seldom explored on the mainstage of novels. And to a certain degree–that’s pretty awesome.
It’s great to hear about your influences and upbringing as it relates to your discovery of adult-themed novels, and how you’ll go about passing on your experiences to your kids. There’s definitely a grey area of comfort in discussing hot topics that might spur the wrong kind of reaction; and I guess as long as children know that homes are a safe zone and parents aren’t out to ‘get them for poor behaviors’ then I think we’ll be alright. It is definitely in the hopes that kids will reach out to parents when in need; and this nagging thought if you (as a parent) have done enough. But in most cases, parents gotta pat themselves in the back–you’ve done good!
All kids will one day realize that they’re the embodiment of the wealth of experience and knowledge their parents have passed down (even if it hasn’t been written or spoken in words). And talking about all these perplexing and sketchy topics is just a step in that direction, but certainly not something that we can schedule in. If it happens, life is great. If not, life is also great!
I’m glad you enjoyed the read, Shannon!
I think this post was really well done! I feel like I have noticed sex get mentioned a LITTLE more in YA in the past few years, but usually I find that authors take the approach of speaking about it as some big plot point, a buildup that the female protagonist often dreams about, and when the moment does happen, it’s all very vague and fluffily (not a real word, but hopefully you get my meaning) worded. And that’s really disappointing, because I would rather have sex be discussed honestly and realistically, including discussions about consequences and protection, and to show that teenagers CAN make informed, responsible choices regarding sex, whether they have it or not.
I also really love that you brought up the concept of “instalove” in relation to sex, whether it contributes or substitutes for it, because I think while people are getting all upset about sexual content, no one is really acknowledging the potentially damaging impact of so many portrayals of insta-love. (Take Twilight, for example. Sex is a topic flirted with in the series as Bella is immediately attracted to Edward, but when she broaches the topic in the earlier book he refuses to engage in sex until marriage, and refuses to budge on the stance. So Bella DOES marry him in the last book, largely so they can have sex before she’s turned. Yet this is really a damaging message because Edward has single handedly made the decision of how her sexuality should be handled and expressed for her and them unilaterally, and he has that power and authority as the insta-love inducing male protagonist. I think that this is a really damaging message, that he gets to control Bella’s sexual expression, but it reads as a good thing to many because HE chose to wait, whereas had Bella gotten her way it would’ve been WRONG because it was before marriage, and would’ve made her promiscuous.)
I really don’t plan on censoring what my children read because I know I struggled with that growing up. I loved to read and was at a more advanced reading level than my grade level, so I was reading adult and YA while still under the age of 13. This definitely exposed me to more mature content, and I was upset when I was told I couldn’t read at my reading level because of some of this content. I think if a child is at the intellectual maturity to read advanced material they probably have the corresponding emotional maturity to as well, and if I was ever worried I would rather have a discussion about those topics with my child rather than prevent them from reading…especially when a lot of the “classics” that are middle school and high school level contain sexual content, or sexual references (like Catcher in the Rye)
The fact that YA books try to highlight sex as the major plot point and not as a naturally occuring event with all the good/bad discussion fix-ins is understandable but also perplexing; especially in the contemporary genre. You’re right, it is vague and fluffy, and it doesn’t often highlight the integrity and resilience of young-adults to you know…make choices. But perhaps it goes against the grain of idealistic writing. I guess some could argue against having realistic, gritty talk on contraceptives and the actual awkward/lustrous/exciting/insertwordhere process of sex. But it seems as though more and more people (from what I’ve seen) appreciate realistic accounts of what sex could be like as opposed to the other fluffy self. So I’m glad to read about your stance on all of this.
Instalove is SO funny to me. It’s even worse when I read commentary on why people dislike this particular trope but end up enjoying their respective novels WITH romance (and inevitably instalove). Maybe it’s denial because everyone latches onto their ship or swoonworthy boy/girl and bam we sort-of shove instalove to the back of our minds. But it’s popular…so I digress.
That is an interesting example you brought up with Twilight. I’ve only watched the first two movies? (I couldn’t take the camera rotating around emotional, heart-broken Bella, as the seasons changed. LOL I was dying from laughter.) A lot of this goes back to the intent of the authorship versus what people are taking away from the read…and the latter is what’s important. You’ll have readers with untrained eyes and those who dig for meaning; and while both are valued, I wonder how many readers have thought about the point you made. Definitely some food for thought!
Times have definitely changed in how easy mature content is accessible to young viewers through a variety of mediums. I feel like this essentially translates to kids being more easily informed on topics and each hit of information is like a spike in their maturity. But I’ll admit that it’ll probably be difficult (but not impossible) to gauge this level of maturity as a parent. But hey, parents will do what they think is best for their kids…and that’s the best hope we can have.
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I really hate insta-love ( like my super ultimate hate). And I agree that YA books should feature some more realistic first relationships! I don’t know any one who has kissed someone and had their ‘whole world shatter and realign with the other person at the centre’. Usually they text me something more along the lines of ‘it was abit awkward and he tasted of cheese and onion crisps…’. I want to see real relationships! Especiallly in the dystopian genre.
Great post btw! x
Ha, there is definitely truth to awkwardness but rarely is it mentioned I guess. I think it might go back to the idealistic nature of fiction but it certainly begs the question of how readers will be able to connect with “the perfect moment” when first time is all weird and perplexing and jittery awkwardness (maybe).
Having realistic romance in dystopian novels seems like it’d be a tough task, considering its frantic environment of essentially trying to survive. Which I guess is why in some cases, instalove seems to be the trope of choice for some odd reason. It makes sense that these characters could die tomorrow so “why not get all sexy with the next person I find attractive?”–but by the same measure, it’s like, lolwhat?! humans are far from living like that in the everyday. What a dilemma.
And I’m glad you enjoyed this read!