Sex in YA: Everybody Does “It,” Nobody Talks About It

Originally Published: December 9th, 2013; Updated: June 24th, 2014

In Young Adult Literature, How Should Sex Exist?

Sex is a basic human need. When we’re young, we’re curious about it; as we mature, we want it and once we have it, we crave it. If we aren’t having it, we’re daydreaming about it, reflecting on past experiences, looking ahead to predict when we’ll have it again. For many, it’s an essential element of daily life.

I remember growing up being so intrigued about sex and it’s mechanics, wondering when I’d have it and how it would feel and generally being worried about whether or not it would live up to expectations and fantasies. Most of the time, the information I gathered about sex came from friends, watching TV (Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place, namely), movies — in particular, that scene with Jack and Rose in the car from Titanic — a scene I’ve recreated myself a few times because, well, if you’ve ever had car sex and didn’t try to do that hand thing, you’re dead inside:

Oh, and porn.

Pornography informed much of my knowledge about what sex entailed. Basically, I was horribly misinformed.

It didn’t help that music and advertisements also aided in the idea perpetuated by 90s gems TV shows like 90210 and Melrose Place that sexual partners could be traded as easily Pokemon cards. Between mass media and popular culture’s stagnant (mis)representation of sex, and my own inexperience with the act itself, I was, as a teenager, left to believe that sex was supposed to be polished and airbrushed and each encounter was supposed to be Jack-and-Rose perfect. Until the next encounter, with someone new, was bigger (pun intended) and better than the last.

Sex has become a numbers game, not a journey to find partnership.

Due to this, it’s hard to focus on what sex really represents: human connection.

As a writer of contemporary young adult (YA) fiction, sex is an inherent part of what I write. It’s used to show character growth, to awaken the characters, and to help put their arcs into sharp perspective. But one questioned I ask myself as I write these all-too-brief sex scenes is this: where is the line between gratuitous sex and necessary exposition?

As an avid reader growing up, I wish I read more YA novels that featured sex scenes between it’s two main characters that depicted the emotional connection. Sure, watching porn was great, but there isn’t much reality in pornography. Since sex is such a vital, albeit controversial, part of a teenagers life, a contemporary YA novel is the perfect medium through which to explore the intimacy — and the repercussions — of sex…without getting too explicit of course.

Fifty Shades of Grey would never exist in the YA genre, despite that type of explicit sex existing on many TV shows and in movies targeted toward the exact same audiences as YA novels. I’ll be honest, it’s hard not to write explicitly; what writer wouldn’t find a perverse thrill out of using the type of descriptive language that is supposed to be used everywhere else, on those scenes that delve into sexier territories?

During NaNoWriMo, I wrote a few key sex scenes for the novel that I’ve been writing since the beginning of the summer. They were written to illustrate key moments of character development. Some were done as flashbacks, others were written in the moment to juxtapose ideas of love versus ideas of using sex as a way to escape the powerful emotions that my main character was experiencing.

Without going into too much detail, the main character is dealing with the recent suicide of his boyfriend and he’s doing everything that he can not to feel or deal with it, including sleeping with one of his best friends who has feelings for him. To him, it’s just about the “hook up” in order to feel something other than numbing pain. The short scene below is an excerpt of a flashback of my main character and his boyfriend’s first time, pre-suicide, thats woven in between the scene of him and his friend “hooking up”:

[DISCLAIMER: this is extremely rough. I wrote this quickly and haven’t edited it yet at all. Keep that in mind, and if you have feedback, leave in the comments below!]

There was a spot overlooking the Pacific Ocean, on the cliffs where we would park our car and watch the sunset.

Unfortunately for us, the sun had already set.

We didn’t care.

I was in the backseat, my back pressed up against the door handle, my head resting against the cold glass. Kyle’s lips explored my neck, and my back arched whenever he found his way to my earlobe. I felt his strong hands, warm against my cool skin, slide under my shirt and caress my back, higher and higher until he pulled it up and over my head, tossing it into the darkness.

I moaned his name, calling out for him, and he responded in full force, grabbing my face with his hands and kissing me harder and harder; this wasn’t my first time, but it was the first time I had ever experienced unbridled passion, animal heat, the urge to tear at his skin and the need to feel his body pressed tightly to mine as the friction between us sparked enough to light a fire.

His hands found their way to my belt buckle but as he unfastened the loop and slid my jeans down, I stopped him.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“I love you,” Kyle said. “I’ve never been more sure about anything in my life.” He kissed me, his tongue explored mine as his hands expanded the elastic around my boxers. “You’re the only thing I’ve ever been sure about.” His voice was deep and carried a sense of longing, longing for me, for us, for tonight.

The windows had a thick layer of fog; the world could have ended that night and we never would have known.

Actually, it did.

Everything I thought I knew about sex, the mechanics, the intimacy, the connection, was false. With Kyle in the back seat of his Jeep, I realized that I’d been doing everything wrong. When our bodies connected, I entered into a realm unknown.

It’s short, it’s non-descriptive. There are no details of body parts, just a few key actions: belt loops, friction, connecting bodies, arched backs, skin-on-skin. It’s trying to accomplish a lot that, without the proper context (of which I didn’t even give y’all), might seem inappropriate to some.

But it’s not pornography, it’s love.

So if it’s love, and if sex is so prevalent in every other aspect of media and pop culture (and regular every day life for most teens), then why do so many  freak out over sex in YA novels? Many great books end up banned due to sex — and when my books get published, I expect I’ll join the long line of many wonderful YA books that were banned due to sexual content. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak has been banned due to it’s heavy theme of rape. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been cited due to a masturbation scene. And books featuring gay characters are routinely banned in schools due to, well, parents not wanting their children to be exposed to gayness. At least not without them talking about it first.

Sex, masturbation, and the (GASP!) existence homosexuality: these are all real parts of life that cannot be censored outside of a library, and many young kids learn from reading. Hell, I’d rather the children that I plan on having one day with my boyfriend/soon-to-be legal husband reading about masturbation rather than seeing it on some pornographic video sharing website because the bottom line is that pornographic content is so readily accessible to young kids that despite a parent’s good intentions to bring up these issues first, chances are they arrive at the scene too late.

I would’ve been mortified had my parents sat me down to talk about masturbation. I would have much rather read Alexie’s Part-Time Indian (which, by the way, is an exquisite YA novel) than having an uncomfortable conversation OR seeing it on a porn video first. And the reality is that most young boys — and I’m speaking from experience here — masturbate for the first time by accident. I remember I was all, “What’s this?” and feeling like I discovered the lost city of Atlantis/at the same time thinking I had done something heinously wrong/battling urges to do it again and again and (well, you get the point.) Reading about it in a book I admired would’ve only reinforced that this was something that was totally OK, and not something I needed to have an awkward conversation with my mom about.

My books are not about sex. They’re not about being sexy, or promoting sex as something promiscuous and unhealthy. It’s explored subtly, carefully, and for specific purposes. As a gay man, growing up I longed to read about two guys finding love and exploring that love in healthy ways, ways that all of my straight counterparts were doing already.

Sex is a part of the human experience, the teenage experience, and even though there is a line to walk between the gratuitous and the thematically relevant/plot-driving, I think that to ignore sex all together would be disingenuous to readers.

Sex is important because it’s a constant topic of conversation. Sex in literature is important because it allows us to learn about the subtle nuances of sex, both good and bad, in ways that no other form of media can.

Let’s talk about sex, not push it aside.

What do you think about sex? Sound off in the comments below!

23 thoughts on “Sex in YA: Everybody Does “It,” Nobody Talks About It

  1. I LOVE this and I couldn’t agree with you any more. Sex and sexuality shouldn’t be a taboo, or ignored, or make teenagers feel dirty/scared. Sex is such a universal thing yet it is so individual at the same time. No-one will have the exact same encounter yet we’re all made to feel that we aren’t quite good enough because of stupidly high expectations.

    Sex in YA books gets a massive thumbs up from me. It’s essential to show the emotional connection between two people, not just the physical. As you said, teenagers can be so misinformed from other sources. If done properly, sex can become a part of the all-round picture showing what a loving relationship can be on all levels.

    On a complete side note, I’ve just finished reading ‘Freeing’ by E.K. Blair (it goes alongside her first book, ‘Fading.’) Freeing has a gay man in the central role and yes, there are pretty descriptive sex scenes. The story as a whole was really important for me, having never read a book from that viewpoint before. The sex, although fairly graphic, really helped to illustrate the bond that can exist between two people, no matter what sexual orientation they may be. It won’t win a Nobel prize for writing but I think it tackled the subject head-on.

    This was such a brilliant idea for a post and really got me thinking!

    • Aw! THANK YOU for taking the time to contribute to this discussion!

      It’s crazy to think about how much sex is “sold” everywhere. In my writing and research class, we focus on media literacy and I show my students a PowerPoint filled with ads that promote sex from all angles. Ever see an American Apparel ad? They’re almost always perverted, tasteless, tacky, and promote promiscuity (not to mention rape culture), yet American Apparel is aimed at teenagers. Every teen show on TV is oozing with sex. Teens are having sex and not fully understanding the emotions and repercussions behind the act, yet when a book accurately portrays sex — whether it’s between two people of opposite sex who love each other, gay and lesbians teens who love each other, casual hook-ups, or rape, it’s shoved in the same categories as the above forms of media and targeted and BANNED.

      It’s time to promote realism!

      Thanks for the suggestion! I’m definitely going to pick that up! One of my favorite books (ever) features one of the best sex scenes I’ve read (it’s a tad sensational, but totally realistic and very well done from a writing standpoint) — Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg.

      Maybe one day my books will be on this mini-list 😉

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Sex is a general thing whether you’re having it or not or a teenager or not. I knew more people who where highly sexually active in high school then I do now in college. A lot of shows, from scripted to “reality” that are aimed at my demographic & younger are filled with sexually active characters. It actually got to a point where some of my friends who where sexually active actually wanted to see it less on t.v. It’s used in ads from the very hipsterish of stores to the very preppy douche stores. I think banning it in books actually harms more than helps. On a t.v show you can’t really get the emotionally impact sometimes that a character is going through to led them to be sexually active. Books actually place you in the character or at least give you some sort or reasoning & resonance to their emotions & actions better. I think in the end a well written book with or without a graphic sex scene is less provocative then seeing two people grind on each after knowing each other for one episode of a CW esque show aimed at the same age as a novel.

    • Nicely put. It’s always great to hear the voices of younger individuals on the matter (not that I’m “old” but it’s been quite a few years since I was in college.) Thanks for weighing in — and I totally agree that banning books ultimately does more harm. Why should any good YA book be censored? Books are the foundation to a well-rounded education, but in academics and in Life. In my professional opinion, they’re the best teachers. You can learn so much by reading a good book, and I’d rather read a killer sex scene than see one on TV…which then always leads me to ask this question in my own writing: Am I doing enough? Should I push the envelope? Should I reign it in? I guess time — and an editor — will tell.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Such a necessary discussion to be had! Also, brilliant connection with CRUEL INTENTIONS, as, frankly, that movie taught me pretty much everything I know about sex.

    …Omg, I think I just realized what’s wrong with me.

  4. Very interesting details you have mentioned , thankyou for posting . “A big man is one who makes us feel bigger when we are with him.” by John C. Maxwell.

  5. There should be a sex manual for teens — something realistic and useful. Teens need to know more, and I would have loved to have had to not search out the details of sex when I was younger via internet or the porn section of blockbuster

  6. It blows my mind that books would be banned because of gay characters. I identify as “straight,” but that doesn’t mean I’m so close-minded that I wouldn’t read a book where two dudes get it on in a scene. And I also wouldn’t be “swayed” or “brainwashed” into thinking I were gay if I read these books. I’m in high school and I wish there were more honest books about the human experience, all human experiences, and not just shelves filled with parent-approved books.

    • More (straight) guys should have your mindset! And I think that so many do, but, like you said, it’s the parents that dictate what their children read (and what other children read.) The worst is judging a book without even reading or understanding it.

      Like I said, sex is just one minute part of the human experience, and it’s not as if a gay sex scene is subliminal messaging or gratuitous porn.

      Hopefully one day literature will stand on its own, without the hand of censorship holding it back.

  7. Very informative and helpful! As a parent, I’m prone to protecting my kids, but I do have to agree with you that books shouldn’t be banned because of sexual content. As you said, there are more TV shows worth banning than books. Books are vessels for knowledge, and if my kids want to read, I’m not going to stop there. I just know that I have to be there if they have any questions.

    Thanks for this!

    • Thank you for being the voice of “Parent” here! Its always wonderful to hear other perspectives. I totally agree with what you said about books being vessels for knowledge, and more parents should take your stance.

      Thanks for reading!

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  9. Such a great read!! And definitely part of a larger conversation about mainstreaming sex, too. What should be taught? What shouldn’t be taught? Are we too prudish here in the states? I believe we should teach sexual freedom and how to find oneself sexually. Maybe then less teens will stupidly get pregnant and acquire STDs. What’s that old PBS slogan: “The more you know”!

    • Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed reading.

      I think there is so much that should be taught in high school…but is there a line? I think that, because sex is such a “hot” topic, or rather hot-buttoned topic, nothing will change in accordance to what is taught.

      But I’m definitely one who believes in sexual freedom.

  10. This was really interesting. I never really thought about sex in books like this before. I always just enjoyed a good poke between the pages! I do think that you’re right, though. Sex is an important part of growing up, therefore it should be an important part of books written for children.

  11. Pingback: How to Get Away With Murder. And Sex. | HyperReality

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