Young Adult Fiction Writers Are (Finally) Ready To Talk About Sex
When, and why, did the YA genre finally embrace healthy teenage sexuality?
When I was growing up, I knew where all the sex parts were in my favorite books — and there weren’t many. There was Laura Ingalls Wilder in The First Four Years, responding to news of her pregnancy with “they that dance must pay the fiddler,” and there was Anne Shirley in Anne of Windy Poplars, writing love letters to Gilbert that L.M. Montgomery coyly censored.
I figured out that Lydia Bennet and Mr. Wickham must have had sex while watching the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice (that ending scene, where the camera pauses on Lydia and Wickham in a rumpled bed, was essential to my adolescent sexual awakening), although Jane Austen never clarified it in her original text. I wondered if that was a standard interpretation of the book, the way that our English teachers just knew that that one scene in Romeo and Juliet came right after they had finished doing it.
I did not have access to Judy Blume’s Forever, and never even learned that Ralph existed until I was an adult, reading Lizzie Skurnick’s Shelf Discovery posts on Jezebel. I did have access to my parents’ copy of Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides, and read the sex parts as eagerly as I read the scene where the abusive father was tricked into eating dog food, both inspiring the same mixture of curiosity — what did dog food taste like, after all? — and shame.
I mean, shame was permanently associated with teens and sex, right? Romeo and Juliet both ended up dead, and Lydia ended up socially ostracized even though she got married like she was supposed to. When my favorite character Tibby lost her virginity in one of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books, she had to do the emotional labor of shaming herself, spending the rest of the book worrying about a pregnancy scare.
Shame was permanently associated with teens and sex, right?
And then I read Kody Keplinger’s The Duff. This book, written for a teen audience by an actual teen writer — Keplinger was 17 when she wrote it, and 19 when it was published in 2010 — approached sex in a way I’d never seen in YA and rarely seen in any book:
“We slept together several times, and while I really didn’t enjoy the actual sex, the sensation of closeness, of connection, was comforting to me. When Jake touched me like that, I knew he loved me. I knew sex was a beautiful, passionate thing, and it was right to be with him…Sleeping with Wesley Rush was entirely different. While I definitely got more physical pleasure out of it, the closeness and the love were missing. When it was over, I felt dirty. I felt like I’d done something wrong and shameful, but at the same time, I felt good. Alive. Free. Wild. My mind was totally cleared, like someone had hit the refresh button. I knew the euphoria wouldn’t last forever, but the filthy regret was worth the momentary escape.”
Wow. The Duff isn’t even about sex, at least not in the way that Forever is about sex, and you still get all of these amazing scenes where a teenage girl is in charge of her own sexuality and desires, and where having consensual, safe sex is presented as something that teenagers naturally do.
I wanted to find out what had changed. When did YA authors start including that kind of sex in their stories? What happened to the agonizing over whether to lose one’s virginity, the pregnancy scares, and all of the other hedging around the idea of sex that I remember from my own adolescent reading?
When, and why, did the YA genre finally embrace healthy teenage sexuality?
“Most of the books I read in YA frankly didn’t really have sex, and if they did, it was like the girl would consider doing it, but then she usually didn’t,” Keplinger says. “That was presented as a good thing. The girls in books who did have sex were called sluts, which, even as a teenager, bothered me.”
Keplinger says that when her friends started becoming sexually active as teenagers, “it bothered me that there was this idea that they were somehow making a wrong decision. Many of them were very responsible — despite having no formal sexual education — and many of them had very supportive parents whom they were able to talk to. I had a really supportive mother who made it very clear that I could talk to her about those sorts of things.”
So, at 17, Keplinger wrote the YA book she wished she could read: “I wanted to write a story where a girl had sex and it wasn’t this huge catastrophe or this big deal that the whole book led up to. This is just one part of her entire story.”
Writers with straight teen protagonists often get to choose how much sex is part of their characters’ stories. Writers crafting teen novels with LGBT protagonists face a different balance. Bill Konigsberg, author of Openly Straight, says, “I think it would be challenging to write a book about an LGBT teen character without addressing sex and sexuality, but I’d love to read the attempt!” However, Openly Straight’s Rafe, like Keplinger’s Bianca, demands to be viewed as a person, not as a “sexually active teen.” He and Bianca both lose their virginities before the events of their respective books begin, and both of them approach sex as just one part of their multifaceted lives.
Even when YA protagonists choose to become sexually active as part of their narrative, contemporary YA authors often present this as a natural, positive experience instead of a fraught decision. Amy Spalding’s Kissing Ted Callahan (and Other Guys) includes a virginity-loss scene that is female-driven, consent-driven, and shame-free. Both partners confirm consent at various stages, and they end the encounter feeling safe, connected, and empowered.
“I remember as a teen that I’d read books about relationships, and how everything would be fine and dandy until a boy tried to touch your boobs, and then he was a pervy jerk who had to be broken up with for a nice sensitive boy who had no interest in boobs.” Spalding, who is a friend of mine, had clearly read some of the same types of YA stories as I had. “And it just made no sense to me, even as a square and prudish 13-year-old, how clearly defined that line seemed to be, that kissing was okay but anything beyond meant the guy was a jerk, but also sex was supposed to be this beautiful thing.”
Spalding also notes that she does not put sex into her books as just a matter of principle. Her character Devan in The Reece Malcolm List has a few sexual thoughts throughout the book, but her other interests dominate the narrative. “It’s really about honoring the character and what choices they would or wouldn’t make,” Spalding explains. “I’m not interested in teaching lessons or pointing to some sort of moral takeaway. For some girls, sex is a big deal, for some it isn’t, and for many others, there’s a whole spectrum in between on how they might feel for any given circumstance.”
‘I wanted to write a story where a girl had sex and it wasn’t this huge catastrophe or this big deal that the whole book led up to.’
Some YA authors do want to use this more open sexual conversation to teach lessons. When I asked David Yoo about his novel Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before, he replied: “I wanted to show the mindset of the high school jealous guy, how even a kid who never even talked to girls and was shy and quiet could devolve into the typical lame jealous guy, too.”
Yoo’s protagonist, Albert, is a relatable character who makes a mistake common to many first (or second, or third) relationships — believing that he is entitled to more of his girlfriend Mia’s life than she is willing to give. As in many YA novels, consent is paramount; Albert does not assault Mia or even pressure her, but he is frustrated that she is not giving him the sexual access he believes should naturally come with their relationship.
Yoo writes Albert specifically to show why this frustration is understandable and incorrect. His character Nick in Girls for Breakfast has similarly entitled views about girls, and Yoo makes this a deliberate choice:
“They have admittedly lame/crass/stupid ideas about girls and sex, but deep down they’re clueless, terrified, and I wanted to show how the subject of girls is so thoroughly tethered to a boy’s self-worth and jarringly low self-esteem. I often come across these utterly unrealistic, practically fairytale-ish portrayals of teen boys in YA novels that don’t remotely seem authentic or fully-fleshed out to me. I embrace the risk of readers finding my protags unlikeable because it’s those ugly traits and thoughts that intrigue me.”
Whether teen readers find these protagonists unlikable is one thing. Whether parents and educators find them unlikable is another. As Konigsberg explains: “In Texas, [Openly Straight] was challenged based solely on the fact that my main character was gay. That challenge failed, thankfully, but it’s just how things are.”
“[The Duff] hasn’t gotten as much pushback as you would think. Obviously, some parents are not comfortable with the book. I’ve actually gotten a lot of really positive feedback from places I haven’t expected. I’ve had several librarians and teachers write to me saying that they keep the book in their classrooms or recommend it often because it’s something that they want especially their female students to read. I’ve had parents who are YA readers write to me and say, ‘I can’t wait until my daughter is old enough to read this book.’ That means a lot to me. Most teenagers who write to me have also really appreciated the book.”
I definitely would have appreciated more stories about enthusiastic and consensual sexuality — especially female-driven sexuality — when I was a teenager. In my later teen years, I was able to fill that need through online fanfic communities. (I read countless Pride and Prejudice fanfic stories where the characters had all the sex that Austen left off the page.) Now, you can browse the Amazon Recommendations list or the Barnes & Noble YA section and find sex and sexuality addressed honestly and compassionately from a multiplicity of viewpoints.
“I think there’s been a huge change in YA, even in just the past few years,” Keplinger says. “When I was in high school, I didn’t see books like this.”
There’s one more piece here, and it has to do with the idea that teens who read stories where sex is presented as a shame-free part of adolescence may also be inspired to write their own stories. Like Keplinger, I wrote a novel in my teen years, but my protagonist approached sex from a point of fear and shame, to match how I had seen teenage sex and female desire presented in other stories. (Never underestimate the power of a trope.)
Keplinger, however, used The Duff as a way to explore her own boundaries and assumptions:
“I started writing this story and I knew that I wanted it to push my boundaries, at least. I wasn’t really thinking about the boundaries of the market at the time, or anything like that. I didn’t really think it would ever get published. I mostly wrote this book for me. So I wanted to push my boundaries and talk about things I didn’t always feel comfortable talking about, and have a story about a character who was very different from me. She kind of led the way. It sounds weird to say this, but a lot of my views on sexuality and body image were shaped through writing that story.”
It doesn’t sound weird at all. We are shaped both by the stories we read and the stories we tell, and this new YA sexual revolution is giving us more stories and perspectives to consider. The more “sex parts” today’s teens find in their favorite books, the more they’ll be able to make smart, safe, and empowered decisions about their own sexualities.