I'm excited that, today, Lauren James, YA author of The Next Together, is stopping by on my blog to discuss the need for sex in YA.
When I was twelve I googled sex on my Dad’s computer, checking nervously over my shoulder to make sure no one saw. I found pornography. It was horrifiying- all pink, shiny and loud. I closed it all, 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-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 after the first kiss that often signals the ending 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.)
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 that might possible, maybe have a scene with sex. They would just google it.
There needs to be a reliable source of information, in a form that isn’t a Sex Education class. One that teenagers can access without shame, and for free 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.
It’s even more important to ensure that there are depictions of LGBT sex in YA. Not only for young teenagers unsure of their own sexuality, who already receive a worse Sex Education in schools, and would get a particularly damaging idea of what sex is like from porn. But this is also important for straight teenagers, to show them that there is nothing gross or disgusting or scary about LGBT individuals. That LGBT 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 scene, they will turn to google, and 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.
Thank you, Lauren, for such a fantastic post. I couldn't agree with you more! Since writing this guest post for SiTL Month II, Lauren also wrote on her own blog asking the question "should there be diverse, explicit sex scenes in YA?" that is also well worth a read! It covers some of the things she says here, but also more about sex for diverse characters.
Be sure to check out The Next Together, and Lauren's website.