Well, I'll admit I was all ready to launch into this tirade about how popular arts are perpetuating this harmful myth that it's okay, funny, sometimes even adorable for boys to be completely stupid (but not so cute for girls), which further feeds into the problem of why teenage boys don't read and we're losing the classics (like Great Expectations) in school NOT because kids are too stupid to read the classics, but because teachers are too stupid to teach them (because a lot of those teachers were boys who learned when they were teens that it was cool to be dumb)... Oh, and was that a tirade?
And then... Wait:
I get this great guest blog post from Nevin Mays.
Here's the deal: I met Nevin Mays by exchanging online messages about a book that I'd read. I was kind of blown away by this really cool book and I wanted to find someone to talk to about it. So I asked around, and Nora Rawn from Random House told me that her friend, Nevin Mays (also an editor at Random House) read and enjoyed the same book. One of the awesome unheralded power of books is that ability they have to connect people, even those with divergent viewpoints. So, anyway, I asked Nevin what her take was on this Sex in YA topic, and she responded with this incredible post. So here's Nevin Mays on Sex in YA:
I started reading Danielle Steele’s romance novels when I was about 13-years-old. I borrowed the book from my mom. I did not do this in secret. I thought the sex scenes in that first romance novel were r-a-c-y racy! And I devoured that book, and the next and the next. For a long time romance novels and women’s magazines were the only pleasure reading I did. So my current opinion of sex in YA literature is a bit hypocritical, but here it is: I’m a Prude-with-a-capital-P and I want less sex in YA books!
But stop shaking your head. I’m not naïve. I know teens like to read sexy stuff, just like I did. I also know that some teens have sex. And some teens don’t have sex. And sometimes the decision to have or not have sex is taken away from a teen. But most importantly, all teens think about sex. Some of them want it, some have had it (some of those wish they hadn’t), and still others want it but they don’t know how they want it. Puberty is hard, high school is hard, and concerns about sex can be the most difficult to grapple with, not to mention the toughest to talk about.
Reading is the most private way teens can find answers to the questions they can’t ask out loud. Questions about what they’re feeling, what’s happening to them both internally and externally, the strange new thoughts they’re having. So we need to publish for ALL of these readers. We need books where the characters have sex and it’s good. We need books where characters have sex and regret it, and all the possible consequences of those actions. And we need books where the characters don’t have sex.
And, I stress, we need books where sex is not even part of the story. Because, don’t forget, there are lots of other reasons teens read: for school; for escape; to find kinship; or simply for fun. So we need books that serve those readers, too. And to do that we might not need to include any reference to sexuality. Two important questions to consider when wondering if sex is okay in a YA book are: Is it necessary and is it appropriate? To the story, for the characters, for the readers understanding, for the readers enjoyment?
There will be books, just as in general adult fiction, where the story is pure pleasure. In those cases the writer, the editor, the bookseller, the reader might not ask these questions. I’ll be honest here, these are the books I wish stayed in the adult section. If you aren’t questioning the necessity and appropriateness of the sex scenes, write your story for adults, with adult characters, and sell it in the adult section of the store. Yes, teens will find it and read it. I did. But they will know it was written with a more mature, more worldly (I make assumptions) reader in mind. Prude-me feels better knowing that teens know when they aren’t the intended audience. Thirteen-year-old me knew I wasn’t the intended audience of those romance novels and I think I read it a little differently than I would read those same novels now.
But let me end with a final personal disclosure. By the time I was 16, I was buying my own romance novels and they were way more erotic than what my mom had lent me. Yet, despite reading so voraciously about sex and romance, I was not having sex. I attribute this entirely to a healthy upbringing.
So, yes, I do think it’s necessary to have books that cover all experiences, and to have gatekeepers watching our media for teens. But even more important, I think we must raise healthy children. The point is not should there be sex in YA literature. The point is are we raising teens who can choose, read, and understand books appropriate for themselves? And this should be happening long before the sex scene is even published.