Face Off Friday: YA Lit and Sex


As most of you know, young adult books are all the rage right now. Many are calling it a YA renaissance. I know that many of you who read this blog both write (and read) YA, as I do. So hopefully this is a relevant topic for you guys.
When I was writing my YA, I had the constant worry about where to draw the line on the controversial things, particularly sex and cursing. In my teen years, YA lit was very different. Most of the books were pretty clean. There were the exceptions that many of the libraries banned (Judy Blume's Forever and the book Go Ask Alice come to mind), but for the most part books were "wholesome". So, in theory, when reading YA we were protected from the "adult" things. Right?
Well, this theory didn't hold true for me because by fourteen, I was bored with YA and had moved on to adult novels. As I mentioned in a previous post, I started V.C. Andrews' Flowers in the Attic series my freshman year of high school. Looking back, these books would probably be considered YA now. The protagonist was a teen. However, the books had sex, so at that time, they were marketed as adult fiction. And as for cursing, well I had a thing for Stephen King books in high school too, so...
In today's YA market, the books run the gamut--from the squeaky clean to the shocking. So when writing, I had to make the decision of where I would fall on this issue. People on each side of this debate feel very strongly about their opinions. I'll give you the argument, then I'll tell you what I ultimately decided worked for me.
Wholesome vs. Edgy

For love of the wholesome:
  • Books with cursing, sex, and drugs normalize these behaviors and encourage teens to participate in them
  • These books are pornographic and are selling sex to kids
  • They teach teens (girls especially) that their worth is tied into their ability to please a boy
  • The situations in these books expose children to adult situations that they aren't prepared to handle or interpret correctly

In defense of edgy:
  • These books, although it is unfortunate, reflect reality: many teens are in fact having sex, some are exposed to drugs, and the majority are cursing.
  • Teens are programmed to think about sex so we're not giving them any ideas with the books
  • There is safety in fantasy. Perhaps teens can explore the topic through a book instead of in real life. For instance, in Forever, the sex is there but so are the emotional consequences that can happen in a sexual relationship.
  • Most YA authors, although I'm sure there are exceptions, do not put sex in for gratuitous purposes, but for plot purposes.
  • Has anyone watched TV lately or seen a movie or listened to the radio? Teens see a lot more sex outside of books than they see inside them.
  • Teens can connect with a character who is struggling with the difficult issues and not feel as alone.
  • Teen readers won't believe you if all your characters are squeaky clean
  • If it's kept out of YA, the kids (like me) will just move to adult books, which may paint sex in a much more gratuitous and tempting light (sans consequences).
Both arguments have good points. So what did I do? I ended up trusting my characters. If in real life, I felt the character would curse, then I let him (where it would have the most impact.) I also put in some sexual situations and dialogue, but nothing beyond making out actually happens.
Why? Because of plot reasons. If I had felt my character was ready to have sex, then I probably would have let her. But the story didn't lead me that way. So I guess I fall on the liberal side in this debate. Perhaps I'm jaded from working with troubled teens in my past. They always trusted me more in therapy when I didn't balk at or preach about the things they were experiencing. I just let them talk through their feelings and offered some insight to try to lead them in a better direction.
So where do you fall in the debate? How did you make the decisions in your own YA? If you're a parent of a teen, how do you feel about what your child reads?
**Today's Theme Song**
"Don't Tell Me" - Avril Lavigne
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