Sex in Young Adult Novels

My current novel draft is realistic contemporary YA fiction, and so I’ve been reading a lot of realistic contemporary YA novels lately. For the most part, I’ve been impressed with what people have recommended to me: I’m finding YA authors who are willing to deal with big questions (how do we make meaning of life? how can we respond to the reality of suffering? how can we relate to each other?) in stories that are engaging enough to keep me up until 3 a.m. There’s no shortage of great writers in YA fiction today, and the bar for excellence in craft is set incredibly high.

At the same time I’ve admired current realistic YA writing overall, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about the treatment of sex in the genre overall. It’s no secret, of course, that there is more sex in YA fiction than there was…well, at any other time in the not-so-long history of YA fiction. But I guess I associated sex mostly with the likes of the Gossip Girls series more than with idea-driven books like, say, John Green’s.

The most common problem religious critics have with sex in books is that of pornography: that even made-up sex can cause real arousal, and that on-demand arousal can cause significant spiritual and social problems. Today, though, I want to skip over that discussion entirely to talk about what roles sex seems to be playing in the stories I read in the lives of the characters. What does sex mean to them–and what does that mean for us?

Content advisory: there will be some sexual details in my discussion of YA texts.

What is sex like in books?

What role does sex play in society and relationships in many current YA books?
I have three main observations:

1. Sexual initiation is often treated as an important rite of passage.

YA books typically focus on coming-of-age arcs, and sex is often part of the way characters and authors alike draw a line between naive youth and more experienced young adulthood. In many books, the trope of virginity is used comically as a juvenile state characters want to escape, though with the caveat that they’d like their sexual initiation to be memorable or noteworthy in some way. Even an awkward sexual experience or a sexual experience with a poorly chosen partner, though, still counts. After all, heartbreak and embarrassment are part of the road to maturity.

Because of the coming-of-age frame, the first sexual encounter typically has more to do with a protagonist’s journey toward maturity than with the relationship with the partner. While the partner may be important to the character, the ultimate fate of the sexual relationship in question is typically given far less structural weight than the maturation of the protagonist.

2. Within relationships, sex is typically an exchange of gifts between partners.

In a consumer culture, it’s no surprise that the physical pleasure of sex is treated a commodity with its own inherent value. That is, instead of longing being inexorably wrapped up in the Beloved, today’s teen protagonists typically have independent interests in sex as a good and in their specific romantic interests as people.

Within a relationship, then, sex operates neither as climactic end nor as promise of endless fidelity. Sex is an exchange of gifts, founded not only in biological impulse, but also in each partner’s altruistic affection for the other. Each person knows that the other wants sexual pleasure (and perhaps also the status that comes with sexual initiation) and at some point, an exchange of gifts is made.

3. The quality of sexual experience is often attributed to technique.

What makes sex satisfying in the books I’ve been reading? Here I’m seeing a more variety, but I have noticed many passages where sexual satisfaction is connected strongly with technique. Comic moments come when characters have or notice unskilled attempts at sexual contact. In one scene I read, one character observes a friend’s very public display of affection and wonders out loud whether he’s trying to turn his girlfriend on or give her breast a cancer screening. In another book, the protagonist’s new girlfriend attempts to give him oral sex but fails to produce so much as an erection–until the couple go to ask for advice from a sexier and more experienced girl, who demonstrates on a toothpaste tube and thereby enables them to have an incredible, pleasure-filled encounter.

This latter example is particularly telling, I think, because of its very absurdity in the real world. It’s highly unlikely that a teenaged male is going to need specialized, instruction-based treatment to get an erection, and it’s fairly unlikely that a given way of moving is going to make more of a difference in real sexual relationships than the basic trust and affection partners share. And yet, YA novels often seem to attribute sexual satisfaction to technique rather than to investment.

What problems might such views create?

The more I think about the depictions of sex I’ve read in current realistic YA fiction, the less convinced I am that their potential arousing or pornographic effect is their main tension with my values. Part of that, of course, may be a simple product of age: I simply do not find the sexual experiences of nerdy teenage boys particularly arousing. But I’m also feeling more and more that our cultural attitudes about sex matter in part because they can both reveal and reinforce larger problems in our culture.

The importance of sex as a rite of passage and sign of maturity in YA fiction reminds me of the collapse of other rites of passage and the weakening of ways to define maturity in terms other than increased experience or freedom. I don’t think writers are turning to sex because they want to corrupt the rising generation: I think they’re turning to sex in part because it’s difficult to find viable alternative languages for discussing maturation. And that makes me sad.

In the same way, I think a gift-exchange model of sex is the sad byproduct of a culture without faith in promises more broadly. When we are all busy keeping our options open across many aspects of life, it’s natural that storytellers would focus on current exchange rather than lasting commitment. In a world where lasting commitments to employers, to neighbors, or to belief systems are unusual, it must be difficult to tell resonant stories about people for whom romantic commitments have time-based weight. Immediate experience seems to matter more because relationships of any kind last less. And again, I find that tragic.

I think that backdrop of fundamental human disconnection might also explain why technique is so important in the view of sexuality I see in a lot of YA lit. If we had greater trust in relationship commitment, we could simply assume that emotional intimacy and intensity lead to sexual fulfillment. But our insecurity about the committing power of love lends itself to an obsession with technique. If we cannot have stable relationships, we at least want pleasure and we have to hope it can come without the intensity of betting one’s life on a lover.

Why does this matter? Because the assumptions and values that permeate fiction guide members of that culture. We don’t necessarily notice the influence of stories on our individual decisions, but stories often shape the way we choose to frame decisions in the first place. I think many current YA books may be harmful in the frames they offer readers for thinking about sexual choices specifically and life choices more broadly.

The cockroach-on-ice-cream metaphor for objectionable “parts” of a book or film (whether language, violence, or pornographic sexuality) has been an enduring trope in Mormon culture, but when it comes to sex in YA fiction, it misses the biggest dangers. Individual scenes with potentially arousing sexual details are not nearly the problem in these works as the overall portrayal of how sex fits into life and relationships, and even of what life and relationships are fundamentally about.

Mormons often seem to long for Cleanflicks versions of mainstream culture, where the basic structure remains but with objectionable parts taken out. But skipping a few scenes isn’t enough when the basic architecture of many books is so out of harmony with gospel values. When it comes to finding better books, clean isn’t nearly enough to ask for. We need more stories that are built on radically different assumptions about what it means to grow, to give, and to live richly on this earth.

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22 Responses to Sex in Young Adult Novels

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    A very good analysis. I’d love to hear what others have to say about this.

  2. Amy G says:

    “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Looking For Alaska” are definitely the most detailed in sexuality of the YA books I’ve read. There is a lot to offer in this genre though, and although John Green displays an unhealthy view of teenage sexuality, not all books have to be, or are, that way. I think mature teens can still enjoy Green’s books as long as they do so with a grain of salt. That may be too much to ask though depending on the maturity level. I’m glad I’m not the only who felt the way you do though.

    • James Goldberg says:

      There’s some very cool stuff in Green’s books, and I absolutely think readers can benefit from them–especially if they have more confidence in their own moral sense than in some of the aspects of the books’ moral universe.

      That’s why I think the best response to such problems is not to fight against any books with problems, but to nourish an alternative storytelling tradition. Every good story I hear makes it easier for me to sort wheat from chaff in other stories.

  3. Joe Vasicek says:

    Excellent post. It reminds me of a blog post I did a while ago on the common trope that a true man is not a virgin. I think your analysis is better and more thorough, though.

    • James Goldberg says:

      “I should also clarify that the thing that irks me isn’t just the trope, but how much our society has bought into it.”

      Nice line from your post. Story conventions become real world problems largely to the extent that they sets our expectations and subtly (or not-so-subtly) frame our decisions.

      The bad and good news is that stories are extremely good at influencing culture. That’s bad news because our society’s current story-world has a lot of problems. It’s good news because wise stories really can make a difference.

  4. Amy says:

    I get what you’re saying about these books affecting young adults’ views on sexuality, but I think the problem is much bigger coming from the attitudes of their peers and even teachers and parents. I think the social pushes toward that kind of attitude occurred LONG before it ever happened in a book for teens.

    I do love your analysis because it gives parents a head start in what conversations they really need to be having with their kids about sex. It’s not all about chastity necessarily, but about the attitudes toward commitment and pleasure altogether. Whether it’s in a book or not, kids are going to be seeing these attitudes everywhere they look, and we have to be talking about it.

    • Yeah. And even books without a great vision can be very helpful to us if we use them as opportunities to have the sorts of discussions you’re talking about.

      I think stories with better vision are great for discussions, too, though. Well-told stories have a special staying power and norming power in human minds, and so we really would benefit from stories that treat questions of sexual responsibility with the same seriousness many modern stories give to questions about the responsible use of social authority.

  5. Joseph Sowa says:

    I really appreciated your comments, particularly how the focus on superficial cleanliness “misses the bigger dangers.” One challenge with promoting this analysis, though, is that many of the same people who object to filthy content often celebrate the problematic philosophies you identify. This unwitting vested interest makes such valid objections tricky to discuss.

    For instance, the same way these YA novels show a focus on sexual technique, a disappointingly large number of YSA leadership I’ve encountered have focused on dating technique. In both cases, as you wrote, “our insecurity about the committing power of love lends itself to an obsession with technique.”

    “If YSA just knew how to date, then they’d get married,” seems to be the thought. Often, they do identify the cause as commitment problems, only to link commitment to superficial concerns such as finances or overabundant options — and thus return to technique, just from a different angle.

    Unsurprisingly, such efforts fail to solve the core issue: how our society has commodified and fragmented human relationships. In contrast, those bishops who have labored to address not the symptoms but that very need — the need to which the Atonement speaks directly — have always increased their marriage numbers, because they combatted the root misunderstanding of Truth.

    As you said, we need more authors who write that way, and, I would add, we need them across the literary spectrum. That grounding in revealed Truth is one reason I’ve been so impressed with Brandon Sanderson’s writing. He gets human flourishing in a way that cuts both implicitly and explicitly through many of our society’s common assumptions.

  6. Kathy Cowley says:

    Great insights!

    A related observation I’ve had about sex in YA novels: Because teenagers having sex is seen as a normal and good thing, it makes it hard to draw moral lines. And yet the novels often try to still draw some sort of line. In some novels there is still a sense that, for example, a girl is a skank or immoral if they’ll have sex with anyone or too often or without some sort of love or passion etc. There’s no sense of loyalty or fidelity or true commitment attached to the act of sex, and yet there’s a sense that sex is significant and there’s ways that make it less so. The traditional line of abstinence is a much clearer moral code to interpret and live by.

  7. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Brilliant post, James. Graphic depictions of sex are one problem, but the societal acceptance of the act of sex as a “big deal” that, in the end, is of little consequence–a rite of passage that has no symbolic relationship to responsibility, much less commitment–is another and likely more dangerous for the emotional, physical and spiritual health of young people. But young people have been getting this message for generations. I remember, at the age of 12, thinking there was no reason to get married because having sex was no big deal. Why else get married when you could do everything and not be married? I hate to admit this, but shows like the Laugh-In reruns I watched and the Love Boat had a big effect on my thinking. I wasn’t raised in a religiously-inclined home and certainly not an LDS home so my moral thinking was being shaped by the stories and entertainment I ingested. Fortunately, I found a moral compass at age 14 when I found the Book of Mormon and began reading it and the Bible. It can’t be surprising that adults of my generation are writing books that depict sex as a commitmentless hurdle. I’ve sat in the room of a young woman who had consumed anti-freeze in her bedroom on night because, just to get it over with, she had sex with a boy she had just met. Her first time. She was glad the initiation of sex was over but, afterwards, was left feeling so hollow (not necessarily guilty, but empty) that she couldn’t understand the point of life. If she could find no pleasure in sex . . . I’m grateful for your call for LDS writers to remember that we don’t have to (and maybe shouldn’t) avoid sex in our stories aimed at older teens, but should remember to place it in a context that demonstrates what real maturity requires. This, of course, would not mean we need didactic stories. Not at all. But maybe a story that told the painful journey of my young friend in a honest way wouldn’t have to preach and just might help console and strengthen. So glad to read this tonight, James. Excellent.

  8. Janci says:

    This is an awesome analysis. I do take issue with your suggestion that there’s more sex in YA now than there has ever been. That’s a generalization I see fly around a lot, and aside from there being more YA books now than ever before, I don’t think it’s actually true. The sex in the YA I read as a teen was quite graphic. It just wasn’t as popular a genre then, so people didn’t notice as much.

    • This is a good question, and I wonder if anyone’s done research trying to answer it.

      I also wonder what the best measure would be: it would probably be easiest to focus on titles on the NYT list or something and have a pretty basic code.

      I must admit that my assertion was based on some quick online reading of unsourced articles making the same reasonable-sounding assertion that may very well be untrue.

      • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

        I went thru high school in the late 1970s and there wasn’t much YA with sexual content. But then, I stopped reading books for kids in 6th grade. The stories, however, that we ingested from the broader pop culture (TV, Movies, music) definitely represented sex in a way that doesn’t fit w. the LDS view of its proper place. One way or another, the call for us to be both more realistic and responsible as story crafters for YA is sentient.

  9. Jessie says:

    These are great insights and a very thoughtful analysis. I agree with Janci that we may want to question the claim that there is more sex in YA lit now than there was at some point in the past (how far in the past? 10 years? 20 years?). Also, YA lit has really evolved and grown so it could be difficult to compare.

    Anyways, back to the post–I remember as a teenager I actually mostly read historical YA fiction (I swear the 90s were the golden age of historical YA fiction–does anyone remember the days before dystopia and fantasy took over?). I didn’t like contemporary fiction because I felt like I couldn’t relate at all to the stories. These teenagers were all so confident and so worldly, and they all had boyfriends, and cars, and parties, and sex. The LDS teen novels still had boyfriends and cars and parties, just no sex. I was a socially awkward Mormon nerd in a school that only had two other LDS guys my age and I didn’t know how to interact with anyone, especially not boys. I know that as teenagers it is easy to perceive that the entire world revolves around sex and that everyone is doing it except for you (and LDS teens are not exempt from this, since they get the weird combo of going to school with kids obsessed with sex and then spending Sundays getting lessons on modesty, chastity, and morality, which are just as much an obsession about sex too). I really wonder if more contemporary books that stepped back a bit from sex would not only more accurately reflect the real lives of teenagers, but also possibly influence a cultural shift away from viewing adolescence as a time obsessed with sex.

    • Desire is a very important part of adolescence: I think there’s an important difference between dealing with the intensity of adolescent desire and using sexual experience as a rite of passage or sex as a commodity.

      I’ve enjoyed books with teen sexual relationships that are more honest about how sex works. It’s nice to have a story, for instance, where the intense bonding sex promotes on a chemical level becomes an unexpected complication. It’s actually a pretty good fit for the genre to have sex increase insecurities and lead to overwhelming feelings characters aren’t well prepared to deal with, and I have a certain admiration for books that deal with that dimension rather than passing over sex casually.

  10. Scott Hales says:

    Excellent post.

    The way it gets us to rethink the way we think (and write) about this topic reminds us why Mormon letters needs James Goldberg.

  11. SteveP says:

    Thanks James. This was great. I think we need to talk more about these issues as a community and I’m thrilled with your leading the way.

    We just travelled from Utah to California and listened to Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ as a family. The reader of the audio was fantastic. The car included me, my wife, my nearly 16 year old daughter, my adult son and his fiance. First, the book I agree was one of the finest YA novels I’ve read (heard). I won’t give any spoilers but the sex was there but not explicitly described. The good thing that came from this book was the ability to have a discussion about sex that would have been unlikely. By listening as a family it allowed us to talk about the issues the book brought up (which range far beyond sex) in a healthy way. (When my boys were growing up we watched ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ as a family and it gave us a chance for open discussion about how our values differed from the characters.)

    Apparently, the Green book has been widely read by my daughter’s friends at school, but I suspect that their parents did not join their kids in a discussion about this intriguing book. I’m glad we read it together as a family. It gave me a chance to talk about our values, help in understanding others who make different choices, and overall open lines of communication.

    • There are so many cool parts of that book. The 14:1 ratio of dead people to the living is one of the rare instances where specific quantitative information has stuck with me from reading.

      I’m glad you took the time to talk through it with your family. Your discussions have the potential of becoming the even more powerful story in your children’s lives, and can transform lapses in the book’s wisdom into opportunities for insight and growth.

  12. Mind-blowing discussion–by everybody. I so agree with your statement, James, the “basic architecture of many books is so out of harmony with gospel values.” And Lisa hits the nail on the head–that we should be “more responsible as story-crafters.” This entire subject happens to explore my mantra–which Jessie covers with her word “obsession.” Can story tellers calm the obsession our culture has with sex?

    James, you put into a few words exactly what I hoped to do with the Marilyn Brown Novel Award ( or You wisely wrote: “Nourish an alternative story-telling tradition.”

    Novels like Scott Hatch’s recent winner, “A Boy Scout’s Guide to the Red Shifting Universe” and Arianne Cope’s “The Coming of Elijah,” plus the other novels of our winners, etc. (and other excellent writers who have never entered the competition–so do it this year, everybody) are powerful “anti-dotes” to the problem. But Joe Vasicek has also given us the most profound statement describing our steadfast efforts, “Only if people read them.”

    Our society has an obsession–perhaps because that’s all they have left. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

    But isn’t there something missing about that statement? What about the quality of life in between birth and death? Sure, eat up and find yourself with diabetes or arthritis pain as you age. Read the novels of the day and obsess with sex, and then find yourself without a committed family to enjoy in your later years. I guess personal responsibility is the rod we must cling to. In the meantime, we must all try to do all we can to “be more responsible as story-crafters.” Bless you all for a probing discussion.

  13. I completely agree that cutting out a few steamy scenes is not enough to inoculate a book or film in which the entire concept of human sexuality is off base. Very well put. Thank you for this post.

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