Dec 22, 2012

Sex, explicit sex and young adult novels

Kelly from Stacked recently brought this up to me.

Yes, you're reading that right: it's a young adult book series with explicit sex scenes added into it.

The Vincent Boys series is a book I have never read and probably never will. It's a young adult book series. Katherine (you remember Katherine?) has the originals on her Kindle and will apparently read them and come up with some comments on whether it was necessary and why she's against it. I look forward to it.

But until then, I get to step up to my stage and rant.

I am all for sex. That's a weird thing to say. But I'm very sex-positive. I think if you're emotionally and physically ready for sex and if you want to have it, you should go for it, as long as you're doing it safely. I think virginity is a concept created to sell women to men in ancient times. Condoms and birth control should both be easily available and accessible, and it's been proven that being sex-positive leads to less teen pregnancy, abortions and an overall happier life.

I think if you don't want to have sex, that's great. I'm friends with asexuals (people not interested in sex) and I myself and demisexual (only interested if already romantically involved). Nobody should be judged for deciding not to have sex, and people who do judge you are assholes.

I think women and young girls, especially, are taught all the wrong things and that we honestly should be talking more about sex and enjoying ourselves and knowing that saying no is okay. Consent is sexy, and enjoying yourself is sexy, and there's nothing wrong with that.

I'm all for sex in young adult novels. If we're going to start talking about it anywhere, young adult novels are the place to start - how it can awkward and figuring out what you need and what feels nice.

But here's the thing: young adult novels aren't erotica.

Every genre of books, in terms of age, has a niche. Young adult focuses on a bildungsroman, or a coming of age. That can be coming of age sexually, but it's not about the sex itself. Adult novels have characters who have already discovered themselves; that's why erotica fits so well in that category: it's sex written for the sake of sex. It can be steamy and sexy, but it works for that story.

Steamy, adult sex scenes don't work in a young adult context, because the book stops becoming a young adult novel.

Can young adult sex be steamy and sexy? I'm certain it can be. But it doesn't fit in well with the rest of the story, especially when it's added in afterwards; young adult stories are emotionally driven, and sticking in descriptions of bodies clashing together takes away from that.

Now, the 10k words that were added to the story above could make sense. I haven't read the books, and I hope Katherine will take a look. But if it's like most young adult stories, the fade-to-blacks, or the description of the emotion, happen for a reason. The physical description takes the focus off of the emotional feelings and growth of the characters and turns it into something physical.

Can sex be something that's just physical?


But then, what's the point of it in the story? What's the point of it in the plot? It becomes erotica, where sex scenes are there for the sake of sex scenes. And that's not part of a young adult story, because it's not part of the story.

And I think that's what irritates me about that (and about sex scenes when they're added to classics, like Jane Eyre). It takes away from characters and ends up not having a point at all.

And I like my stories to have a point.

What do you guys think about this awfully controversial topic?

Kelly wrote a post infinitely more fabulous than mine on the same topic. Epona's Reviews also made a post about sex in YA, complete with examples -- check it out!


  1. When I saw a blurb about this on Dear Author I was...not exactly horrified, but definitely unhappy. As someone who wasn't quite allowed to participate in sex ed at school and learned the majority of it from books (Harlequins no less) until I was older and wiser, I agree that its something we should be open about. Hiding a kid from the consequences of not being prepared when their hormones rush in on them does not mean their hormones will stay hidden (its less likely since they won't understand and mistake it for something else).

    But 'erotic' and 'erotica' don't fit in with 'Young Adult', at least not how the publishers push the label. YA typically centers around 14-18 year olds and no one wants to hear that when in conjunction with 'sexually explicit' (which though not the dictionary definition of the word, in terms of books/stories that's how erotica has been categorized.)

    How far is too far also? Where are they drawing the line? How quickly before this escalates? Will they shelve these in a different section? Covered in plastic wrap so some unsuspecting reader doesn't pick up the 'explicit' version instead of the 'clean' version? Will they card you at the register like with Rated R films?

    I remember back when Morganville Vampires wasn't in Hardcovers yet, Rachel Caine had a short story on her website about Michael and Eve's first time. She'd kind of covered Shane/Claire's first time (with a lot of fade to black, awkward clothing fumbling), but Eve and Michael, who are older then Claire to start with, was handled just as carefully. It was steamier, but I wouldn't call it erotica (though still hotter then anything in the books to date).

    That I was okay with. Unless someone was looking for more information they wouldn't accidentally stumble upon it, Caine had several disclaimers that the short was not intended for young audiences etc etc and it wasn't publicisized on her frontpage (it was buried in with other shorts for the series).

    I don't know how I'd feel if she inserted those scenes in with the original novel it happened during (in the original novel Eve makes a vague mention of it with a secret smile and some girl chat with Claire).

    And won't this further divide the 'age appropriateness' that some schools/parents/librarians/stores insist on imposing? "Well Jane you can read THIS version now, but THIS version will have to wait until you're older".

  2. I love this post! I'm adding it to my forum...because as a novelist, I've written in several genres, recently just published my first YA. Now it's dumb to write about teens and pretend none of them cuss or have sex...but as you so eloquently put it, sex for the sake of sex is pointless in YA novels. I wanted to write a novel where girls weren't afraid to take charge of their bodies and be strong enough to say no. And for the sex that does take place, for me it wasn't the center of the story, so I was fine with implied after the fact sex. Thanks so much for this brilliant post! Cheers, Thomas Amo.

  3. A few thoughts:

    1) Generally we agree with your statement: explicit sex doesn't belong in YA.

    1b) Also, young women (and men, in many cases) are not taught sex-positive and/or realistic things about romantic relationships, and we think that needs to change.

    2) That said, not all explicit sex is erotica.

    3) Lastly, a question: Is THE VINCENT BOYS really YA, or is it NA (New Adult)? Because we were under the impression that it's the latter...? Which would change things here.

    3b) HOWEVER. Even if it's NA, that still raises the question of how we categorize and market explicit content. What's "appropriate" for which ages?

    1. In regards to 3 and 3b -- come back and check out my post on the 29th!

      And YES! More sex-positive and realistic romance, please!

  4. I agree with most of what you said, only I'm less strongly opposed to it--even if it's not something I want to read--and my reasons for being against it are a bit different to yours.

    The reason I'm most against it is that sex scenes that are written with the intent of being erotic are so often unrealistic. And that's fair enough in adult novels, but in YA? The chances of the reader being inexperienced when it comes to sex are much higher, so reading those sorts of sex scenes can end up setting really unrealistic expectations for them as far as sex goes.

    If they're written realistically, instead of purely erotically, then I have less issue with it. Mainly because I know/have known teens who do read erotica anyway (whether it be books, fanfiction, or stories online) and so having actual YA books that cater to those teens is fair enough.

    So long as it is more like...a new genre within the YA catagory, and doesn't have a negative impact on the YA that already exists, that I like to read, then so be it.

    Personally, I don't want to read it. Because I don't really find erotica erotic, but mainly because I'm not a teen anymore, so reading sex scenes with teen characters that are intended to be erotic is just--for lack of a better term--icky. It's different when it's focusing on the emotional side of it, but erotic seems creepy unless it's being read by someone who is actually a teen.

    (Also, the fact that I'm British may influence my opinion on this; our age of consent is 16 and we have a different attitude to sex and censorship and stuff like that. Compare a UK teen show like Skins, to a US one and there's a big difference.)

    1. I like the way Europeans handle sex issues a lot better than the way Americans handle them, so I'm with you on that. I don't mind the sex in there if it's realistic, but I feel like these scenes are just gratuitous and more on the erotica side, which already has a genre - including some with teenage characters.

  5. I understand that publishers and the general public would frown upon the idea of sexually explicit YA, but personally I wouldn't be opposed to it. There is nothing stopping teens from buying and reading erotica, and there are plenty of teens reading/writing steamy fan fics online, so it's not like keeping sex out of YA would mean keeping teens from reading about explicit sex, and why shouldn't those readers get published novels featuring people in their age group? [Haha, just saw that lanna-lovely said the same thing re: teens reading erotica.] Anyway, parents and librarians who are very hands-on and involved can certainly deem those books inappropriate and keep them away from teens, if they choose.

    And I think sexually explicit scenes don't have to be just for the sex. It can definitely provide more options for developing character, influencing character relationships, and advancing plot than fade-to-black treatments. A lot of it depends on execution. Yes, there will probably be a lot of crappy sex scenes that don't do anything for the story, just like there are always crappy books in any genre. But I don't think that's a reason to forbid all sex scenes for being pointless to the plot, since it's totally possible to for a sex scene to matter to the story. And yes, it'd be great if the sex scenes are more realistic -- there should be awkwardness and uncertainty and discomfort and confusion and disappointment and self-consciousness, since these are teens and they're not very experienced. Though maybe then that wouldn't exactly be erotica?

    1. I mean, I define as erotica as a book where there's a lot of gratuitous sex scenes, often realistic and added in just for the sex. All other genres use it to further something: romance uses it to bind characters together and heighten love via a physical relationship and YA uses it to show first and fumbles and character development. In that case, it's not erotica.

      I don't mind teens reading erotica -- I did! And romance, too! -- but I think it's important to distinguish it AS erotica, and not just as YA-with-sex-ooooooo.

    2. Hm, I see. Well, I guess I see YA as a category, meaning that teens are the target audience, and erotica is the genre... so if we have YA sci-fi, YA literary fiction, YA romance, and YA fantasy, why can't we have YA erotica? I think that would help readers distinguish YA novels that have sex-for-sex's-sake from novels that have sex scenes more integral to the story, since that seems to be a major consideration for many readers.

    3. The age-range is what stops erotica from being an option; the age of consent in America isn't until 18, and most people aren't comfortable with the idea of, say, a 13 or 14 year old having explicit, unrealistic sex just for the sake of having sex. It doesn't suit the age-range. While scenes with sex or characters that have sex make sense, it doesn't make sense to treat it as a feasible genre in YA.

      And as for erotica in adult - I kind of treat it as a category of its own, considering it doesn't fit in with the other stereotypical archetypes of the adult category. It's a sub-category, not a genre. (Because then you have paranormal erotica, &etc.)

  6. I personally don't see how the description of sex in a YA book is necessary unless it's moves the story forward. With that said, I as a teenager didn't even read YA, I went straight to adult romance so, hey, I survived (even if I had a somewhat fractured view of what real intimacy outside of a book entails). So, marketing is right, if it's New Adult and you're talking 18yrs or older, it's not a real issue.

  7. I always hate it when authors stick scenes in books just for the heck of it, especially when they have nothing to do with the plot. Like when a romance or a love triangle is thrown in because there needs to be more emotional content.

    On the subject of sex scenes in books, I am not opposed to it as long as it fits with the plot and the characters. But I suppose that for me the same goes for swearing or graphic violence.

    If it doesn't fit with the plot, it shouldn't be in the book.

  8. I don't think sex in ya needs to be just physical. The story can have emotions and sex together. We just don't need to describe everything.

  9. I feel similarly. I love books with positive & responsible sex messages, especially having a 13 year old girl. I just read The Vincent Boys & the explicit scenes wouldn't add anything more to the story. It is very apparent that Beau is in deep "lobster" love with Ash. His tenderness & protectiveness is overt.

    But in a New Adult book like Easy, I feel the steamy does help the story. The book has a driving focus on rape & date rape. I even told my daughter about this book. I'm not ready for her to read it in MS, but told her in HS at some point it will be appropriate.


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