Last week on Twitter, I got into a vicious debate with somebody over why young adult books shouldn't have labels on them. They just didn't get it and several other people chimed up that it would be helpful.
What are labels?
I'm not talking about genre labels that give the general age of the protagonist (young adult, adult, middle grade) or that give the genre of the book (fantasy, contemporary, historical). I'm talking about bright yellow warning labels that are slapped on the sides of book. They say things like "WARNING: SEX" or "WARNING: ADULT CONTENT" or even "WARNING: HOMOSEXUALITY."
What do labels do?
Labels warn against content in book for people who want to avoid it. It says that this thing is distasteful and that if you're going to read it, you need to be warned in advance to prepare for it.
Why do labels need to kiss my arse?
Labels don't do anything except make it easier for censorship. It tells teens that certain things are bad and that they should prepare if they want to read them. It allows parents to say that their kid can't read something that they may be interested because, hey, it's offensive to them!
I had a long discussion about this with my brother and my boyfriend. They used games as the counter point -- games have clear ratings on the back with why they're rated that way. Violence or nudity or sexual content.
But the thing about books - and young adult in particular - is that these books are already segmented into categories to reflect their content. Erotica has explicit sex and nudity; adult content can have explicit sex and generally adult themes. Young adult can contain sex, but it's neither erotic nor explicit for the most part, and deals with issues teenagers face. So on and so forth down the line to middle grade and kidlit and baby books.
And the difference between games and books is that, while you have two or three lines to summarize the game on the box, there's two to three paragraphs to give you the content of the book.
Some things will be offensive to people. It's why books are banned. People freak out about homosexuality and sex and implied Satanism and all sorts of things.
Here's the deal: if something is so important to you that you need to avoid it, look up a book before hand or ask a librarian or bookseller who knows about the content. Don't make it more difficult for people interested to access it. Don't turn the book into a one-issue controversy because you're afraid. Don't say something is inherently wrong and should be warned against because you don't like it.
If you're a thirteen year old interested in sex because you're coming into your sexuality, then young adult is going to be the place for you. If you're a thirteen year old not interested in sex, young adult is still going to be a good place for you. If you're afraid to read about it, or if your parents don't want you too, then it's not the bookseller's or the book's responsibility to plaster its contents all over the front because you might be afraid of the content. It is your responsibility to do the research.
I'm not going to support making things easier for you if it means offending and censoring books.
But what about explicit content!?
Here's the thing: explicit content in books is already warned about. It's not in the young adult section. It's found in erotica and the adult romance section. The same way video games plaster on about explicit nudity and sex and the same way that movies with sex are labeled as NC-17 or R.
The sex in YA books is like the sex in PG-13 movies. It's silly and awkward and makes for some damn embarrassing or hilarious moments. (Take "Easy A" and Looking for Alaska, for example.)
But it helps people choose the right book!
That's what genre and categories do. Choosing the right book in the detailed content comes down to the summaries on the book. If you're still worried about running into something you don't want to run into, talk to the bookseller. Look up the book.
And if you run into it, you picked the wrong book. Don't cry about it and demand that "sex" be scrawled on it in big letters.
In the case of trigger warnings...
The only time I might be hesitant about labels is in the case of trigger warnings - rape, suicide, and issues that could cause flashbacks for people who suffer from that. Ninety nine percent of the time, however, those stories mention that in the description and are "issue books" that focus entirely on that. And the one percent that don't tend to use it as a plot point and are terrible and shouldn't be read because rape is not a plot point guys stop using it as such.
Labels suck. Censorship sucks.
Labels lead to censorship.
It's that simple.