Julie Cross Online

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What I Think About S-E-X in YA Books

 





I think it’s about time I officially weigh in on the great YA debate. In case you missed this post, The Perfect 10, my teen panel weighed in on this topic a while back and I figured if they can discuss this honestly and openly, I should be able to do the same.

First off, I have to mention that this post was inspired by a GQ article and a recent conversation I had with a Mom of two avid YA readers. Her girls are age 11 and 12 (a 6th and 7th grader).

Just so you know, this wasn’t an argument or me trying to insert my author intelligence, it was a civilized, engaging discussion that both parties fully enjoyed. It started with Mom telling me her girls looove YA books and me saying, “oh…it just so happens that I’m the author of a YA novel.”

She was very excited to hear this and after I told her a little bit about the plot she then asked the dreaded question, “So…is it okay for them to read? I don’t want them to read about sex or anything...”

Normally, I mention early on that the book is for 13 or 14 and up, but I left that out because she already told me that they looove reading YA. So, I said, “Well…it’s not about sex, but yeah, the characters have sex…it’s minimally described and a very small aspect of the novel.”

I could see her disappointment and just so you know, I’m normally an author who does not believe in book censorship and I’m committed to always doing what I think the characters should and would do and keeping it real. Therefore, realistically speaking, I truly believe that my 18/19 year old main characters currently in a relationship would be having sex. I’m not saying EVERY 18/19 year old main characters would choose to have sex, but the ones I created would and do choose this path.

But instead of arguing with Concerned Mom or defending my book, I started to feel a tad bit guilty because I didn’t have a book that these YA book loving girls could read and I really wanted to help with this and make sure that I did the right thing with my book. I also was insanely curious to find out what exactly it was about sex in a book that concerned her? I don’t mean that there isn’t reason to be concerned but to just say no sex might imply that you want kids to read books that don’t acknowledge the existence of sex. Her children exist because of sex. Surely they know that by 6th and 7th grade. So, I knew there had to be more specific content concerns than that.

I asked her, “Well…what are they reading? I know you said YA books, but which ones?”

Concerned Mom said, “They love those Twilight looks…they’ve probably read them five or six times…I’ve read them all too.”
 
My eyebrows went up a little. “They’ve read all the Twilight books? Even the fourth one?”

“Oh yes. I had to take if from them a couple times or they would have stayed up all night trying to finish.”

“But there’s sex in Breaking Dawn?”

Concerned Mom nodded. She knew this already. “Yeah, we talked about that together…I just thought it was really good that Edward and Bella waited.”

My author brain was reeling at that point. “Waited for what? The fourth book?”

Concerned Mom laughed. I think she might have assumed at this point that I hadn’t read the books. “They waited for marriage.”


 Not much room to argue with her there. They did wait and therefore secured their spot in heaven. But since I am a YA author I know for a fact that putting weddings in every other YA book is not gonna fly with editors and publishers. So where does that leave us in the mission to please concerned parents?

“Well that’s cool,” I said. “But just out of curiosity…do you want your daughters to wait for marriage to have sex?”

“Of course. There’s consequences to having sex with someone that you aren’t going to marry.”

“Like if they pregnant or get an STD?”

Concerned Mom started to look a tad uncomfortable at the mention of teen pregnancy and STDs but I can’t blame her, it makes me uncomfortable too. “I just mean there’s emotional repercussions to going that far with someone and then breaking up.”

“What if they did get married at…let’s say 18 like Bella Swan…then quickly learn they’re clearly with the wrong person. So not only have they had sex with this person, they’ve also got a legally binding contract we like to call marriage, a joint checking account, shared apartment, only one couch, one bed, one set of silverware.” And yes, this statement was coming from someone (me) who did, in fact, meet her soul mate at age 18. But I’m also a product of divorced, remarried, and remarried again parents.

Concerned Mom did not like this scenario. “Oh no. I’ve told my girls over and over again to go to college, figure out their career, make their own money and have some time to be independent before settling down to get married.”

No problems there. Raising independent young women. I’m fully supportive of this. But…I felt obligated to point something out to her, “So you’re not just telling them to wait for marriage to have sex, you’re telling them to wait until they’re…maybe 23 or 24? Do you know many 24 year old virgins?”

I wasn’t being snarky about that last part. I really wasn’t. I was honestly curious. Concerned Mom just laughed and had no answer. So, I ended the conversation with a compromise, “Well…if you think they might like Tempest and they tell you they want to have sex before marriage because Jackson and Holly do, just tell them that in 7 or 8 years when they turn 19, you can discuss the waiting thing again.”

Even though the conversation ended, my own internal Mom vs Author debate continued in my head. Why did I write sex in my book? Someone could have been Catholic. They could have waited or maybe they wanted to do it and I could have just kept writing people coming in to interrupt them. But the more I thought about it, the more clear it became to me that Concerned Mom isn’t stupid, in fact she’s pretty smart. And her kids are smart and advanced readers. She’s smart enough to know that statistically most people have intercourse for the first time long before age 24.

According to this site, 7 in 10 Female and Male teens have had intercourse by their 19th birthday. 

Keep in mind, I’m not approving of this or supporting teens having sex at all. I’m just giving the facts as they are. And the facts themselves are not an excuse for people to give up their ability to make their own decision on this matter. People defy the odds all the time.
 
Back to Concerned Mom…why is she creating this life plan for her pre-teens that she realistically knows is improbable? Perfect college, perfect career, strong independent women, then Mom gets to plan the beautiful weddings she’s always wanted to plan.

I’m a mom too. I’ve had similar daydreams about my children turning out perfect and living happily ever after. We’re moms. Of course we want the best for our kids. But we also need to be realistic. Just like Edward and Bella’s relationship in Twilight, it’s easy to fall into the trap of creating these idealistic expectations that are almost always impossible to meet.

Since Concerned Mom has censored some of the more realistic YA books that contain realistic romance and sexual experiences from her girls and only provided them with Twilight, I’ve been seriously debating writing the Twilight fan fiction story where, six months after Breaking Dawn closes, Bella and Edward are having a hard time. Edward is sick of having to spend every Holiday at Charlie’s and he’s also tired of toys being all over the house and the kid keeps walking in on them when things are finally getting a little heated. Meanwhile, Bella hasn’t been “in the mood” lately because she a bit obsessed with 50 Shades Of Grey…there’s something familiar about that book and she can’t quite put her finger on it... So she keeps reading and re-reading. Bella is beginning to wonder if getting married at 18 was a bad idea. She’s wondering it so much that she’s already been to a lawyer and asked what she needs to do to prepare divorce papers.

This type of story, showing multiple sides of relationships, portraying them realistically and not idealized, is something I believe young people need to be exposed to. Not just because I’m worried that they’ll expect unrealistic love, but also because hearing about the characters' internal relationship struggles, their screw ups, their selfish moments, can help us feel more human and less afraid to venture out and talk to someone new or say yes to going to homecoming with the nice boy in Algebra and accepting his acne, occasional BO following gym class and the fact that it takes him three tries to say something nice that actually sounds nice.

Is it wrong for a parent to decide that their 11 and 12 year old just isn’t mature enough to read Tempest? Of course not! The only reason I’m a bit shocked/surprised by Concerned Mom’s censorship is because she let her girls read a YA book where 17/18 year olds have sex but did not want them to read a novel where 18/19 year old characters have sex because in the latter, those characters were not married. And she does NOT support getting married at any of those ages.

On another chance meeting I was able to talk to Concerned Mom a second time and I went a little further and explained my position. And she said, “What exactly do you mean by idealistic romance?”

Let me answer that question here (again, I have no issues with Twilight, it’s just the moral implications of that series compared to the immoral implications of my series and other YA books), using specific examples from the book.

“I could never for a second forget that I was holding someone more angel than man in my arms.” –Breaking Dawn, p. 23

“I’ve been waiting a century to marry you, Miss Swan.” –Breaking Dawn, p. 28

“I looked into Edward’s shining, triumphant eyes and knew that I was winning, too. Because nothing else mattered but that I could stay with him.” –Breaking Dawn, p. 28

And when I set out to write this blog post, I figured I’d be on the opposing side of Concerned Mom, but now, I just don’t know. I mean, I sort of do get where she’s coming from and I always try to tell parents that Tempest is recommended for 13-14 and up but often they mistake that age for reading level. After I’m told what an amazingly advanced reader their child is, I will then clarify by asking them what else they’ve read and if they tell me they’ve read every book in the House Of Night series or Forever by Judy Blume is their favorite book then I stop worrying about my book morally corrupting another mom’s child. If it’s Hunger Games or Divergent that’s mentioned, I will usually suggest that mom check it out first or ask about TV shows…if they watch Gossip Girl or GLEE religiously then we’re fine.

So what are your thoughts about Concerned Mom and her choice to sensor and not sensor at the same time? 

Also, just to show my enthusiasm for encouraging these young people to dip into the YA genre, I’ve made a list of some of the books that are milder in content regarding language and sex. Not Disney Channel material but mild for sure.
Just to be clear…

The Julie Cross Definition of Mild Content in a YA Novel: Characters don’t have sex or discuss it in a descriptive manner, might include kissing but no major make-out scenes that involve removing clothing and lying down (Katniss stripping Peeta down to save his life and then making out with him to get life saving medicine does not count). Probably no f-bombs but if there is one or two they are not used to reference sex (example: “Oh fu*k the world is going to be destroyed and my superpowers have failed).   

**as a side note I’d just like to say that I’m intending this list to be for those advanced readers maybe age 9-12 or 13. Limiting yourself to this YA list only will keep you or your kid from reading some AMAZING books (and no, I’m not talking about Tempest…well not just Tempest anyway).

CLEAN (Yet awesome!) TEEN BOOKS FOR YOUNGER YA READERS

Gallagher Series by Ally Carter
Heist Society Series by Ally Carter
 Enclave by Ann Aguirre
Divergent by Veronica Roth
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Maze Runner by James Dashner
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
Matched by Ally Condie

I’m struggling to find any realistic/contemporary YA that’s meeting my mild definition. Maybe it’s just that I love the edgier stuff. It seems more real to me and I tend to choose that to read over others. Please add recommendations in the comments.

15 comments:

  1. Such an interesting post Julie. Thanks for tackling the issue. I spoke at a catholic high school where the teacher couldn't officially endorse my book or add it to the school reading list because of a few (mild) mentions of sex. She even considered blacking out the lines in the book! & thats after I cut a fumbling make out scene from the manuscript which was realistic but thought to be too arkward and graphic. As a contemporary writer I want to accurately reflect the 'real world' & that means not everyone waits for a white wedding to have sex! I'll keep writing teens true stories and problems and hope you do too!

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    1. I'm so with you. There wasn't a ton of YA when I was a teen but I can honestly say, after a few of my own first experiences, I would have loved to have read a book with some fumbling/awkward make-out scenes. I probably would have sighed with relief and decided much early that I wasn't in fact a freak of nature or a complete loser.

      And sometimes it's too hard to ask someone these questions and reading about it in a book is private and safe.

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  2. Welcome to the tightrope world of raising tweens, Julie! Speaking as the mother of a twelve-year-old, I wish there was a perfect answer to all the questions you've raised, but it really depends on the parent and the child.

    I had a foster parent approach me when she overheard a co-worker and me discussing THE HUNGER GAMES. Her 13-year-old foster son was begging to read it, but she was concerned about the violence level, especially since her foster son had suffered some horrible abuse. My opinion was that THG was no worse than LORD OF THE FLIES, which is on the reading lists at some of the middle schools in our area. I told her to read THG herself first, then make the judgment call whether he should be allowed to read it. She came back a couple of weeks later and thanked me. She did just as I suggested. After her foster son read the book, he really opened up to her and his therapist about his past and was starting to improve in school. Then, she wanted some more reading suggestions from me!

    Ironically, last night I had a similar conversation with a friend who writes YA for St. Martins. Her editor wants her to add a sex scene in the last book of her current series. She was on the fence about it because so many parents had told her at signings and through e-mails that they loved her books because they had no sex. She didn't want to anger the parents.

    I surprised her by saying I didn't think the sex scene was necessary. (BTW, I write erotica, so we had a good laugh on that aspect.) We hashed out out the heroine's motivations and character for almost an hour. As I told my friend, don't worry so much about the parents. Stay true to the character. By the end of the phone call, she came up with a solution that would make everyone happy.

    Sorry, didn't mean to ramble. It's just that kids are smarter than adults give them credit for.

    Wishing you the best, Julie!

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    1. I love hearing that books are helping kids to open up! that's just incredible! And I totally agree with your advice to the author friend. Sometimes I think the sex scenes in YA just come out of nowhere. It needs to be organic and natural and realistic in it's placement and essential to the characters and the plot.

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  3. Great post!
    It forces me to think - not only about what's I'd really like to read (because I start thinking about it too), but what I would do in Concerned Mum's place. On the one hand I understand her - If I were a mum, I'd like all that's good for my kids (then i'd agree with her opinion on the children to go to college, figure out their career, make their own money, etc.), but on other hand... We live in 21th century! Wherever we look we see a sex: in books, movies, commercials, music video... 16-year-old girls know all about contraception and they often use it... So I was a little shocked, when I read about "24-year-old virgins" :).
    I'll think more about it...

    PS
    I can't wait to read Vortex

    PPS
    I sorry for all my mistakes in comment. My English isn't very good :).

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  4. Awesome post! I have to admit I chuckled a few times. Especially at the mention of writing a Twilight fan fiction story. :D

    I personally think that if people are at the age where they clearly know about sex (i.e. have taken a health class or talked to parents, etc.), there shouldn't be any problems with them reading books where sex exists but isn't explicitly drawn out. I mean I understand yanking Fifty Shades of Grey out of their hands, but just reading a book where it implies that older people have had sex doesn't seem harmful to me. It's not much different than having it be implied that your parents have had sex. (But with less awkwardness :P)

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  5. Great post. It's always stumped me to find parents covering eyes and monitoring books with sex but bring on the violence. I don't get it. But...this mom is not alone. My sister told me the same thing. I have a 4yr old girl and I can't say for sure how I'll be when she grows up, but I hope to be open minded. =)

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  6. I think it's fine if it fits the story & the characters and is present for some reason other than titillation. I mean, teens have sex. It's their decision. I think it's important to show characters doing it in YA but being smart and prepared about it.

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    1. So true, Ann! And btw, my son loved Enclave! He keeps asking me to buy him Outpost but I've already gotten it for him for Christmas and I might have to cave and give it to him early if he doesn't stop bugging me :)

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  7. I'd love a list of edgier YA!
    My picks for clean ya:
    - Entwined by Heather Dixon
    - hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins (I think?)
    - books by Lindsay Leavitt
    - Sarah Dessen books

    Edgier YA
    - books by Gayle Forman
    - Raw Blue
    - Daughter of Smoke and Bone
    - Something Like Normal
    - Easy

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  8. I really like this post. I'm 18 and I was raised in a Christian household and my parents firmly believe in waiting to have sex until after marriage. While I recognize this is definitely the minority belief now, it's something I plan on upholding. I'm completely with you on not censoring the content of books, though. I recognize that my choice is more old-fashioned and the majority of the young adult population will probably not choose the same for themselves, but trying to portray a reality of widespread purity is just not realistic. I'm all in favor of showing a real relationship, even if it's less ideal. I'd probably even be a little confused if Jackson and Holly at 18 and 19 were in a committed relationship at and the physical dynamic wasn't mentioned or touched upon. You made the right choice Julie, and you did a great job in staying true to your characters.

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  9. Love this post, very interesting!! My book, HENRY FRANKS, is in that 'clean YA' category. There is no sex, virtually no swearing and, especially for a book listed as 'YA horror' it has very little violence. Why no sex? Because I was dealing with a character who had lost his memory and was extraordinarily isolated. Just bringing him out of that shell and having him interact with other people was such an obstacle in his life that it turned his first kiss into this climactic moment. To have thrown them into bed would have been so antithetical to everyone these characters were (trust me, the character of Justine would not have just stood idly by if Henry started pushing matters). As for the swearing? They live in a small southern town and, without his memory, Henry doesn't have that easy familiarity with language the way most teens do. In other words: he might have been casually swearing prior to his accident, but after it? He's still trying to remember who he is, never mind when the correct time to drop the 'f bomb' would be. As for violence? I like to compare it to the difference between Hitchcock and the Saw movie franchise. Both are 'horror' but they are completely different movies. Hitchcock is suspense and shadows and mystery and creepy, crawling inside of you to scare you. Saw (and other contemporary slasher/gore tests) is in-your-face, visceral, visual, bloody and, at times, scares-through-disgust. HENRY FRANKS is horror in the Hitchcock vein, Booklist called it 'the thinking teen's horror choice of the year' for that reason (among others).

    I have no problem with sex in YA novels (handled properly, of course) and know that the love triangle I'm creating in my current novel will be far edgier than HENRY, though I will continue to aim more for Hitchcock than Saw.

    Now, I'm off to read everything of Julie's that I can get my grubby little paws on!! :)

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  10. Love this post, very interesting!! My book, HENRY FRANKS, is in that 'clean YA' category. There is no sex, virtually no swearing and, especially for a book listed as 'YA horror' it has very little violence. Why no sex? Because I was dealing with a character who had lost his memory and was extraordinarily isolated. Just bringing him out of that shell and having him interact with other people was such an obstacle in his life that it turned his first kiss into this climactic moment. To have thrown them into bed would have been so antithetical to everyone these characters were (trust me, the character of Justine would not have just stood idly by if Henry started pushing matters). As for the swearing? They live in a small southern town and, without his memory, Henry doesn't have that easy familiarity with language the way most teens do. In other words: he might have been casually swearing prior to his accident, but after it? He's still trying to remember who he is, never mind when the correct time to drop the 'f bomb' would be. As for violence? I like to compare it to the difference between Hitchcock and the Saw movie franchise. Both are 'horror' but they are completely different movies. Hitchcock is suspense and shadows and mystery and creepy, crawling inside of you to scare you. Saw (and other contemporary slasher/gore tests) is in-your-face, visceral, visual, bloody and, at times, scares-through-disgust. HENRY FRANKS is horror in the Hitchcock vein, Booklist called it 'the thinking teen's horror choice of the year' for that reason (among others).

    I have no problem with sex in YA novels (handled properly, of course) and know that the love triangle I'm creating in my current novel will be far edgier than HENRY, though I will continue to aim more for Hitchcock than Saw.

    Now, I'm off to read everything of Julie's that I can get my grubby little paws on!! :)

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  11. I came across this very interesting post after I literally googled "sex scenes in Ya novels". The reason I did that was that after reading two out of the three Lux Series books by Jennifer Armentrout, I realized that no sex tends to be a prerequisite in such novels because of the young age of readers etc. (you cover this exhaustively in your post). However, what I cannot understand is why graphic violence, abuse and tragedy are acceptable, with books including those elements making Catholic readers clubs' lists but sex is considered a no-no? How come Katniss' experiences are OK to read as long as she remains a virgin? Personally, I wouldn't recommend THG to a teen under 15. The books were brilliant but awfully depressing and I carried that aftertaste long after I'd finished reading them.

    Coming back to Jennifer Armentrout's books, Daemon, the male hero, is portrayed in such a sexy way, it feels like he's coming right out of a Harlequin Blaze title and there is such a sexual build-up with all the flutters, shivers, accelerated pulses and such that the absence of sex feels a bit hypocritical (I think that eventually sth happens between them in the third book).

    So, what we come to is that the trend of intense violence/no sex that applies to videogames and films targeted to a PG-13 audience also applies to YA novels and I think that this is an oxymoron. Either do away with both elements and respect the innocence of underage readers or include both in a non-offending way.

    Thanks for the post!
    Regards from Greece,
    Maria

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  12. Great post; so glad to hear people and authors chiming in on this issue. As for myself (an 18 year old reader and blogger), I personally believe that sex should be saved for marriage, but I do realize that this is hardly the case with teens today. I understand and even partially agree with the opinion that sex in YA lit makes it realistic and relatable to teen readers. When it all comes down to it, I think it's all about the audience you aim to target. If your book is for younger readers, obviously you wouldn't have mature content in your book. If it's for older readers, then maybe it's good idea to include mature content, because teens encounter stuff like that in school and elsewhere. Despite a parent's natural instinct to protect their child, the child will find out about sex one way or another. I don't think there needs to be an unhealthy amount of it in books (for any age) because that's just not healthy, but exposing a little to teens definitely won't scar them for life. That's just my opinion. *shrugs*

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