When Did Sex Stop Being Part of YA Books?

I read a fair amount of YA books in relation to the total number of books I read in a year…it’s probably tied for second-most-read genre with fantasy, both of them behind romance by a magnitude of 10. One thing that watching Turn Me On, Dammit! reminded me about was how big a part sex used to play in YA fiction.  I am talking about the books I was reading back in the late 1980s and early 90s, authors like Christopher Pike and R.L. Stein and L.J. Smith (the FIRST time). Not all of them had sex in all of their books, and not all of the books featured teenage protagonists who were sexually active, but…my memory is that it was a regular feature to have characters who had sex within the story, even if it was in a fade to black way. The books looked with a realistic eye at the fact that a lot of teenagers were having sex and all teenagers were fascinated by sex.

I look at the YA books I’ve read in the past five years, and…the sex is not there anymore. Maybe it’s just the books I’ve read, and overall the genre is as realistic as ever. But my impression is that the sex has been taken out to save the delicate sensibilities of “the children”–by which, of course, I mean the delicate sensibilities of editors and agents and Twilight moms who don’t want to think about their children as sexual beings yet.

So when did this happen?  Why?  How?  The disintermediated author in me wants to blame it on major publishing handing acquisitions to women who believe in political correctness and the fragility of the sub-adult mind. I am not sure that’s actual the case, though, or at least not exclusively. The truth is that while our culture becomes ever more sexualized it has also become more intent on the idea of a spotless, perfect childhood than ever. Childhood has suddenly become some sacrosanct time, where every danger and uncomfortable idea must be kept away from them. It’s why people move to gated communities when they have children and spend 10 hours a week running their kids around to five different activities and pre-reading all books and pre-watching all movies they might give to their kids in order to make sure there is nothing offensive in the material. If a politician says some law restricting freedom of speech is to protect the children, suddenly we’re expected to agree with that, as if the single most important aim in all of human life is protecting the children.

No. This is a world made by and for adults. If your kid is that fragile, keep it at home. It’s a bad idea to protect your kids from every kind of adversity and problem, because that bubble existence robs them of the learning experiences they need to become functional adults who can face problems, deal with them, and move on.

It’s an even worse idea to remove those ideas from the literature your kids are allowed to read. If they can’t get that exposure in real life, at least books give them a chance to face those problems and ideas, to think through how they might react to such a situation or handle such a decision, in the abstract. Considering an idea in the privacy and safety of your own mind is much safer than having to think it through on the fly when you’re suddenly thrust into that situation.

So…where did the sex go? Why do all the YA books I’ve read in the last five years focus on romance to the exclusion of sex (with, of all exceptions to make, Twilight as an example of a book that at least talks about why they’re not having sex)? What happened to the teenagers who have had actual teenage sex, you know, got drunk at a party and regretted it later, or had a serious steady relationship since 8th grade and finally went all the way in 9th or 10th?  In all the dystopian futures have teenagers’ hormones magically been excised to only get schoolroom crushes on each other and not want to bone?

Personally, I hope the digital self-publishing will give rise to the kind of YA books that should be available–those that address the entire spectrum of teenage issues and not just a narrow few that censor-minded editors think helicopter parents would be okay with their kids thinking about.

…but maybe this is just me? Maybe I have a selection bias with the books I have chosen to read, and they were not indicative of the issues and experiences covered in current YA lit at large? Discuss.

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2 Comments

Filed under Digital Revolution, Rants and Storms

2 responses to “When Did Sex Stop Being Part of YA Books?

  1. The sex is missing from romance aimed at the YA crowd. Because we all know that if a boy and a girl truly love each other–or at least find one another interesting–they’ll express that love physically with a single chaste kiss. Because that’s totally what happens in real life. *eyeroll*

    I devoured R.L. Stein and Christopher Pike’s books when I was a kid, and I wonder if those books being in the horror genre might have something to do with the sexual content and the relative lack of reaction to it. As far as I can recall, neither of those authors were telling morality tales, they simply wanted to scare the crap out of their readers (and to 11-year-old me, mission accomplished!). Sex and violence tend to go together, anyway (which is a whole other topic of conversation…). I had friends who weren’t allowed to read those books, and it wasn’t because of any sex that might be there, it was due to the violence.

    I haven’t read much in the way of YA since I was in my early teens, mostly because I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the trashy romance and horror novels at the library, so I can’t offer a *really* comprehensive theory about the lack of sex in the books. I did read Amanda Hocking’s Trylle Trilogy when it was still available on KDP, and (SPOILER ALERT)…

    …there’s a sex scene in the final novel. Or at least in that version; it may have been changed in the trade version. Sex, along with with drugs and punk rock was also a major theme in Stephanie Kuehnert’s YA novel I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. Those themes made up the basis of Blake Nelson’s Girl, which was one of my favourite books when I was a teenager (also aimed at the YA crowd).

    I find it sad that sex is only acceptable in books that feature buckets of blood and tons of cocaine. Doing that equates it to something negative and life-threatening, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

    I don’t have children, but I remember my mother reading the back cover blurbs of some of my books and deducing what was going on within the pages and using that information to start a conversation, which always got awkward when it came down to sex, but at least she acknowledged that it happened (though I think she was more concerned about potential drug use).

    • Hi, Jess! I’m glad I’m not the only one who notices this lack and finds it obnoxious. My parents were the same way–they didn’t censor me, and if there was anything they felt uncomfortable with they just used it as a discussion point.

      I think your point that this is a lack in the YA romances and not necessarily all YA is a good one. I haven’t read anything but romance from the genre lately.

      What’s funniest about the fact that I recall sex being in the Pike/Stein books is that it was never presented as a Thing. It was just reality. It certainly was never like Scream makes fun of the horror formula being the virgin always makes it and the slut doesn’t. It just acknowledged that teenagers were having or knew peers who were having sex.

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