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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Some Thoughts on Sex in YA

First, I want to say up front that I don't write YA. I don't read a lot of it either, except when I'm editing it for publication, but I do have a 12-year-old granddaughter who reads voraciously, and she has a 30-year-old mother who reads right along with her.

On Christmas Day, my daughter called me all a-flutter. Her husband, the dashing Army Pilot, had ventured into the local B&N to buy the GrandGirl a vampire book. I know New York says vampires are so last year. Well, they clearly don't know their market. It was the only book GrandGirl got this year, and she immediately started reading it. A few pages in, she started asking some questions that raised  eyebrows among the adults. A few pages later, the book was taken away and marked for return to B&N. Why? Sex. Inappropriate sex.

As in references to c&*k s*cking in the school hallways. Did I just shock you? I hope so.  It was worse than that but I'm not going there. My granddaughter is 12 and her mother is pregnant. GrandGirl knows how babies are made. But she is way too young to be exposed to that sort of explicit sexuality.  Now, my daughter is no prude. She and her husband, then boyfriend, had GrandGirl when they were 16 and 18 respectively. She knows that teens have sex, I know that two of my daughters were sexually active in the later years of high school. I got them the contraceptives myself. But come on folks, explicit sex in YA?

YA spans a huge developmental range, from 12 to 18, or 14 to 21, or even 12 to 25 as some are now saying. But a 12-year-old is vastly different than an 18-year-old, or even than a 15 or 16-year-old.  How do I know this? Well I was one, and I've raised a few, and I taught and worked in child welfare for a couple of decades. Trust me on this. My credentials are in order. Not to mention the fact that a lot of kids leave the YA section at 15 or 16 and move on to the adult books. So I'm assuming a lot of YA readers are in junior high or early high school.

Even so, YA authors battle back and forth on rating systems. Some call it censorship. I call it parenting. Yes, telling me what I can and can't read as an adult is censorship. Giving a parent of a minor a heads up about the contents of a book is not. Parents are supposed to protect their children from premature exposure to adult matters. One reason we took kids away from parents in child welfare was exposure to pornography. And the sections of the book in question I had read to me were definitely approaching porn.

I recently happened on a discussion of sex in YA and the question being batted around was whether or not it interrupted the story to have the teens practice safe sex or discuss the harsh realities of teen sex, like contraception, pregnancy, and STDs. Several of us, mostly grandmothers or mothers of teens, weighed in on why this discussion was even happening. Safe sex for teens is a no-brainer. The bigger question is why explicit sex at all?

J.K. Rowling made a fortune with a series with no sex. According to my daughter, Stephanie Meyer's books don't have graphic and explicit sex. I'm almost 60 years and I'd rather not read a lot of sex scenes. (Well, a good lesbian mystery is okay, but I still don't want page after page of sex.) I want it used appropriately, to move the story along. The story is important. Gratuitous sex is unneeded.

As a publisher, my business partner and I have decided to bypass the debate. Our books will be rated. For sex, language, and violence. We want parents to make informed decisions for their younger teens. We will have books that are for everyone and others will be marked MT for mature teens.

We're not prudes. We understand teens, we were teens. I, at least, was a sexually active teen. (I don't know about my partner as it's none of my business). I have an active sex life, I swear like a sailor, and I love a good RPG with lots of things to kill. But kids are prematurely sexualized in our society already.

As a child welfare worker, I took more than one baby away from a teen mom who wasn't ready to parent. I worked with women in their early 20s who had already had five or six babies removed. Permanently. Yes, there were other factors at work, but why do we as authors want to contribute to it? (For that matter, the number one factor was drug and alcohol abuse leading to neglect and abuse of children. If your book glorifies drugs or drinking, it may just be a contributing factor).

I'm not saying don't put sex in your YA book if it's important or moves the story along. I'm saying think about why you are doing it. If it's gratuitous, remember that some parents actually care about things like that. And if you do need it to move the story, don't make it graphic or explicit. If that's what you want to write, there's a whole genre called erotica out there.

My daughter returned the book to B&N, and made a big stink about it. She told her friends and the mothers of her daughter's friends. I passed the information along to my friends who still have kids at home. An author lost a lot of possible sales. My daughter also called her publisher mom and asked me to rate our books. Which we were going to do anyway. We may be trailblazers. But if the things I've seen in some YA books continue, we probably won't be the only ones.

14 comments:

  1. Interesting post, Susan. I too deplore the sexification of children's and YA lit and wonder where it will end. My daughter, a YA novelist who employs sex responsibly in her books, is herself deeply concerned about the current disturbing "Twilight"-driven trend in YA (interestingly, mainly in the supernatural/vampire/fantasy subgenre) toward not only explicit, but extremely UNhealthy, dominance- and control-driven relationships, with rape and attempted rape scenes skewed as "romantic." A disturbing trend, especially considering even mainstream adult romance novels are thankfully moving away from that patriarchal BS. Glad to see your company is addressing this.

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  2. As a child read beyond my age level. It helped to understand the mechanics of sex when my wierd uncle started making moves on me. (I told him I had a headache)But nothing I read in the fifties portrayed casual sex as normal, benign or accepted.

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  3. I had a similar discussion yesterday with another writer, about adult fiction. My point is always, "It's the story that counts." If it doesn't move the story along, then cut it. As you say here: "... I'd rather not read a lot of sex scenes ... but I still don't want page after page of sex.) I want it used appropriately, to move the story along. The story is important. Gratuitous sex is unneeded."

    The mystery I'm reading now, and the urban fantasy I was reading previously, both have the page after page of sex ... in the UF several times of that. I just skip them. Read the first paragraph or two to get the gist, then look for where the story picks up again.

    I don't write YA, but I've read some and haven't encountered explicit sex yet, but it surely doesn't belong there. I applaud your decision to provide a ratings system. It's not censorship (an over-used word).

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  4. Thanks for your post Susan. I completely agree! I think that there is a feeling that we have to fully 'authentic' in YA. But authentic to who? To what age group? I would hate to think that a gratuitous or graphic sex scene in one of my novels was in any way a contributing factor to an immature teen engaging in sexual relations before they were ready. Same goes for drugs, violence, etc. Sometimes authors need to remember that our stories can influence people for good or for bad. Hopefully we are decent enough to try to write responsibly.

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  5. Susan...

    I'm glad you wrote this post... First of all I write m/g and y/a. The age variances of y/a really need to be made!

    As you said a book geared for a twelve-year-old should NOT be the same as for sixteen and older.

    I wrote my first novel as y/a because me characters are eleven to thirteen I was told countless time that is was m/g. So I changed and an formatted it to that market.

    My next book is CLEARLY y/a BUT older teen. Seventeen and older. It deals with an alcoholic father psychologically and physically abusing his seventeen=-year-old son. AND there is a moderately steamy sex scene.

    I would NEVER allow a child under sixteen to read this. Publishers once and for all need to state age appropriate y/a.... Not at twelve.

    I'm glad you returned the book...

    Michael

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  6. I like sex and I like to see it in the books I read, and I'm not shy about admitting that. (Though I don't judge an adult book poorly if it doesn't have sex in it...it's just a preference).

    I think the topic of sex in YA has to be dealt with carefully. To pretend that teens aren't having sex and therefore don't talk, think and participate in such things would be silly. And cutting it out of their literature to protect the younger group, reading up, seems as though it might hurt the genre more than help.

    That being said, I really can't see any reason why there should be explicit sex in YA stories. Making out, yes. Mentions to sex or characters experiencing their first time, yes. But the true down and dirty stuff should be saved for adult novels.

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  7. Maybe that is why they should develop the New Adult genre so that these older teen related topics spanning from older teens to adults can be put into that category instead of just randomly on the shelf as a YA without any PG-13 ratings. I'm sorry for your daughter and granddaughter for having this experience.

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  8. I think the main problem with YA is that it's aimed at such a wide age range. What is appropriate for someone age 16 isn't for someone at age 12.

    I also abhor the sexualization of society. When I hear girls think that it is normal to dress like a hooker, something clearly is wrong with our society.

    Having said that, I don't think it's good that sex is eradicated out of books. It exists. Putting it in the closet and covering it up with a nice layer of thankyouverymuch leaves them all the more confused.

    They ARE at an age when nature tosses sex on their path and if it's treated like normal, they won't start looking for excesses of it.

    So if sex, or sexual innuendo moves the plot forward and is done in a very tasteful way, then yeah, I can live with it. Even in a YA, no matter what age range it is aimed at.

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  9. A very good post and timely. Surely the very young have other things to focus on rather than sex.

    I just followed your comment from Rach Writes. Just to help you, your link brings up about 6 blogs (Not complaining, mine does too,) but it's not clear which one to click on. We move through the blogosphere at the speed of light so you have to save us time - put something next to the one you want most people to follow- this is my writing blog....Also you need to get the crusader badge up the top so people know you're a crusader. These two things will make a difference.

    So many people got so many new followers and some of the links back don't work. All you can do is make sure you make things as easy as you can and comment, comment, comment.

    Denise<3

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  10. I think the whole topic is very difficult. Some kids lose their virginity at age 10. On the other hand, I know of some Juniors who feel awkward sitting in sex ed. The problem with YA is that it's so hard to define because kids grow up at different rates. Personally, I read Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown when I was 11, and it did not scar me; there is quite a bit of lesbian sex in that book. I'm no worse for the wear. But again, it's a sticky situation.

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  11. I have no issues with sex in books, but this makes me furious, and I don't even have children. I can't imagine how I'd react if I were a parent. I hope the division of YA into YA and "new adult" will eliminate at least some of this. The divide between twelve years old and sixteen years old is vast. To be expected to bridge that gap by writing a book appropriate for both age groups is ridiculous.

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  12. New follower and Crusader here. Boy this is a tough subject. You gave me a lot to think about. I really don't like any gratuitous sex in any artistic form - writing, movies, whatever. But esp. in YA!! Fortunately the YA I've read so far has handled it really well. In the few cases where the characters slept together, it was handled really well with discussions of safety and responsbility that didn't get preachy.

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  13. Hope you don't mind the suggestion, but you had so many blogs listed on your profile i had a hard time finding the one that was the Crusader blog, (still not sure? No Crusader logo?) Did you know that blogger lets you hide/show other blogs?

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  14. I say, good for you! (and your daughter for returning that book!) I think it's great that you'll be rating your books. One day (in the not too distant future) I'll be a parent, and I wont want my kids reading about explicit sex when they're too young for it.

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