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.