The inclusion of sex in YA novels (and even NA novels) is incredibly important. Why? Because representation matters.
Now I know what you might be thinking: “Sex in YA novels? That’s what romance novels are for! YA novels are for kids! Stop being gross.”
First, no. Second, double no. Absolutely not, pal.
Yes, YA novels feature predominantly high school-aged protagonists, but that doesn’t mean that those stories are strictly for teenagers alone. If that were the case, most of us wouldn’t be “allowed” to enjoy Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or even To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Those are all YA novels, but they have broader appeal.
That broader appeal comes from the fact that YA novels take universal concepts and observations and make them accessible to people of all ages. They don’t wrap them up in complicated language or stuffy narrators like a lot of (adult) fiction does. Instead, they construct vividly nuanced worlds around them that are populated with relatable characters. Characters through whom we, as readers, can understand and experience those concepts as well as their consequences and influence.
For many, including myself, reading is a way of learning about the world, not only in terms of important topics and understanding experiences different from my own, but also life skills and all types of relationships. Though I read a wide variety of literature, YA has been and will continue to be the most influential, insightful, and educational categories of books for me. And I’ll be turning 30 this year.
While I may no longer necessarily identify with the specific day-to-day issues and events of a junior or senior in high school, I do still very much relate to their trying to process everything going on in the world and figuring out their place in it. I identify with their insecurities and vulnerabilities (newsflash: those don’t magically go away with age) as well as their yearning to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
But I think, above everything else, the aspect of YA novels that I’ve identified with and have always gravitated toward most is the confusion and excitement over interpersonal relationships. I’m not talking about the predictable will they/won’t theys or the juvenile details and drama. I’m talking about those quiet moments between human beings where their minds are racing, for one reason or another, and they’re trying to figure out how they feel about the other person (or what’s running through their mind).
YA novels expertly bridge the experience of being a young adult with that of becoming an independent adult in that they introduce concepts and tools that young people need to know in order to grow into who they’re meant to or want to be. But, while they cover most topics and aspects of adulthood, there’s one glaring omission that’s prevalent throughout YA: Sex, sexuality, and intimate relationships.
Most times, adult romance and general fiction approach interpersonal relationships and intimate contact through the perspective of someone experienced. Someone who has had these sorts of relationships and interactions previously, regardless of brevity or regularity. These characters generally know what to expect, how to react, and, in a very basic sense, how everything looks and works.
But for those who are caught in between feeling like a young adult and an experienced one, there’s a huge gap in experience representation. In recent years, New Adult (or NA) books have risen to try to fill that gap of providing a basic introduction, but that shouldn’t be their responsibility alone. That’s a huge burden to bear to the point where the expectation of these conversations and intimate scenes would make for less diversity within that particular category.
That’s why representations of sex in YA novels, major and minor, are crucial.
As we’re all aware, visibility and representation is of the utmost importance in everything from books to movies to advertising. YA is leading the charge in terms of diversity of characters, types of stories, and gender identities, but where is the spotlight on sexuality?
One excuse has been the question of whether it’s appropriate for an adult to write about sexual interactions between young people. Adults writing about teens or young adults having sex or even just fooling around can feel a little weird and icky. Sometimes, it may even feel slightly pedophilic. Hence why so many YA novels fade to black or jump to a different point in time at the moment where things between two characters may cross into sexual territory. Authors just don’t want to go anywhere near that fine line between tastefull and gross. It makes sense.
But it’s also disappointing.
Another excuse? Most teens aren’t having sex, so there’s no reason to depict it. Sure, sex isn’t necessarily dominating the average teenager’s life, but it doesn’t dominate adults’ lives either. We’ve got work to do, bills to pay, friends to catch up with, chores and housekeeping to handle… Sex is on our brains probably as often as it is on a teenager’s, but we don’t act on it any more or any less. (And yet, it’s all over other kinds of media all of the time.)
But just because sex and sexuality may not be a constant aspect of everyday real-world lives, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be portrayed in YA one way or another. I mean, how many YA stories feature protagonists in car accidents, facing down murderers, or working in incredibly quirky shops that manage to keep themselves afloat? These are all very real situations that are large parts of the lives of everyday people, but they’re not nearly as common as young people starting to embrace their sexuality or engage in intimate relationships. And yet, just think about what gets represented more.
Books allow you to get inside the characters heads, so you not only get to “see” what they’re doing, but you get an insight into the “why.” And when it comes to physical relationships and intimacy, the “why” is incredibly important. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the intent, as well as the confirmation of consent, is the most important part of sex. It’s also the most difficult part to figure out and puzzle through, so reading about book characters faced with similar situations would help quite a bit.
Sex in YA novels doesn’t have to be graphic or explicit. It doesn’t have to offer insight into the mechanics. That would absolutely be crossing a line and, to be frank, the book would no longer feel YA-ish. But when YA books take so much care to explore relationships and internal thought processes as well as give its protagonists the tools they need to grow, fading to black right before intimate moments (moments where individuals learn so much about themselves as well as their partners) feels like such a huge mistake.
That’s not to say that sex in YA novels doesn’t at all exist currently. There are some authors and some titles that have taken great care to introduce sex and intimate relationships in a way that’s not only appropriate for the youngest of the YA audience but also is tasteful while ringing true. These novels (of which I’ll include a few recommendations below) prove that it is possible to discuss sex in YA novels and convey a lot of the nuance and lessons around these experiences without being wildly inappropriate.
Sex is not all-important nor is it an experience that every teenager experiences. But it’s a natural part of life and one that many teenagers do experience before they reach adulthood. It’s also a topic of great curiosity and mystery for young people everywhere because of how it has been stigmatized and presented as something shameful in the past.
But as Gen X-ers, Millennials, and even a select few members of Generation Z work to break down preconceived notions about sex and normalize it in society through everything from consumer products to podcasts to just talking about it more, it’s time for more YA authors and stories to do their part as well.
Sex in YA novels is important and greatly impacts how young people not only view and understand themselves, but also the world around them. And you can’t tell me otherwise.
Looking for well-done representations of sex in YA novels? Give these relatively recent titles a try.
The Furyborn series by Claire Legrand
This is the series that really sparked the idea for this article. Though it has the makings of a standard (yet exciting!) YA story, its depictions of sex as well as the way it features characters embracing their sexuality are particularly striking and memorable. They don’t overpower the story, but instead, add a lot to every interaction.
‘Together We Caught Fire’ by Eva V. Gibson
Together We Caught Fire is a dark and emotional YA novel that touches on everything from mental health to drug abuse to step-sibling relationships. But the main focus of this book is the exploration of complicated feelings and relationships. Though sex factors heavily, the discussions and depictions exist to inform character personalities and dynamics first and foremost.
‘The Speed of Falling Objects’ by Nancy Richardson Fischer
Though this YA novel is very much about survival, it also focuses heavily on interpersonal relationships and what it means to truly live. In a moment of vulnerability and need, two characters find comfort in the company of one another (amidst a dangerous environment) and allow themselves to explore the happiness that intimacy with another person can bring. This moment doesn’t define the novel nor does it overwhelm everything else that’s going on, but it highlights what it means to be human.
Here are a couple of New Adult books with well-done portrayals of sex for good measure.
‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ by Casey McQuisiton
There are so many aspects of Red, White & Royal Blue that are worth loving and celebrating, but one of the things that really stood out to me while reading it was its emotional and detailed description of sexual interactions. They’re absolutely beautiful but incredibly relatable. They also paint a vivid picture of intimacy without being crudely graphic.
‘Until the Last Star Fades’ by Jacquelyn Middleton
Until the Last Star Fades has some of my favorite moments of intimacy in all of literature. The main characters in this book are both feeling broken in one way or another, but they find support and understanding in one other. Not only that, but they share a connection so strong that it’s almost tangible. The intimate scenes between Ben and Riley demonstrate the depth of their love for one another far more than any conversation or public display of affection ever could. They’re incredibly emotional but oh so satisfying.