Part I: Too Much Sex in YA Lit?


By Carolyn Shields

The complications which comes from introducing sex through literature to “young adults” is a harrowing issue for parents, literary agents, authors, and the whole publishing field. Should Sold, Patricia McCormick’s award winning and graphic Young Adult account of human trafficking really be situated between Vampire Academy and The Tales of Beedle the Bard?

We all can agree that literature is an excellent form to spread messages or awareness to an audience—the mania over the Twilight and Hunger Games are proof, and as a teen I ate both series up. (I was also kind of pumped that Edward refused to have sex with Bella until they were married).

The first problem in tackling over-sexed literature for teens is the lack of definition for “young adult.” The Young Adult Library Services Association claims that young adult literature is primarily targeted for adolescents between the ages of twelve to seventeen; however, readers and authors of this genre define the targeted readers between the ages of ten to fifteen. Adding to the complication are recent studies which reveal that 55% of the consumers are above the age of eighteen. If there is this shift in purchasers, publishers are feeling obligated to meet their demands in supply-side economics, and will adhere to their requests rather than the twelve year olds’. Furthermore, sixteen to twenty-nine year olds are the largest group who check books out from the library, and according to the same Pew Study, surveyors found “some 82% of Americans ages 16-29 read at least one book in any format in the previous twelve months…over the past year, these younger readers consumed a mean of thirteen books.”

This fascination with social outcasts and victims of marginalization sit well in YA books, specifically for the reason that teens are in a search for identity, and oftentimes they feel as if they are embarking on this journey alone. The rise of fiction which popularizes vampires, werewolves, traitors and victims—all outcasts of society, reveal how many cannot choose their nature or the family they were born into. Acceptance becomes a reoccurring theme in YA Lit. And check it, Jacques Philippe writes that sometimes the most fundamental aspects of our lives are void of choice (like who your mother is, when you were born, etc).

Caroline McKinley, author of “Beyond Forever: The Next Generation of Young Women Protagonists’ Sexual Motivations in Contemporary Young Adult Novels,” explores the sexual motivations for these young women in recent Young Adult releases, researching works of award winning Sarah Dessen and Mary Pearson. McKinley claims that a large reason for Dessen and Pearson’s characters partaking in sexual intercourse is often related to self-esteem issues but overall, the reasons these protagonists partake in sex varies drastically, mirroring reality.

McKinley offers a variety of statistics to support her thesis that young women suffer from drastically low rates of self-esteem. According to a recent study, “Real Girls, Real Pressure: A National Report on the State of Self-Esteem,” researchers found that 75% of  young women between the ages of 8-17 feel as if they do not “measure up” and view sex as a means to increase their value. These protagonists oftentimes wish to fill this emotional void. McKinley claims that these books can become a bridge to fill the gap from parent to child and to initiate conversations of worth. Young adults are often drawn to empathize with a literary character rather than a lecture from their parents; ergo, McKinley claims that sexuality is an essential element in Young Adult literature and should always be an opportunity to initiate conversations.

Judy Bloom shocked many with the release of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for its sensitive female content. Published in 1970, the eve of the golden age of YA Lit, Bloom opened up a wide door when she wrote a novel specifically for young teenage girls. The market has grown since and its influence on teen readers is phenomenal. Literature impacts the cognitive development, reading comprehension, and sexual curiosity, particularly to our youths. There are already systems in the public school systems which meticulously decide which books to implement in curriculum, but as stated in previous statistics, teens read outside of school as well.

The Entertainment Software Rating Board assigns video game ratings based on its content. Literature, arguably the most sociological of major art forms, is subjective enough to impact people differently and is less quantitative; therefore, creating a set rating system and developing certain criteria would obviously prove more difficult, but this would help to prepare teens to read the content in the novels they pick up due to this increasing age gap.

Am I the only twenty-something year old who still checks out IMDB’s parental guide to prepare myself for the gore or sex scenes? I’m sure not.

What is appropriate for a twelve year old is certainly not appropriate for a nineteen year old. People hesitate to “label” books because of the relative nature everything is becoming: exactly what is “bad language,” or exactly what is “strong sexual content?”

But acceptance of explicit sexual scenes in literature will not help these forming individuals on their quest for identity. It's part of growing up and suppression is not what I'm vouching for at all, but rather a greater sensitivity. 

Though literature often encourages conversation between parents and children, the way sex is repeatedly presented contributes little to this dialogue. Oral sex, masturbation, and pornography, all sensitive issues, have a place in literature. They really do. However, the entirety of the publishing field should pay particular attention to the way it is presented to those with such impressionable young minds when it is specifically targeted to this genre.

Let’s look some specific examples from John Green, Meg Cabot, and Patricia McCormick in Part II: Too Much Sex in YA Lit?