There’s a lot of discussion online about sex in YA novels: too much of, not enough of, inappropriateness of, negative consequences of, condoning of, etc. etc. Among the critiques I received on the first draft of my YA novel was that I had avoided the subject altogether. It’s true I shied away from my 17-year old protagonist Chloe thinking more than “he’s cute” and sharing an innocent kiss during her first romantic adventure. Chloe’s experience traveling alone in a Latin American country is easy and hassle-free . When she meets not one, but two, guys her passions barely stir. She is living in an unrealistic, sex-less parallel universe. Because of this, my classmates and teacher Michelle pointed out, the book felt more Middle Grade than Young Adult. They stated, rightly so, that even if Chloe doesn’t choose to have sex, sexuality would be palpable all around her — sexual tension, sexual harassment, curiosity about sex, a friend having sex, or pressure to have sex. For a 17-year old, sex cannot be ignored!
I’ve read many YA books with steamy sex scenes. I’ve also read plenty with no sex at all, and some with merely hand-holding and kissing. Bottom line: sex is dealt with in a wide variety of ways in YA novels. As both Cindi Madsen and Amber Skye Forbes discuss on their respective blogs, sex depends entirely on the teen character and how she feels about it. Some teens have sex and regret it; others are eager to experiment. My mistake was to not understand my character well enough and to not delve deep enough into the environment she’s in to put her in realistic sexual situations.
As I developed Chloe and the situation she’s in, I got a better feel for the kinds of sexual encounters she would have and the choices she would make. Along the way, I researched sex scenes in YA books to see how other authors dealt with this issue.
In the classic sexual awakening YA novel Forever by Judy Blume, sex is front and center and Blume does not shy away from graphic details. Katherine falls in love with Michael and the two high school seniors progress sexually from kissing to going all the way. The message of the book is conveyed by Katherine’s mother:
“You have to be sure you can handle the situation before you jump into it…sex is a commitment…once you’re there you can’t go back to holding hands.” “And when you give yourself both mentally and physically…well, you’re completely vulnerable.” (76)
Lost It by Kristen Tracy has a similar arc of two teens embarking on a monogamous relationship culminating in sex. I love the realistic portrayal of high school junior Tess thinking about sex as she fools around with her boyfriend:
“I always thought I would have been the kind of girl who said slow down, no, and stop doing that right now. But those reactions would’ve required me to engage my brain. And during this time, that wasn’t really happening. … I think he was waiting for some sort of signal, but I wasn’t ready to give it.” (75-76)
The author also captures Tess’ complicated feelings about wanting to be wanted even when she isn’t ready herself. Here her boyfriend has just told her he’d like to slow things down between them:
“At this point, I didn’t want to have sex. I wouldn’t have had sex. I wasn’t ready. But I didn’t like the way this rejection felt. I wanted Ben to want me. I wanted to be the one who said when to stop.” (136)
As Rachel Grate states in Young Adult Books that Get Sex So (Awkwardly) Right for Arts.Mic, “Part of embracing your sexuality is learning to accept the vulnerability that comes with life.” Both these books handle sexual exploration and vulnerability thoughtfully, humorously, and realistically.
At the other end of the sex spectrum are two of my favorite YA books: Just Listen by Sarah Dessen and Tokyo Heist by Diana Renn. Unlike with the first two books, exploring sexuality is not the main issue in these novels. Just Listen focuses on the relationships between Annabelle and her family, her secret about nearly being raped, and a friendship that morphs into a romance with Owen. She and Owen share a kiss in a car wash, but that’s it. The themes here are honesty, trust, opening up to people, and embracing change. Sex takes a back seat.
Similarly, Tokyo Heist is a mystery novel filled with action and thrills. During the ride, 16-year old Violet realizes she has a crush on her guy friend Edge, but it isn’t until the very end of the book that the two come together and kiss. The book ends with the prospect of their relationship, but again, sex is not the main theme. Solving a mystery is.
Revisiting these four books helped provide me with perspective on how to deal with sex in my book. Mine isn’t about a girl grappling with whether or not to have sex. It’s about a girl in a politically-unstable country, amidst danger and violence, trying to find her grandmother who’s disappeared. Along the way, she happens to meet Jorge, a guy she likes who’s in a similar situation.
Because she’s an American girl traveling alone in a foreign place, I added what I hope are more realistic sexual scenes: drunk men outside a club whistle and cat-call at her and one tries to bar her way; a man on a bus sexually harasses her; a college-age guy tries to ply her with wine and hit on her. She also begins a romance with Jorge and they spend a night in bed together. However, at this moment they’re both trying to locate their missing loved ones. They’re worried and anxious and sex is not first and foremost on their minds. Instead, they cling to each other for comfort and reassurance. In this context, it didn’t feel right for Chloe to be thinking about losing her virginity. Instead, it made sense for her to want to kiss and cuddle with Jorge, to learn to trust and care about him. So, by the end, although Chloe has remained innocent, the world around her has become less so. Maybe for her sex will come later, when the situation allows her to relax, explore, and embrace her vulnerability — in the sequel.