My Thoughts on Sexual Content in Young Adult Fantasy Novels
A YA writer, teen librarian, and avid YA reader spills the tea.
Sex sells. Any publishing veteran will tell you the same, regardless of their personal views on the subject. But should sex sell in the young adult genre? That is the root issue that I want to discuss today.
Please do not send any negative messages to the authors, publishing houses, marketers, Twitter or Reddit posters mentioned in this article. This is simply meant to express my opinions and start a discussion with members of the YA community.
My Personal Experience in YA
The short answer to this question is: yes, I think young adult books should be open about sex, but with the knowledge that every reader's preferences and real-world experiences are going to be different. With the appropriate marketing and content warnings attached, there should be no reason to completley wipe out sexual content geared toward teens.
Now with that out of the way, let's take a deep dive.
I was 16 when I first had sex, and I can say my experience has never been properly portrayed in any YA book that I've read. Quick, awkward, and emotionally draining, and embarrassing; my first time was not some overly erotic, passion-filled experience that a good number of YA romance books seem to make it out to be. And I can promise you that I am not the only person who has had this experience.
As a teen, I read mainly YA fantasy books such as the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer, the House of Night series by P.C. Cast & Kristin Cast, the Hush, Hush series by Becca Fitzpatrick, and The Warrior Heir series by Cinda Williams Chima.
Now, for those of you avid YA readers out there, you might already be wincing at my introduction into sex in the genre just from the titles of some of these books alone. And I'd have to agree with you. Many of these books contain some very graphic content when it comes to sex. Some reltationships between characters are outright abusive and toxic ( one love interest starts out wanting the murder the main character...I mean, c'mon ) while other sexual encounters involve animals ( I wish I was kidding ) which makes it all the more uncomfortable to me, now, as a 25-year-old teen librarian when I'm trying to justify having these on the YA bookshelf where any kid can pick them up and read them, thinking they are appropriate for their reading maturity.
And I can't continue without mentioning one of the biggest reasons for me wanting to write this article: how abusive relationships portrayed in the YA books I read as a teen affected my own perception of what a healthy relationship ought to be.
In many of these books with the "spicier scenes", it is more often than not that the male love interest is reduced to a babarian personality with animilistic instincts. Sarah J. Maas, Jennifer L. Armentrout, Holly Black, Elise Kova, and P.C & Kristin Cast are all guilty of this. ( To varying degrees of course. )
In fantasy, you can make excuses for why these male characters are the way they are. "They aren't human!" "It's just the way their kind are; it's lore!" And so on. But this feeds into the generalization of men in our society and to the belief that "boys will be boys" and are always only after one thing when it comes to a romantic relationship: sex.
These borderline or outright abusive relationships were romanticized in the writing and it, to my shame, got in my head. After suffering through being in a relationship with such a person ( a copy and pasted aggressive edgy boy trope ) it took me years to recover mentally. This is not to say YA books are 100% at fault, as I was manipulated by many other outside variables, but I'd be lying to myself if I said it didn't contribute.
Now, I can read these novels while being mature enough to know that these are fictional relationships. I should not glorify them or praise them as the blueprint for a perfect relationship. Other people can if that works for them.
So, how do we decide what's "right" or "wrong" for teens to read? Spoiler, we don't!
And this is where you might expect me, as a librarian, to start angrily condescending to the parents of young teens who let them read such content, but no, I won't. It's impossible to expect all parents to comb through every book their child wants to read. The same principle can be applied to librarians, though we do become familiar with many more books than the average reader.
And there is no way you will ever get me to blame a teenager for wanting to read a book with these topics. That would make me a hypocrite. Plus, certain books can be a healthy way to introduce some teens to the topic of sex, relationships, and consent.
So, this is where I turn to marketing teams in publishing houses, as it is the traditional publishing industry that has the most media and bookshelf exposure. An author can write all the sex they want in their story involving 16-year-olds, but it is when that overly sexual content is marketed toward tweens between the ages of 11 and 14 just because the characters are teens that issues arise.
Here, @etherealmyths makes an important point: it is the content, not the age of the characters, that matters when it comes to marketing the novels as YA or new adult/adult.
YA after all, while sometimes being called a "genre", is very much a marketing tool. There is a reason why so many "questionable" YA books get marketed as "for teens" even though their content is far more adult than teen. Slap a YA sticker on it, and it will become much more valuable and appealing to the masses.
Speaking of masses, Sarah J. Maas is a perfect example of adult books being marketed as young adult. Her Throne of Glass series, which started off as an appropriate teen series, became...well, it became smut by the end.
Before you take out your pitchforks, there is nothing wrong with teens wanting to read smut. I read spicy Twilight fan-fiction as a teen! And I loved it! However, not every teen is going to be comfortable enough to read smut.
This redditer by the name of sarah_ahiers said it best regarding teens wanting and needing to read about sex.
So, how can this be resolved? How can we, as YA readers and authors, better help our most impressionable in our community while still letting those ready for more adult content read it? Well, I got a very simple answer...slap a label on it.
The Solution, if We Want it
SLAP A LABEL ON IT! - Amanda, Teen Librarian
When I first arrived at my local library as the new teen librarian, several teen books had been placed in the adult section. After asking after the previous teen librarian, they said they had been put there due to their sexual content and adult themes.
As stated above, I don't believe sex or even smut should be an automatic ban from the teen section, but I can understand their reasoning. So, after some talks and brainstorming, we decided that if we were going to keep the "clean reads" stickers ( which I hate with a passion ), then we might as well make a sticker to signify the more "adult" teen books.
And thus, the YA + label was born. Plus, because sex and adult themes should not be seen as bad or too much for teens. It is simply more.
All three library branches in my area have adopted the label, and have begun moving these "adult teen novels" into the teen sections. It's a small thing, but it has so far made a huge impact.
Since adding the labels, I haven't had any angry parents coming to me, complaining about the content in their child's book. I've also had some very surprising and open conversations with teens ( 12 to 17 ) about adult themes in their books and being ready for them.
One teen who was around the age of 13 talked to me about her favorite books, which just so happened to fall into the YA fantasy romance umbrella. I was beyond excited, pulling out book after book, each one labeled appropriatley. She got to choose what she was ready for, and I was there to help steer her toward books that would make her the happiest.
If other libraries, authors, and especially publishing houses could adopt a simple labeling or content warning system, I think many of our questions and concerns would be erased. In the end, these books are for teens that can be enjoyed by any age group. So let's give the readers clear options instead of generalizing their experiences into one messy pot.
About the author
Book hoarder, fantasy author, gaming goblin. I am currently working on my debut novel, CASTLING. Follow me on Twitter @Amanda_Starkes and subscribe to my email list at amandastarks.com to keep up with the madness!