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Sex In YA, Part 1: Taboos

By Chris Sardegna
Sex in YA. It's a big issue with lots of different aspects. So, on random Tuesdays throughout the next 2 months, I'll be posting a short series of discussion topics concerning the big S-E-X in teen literature. Each post will have a different issue and the comments will be open to keep the conversation going!

This week's topic is taboos.

What is taboo in the field of sex and love in young adult fiction?

There was a time, of course, when sex itself was a taboo in teen literature, but that is no longer the case. With books like Judy Blume's Forever . . . paving the way, teen literature now features a variety of books with sexual themes, both fade-to-black scenes and semi-detailed love scenes are out there. Sure, there are still boundaries to be pushed, but sex in YA is no longer a taboo.

But what about other sexual acts? Well, those aren't very taboo anymore, either. Oral sex, for example, has made its appearance in YA. From John Green's Looking for Alaska to Jenny Downham's Before I Die and Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely, one can see that both boys and girls can be seen on the receiving end of oral sex in YA. What's more, in Before I Die for instance, the act is portrayed as incredibly meaningful and loving.

My first thought when dealing with the topic of YA taboos was incest. But is that even a taboo these days? Recently, the novel Forbidden by Tabitha Sazuma earned some attention when it sold in the US. The book is about a brother and sister who fall in love. I haven't read this one yet, but you better believe I am eager to see how the topic is handled. Either way, does this mean even incest isn't a taboo?

If that's the case, then what is taboo in YA romance? Or is anything off limits? SHOULD anything be off limits? We'd love to hear your thoughts on the taboos of sex and love in YA! Tell us your thoughts in the comments!
Kody Keplilnger

Kody is the NYT bestselling author of The DUFF, Shut Out, and A Midsummer's Nightmare, all from Little Brown/Poppy, as well as Lying Out Loud, Run, and the middle grade novel The Swift Boys and Me, from Scholastic. Born and raised in Kentucky, she now lives in NYC.

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  1. Being a future English teacher this is a big concern of mine. I strongly believe in YAL being in the classroom, but censors would disagree usually because of sexual taboos. I'm constantly considering what books I will have in my classroom and what ones I would like to teach. Many of these have sex in it. But, just look at the classics...Scarlet Letter anyone?

    I don't think anything should be off limits because I think everyone has a different capacity of what they can handle and they will guide their own reading.

    Something new that I came across was polygamy in Wither by Lauren Destefano. There were definitely taboo subjects in it and many dealing with sex, but I can't imagine telling a student they couldn't read it. It is a fantastic book that is beautifully written with strong themes. I've even added it to my companion novels (w/1984) with the canon.

    Sorry for the longest comment ever, but I'm passionate about these subjects. I really like the series your doing and it's a great discussion to have.

  2. I'm glad Devan mentioned Wither. *spoilers*

    I just finished reading and it deals with polygamy, sex with a minor, and teenage pregnancy. Granted this a different world (which the characters mention in the book), but in our world some of this stuff isn't as taboo as it used to be. I mean just look at the shows we have on the TV.

    I'm looking forward to these posts. My thesis project concerned YA sex and the consequences and whatnot, some I'm curious to see what everyone's opinions on the matter are.

  3. I don't think anything should be taboo because in life, nothing is really off-limits no matter how much we try to cover it up.

  4. just wanted to say you should read Forbidden ASAP! it's one of the most heart-breaking books i've ever read, and the subject matter is dealt with REALLY well.

    great post!

  5. For me the fact that there's a book about incest doesn't make it any less of a taboo... I'd still be very reluctant to pick it up, unfortunately for freedom of speech (lol) :(

  6. I don't think anything should be taboo in YA, but I think YA takes the rap for it in a way other genres don't.
    How I Live Now deals with incest, and it was a fantastic book. It wasn't "about" incest. I would hate for it to get blacklisted because someone thought they knew what it was about.

  7. I don't think anything should taboo. But I feel if a book has graphic sex scenes, there should be someway of indicating this to potential readers. Perhaps books require a rating system?

    Other than that, I feel that issues such as polygamy and incest should be allowed in YA lit, but that authors should try to treat the issues with care. I thought this was done well in wither.

    Overall, I think that it all depends on the book. Also, I'm against authors throwing in taboo materiel for shock value.

  8. Great topic! I'm looking forward to reading these posts and the comments they generate.

    I agree with Vine - it all depends on how the author handles the topic. And I also HATE when sex is thrown in for shock value. Ugh.

    I wrote (what I thought was) a YA novel. A few members of my critique group asked, "This is more of a middle grades book than YA, don't you think?"

    I just blinked at my computer screen. The story is set in high school. It's about coming of age and figuring out who you are. It's got high school drama and love triangles and all that.

    But it doesn't have sex. Or drugs. Or alcohol. Or swearing. Or anything even remotely "taboo."

    I'm learning that authors need to push the envelope just to keep up with current trends.

    Thanks for a great post!

    Erin @ Quitting My Day Job

  9. I’m so glad you’re doing a series on this topic. In my WIP, NOT CRICKET, I’m exploring (among other topics) different attitudes towards relationships, love and sex, and how that varies by gender, nationality and individual. I still haven’t decided exactly how to end this YA novel. It would not be with an explicit sex scene if the main characters were to have sex. Still, teens are having sex so it seems unrealistic to ignore that, especially in contemporary realistic fiction, which is what I write. I’d also rather have teens explore risky behavior in books than in life.

    There still needs to be line somewhere. Personally, I don’t think incest portrayed with a positive angle (ie they really are in love) or erotic fiction belongs in YA. As a teen in the 1980’s, all of my friends read the Flowers in the Attic series by V. C. Andrews, which was released as adult fiction. It was about 4 children locked in an attic with the 2 teens falling into an incestuous relationship and in love. I noticed that it has now been rereleased and shelved in the YA section at Borders. Last year I read Illyria by Elizabeth Hand, about a pair of incestuous cousins inspired by Shakespeare. It was rated YA, 16 and up, but I think it would have worked better as adult fiction, which is how it was originally released in the UK.

    It’s worth remembering that tweens are reading YA too. Forever by Judy Bloom made the rounds in my 5th grade class in the late 1970’s! Even then, I thought Forever was silly. The boy’s penis had a name. A much better example of age appropriate sex scenes is in Looking for Alaska by John Green, as you noted. I’d also recommend The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney on date rape.

    Along with YA, I also write adult fiction. In my novel (on submission) S.A.D. there are sex scenes involving teens. I’m aware of my audience and vary my writing accordingly both in content and in style. Teens can and do read adult fiction, but at least they know that the subject matter will be geared towards adults. The books are shelved in a different section of bookstores and libraries for a good reason. There is still plenty of room left to explore and boundaries to stretch in YA without writing erotica for teens.

  10. I should add that by "adult fiction" I mean fiction written for adults, not erotic fiction.

  11. I was going to mention incest if you didn't. I think it's become a little more common, but I wouldn't say it's gotten too much less taboo -- in society or in literature. I know Meg Rosoff was one of the first to tackle it in her incredible HOW I LIVE NOW, and it's still the most common issue cited with the book (even over its graphic violence).

    I think we do see it out there, but lesbian and trans or queer sex are still not that common or well understood in literature or other popular forms of media.

    I agree with Vine that the inclusion of sex or of more taboo types of sex is less an indicator of quality and more an indicator of the right audience for the book. That said, though, I have about a million concerns about the idea of a rating system for books -- they just aren't that easy to generalize about, and I fear ratings become a type of censorship.

  12. Tell your story. If it feels right for the story to go into an area of exploration, then it should go there. If however, you're looking for shock value, as seems to be so commonplace in what we see in the world today - you know how many lines can I cross stuff - well then, I'd say don't do it! I have a real pet peeve about crossing lines for the sake of crossing them.
    As far as sex goes, my personal taste is not to have things go too deep, but then there are times depending on what you're writing, where it has to. This goes for violence too. If it's just to get a reaction, it ain't gonna work. If it's a part of the story, then it will go down those pathways.
    It's just got to feel a real part of the story.
    So YA taboos? I expect there really are none, but beware of the bookshop people who will be very quick to report on too much of any one thing to those who buy.

  13. I'm so glad Rachel mentioned How I Live Now, because that was the first book that came to mind when you mentioned incest between two cousins.

    I don't think that or sex of any form should be in a book just to make it edgy or because that's what other authors do. In those books it seems forced or fake and completely unnecessary. It should be organic. Take How I Live Now. Never did I get the impression that Rosoff was just throwing incest in there for shock value. I can't imagine the story without it.

  14. I don't know. I remember the first sex scene in a YA book that kinda shocked me was in I Know It's Over because it was the more detailed/graphic sex scene I had read in YA. I used to think that was sort of the boundary between YA and Adult fiction that the sex would not be detailed in YA but... I think that's going away. And it's not like anything you'd read in an erotica novel or something.

    Also, I'm reading Gemini Bites right now and the MC Kyle recalled a blow job he got from a guy and it wasn't like graphic/detailed but it said more than I was expecting. I'm not bothered, personally, just making note of how far you can go, so to speak. I don't think either of those scenes were thrown in for shock value.

    Now I have to read Forbidden!

  15. I'm with Rachel in regards to ratings. Because people have different thoughts as to what qualifies, the whole thing could get very murky. However, as an author of YA novels, I don't have a problem with telling buyers that this book has x, y, z themes (although isn't that often obvious on the jack copy)?

    As for taboo themes, other than PUSH and BOY TOY, I have not seen books address sexual abuse by a female figure. I think books should explore this further, and not limit it to sexual abuse but a female emotionally manipulating a male as well. It happens more often than we think and in our society it's pushed under the rug. So many men are afraid to speak up if their wives physically or verbally abuse them. I bet teen boys are afraid as well.

  16. Can I just say great comments everyone! I'm enjoying reading all of these.

    I'm weary of rating systems as well because I think it can be a gateway to censorship. I do think that age ranges can be helpful, but there is still gray area. For example, some middle grade lit. can be read at the high school level/used in the classroom.

    Like I said I think everyone should be the one in control of guiding their own reading. If something is too much for them they can always abandon the book and move onto something else. Young adults are constantly picking up new responsibilities and I think they can handle being in charge of exploring what books they want to read. Not to mention the taboos that are pushed on t.v. and movies are the same or worse as some in YAL (Gossip Girl, Skins, Glee, etc.)

    As far as shock value I do think some authors just throw it in there, but some just can't write as well as others and they honestly think that they are adding it in with good intentions and that it's important to the plot.

    Also, I think we need to keep in mind that YAL is a bridge over to adult lit. Young adults are moving forward and they are trying adult things even if they are trying to grow up to fast. It's been that way for years, but in this generation people are actually talking about it. YAL provides a great opportunity to talk to YAs about these issues.

  17. Margie-Push was such a powerful novel. I agree with the themes that are lacking in YA concerning female absusers. Also, there is a lack of B&T in the LGBTQ.

  18. Agree with "Escape Artist" - 'tell your story'.

    Life isn't all rainbows and unicorns. Sometimes, much as we hate it, teens are exposed to and must deal with dark topics we consider ugly and heinous. I'd rather shine the light on those topics instead of pretend they don't exist.

    I struggled with this issue in my last novel, a story about a former cyberbully who caused a classmate's suicide. In its original draft, there was no cursing and the sex happened 'off camera'.

    When I ran the draft by a group of teens who'd agreed to beta read, they UNANIMOUSLY said - "Needs more cursing, more violence, more sex. It's not real."

    IT'S NOT REAL. That's the point, isn't it? To craft a characters and a story so real, it matters to readers.

  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. I recently heard some great YA authors read at the NYC Teen Authors Festival (on a panel called "I think I love you - but maybe I don't"). After hearing their fantastic, funny, heartfelt and yes sometimes explicit scenes - I would say the following should definitely be taboo in YA books:
    1. Boring/earnest sex scenes
    2. Badly written sex scenes
    3. Gratuitous Sex
    here's more on the event:

    In all seriousness, I also have a real problem with abusive scenes (sexual or not) that are unexamined - and by unexamined I mean let go without comment by the author and therefore interpreted as "OK" by the reader. Twilight has a scene like that in the last book - where Bella is bruised after sex and nonplussed - nay, happy. (yes, I know it's a vampire book, but what is a scene like that telling young women - often tweens - about what sex is supposed to be like?)

    I think that of course it's not about 'banning' anything - but rather that the onus is on us as readers, parents, community members to influence not just what our kids read but HOW they read it. I can't imagine forbidding my child to read something that seemed otherwise appropriate for them, but I can imagine encouraging them to discuss any questions with me, or explaining my feelings on what happens in the book openly...

  21. Great post! I actually don't believe anything should be off the table--though I sometimes think certain books should be published as adult and not YA, it usually has more to do with the author's approach to the characters or the themes than content (I felt this was true with Wither, personally, which I also loved).

    Like Sayantani, I DO personally dislike scenes/books/characters that seem to advocate abuse. But, uh, that's pretty widespread, both in YA and our culture. And I don't think taking discussions of it off the table are really the solution, either.

  22. Sex is such a concern for young adults. Having it, not having it, wanting to have it with someone, wanting to wait, etc. It has to be discussed or at least touched on in YA stories.

    I think the taboo comes in how it is handled. How is it presented and described?

  23. Nice post! I have to admit that I was surprised The Mortal Instrument series touches on the possibility of incest between a brother and a sister.

    The protag having more than one sex partner in the same book still seems to be taboo. Can anyone think of any books where this happens? Even so, I was surprised NIGHTSHADE got away with her hooking up with two guys in an ongoing way in the same book.

  24. The ultimate incest-Greek Mythology, which is often taught at the hs level.

  25. Myth also has beastiality as well, which I can't think of a YA book that includes.

  26. I'm with Sayantani and Monica. YAs want to read what they feel, and so much of the young adult experience is first love and first sex.

    However, what all of these comments are skirting around (I think) and Sayantani begins to raise is the question of the author's obligation to the reader. What moral/ethical obligation do we have, if any? Just because sex and violence are real, do we have to show them in graphic detail? To what extent do we -- adult writers -- need to demonstrate restraint or hold behaviors up to the light and say "Hey maybe this isn't the best way to behave."

    One of the worst author interviews I ever read was with a YA writer whose popular books were full of sex, drugs and consumerism. When asked about that, she shrugged and said, "It sells." I think we owe kids more than that. I think we have an obligation to demonstrate some consequences. I think as authors we have to acknowledge the special influence we can have on our audience.

    Please don't get me started on Bella.

  27. I guess my main concern is getting students to read and want to read. Every "home run" (a book that gets them into reading) book is different for each kid. It can be the Gossip Girl series or To Kill a Mockingbird. As long as they start somewhere that's what matters to me. Eventually they will grow up and so will their reading. Many will eventually get bored with some of the more superficial stuff and move onto something more difficult because they are more confident w/their reading skills.

    Authors have an obligation to their readers, but also their work. There needs to be a good balance of obligation to the reader and integrity of the work. They should not preach to their readers about morals, ethics, etc. because YA get enough of that from other people in their life. If it fits into the story w/out spoon feeding it w/theme, characters, etc. then that's great! I can't stand it when I read something that feels like the author is obviously trying to "teach" me a lesson. At least this is not my reason for reading books.

  28. As I've said before, the biggest issue with YA is that the kids differ so much. I was reading "Rubyfruit Jungle" by Rita Mae Brown in 6th grade. But there are some juniors in my school who still feel awkward during sex ed.

  29. I agree with a lot of the posters on here - the handling of the topic is key. Just because the targeted readers are young adults, let's face it, this does not mean that they are strangers to things like sex, rape, or even incest. Not only is it important to get these topics out there so teens better understand them (and can hopefully make better informed decisions), but it is also important for books to deal with these topics so that teens who have been victims of incest or rape or active participants in any of these "taboo" topics better be able to cope/share/understand their experiences. Everyone needs a book they can relate to, no matter how uncomfortable the subject matter may make some readers.

  30. I'm really enjoying reading all these comments! I don't have much of an opinion on sex in YA, because I think it depends entirely on the kind of book you're writing; but I love seeing everyone else's opinions on this!

  31. 1. I am kind of annoyed by the "everybody does it" assumptions on the part of both kids themselves and the adults writing for them. Actually, all teenagers aren't having sex. That said, I would venture to guess nearly all of them are more than happy to _read_ about it (which is safer anyway and ought to be encouraged for that reason alone, in my opinion.)

    2. My father was an independent bookstore owner when I was a kid and I was a latchkey kid at that. Our house was full of books. I read "The Joy of Sex" (the original goofy 70s version!) when I was 11. Understood about 25% of it. My philosophy is that if a kid gets it, they are old enough to read it and if they aren't old enough, it will go over their heads. It's a wash. So we don't need to censor.

    3. I write LGBT books, though they are historical, so really not L or G or B or T --all of which terms would be anachronistic applied to the 1880s. However, there are many cross-dressing characters in my books (particularly women passing as men) and same-plumbing characters (women and girls that is) who love them. When I get to a place in my story where sex seems like a natural event, I consider a couple of things before I decide whether and how much to write, including the issue of representation. GLBT teens have seen so little of themselves in popular culture--especially when it comes to the nuts and bolts (so to speak) of real sex. So I have written quite a few detailed scenes of all different kinds of sex these queer characters might have had. I want to validate the experiences and desires of our GLBT youth--even celebrate them.

    4. As for VC Andrews and the like being re-released as YA, I have to suspect that is because YA is the only niche in publishing that is actually growing. Once Twilight got adults reading YA, everyone wanted a YA. So it's a marketing issue, that's all.

  32. I would have never thought myself a prude, I read The Virgin Suicides at 14, but I was a little surprised when I saw the recommended age range of 12-17 for a YA book I'm reading that has alcohol, drug use, sex, etc in it. Twelve seems a bit young for that, I would say at least 14-17. I guess I'm protective of those I know who are that age.

    Having said that, my hope is that if it's done well, in context, then it provides an opportunity to learn something through the character's decisions. It definitely bugs me to read female characters who are victimized or who have little substance beyond a boy. That to me is worse than two characters who have a sexual relationship where consequences are explored.

  33. I had a super long comment for this and deleted it because it was turning into a novella. I will just say that I agree 100% with LilySea when she posted, "My philosophy is that if a kid gets it, they are old enough to read it and if they aren't old enough, it will go over their heads." I don't think anything should be off limits when it comes to YAL.

    Also, like previous comments, I think it depends on the story. If a scene is there for only shock value, then don't do it. I feel the same way about all genres, as well as movies (you know what I mean: those scenes where people are naked just for the sake of nakedness because sex sells and blah blah blah).

  34. Great post, Kody, and what a fantastic discussion going on here! I'm absolutely on board the "anti-abuse" train, in cases where the sexual abuse seems almost advocated. More than one YA novel seems to include abusive sex as if its acceptable or even desirable. So it's wonderful to know that not only are there published books out there that tackle "taboo" sex issues well, but that so many aspiring writers have the guts to take these issues on in their work.

  35. I'm a bit perplexed. I don't understand how I've gone 13 years of reading YA books and never really coming across a YA book with sex in it. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was the only books I've read that had sex in it. And it was very brief. Where are all these books?

    Can sex be taboo in YA novels? Certainly. My mom told me she read an adult book that had a glorified rape scene in it. I really hope nothing like that ever shows up in a YA novel. I'm not entirely sure it has a place in grown-up novels either. What kind of message does that even perpetuate?

    But does have a place in YA books. Let's face it, whether or not teens decide to have sex, it's still an issue they'll have to deal with sooner or later. It's not like parents are especially open about the topic. I'd like to think books are a safer place than the media which is already hyper-sexualized. I could be wrong though. I mean, I've heard a thing or two about the sex scene in Twilight, and it does concern me...

    I'm kind of curious...since I haven't read YA books with sex in em'...are there YA books with same-sex sex? Would a book dealing with this sort of issue come under fire more often than a book with hetero sex?

    Okay, and finally, to complete my greatly disorganized response, I totally agree with Lilysea's second point. I never wanted a parent to censor me. I already knew how to censor myself. If I thought a book would make me uncomfortable, I didn't read it. Give kids some credit. They're capable of making smart choices for themselves.

  36. and by "the media" I actually meant T.V., movies, and music.

  37. I remember reading VC Andrews at 12 years old and feeling so scandalous. My mother knew I was reading her books, but never thought about stopping me. I think I have the same attitude about my teens at the library, if they find it on their own, I am not going to stop them. There are worse places they can find sex in the world than a book. On the same page, Andrews seriously romanticized the topic, so it gave me a good lesson about the topic of sex. Where as more currently, in Hold Me Closer Necromancer there is a blatantly casual sex scene between two characters who barely know each other... and there are no apologies. The 20 something year old me sympathizes. The teenager in me would learn a bad lesson.

  38. I don't think anything should be off limits. that's not realistic in real life. Besides, if it's sex– that's already everywhere in ads, TV, movies, adult books, so why not in YA? And during teen years (and later, too) people think about sex. The topic should definitely be addressed in YA. That's just my opinion.

  39. I think it's rather hypocritical of the people who sensor books. Cos look at what else is out there. In the "men's lifestyle" part of the magazine section in supermarkets, there are magazine's with half naked women wearing thongs, women with breast implants, women who're being portrayed as sexual objects. Twelve-rated movies have sex-scenes in. How is it worse to have sex in books? Oh yeah, cos in books, sex is generally portrayed in good light, rather than in an objectification-of-women light. Basically, people want young people to feel uncomfortable about their sexuality, so it stops them from having sex. Or, more accurately, so it stops them talking about having sex.


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Item Reviewed: Sex In YA, Part 1: Taboos Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kody Keplinger