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Sex In YA, Part 2: Keeping It Safe

by Charlie Hang
Two weeks ago, we discussed taboos of sex and romance in YA. This week, in part two of our mini-series about sex in YA, we're discussing the use of protection.

With more and more YA books discussing the topic of sex, and some even featuring sex scenes, the question has arisen: does an author have a responsibility to mention protection? Should condoms or birth control come into play? Always or just sometimes? Is this "preaching" or just being responsible?

Personally, I choose to always mention contraception (usually condoms as they also prevent STDs) in any sex scene I write (and anyone who has read The DUFF can tell you that occasion has come up more than once). And, from personal experience, I know that some editors deeply encourage this as well. Many other books with sex scene use reference to birth control in fun/quirky ways to help add a little romantic tension. Simone Elkeles comes to mind - both Perfect Chemistry and Rules of Attraction use reference to condoms in funny ways that make the scene both more humorous and more romantic.

But I've heard others argue that references to safe sex are "preachy." That always mentioning contraception is, in some ways, talking down to teenagers who could probably assume that a condom was used already.

What do you think? If an author chooses to feature sex in a positive light (i. e. a romantic encounter that does not end in pregnancy or STD), is it his or her responsibility to include mention of safety? If so, what are some other books in which condoms or birth control were referenced in ways that didn't feel "preachy?" If not, why do you feel this way?
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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33 comments:

  1. Personally, I always mention condoms or birth control (and that was one of the things I really liked about THE DUFF). To me, it seems more realistic to talk about condoms/BC, since a ton of teens/YAs use one or both (at least a ton of teens/YAs I know do). I wouldn't assume automatically that a character uses a condom (because a lot of people don't), so I get kind of shocked when there's a sex scene that doesn't mention any BC and no one gets pregnant/an STD.

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  2. I don't think it's preachy at all. I think its responsible and a good way to encourage safe sex. Having sex in YA is realistic. Whether parents, or adults in general deny or discourage teen sex it happens. Often. We see it in movies, t.v. Magazines, real life, why not books. It's there either way. So I think it's good to mention things like condoms and birth control while writing sex in YA.

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  3. I don't think it's preachy. For me, I do read sex scenes as if protection is standard, but that's me and that's only because I can't imagine anything outside of that. At any rate, it's not the author's job, but it is a courtesy.

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  4. Great post, Kody!

    I don't think mentioning condoms or any sort of birth control is preachy, because it's part of reality. I also don't think they HAVE to be mentioned - like you said, readers might imply bc was used.

    The only thing that I think would bother me is if it was blatantly pointed out that NO birth control was used and there were no consequences, or even no concern about consequences. Again, not because writer's should necessarily preach safe sex, but because it's not realistic. A teen who has unprotected sex is very likely going to worry about what could happen as a result, and characters should as well.

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  5. I agree - it isn't the most romantic of subjects but at the end of the day, it's a fact of life. The first time I remember it coming up in YA paranormal fiction was when I read Shiver. At first it totally killed the romance for me, but almost immediately I appreciated it. I think it can be a very useful thing and most of the time quite necessary to include. And you can do it, I think, without making it sound like preaching.

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  6. I think incorporation of sex should lie in the story if needed. There are ways to show love without always describing a sex scene. But if you are going to have it in there, it would be nice if the author mentioned protection it mentioned most times in romance books so why not YA?

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  7. I haven't read a lot of books with sex, but have the odd few like your book and Rules of Attraction, and yes I think it's pretty important to mention safe sex. Well you can't really expect the reader to assume that they used a condom unless you imply they did in some way that reader is pretty much going to assume that they didn't.

    So yes, I think it's fantastic to mention it, and I remember! I loved how Simone mentioned it in such a humorous way. Great post :)

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  8. I am with you on this topic.
    I like seeing BC mentioned, and while it is awkward to write about, well, that awkwardness is just part of having sex.
    It's not preachy at all, and I am apparently completely incapable of writing anything coherent, so I will just agree with all the other commenters so far (and you)!

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  9. Ditto what Kaitlin said: sure it's awkward to write about condoms, because condoms are kinda awkward in real life too, lol. But that doesn't mean you can ignore their existence (or shouldn't, anyway).

    I don't think it's preachy, unless the writer makes it preachy.

    But I also think whether or not to include it depends on the story. Are the characters in the scene the responsible type? If so, then they would use contraception. If not, then they might not -- BUT there should be consequences for it (anything from stressful days and sleepless nights, to pregnancy or disease) because that's what happens.

    Authors have some responsibility, yes... both to the readers, and to the story.

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  10. I find any sex scene unbelievable if protection isn't at least mentioned, whether in a YA book or adult. Unless you're planning a story arc with stupid characters, an unplanned pregnancy, or a character with an STD, there's no reason to leave it out. I wouldn't have sex without protection, so I expect characters wouldn't, either.

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  11. Personally, I appreciate the mention of condoms -- but I wish authors would talk about other forms of birth control too. Condoms are a great thing to include because of the STD prevention, but sometimes I think authors stress them too much as a primary way of preventing pregnancy, when being on birth control is more effective.

    Honestly, I see more mention of condoms in YA novels than I see women talking about being on the pill, or the shot, or whatever. As far as pregnancy prevention goes, I CRINGE at the thought of teens only using condoms instead of doubling up birth control (say, the pill coupled with a condom, ecetera).

    Also, if books are going to encourage teens to "Keep it safe," I'd love to see more active mention of STD testing if the teens in novels are sexually active. I think the ONLY YA novel I've seen mention STD testing is Melissa Marr's WICKED LOVELY. Seriously. The only one. And that's really sad.

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  12. i think mentioning protection is the most responsible thing to do. I know there are teens who don't even think about it, but they might if they read a book that highlights it.

    If the time comes when I write a sex scene in a book, I'll be showing safe sex.

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  13. Kody, thanks for addressing this. I'm new to writing YA, and I had trouble figuring out how much was too much, and what wasn't enough. While my sex scenes aren't explicit enough to warrant the discussion of contraception, I definitely would address it if the situation arose. I think teens "look up" to the characters in their books, much like a cool friend or celebrity. In that respect, including the use of condoms allows teens to mentally incorporate it into their own romantic fantasies. Does that make sense?

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  14. Thanks for another great topic Kody! I think YA authors do have a duty to mention protection, and it can be done in ways that won't be preachy. I have been reading Susan Elizabeth Phillips lately, adult romance (my only break from YA and paranormal), and she always mentions birth control and condoms. I feel that it helps make the scene and characters more real, because that stuff happens in real life, so authors, even though it is fiction, should reflect that. And YA is no different. If nothing else, YA authors have a stronger obligation to their readers to project the dangers and consequences of sexual actions. Jennifer Echols in Forget You also does a good job of making condoms necessary and funny.

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  15. In a way it kills the romance, but on the other hand I think it's a good thing to mention. It is up to the author to encourage safe sex if you're writing for teens. For instance, in Freefall by Mindi Scott, we get condoms mentioned there in a way that doesn't totally kill the scene. I do find it weird that birth control or plan b isn't mentioned more often though. Myself, I'd rather amp up the awkwardness because that creates humor and gives your characters a way to communicate about a real life issue without getting preachy.

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  16. My books that have released thus far have been clean, but both of them for 2011 have sex scenes. And both of them do not explicity say 'condoms' so muc has the guy reaches for something.

    I didnt write it that way to be all REMEMBER PROTECTIOn so much as I was describing the scene as it unfolded, any guy whose not an idiot is going to do that. skipping it would be lying.

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  17. Here is the standard I think we should use:

    Keep talking about BC until it no longer feels culturally awkward to do so. When the use of birth control is not an uncomfortable aside, when we all accept it as a good and necessary thing - then we can consider NOT mentioning it. Until then it is necessary.

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  18. According to Elana Johnson's blog comments today, there are a fair amount of middle-schoolers reading YA, because apparently teens don't have time to read. My 11 year old reads YA, and my 9 year old reads books about kids in middle school, so I know there's some truth to that. I don't censor my kids' reading selections, and let me tell you, I've had some really interesting conversations about stuff my kids have read (imagine my husband's shock when my then 10 year old asked me what an erection was after reading Lauren Myracle's "Twelve"). I think the publishing world has a certain amount of responsibility about informing kids about safe sex, but ultimately, that responsibility falls on the parents.

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  19. I absolutely notice when BC is not mentioned, especially if there's more than one encounter without some sort of consequences.

    Just like I notice if no one in a book ever goes to the bathroom--don't need graphic details for either situation, but do need them to be realistic.

    And I think that the more people hear it, and using the condom or whatever seems routine, the more likely that protection will be adopted.

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  20. Great post! I've had readers ask me why my MC in The Mockingbirds didn't worry about pregnancy after she was date raped! (Um, she had enough worries, and he had used a condom). Anyway, that's non-consensual obviously. BUT - I do think yes that birth control but especially condoms should be mentioned. It's both reality and the right thing to do.

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  21. Hmmm - honestly, I don't think it's preachy at all. I think, like the sex act itself, authors need to stay true to their characters. In my YA stories, I have written in condom use because the characters were responsible people but there was no dialogue... it was simply a standard part of their experience.

    Great post!

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  22. I actually audibly CHEERED when I ran across the mention of safe sex in Shiver. (I think it's really important!) My roommate looked at me funny, so I said "THEY USED A CONDOM! IT WAS MAGICAL!"

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  23. I don't think it's preachy to talk about birth control and condoms. I know that pregnancy and STDs were at the front of my brain when I was sixteen and sexin'. (Not being sarcastic here, I was friggin' terrified.) I think it makes it all that much more realistic when contraception (especially hilarious mishaps) are mentioned in the narrative.

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  24. I think using contraception is realistic, and if that's the case than you should mention it. However, people don't use it every time. So I take it case by case. Would it occur to these characters to use a condom? Would either of them bring it up? If they would, then I mention it. If not, then I don't. I don't think a person should drag on about it. Readers don't really care if it's an extra-thin Trojan with extra lubricant. They just want to read.

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  25. as someone who believes in (and writes) sex-positive ya, i'm really enjoying this series. i do think it's important to mention birth control and to talk about potential consequences and to do so in a way that's not preachy or reminiscent of a health class film.

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  26. I've only written one (predecessor to a) sex scene. I mentioned protection. It wasn't intended to be preachy, any more than I would have intended it to be preachy if the book were intended for adult audiences. The protag of the novel has an adult sister who encourages it, that's all.

    I think it's extremely important to write something like that as it would happen; in my case, and in the cases of almost all of my friends who aren't actively trying to conceive, that will always, always be with protection. If it feels a little unromantic, so? That's how it is in real life, too. You get past it and get your groove on after that little road bump has been weathered. Better to put it in there and have that road bump be expected and normal than foregone because it doesn't fit the "romance" of the moment!

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  27. Awesome post. I agree with you. It should be mentioned. And it can be executed in non-preachy and often humorous ways.

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  28. I think protection should always be mentioned! If it isn't I assume the couple didn't use any and that always makes me want to strangle them and tell them how stupid they are. Ther's nothing preachy about it, it's an important detail of having sex.

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  29. I think there are cases where it would be realistic for a teen to be heedless of the consequences of sex and/or where the plot would necessitate that, but in those cases that recklessness (and its consequences) would probably be at least part of what the book was about.

    Otherwise, even though it might be realistic for a protag not to consider safe sex, I think it's important in a fictional world for him/her to have the partner, a friend or a parent at least mentioning the concern (hopefully w/o being obviously preachy). Ignoring it is the worst thing an author can do...there are already too many teens out there doing that with tragic results.

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  30. As a writer, this isn't my zone, but I think it's worth it to make a brief mention at least part of the time (ie: if stuff happens more than once, like the DUFF). I've never really seen anything get preachy.
    One thing which I've seen several times: it breaks, and 16 year old girl is pregnant. What are the odds, the percent chance, that a woman will get pregnant anyways? I never really got it...
    Whatever. I think the mention helps. Avoiding taboo altogether doesn't make it go away.

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  31. I don't find it preachy; i find it responsible. For some teens, sex in books is their main source of information. If they see that teens in books are using contraception, they're going to be more likely to use it themselves, or at least realize that it's normal and healthy to use birth control. Personally, I write fanfiction, and I make it a point to mention birth control because it's important to me that sex doesn't seem like an inconsequential romp. It points out that sex can have consequences.

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  32. there is a brilliant safe-sex discussion in nick earls' brilliant book "after january" between a mother and her son. fabulously awkward and endearing too...just like real life! it's hilarious, doesn't come across as preachy at all.

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  33. I don't really think it's a question of preachy. It's a question of Describing It As If It Was A Thing That Happened. If I'm describing in a fair amount of detail, or from the perspective of a character who would go out of their way to emphasize that they were being safe, it's going to get a mention. If it's more of a quick-glance-yeah-they-hooked-up sex scene and the use or non-use of protection won't be relevant later and the character does not care whether they're perceived as responsible or not, then it's extraneous information.

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Item Reviewed: Sex In YA, Part 2: Keeping It Safe Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kody Keplinger