Let's Talk about Sex, Baby: Girls + Sexuality + YA

I don't know what's going on in this picture, but
somehow it seemed appropriate.
As a general rule, the YA genre is pretty good at talking about sex. Sure, there are writers who prefer to create chaste characters and romances; and of course, we frequently read news stories about the censorship of books with sexual content. But, overall, young adult books (and young adults) really love to explore sexuality.

I learned a lot about sex through YA, as a matter of fact. At least, I learned a lot about dudes and sex. Dudes and sexual attraction. Dudes and masturbation. Dudes bemoaning their virginity. Dudes losing their virginity. Dudes who had, apparently, never been virgins at all and jumped straight to being playboys.

However, girls in YA don't get nearly this much action. Sure, they'll gush about the hot guys, or wonder about these sudden, tingly feelings their nether regions. But it seems to me that the sexuality of young women in books are limited to certain tropes.

So, I have made a list: a handful of stereotypes about girls + sexuality that I just don't understand.


1. Girls Who Are Virgins

YA is rife with virgins. I might go so far as to say the majority of girls in YA are virgins. And this is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is this the trope that bothers me... It's the way virginity is portrayed. So many book-girls who have never had sex are also not really aware that sex is A Thing. Sex is not on their radar. They've never experienced sexual desire. They've never explored their bodies. They've never had a serious relationship, or wanted a serious relationship, because don't find anyone attractive or they don't have the time or they're focusing on other things.

Bullshit.

Sure, there are plenty of girls who are "late bloomers." (I hate that phrase, btw. Don't know why I just used it.) There are plenty of girls who don't care about dating. But too often, I feel like innocence is painted as a synonym for ignorance. Virginity is for women who don't understand or desire sex. A lack of sexual experience means that, clearly, it's just not something that interests them.

No. If someone is a virgin, it means that this person has never had sex. It doesn't mean they don't think about sex, talk about sex, know lots about sex, or want to have sex. It just means that they personally have never experienced it. The portrayal of a character's personality should not be solely based on their sexuality.


2. Girls Losing Their Virginity

I think YA is better at realistically portraying "first times" than, say, erotica fan fiction; but I personally hate it when a book describes a girls first time as painless and perfect. I'm not saying that losing your virginity is hell - but let's be honest. Sex in general is messy. It's full of squishing and groaning and giggling and switching positions and shy, silly questions like "So does this... work for you?" Sex is never perfect. So, if you're a beginner, it's extra not-perfect. It can be downright squicky, and super awkward, and generally weird. Why isn't that okay? Why can't be embrace the squick and the awkwardness? It's part of being human.


3. Girls and Masturbation

This is kind of a weird one, but bear with me. I can name at least two YA books off the top of my head in which boys talk about masturbating. But I can't name one in which girls masturbate. (If you know of any, please list them in the comments - I'm curious!)

Why is that? Is masturbation one of those things, like belching or farting, that is just not considered ladylike? Or is it something that girls pretend they don't do? (Because I'm calling bullshit on that one, too.)

I'd like to talk about masturbation, please. I'd like to read books about girls who talk about masturbation. I don't care if it's ladylike; boys don't care about being ladylike. They just grab a tube sock and some lube and go to town.


4. Girls Who Like Sex Too Much

This girl is the opposite of the super virgin. She's the one who knows lots about sex, who has lots of sex... but that's it. She exists to be the Sexy One, the yin to the virgin's yang, the Loki to her Thor. And even if this character is not shamed for promiscuity, she's still not much of a character. Sex is her thing, but it's her only thing. We don't know if she's smart or athletic or creative or shy or funny. We have no sense of her motivations, her interests, her investment in the story.

This bothers me.

This strips a character of depth in the same way that the super virgin trope does. Both characters are empty except for their sexual experience (or lack thereof). Their virginity / promiscuity are essentially the only things we know about them; and yet, in "real life," these are often the things that matter the least. I know plenty of girls who love sex; but they also love world history and ballet and good whiskey and playing with their baby cousins. Their sexuality is the last thing I think about when I talk to them, because we have so many other things to talk about. Why can't it be the same for YA characters?


So, in conclusion: What do you think about sex + girls + YA?








(PS: I think I'm the least qualified YA Highway blogger to be discussing this? Most of the girls who write for this blog are extremely well versed in female sexuality in literature, slut-shaming, and feminism / sexism in general. I didn't even touch on queer characters, rape / abuse, or anything beyond very traditional sexual tropes. So, feel free to take this post with a grain of salt, because these are just my thoughts - neither researched nor analyzed for any length of time. 

Really, I just wanted an excuse to talk about masturbating.

Also, this post doesn't refer to any books / characters in particular. Just general observations.

Also also, here's the song from the title - because I know I got it stuck in your head.) 





57 comments:

  1. Forget You by Jennifer Echols has a masturbation scene!

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    1. I have been meaning to read that for a while! Now I've got more incentive. :P

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    2. That's the one! I couldn't remember the name.

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  2. I really enjoyed reading this - so much so I'm going to tweet this blog post. I think there needs to be more reality in YA fiction and less idealizing of girls. I'm writing a YA fantasy trilogy at the moment (will be releasing the first novel later this year) and in my critique workshops I'm getting a lot of questions about the strong language and unethical behaviour (she wants to 'steal' a kitchen implement from her mother’s kitchen) of my female protagonist. God knows what they'll say when she has sex in the third novel! I like to think that girls and young women want to read about real/dark themes? Or do they still really only want the knight in shining armor?

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    1. I for one am looking forward to your novel! And as a young girl, I definitely wanted to know why the girls in the books I was reading were so good and perfect while I felt... not so good and perfect? Although I do think it's important for girls to find great role models in the books they read, why can't those role models also be flawed and curious and confused?

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  3. I see more of girls exploring their sexuality realistically with coming of age novels more so than novels listed as YA. Interesting that there has to be a divide that makes these genres so different. I think female masturbation is so extremely stigmatized in other forms of media that many writers and readers might feel that putting it in YA is straight up pornographic. The only movies I can think of off the top of my head with women masturbating are 40 Year Old Virgin (Elizabeth Banks, her character was viewed as loose and slutty) and Black Swan, which was more realistic, but again, the character played by Natalie Portman was "virginal" and only masturbated when she began the spiral toward insanity/her more darker self. So again, not a healthy example.

    Actually, the healthiest example I can think of in movies might sadly be Not Another Teen Movie, which opens with a female masturbation scene. HAH.

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    1. Yeah, I thought of Black Swan when I was writing this - but then again, she kind of falls under the meek virgin trope as well? Idk, that's a good example of a movie that tries to mess with the stereotypes, but in the end I felt like it just pandered to them... That's just my opinion, though.

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  4. Pretty sure the Judy Blume book TIGER EYES features its lead character, Davey (a girl) masturbating. But then, Judy Blume has always been far ahead of the curve. :)

    I *can't* remember whether her first-time book FOREVER features masturbation or not, but it's a wonderfully good book that tackles a number of the things you've mentioned!

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    1. Ha, I was also thinking of a Judy Blume book - pretty sure there's masturbation in DEENIE.

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  5. 'I'll Tell You Mine' by Pip Harry (Aussie book) in which the female protagonist is sent to boarding school, and laments that she can no longer masturbate before sleep because she now has room-mates (not a scene, as such, but at least a paragraph's worth of acknowledgement)

    Agree about virgins in YA being handled terribly. I see adult erotica informing this a bit now too - that virgins are these meek, closeted and easily-spooked young things. It is such a damning cliché - all that's missing are white robes and a "lie back and think of England" speech.

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    1. "meek, closeted and easily spooked" - yes, that is exactly what I was trying to describe.

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  6. Fantastic post! Thank you! I just wrote a girl masturbation scene in my WiP and was considering cutting it because, as you say, I've never read it in YA and thought readers might object but now, thanks you everything you said above, I'm going to stick to my guns and realism with this scene. Thanks again for being inspiring!

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  7. The Miseducation of Cameron Post. I read it last night. Not super great, but it did have a lot of girl sex.

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    1. I have been eyeballing that book for a while. I might have to pick it up. :) Thanks.

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    2. I actually really, REALLY enjoyed this book. I thought that Danforth was really good at capturing realism, especially in terms of dialogue and setting, and of course the subject matter was of interest. Even now, there just aren't THAT many quality LGBT YA books. I thought this was definitely one. If I have one criticism it's that the book feels like two distinct stories jammed together, and I preferred the first half. But overall, it's great. And the cover is beautiful, which is always a good thing.

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  8. Love this! The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson treats sexuality very well and also has a girl masturbation scene. (It comes out in April, but I hope you'll check it out then -- it's a FAB YA sci-fi.)

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  9. "Hello Groin" by Beth Goobie has a masturbation scene.

    Good post.

    @geceosan

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  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you! You totally got it right. I get the reason behind virgin characters, but you are so right in that they are portrayed completely wrong. Virgin doesn't equal no sexual awareness. Along the same line, can we PLEASE have more characters who have actually had sex, who are more than just the sexual character? *Sigh* You are so right on all fronts.

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    1. Aaaaand I just got out of bed at 3 am, because a book that has masturbation in it popped into my head out of the blue, and it reminded me of this post. It's called Sins of the Highlander, by Dawn Halliday. It has two masturbation scenes: one male, and one female.

      Now I'm going back to sleep. Hahaha. :D

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  11. Yes, to everything written above. And to the other commenters, thank you! Adding books to my To Read shelf!
    --Katie

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  12. My recently finished book has a MC who is "technically" a virgin, meaning she hasn't gone all the way but has explored some of the variations leading up to it. And there isn't an actual masturbation scene, but she refers to it in passing ("some alone time with the shower massager and fantasies of Daniel"). And since we're in her head a lot, it's obvious she thinks about sex more than some YA books let on. That said, I've wondered if some of these points are what led one CP to describe her as "almost boyish"--well, that and the fart jokes.

    And the example of #4 that annoyed me most recently was in Pitch Perfect. I can't even remember the character's name because she so thoroughly disappeared into the promiscuous girl. I realize it's hard in an ensemble piece to give every character their due, but it was overdone.

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    1. I can't remember that character's name either, which is sad, because YES, that's exactly the role she played.

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  13. Enjoyed reading this. It put some light for me to get idea how younger generations think...

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  14. Judy Blume's Deenie, and Meg Cabot's Ready or Not both have female masturbation scenes. Although in the Cabot, it annoyed me that it was as practice for the main event with a boy.

    The myths around female masturbation, and the lack of dialogue has been one of my soap boxes for at least a decade. It seems so stupid that we don't make it more acceptable and encourage girls to enjoy thier bodies/sexuality in a way that is safe. Solo masturbation, and mutual masturbation aren't going to get you pregnant or transmit deseases.

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  15. I also enjoyed reading this. My current YA Contemporary WIP has plenty of sex, drugs, and language. Because lets be real...kids are having sex, they are experimenting with drugs, and they have potty mouths worse than a sailor. Of course, there is a moral to my entire story with some tragic stuff mixed in, but I have often wondered how it will be perceived by the reading world. Think the UK version of SKINS but on paper instead. Totally spreading the word about this post. Love it!

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  16. I read this and totally thought you read my mind. I feel the same way. I mean I get it, make her sweet and pure and there is nothing wrong with that but pretending every virgin has never thought about or desired sex or other forms of stimulation is so far beyond. Though to be fair I do know people who feel that masturbation is just not their thing. I get it I do. Oh I do love this post and wish I had more time currently to discuss it, but as it stands I'm already running late for work.

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  17. Deenie by Judy Blume has masturbation in it.

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  18. Yes yes yes!

    This isn't YA, but my favourite book when I was 17 was Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, which is alllll about vagina enjoyment. I had never had sex, but it was definitely something I wanted to read/talk/learn/obsess about.

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  19. Many of Judy Blume's books were banned because of female masturbation scenes and open sexuality.
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/12/judy-bloom-books_n_1269464.html

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  20. Rachel Cohn and Carolyn Mackler are both pretty good with masturbation--they both mention it in multiple books in a very casual, "duh of course they're doing it!" way, which I love because, well...duh, of course girls are doing it! This is a great post :)

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  21. Summer Sisters by Judy Blume has a female masturbation scene, which was fascinating to me at the time! Quite the introduction to the idea (I was quite young). And I do think books can be a great, healthy way to introduce that conversation where it's not talked about as much societally (not a word, but move on). Secret Life of the American Teenager the TV show had a whole plot line about female masturbation. Shawn Johnson was involved. I'm sorry, but it was awkward.

    I don't like the whole I'm a virgin-but-now-I-have-to-get-this-over-with-trope. Or my-girlfriends-are-giving-me-a-hard-time-for-being-a-virgin idea. I see that a lot. I might even be guilty of writing it myself on occasion. But A LOT (I'd say most?) teens are virgins for a large portion of their high school careers. Are they really made fun of (even good naturedly) for their virginity? If so, that seems surprising to me.

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    1. omg. i just found Secret Life to be an awkward show in general. :/

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  22. "It's full of squishing and groaning and giggling and switching positions"
    Bahaha. Yes, this for sure. I was a completely sheltered child. Basically everything I knew about sex and sexuality I learned from books, my sister, and movies that my parents never knew I watched. So, when things started getting a little more serious between my boyfriend and I (not actually sex because that didn't happen until we were married and it was a mutual decision) it was kind of weird and pretty much always embarrassing. Sex is still awkward 2 years later, but you just learn to roll with it. When something's amusing, we laugh and when things aren't working we figure out what does. It's not some magical thing that requires no effort.

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  23. Everything sexual I learned from Judy Blume. Well not really, but she really seemed to take the bull by the horns with representing female sexuality. I agree with you on the virgin characters. I'm all for virgin characters, actually my main character is one (for now, at least) but she wants to do it and thinks about it, like most girls. I don't want to misrepresent women and I want young girls to have relatable characters.

    Also, beautiful and perfect sex scenes bother me as much as the water-breaking in public, non-sweat labor scenes.

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  24. When I was 12 and in 6th grade, I read Jenny Davis's Sex Education. It turned out that my parents had been friends with Ms. Davis and her then-husband back in the Seventies, and my mother wrote to her through her agent or editor. Ms. Davis wrote back, saying how jealous she was that I'd asked my mother's permission to read the book. I was still very naïve about what exactly sex was, in terms of the actual mechanics, but it was very helpful to read a book that didn't portray it unrealistically.

    For the record, I hate the term "losing your virginity" and prefer the term "sexual debut." There are more ways than just intercourse to have sex, and virginity is more of a social construct and state of mind than it is some male-defined physical state in only women.

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    1. Oh my goodness, "sexual debut" that is mothertrucking BRILLIANT. I have been uncomfortable with the "losing" trope for quite some time, but couldn't think of a better term. I will now permanently co-opt your brilliance. *builds statue to your brilliance*

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    2. back the truck up!! "sexual debut"! i'm in love! :)

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  25. This is such a great post! I completely agree with everything you've said. I didn't go on my first date until I was a sophomore in college at least partly because I wasn't really interesting in dating in high school (I barely had any friends, let alone male friends that I wanted to even date), but I was definitely curious about sex. Books were my way of learning about the topic, so I wasn't completely unprepared when I finally did start dating.

    I definitely agree that we need more books with realistic female characters. I would really love to see books where virgins can befriend girls who have casual sex (and girls who fall in between those two categories) without trying to make it seem like one is better or worse than the other.

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  26. I am quite possibly the least qualified person on the planet to discuss sexuality pretty much in general, but I agree with you. I feel like the reason female sexuality gets portrayed the way it does is because, unfortunately, our society still defines women in terms of sexuality. I see this all the time when I compare how guys treat me to how they treat my roommate - guys have always taken me more seriously when I tell them I'm not interested than when she tells them she's not interested, because I dress very conservatively and she...well...doesn't. (The implication being that because she has exposed cleavage she obviously wants to get laid, even though she doesn't think she does? Because there's no way she could possibly be showing off a part of her body she feels good about, with no ulterior motive. That's not how women work!)

    In terms of books, one book I thought treated female sexuality really well recently was Venom by Fiona Paul. Nothing happens in terms of sex or masturbation, but there's a lot of discussion over being ashamed of one's sexuality, which I feel like is something that happens a lot in real life.

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  27. Fingerprints of You by Kristen-Paige Madonia had a female masturbation scene.

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  28. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this post! My friends and I constantly talk about this topic, and it always gets pretty intense. I agree with every point you made in this article.

    But I think the reason why there are only those few areas explored because of the history of society. Even though women (and men!) are overly-sexualized in today's media, people still haven't gotten used to sex (if that makes sense). Throughout most of history, females have always been told to push away their sexual desires/thoughts because it was sinful. If a girl enjoys sex too much then she's usually called derogatory words. Although sex is written about freely in YA books, it's going to take some time for authors to stray away from what our minds have been 'taught.'

    Seriously, though. As a teenager in today's society that loves YA, I need to see more girls that do not fit into any of the categories you listed above!

    Also, if I recall correctly, Forget You by Jennifer Echols and Swoon by Nina Malkin have female masturbation. To be honest, I haven't read that many YA books that even mentions the guy masturbating though, either. But you are correct, that it's touched upon more when it's a male character.

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  29. On the series the princes's diaries by Meg Cabot there are some passages about masturbation, including a conversation with a friend, and also even though the main character is a virgin until the last book she's very aware of her sexuality, she has a boyfriend that never tries anything and she complains about that, and even the "sexual antagonist girl" starts as that but developes to something more and becames a friend of the main character... I read the series as a teen (14-16 when the last book came out) and it helped me to see there wasn't a problem to have sexuals desires, that wasn't a boy thing and that "good girls" could think of it as well... I strongly recomend it for teenagers

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  30. Daria Snadowsky's 'Anatomy of a Boyfriend' has a female masturbation scene, following some sex scenes. But, yeah, it is very rare, and also tends to only appear in books that are explicitly about 'first time sex' (which is the case in Meg Cabot's 'Ready or Not', as someone's noted earlier).

    "So many book-girls who have never had sex are also not really aware that sex is A Thing. Sex is not on their radar. They've never experienced sexual desire. They've never explored their bodies. They've never had a serious relationship, or wanted a serious relationship, because don't find anyone attractive or they don't have the time or they're focusing on other things."
    Nodding so much to all of this. It's like either they're having sex for the first time with their Very Special First Love or they're not thinking about it at all.

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  31. The Jessica Darling series--while I know, I know, is technically under an adult imprint--has quite a bit of masturbation talk in the first two books.

    Keeping a list of "sex-positive" YA novels is one of my ongoing projects on my blog, because those books were so inaccessible when I was growing up--and it's one of the most popular pages on my site, and I think there's a reason for that.

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  32. Well, I admit to not have read many YA books, but the first time I read about a girl maturbating was in Paulo Coehlo's Eleven Minutes - its not a YA novel, I know, and masturbation wasn't really explored in it.
    And believe it or not, I haven't read much about boys masturbating except in Stephen Chbosky's Perks of Being a Wallflower(anybody still remember that novel? :P)

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  33. I just LOVED this post! You really hit the nail on the head with this subject in YA. I recently read Crown of Embers, the sequel to Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson and although there's no sex or masturbating in Crown of Embers, there ARE long discussions about it, which in and of itself surprised me. Why don't female characters talk to each about sex? We always have the sister who tells her younger sister that she lost her virginity or the best friend or says that, but beyond that conversation, there is NOTHING else. No description of how it felt like, what they thought, any advice...nothing. I loved that in Crown of Embers, two of the characters formed such a close bond, primarily because they discussed their sexual desires and the fact that they WANTED to have sex, even though one was a virgin. It was so refreshingly realistic. It's also a fabulous fantasy series, if you haven't already heard of it. :)

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  34. This is an excellent post! Another thing I'd like to see in YA is less of an emphasis on Losing Your Virginity and more just starting to have sex because you wanted to and now you have someone to have it with. You kind of touched upon it when you talked about girls who haven't had sex but are still human and therefore think about it, but I think it's worth looking at how some people just haven't been asked out or whatever, and it doesn't mean that they're not ready, it just means that high school sucks and sometimes boys don't ask you out and you don't want to stand on a street corner and take the first dude who cat calls you. But not everyone Loses Their Virginity in some true love, planned to a T, rose petals on the bedspread way, and that's okay, too. I can't imagine there is any YA that portrays having sex for the first time as just a thing that was waiting to happen and finally does.

    And you might be interested in this scholarly article about masturbation in YA, though you'll have to see if your library has a database subscription to read more than the abstract: http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/childrens_literature_association_quarterly/v037/37.4.stein.html

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  35. As a dude who reads YA, I find it fascinating to hear that there are those out there who think male sexuality is more widely explored than female sexuality in YA lit. I'm not saying you're wrong - clearly it's a highly subjective topic, heavily based on what books one reads, but in my experience, YA lit is peppered with boys as the objects of sexuality, but rarely the subjects.

    Great post though, certainly food for thought!

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  36. Della Says OMG by Keris Stainton has masturbation in it. Keris is a British YA writer. Check it out.

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  37. Oh, there's also this book, which would probably have a lot of booklists and stuff: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9780810859869

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  38. Funny thing: all of the books listed by the other commenters that my library has are tagged as "erotic"!

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  39. This is late but I am working on a sex scene in my WIP and have to comment. Doesn't anyone (outside us writers) remember what it was like to be 16? Hormones raging, curiosity, the fear of being left behind since your friends have done it...The innocent virgin and the slut are such wide, false polarities, an either or stance. I thought the sexual revolution was about the recognition that women have desires too. It seems a frank and honest discussion of sex in our books can help teens make better choices.

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  40. I found this interesting... outside of fan fiction, no, I don't think I've ever read about females masturbating. Why it's such a touchy subject I have no idea.

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