Sex in YA?

At Rainbow Con they had several young adult panels, which is of interest to me since I read quite a bit of YA fiction. I only made it to one of the panels (damn scheduling!) but I was both bewildered and interested in what the panelists had to say. There were 5, I think, authors of YA m/m fiction and the topics ranged from language, sex, violence, and accurate portrayals. 

Interestingly all the authors agreed that foul language, violence, guns, drugs, and so on occur in real life. These are all issues that young adults/teens have to deal with on a regular, if not daily, basis so they should be included in any YA fiction. All authors went into some detail defending their various choices of including these topics. All the arguments were reasonable, articulate, and made sense.

Yet, sex is not ok.


Um. I don’t understand how violence, language, guns, drugs, and bullying are all topics that can and more so should be covered in fiction but sex shouldn’t? Really? How is it that teens and young adults don’t deal with sex and sexual topics? They deal with gangs, drugs, guns, and violence but seriously… not sex. This is a huge disconnect and was so obviously ridiculous I was waiting for someone to point out the dichotomy. Except, shockingly, no one did.

Maybe someone can explain it to me how sex should not be something that YA deal with while all the other topics should be? If we want a utopian world then ok don’t deal with anything difficult or controversial but sex is as much a part of a teen’s life as anything else. That doesn’t mean there has to be graphic sex scene per se, but if there is graphic violence, graphic drug (ab)use and so on, then I think there is a argument to be made about graphic sex scenes having a place as well.

Is this just a reaction of the overly puritanical society that wants to pretend sex doesn’t happen until everyone is 18 and therefore no one should talk about it? Because in that case why are there references and scenes describing underage drinking because that also doesn’t happen until people are 18. I really don’t understand this double standard of how some issues are things teens deal with and so they should be addressed but others should be ignored. Especially in LGBTQ literature where I would think sex would be an issue begging to be addressed even more.

Honestly – can someone enlighten me?

43 thoughts on “Sex in YA?

  1. Tam says:

    I have a feeling it’s more verboeten in m/m than m/f YA. I know my daughter read some books by Jodie Lynn Anderson, not romance, but about friendships among a group of girls. I asked her once if there was sex and she said yes. Now I’m sure it wasn’t graphic, but some of these girls had boyfriends, they drank and smoked so why would they not have sex? Or at least imply they had sex?

    It almost seems like it’s the double standard of “it’s okay for a male football player to kiss a girl on TV, but it’s much more scandalous if a player kisses his boyfriend”. What will the parents say. “So if a teen girl has sex with a boy in a YA books, it’s less scandalous than if two boys have sex.” What would the parents say if they caught little Johnny or Suzy reading about icky gay sex? So we sensor ourselves to appease the crowd who will scream. We don’t want to think about teens being sexual, but we sure as hell don’t want to think about GAY teens being sexual. (global we LOL)

    I read Without Sin by J. Tomas and they had sex. 16 and 17 year old boys have sex. Whether with girls, their hand or other boys. It’s probably far more common than using drugs. Maybe not as common as alcohol. I don’t want long drawn out love scenes between two 15 year olds (that weirds me out as an adult to read about the details), But the whole “we waited and had sex on our 18th birthdays” is so contrived as to be annoying. I’m not saying some don’t wait, but all of them? And sometimes I feel like I’m hit over the head by them repeating “he’s 18, he’s 18” Yeah, I get it. He’s legal. Take a heart pill. Also, in Canada, the legal age for sex is 16. In some countries it’s younger, so the mythical age of 18 is ridiculous.

    So there is my rant on the subject. LOL Either be real or live in a utopia, but everyone is so afraid of offending a parent or teacher or whatever and having them come after them for daring to put GAY SEX in a book. It’s not sex, it’s GAY SEX, because there is underage het sex in plenty of books.

    I’ll just add that a 15 year old and a 25 year old? That’s creepy and icky, but two teenagers, have at it.

    • Well a 15 y/o and a 25 y/o being creepy is a whole other category. There is a bigger disparity in the age difference then as opposed to later in life. But again that is icky from an adult point of view. Many teens don’t see it as icky to be attracted to and want a relationship with their teachers. Not saying it should happen of course but it’s icky to us – not them.

      As to the rest of your comment… yes yes yes. Yes. Being 18 is not the legal age of consent so I don’t understand why it’s the magical age. Mostly because that’s the age of ‘adulthood’ so then parents have no say over their children so then they can have sex.

      I’d say sex and perhaps drinking/smoking cigarettes are the biggest issues teens face (or were back in the dark ages when I was a teen) so I’m shocked to see so much blowback on an essential one that never seems to change. Just because you can find an example of a couple that waited until they were 18 (though how strange .. seriously… who even THINKS of that when they’re a hormone riddled teen?) doesn’t mean it’s realistic or applicable to a majority.

  2. Sirius says:

    I totally totally agree – I mean I don’t know if I am okay with YA book being an erotic romance necessarily – but sixteen seventeen year kids have sex and I think the books should reflect that. How is it more ok for teens to read the book like “Hunger games” ( and I love this books do not get me wrong ) but the violence won’t upset anybody? But ya romance with god forbid sex scenes is not ok? And ditto what Tam said – omg gay sex seems scarier. I remember reading the book where seventeen eighteen year olds won’t even pronounce body parts when they were talking about possible sexual activity that they decided not to have. Yeah right give me a break.

    • See now again it’s been an eon since I was a teen but in my opinion teens are only getting bolder, more informed and more adventurous if possible. So I find it hard to believe that teens wouldn’t even want to explore a little. Come on. Especially boys. 2 17 y/o boys actually waiting until they’re 18? I don’t buy it. If you’re going to allow violence (and I’m totally with you on the Hunger Games) then there should be sex allowed.

  3. I love this! As one of the panelists on the Sex in YA topic at RainbowCon, I’m so glad you wrote this and I feel I must apologize for not getting my views across during the panel. I agree with you about this. At the panel, I probably didn’t say as much as I would have liked about the topic since, right from the start, I detected a great deal of discomfort from my fellow panelists that we were even talking about sex and juveniles at all, much less putting sex scenes in YA books. That might have been the biggest hurdle to get over before talking about the appropriateness of sex encounters and scenes in YA fiction. I did feel like the odd man out in that discussion. I was a little dismayed, since I know there are quite a few YA authors out here who believe the same as you and I do about this.

    I’m working on a YA novel now for Storm Moon Press that has two sex scenes in it, which I intend to be both tastefully executed and enlightening about the characters involved. (I’m not sure yet if SMP will let me keep the scenes in (they haven’t read the novel yet), but I feel very strongly that they should be left in.) I wrote a little more about this topic at the link below. Thanks for bringing this up; I have lots more I could say about it, but I wanted to let you see what I’ve written about it previously.

    • Hi Cody!

      You’re absolutely right in that I think you would have gotten some considerable push back on that panel if you had said anything. I think it’s why the panel went the way it did. I’m not entirely sure that even all authors believed that but it seems like the kind of thing you -should- say, so most do.

      Thank you for the link! I hadn’t seen that post previously and I think it articulates your feelings incredibly well. While I am not an LGBTQ teen, I would think that there would be a need for books of all kinds. Those fade to black, those non-romance, and yes, those with sex in them. I’m sorry but how do teens learn about sex? It’s not from oh-so informative talks with their parents or peers. They’re going to seek it out, probably from sources that aren’t helpful.

      I don’t think books necessarily need to take on the responsibility of educating but I do think they offer exactly what you wrote about – the feeling of normality and knowledge and understanding. Something to connect to and feel as if it spoke to you. It’s not just LGBTQ teens struggling to find their way but I think if we’re going to say that depicting realism in teen fiction is ok, then the books should do that. Not pick and choose which topics make adults feel ok to read.

      For example, while I greatly enjoyed the Hunger Games trio and Battle Royale, I find reading about violence among young adults and teens extremely disturbing and uncomfortable (for me) to read. However, most other adults don’t have that problem so it’s never talked about whether graphic violence should be allowed.

      • Oh, excellent! I’m glad you liked the article I wrote at the link. I hope we have another panel on this topic at RainbowCon next year; I wouldn’t mind hosting it so maybe we could try to move past everyone’s discomfort zone and actually talk more about the topic. I noticed your comment below about how we have to tailor YA books to what the parents and librarians will allow, which is sad because it means that we writers can’t depict young people in an honest fashion that they will recognize. As an author, I refuse to write down to young people because I know they find that condescending, but when you run into these fears about sex and language, it certainly makes the work more difficult.

  4. Grace says:

    You know, the prevaling thing I keep seeing when people talk about reading YA fiction is how “uncomfortable” adults are when they read about “kids” (teens) having sex. But these people are forgetting something.

    Those books aren’t written for you.

    They’re written for the people who would most definitely *not* be uncomfortable reading about people of the same age as them doing something they either 1) are curious about, 2) want to do or 3) already do. They’re written for teenagers who are trying to figure out their sexuality. They’re written for someone who *needs* to know that it’s okay to have and want sex, it’s okay to not necessarily know where they fall on the spectrum.

    And the best way to do that is for them to read about other “kids” who are going through, wanting and doing those very things.

    But it’s not for us. It’s not for the other adults who’ve been conditioned to think that sex is bad, icky or something that should be hidden. It’s not for us who have been so indoctrinated to a *NUMBER* that we can’t see past the 1 and the 8 to decide if someone is mature enough to handle fucking someone.

    Which only gets worse if one of the two happens to be on one side of the 18 and the other one on the other. WHY is 16 and 17 okay but 17 and 19 isn’t? What is so damned magical about those numbers that makes someone SO MUCH BETTER able to handle tab a and slot b? Could that 19 year old not be less mature than the 16?

    We’re just so hung up on numbers that we stop to consider the people behind them. We refuse to address the situation surrounding them and the experiences and world that make them who they are and reduce them to a mere number.

    What kind of message does that send them?

    It’s great to address all the other things that they face, but I didn’t do drugs in high school. I didn’t drink. I wasn’t in trouble with the law. I had sex. And I think I’d have had a hell of a lot better handle on my sexual self-esteem if I’d been able to read about other kids having sex in healthy ways back then. And, yes, even in an erotic way. Why? What’s wrong with showing a good, healthy sex scene to a kid to show them what sex SHOULD be?

    Again, I think it’s because we forget who the books are written for. They’re not for us. They’re for the kids that the books are about.

    • YES!

      I feel like I should have a long, articulate answer to what you wrote but really I just want to copy it and say “ditto.”

      Everything you said was so very true but you hit on the very heart of the matter. It’s not about what we, as adults, find more comfortable to read or what we, as adults, want teens/young adults to read. It’s about what will they want and need to read. I’m fine with some authors that write YA for an adult audience and as an adult I clearly read quite a bit of it happily but I recognize that I am not the target audience or even if I am .. the book is still trying to sell that it’s two teens. Teens – I’m sorry – think about sex a lot. Maybe they do other things – drugs, drinking, guns, whatever – but they’re still thinking about sex.

      It doesn’t have to be “Changing Bodies, Changing Lives” (yes the exact book my dad gave me and walked away so I would know about sex) but let’s be realistic. It’s going to happen and frankly it would be affirming for kids to know sex doesn’t have to be shameful and hidden.

  5. Sex absolutely belongs in YA, just like any other subject. Legal considerations mean it has to be treated differently from adult fiction, but that’s a far cry from leaving it out entirely.

    • But again… I don’t see the legal considerations. I’ve read graphic sex scenes in books between 13 y/olds. The book clearly was published and exists. I’d have to seriously search to remember what book it was but I know it exists.

      Perhaps not the purple extremely graphic scenes of adult erotica but again.. why not? YAs have sex and are looking to have sex… so why would the language be that different?

      • There are legal implications any time you’re dealing with sex involving minors. No, sex should not be off-limits in the least. YA absolutely should cover sex just like any other topic. But it does mean following a more stringent set of guidelines than in writing sex about adults.

  6. Shae is right. Explicit sex in YA could be a legal minefield, especially in the mm genre. The publishers I have experience with won’t permit it. just kissing, petting, then fade to black… Unrealistic? Maybe. Safe from prosecution by outrage parents? Yes.

    • Grace says:

      Harmony Ink allows on page sex. Not ftb, but full sex scenes. The language isn’t as erotice as an adult novel, but they don’t shy away from it, which I’m grateful for (I still have plans to write some YA.)

    • That I think is the heart of the issue.

      Parents are the ones dictating what authors put in their YA books, which makes me so very sad. Parents usually want to believe the ridiculous rather than the realistic, often to the detriment of their children. (Generalizing here so no parent slay me please).

      I know there are graphic sex scenes in YA books but I haven’t heard of any actual legal action taken against those books. That has to be more an unfounded fear I would hope.

      • Grace says:

        You know, I was just talking about htis to my hub and he was talking about how parent’s “won’t let” their kids read something.

        And I had to remind him that we, as parents, only really have an illusion of control over stuff like that with our teenagers. We can’t watch them 24/7. We can’t keep them from getting a book from their friends and reading it at school. As much as we’d like to think we have the final say in something they do… we don’t.

        Which only makes this even sadder because we as authors (and our publishers) are afraid of parental backlash when, in the end, if a kid wants to read it, they will anyway and all that ends up happening is a lot of fear and anger in all the wrong places, resulting, in the end, in kids reading absolutely adult books in an attempt to find stuff out–and not reading what they NEED to read to understand themselves.

        • Yes. Absolutely but not only that.. if parents think they can limit their children in what they ‘can’ read? Well why don’t you just give them porn because they’ll look it up on the internet and likely read stuff they really shouldn’t be reading then. Instead of a YA book with tasteful and enlightening sex scenes, they can find hard core (unsafe)BDSM porn for free online. Great choice there.

    • I’m fairly sure that when it comes to legality there is an issue of other countries’ laws at play. Australia, for example, has some very stringent laws about what the consider child pornography, and, iirc, written sex scenes with people under the age of sixteen (maybe eighteen, I can’t recall?) count. Whereas in the US, child pornography laws only apply to anything that involves actual real human children, not characters.

      In addition, I think the magical age of eighteen has to do with trying to jump through Amazon’s ever-changing and completely invisible hoops. Amazon’s terms are so incredibly open-ended that it’s hard for anyone to know what, exactly, might get a book booted from Amazon. There’s no way to go down a ticky-box of Amazon rules and make sure your book fits, because their rules when it comes to any kind of sexual content is literally, “We don’t allow offensive publications, as for what is offensive, it’s pretty much what you think.” That’s seriously all the guidance given and if an author asks for more guidance they are directed back to this same statement and told that’s all the guidance they can give. It’s crazy.

      So, I think that many publishers think that if they just avoid sex altogether or they make the rule that everyone is 18 then there will be fewer grounds for Amazon to boot a book from their site should someone complain about the content.

  7. Just a quick comment. I was doing research for something, and “legal age of consent (to consent to sex)” is NOT eighteen. Eighteen (in the US) is the legal age of adulthood. The majority of states in the US, legal age of consent is sixteen. I just wanted to clarify that since I am in the midst of two YA stories at the moment.

    • Tam says:

      I think people often equate “must be 18 to be in porn” to “must be 18 to have sex”. Not so. And it is a state law, not national so each state sets it’s boundaries. I don’t see anyone suing publishers about underage sex when it’s het sex. Never heard of such a thing and I know it’s out there because my daughter read it. Again, maybe not erotic, but still sex.

      • Hi guys! Yes 16 is the legal age of consent however I feel that most people want to believe that teens don’t have sex until they’re 18, legal or not. I honestly don’t think the lack of sex in YA books is a legal issue. There are tons of books where the protagonists are over 16, yet the most the kids do is kiss (maybe). Like that’s even reasonable? I mean sure you will find some kids who do not kiss at that age but they’re not the majority.

        It’s like saying you can write about a drug dealer that has 18 cats and never owned a gun because someone’s second cousin read a story proving it has happened. Realistic? Well it happened. Believable? Not even close.
        Same with YA sex. It happens way more than not.

        • Sirius says:

          I really like how sex was handled in “Silent” by Sara Alva. Leads are I believe ( had been a while) 16 and 17. There are couple of descriptive enough sex scenes. When adult learns about it there is no – oh yay, please continue to do it, but they realize they cannot control it. It happened, it is fact of life, it may happen soon enough again. Nobody chastises them, but they hear advice not to rush. I mean I can be ok with adults giving that advice because it is what social workers and grandparents supposed to do. But teens will do what they want and they are sexual beings and as much as they are in love they are also in lust. Why not. Speaking about age of consent – if author is so insistent on making them wait , whatever, I don’t think it is believable but sometimes it gets so silly. I remember reading a fantasy mind you, a fantasy not something set in the modern world where king’s son is kidnapped by crazy ruler of neighborhood country and eventually his future love goes an saves him. So wait for it – he gets kidnapped when he is a little kid ( don’t ask me for the age but not nearly close to being even 16). So king makes him a slave but he waits till he is 18 to rape him on the regular basis – Ido not remember the crazy reason but I remember laughing my head off about it with my friend. You would go that far to not oftend people who may be offended that maniac would not wait till child is 18 to have his wicked ways with him? Whatever .

          • Grace says:

            OMG the whole fantasty/alternate world thing is even more ridiculous. I used to write in a world where kids at age 12 (12, no shit) were part of the military (ninja, okay, but still). They were taught how to kill. They went out and fought serious battles, killing and putting their own lives on the line. Yeah, they had a teacher or mentor, but they were still most definitely out there doing that stuff.

            So, I wrote fanfiction in this world and I can’t tell you how many times people insisted that these “kids” had to be 18 before you wrote them into a sexual situation.

            Really? *boggle*

          • I kind of want to read that book because that’s simply ridiculous and likely extremely funny. SURE totally wait until you rape and defile because by 18 no one will care! 17 years, 11 months, and 23 days is -way- too soon for that kind of behavior. Because kidnapping and making him a slave as a young child had no repercussions that can equal rape. (Not saying because you did one you might as well do the other but you get my meaning).

            Also I remember growing up when my mom would say “you should wait to have sex but if you do just know that I’m not raising any of your babies so be smart and careful.” Not that my mom would condone it but she made us think early on about the responsibilities and consequences to our actions. I swear her saying that freaked me out more than any ‘legal’ age.

  8. I have no problem at all with sex scenes in YA. Obviously these scenes can’t be as erotic/explicit, but sexuality should certainly be addressed. I’m saddened to hear how uncomfortable the topic made people at Rainbow Con. Teenagers are sexual beings. I think the idea that when a person turns 18 they are magically an adult is ludicrous. Teens younger than that do have sex, and even if they don’t, they are very curious and interested in it. There’s nothing wrong with that. Plus, in many countries the age of consent is below 18.

    I was reading bodice rippers when I was 13 (thank you, Virginia Henley, for my realization that oral sex was not French kissing), and I certainly wanted to read about teenagers dealing with sex. As long as we keep treating sex as taboo, hang-ups that last into adulthood are going to remain.

    • That brings up a really great question. Why not explicit? I’m not trying to argue but I’m curious about the distinction. I’m not sure it needs to talk about 1-2-3 finger stretching with lube to the asshole and a detailed description of how to swirl a tongue around the head of a penis to get just the right amount of wetness and sucking to make an ultimate blowjob… but .. I guess why not?

      How explicit is too explicit?

      I was reading bodice rippers when I was 13 (thank you, Virginia Henley, for my realization that oral sex was not French kissing), and I certainly wanted to read about teenagers dealing with sex. As long as we keep treating sex as taboo, hang-ups that last into adulthood are going to remain.

      Yes, yes yes!

      • That’s a great question. I mean, honestly? I have zero issues with teenagers reading erotic romance. I did, and I honestly think it made me much more open about sexuality as an adult.

        My hesitation on explicit scenes in YA stems from the potential backlash from parents and puritanical companies such as Amazon. Content restrictions are so vague, and if a pearl clutcher complains it can lead to your book being yanked. So from a business perspective, it gives me pause. From a moral perspective it doesn’t bother me. I’d be a hypocrite if it did considering the books I read growing up!

        • p.s. And obviously I think it depends on the book. It’s not as though every single YA book *should* have sex in it. There should be a variety for youth just as there is for adults. Some adults don’t like reading sex on the page, and love “inspirational” romances. To each their own. But to treat sex as something that only happens at 18 doesn’t do anyone any favours.

  9. I did not attend that panel because I knew I would disagree with what the panelist were saying. Sex should be talked about in YA. Kids are having sex. They are questioning what sex is, how far can they go, what it feels like to have sex with a condom, how much will it hurt. Ignoring sex in YA is a huge mistake. Pray The Gay Away, which I’ve aimed at YA and NA, has sex. You can’t expect the YA market to always not want sex. I say let the market choose. If kids don’t want books with sex, let them read book without sex. It should be their choice.

    • I think that’s the key. There should be books with sex and some without. Kids can choose what they want. Someone in the audience at the panel was defending the lack of sex in books because she had a student that said “I don’t want to read about sex. I want to read about other things kids face.” That’s a legitimate desire and there are numerous books that do that. I think there should also be books for those that do want to read about sex too.

      Your comment about what they’re questioning really rings true for me. It’s what makes me feel that more explicit scenes are good too.

  10. Part of the reason for the panel was to hopefully discuss why it is so many authors and publishers feel it’s okay to have children murdering each other, but not allow them to have sex.

    Storm Moon Press (through Budding Moon) does allow for explicit, on page sex between consenting young adults. It’s a fact of life, and we’re not going to shy away from it. 🙂

    • Yea it’s too bad the panel didn’t go there but I got the feeling they were anti-sex. Or that they felt it was too controversial to say otherwise? It was an interesting panel mix and not a wholly successful one because it felt pressured. Not from any one person but I think they were uncomfortable stating their opinions. Or that’s the impression I got.

    • I hope we have this topic on a panel next year at RainbowCon. I’d be willing to host it to try to keep the topic on track and encourage more dissenting viewpoints. I promise we won’t spend several minutes debating the name chosen for the panel, which is, unfortunately, how it got started this year.

      BTW, I am anxious for you to read “Feeding”; it’s almost finished. 😀

  11. SLiraErotica says:

    I have a 15 year old and I’m not dumb or blind enough to think this kid doesn’t at least think about it. Boys masturbate at early ages so of course they’re going to be hyped to have sex.

    I think the reason we use the “magical age” is because it helps some of us feel comfortable with what we’re reading and or/writing. And as it’s been said, we also worry about Amazon coming down on us about the book being “offensive.”

    I wrote a story about three teens, 2 17 year olds and one 16 year old and two of them became a couple. It was quite explicit and I didn’t feel uncomfortable writing it but I haven’t published it because I was afraid of the backlash. I see there might be a market for it now. Might just pick it back up and release it.

    This coming from an author who writes twins in love. lol Thanks for the article. I missed this panel. :/

  12. I am old now but I remember being barely a teenager when I first had sex. I think the more we hide the REAL issues, the more young people are unable to know how to handle things like sex, love and relationships properly. Everyone must be afraid of being sued by parents or something. It makes no sense to me.

  13. On one of the panels at RT, someone said school librarians are only requesting that the protags be teenagers — and that’s it. They would rather have no sex in the book, but only so they don’t have to deal with backlash from parents. I just think that YA shouldn’t read like an erotic romance.

  14. Diane says:

    Literature, especially YA, needs to reflect life. We’re doing teenagers a disservice to hold back knowledge that can help them answer questions and understand their needs / desires. Only with facts can they make quality decisions.

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