Why is there no sex in young adult fiction?
Sex has largely been left out of the young adult genre, and it’s a bigger problem than you think.
When thinking of young adult fiction, a wide range of themes come to mind. You may find stories of friendship, first romance, coming- of-age, and perhaps even a life-changing quest among these. And although first romance comes to mind, sex rarely plays a major role in this genre.
The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (2013) reports that 69 per cent of students from 15- to 18-years-old experience some form of sexual activity. Published literature for this age group, however, doesn’t realistically convey this teen experience - and if it does, sex and sexuality is rarely portrayed in a healthy way. Think about the key genre-toppers since the new millennia; The Hunger Games, Divergent, and CHERUB may be among them. In the Harry Potter series, the most we got was an awkward kiss between Harry and Cho Chang in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003) and a chaste one between Harry and Ginny Weasley in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005), with a few choice innuendos thrown in here and there. In the Twilight series, while the sullen Bella Swan was admittedly of age when her and Edward Cullen did the deed, he was over 80 years her senior, and their first sexual encounter resulted in a pregnancy that almost killed her - and let’s not even go there with the Jacob/Renesmee imprinting saga. Was this some sort of warped abstinence-only propaganda?
The young adult genre consists of fiction targeted to readers aged 12 to 18. Due to the large age range, it is difficult to cater for everyone within this category - especially considering the rapid changes in maturity one experiences at this time. Although it is understandable to have reservations about such young readers being exposed to explicit content, it is crucial for the social and sexual development of older readers that they see a more mature and realistic life in their literature.
Looking at how sex has been approached and received in novels outside of the young adult genre can give us a clearer picture of why sex is viewed as a taboo within it. D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) was initially banned for obscenity in six countries, including Australia, due to Lawrence’s depiction of the relationship between Constance Reid - an upper-class woman - and Oliver Mellors - a working-class man. Yet for all the odds that were stacked against Constance and Oliver, it was the explicit sexuality of the relationship that conservatives objected to. The novel was considered obscene for its language and themes, but the six-day-long obscenity trial in 1960 made clear that it was only intended to be an accurate portrayal of life, and how one’s sexuality plays into that. Ultimately, the novel wasn’t included in the canon of high- brow literature for more than 20 years. In this story, sex is used to drive an intellectual conversation about the nature of the working class, and its dynamic with the upper class in Britain at the time. The language of Lady Chatterley’s Lover progresses to make the sex, when it happens, seem natural. Forcing sex into a novel makes it lose its verisimilitude, which is fairly important when it comes to young adult fiction - where storylines aim to explore the human experience in a variety of contexts.
A natural and relevant inclusion of sex has the ability to empower younger readers in their own coming-of-age stories. André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name (2007) is a young adult novel that utilises sex to its advantage. While this novel is not considered erotic despite the deeply sexual relationship between two characters, I would consider it by far one of the most sensual novels I have ever read - yet it only portrays two explicit sex scenes. As the novel is written solely through Elio’s perspective, we experience first-hand the obsessive nature in which Elio loves, not just people, but his passions. Aciman writes these sex scenes with the same fervent detail as any other scene to showcase the exploration of Elio’s tumultuous emotions in dealing with how his sexuality can shape the rest of his life. Because of this, and unlike many popular portrayals, sex is not romanticised, nor is anyone demonised because of it; it is shown simply as it is, as part of the fabric of growing up and exploring yourself.
There are two major problems with the current depiction of sex in young adult literature. Some novels portray or imply sex just for the sake of it, like Dandi Daley Mackall’s Crazy in Love (2007). Others simply use sex as a go-to for danger, like in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. When this happens, we see a depiction of sex that plays into harmful stereotypes that value purity and virginity above other things, and portrays an unhealthy relationship between sex and social value, making impressionable young readers associate sex with dread.
Sex shouldn’t be seen as something shameful to read and write about. Young adult fiction has the potential to convey comprehensive sexual experiences and relationships, yet it’s currently falling short. How can this be fixed? Perhaps the genre could be divided more delicately by age. Rather than covering a seven-year range, it could be split into smaller age groups, with the more mature conversations of sex targeting older teenagers, so that all facets of the experience can be better represented in full. By developing the genre into one that can portray sex holistically, the conversations surrounding it will also develop, leading to a healthier association of sex and sexuality among adolescents.
This article appeared in The Comma’s 2018 Annual Edition. Read more here.
Thanmaya Navada is a second-year Journalism/International Studies student at UTS. She describes herself as a film-buff and bookworm, when she's not napping during literally every spare minute she gets. Also cheese. She loves cheese.