Sex in Young Adult fiction – how far is ‘too’ far?

‘How far is too far?’ — for sex in YA fiction

As any parent will tell you, talking about sex to a teenager is a treacherous business. Badly handled, it can elicit anything from a groan to a giggle. It can make them clam up — or worse, tell you more than you wanted to know.

So spare a thought for the authors who earn a living writing for this age group. The question of ‘how far is too far?’ is one they face on a daily basis.

Since the 1970s and 80s, a whole separate genre has sprung up for readers aged between 12 and 18. And because it’s aimed at an age bracket during which enormous physical and emotional changes take place, young adult or YA fiction faces particular challenges in terms of what is acceptable and what is not.

Laura Harris (Director, Penguin Group [Australia]’s Books for Children and Young Adults), says in the end depictions of sex in YA are like any other plot element:

It’s about whether it moves the story along. Is it relevant to those characters. Does it feel real and is it well-written? If [sex is] true to the characters, you need to have it there; you shouldn’t avoid it. But I think you need to be aware that less is more in all these cases, and I think you have a certain responsibility to not be flippant about things of which teens have a wide variety of experience.

Sue Whiting (Publishing Manager at Walker Books Australia and herself a YA author) says authors must beware of ‘lumping in’ sexual content just because a book is aimed at young adults.

[You can’t think] ‘I’ve got 16-year-old characters, they’d better have sex because that’s what teenagers want to read’.That’s when it doesn’t work and that’s where as an editor I’d be saying, ‘This is a bit random. Is it really necessary to the story?’

Asking teen readers themselves, there appears to be a consensus that YA books don’t have to contain actual sex to be engaging and realistic. But some level of sexual content — even if it’s just kissing — helps retain their interest. Elyse, 13, says readers her age find books ‘more satisfactory’ if they contain a romantic relationship between the characters. But kissing is enough for her age group. While she has read YA books such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga and Amanda Hocking’s Trylle trilogy, in which the characters ‘go all the way’, she says she ‘would have been pretty uncomfortable’ if the scenes had been very graphic.

Those books also concerned older characters; a trait publishers and readers agree makes a big difference. Natasha, 15, says she would probably look down on a book that contained sex between 13 or 14-year-olds, ‘whereas if they were 17 and 18 it would be different’. Penguin’s Laura Harris says from her own reading:

It does appear that 15 and above seems to be more acceptable from an exploratory point of view. It depends on the story, but as yet I don’t think I’ve published a book that has 14-year-old characters having sex.

Alexander, 16, says that even for older characters, how far they should go depends on the context:

If it’s a more action-based book then usually you can get away with just kissing … If you’re running around trying to survive and you’re only thinking about food, weapons, all that sort of thing, you’re not going to go find a nice little fern to sit under and have sex with somebody.

But in a more relaxed scenario, especially in a larger population like a school setting, he says it’s ‘more realistic if some character at some stage has a more sexual relationship’, although this needn’t necessarily be the protagonist.

Alexander says themes of rape and abuse might be appropriate for his age group, but he would want the author to ‘please get it over with’.

When you read a book you usually want standard, straight sort of stuff, you don’t want any of the whips and chains from ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’.

Penguin’s Laura Harris says elements such as role-play — exploring violence or rape fantasies — are things she wouldn’t put in a YA book at all: ‘There is still a lack of experience emotionally, not necessarily physically, that young people have that we need to be mindful of.’ Treated well, Natasha says themes like rape can be ‘eye-opening’ rather than scarring, but they require a certain level of maturity. Elyse agrees, saying she feels she could personally handle these themes, but she doesn’t think they would suit every reader her age.

Of course, another reason why sex in YA presents such unique challenges is that writers can’t just think about the sensibilities of young readers. Parents must also be taken into account. Jon Page (general manager of Pages and Pages bookstore, and president of the Australian Booksellers Association) says booksellers must tread carefully, because if a parent objects to a book’s content ‘the grief’s not going to come to the publisher, the grief’s not going to come to the author, the grief’s going to come to us at the shop’.

Mother of two, Bronwyn Kavanagh, says the love stories her 14-year-old daughter reads contain ‘a lot of kissing and emotional feeling between the characters’ but no actual sex — and she prefers it that way: ‘This is enough for now, this is enough for 14.’ When her daughter reaches 16 she will be less concerned about her reading ‘books with more implied sexual content’, although she would want the characters to be over the age of consent. She would prefer the sex scenes not to be too explicit until her daughter is 18. Likewise, she is comfortable with same-sex relationships in books, but would not want them to be too graphic.

Nikki Franc says while her 12-year-old daughter is learning about sex at school, they’d both prefer depictions of sex in fiction to be ‘a little bit more veiled’ for now; Twilight and John Marsden’s The Dead of the Night strike a good balance, because they aren’t too graphic: ‘That sort of grosses her out a little bit at this age.’

While she would probably be comfortable with her daughters reading more sexual content in their senior years of high school, Franc doesn’t want them to become desensitised: ‘I don’t want it to sound like if you’re not doing it at this age, you’re missing out.’ Susan Astridge, who has two boys aged 12 and 15, agrees. While she’s fairly happy for her eldest son to ‘read it all’, she’d prefer characters having sex to be in their late teens or early 20s: ‘I just don’t want it to say that sex between kids of school age is a good thing. It may be unrealistic, but I just think kids grow up so quickly.’

For her youngest, Astridge says it’s okay to ‘touch on sex’, but she doesn’t want him reading anything too explicit: ‘I don’t want him to grow up before his time. ’ She would prefer sex to be in the context of a marital relationship for her youngest, for example, while for her eldest that ‘doesn’t matter … as long as the characters are of an appropriate age to be able to take the consequences of a pregnancy or whatever else.’

While they may not alienate parents, sex scenes — even short ones — can alienate the schools market, Harris says, adding that the solution for Penguin is to be ‘as transparent about this stuff as possible’, when packaging the book. Jon Page says not all publishers provide enough information upfront, which can prevent stores stocking a book if they can’t get advance reading copies; particularly if the author is unknown. Some kind of classification system, ‘where you have high level sex scenes or adult content’, would make life easier for booksellers and parents, he says.

Perhaps fortunately for wary parents, Walker’s Sue Whiting says a lot of sex gets cut out of YA books because it’s poorly written, or ‘cringe worthy’.But she says sexual content won’t affect the decision to publish, ‘if it’s authentic and true to the story and it’s an important story’.

Whiting says that when she was deciding whether to include sex in her latest novel, Portraits of Celina, she thought only about the characters’ ‘emotional truth’:

At no point did I ever think ‘I won’t put sex in it because I don’t want to offend teenagers or I don’t want to give them ideas’. It is a dangerous thing, I think, as an author to be afraid in that way.

*This article first appeared in NSW Writers’ Centre magazine Newswrite, Issue 208, April – May 2013, pp 6-7. Reproduced with permission*

*This story was picked up by ABC Radio National Books and Arts Daily. Click here to listen to the podcast (aired April 30, 2013), featuring YA authors Margo Lanagan, Julia Lawrinson and Steph Bowe*

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  1. A very helpful article and one that reaffirms my own natural tendencies when it comes to “sex scenes”. I’m facing an edit on another writer’s romance novel to retcon it from an adult to a YA audience. The article gave me some positive ideas about how to approach that.


  2. Excellent post and just what I needed!! I’m working on my debut novel series which is a fantasy, romance tale. The characters are eighteen and up and at some point I would like them to get more physical. This post has really helped me define just how much is too much and certainly less is more-the imagination is a wonderful thing.

    • I agree!! This is exactly the right post for me too, as I’m writing a fantasy which also has romance. The characters are at university and in their early twenties, therefore of course they have sex, but this will help me keep “clean” physical scenes. Less is definitely more :)

  3. Miss Cellany

    I’ve written a fantasy / romance that I think will appeal more to young adult readers than older adults. There is one sex scene that is integral to the plot (main character gets pregnant) but I’ve not gone all graphic on it – it’s kind of kissing, touching then fade to black, next morning kind of thing. Would something like that be acceptable? The protagonist is about 19 / 20 (exact age isnt mentioned) & already sexually active (not on screen though) at the beginning of the book but not quite independent of parents yet which is why I think it may appeal to young adult readers more.
    It’s not exactly a “coming of age” story – more a “what happens after adolescence” story, but I’m not sure how well this would be received… Should I bother to try to find a publisher or write something that better fits a demographic / genre?

  4. Just listened to the podcast and really enjoyed it!! Although I was hoping to hear from you during the discussion (sad face). It’s an excellent topic for discussion, especially given some readers are reading above their age group, which means they are getting to the sex scenes in books earlier because their reading level is advanced.

    However, if their reading level is advanced, can we assume they are also more mature for their age? Great questions and loved your article!

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