I often hear people distinguish between YA and adult fiction by the lack of sexual content, swearing and “mature themes,” but I’d have to say those people have not read the majority of YA. There is A LOT of sex in YA, and even if the sex is more often implied than explicit. In the past, a lot of sex in YA was implied, there was something in the text that helped readers understand the characters had taken the plunge together. But this has not reduced the descriptions of make-out kissing scenes, in fact the descriptions of those scenes are quite explicit and flowery. Most YA books have some element of romance, whether straight or other diverse sexuality, I don’t have any hard statistics, but I think anyone would be hard pressed to say romance isn’t an ever present theme in YA; usually that romance means sex. But for all the (implied) sex in YA, an awful lot of it is bad. And by bad I don’t mean poor quality, I mean harmful.
Whether women feel apprehension, confidence, excitement, shyness, anticipation, awkward, there are a variety of emotions experienced and associated with sex. In Eclipse, Stephanie Meyer portrays Bella as feeling rejected after Edward refuses to have sex with her. And later in Breaking Dawn, Meyer writes Bella feels apprehension and nervousness before actually having sex for the first time with Edward. She asks herself, “How do people do this—swallow all their fears and trust someone so implicitly with every imperfection and fear they had” (Meyer 83). In Fangirl, Cath experiences insecurity while being intimate with Levi. She worries she’s doing something wrong and even apologizes. But experiencing insecurities is a normal human emotion, and it only makes sense at least some people feel similar insecurities during, about and regarding sex. Instead, most of what sex in YA includes is overwhelming excitement or anticipation.
Comparatively, when describing sex in YA, few female main characters, and ever fewer male main characters experience nervousness regarding sex. Most YA books seldom talk about how characters feel before having sex; but then after having sex, the characters gush about how fulfilling it was. In Three Dark Crowns, Mirabella expresses the desire to tell her friend Bree about her having sex, but makes no mention of her own emotions (185).
Why do the majority of characters feel confident, feeling little doubt or pressure? Why aren’t there a myriad of emotions? Why is there never a combination of positive and negative emotions? Having a clear majority of characters feel unexplainable joy and happiness gives the false impression that every sexual encounter will be positive and satisfying. If one in three women report never or infrequently achieving orgasm, it is unlikely this is an accurate assessment. Perpetuating this idea is problematic, as it can prevent teens from having any other emotion toward sex. It harbors self-doubt and can cause people to believe there is something wrong with them if they don’t feel excitement. In addition, if the standard is being excited and bubbly and excited about sex, but the person doesn’t feel that way they may feel pressured to act that way, when they really might not feel ready for sex. This can also lead to negative sexual experiences in the future. All people should feel free to express themselves and their emotions regardless of the situation, and especially in sexual experiences. And make no mistake, YA does add to this conversation in a negative way.
Casual violence in sex has always graced the pages of books, and YA is no exception. In Susan Colasanti’s novel When It Happens exhibits violent sex when the main character, Tobey, says he wants the other main character’s, Sarah, head to be banging against his headboard. As in, he wants to be having rough sex with Sarah and gave no thought to whether that might hurt her. Many YA books use subtlety violent language when describing sex such as A Court of Mist and Fury, “He didn’t pierce my flesh but rather to keep me pinned” (197, Maas); Throne of Glass, “She kissed him, hoping to steal some of his air” (336, Maas); Clockwork Princess, “Her fingers gripped his fair hair, hard enough that it must have hurt” (416, Clare); The Star Touched Queen; “strong hands burning against my neck and waist” (196).
Although many of these passages come from the same authors, make no mistake, descriptions of similar nature are found in many, many different YA books. There seems to be a lack of variety in describing sexual acts and feelings related to those acts. Everything is done to the extreme; it’s either a gentle caress or gasping for breath; a whisper or a scream. Again, this leads young readers to have unrealistic expectations of sex. If the only sex teenagers are exposed to is violent sex, they’ll start to see that as normal. Echopraxia plays a role in this, especially in teenagers who consume violent porn before ever having any sexual experiences. The subliminal message in all of this is “boys want rough sex” and “girls will give it.” Which is not necessarily true, but again these underlying themes will influence teens’ sexual experiences in the future.
This leads back to communication and consent. In YA, there are no conversations about what feels good. In healthy sexual relationships, couples discuss and communicate what feels good and what doesn’t feel good. Passion is often shown as out of control or “rougher” sex (pulling on hair, “clawing” at back etc.) which may feel good to one person, but hurt another. Any sexual preference is fine, but the important part is those desires are discussed so both parties are comfortable with that sexual preference. Unfortunately for YA, stopping to talk about sex and what feels good isn’t romantic. But it’s along the same lines of consent. Teens need to know they should be aware of their partner’s sexual preferences and boundaries. If something hurts or feels good, they should communicate that to their partner; and not just in “moans” or “gasps.” Teens should feel comfortable talking about the distinctions between pleasure and pain. These conversations are necessary and influence the readers who are consuming this media, yet happen far too infrequently.
For some, but not all, sex can be an intimate experience. Most of the time, both parties are portrayed as losing control or being swept up in the depths of passion. As if they can’t help themselves. But consent is an essential component of any sexual relationship. It can be given and taken during any part of any sexual relations, yet often consent isn’t addressed at all. Everyone, not just teens, needs to be reminded that no one is entitled to sex. Sex is not a right people automatically are given. Sex with another person is a privilege that should be respected and valued. Dill Werner said, “If you’re an author—especially for YA—consider taking a line or two and putting consent on the page. It promotes healthy relationships. The consent doesn’t have to be graphic or overly romantic, either. Can I touch you? Can I kiss you? Are you ready for X? Is ‘this’ okay?” Consent doesn’t have to take up the entire book. It doesn’t have to be the sole focus of the sex scene, but it does need to be featured. But when consent is omitted from book, teens are given the impression when any sexual activity starts, it cannot stop until sex is complete. It gives the impression that after sex begins the parties are completely without control; which is absolutely untrue.
This is something Adam Silvera explores well in his novel History Is All You Left Me. In History is All You Left Me, Silvera writes Theo asking for verbal consent and then Griffin acknowledging the physical pain. Theo asks Griffin, more than once, if he’s sure he want to have sex or if he wants to stop. Sarah J Maas also portrays consent well in her series Throne of Glass. In Throne of Glass, Maas writes Chaol asking for verbal consent (188) and then also acknowledging the physical pain sex causes Celaena, and even asks if she wants to stop (199). Writing about men, in particular, being considerate and cautious when having sex is necessary; whether it’s person’s first time or 50th.
Many have called the United States “obsessed” with sex and they’re right. But for all the obsession with sex, teenagers and young adults are seldom given a proper look at what a healthy sexual relationship is. Healthy is going at a pace both participants are comfortable with. Healthy is communicating clearly and being sensitive to non-verbal signs your partner isn’t enjoying or is uncomfortable with the experience.
Everyone, particularly teens need to know they have a choice. Anyone can stop at any time and change their mind; no one is obligated to perform any sexual act for their partner. Everyone needs to know about consent so they can be sensitive to the consent of their partner, and know how to give and take their own consent. Knowledge of consent also helps prevent sexual violence. When people are comfortable with giving and taking consent, it’s easier to say, “That doesn’t feel good,” “That hurts,” “Stop,” etc. It’s easier to remain in control.
In conclusion, there’s a lot of bad sex in YA, but there’s also some OK sex. And there’s even some good sex. There isn’t any hard data implying YA has portrayed more positive sexual experiences over the years, but I’m inclined to think it is improving, especially as I’ve read recently released books. Again, no hard data on this, but I believe you’d be hard pressed to find verbal consent in most YA books published even 10 years ago. But in the past year I’ve read more verbal consents than I had in all my teenage years. Talking about sex is becoming less taboo and more open in society, and as those conversations evolve and change, it will be easier to include these conversations in YA.