Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Open Discussion: Let's Talk About Sex


As an ongoing feature of the Cafe, we occasionally open the floor to general discussion of topics related to YA literature.

This week, one of our readers poses the following always-fascinating and often controversial topic:

"I want to know what YA authors and other readers think about a lot of the sexual content in YA books. I know a lot of people are totally fine with it but I also know I can't be the ONLY girl who doesn't feel entirely comfortable reading some of it. And it's not about censorship; it's about me being selective about what I read - and NOT reading the stuff I don't feel comfortable reading."

So what do you think? Please feel free to express your honest opinions in the comments, but keep in mind the fact that we do have younger readers and moderate your language accordingly. Thanx!

35 comments:

Mary P said...

Great question “crazytown,”

Of course you aren’t the only girl who isn’t comfortable with sexual content in books, but neither does every reader want books that have no sexual content. Just as there is a wide spectrum of reader tastes, there is also a wide spectrum of books out there to meet those tastes–the problem is finding the right book for the right reader. That is where your YA librarian will come in handy to help you be selective. But one caveat, what is mature content for one reader is not for another, so it will still come down to you pushing away a book if it goes in a direction you are not comfortable with.
I’ve written both squeaky clean YA’s and ones with mature content, because the fact is, there are an infinite number of stories that involve the teen experience–and that’s what I do, write about the teen experience–and some of those experiences do involve sex. I don’t write “for” a particular person or audience. But an interesting thing about the books I’ve written: my first which was quite clean and innocent did have the word “damn” in it, and wouldn’t you know, that I did get a reader who complained about that, and yet with my last book, which had much stronger language and sexual content, I never received a single complaint. Go figure. So, I think this may show it really is a matter of hooking the right reader up with the right book, which leads us back to my earlier point: Get to be friends with your YA librarian.

It will be interesting to see how others weigh in.

Anonymous said...

I personaly like books with sexual content in it, but i'm not a girl ether.I know alot of girls who like books like that. So why ruin it for everyone just because you don't like the book. In that case don't read it, find anthor book.


Anonymous
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Melissa W. said...

For me, "crazytown" already has the answer. She does not read what makes her uncomfortable. And she knows what makes her uncomfortable. She's smart. This is something that I think sometimes adults fail to credit, that teen readers are quite able to "self-select" their reading material. Whether it's sex, language, drinking, fingernail-chewing, baseball, whatever it is they don't want to read about, they will stop. Trust them to know when something isn't for them.

As far as including sexual content, I don't know any YA authors who don't carefully consider the challenging content they include in their work. In the same way they consider every scene, sentence and word, if sex is there, it's because it serves the story in some important way. If the sexual content were removed, you would lose some significant understanding of the characters or the theme.

But I strongly second Mary's recommendation to get to know your YA librarian. This is the kind of stuff they keep on top of. For instance, they'll know that ALA's YALSA branch recently compiled a list of books called Books That Don't Make You Blush. (And for the other side, YALSA is in the process of compiling a list called "Sex is a Touchy Subject." They've got all your bases covered.) Also check the sidebar here for a link to a blog called Clean Reads. The cool thing is that there are plenty of choices for everyone.

Emily said...

Thanks for linking to Clean Reads.

As the creator of Clean Reads, I want to say you are not alone in wanting to read sex-free books. I do not believe in censorship. But I am very aware that there are many people out there, like me, who prefer books that are free of sex and swearing. I started Clean Reads as a resource for people who choose to read "clean" books, for lack of a better word. I hope you find it useful.
Of course everyone has their own definition of clean as well. For example, someone was asking about books that are also free of magic/fantasy. I personally love magic and fantasy, but everyone has the right to decide what they will and will not read.

Becky said...

Sometimes it isn't so much what is presented as to the how and why of it. For example, what you may be fine reading about a committed couple doing may vary from what you want to see two complete strangers doing for no 'real' reason. I think as long as the characters and plot are substancial--and it works for those characters, it's not superfluous, then I'm fine with it. I see a big difference between books whose sole purpose is to present graphic sex scenes where there essentially is no plot just poorly linked sex scenes and little if any characterization. (You could mix and match guys and girls from any of the novels without noticing because there is nothing that makes them special or unique). And a novel with well-developed characters, a good plot, and that happens to have some sexual content. When the book becomes an excuse just to focus on sex...I think that it suffers in quality. A book needs more than sex to be 'good.'

Deborah said...

"As far as including sexual content, I don't know any YA authors who don't carefully consider the challenging content they include in their work. In the same way they consider every scene, sentence and word, if sex is there, it's because it serves the story in some important way."

That seems terribly idealistic. I wish it were so. Scads of literature is published by YA authors (and kidlit authors and adult authors) who do not consider ever sentence or word. And last time I went to Barnes and Noble, the Big Dispay Table in the YA section *exclusively* featured Cliques & Gossip Girls. They sell, and with money as a bottom line publishers, copy-cats follow.

The librarian at my school and I will frequently sit with a huge stack of books (and our limited budget) and skim for new buys. One despairing afternoon, I read close to a dozen recent YA books in which sex and language seemed to be included simply as a devise to be hot or edgy -- sometimes a comment or scene was so out of place and unnecessary that it almost seemed as if it had been added at a later date (like creative movie editing to earn the desired rating).

I'm ok with sex/language/violence it truly serves the story, it's a story worth telling, and it's a story well told. It's why I feel comfortable giving my mature 8th grade students The Red Tent or Lovely Bones. But if it's there simply because publishers simply view my students as mindless consumers? No thank you.

Mrs. K said...

The last comment was from me -- I used my blogger account instead of my wordpress (where I keep my kidlit blog).

Liz B said...

What is funny (or ironic? Or just Alanis ironic?) is that one of the reasons I like YA is that when there is sex it means something; while often in adult fiction, I feel as if it's very "oh its page 50 so we need a sex scene." It's often when reading adult fiction that I feel as if the sex is added. While with YA, the sex, whether or not explicit, usually means something; there is thought, or feeling, or emotion.

I like a wide range of books, from Nick & Norah to Oke's Love Comes Softly. So here's what I think --

By sexual content do we mean sexual content, or the choices that kids make? If the sexual content was between two married teens, would it still be an issue? Probably yes; but I think that the issue is both content and choice.

When it comes to sex in YA, I want a range of books so that kids can see their own values and morals and decisions mirrored and affirmed. The kid who has decided he/she wants a sexual relationship and the kid who decides its important to wait to marriage should both have reading materials that supports that decision. So I'm for a variety of books.

Tho -- to get really personal -- I would like nonChristian publisher books that say wait for marriage. (I don't want to have to give the Christian published book to my godson, a Catholic, and have theology become an issue.)

Bottom line; with sex as with anything else in a book, what matters most to me is does it support the story or does it take away from the story. And, there should be a wide range of books. And it's wrong for any of us to assume that all teens want to read about sex -- or all teens do not want to read about sex.

In adult fiction, I get annoyed when I'm reading a great mystery or adventure story and then bam, there's the sex scene. Which I feel is there for no good reason, and sometimes I skip it (and I'm not a prude; loved Nick and Norah; love Norah Roberts). So I can imagine a teen reader who think they have a mystery or fantasy and then BAM there is the sex feels the same way.

Man, what a long post. Tho one thing I wonder -- in terms of sexual content, what is OK? For example, John & Mary could hold hands. That's clear. John & Mary could disappear behind closed doors...and it's up the reader to assume or not assume. I wouldn't call that sexual content. John & Mary's activity could be described in one sentence -- they slept together. I'd still see that as fairly mild; yes, sex, but it's just a few words. John and Mary's activity going on for three pages...that's the content I think the poster is talking about. I guess as a librarian advising this reader, what I'd want to know is if the "behind doors" is too much.

Debby G. said...

I like reading all kinds of YA books-- squeaky clean and "edgy."

Puberty happens to all preteens and teens. A lot of teens are having sex for the first time. The vast majority at least think about having sex (or not having sex). Thus, I believe sex is a natural topic for YA books.

And if teens who are interested in reading about sex can't find it in YA literature, do you think they'll be just as happy with a squeaky clean book? I don't. Maybe they'll just watch an R-rated movie or play a video game with "mature" content instead. Or they could do what I did: As a teen growing up without many edgy YA books published, I turned to adult books with sexual content. I thinnk it's great now that teens who want to can read YA books with sexual content.

My first novel STORKY is a fictionalized teenager's journal. I think it would have been almost dishonest NOT to include his thoughts on sex. Because teenage boys DO think about sex. And I imagine it's comforting for teens to read about other (fictional) teens with similar thoughts. It probably isn't comforting for adults to be reminded that teens think about sex. But it's the teen readers who matter, don't you think?

gail said...

I don't think teenagers (all younger readers, for that matter) have many ways of finding what's out there for books. I don't think the publications kids read publish a lot of book reviews, and when they do they're often on "big" books that everyone has heard about, anyway. Some of the big on-line review sites tend to cover the same books over and over again--each new volume of The Gossip Girl, for instance, every new Meg Cabot book (I have no idea if Meg Cabot's teen books have much sexual content--just pointing out that her books will always get coverage).

The chain bookstore display tables that Deborah mentioned in her post--they tend to carry the same things over and over again, too.

This is probably a vicious circle--the media promotes the titles everyone knows thinking it's newsworthy (I guess) and the bookstores promote the titles everyone knows because everyone knows them. People tend to buy things they've heard of and think they know about. Once the books with more sexual content became well-known, they got onto the circle and keep going around and around.

My point is that there probably are plenty of YA books being published that don't have overtly sexual content, but readers don't have ways to find them. There are far, far more books published then there are review slots in magazines and shelving in stores and libraries.

Actually, this is a problem with all kinds of books, not just YA. But I do think it pertains to the question of kids finding books without lots of sex.

By the way, I heard recently (I think at a librarians' conference, but maybe I read it), that one particular librarian couldn't keep Twilight on the shelf for this very reason--erotic but not graphic.

Deborah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mrs. K said...

"By the way, I heard recently (I think at a librarians' conference, but maybe I read it), that one particular librarian couldn't keep Twilight on the shelf for this very reason--erotic but not graphic."

This has been a big topic of conversation at my school. We ordered several copies -- and can't hold onto them. Ten years of teaching and I have NEVER seen a book take off this quickly with middle school girls.

Funny thing is, it achieves what so many YA&adult romances don't -- true sensuality and grea sexual tension (and this in a completely "clean" read).

Of course one of my students said she loved it because it wasn't full of catty bitchy mean girls -- she's read too many of those.

I agree with Gail, though, about visibility. We work hard with our school book fair vendors to keep some of the trendier books (like Gossip Girls) out and highlight our favorites. Because it's a great market -- if you know where to look.

By the way, those Barnes and Noble tables are a great way to scare parents away from YA. I've talked to many a parent harboring a deep distrust of the young adult publishing industry. A shame.

Mary P said...

Liz B says: "Bottom line; with sex as with anything else in a book, what matters most to me is does it support the story or does it take away from the story."

And this does say it all. Well put.
And I have to agree with Melissa, that most YA authors I know consider challenging content very carefully. Does it need to be there to tell the story fully? They aren't thinking about marketing or how a scene will or won't help sales. It is a matter of being true to the character and story.

MarPerez said...

"I've talked to many a parent harboring a deep distrust of the young adult publishing industry. A shame."

Did they say why? I'm a parent of a newly-minted teen and I have absolute faith in my colleagues' abilities to tell a good story in the most honest, thoughtful way possible.

My daughter and I read novels together in order to discuss issues. No book is off limits and she self-censors.

Everyone has the right to limit his or her own child's reading, but I propose the idea that those books on those tables (whatever those books happen to be) have every right to be there. We have a wealth of resources (including your local librarian, websites, book review, etc.) to find the right book for the right person.

There are books for all sorts of readers out there.

And my fallback to the sex in teen lit conversation is always just because I read a murder mystery doesn't mean I'm going to go out and commit a murder. The same applies for reading about sex. I believe that reading about sex may actually satisfy some natural curiosity in a safe environment (reading about it instead of doing it.)

And I never ever want to send my child the message that a book she likes (or maybe even loves) is "bad." I truly believe that this discourages children from becoming true life-long readers.

And as a writer, I am compelled to tell the best story I'm able. I choose every single word carefully, but the question I ask myself is "Does the story ring true?" I can't ask myself if a parent will LIKE my story because my end reader is the teen, not the parent, although I would be happy if parents and teens would read together, but not just something of the parent's choosing, but of the teen's.

And I'll add that not only does an author choose each word carefully, but once the novel is at the publisher's, the editor also completes a thoughtful examination of the manuscript.

Throughout the ages, writers have faced distrust, fear, and hatred because of the words they have chosen, but some of those same words have become our classics.

Mrs. K said...

Me:"I've talked to many a parent harboring a deep distrust of the young adult publishing industry."

Marperez: "Did they say why?"

Sure. Because of what makes the waves. Most parents aren't writers, teachers, or librarians. They aren't reading these blogs. They go to Borders and see some prominently displayed book covers that look like trashy magazines covers (that and a lot of headless girls). They flip through a few pages and find references to casual oral sex and drug use. Is this a skewed representation of YA lit? Yes! But really -- pretend you didn't know where to look for books, and then look at what's being peddled most aggressively.

I'm not talking about high school readers. The parents I'm talking about have fifth and sixth grade girls who are making that strange leap from child to teenager. They worry about their kids growing up too fast -- about media, music, myspace, texting . . . about the sexualization of preteens. This Naomi Wolf article in the NYtimes both triggered and highlighted a lot of strong emotions last year. I am highly critical of books that celebrate the worst of "girl behavior" and sexually objectify young women. As a middle school teacher and feminist, some of these series make my blood boil. I don't even consider them YA lit, really. That's what I tell parents as I direct them to the wealth of *amazing* books for their 12-14-year-olds. /end threadjack :)

Good conversation, by the way!

MarPerez said...

I think the Naomi Wolf article had an extremely narrow focus. There are a great deal of wonderful teen novels out there. It didn't feel like she did her homework in order to provide a balanced view of children's literature.

And there doesn't seem to be an equal concern for books for boys, despite the fact that similar content is found in teen lit for boys.

My daughter hasn't read any of those books in that article, but I wouldn't have a problem if she did. However, articles like that, which seem to encourage the idea that that's all there is out there, does a disservice to the teen lit community.

Melissa W. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Melissa W. said...

Liz B raises an interesting question. When there is an objection to content, is the objection to sexual acts that are played out on the page or to the fact that the characters have made choices to be sexually active, even if those choices are not "on stage" in the book?

I'm thinking that different teens would have different responses. I know my own teen is uncomfortable reading about specific details but would not mind reading a book where the characters have made the choice to have sex. My teen niece wouldn't be fazed by either. My teen nephew would prefer neither simply because he isn't interested. He's one of those that if he picks up a mystery, he wants a mystery, not a mystery with an order of sex on the side. The young teen girl across the street isn't ready for either.

Also, I think it's a little too easy to throw the Gossip Girls out there as the leading example of sex in YA lit. For one thing, that angle has been discussed to death.

But let's consider sexual content in books that are not marketed in the aggressive way that the Gossip Girls and their ilk are. Because it's not as though the sexual content stops there. There are many well-written, award winning and critically acclaimed YA novels that contain challenging content, some of it every bit as explicit or more than what appears in Gossip Girls.

What then? Does explicit content that is integral to understanding the characters or story thoroughly damn a finely written literary novel? Or do we trust readers to understand the material in context or stop reading if they're turned off?

Also, in the case of books like these that do not have vast marketing resources behind them, the author knows that inclusion of challenging content can actually be a liability when it comes to sales, especially when you consider that these books still depend on the library market for a large percentage of their sales. These are the books and writers I'm referring to when I say that the authors I know are very careful about what they write and why they write it.

MaryP said...

I think we've acknowledged that sexual content in YA lit is not for every reader but what about for those who do want it? Like Anon who says:

"I personaly like books with sexual content in it, but i'm not a girl ether."

Which books that DO have sexual content would librarians (Liz? Mrs. K?) recommend for their teen patrons who specifically request it? And would a teen patron feel free to even ask?

Liz B said...

Regarding teens looking for sex in books: what I see reflects my own teen reading lo those many years ago. They go to the adult romance titles... not just for "the sex" but also for the happy ending.

I can think of books with sexual content like Good Girls by Laura Ruby, but it doesn't offer the "happy romance ending" found in the adult romance books. Good Girls would be a good read, tho, for readers interested in choices and consequences and standards (I haven't reviewed it yet but I will soon.) It's the same dilemma with Pop by Wallingham; I'm not sure it's the ending they would want. (Of course, the more question/answer with a teen the more titles I could suggest!) If the ending can be other than traditional romance ending: A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl; King Dork.

I liked Nick and Norah; I thought the interactions between the 2 made sense, were true to characters and the story, was hot, and offered the happy ending a teen would want. So, for the teen who I see holding bodice rippers? I totally would hand them that book. I might also suggest This is All by Chambers. or Queen of Babble by Cabot.

Re readers advisory: would a teen feel comfortable? Depends on so many things; with one-shot RA, one of the reasons I ask what they read & liked is to get a feel for what the reader is OK with in terms of content; if you see a teen a lot, it's easier to get a dialogue going. I don't as much hear "I want a book with explicit sexual content" as "I read such and such and what do you have like that?" Kids not looking for sexual content tend to say they don't want something very racy, etc.

Abby said...

I'm past the targeted age for YA but I still like reading them, partially because, as some other posters have said, the sex feels organic to the stories instead of tacked on like it does in adult fiction.

By and large, though, YA has been an absolute lifesaver for me as a reader. When I was a teenager we got some sex education in school, but it was brief and focused on technical aspects rather than the emotional side of sex. I turned to books to figure out how I felt and see how other "teens" (albeit fictional ones) dealt with sex, because for me, fiction felt like the safest ground to determine my feelings. I couldn't establish any sort of a dialogue with my parents, and I usually felt too embarrassed to talk with my friends. YA fiction was the one place that I could safely examine sex from both emotional and technical sides and figure out how I felt, instead of listening to other people. I whole-heartedly support sexual content in YA fiction, if it's thoughtfully done and grows organically from the story, because I honestly don't know where I'd be without it.

MarPerez said...

Abby, I completely agree with you. And I think maybe we don't hear from teens asking for books about sex because maybe they are reluctant to voice their requests.

My daughter and I were at the library once, and I was in a different section. When I went back to the teen section, I found a "helpful" parent trying to steer my daughter away from a teen novel that just so happened to have a condom on the cover.

I (as politely as I was able) explained to the parent that my daughter's choices were always good ones and that she could read whatever she wanted. And this assumption that this woman knew better about what my daughter should read was from a complete stranger, not a library employee, not even someone we knew.

PAOLO CRUZ said...

If I may contribute my own two centavos to the discussion...

I'm a 28-year-old Filipino guy. I lived in Singapore for most of my adolescence, and my formative ideas about sex-by-vicarious-consumption were shaped by John Hughes movies and Beverly Hills 90210. I mostly shied away from YA lit, during the years when I belonged to its target demographic.

I belatedly discovered the genre, after I met my girlfriend (also a Filipina, born and raised in the Philippines, currently 31) who told me about how she was influenced -- positively and otherwise -- by reading Francine Pascal's (and her ghost-writers') Sweet Valley High books, growing up. Since both of us come from upwardly-mobile, affluent families, the values reflected in American teen media -- not just about sex, but also class, and wealth, and consumption -- actually felt more "relate-able" and *less* alien to us than the rote, disciplinarian, modesty-obsessed sexual education we recieved in our single-gender Catholic schools.

For better or worse, we regarded the lily-white bourgeois worldview of the Wakefield twins or The Breakfast Club as something to aspire to, precisely because it seemed less repressive than the puritanical dogma that was shoved down our throats, in a blatantly religious curriculum and social environment. Even when sex was treated with cautionary tones, or when characters made the decision to withold sexual experience, it felt the like result of a conscious *choice* -- it was important that sex was even viewed as a reasonable option.

Now that we're older, and have a more critical scope of things, we can appreciate the satirical qualities of the Clique or Gossip Girl books, even with their more cavalier representations of teen sexuality. But we realize that the intended audience for those books might not have the appropraite frame of reference to see what's often intended as a *parody* of teen sexuality practiced without responsibility. I honestly believe that Von Ziegsar and Harrison write *primarily* for a readership of 20somethings who enjoy the books as guilty pleasure, and trust that younger readers are media-savvy and self-aware enough to recognize the nuances. And yet, for Anglophone teens in 'Third World'/'developing' countries like the Philippines, even when they can afford to follow series like that, they might not have the access to the "cultural capital" necessary to recognize the satire (i'm referring mostly to the references to branded products or the characters' upscale tastes, but it also extends to the ways they regard their sexuality). So it may or may not be interpreted at face value.

I don't have any concrete solutions to the dilemmas I bring up. I just wanted to broaden the scope of the discussion, to acknowledge the fact that these books are consumed in radically different social circumstances from the fictional worlds they depict.

Paula said...

Add another opinion to those who have said many times the sex feels organic to the story or characters.

It's the side of the issue I stand. I don't think any element added just for shock or "because all the other books are doing it" come off well. But if the world of the characters is established well, the sex will feel natural instead of jarring you out of the story.

What I love about the YA genre is its broad offerings. There really is pretty much a story out there for every type of reader, if we're willing to hunt them down.

True, there's always room for diversification of all levels - but for the most part, YA offers a large range of depictions of teen life. And I'm not against sex scenes if it feels true to the character and the story. However, I prefer sanitized versions!

I shudder at the thought of teen erotica.

~Em~ said...

I wrote one YA book I'm trying to sell and now I'm working on my next one... My first book has a rape scene that I don't really describe. It's not graphic, mostly because I don't think I could have written something like that.
My second book has a sex scene in it - graphic? Sort of. But still funny - the girl walks in on her grandparents. It's not the main character that's doing the act - it's two older people with artificial hips that she walks in on. I think that's as far as I'd go ... I can't imagine writing a scene like that with teenagers involved.

Jordyn said...

Wow!
That comment (the one this whole discussion is based on) was left by me, months ago (as you can see, I have since changed my blogger name) and I am LOVING getting everyone's opinions.

And a lot of people seem to be wondering just what I meant by "sexual content".
I mean I don't want to read about who touched who where; I know not everyone has the same morals as me and that teens are going to have sex and to leave it out of books would be, in a sense, dishonest, but that doesn't mean I want to know, graphically, what happens.

Also, it matters what the book is about - if there is TONS of superflous sex in it. I read "Looking for Alaska" and loved it - I understand that ONE sex scene does not a book make, and that LFA is about something way, way more important.

I am going to be a YA writer when I grow up, and while I don't plan on making all my character sqeaky clean, I'm also going to keep the actual words more or less PG rated.

There is no denying that the "teen experience", as someone put it, involves thinking about sex and for most teens, having sex. I just prefer not to have to read about it explicitly (sp?).

Anonymous said...

When I conference with my 8th graders, I'm looking for venues to discuss character development, setting, plot, theme, stylistic divices, etc. Last week, "Stuck in the 70s"--a tale riddled with sex and little to discuss literarily--came to my table. I tried to make the best of the situation, but the student remained perplexed why such a book was on our middle school shelves. Oh course, she had enjoyed reading it, but the story was so laden with suggestive dialog that we had little to discuss.
I'm not a prude, really, but middle school libraries are not the place for sexually explicit literature like "Stuck in the 70s."
I'm still waiting to hear from my school librarian.

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baele said...

So how is the Nike vapor soccer shoes changed? Visually. the new Vapor football boots have undergone the same new paint work as the Nike Mercurial Superfly boots and now feature the updated asymmetric, Nike soccer cleats fluorescent.but now it's time to take a look at the boot Nike mercurial vapor . - the original Nike Speed boot!