I have complex feelings about sex in Young Adult books, targeted to teens in the 14-17 range.
On one hand, teens in the 14-17 range have sex. It happens. We should definitely talk about and acknowledge teen sexuality. Teens need to be educated about sex and, more importantly, safe sex.
I’m just not convinced Young Adult books are the place for that education.
For starters, Young Adult books don’t portray the most healthy relationships. Overwhelmingly, the story involves a girl going out with an older boy/man. (In the paranormal genre, the age gap could be centuries.)
We are normalizing the “trophy wife” archetype in high school.
There’s also the recurring “first and forever love” scenario. Happily ever after is one of the most admirable things people can strive for, but odds are that your first love won’t be your last.
I have seen way too many people I know, especially women, make bad choices and stay in bad relationships because of the “first and forever love” mentality. While we’ve been getting better the past few years, it still isn’t uncommon in Young Adult books for characters to give up opportunities—studying abroad, taking a job, accepting a scholarship offer—to be with a partner.
Don’t EVER give up on your dreams to chase a high school flame.
Another problem is expectations. My own sex ed in high school wasn’t the most comprehensive. (I know I’m not the only one.) Young Adult books paint the idea that finding a romantic partner will solve everything. Falling in love will fix all your problems and make you whole. It will also cure all your mental illnesses and help you overcome every emotional trauma in your life.
Spoiler: it doesn’t.
When I got a boyfriend, I was still me.
I had the same mental illness and the same baggage. I also had the same dreams, ambitions, and values. I learned a lot from being in a relationship, but he didn’t fix me. Nor do I think it was fair to expect that of him.
Almost every YA book had me thinking my first kiss would be life-changing. I can laugh about my naiveté now, but I wonder if my high school reads should have glamorized romance less. Specifically, the physical aspect.
The biggest thing I feel Young Adult authors forget is that regardless of what kids are or should be doing at that age, they are still kids. Why are we having them casually hook up and/or date seriously in these stories?
In most states, these 14-17 year olds can’t even legally consent to sex.
Am I calling for censorship? I am hoping that YA authors will start writing more thoughtfully without needing censorship. I don’t believe for a second anyone means harm, but intent and result are two different things.
Young Adult books aren’t the only problem. There’s blame to be shared in our general media, culture, and schools’ sex ed programs. This is a huge problem with many parts and Young Adult books are often one of those parts.