YA, New Adult, and sexin’ it up

The Telegraph recently did an interesting, if slightly fluffy, piece that talked about “New Adult” and threw in some discussion of sex in books meant for younger readers. Now, my problem here is that these are really separate topics: what is “New Adult”? Is this a useful categorization? is a separate issue from what sexuality or depiction of sexuality is appropriate for what target age group?

But hey, mass-market journalism. Conflate for the audience!

I’m quite interested in this topic, naturally, because of my personal feelings on depictions of sex, sexuality, gender, etc. in fiction meant for younger readers. By now, we all know that a lot of grownups read YA, and that a lot of younger people are reading books “meant” for adult audiences. That’s nothing new. But there’s still always a storm around frank depictions of sexuality – with no horrible mind-rending bad consequences – in literature meant for younger readers, and that’s what the Telegraph article gets at. There’s a lot of sweet love triangles and flirting and romantic tension in YA reads, but rarely any “yep, okay, sex happens and can be good or can be bad and it’s all relative, folks” frankness, even this long after Forever. And then teens find a copy of Fifty Shades and…yeah. Oy vey.

I’ve heard complaints about how little LGBTQ YA there is out there, but at the same time, there’s a resistance to realism in YA – pull back on the sex! Pull back on the swearing! Whitewashing out people of colour or LGBTQ kids is horrible, but it’s not much better to bowdlerize out what teens are actually thinking about – sex and swearing. Make your YA actually represent what people look like, think like, how they feel…and while they might still be fighting zombie unicorns, the characters will be more real, more engaging.

What do you think? Are depictions of sex, rather than merely flirting, okay in YA or “New Adult” fiction? Should sex only be used as a moral lesson in youth-oriented fiction, or can it be portrayed as a fact of life?

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  • http://twitter.com/leaflette leeanna @ leeanna.me

    I am quite late on posting a comment, but…

    I think there should be sex in YA. Not graphic, but it should be there. We all know teens have sex. Why are our attitudes towards it in books so puritan? I’m personally not a fan of the insta-love that is SO FREAKING POPULAR in YA books, and I hope that if sex/realistic relationships find their way into YA, it will put a stop on “omg he’s so hot I have to kiss him” at first glance. (I’m generalizing, but that’s the gist of a LOT of “relationships” in YA). That’s why I like the concept of NA – I think there’s more sex there. I don’t read a lot of NA yet because most of what’s out there is contemporary, which isn’t my favorite genre.

    TL;DR version: sex needs to be in YA. Not as a moral lesson, but as a way of life. Lots of kids turn to books for information about life and relationships, and it would be so much better if they saw realistic depictions, rather than the fairy tale, “we’re going to kiss and be in love forever.”

    I’m one of those people who wants more LGBT in YA. I think about it a lot. I hunt it out, and harbor hopes of writing some of my own because there isn’t enough out there. Teens (and adults) need to read books that have gay/lesbian/bi/transgender/etc characters. Again, it’s because teens/adults turn to books for information and they need to read more than just the coming out story. They need books that have LGBT main characters that just ARE LGBT, and are accepted for it.

  • http://www.candlemarkandgleam.com Candlemark & Gleam

    It won’t surprise you in the slightest to know that I agree with you 100%!

    It makes no sense to have YA characters NOT swear or have sex…it’s unrealistic. They don’t need to be jumping beds every 10 seconds, and the action probably shouldn’t be explicit, but it needs to be mentioned – teens swear, they have LOTS of sexual thoughts, and they need to see other teens acting on them…and see the consequences of how they do all of these things, whether good or bad.

    I’d never thought about it in connection with the creepy insta-love that happens in a lot of YA, but you’re right – the lack of appropriately modeled, realistic sexual feelings and sex probably has a lot to do with the creepy, totally unhealthy relationships that are held up in YA as “what to aspire to.”

    And beyond that, can’t agree enough with your comments about LGBTQ-etc relationships in YA (and all books, really).

    “They need books that have LGBT main characters that just ARE LGBT, and are accepted for it.” YES. This, this, a thousand times this.

  • http://twitter.com/leaflette leeanna @ leeanna.me

    This is something I could talk about all day long :) I’ll warn you now, my reply is all over the place.

    I’m harsh on romance in YA. I can understand that yes, a lot of teens do fall in love at first sight (or think they do) and have crazy (and sometimes unhealthy) relationships. But I know that when I was a teen, I didn’t do that. And I know I’m not the only one. Teens that are like I was need books too, books that don’t focus on relationships and “OMG I’m gonna die if he doesn’t look at me.”

    But if romance is going to be in a book, please let it be realistic. I’m so sick of insta-love and love triangles that don’t serve a purpose. Other than to be the whole point of the book. I know I’m being super critical right now, but I’ve read SO many books where the flimsy relationship is the entire story. A book with a love triangle could be really good, if it explored the ins and outs and potential bonuses or pitfalls, rather than the MC thinking “both boys are so hot!”

    If you take Twilight as an example of unrealistic behaviors. Edward watching Bella sleep. In real life, that would be frigging creepy, but in the book, it’s romantic.

    Off the top of my head, I can’t come up with any YA books that have realistic relationships, complete with some sexual content. That’s sad. Think of what teens will turn to instead, to find it. Fifty Shades? Eek.

    I wonder if age is an issue of why there isn’t more sex in YA, and why it’s coming in New Adult. I haven’t looked into this, but are there possible legal ramifications of having underage characters in sexual situations? Maybe something along those lines is why publishers are reluctant to touch it.

    Re more LGBT:

    The availability of LGBT in YA is something I’ve been reading about a lot lately, and thinking about. Gay boys in YA are, I think, more accepted than gay girls. And the other letters don’t get much visibility either. I first saw this post, http://shelf-life.ew.com/2013/03/14/david-levithan-two-boys-kissing-cover/, on Malinda Lo’s site, and there’s some good commentary there, too.

    There’s a wife and wife team (Sarah and Jennifer Diemer) doing something that I think is utterly fantastic: they’re publishing 2 free stories a week for a YEAR to increase the amount of lesbian YA fiction available. They also are both indie authors. http://muserising.com/?page_id=1188

  • http://www.candlemarkandgleam.com Candlemark & Gleam

    The whole Edward/Bella dynamic is SO unhealthy, and really needs to not be held up as some sort of romantic standard. Eeeep.

    But yes, the whole “They’re both so HOOOOOT, how can I not love them both?!” thing is…grating. You know, I’d quite like to see a love triangle that actually ends in a stable, happy poly relationship – perhaps not in a YA novel, unless it’s the protagonist’s parents, but in general.

    The issue of consent is probably a big part of it, but at the same time, you can fade to black on a lot of these things, and if the participants are both underage, it’s much less squicky – and legally fretful – than otherwise.

    Ahhh, I love Malinda Lo and her concentration on diverse representation of all types in YA. And wow, good on those authors! That’s AMAZING.

  • http://twitter.com/leaflette leeanna @ leeanna.me

    Actually, it’s kind of funny you mention polyamory. I almost said I’d like to see that, too! It could possibly work in YA, maybe with older teens. It would be so refreshing to see teens realize that they don’t have to be serious about their first relationship and feel like they have freedom to explore. Now I’m trying to think of a situation where it would work :D

    I love Malinda’s posts. They almost always get me thinking. This post has been pretty good, too ;)

  • http://www.candlemarkandgleam.com Candlemark & Gleam

    Well, we try! Thank you! :D

    I think with YA, what we need to see is less outright polyamory and more…it’s okay to date, and not be instantly in Twoo Lifelong Wuv?