Obvious disclaimer for frank discussion of sexual content in the context of literature.
Look, I’m going to go ahead and make a blanket statement that if you're between the ages of 14 and, I don’t know, 25; read mainstream YA; have browsed fanfic at least once — you’ve probably stumbled upon smut in varying degrees while reading. Maybe you like it, maybe you don’t, maybe you think it shouldn’t be in YA at all (or maybe you do!). Whatever it is, the one consensus we get at is: it’s there. And by the looks of it? Sex scenes in your teen lit aren’t going anywhere.
Should they be? Here’s what I think, about sex in YA, the spectrum of sex scenes in general, and what we do need more of in YA.
First: what’s in a sex scene?
“Smut” or erotica is the first thing that typically comes to mind with the term “sex scene”, which is fair. They’re generally the most prevalent, they get all the spotlight when it comes to debates like this, and SJM really digs them (which, by nature, likely means a book you’ve read has been influenced by that!). It’s graphic, steamy, and suddenly everyone’s an expert in what they’re doing. They’re adults.
In YA, these were seen a fair amount in the 2010s, with the two (in?)famous chapter 55s coming out within two years of each other and Empire of Storms as well as Lady Midnight in the same latter year. This is slightly controversial in the YA community, some believing the scenes are harmless, while others feel they’re entirely out of left field, belonging more in books such as, say, Outlander. And honestly? I’m inclined to agree with them.
Let me paint a different picture of what “sex scene” can be, though, courtesy of a Twitter thread by Kate Brauning. This is sex through a YA lens: scenes about first times, about “what am I doing?”s, about insecurity or fears regarding a character’s own body. “Is this okay?” “Do they like this?” “Am I doing this right?”
Sex through a YA lens is usually anything but erotic. It’s exciting in its own way, sure, and it can feel far more personal than a straight erotica scene being shoved into an otherwise young-adult, coming-of-age story. And this kind of sex scene matters: it highlights a whole category of coming-of-age experiences that have previously been censored in every which way.
In the current modern age, our understanding of sexual growth has expanded to include teens as well, and thus, it only makes sense that at least some literature being made for such audiences should include such experiences, particularly for a medium which has been a sacred safe space for anyone going through this awkward pocket of existence.
Having these sex scenes in books matters, because it shows a new end on the variety of experiences a person can have with their coming-of-age, whatever it may be. It shows that each experience is valid, that it is okay to have a less-than-perfect foray into this sphere.
Is that all that should be shown in YA?
What do you define as YA? Over the past decade or so, there’s been a trend of YA catering to audiences and being told from viewpoints that are older and older. YA is no longer camp half-blood--it’s a gritty room in 1920s Shanghai, where your wish for love has left a trail of dead bodies in its wake, and you don’t know what to do, which side to choose. It’s about revolution to protect and avenge your people. Sometimes YA is now specifically about 20-somethings that are finding their place in the world.
So maybe the YA lens doesn’t apply to YA very much at all anymore. I don’t know, and I can’t ever say for sure. Certainly, being 15 and a bookworm is looking...different from what it was ten years ago.
As far as policies go, YA has probably become far too large a range of book types to put all-encompassing rules on. Aside from that, there are still people that will rate the maturity level of sex scenes differently depending on whether they’re heterosexual or not, so maybe rules shouldn’t be made at all. Thankfully, we are getting more representation these days, so I doubt such a criterion could be passed, however it is one would pass a new industry standard anyway.
There should be a decent mix of both kinds of sex scenes in the genre. Where and when, though?
You tell me.
is a writer and self-dubbed professional daydreamer. Her work has appeared in Unpublished Magazine and Paper Crane Journal, among others. She is also a staff writer at Outlander Magazine.