Friday, June 1, 2012

Let's Talk About YA Books

Sexual Content in YA Books - 
Appropriate or Not?
Guest post by Deb Hanrahan

According to Wikipedia, the Young Adult genre is defined as books written, published, and marketed to adolescents and young adults. The Young Adult Library Service of the American Library Association defines a young adult as someone between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Most of us probably agree with this definition. So with that in mind, I have to ask; does sex have a place in YA books?

There is a huge difference between a twelve-year-old and an eighteen-year-old. And what about the adults who enjoy the YA genre? Should their interests and life experience be considered when asking this question? Literature featuring pre-teens and teenagers has been around for a very long time and has often been the target of controversy. Book like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Catcher in the Rye, and even Harry Potter have raised the eyebrows of some adults intent on protecting children. It seems to me that books are held to a higher standard than other forms of entertainment. After all, many parents are fine with their pre-teens watching shows like Family Guy or seeing a movie like Jackass, so why all this complaining about inappropriate content in books?

I must admit that as a parent of three teens I’ve fallen into this trap myself. When my son was a high school sophomore, he was required to read American Rust by Philipp Meyer for his summer reading. In mid-July, I received a frantic call from another parent who was concerned about the amount of sex in this book. (Because of my son’s age, I don’t screen his books. Plus, he reads much more than I read; I can’t keep up.) I checked out the offending scenes, and they were quite explicit. I was surprised that this was required school reading. Ironically, my son thought the sex scenes were stupid and unnecessary. He felt as if he was being pandered to. I let him finish the book (the other parent did not let her son continue reading it), but then I thought what if my younger daughter got her hands on this book? I would not be happy. Even though she fell under the same YA umbrella as her slightly older brother and should have been able to read it if she wanted to read it, I didn’t want her to read it.

As a YA author, I keep this incident in the front of my mind when I write a love scene. Maybe the intended audience for a book is older teens, but what if a ten-year-old picks it up. Would I be proud of what I exposed that kid to? Sure sex is everywhere, but do I want to contribute? But what if an explicit sex scene is truly necessary to either the plot and/or character development? Then I think that scene should be written in the most conservative manner possible, and the back cover should indicate the presence of sexual content (or strong language, or excessive violence.) YA writers are responsible for what they put into a young mind.

I know some think a rating system is censorship; I don’t. Parents can’t read everything their teens read just as they can’t monitor every video game they play or every TV show they watch. I’m all for making things a little easier for parents. Yes, teens want to be challenged, and they want books to be realistic. However, I believe this can be accomplished without writing an instruction manual. Every little detail doesn’t need to be spelled out. My girls (thirteen and sixteen) prefer romance without all the icky stuff anyway.

So what do you think? Should YA books contain sexual content? If yes, should there be some sort of rating system in place?

About the author:
Deb Hanrahan lives with her husband and three teenagers in the Chicagoland burbs. After graduating from the University of Illinois with a B.S. in Chemistry, she worked at a nuclear power plant for five years. Deb then left her career to stay at home with her three kids.

Seemingly, overnight, she went from being crazy-busy to having way too much time on her hands. With her husband working long hours and her kids pursuing their own lives, she had to reinvent herself. So, she decided to write that book she always wanted to write. Changing My Wardrobe is her first novel.

Find out more about Deb Hanrahan on her website.

I am featuring a guest post about a publishing/book related topic each Friday. If you are interested in writing a guest post, please contact me.

Last week, our topic was Why Do Indie Writers Need Editors? by Valerie Douglas, and the week before that was Indie Authors are on the Wrong Side of the Tracks by Darian Wilk.


  1. I know that some of you are going to be ready to string me up by my ankles, but I think it would be a waste to put a ratings system on YA books. Who is going to do the rating? Who is going to judge how much sex is too much sex? It may not be censorship, per se, but it is definitely building fences around books. If a person wants to know about the content of a book, the world is at our fingertips now. Nearly everyone has a smartphone these days or fairly easy access to the internet - Google a review.

    There comes a point in time that we have to trust our children to be responsible young people and hope for the best. If they want to read it, they're going to get their hands on it anyway. Sex exists in real life, and it's something they are going to face, no matter how much it scares us. If nothing else, it is a great way to start a conversation with your child(ren) about sexual responsibility and morality.

    1. Kayla,
      Your bring up a great point; who is going to rate the book? And censorship of any kind is a slippery slope. Maybe authors/publishers should do it themselves??? And I think everything you said is absolutely right. That is why this topic can be so conflicting. The story in my post about the book American Rust helped me decide which side I stood.

      I find the ratings on the back of video games helpful. The ratings themselves are useless but there is usually a note to why the game is rated as it is, such as cartoon violence, realistic violence, etc. That is what I had in mind for YA books.

  2. Personally... I think "adult" is plenty open to all kinds of R rated material. If someone wants to write explicit sex, it can fit comfortably in "adult" regardless of the age of the characters.

    "YA" opens up a new opportunity to limit R rated stuff while still expanding on the wonders of imagination, creativity, emotion, etc, etc, etc.

    That's what I think.

    And I think many writers of YA are very careful how they write romantic scenes so that people without as much "worldly" experience won't be put off. Your son is a great example. How many authors aspire to have their books be "required reading" only to be remembered as "the one with dumb scenes that didn't need to be there"?

    So it irritates me when a book is labeled "YA" when it's not enjoyable to the people in the age group. What's the point of that?

    I don't choose books to read based on whether they're labeled "YA" or not, but most of my favorites fall in that genre.

    Great question.

    1. Laura,
      I think you hit the nail on the head. If there is explicit sex scenes whether the MC is a teen or not it should be MARKETED in an adult genre. I know there are probably YA stories that need a more adult scene but they should be written with the audiences age in mind.

  3. Wow, what an interesting question. In the past I assumed YA wouldn't have sex or swearing, but since I've been reading more in the genre, I've seen all kinds of both.

    It surprises me that books with explicit sex are able to fall under the label YA. Isn't there an industry standard?

    My child is 8 about to turn 9, and is a very precocious reader. It will be interesting to see what she picks up to read as she gets older.

    1. SM
      This is why I think it might be good for authors/publishers to add a little warning (maybe on the back blurb) In my experience many parents, teachers and librarians make the same assumptions as you (and me at one time)

  4. I don't think sex is ever necessary in YA. That's what adult books are for. I don't remember reading YA books with sex in them when I was younger, and I would be uncomfortable with my daughters reading that kind of scenario in the books they choose to read.

    1. I know many parents and book reviewers who feel the same as you do. I'm okay with it as long as it is necessary to the story (a lesson for one of the characters or a crime) but in my opinion the detail should be very limited. I would hope that YA authors don't include these scenes because "sex sells." That makes me uncomfortable.

  5. Tami,
    Thanks for the opportunity to do a guest post. It was great to talk to some of your followers. I love your blog.

  6. Really people? Would you stop your precocious reader from just picking up (as I did at age 11) ROOTS or THE THORNBIRDS? How would you stop them? I don't think explicit materials should be assigned at school because kids who don't want to read past something that makes them uncomfortable will be forced to, but to restrict books? Good luck with that. Who decides what is restricted and why?

    1. Hi Gabrielle,
      Thanks for checking in. I agree with much of what you are saying. I do not sensor what my kids read. My middle daughter hates to read and if I thought she would read I would even buy her a copy of 50 Shades of Grey to light a fire under her (of course I kid.) But as a YA author I had to look at this topic differently. I don't want to put something in a young mind that might harm them. It is a fine line to walk.

  7. I think the topic of sex should occur in YA as realistically the readers have interests and concerns about the matter at that age. For instance, having characters being nervous about losing their virginity, or feeling pressured into having sex by their friends or having worries about their sexuality can help teen readers feel like they are not alone- it's something everyone goes through. They can relate to the characters and learn from their good decisions and mistakes. As Kayla mentioned, it can be a good starting point for parents to enter into a disscussion about sex and relationships with their teens. If the characters in YA are discussing sex with their parents it might encourage teen readers to do the same, and that can only be a good thing.

    However, I certainly don't think that graphic, detailed descriptions should be included. As a few people have mentioned, these scenes are largely unneccessary gimicks and the book could fall into the wrong hands. Even in adult books I prefer just a hint that something has happened between the characters, revealed by their behaviour before and after. I don't want to read the gory details- I prefer to use my imagination!

    1. I agree with you completely Anstice

  8. Well, I started reading YA when I was really young - 11, perhaps. And one of the very first books I picked up to read had sexual content at one point. I wasn't delighted, but that didn't stop me from reading the book either.

    1. Thanks for your input Michele. It is nice to hear from someone in the YA audience.

  9. Thanks for a thoughtful post, Deb! YA is such a broad category that it is hard to know what will be covered, and I agree some kids aren't ready for rougher stuff that an eighteen yo wouldn't blink at. I guess it all does come down to parents, in my view, without them even a rating system isn't going to work. Kids mostly like to "read up," too, so ratings might even be an enticement. Being in tune with your kids' maturity level, and mildly familiar with back of cover/amazon synopses code words is prob the best a parent can do.

    1. Very good point Fred. There is a lot of info. online about books these days. It would only take a few minutes of digging for a parent to check out the book their kid is reading.

  10. Good post, and good on your son for being mature enough to approach sexual content with a healthy cynicism! (just to be clear: cynicism is seen as healthy in Britain)

    Books strike me as being a lot safer than television, and I think it's much harder to read something inappropriate than it is to watch something inappropriate, because it takes more effort to turn off the television than it does to put down a book. Literature requires an active participation on behalf of the reader: who must turn the page, read the words and visualise the scene, where as television - even with the remote control in arm's reach - lends itself to a much more passive experience: one where the viewer has the material delivered to them, whether they want to see it or not.

    What with the internet, mass media and global communication a part of daily life, it seems to me that preparing children for unwitting exposure to the obscene by encouraging them to turn off the TV / switch off the computer / put down the book, and talk to an adult whenever they do (inevitably?) stumble upon material that they aren't comfortable with is a much more robust solution than vetting books.

    That being said, I take the point that with books you can't always tell what you're going to get. I'm not sure my gf would have ever bothered reading 50 shades of grey if she'd known before hand that a considerable chunk of it would be sophisticated smut. Maybe an 'R' rating on the front cover would have made the book's content clearer than the blurb did, and then maybe my gf could have picked up a book she might actually have enjoyed, but I'm not convinced.

    The longer that literature can slip under the ratings radar the better, IMHO. I find trusted reviews to be a lot more effective for classifying material than genre labels and ratings, and I don't think I'm alone on that.

  11. Ben,
    I agree that cynicism is a good attribute. I'm conflicted about ratings. I love that video games are rated because I hate playing them. It was a lot easier to keep tabs on what my kids were playing with the ratings. Would that be good for books? I'm not sure. A rating system can be abusive or over-zealous in the wrong hands, that's for sure.

    I do agree that reviews and ratings are probably better for learning about a book, but so many older people I know refuse to trust anything they read on the internet. i imagine that will change with time.

    Thanks for chiming in!



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