The Sexualization of YA Fiction
Most people think of teenhood as a time of raging hormones and awakening sexuality. “Experimentation”, “hormonal” and “out of control” are things we tend to associate with young adults and sexuality. Young adult fiction seems to have picked up on these associations and has one-upped its adult counterpart in terms of obsessing over sex and sexuality. I have read a lot of young adult fiction. I prefer it to adult fiction in many ways, and when I was in high school I was a voracious reader, often going through 5 to 10 books a week. Throughout all of these books I can think of perhaps two that did not involve a sexual relationship, and I would approximate that 50% or more circulated around sex and sexuality. Even those that only peripherally involved a relationships often culminated in sex. If you limit yourself to young adult fiction aimed at women, sexuality suddenly takes completely control of nearly every book.
I certainly think that discussing sex in books about and aimed at teenagers is appropriate. For many teens, sex is a part of life. There’s certainly nothing wrong with sex, nor do I think we should keep teens in the dark about how sex works or the potential pitfalls of sexual relationships. What does seem inappropriate is to center sexuality at the heart of every story about being a teen. Certainly many teens spend a lot of time thinking about sex and exploring their sexuality, but not every human being feels the need to become sexual at that age or at all.
I’m going to use my current read as an example. I’m in the middle of the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. I’ve enjoyed a great deal of it, particularly the explorations of bioethics, dystopian futures, and different conceptions of virtue. But for some reason in the midst of a book that is about self-exploration, family, human nature, and good and evil, the main character finds herself with a sexy times boyfriend. Personally I feel this adds nothing to the plot and feels out of place in the middle of the very serious relationships she has with others. But because the main character is a young adult, she has to have a sexy sexy boyfriend and passionate descriptions of hot making out and his pecs.
No one can exactly pinpoint what the point of literature is, but most people would agree that part of it is to capture the human experience. There are so many experiences that surround being a teen, growing up, learning to be an adult, finding independence, determining one’s values. While there are some classic young adult novels that circulate around these themes (Hatchet, Call of the Wild, Huck Finn), many new YA novels seem to forget that it is possible to write a rich and full experience of being young without including sex, and that many young people are looking for themselves in nonsexual characters.
Authors have made an effort to include gay characters, but it would be wonderful if there could be a single asexual character in young adult fiction. If that’s asking too much, perhaps even a character who simply isn’t interested in sexuality. That may seem like a foreign concept to some people who are convinced that teenhood is a time when everyone is controlled by raging hormones that lead them to make out with anything that moves, but I actually knew a few people when I was in high school who just never expressed an interest in dating or sexuality. It wasn’t a problem and we all simply accepted it. Perhaps if we didn’t continue to disseminate the idea that all young people want sex all the time, more people would be content to focus on other aspects of their personality.
Generally, YA fiction tends to portray sexuality as a choice between morality and impulses, or just as a natural and fun part of life. If YA characters choose to abstain from sex, it’s often because they are religious. In real life, there are lots of reasons not to have sex as a young person. You may not be interested, you may not have a partner, you may be uncomfortable with your body, you may not feel confident enough, you may not feel mature enough or emotionally ready, you may not feel that your partner respects you enough…the choice to engage in sexuality is complex, but for some reason the options in YA fiction seem to be “TOGETHER AND SEXY” or “single and depressed/repressed/religious”. Oddly enough YA fiction generally seems to overlook someone making out with their partner and then deciding they’re not comfortable with that, or someone setting boundaries with a partner simply because it’s their body and they get to decide what to do with it.
Many, many YA novels culminate with a kiss or with sex. It’s the peak of a relationship or the plot. Two friends become closer and closer until BAM their feelings come unleashed and they make out furiously. The end. Unfortunately that’s not really what relationships are actually like. The beginning is not the peak (and if it is then it’s likely to be a sad and unpleasant relationship). Even in romantic relationships, there is so much more than the kissing or the passion or the fire. There’s the really shitty bits where you try to navigate what it means to not be able to make someone happy, or how to balance your interests with theirs, or what happens when they’re depressed or have hard things in their life. All of those nonsexual parts are just as important. Some of the most beautiful parts are also nonsexual. The strong focus on kissing! and boys! and sex! really undermines how awesome some of the other parts of learning about relationships can be.
There also seems to be a dearth of literature that explores friendships as important relationships. Sure, there’s a lot of literature that’s aimed at teenage girls that involves lots of gossiping and rivalry between girls, but it’s nearly all circulating around a boy rather than things like shared interest, or mutual care. By centering romantic relationships at the heart of every story we tell our young adults, we’re really robbing them of models for other important relationships.
For those reading YA literature, know that there is more out there for you, there are more possibilities than a monogamous, sexual life. You are not defined by a desire for sex or physicality. There are more stories to tell.