Friday, June 17, 2011

Violence vs Sex in YA

My post is a day late - don't hate me! But as my way of saying sorry, I bring a discussion. Please participate, even if you don't really have an opinion.

So, recently it has been plaguing me that within YA books these days, sex scenes are taboo, but violence is okay. What kind of world do we want to bring our children up in, or do you want to grow up in, where hurting someone is seen as everyday, but talking about sex or having sex or thinking about sex is bad?

There are a lot of different opinions about this. We have the thought that not every teen is thinking about or having sex. Which is a fair enough point except most teens are a bundle of pulsating hormones that means even if they're not doing it, they're most definitely wondering about it and thinking about it. Do we want teens to read about sex from pornos? To only learn about the mechanics of it in sex education? Or can they read about other people in their situation and how their first times, second times, whole sexual relationships can be?

An opposition to this would be that these books are fiction. They're made up from someone's fantasy, someone's mind. Maybe sex is romanticised. Maybe books give teen girls the impression that guys are perfect and will treat you well during your first time and will want to be with you after. They give a false sense that sex means happily ever after. But what about the books where it shows that sex isn't everything? That you should wait? Because while there are definitely books that might briefly touch upon a young couple moving to the next step and it being perfect, there are also the books that show girls choosing to have sex too early, too unprepared for it.

And yet we have violence. We have books that happily show kids dying (The Hunger Games, for example) or parents dying (Harry Potter) or even scenes where innocent strangers die or supernatural bad guys. Scenes where bodies are torn limb to limb and blood is drained and people are bitten and mauled. We describe blood and sometimes guts and most definitely wounds - both physical and mental. But when it comes to sex, we often fade to black.

So, let me ask you a question, how disappointed would you be, reading a YA book these days, if your kick-butt heroine comes up against her nemesis and just as they rush at each other, the scene fades to black, only to reopen with the heroine briefly looking back at it and only explaining her emotions throughout but giving no detail?

There is a huge difference between going overboard and writing every detail of a fictional couple's first time in bed. But there are ways to do scenes tastefully and without in depth detail. Ways to let the reader know what's happening, while giving them the chance to use their imagination. Why and how has it become okay that kids can read about violence but not sex? And whose fault is this? Why do authors shy away from writing it or editors shy away from publishing it?

What do you think?

*I would like to make it clear that I am not a sex perv, nor am I seriously offended by the fact that sex is seen as taboo in YA. I just thought it would be an interesting discussion*


  1. It's the same with movies. You can have 1500 people getting blown limb from limb and the film isn't rated, yet show a little nipple and it's slapped with a 16 or 18 rating. I find it incredible that people perceive sex as being more dangerous than violence. Sex is and everyday, normal and important part of life. Pretty much everybody has it. Violence is also everyday, but isn't normal.

    By shying away from portraying sex in YA books, writers are reinforcing the idea that it's bad or dangerous or any of the other misconceptions there are out there about it.

    I feel very strongly about this, and I don't avoid sex in my books. Teenagers are seething balls of hormonal energy and they don't always think through their actions when they get heated. Yes, they make mistakes, and no, it's not always perfect or romantic, but to avoid sex in YA literature is to inadequately represent teenagers.

  2. I agree 100% with you and with you Kate. Do I think it's right for EVERY book? No. But do I think we should shy away from it if it's right for the characters? No way. Most of the people I knew had had sex in high school. It's just a fact. Not everyone, but some. As long as it is tastefully done, I have no problem with it.

    Also agree with the violence thing. I don't understand how violence is more acceptable than sex? It boggles my mind.

  3. Kate basically said it all.

    I agree that YA novels shouldn't shy away from sex. I read an article recently that said just about the opposite of what's writen in this post. I think the key point of it was that they want the characters to be ready when it happens, and not something randomly thrown in the book. But in real life it doesn't always happen that way. I guess in the end it really depends on the reader.

  4. For me, I don't like either one unless it's appropriate and not too described. Violence, most of the time, seems so ridiculous and over the top in a lot of books today. But I don't mind it as long as it's not overly described to the point where I'm cringing during a fight scene or whatnot. But with sex, on a personal level, I find it absolutely disgusting, so I skim over those parts in books. Pfft, I still close my eyes (and ears in some cases since people insist on making disturbing noises...) during sex scenes in movies. Haha! But I'm okay with vague scenes where they're appropriate.

  5. Personally, I disagree with one of your main points, which is that 'sex is taboo in YA.' This isn't true at all. Ask any agent/editor and they'll tell you that swearing or sex is okay. Nothing is too edgy. So I completely disagree with your statement that it's 'taboo.'

    I, however, wish that it was taboo. I'm so sick of reading a story where the MC ends up sleeping with her boyfriend. This is presented as perfectly normal, and almost as if having sex is a way of saying how much they love each other (rather than deciding not to have sex until they're married, which is a lot more of a commitment than having sex after dating for a month).

    Something that Kate said really struck a cord with me: "By shying away from portraying sex in YA books, writers are reinforcing the idea that it's bad or dangerous." The thing is, that's TRUE. Sex before marriage is a bad thing, nearly always leading to heartbreak and future messed-up relationships. Writers should by shying away from it, portraying it as it is-- something that breaks up couples far more often than it keeps them together-- rather than treating it as the catalyst to a happily-ever-after romance.

  6. I agree with what Elanor said in the last paragraph of her comment. However, that is my view on things and it is very obviously not the worlds view. So, I think that sex is pretty taboo in YA, mainly because it's a very touchy subject with many people because of the wide spectrum of beliefs.
    I have actually read quite a few YA books with sex in them. (Fixing Delilah, 20 Boy Summer, Breaking Dawn, etc.)
    I personally, don't care for descriptive sex scenes in books. If they're going to have sex, I prefer something that hints "Oh they're going to have sex there." or whatever.

    Violence on the other hand is totallllllllllly ignored. I agree with that.

    I'm proud to say that my book has both. Wooo!! (Well, sort of. I don't do a sex scene. It's just implied that they do have it so that it actually makes sense later when one of the characters gets pregnant...)

  7. It's odd that violence is seen as less "dangerous" than sex, which is completely back-to-front, although most of my favourite YA books are violent and wouldn't work if they were watered down...

    Sex needs to be dealt with openly - hiding it or pretending it doesn't happen doesn't help at all. In fact, by dealing with the issues of teenage sex, novels could give teenagers tools to deal with their own experiences.

  8. I believe this paradigm is cultural. In England, you see sex in books and movies and on the TV very frequently but they edit violence. If we look at this issue as cultural as opposed to YA specific, I think you will see it across genres. We don't like sex as much as violence in the U.S. And it may not be taboo in YA but it is definitely frowned upon much more than violence.

  9. I was just thinking about this the other day, but in terms of TV. I've seen a lot of teen shows lately with heavy-handed messages of "If you have sex as a teen, you will get pregnant AND people you love will die." (I'm like "wait, what??") I actually feel like many books are better in this area: many of them present sex as it actually is - with elements of good and bad.

    I personally believe that sex can be a healthy and important part of a committed relationship (I didn't say marriage) and take issue with the oft-touted "sex is *always* BAD" message that's pushed on many teens. I don't want a book to have descriptive sex scenes, but I want it to treat the subject fairly.

    On the other hand, in about 99.9% of YA, violence leads to untold glory, success and happiness.

  10. I would counter the argument with the fact that sex isn't a big part of general fiction books I typically read, either - and I'm fine with that. I don't pick up a book wanting to know exactly what happens in the bedroom of other people.

    I just read a YA book with characters watching internet porn and later having sex and the scenes were more graphic than I felt comfortable with. (although this could be due to what Christa said above - the book was published by Egmont UK).

  11. Very interesting topic. And while I don't understand the reasoning behind it, I'm totally guilty of it. Not necessarily in my writing, because I don't do violence, but I have a sex scene in my novel. But once you brought it up, I totally realized that i let me kids watch action movies with tons of violence but would def shy away from letting them watch something with a sex scene... I think it's ingrained in our society, and I can't even claim to understand why...

  12. This may be a cop out but it depends on the story. I personally find violence far more offensive than sex and I try to convey that these are acts of either a sick minded antagonist or an unfortunate necessity forced upon a protagonist. Sex, on the other hand, is quite natural. We wouldn't be here without it. I don't treat it as a taboo subject and can easily imagine cultures that are much more liberal in their attitudes about it than ours. That said, I have never found the need to include a graphic sex scene in my writing.

  13. What a great post! I shied away from neither topic in my book-- I've got both a fairly graphic sex scene and lots of violence. I didn't do this to be shocking, I did it because it is part of the story.

    Whether your beliefs are that sex before marraige is wrong, or that it is taboo, or that violence is taboo, etc., here's the thing-- its REAL. I live in a very urban area right next to a school with a roommate who is a social worker for high-school aged kids. TRUST ME-- kids deal with sex and violence When I was a kid, I escaped into books, so if we're writing books for this age group, shouldn't it at least be a little reflective of what they deal with? I mean tastefully reflective, but reflective?

  14. I've seen both in YA books, but the YA book with gratuitous violence seems do better than the YA book with gratuitous sex. For me, I don't think there is a place for either YA fiction if they are treated gratuitously. I do, however, think that they can stand and take their place in a book depending on how they are treated and the message that is given.

    I also think that books with sex affect teenagers more than books with violence. The typical teengaer isn't sitting in class thinking about how they can rip apart their classmate limb from limb. The typical teenager is thinking about how they can attract Boy or Girl.

    But like I said earlier, detailing sex in a book isn't necessarily doing the teenagers any favors. They are already thinking about it. If there is a book about sex, I'd like to see it treated like a scene in a movie with age-appropriate ratings out. What good does it do them to go behind closed doors?

    Also, like you said, why give them the impression that sex equals happily ever after? How often does teenage sex leave to happiness in a relationship where both parties are equally committed to each other...forever? Sex puts one in an absolutely vulnerable position. It is the giving of one's very body, and should be done within the bounds of a relationship where there is a commitment for life and for happiness and for family...because unity and family are the ultimate outcomes of this (what I absolutely believe) Sacred act.

  15. This post discussion is a perfect example of why I should not read blogs when I should be writing. Because now am I am sucked in and must respond.

    At first I thought no one would disagree and I was becoming disappointed and then the last several comments made me feel like I was sitting in a church service so yea!!! for diverse opinions.

    Now for mine. I don't believe you have to be in a committed life long relationship in order to have sex or enjoy it. Pretty sure most teenage girls are not thinking about marrying the hot guy in the back of the class at sixteen years old. At least I hope not. And the guys are definitely not thinking long term. Instead of trying to make sex taboo and getting them to abstain until marriage (which so isn't going to happen) we should put the emphasis on being responsible and using protection in life and in our writing.

    YA novels with sex scenes are not going to influence teens to have sex. Just like zombie novels aren't going to influence them to eat human brains. They influence each other and the more forbidden the act, the more they want to do it. I have sex scenes in my current YA wip and while I was very careful, I did not fade to black.

    We need to arm our teens with knowledge and teach them about caring for each other. If we shelter them to much then when they do go off to college for instance, the world is going to be a shocking, scary place.

    But every parent has a right to decide this for themselves and their children. We have the right to write what we feel is appropriate and parents have the right to decide whether to allow their teens to read it. Just as the opinions here differ so dramatically, so does the YA audience. There is room for all types of novels that will appeal to the many different types of teenagers in the world.

    I think I'm done. This was an awesome post!!!

  16. I think there are some excellent YA books out there today showing sex (perhaps not blatantly, but it shown, and frankly and honestly discussed). They seem to be on the older or 'new' YA side, and I see it happening more often in Aussie YA than in other places (Raw Blue, The Piper's Son). Besides Raw Blue, however, I don't think I've read an actual sex scene in YA. In this particular character's case (she was a 19-year old rape survivor), her choice felt like a celebration in a way - I don't mean for that to sound pervy, but you were so happy for her because she got joy from the act rather than fear. If you've read the book, you know what I mean.

    I think it's easier to portray violence in YA because typically, violence in rarely a choice. What was Katniss going to do? Lay down and die? Could Bianca have blocked that shot in The DUFF? I haven't seen too, too many books where the protagonist went off his/her head and senselessly acted out - it's usually that the character is the victim, or is forced into a situation where he or she must act. I don't think this is wrong, per se, but I do think it takes a bit of the responsibility off of the character, ie, "I only did it because I had to."

    Not so with sex. Unless it is rape, sex is a choice, and choices are harder to portray, especially when you are dealing with a topic that the public still finds salacious, as with teen sex. It's a bit more difficult to move the character through the actual, physical motions with teens without it sounding inappropriate. Plus, remember the whole uproar with the MTV show Skins when they were suspected/accused of using underage actors in the sex scenes? I can see why writers would 'fade out' when the actual act occurred. I don't blame them, and I do think it's more important to show the reasons and emotions behind choosing to have sex, and its aftermath, than the actual act. First time sex/young sex, when you are still figuring things out has to be handled delicately, but honestly. You want them to have the facts, not the hype - my personal opinion (today anyway) is that one ought to discover the 'hype' for his or herself. Do I think sex in YA should can and should be portrayed? Yes. Do I think it needs to be handled with more consideration than with an adult novel. Yes. Do I think you need to 'fade to black'? No, I don't. I suppose it would depend on the situation and how the sex is being described.

    Wonderful post and discussion - thanks so much!

  17. Sex and violence are two different things and should be treated as such. I really get tired of seeing them compared.
    In some ways I would say that sex is more dangerous than violence. In the majority of books that I have read that have had some kind of sexual interaction there have been no consequences. No emotional distress, no unwanted pregnancies, no sexually transmitted diseases. And if there all of a sudden were a pregnancy I could almost guarantee you that the character that had the child would have the perfect child and still have a great life and do whatever she wanted to. The child would not be a hindrance. Whereas in real life, having a baby is so much more than that.
    People know that violence is bad, sometimes necessary, but bad.
    But what about sex and the bad side of it? Because there is one...and I never see it.

    Fading out a sex scene, again, is much different then fading out a fight scene. Sex is supposed to be intimate for the two people that are having it. I wouldn't want someone peeking in on my husband and I sharing intimate moments and I don't want to see or read other people doing it either. I find fading to black to be a great way of handling sex scenes. I know that they got together and what they did, but as I said, I don't want to read about all the details of what happened.
    And all of these teenagers...especially ones who are having sex for the first time are all just magically having perfect sex?! I don't buy it. Again, how is that realistic? Sex can be messy, awkward, painful, and down right terrible, but for the characters, it is always perfect.

    Also, I think there SHOULD be more YA books where the couple decides to wait for marriage. I know not all couples make that decision, but there are couples who have and it would be nice to have relatable characters. My husband and I waited, and I have many friends who have waited or are waiting. Where are those characters?

    If authors claim to make their books, and how they handle the sex in them, so realistic then there needs to be other angles.
    Sometimes it really seems like authors put sex in just to try and be edgy, or prove to people that teens are having it.
    I know teens have sex, and that is their choice. But authors should mix it up a bit and include everyone in their stories at some point.