Friday, May 16, 2014

Let's Talk About Sex in On-Screen YA

Sex in young adult fiction is an often-discussed and hot-button topic for some. Whether or not to include it in YA novels, how to include it, how much detail to go into and whether or not teenage sex should have some kind of consequence and thereby transmit a lesson to the presumably young reader. For writers of YA, these are all valid concerns especially considering the number of adult readers and how easily sex between teens might overstep the bounds of decency.

It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of teen TV shows from the old like Roswell and Buffy to the more recent like The Vampire Diaries, Star-Crossed, The Tomorrow People and The 100. Recently, however, I began to feel uncomfortable watching certain scenes in these series. I am not a prude. Quite the opposite actually, but I do think we need to draw the line...somewhere.

***spoiler alert: I'm going to talk about certain relationships that might spoil some of these shows if you haven't seen them so look away now if you need to***

Still with me?


Okay, so when I was a teenager, watching Max and Tess peel off each other's clothes in Roswell and lose their virginity to each other or watching Buffy and Angel get steamy seemed real and romantic and exciting and I had no qualms about living vicariously through those characters. Fast forward a decade or so and cue the queasy.

In recent episodes of The Tomorrow People, 17yr old Steven (played by 26yr old Robbie Amell) has some serious sexy times on screen. I'm not gonna lie. Mr Amell is easy on the eyes and I had zero problem watching him lose clothes on screen before taking his love interest to bed. The realization, however, hit my like a Hulk smash to the gut. I'm not watching a 26yr old engaging in adult, consensual sex on screen. I'm actually watching a 17yr old character get undressed and into bed with an older woman. That's statutory rape and that's not sexy. Needless to say, this did not sit well with me. I teach 16yr old boys, roughly the same age as the character on screen. Would it be okay for me to watch one of them getting steamy in real life? No, no, no, a million times no it would not. Is it different, yes, but not nearly different enough.

An official add campaign for the show featuring the 17yr old main character

Cue Star-Crossed, a show whose main male characters are both supposed to be juniors in high school, but are played by 31yr old Matt Lanter and 29yr old Greg Finley. Watching those two shed their clothes and get into raunchy scenes is hawt, but I'm not watching adults - they're playing teenagers and I'm watching teenage boys getting naked with teenage girls! The dichotomy and misrepresentation here leaves me feeling nauseated to say the least. And I'm not alone in not knowing how to feel about what I'm watching on screen.

I've seen comments all over the Internet from adults giving themselves 'permission' to drool over the male lead in everything from Divergent to Star-Crossed because of the age of the actor playing the character. I admit, I too have been falling into this trap and it's all kinds of perilous because Four (Divergent) isn't 29 - he's 18 and only just 'legal', Roman (Star-Crossed) isn't 31 - he's 17, and even 16yr old Max in Roswell was played by then 26yr old Jason Behr, who is now 40! The guy I drooled over as a tween was more than double my age! 0.o

We're objectifying teenage boys, because the way they're presented on screen is as men when really, they're children - regardless of when they started shaving or how broad their shoulders are. And this isn't something that only happens to the boys of fiction although it seems more socially acceptable for older woman to perv over younger guys than it does for older men to do the same to younger women. I do not understand this double-standard, but it exists.

So back to sex in YA books. Sex is a normal, healthy part of growing up and would be conspicuous by it's absence were it kept out of YA books. I think sex definitely does belong in YA, but the way in which it's written needs to be handled carefully, not in the 'premarital sex is bad' kind of preachy way, but rather so as not to exploit our teenage characters for the titillation of adult readers. I've seen many an editor say that if the scene would get you arrested for filming it in real life, you've gone too far in the writing, but the thing is, we do see these scenes in TV and movies all the time. Were those actors actually the age of the characters they're playing, the director would get arrested, but because older actors are used, the scenes are considered fine even when they're not. We forget that we're not watching two consenting adults on screen, but rather two fumbling teenagers.

I'm not sure where to draw the line or what the right answer is, but I wish more people were talking about this because I can't be the only one feeling a little uncomfortable when hordes of squealing adult fans - sometimes myself included - want to see teenage characters (when played by adult actors) get undressed.

What are your thoughts about sex in on-screen YA? How do you feel about the sexual content of YA TV shows and films?


  1. Oh, I agree. We should not. I'm the mother of two teen boys. Hadn't really caught that this was going on. I've missed several of the shows you mention.
    How would we tackle this?

  2. I'm not sure how we'd tackle this but I do wish that producers/directors and the casting crew would consider putting people the actual age of the character into the film/show. Although, I guess there are all sorts of legal issues associated with casting 'children' in these roles. I would just love to see see more realistic portrayals of teens and think it would be healthier for teens as well rather than trying to compare themselves with grown men and women playing teenagers in their favorite shows.

  3. I have to admit I'm a bit squeamish when encountering sex scenes in YA. Only because in books, the sex tends to be over-romanticized to the nth degree, which doesn't bode well for already-impressionable teenage girls who are trying to decide whether they should "hook up" with Billy or not. I'm kind of a fan of the closed door policy. That is, go ahead and present the reader with some thrilling goose bumpy touchy/feely stuff, but once it starts to escalate toward the R rated territory, close the door on that scene and leave the rest up to the reader's imagination. I teach teenagers too, and having characters who remind me of my students engaging in sexual activity just feels SO WRONG--in books or on the big screen.

    Great post Suzanne!

    1. Thanks Jodi.

      I think it really depends how the scenes are written, but I'm also tending toward the closed door policy especially with younger teen characters.

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