Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby
Alright, I’m invoking the gospel of the consecrated 90’s trio Salt N’ Peppa in the title of this blog because you can’t talk about YA Romance without a healthy debate about sex in teen literature (also, a little bit, to get this song stuck in your head – go ahead and play it on Spotify while you read this post). Working in publishing, we have to classify an age range for all the books we publish – the age range determines (among other things) where it get shelved in stores, and helps those amazing book sellers categorize a book they maybe haven’t gotten to read entirely yet (because, you know, there are a lot of books out there). So in the breakdown of YA there exists categories of 12 and up, 14 and up and then the ridiculous New Adult “genre” that has appeared which I would rather not acknowledge, but sort of need to for this post.
So what has happened is that generally speaking, as you would expect (and is, I think, appropriate) 12 and up is for the very chaste YA Romance (for another totally insulting term, “clean teen” reading) – maybe a kiss or two (sometimes not even that), but nothing even remotely approaching sex, usually in 12+ you don’t even get much by way of description beyond some good lip action (okay, fine – no mention of tongue) (Completely off topic, remind me at some point to write about the word “tongue” and how unromantic is sounds next to the word “kiss” anyways, back to it).
New Adult is essentially the exact opposite of 12+, it’s dirty, descriptive (sometimes over-the-top descriptive) and I feel like it would be better described as More Accessible Romance/Erotica to the point where it’s ridiculous to think it’s the next step in YA literature. I’ve grabbed a few New Adult titles from the shelves to understand this genre (purely in the interest of education, sort of) and am often times surprised at the graphic nature of the content (that is probably the oldest I’ve ever sounded writing a blog). I’m not entirely clear on what separates something from Romance/Erotica to New Adult – but that’s another discussion for another day.
What’s happened with the two extremes, is that 14+ has become an ambiguous category where the experiences of the teenage protagonist range drastically from slightly more descriptive kisses to less descriptive (and sometimes truly mystifying descriptions) of sex. You can read something that is 14+ and get to the end and be a little miffed and feel a little shorted on romantic moments, because the 14+ title you read before had sex in it. Sometimes you read a book and it feels like the author has tried to write a sex scene while playing Taboo (provided with a list of commonly used words that are prohibited) – I read something in the last year and I finished the chapter and thought “I think they just had sex, but to be totally honest, I’m still not entirely sure. They might have just been playing video games it was just totally vague. I guess it’s an interpretive e sex scene. And sometimes you read a 14+ YA Romance and the description of the sex scene is tender, and beautiful and you think “this is what I wish I had read as a teenager” because it hits just the right tone. 14+ YA titles have become a grab bag – you never know exactly what you’re going to get.
One of the points I’m trying to make is as a reader if can be surprising/frustrating/confusing to not know what to expect. The industry would probably benefit from coming up with some way to clarify the content a bit, without making it a turnoff for kids and/or parents. I don’t actually have an idea of how to do this, and I think looking at movies is a good way to see that the current rating system for American movies is a joke, so it’s a difficult topic to tackle. And even though this post started off about sex, something similar could be said about violence in books (but that’s a different discussion – and also much less interesting, lacking Salt N’ Peppa lyrics, for one).
Another question that I would like to pose to the Swoon group is how young is too young for kids to be reading about sex? I’m 1000% percent against censorship, and I don’t have young kids – but I have a couple of younger cousins who read stuff like Hunger Games and Twilight and I will admit, I cringe a little bit. I know that sex (and violence) is out there and kids are learning about it (for better or worse) younger and younger. I’m firmly of the mindset that if they are going to learn about it, they should be properly educated about it – but being educated about it is different from reading (or seeing) graphic depictions of it. I don’t know what the answer is – I’m sure there are child psychologists out there debating the same thing. I’m just throwing that out there into the great beyond to hear some thoughts. So sound off below, Swooners – and have a good week!