Friday, January 11, 2013

Young People Should Read About Life As It Is Lived

Writing Sex in Young Adult Works

There were many important issues raised in Jesse Wave's Blog post of today and Jay Bell suggested that I weigh in with my comments. After reading the post and most of the attendant comments, I began writing my comments… hours ago. There should be a law against indiscriminate propagation of words. My comments evolved into a four-part micro-webinar. I didn’t feel it fair to post my epic tour-de-Sex in YA Lit on Jesse’s blog, nor did I feel it appropriate for my YA blog, so it’s here on my adult blog.

I have a wee mental sphere and can process only one idea at a time. As such, I separated this wieldy, polarizing controversy into four categories. I welcome comments and would appreciate it if you would add to this list if I have missed or misstated something.

Law and Age
Minors’ Rights
Popular? Opinion
Publishers and Authorship

I will preface the below comments with these disclaimers: I am not an attorney. If you have concerns, please speak with your counsel. I am not much for legal prose, this post has not had the attention of an editor, and I don’t know everything.


Define Young Adult: I think the film industry did it best: Ages 8-12 = tween and Ages 13-17 = teen (hence the PG-13 rating). BOTH groups represent Young Adults, but are not necessarily the only groups to represent Young Adults. Some sources define Young Adults to include those a decade or more older than age 17.

Sexual Content in YA Literature: Sex is not new. Teens having sex is not new. Sexual content in YA works is not new. Authors have been writing it for years (Judy Blume,  Nancy Garden, and Michael Cart. An excellent book is Michael Cart's From Romance to Realism.) What is new is the increasing number of GLBTQIA YA works (including internet shows/T.V./film) containing sexual inference and content. Sparking controversy, it begs the question: Which is at issue: The characters and nature of relationships or the sexual content?

The Age of Consent has naught to do with minors’ access to literature or material containing writings or depictions of “explicit/graphic sex,” though common sense might have us believing the two are related – or should be related. I researched “what constitutes pornography” and “what constitutes harmful to minors” before I began authoring gay YA fiction and can only speak to U.S. law.

    The Age of Consent (for sexual activity) is governed by State law and ranges from the age of 14 to 18 depending on the State.

   The age at which one can access literature or material containing writings or depictions of “explicit/graphic sex” is governed by Federal law and is firmly embedded in stone at age 18. States have the option of increasing the age requirement via State statute and some States have increased the age requirement to 19, 20, or 21. To wit, you will sometimes see this language added to age affirmations when entering web sites:

                   That you are familiar with your local community standards and that the
                   sexually explicit text you choose to read is well within the contemporary
                   community standards of acceptance and tolerance of your community for
                   sexually explicit content of this nature. 

   The above information begs yet two additional salient questions:

        a) What constitutes “explicit/graphic?” This is not clearly defined or decided by the Supreme Court, but left to interpretation via two rather dated cases and a Supreme Court Justice’s opinion: “I know it when I see it.”

         b) Who constitutes a “minor?” There are an extraordinary number of inconsistencies with respect to U.S. law. You may go to war at 16 (Federal law); you may marry as young as 14 (with parental consent - State law); you may vote at 18 (Federal law); you may drink alcohol at 21 (State law – and some States used to permit drinking as young as 17 – I haven’t performed research of late); irrespective of age, Federal and State taxes must be paid if one is gainfully employed; and, though a minor, one may be deemed a major for purposes of criminal prosecution.
        There are also reverse inconsistencies: Some States deem young people to be minors irrespective of age if they are still in high school. Though young people may marry at 14 with parental consent, some States nonetheless consider them minors and they may not access literature or material containing writings or depictions of “explicit/graphic sex.” However, some States do consider them majors at the point of marriage and they may then access said content in contravention of Federal law. Go figure.


Protecting “Us from Us”: Our government believes that we have a duty to protect minors from themselves. They also feel the same way about majors – e.g., it is illegal to vend, purchase, carry, or consume illicit drugs. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have rights. It means that our rights are merely conditioned. The application of this largely undefined duty by and through inconsistent law is often applied inappropriately and to extremes. Do minors have the right to read and think for themselves? I believe they do and to disallow them to do so speaks to a lack of confidence in them.

Young Adults Will Self-govern: I recently wrote this post (and several others) in the Goodreads discussion thread YA LGBT Books – Writing Sex In YA?.

                  “I recently had a discussion with a middle school teacher (male) who
                  disrespectfully referred to his male students as "nothing more than a bag
                  of walking hormones just looking for a hole." While they may be a bag of
                  hormones, I disagreed and expressed that tweens/teens WILL self-govern.
                  They won't read something that they are uncomfortable reading.”

In short, absent the aforementioned duty, Young Adults are much smarter and more knowledgeable than we might recognize and they will self-govern.

Sexuality Education: In the same Goodreads thread I wrote:

                 “Though no sexuality education exists for LGBTQIA teens, I thought it
                  best to try to stick to what is taught in "Abstinence Plus" Sexuality
                  Education insofar as it was realistic and adapt it to m/m events. To wit,
                  [my] novella includes intercrural sex (taught as an alternative to
                  intercourse). With respect to the first time oral sex, it's tastefully (cute and
                  a little funny) described. I'm finding that many adults are unaware as to
                  what is taught in schools. It is, plainly stated, more graphic than what I
                  write - and includes pictures. O.o”

I admit it. It is infuriating that no Sex Ed exists for GLBTQIA teens. Jamie Deacon of Boys on the Brink recently asked me this question in an interview regarding my little gay YA novella, Safe: “This is billed as being for young adults, and some might say the content is perhaps a little too sexually explicit for the intended audience. How would you respond?” My response included this paragraph:

               “Sadly, no sexuality education exists in our school systems for GLBTQ
                young adults. They are left to gather and process information from a
                range of unsanctioned and potentially unreliable sources. Writing about
                normal, healthy sexual exploration in teen same-sex relationships is
                propaedeutic in that it provides introductory information to young adults
                that they may not otherwise find or have access to. It also goes without
                saying that a young adult is always far better prepared for the outside
               world if armed with knowledge.”

The entire response to the question is here: Boys on the Brink: Q&A with C. Kennedy

Censorship: Please remember that, by law, parents and only parents have the right to censor what a minor reads. Teachers, coaches, librarians, etc., have no place in making that decision. By the same token, please have empathy for school librarians. They are often faced with parents and communities demanding that a book be challenged or banned from a school library.

Minors’ Rights to Access Information: Please recall that a number of deaths occur each day around the country because GLBTQIA youths can’t access information to enable them to reach out for assistance when they need it. Though schools and libraries are required by law to allow minors to access this information via the internet, some restrict that access by programming “appropriateness” into their firewalls. By way of example, in some areas searching for GLBTQIA help results in access only to social, religious, and conversion therapy resources as opposed to emergency help and clinical/medical sites.


Context and Implicit v. Explicit: Back to that Goodreads thread. I wrote:

                  “[] popular opinion does sway how we write sexual content and it is
                   important to be aware and respectful.”

The above said, I agree with many others. It is disrespectful to GLBTQIA minors to omit, soften, or alter sexual content that would otherwise be present in a heterosexual story. It is also disrespectful to minors not to address sexual content in a fashion that meets with present-day exposure, impositions, and the demands of society.

As mentioned in Jay Bell and Jesse Wave’s posts, sexual knowledge, interpretation, exploration, and activity are incredibly large parts of a hormonally challenged Young Adult’s existence and it is crucial that we write sexual content in such a way as to promote sound and responsible behavior. We certainly don’t want teens learning how to have sex from a gratuitous sex or rape scene. IMO, reading responsibly written sexual content in the context of a close friendship or romance is appropriate for Young Adults.

What I, and nearly 100% of the authors I know, won’t do is cater to prurient interest and exploit the nascent, developing minds of young adults to sell more books. In this vein, we are careful never to write gratuitous or graphic sex, and not to write sex so “explicitly” that it borders on gratuitous or graphic. So, what constitutes “explicit?” That definition is in the eye of the beholder. Puritanical isn’t my gig. Writing fades to black and wholly off screen sex when writing romance isn’t germane writing. Context, context, context.


Publishing: I’ll speak to the little I know about the ever-changing and slightly psychotic publishing industry. Conventional publishers aren’t that afraid to include sexual content in YA literature particularly given that the eBook boom is impinging on their profits. Over the next few years, conventional publishers will have no alternative but to develop a dramatically different perspective if they want to remain profitable and will take various stances with respect to said content. They’ll edit the content, of course, but they’ll be more open-minded than they are today. I also expect to see a Supreme Court case over this very issue arise in the not-too-distant future.

Intended Audience: I’ll speak to the little I know about intended audience. While I am aware that adults comprise a large part of the revenue stream for YA books, I write for Young Adults. Period. I do so for ages intended to be ten to eighteen, I deal with tough issues, I want youths to learn from my books, and want them to walk away from my stories feeling good. Whether my books resonate with adults or transcend the YA marketplace, I can’t say. I can say that I receive many emails from adults complimenting my work. Sometimes it is because they have read them. Sometimes it is because they are pleased to have something to recommend to the gay teen in their lives.

Censorship: With respect to authorship, we all know that several classic works have been banned from time to time only to become mandatory reading for tweens/teens in school. As an author, I ask self: Do I want my literary works banned or challenged? I smirk at self and answer no, but am quick to qualify it. I am willing to risk having my works banned or challenged in order to write a good story. If sexual exploration and activity is integral to the story, then it will be in there. Each author must make this decision for him or herself. See: American Library Association’s website: About Banned Books

Realism: Get real people. How ignorant do we, as authors, appear when we pretend that a Young Adult’s imagination isn’t graphic? The tweens/teens who I know can set my cheeks aflame in seconds. Not to mention, sexual urges are a moment-by-moment plight for teens, particularly male teens. The traitorous dick has a mind of its own and we would be foolish to think that male teens don’t imagine explicit sexual content when they see or meet someone who they think is hot. In my novel Slaying Isidore’s Dragons, Declan wants to all but kill his dick upon seeing Isidore for the first time and is terrified he isn’t going to make it out of the classroom without someone seeing his wood. Read an excerpt from Slaying Isidore’s Dragons here: Slaying Isidore's Dragons

Big No-no’s: What is definitely out for Young Adults? It goes without saying that the usual exclusions apply, (rape, incest, bestiality, etc.). Toys and anything BDSM related are also unacceptable to me. I won’t write in dental dams, but will write in condoms. I won’t write in fluids that may be used in lieu of lubricant, but will write in lubricant and soap. I try to follow what is taught in our “Abstinence Plus” sexuality education and adapt it to male/male relationships. I also won’t glamorize suicide – as in Romeo and Juliet; or drugs – as in Trainspotting; or violence – as in The Hunger Games, etc. The bottom line: use common sense and if you’re unsure, error on the side of restraint. I'll add one final comment: Woe be unto those who place becoming a published author and profitability over morals and ethics.

Getting Boys to Read. It is no secret that girls read more and more often than boys do. Boys also learn at a different rate and in different ways than girls do. In recent changes to education policy, boys were left behind. ABDO Publishing believes they have the answer to this conundrum by publishing graphic books, meaning comic books, to educate boys. I’m a bit old school and, while they can be entertaining, I don’t believe reading onomatopoeic words teaches good reading and comprehension skills or does much to improve those skills. Pow, bang, oomph, and eeek are a little too Cro-Magnon for me. If our novels and stories inspire boys to read, then we have done a good thing.

In close, I believe young people should read about life as it is lived. Similarly, I don’t believe poetic license is a license to scribe recklessly. On a more personal note, I don’t write to be popular or sell more books. I write to give boys hope. I leave you with two of my favorite quotes:

“There are countless reasons for reading, but when you’re young and uncertain of your identity, of who you may be, one of the most compelling is the quest to discover yourself reflected in the pages of a book.” ~Michael Cart, How Beautiful the Ordinary

“Too many adults wish to 'protect' teenagers when they should be stimulating them to read of life as it is lived.” ~Margaret A. Edwards

Please feel free to comment below and/or visit Jesse’s insightful post and comment there. Jessewave

Oh, yeah. One more thing: My "spicy?" YA blog: Cody Kennedy.


  1. Excellent, well researched post Aisling. I'm Canadian, therefore I can't speak to US law, but you seem to have it covered.

    The issue of Young Adult romances will continue to require clarification because of the name and the expectations of those over sixteen who read these books.

    1. Thank you for the compliment, Jesse, and I greatly appreciate your comment. I have lived in Canada (and parts of Europe) and find that Canada follows the more open-minded perspectives of Europe: Less afraid to share information with youths; more trustful of youths; and substantially less-confining restrictions with respect to youths. So far, in each of my stories one character is not from the U.S. Many U.S. youths never have a chance to leave a town, let alone travel the world, and it is my way of bringing the world to them.

      I agree: "YA romance" will evolve. I only hope that it evolves in such a way as to add to, rather than detract from, young adults' lives.

      Thank you again, Jesse! Great post on your blog!

  2. Very nicely said. I hope it gives others something to think about.

    1. Thank you, Will. I'm certain the debate will continue.

  3. Wonderful post! This information and discussion needs to take place more often. One of my concerns is how liable--and for what--an author might be if she runs a giveaway and sends an adult book to a winner who turns out to be a child. It hasn't stopped me yet, but I wonder. Kids today are often more savvy than most adults.

    1. Thank you, Tali. I agree with you that the discussion needs to continue.

      As to your contemplation, I believe that authors and publishers have moral and ethical obligations, as well as legal obligations, to ensure to the best of their ability that explicit/graphic material does not fall into the hands of "minors" (as defined by the statutes in the relative geographical locale). We have a duty to post appropriate warnings on our sites, blogs, etc. I don't believe that we would be held responsible for an underage winner in a giveaway provided we have posted the appropriate content warnings and stated that the contest/raffle is for participants who are 18 years or older only.

      That said, there is always a grey area as denoted in the debates on Goodreads and Wave's blog and, of course, there will always be the sneaky youngsters. I was sitting outside starbucks the other day - newsstand gainfully situated next doordoor - and a young boy, who I am certain was more than ten, snatched an adult magazine and ran. It was a copy of Playgirl Magazine. I'll say no more.

      Thank you again for the kind remark, Tali. Hope to hear from you again soon.

    2. I know this happened to a M/M author. The person who won their giveaway was a minor so the author refused to send the book. But I believe, and don't quote me, the author was being pushed to send the copy to the minor on a site where you now have to give your DOB so minors. supposedly, can't access adult material - go figure!

      Anyway, this is a great blog and if anyone looks at Mr Austro-Hungarian's review of Safe they can see what a YA thinks about sex in YA books. Adults can think what they want but it is the youth who will do what they want and look for what they want......

    3. Agree, Kazza K.

      There are many conflicting issues in this regard. That said, Mr. A-H's reviews are terribly salient. A Young Adult's perspective about sexual content in Young Adult works is invaluable. My hat's off to Greedy Bug and Mr. Austro-Hungarian's reviews!

      As you point out, if our literary works are unrealistic, tweens/teens/young adults will search out what they want irrespective of age, law, ethics, etc.

      Thanks for stopping by, Kazza K! Drop by again soon!

      Mr. Austro-Hungarian's reviews can be found on Greedy Bug Reviews here:
      A young adult reviews and talks about young adult works.

  4. I have to say that YA romance should be realistic. Let's all look back to when we were young adults. When I was between the age of 14-17 I won't even go into the stuff I did, lol. I personally raise my kids honestly. My 12 yr old knows about sex, she knows about straight and gay sex because I let her read YA fiction that is M/F and M/M. She just finished Jamie Mayfield's Choices and she loved it. She had a few questions and I answered them. I think if parents monitor what their kids read then there is no problem. I would rather her ask me after reading a book than have her ask her friends. I think that is just simple logic.

  5. Thanks for dropping by, Jackie! Great to see you here. It goes without saying that a tween/teen is far better prepared for the outside world if armed with knowledge. It is no secret that young people WILL practice sexual exploration and the more guidance and openness they receive from parents, the better.

    Jamie Mayfield's series, in which "Choices" is only the first in the series, is an incredible series. Jamie is a terrific author and the series is a rare gem, indeed. I laud you as a parent for permitting your 12 year old to read "Choices!" WTG, Jackie!

  6. While I definitely support authors putting realistic sex in their YA novels and the right of teens to read novels that depict their lives authentically, I think there's another point to be considered. As I wrote in a comment on the JesseWave article:

    I haven’t done an exhaustive survey, but I’ve had two teenage boys — one 15 and the other 18 — tell me in the past year that they wouldn’t be interested in a YA novel with explicit sex. That’s not because they don’t look at porn, necessarily (They didn’t communicate that to me.), but because to them explicit sex means they’re reading something sleazy. The novel ceases to be something they’re interested in reading. It’s now, in their view, the teenage equivalent of a “bodice-ripper.”

    1. Agree, Jamie. Further to my point that kids WILL self govern. That said, it is up to us, as authors, to write realistic and responsible content and to do so in such a manner that it contributes to the growth and well-being of our youths. Thanks for dropping by. It's always great to see you here.

  7. You know my opinion on this. I totally believe that if 14 year olds are having sex, they should be able to read about it. So having sex under the age of 18 is illegal. So are drugs and murder, yet we can write about them. Kids know there is explicit sex in some novels and these days they can get their paws on those novels easily. If YA authors can't make their novels real to kids and teens, they are not going to sell. The kids will just buy adult novels. It's a no brainer, really.

    1. I agree, Ali. It's important that we do write responsibly and in such a way as to address the present day demands of society. And you are absolutely correct. Tweens/teens will find ways to access what they're interested in irrespective of law. Thanks for dropping by. It's always great to see you here.

  8. Excellent, well said, Aisling

    1. Thank you, Pelaam! And thanks for stopping by! :D