Good Sex in YA: A Primer
Whether it’s a hazard of my day job, or my general sex-positive feminism, I have long been interested in how we deal with sex in books, particularly in young adult books. My own history of teen sexuality is complicated and uneven, but suffice it to say, my girlfriends and I spent hours of our teen years discussing what we’d done, what we wouldn’t do, what we’d been asked to do, and what we’d wished we could do. And that was many years ago, when you actually had to make a concerted effort to research these things, not pop on to Tumblr and search one term.
So sex in YA: do we need it? It depends on the story. Certainly I’m not for inserting sex into books for no reason. That’s lazy writing and reeks of an agenda for “shock-factor” that no reader appreciates. But generally, if we’re looking at the whole of a teen character and what’s happening with them developmentally and hormonally, there probably needs to be something in the book to address their growing sexual agency. Do they need to be having sex? No. But this doesn’t mean you can remove it from the equation.
Sexuality in teenagers (in whatever form it takes from “gross, not ready” to “OMG, I want to lick his abs”) exists whether you want to put it in your book or not. I don’t know any teenager who hasn’t thought about this in one way or another. So I quite like when I see it in books, addressed in a realistic way, whether it’s awkward or painful or amazing or meh. Because the truth is that sex can be all of these things, especially when you’re just figuring it out.
Below is a short list of incredibly well-done sex scenes in YA literature:
Fabulous book, fabulous take on teen boy sexuality. Highlights:
“Handjobs were nice, but I was getting a little sick of them. I’d been jerking off since I was thirteen. I was a professional.”
“She did that a lot, the whole make-out-then-stop-and-talk thing, which was fine, I guess, though The Horn wasn’t a fan.”
This book is beautifully transformative for the characters and the sex scene is fade to black and is a little painful for the girl and STILL it is incredibly wonderful in its treatment of teen sexuality. Highlights:
“Because being part of him isn’t just anything. It’s kind of everything.”
“When it was over, she gathered him in her arms. And told him the terrible irony of her life. That she had wanted to be dead all those years while her brother had been alive. That had been her sin. And this was her penance. Wanting to live when everyone else seemed dead.”
Absolutely wonderful love story about a girl struggling with type 1 diabetes and a one-armed guy who is just back from the war in Afghanistan. And about the most perfect sex scene that is awkward and wonderful all at once. Highlights:
“The second you say pause, we pause or we stop.”
“I’ve never done this one arm. I mean, I might need some help.”
This is one of the most gorgeous books I’ve ever read, but more importantly, it addresses first-time sex and all the fear and wonder and beauty and awkwardness in it. Highlights:
“But the you who you are tonight is the same you I was in love with yesterday, the same you I’ll be in love with tomorrow.”
“Adam lay perfectly still, little groans escaping from his lips. I looked at the bow, looked at my hands, looked at Adam’s face and felt this surge of love, lust, and an unfamiliar feeling of power.”
From the author of Fault Line comes an edgy and heartbreaking novel about two self-destructive teens in a Sid and Nancy–like romance full of passion, chaos, and dyed hair.
Seventeen-year-old Amelia Gannon (just “Gannon” to her friends) is invisible to almost everyone in her life. To her parents, to her teachers—even her best friend, who is more interested in bumming cigarettes than bonding. Some days the only way Gannon knows she is real is by carving bloody lines into the flesh of her stomach.
Then she meets Michael Brooks, and for the first time, she feels like she is being seen to the core of her being. Obnoxious, controlling, damaged, and addictive, he inserts himself into her life until all her scars are exposed. Each moment together is a passionate, painful relief.
But as the relationship deepens, Gannon starts to feel as if she’s standing at the foot of a dam about to burst. She’s given up everything and everyone in her life for him, but somehow nothing is enough for Brooks—until he poses the ultimate test.
Bleed Like Me is a piercing, intimate portrayal of the danger of a love so obsessive it becomes its own biggest threat.
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