I read this blog post last week, and I have been thinking about it since then. If you haven’t, it’s very short and it’s nothing more than an announcement of a 10,000 word addition to Abbi Glines’s The Vincent Boys (published by Simon Pulse, a YA imprint of Simon & Schuster). The addition to this book is, as Glines explains, “explicit, adult sexual content.” This extended edition of the book is an ebook original and only in ebook format.
Then I read this article. Nicole Williams, who originally self-published her ebook Crash series, was picked up by Harper. They’re soon going to be available as paperback editions, and each of them will be categorized for readers 16 and older. That’s because they’re “steamy teen romances” about an “all-consuming affair” between a new girl in town and the resident bad boy. It follows them post-high school.
I’m not the type of reader or librarian to shy away from topics in YA books. I think it’s important to represent a wide breadth of different viewpoints, of different issues, and I think it’s crucial for teens who want to be exposed to topics have the chance to be exposed that way through books written for them. Reading about sex and the sexual experience in YA lit is not only powerful, but it’s critical to teens in a variety of ways. This post, written earlier this year, does a great job of explaining why sex scenes are important to the development of teen sexuality, especially for girls.
In high school, I read Forever and I read Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. I didn’t have as wide an exposure to YA lit in high school as teens do today, but I do remember reading those two books and feeling normal. The sex and discussions of sexuality in each is not pretty, it’s not easy, it’s not clean. It’s uncomfortable at times for the characters and for the reader. If it wasn’t — if it was easy, if it was not awkward to read and think about — then sex itself wouldn’t be such a big deal. Because for teens especially, sex is a big deal.
My first year in college — the first days in college — when suddenly there were no adults around and very few rules regarding living in a dorm (let alone a coed dorm) and when we were still very much teenagers at 17, 18, and 19, there was a lot of talking and thinking about sex. There was a group of us who used to stay up late every night, talking about any and everything, and inevitably, the discussion of sex would come up. Who had had sex, what the experience was like. The group of about 7 to 10 of us had a wide variety of experience, but nearly none of us had actually had sex. But over the course of that year, everyone did.
Over the course of that year, I don’t ever recall anyone saying their first or second or eightieth experience having sex was erotic or explicit and certainly nothing was described as an all consuming affair. This was the case for people who’d become very involved with a romantic partner, as well as those who didn’t.
I’ve had teenagers ask me questions in the past, and I’ve had teenagers approach me for resources and books that would allow them to understand what sex was like. It’s one of those questions that, when you’re working with teenagers and you’re passionate about working with teenagers, you don’t even blush at because you expect that much of them. For me, it’s stepping back and remembering high school and that first year of college. What would I have wanted to know? More than just reflecting on that, though, is knowing that offering a wide variety of resources that highlight this messy, awkward, terrifying, and exciting new experience is the best way to allow that teen to figure it out. I take this responsibility as a gatekeeper and as an adult with whom a teen is seeking delicate information very seriously.
I believe in sex positivity. I don’t shy away from reading and accepting certain sexual situations in YA novels that are painful. Kimberly has talked about sexual violence as a plot device before, and part of why I find that to be a tough thing to read is because it’s a reality of sex. It’s a reality, too, of being a woman. I don’t have to like reading it, but I read it because it is there for a purpose (even if, like Kim, I can find it a troubling purpose at times). There are YA books that use sex as a game and as a tool of power. But even in those stories, the way sex is described, the experience of it, the feelings attached to it, are very much teen. I think, for example, of Margie Gelbwasser’s Pieces of Us, where yes, there is pretty descriptive use of sex as power among the teens. But the way those teens react in those situations — the way it haunts them, the way it makes them feel as a person and feel toward other people — is honest and true to teen behavior.
That said, the problem I take with the Glines novel and the Williams series is that the way they’re being sold and marketed is not for a teen readership. Reread the description of The Vincent Boys: 10,000 words of explicit, adult content. Even though this expanded edition will be only available for those who chose to purchase it for their ereaders, the book is still beneath a teen imprint. This is a teen book. A teen book with “explicit, adult content.”
The Williams series is purposefully being sold as a book for those 16 and older because it’s not meant for younger teen readers. It follows a couple through college and it follows their very physical and emotional “all-consuming affair.” I won’t go into the details of the problems I have with the “bad boy” casting of a character, but rather, the real issue I have here is that despite the fact the publisher is aware this isn’t a book appropriate for all teen readers, it was purchased under one of their children’s imprints and will be sold to teen readers. As — if not more — problematic is the line in that story conflating a trend for realistic stories with sexually-explicit stories. They know readers want more mature stories post-high school.
But that does not mean these are books for teens nor that teen readers should even have this on the table as a teen book.
Much of this goes back to the discussion of what “new adult” is or is not. I’ve already talked at length about my feelings on the issue. The “new adult” label is another way of saying adult books. There have been plenty of books published for younger adults, featuring teen or 20-something characters. This isn’t a new thing. Even if adults are the biggest purchaser of YA fiction, they’re not the intended audience. That’s TEENS. Teens deserve books that serve them.
So if books like this are going to be on the market — Glines’s as ebook only or not is not the issue seeing the Williams book will be put in print — then there needs to be a serious discussion of what the lines are between teen fiction and adult fiction. Because these books are adult books. They feature teen characters, but they are adult in their exploration of sex and sexual situations. Especially when the descriptions of the books are explicit in stating that the content is adult.
There is a place for these books that want to use older teen characters and put them in potentially erotic, mature sexual situations. That’s the adult market. That’s the romance market. That’s the market for erotica. As I mentioned in my post on “new adult” books, there’s a real stigma that’s unfairly attached to adult books, and I think that’s even more true for romance and erotica.
What these books are doing is not new. There have been thousands of books published featuring steamy situations. Many have included teenagers (probably more of the college variety than the high school variety). But what’s new here is how they’re being sold to teenagers.
Sex in YA is important, but sex in YA is not about being a steamy affair nor about being explicit and adult. It’s about being awkward, about being confusing and scary, about being really huge experience that can be horrible or can be really amazing. There’s an incredible range of experiences and exploring that within YA is perfectly acceptable and possible. But the key is it is about that exploration. Teen sexual situations are not, however, adult nor are they erotic. These are two charged words. Those are components of adult sexuality. Even books like Beth Bauman’s Jersey Angel, which is all about the sexual awakening of a teenage girl, only ever puts Angel in sexual situations that are very, very teen and entirely about the exploration. It is, at times, sexy but it is not erotic.
Thinking back to being a gatekeeper and thinking back to my own experience as a teenager, as well as the experiences others have shared with me (teens and friends alike), I worry, too. It would be easy to be insecure if you’re reading a story with very adult sexual situations — either purposefully or inadvertently — and then use that as a yardstick for your own experience. That’s not to say readers who read books with sex in them do so to learn or take notes. But there are a good portion who do. And if these books are “teen” books, and the message these books are sending, even through simply their marketing pitch, is that sex is steamy and erotic and very adult, then that’s a potentially scary message to receive. Think about how many adults felt insecure or somehow disempowered after reading 50 Shades of Grey.
I want teen readers to have a safe space to discover sex in its myriad of forms. I think this, though, is a line that shouldn’t be crossed. It’s my job to be a mentor and a gatekeeper, and even if I am open and honest about any and all topics, there are places I have to put my foot down and say it’s not okay. This is one of them. If a teen wants an adult book featuring sex? I’m happy to provide it for them. But if a teen wants a teen book featuring sex? I’m not going to give them an adult book with very adult themes in it. I’m not only not doing my job — I’m not being fair to them.