Sex in YA Books

When you hit thirteen, you become an adult-in-training. Puberty is the waking of sexuality. We cripple our teenagers if we try to sweep adult issues under the rug. We do them no favors by controlling their thoughts or banning books that contains sexuality.

I can’t even remember how many books I read on the sly when I was a teenager, including Lord of the Rings, Lord of the Flies, and The Eye of the Dragon. None of them were racy or evil, but they were banned from the house all the same. So I kept them in my school locker and read them during study hall.

Rather than banning books, the smarter thing to do is to read the book as well and to keep an open dialog with your kids about issues that the book raises. When it comes to sexuality, there are many topics to discuss: making responsible decisions, knowing what true love is, dealing with making the wrong decision, facing consequences, surviving rape, feeling pressured... What better way is there to learn than to face the problems through the eyes of characters in a book and learn from their mistakes?

YA writers have a responsibility to address these issues. Using flawed characters and difficult situations, writers can help YA readers learn from the characters whose worlds they travel through.

In Going Bovine by Libba Bray, Cameron has sex with a girl from his high school, and when it is over, he feels hollow inside because he never loved her. A great opportunity to learn that sex without love is not satisfying.

In Beauty Queens, also by Libba Bray, one of the girls loses her virginity but discovers afterward that she was used. From the experience, she learns that she has value. How many girls out there make this same mistake? Reading this book and talking about it with an adult would be one of the best ways to avoid making this mistake or to learn how to recover from such an experience.

In White Cat (Curse Workers) and in Red Glove (Curse Workers, Book 2) by Holly Black, Cassel must turn down the girl he has loved since they were best friends as kids. Why? Because her emotions were magically altered to make her love him, and he loves her too much to use her. To protect her from himself, he goes so far as to tell her he doesn’t love her, even when it breaks her heart—and his. Heart wrenching and beautiful.

In Speak by Laura Halse Anderson, a freshman in high school crawls into a shell, refusing to speak, finding every opportunity to hide in the janitor’s closet, failing when she used to be a straight A student, skipping classes, wearing baggy clothes, fighting nightmares. Why? Because she made the mistake of drinking at a party that summer and got raped. Nobody knows. Not the parents or teachers who think that she has a discipline problem. Not the classmates or ex-friends who shun her. Not the art teacher who encourages her. The story carries you through her road to healing. A must read for mothers to share with teenage daughters.

It was hard to make the decisions I did about the content in my book Tears. One beta-reader told me that the detail was too graphic for a YA book. There actually is no on-scene sex in my book. Not even a foreplay scene that fades to black. There are a few kissing scenes that don’t lead anywhere. But the only way readers know that Jaak and Chester have sex is because Chester gets pregnant.

What my beta-reader referred to was Aren’s admiration of Lelea and his vivid imagination about what he would like to do with her:

He would choose a warrior woman to be his mate—like Lelea. Now there was a woman, strong and shapely. She could stalk her prey, wield a knife, shoot even better than he could—she had kicked his ass—and he liked how her nipples perked up under her skintight suit.
Tears by Rita J Webb, page 181

Aren stood behind the two girls in the doorway to the cargo bay. From his angle, he could see nothing but a gray wall and a corner of the metal door on the ceiling—and two perfect butts in tight jumpsuits. He liked Lelea’s better. Maybe because she was shorter; the right height for him to grab it.
Tears by Rita J Webb, page 199

A gun belted to her waist, Lelea strapped a rifle over her shoulder and a knife to her leg. Aren liked how she carried herself. The soft, weak girl he had first met was gone. Was this the real Lelea? A soldier like Jadon?

But then he had fought her in the cave back on Lantis. It had to have been her.

She wore a bodysuit, and her nipples stood out under the cloth. He should look away, he knew, but the perfect curve of her breast…

If only the shirt hung loose, then he could see the pink nipple hidden underneath as she bent over. He imagined it hard between his teeth.

Catching his gaze, she winked. Aren glanced away, his face burning.

Her hand on his shoulder. “Never be ashamed of the wildness that makes you a man.”

His gaze darted back to hers. Her smile ignited a fire within him.
Tears by Rita J Webb, pages 215-216

The last thing I want is to offend, so I almost cut it all out. However, I stopped to think about what it was I wanted to relate to my readers:

1) There’s no shame in healthy sexuality.

2) Fifteen-year-old men think about sex.

3) Men of all ages think about sex.

Ten years of marriage taught me that. A woman who tries to keep her husband’s balls in a jar by the bed will likely have a husband who can’t do much more than watch football and scream for the wench to bring his beer.

I really believe that if you cut away someone’s sexuality, you cut away part of their soul. You leave them crippled inside—man or woman. And so I left the offending passages as they were.


  1. I was fortunate enough that no book was ever banned in my house. I read Lord of the Rings when I was very young (12, I think), and Frank Herbert's Dune not long after. My parents were both readers, and we had free access to their library.

    I honestly believe that reading as I did gave me valuable tools to survive real life.

    All this to say, I totally agree with you, Rita. Young adults are just that - adults that are young. If we don't let them be adults and face adult issues as adults, we run the risk of stagnating their growth and, worst of all, rendering them incapable of fending for themselves once the parent figures are gone.

    Good on you for sticking to your guns. I can't wait to get stuck into your book.

  2. I suppose my 'young adult' books were the early James Bond paperbacks with their alluring covers. It gave me some... interesting insights, and I discovered I didn't like martinis either shaken or stirred. The point is that in those days there was no real grey area called YA. You either read Heidi/Treasure Island or moved on to adult.

  3. My mom was just happy that one of her kids loved reading as much as she did and she banned nothing. Of course, I was reading Stephen King at ten...

    At twelve I started reading her Harlequin Romance novels. Boy, did that set me up for disappointment. *sigh*

    Great post, Rita. While I certainly don't want my 13 year old reading erotica, I'm not so naive as to think she doesn't think about sex. When I was her age I recall it being ALL that I thought about. But we keep an open dialogue and she's mentioned parts she's read and how she felt about them. She thinks it's gross (for now) but I asked her specifically about the content of Tears because I knew you'd had a few readers voice concern about those passages. Her reply: What sex? There was no sex in Tears. There you have it.

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