Sex: How Much is Too Much in YA Fiction?

Again I am proud and pleased to present another fab and interesting GUEST POST. This time from the wonderful Raine Thomas. She asks the difficult question about sex; when is it too much for young people to read about? Please give your comments and feelings about this subject and check out Raine’s books, blog and twitter listed below. Thanks Raine!

“Sex: How Much is Too Much in YA Fiction?”

​Thank you, Simon, for thinking to invite me to take over your blog for this guest post. I’m honored and thrilled to be here!

​I’m still getting the hang of this guest blogging thing, so I hope you’ll bear with me out there. I think the toughest part of any guest blog , especially for a Type A such as myself, is identifying a topic. What do you mean, I can write about anything? What do you mean, there aren’t any guidelines or restrictions? Really??

​It’s almost enough to make a gal’s head implode.

​But I’m not one to back down from a challenge, so here I am. In reviewing other guest posts featured on Simon’s (awesome) blog, I realized that some of the writers presented excerpts or samples of their work and that this was well-received. So I considered doing this myself and wondered how to package it in an engaging guest blog.

​That got me thinking about just what excerpt I should present. I write young adult fantasy/romance. I know Simon’s specialty genre is science fiction, which is quite different. Would I even have an excerpt that would appeal to Simon’s blog audience?

​And then it occurred to me…the one topic that interests just about everyone: sex.

​Oh, don’t try to deny it. I’ve caught your attention now, haven’t I?

​Romantic fiction doesn’t have to include graphic sex, though many romance novels do. In particular, YA romance doesn’t typically include sex. So when I decided to have my characters pair up, I had to ask myself this: just how much is too much in regard to scenes hinting at or directly involving sex when it comes to YA fiction?

​This is a topic that has been written about quite a bit, and I knew when I made my decision to have my teenage characters engage in sex that I’d probably take some heat for it. Surprisingly, that hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps that’s because my heroines are all eighteen and my heroes are much older than that (being Estilorians and thus immortal). Then again, that might just be another point of contention for some readers. Time will tell.

​Anyone who hasn’t had their head in a hole in the ground is aware of the popularity of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Without getting into spoiler territory, the last book of the series includes sex. The scenes were essential to the plot and occurred between characters who were at least nineteen, but Ms. Meyer still received criticism about them. Did this weigh into my decision to include sensuality in my books?

​Not really.

​In my opinion, an essential part of being a young adult is exploring sex and intimacy. Any teen who isn’t curious about the birds and the bees is, well, outside of the norm. Thus, a YA romance (particularly one that features older teens and is targeted to high school-age readers and older) would practically be outside the norm NOT to touch on sex.

​Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. That said, I’ll present you with an excerpt from my book Becoming, the first book in the Daughters of Saraqael Trilogy. The scene, featuring the main characters, Amber and Gabriel, is reflective of other scenes involving sensuality throughout the trilogy. I welcome your comments on whether you think this crosses a line in YA fiction:

Her stomach fluttered nervously as she reached for the doorknob, and she mentally chided herself. This was Gabriel, for goodness’ sake. She opened the door at last, but didn’t see him down the hallway. Figuring he was sitting in the living room, she tossed her bag onto the bed in their room and walked out to join him.
The back of his head was visible from where he sat on the sofa watching SportsCenter on the television. At the sound of her shoes on the wood floors, he called out, “You should’ve seen the highlight they just showed, Am.” He turned with a smile as she paused a few feet into the room. “You would’ve—” The smile dropped from his face, his mouth hanging open on whatever he had been about to say.
He slowly got to his feet, but his eyes never left her. Amber instantly decided all of her effort had been worth it just to see his expression right now.
As he stepped closer, his gaze moved from her head to her toes and lingered in places that brought a hot blush to her cheeks. His expression intense, he reached out, took her hands and slowly lifted both of her arms up above her head. When she felt the cooler air in the room against her suddenly bare midriff, she tried to pull her hands away from his.
“Uh-uh,” he argued, his grip tightening to hold her in place.
Then he started turning her, his gaze settled on her waistline. Fighting back her blush, she indulged him by turning in a complete circle.
“My, oh, my.”
He drawled out each of the words as she once again faced him and caught his gaze. His eyes had picked up the sharp blue of the T-shirt he wore and were filled with male appreciation. He released his hold so she could lower her arms, but his hands moved to either side of her hips to pull her within a couple of inches of his tall frame. His thumbs ended up resting against her skin where her sweater didn’t quite meet her jeans, and his touch evoked an excited stutter in her heartbeat.
“Wherever did this come from?” he asked, his gaze searching her makeup-enhanced features.
Trying to sound nonchalant, she replied, “Alicia took me shopping. At the Gap.”
“Did she now?”
She nodded as his hands idly caressed the bottom edge of her sweater. Her skin flushed with heat wherever he touched. “And Victoria’s Secret.”
He blinked a couple of times as he processed that blurted admission. Finally, he managed, “Is that right?”
His eyes had darkened a bit in color and he had swallowed hard after her last statement. So she added, “And Bath and Body Works.”
Rather than comment, he closed the meager distance between them by pulling her up against him. Then he leaned down toward her neck and slowly drew in her scent. The feeling of his warm breath against her skin made her entire body simmer with pleasure. With barely a thought, she tilted her head sideways to give him better access. His lips gently brushed her exposed neck and collarbone, making her pulse race.
“I’d thank Alicia, but I think she’s trying to kill me,” he whispered into her ear. She gripped his arms and closed her eyes as all of her nerve-endings blazed. His lips then moved along her jaw line. “Still, I can see you intend this to be a kind of a present for me. I can’t help but appreciate it for what it is.”
Then he captured her mouth. Her every thought centered on him as passion flared. His scent: like the ocean wind before a storm, calm with the potential for aggression. His taste: rich, potent and heady. His body: hard, strong and enveloping.
As he kissed her, his hands moved slowly from her hips up along her ribcage, leaving a blazing path of sensation behind. She could barely breathe as he reached ever higher. His hands explored her leisurely, the feelings he generated with his touch both intensely pleasurable and inexplicably tormenting. She issued a ragged sound that might have been a sigh or a moan.
When he eventually broke away from her, he stepped back and held her at arm’s length, his head lowered as he caught his breath and struggled to center himself. Although the move had been abrupt, she couldn’t take offense. It was obvious she had inadvertently pushed him to an edge she hadn’t even realized existed. She warred with delight and guilt over having trampled on his usual gentlemanly sensibilities.

​What do you think? Please leave a comment here and look me up at one of these handy places:

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© 2011 Raine Thomas

33 thoughts on “Sex: How Much is Too Much in YA Fiction?

  1. Great post, Raine. I don’t read much YA fiction (for obvious reasons…I’m just plain “A” these days). However, I’m sure everyone does have an opinion on this. Mine is that it’s up to the writer and to the readers of the author (or those who choose not to read, if that be the case). I tend to agree with you; that YA’s NOT thinking about and/or experimenting with intimacy are in some ways outside the norm. Particularly when we are talking 19+. Geeze, I was MARRIED at 20. 🙂 Again, great blog!

    1. Thanks for checking out the post, R.S.! I appreciate the feedback. I find this a very interesting topic, especially in the more conservative U.S. Married at 20, eh? That’s sweet!

  2. Well, I was married at 19 😉 And been happily married for over 10 years now. I hope that what you posted isn’t considered too racy in YA. The stuff I write is along the same ‘boundaries’ without the Victoria Secret 😉 Honestly, I didn’t even think about it until it was published if readers would think it was too much. I’ve read alot of books with these same ‘boundaries’ but most are self published so… maybe thats the crux? Anyway, I’ve only had 1 comment in 6 months about my books and it was ‘that end scene between the characters was a little much for me.’ My characters didn’t have sex, but got pretty heated I guess. I personally don’t like to read adult romance anymore because to me it’s all about the sex. But I don’t want to read a YA novel that doesn’t explore the romance between the characters either and is solely focused on the paranormal aspects of the plot. I agree, to say you shouldn’t touch the subject at all is unrealistic and to me, uninteresting. There is a right way to do it that doesn’t have to insult anyone and R.S. is correct too. You should know your readers and know how much they can take. Thank you Raine for such an interesting post!

    1. Wonderfully put, Shelly! How fascinating that we’ve got two comments from people who married before the age of 21. 😉 I do think that publishing independently influences just how racy sex scenes can get without being censored, and that’s an excellent point. I appreciate you taking the time to comment!

  3. I’m 22, I was a teenager recently and sex is everywhere. It’s in music, movies, shows and of course it’s going to be in books. Especially in books directed towards teenagers. As long as it’s done in a classy way (without too many details), I think it’s perfectly normal. Unless someone’s teenager lives under a rock, then they are fully aware of sex and they probably watch TV shows that show worse things than one vague sex scene in a book. Stephenie’s characters were adults AND they were married.

    P.S I think your books were extremely classy and you touched the subject impeccably.

    1. You’re a doll, Melody! Thanks so much for the wonderful comments. 🙂 I think you’re right about how it’s handled. That’s definitely something I keep in mind while writing, and a great point all around.

  4. I want to thank Raine again for an interesting post, it is provoking much debate on twitter, and raises a lot of interesting questions.
    As a teacher I interact with teenagers and young adults everyday and know from experience that they are naturally curious and inquisitive when it comes to sex (remember back to when you were a teen!). We adults are unsurprisingly curious too (the hits to this blog shot up within minutes of this post – just because it has ‘sex’ as the subject?).
    Maybe I have a European (or English) perspective on this but I feel that if we overly censor what kids watch or read they will find ways to access this stuff anyway. For example I know that kids I teach (age 11 up to 19) regularly watch movies and play video games that are rated ’18’. How old were you when you first saw an ‘X’ rated film? They often also have access to all sorts of things via the Internet and on their mobile phones that would shock most adults. They are bombarded left right and centre with images of ‘sex’ and ‘sexiness’ by the money making machines of advertising, music and fashion. Even I, as a vaguely mature adult, struggle to make sense of all of that! And we know that many teens are sexually active, whether their parents know or not…
    At the end of the day we have to accept that we cannot control everything they see and do. Did your parents manage that with you?
    Far better I think to engage with them. If fiction describes relationships, attraction and sexual feelings in a sensitive way then this allows teens to explore adult themes and learn from them. And perhaps allows discussion of these issues with adults.
    Obviously I am not condoning that they should see, read and access all that adults do, but that we, as adults, owe it to them to allow them to grow in a natural, unthreatening way. To allow them to discuss what they learn about in a non judgemental way.
    Like many adults, and perhaps more so, teens are fascinated by sex, but like anything they need help to find their way through the convoluted maze of contradictions that is adulthood.
    Sooner than I know I will be having these conversations with my daughter (she is 4 now) and I hope that she can talk with me and her mother and work her way through it all. I know that her already nurtured love of books and fiction will help.
    Thanks again Raine. I think there is no problem with what you write.
    What do you think?

    1. What a fantastic commentary, Simon! I truly don’t think I could have stated it any better. I’m very curious to see what others think about your perspective, as well. 🙂

  5. I think this excerpt is completely acceptable, particularly for the older end of the YA market. I hate to ruffle anyone’s feathers, but a good part of the older YA market will have already experimented with intimacy, if they haven’t already ‘gone all the way’. It wasn’t so long ago that I don’t remember that age, and it was even true then that many had already had sexual experiences.

    Of course, I may not be qualified to comment… I was reading well above my age bracket very early. I read ‘Stone of Tears’ by Terry Goodkind when I was 12 or 13. Anyone who has read it… yep, I know what you’re thinking. That book contains a rather explicit sex/torture scene as part of a magic rite. Did my parents know? Well, not my mother, but certainly Dad, even if it wasn’t until after the fact. Did he mind? No, and not because he’s a permissive parent, but because he knew I was mature enough to read it.

    And that’s a point too. Even though we pitch books at certain age groups, parents still have the discretion to decide if a book is or is not suitable for their child. At the higher end of the YA market, though, I should like to think parents are no longer censoring what their children read. Don’t forget the A in YA stands for ‘Adult’. They should be treated as the young adults they are.

    I understand YA stretches from 12 – 18. In many places, for 16 and over, sex is legal. Are we going to tell them they can legally have sex but may not read about it in a similar context to this example from Becoming? Surely that’s ludicrous. How can they learn about the emotional importance of sex in a vacuum? Without the emotional value, it becomes just a meaningless physical act, and I believe love stories can teach that sex should be about love. They certainly taught me that.

    1. Thanks Ciara,
      I agree. You are right to bring up the age of consent. It’s 16 here in the UK. Which means that a 16 or 17 year old can have sex legally but they are not supposed to see a movie rated 18, maybe because of sexual content!
      I guess maturity is the key and you can’t put an age on that…

    2. Such a well-crafted response, Ciara! Thanks for stopping by to read the post and comment.

      There are states with an age of consent of 16, as well. That’s an outstanding point. I know that I was reading adult novels by the time I was in middle school, and clearly remember reading romance novels with graphic sex in them by the time I was a freshman in high school (one of them was just sitting on a bookshelf in my English class for anyone to read).

      It makes sense for parents to be aware of what their kids are reading and to take into account a child’s maturity level before launching into censorship or uproar. Once again, I appreciate the comments!

  6. Raine, I love your writing and your guest post. I personally waited til 18 to “do it” but was quite active with boys loooong before doing lots of other fun stuff! I would love to have had wonderful books like yours to read when I was a teen (I’m 47 now). As it was, I used to steal my mom’s romance novels off her shelf just to have something girly to read — til I abandoned those for Stephen King, John Irving, Philip K. Dick and other boys later on (sorry, girls).

    Still, those books had plenty of naughty bits, which I loved. Kids always want the good stuff and they’ll find it. So what? It’s part of learning and growing. My mom knew full well what I was reading and, not caring for it (“gore? why are you reading that shit?” she said until I finally got her to read IT — ha!), she knew what I was feeding my brain.

    No kid should have to sneak a book. That’s ridiculous. I have a tween girl now, age 12. She asked to read TWILIGHT (which I read first) and I told her sure. I thought it was at its heart, a good story. She got bored and gave up. Right now she thinks sex is disgusting and squishy. When I tell her she’ll get there at some point, she laughs. She’s a sweet jewel and I embrace that innocence.

    I love that YA can inform and guide kids searching for info that maybe they can’t get at home or are maybe hesitant to discuss. Books, at their very best, are places to find comfort and solace.

    I don’t write YA by any stretch of the imagination — I write humor, non-fiction — but I included some essays in my book about my ex’s suicide & how I dealt w/ the grief. Clearly, not funny. People have told me, in some amazingly heartfelt messages, that my book spoke to them in ways I never, ever imagined.

    I’m so honored by that. I can’t even describe it.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Rachel! It’s great to have the perspective of a fellow writer and mother. Although my daughter is only five, I strongly encourage her love of reading and hope that doesn’t ever change. I truly appreciate the feedback!

  7. I read and write YA. Non stop. I’ve seen much worse. It definitely gets intense, but as long you stay true to your characters and the story, then what happens in between shouldn’t matter. If you throw sex in just for the sake of throwing sex in, then no. BUT, TEENAGERS HAVE THESE FEELINGS! So why would we purposely avoid them in our work? Teenagers have sex, get pregnant, transmit STD’s, blah blah. So why is writing about them having sex a bad thing? It’s not.

    Great post! And HOT scene.

    1. Thanks for the great feedback, Krystal! I have to say, I expected to have a few more devil’s advocates on this topic (they surfaced a bit on Twitter, but not here). I wonder if this means we’re starting to come to terms with teen sexuality? Or maybe it’s writers who have more open minds? Interesting!

      1. You’re welcome, Raine. I would have expected more negative, but I think you hit the nail on the head with us authors being more open. We have to be. We can’t put ourselves in other people’s shoes without being open to who they are. I think you and I need to talk more. 😉

  8. I loved it! I never read YA, but this was an excellent (and hot) scene I enjoyed very much! TY!!!! I’m a sap when it comes to romantic scenes in books. Love the description of sexual/sensual games. Right down my alley. I hate porn and graphic stuff, but I love that sexy yet implicit genre.

  9. Super HAWT scene!!! I am an adult who reads YA, so my perspective is going to be different from teen readers, but I have to say, I find the constant barrage of virginal YA characters to be unrealistic. Let’s face it, 70% of teens have had sex by their 19th birthday. That being said, sex needs to fit with the characters and the story. In Twilight, it made sense why Edward & Bella did not have sex until the last book. It worked. It also worked in Vampire Academy when Rose and Dimitri finally slept together. You have to let the characters be real. Don’t dumb them down (or in this case, take away their growing experiences) just because some church group might want to ban your book.

    1. Another excellent point, Jesi! I wasn’t aware of that stat, but it sure doesn’t surprise me. It’s great to have the perspective of a reader in my particular target audience. 😉 Appreciate you stopping by and sharing!

  10. I cannot even explain how wonderful this post is. Sex in YA novels is definitely a topic that does not really have a firm yay or nay answer. As an aspiring YA author I am faced with the ‘do I or don’t I’ question for including the dirty deed. *Wink*

    I read an article some time ago that talked about this dilemma and referred to sex in YA as “the shark in the water” scenario as being best. You know, the whole Jaws effect. You never really SEE Jaws in all his/her glory, just enough to get a really good idea. I think, in my humble opinion, that is the best route. That is what drew me to the YA market in the first place. It’s not the whole enchilada that gets the heart pumping for me it’s the….er…do I daresay…foreplay. The events leading up to the special moment are the most powerful to me so this is what I like in my YA novels. Is this appropriate for teens to read? Sure. It is not anything they are not actively participating in so why not? It is real, it is powerful, and if it’s done right, it is incredibly HAWT!

    The actual ‘dance’ is all over your typical Romance novels so if you REALLY wanna read it, then feel free to peruse the Romance section of the book store. If you want some steamy make outs with awkward first time love experiences that gets the blood flowing, but leaves plenty to the over active imagination (like mine), then the YA section of the bookstore is your home. That is why I love YA, that is why I read YA, that is why I write YA… I love the first time loves and the first time emotions that are so powerful you think about them for the rest of your life.

    1. I haven’t heard the “shark in the water” comparison before, DB…what a great frame of reference! As someone who has written (unpublished) romance novels and now published YA, I can say I agree with you about the appeal of writing the intimate, loving moments that help define a relationship without having to get too graphic. Thanks for the comments!

  11. I have to agree that it’s all about context. I know parents and educators would love to live in a blissed-out little world where teens are celibate until marriage, but the reality is pretty far from that. If we, as writers, make it “the forbidden fruit,” I can’t help thinking we’re asking for trouble. Do an experiment. Drill a hole in a wall and hang a sign on it that says, “Don’t look in this hole.” See what happens.
    So yes, a hot kissing scene? A quick trip to second base? Where I’m from, we call that “Saturday night.” As a psychologist, I’m pleased and proud that the teen literary world is expanding to encompass real life. Because Simon, you were right– they’re going to find their fantasies somewhere. At least Raine’s version is well-written, emotional, and not gratuitous.

    Thanks for the post, Raine! (BTW, I just followed you on Twitter. See you in the cybersphere.)


    1. So glad to meet up with you here and on Twitter, Cecily! It’s great to have feedback from a psychologist’s perspective. Your compliments are certainly well-received (big smiles all around) and I look forward to more of your insights in the Twitterdom!

  12. Raine, I admire your frankness and willingness to tackle the seemingly taboo topic in YA fiction. I think your scene is just fine and didn’t see anything “over the line.” I like the character names, too–didn’t you mention this was the character from Newnan?

    Great post! Take care!

    1. Thanks so much for checking out the post, Amberr! You’re exactly right about Amber and Gabriel being from Newnan…great memory, gal. 🙂 I appreciate the comments and feedback!

  13. I’m so glad that I remembered to come back to this post. My book is out to beta readers right now and it has two well-described sex scenes and some other implicit sex but it’s very natural to the story. I was speaking with one of my beta readers about it today and it got me all worried again about how much is too much? I’m glad I came back here! My two characters are very much in love. In their future world, everyone marries younger and they are 19 and 17, so it’s definitely not a stretch to believe that they would have sex. I was thinking that I should change it but I’m going to let it be. I love it, anyway 😉

    1. I’m very glad you remembered to come and read the post, too, S.J.! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I think the relationship between the characters is very important when it comes to sex in YA literature. Readers know when a plot element is contrived or something is gratuitous. The fact that you say it’s natural to the story tells me you did it right!

      1. I also remember reading a post somewhere (wish I could link it) about how teens will see straight through flowery text for sex. Like, don’t say “making love” say “have sex” so that was also a challenge in writing the sex scenes. How to say it explicitly without being too graphic. Ahhhh. Being a writer is fun and challenging.

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