Sex and violence in YA


I’ve read the recent discussions on violence in books and whether there are taboos in writing young adult with a ton of interest because this is something I’ve thought a lot about, though that doesn’t mean I’ve come to any conclusions (sorry!).

One of the things that’s been a little fascinating to me as a YA author is how differently the industry (readers, writers, parents, librarians, editors, etc) seems to treat sex and violence in YA novels.   While there are always exceptions (and boy is that a topic for another post) generally I’ve found that violence is tolerated much much more in YA novels than sex is.

The example I always think about is from Breaking Dawn, the fourth book in Stephenie Meyer’s wildly popular Twilight series (which is well known for being somewhat chaste).  In Breaking Dawn, a married Bella and Edward have a wedding night that occurs off camera.  Later in the book, Bella is pregnant with a half-vampire baby the birth of which is very violent and bloody (it involves the baby chewing its way out of her womb or someone chewing their way in — I’m not clear on the details).  Very rarely did I see people saying “this womb-chewing is too violent” but there were lots of people who felt like their teens couldn’t read Breaking Dawn because of the consensual, married, off-camera sex.

Quite honestly, this astounds me.  In my own YA, my editor had no problem with me tossing a zombaby out a second story window, but having the hero and heroine kiss on the bed afterward wasn’t okay (so I changed it to cuddling which was apparently still a little iffy and I was asked if they could just cuddle on the floor because that was less sexual).

I can totally understand how publishers, readers, librarians, teachers, parents, etc., can be hesitant when it comes to sex in YA novels but it seems to go beyond that.  I’ve had author friends asked to tone down passion (the heroine shouldn’t have such desire) when nothing is said about the level of violence.

Like I said, I haven’t figured anything out about this like what it says about the industry or society — I’ve just noticed that this disparity exists.  I’ve had friends asked to take cuss words out of their book with no mention of the bloody maiming that takes place in the same scene (Michael Grant, author of the Gone series had a great comment about how odd it is to expect a character to say “oh darn” after getting an eyeball plucked out).

Why is it that we’re okay with the violence, but not the passion and sex?

As for my own opinion on sex in YA novels… I tend to believe that if a story requires sex, then the story should have sex — you have to be true to the story and telling it the best that you can.  And the reality is that there are just some stories that will require sex and there are some that don’t require sex but perhaps are made more complex with the addition of it and some that don’t need sex at all.   I think the issue is the grey areas between those distinctions… where an author thinks that sex is necessary and a reader thinks that it isn’t.  In that case, I think every author has to make an informed choice and realize that there are just some YA readers and buyers who won’t read/buy a book with sex in it, even if the author thinks the sex is necessary.  In the end, I think this is a decision each author has to make on their own: compromise the story by taking out sex and toning down passion or face the possibility of fewer sales?

But the violence, for right now it seems to be okay just the way it is.  *shrug*


27 comments to Sex and violence in YA

  • I’ve never understood this. Sex is life-affirming, violence isn’t. Strong language may or may not be appropriate but it doesn’t physically damage anyone.

    If I was setting the guidelines then sex would be OK (although I don’t particularly enjoy erotica myself), strong language would be allowed, but gory violence would be out.

    It seems I’m completely out of step with our society.

  • I have also wondered about this odd dichotomy. Why is one any more or less appropriate than the other? No answers, only agree on the questions you raise.

  • This dichotomy as always shocked me. I mean, if “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” can have a rape scene, and some other graphic sexual description–and it was written when?–what’s the big deal with a little kissing. Lots of teens are having sex. I’ve seen some very blunt stats on this from reliable agencies. We’ve had sex ed going on for awhile now. It started in fifth grade, for me. Kids are finding plenty of sexual material online and in the media. How can it not be good for us to be addressing this in our literature?

    Well, actually, some people are. I seem to remember an Anne McCaffrey scene (in what I would consider to be a fairly YA book) where the heroine was very young. It was not graphic, but it was somewhat onscreen. There hasn’t been an enormous objection to these books. I don’t know where publishers are getting the idea that there’s an enormous resistance to sex in YA. Maybe I’m just out of touch.

  • Speaking with my librarian’s hat on, I can say that people get twitchy about sex in YA books because they fear that kids will do what they read. Because of course teenagers would never, ever think to sneak off and have sex unless some terrible author told them to. *snark* Why violence doesn’t fall into the same category, I can’t tell you. I guess they save their complaints about violence for the video games.

    …having the hero and heroine kiss on the bed afterward wasn’t okay (so I changed it to cuddling which was apparently still a little iffy and I was asked if they could just cuddle on the floor because that was less sexual).

    Carrie, I first discovered your book when I read a School Library Journal review. I wanted to buy it for my middle school library, since I have a population of 8th graders who would go nuts for it, but the review talked about strong sexual themes, which is a no-no for my media specialist. Imagine my shock when I finally read my own copy! Apparently “sexual themes”, for SLJ, means, “a girl and a boy spend time alone together”. I was furious at having been hoodwinked by some overly cautious reviewer.

    It’s on the order list for next year. *smile*

  • This kind of censorship stuff gets me so revved up angry…ARRRRRRRRGH! I just deleted my rant because one should never post when angry. Suffice it to say, I think “protecting” children from reading is among the most absurd ideas in the world. Oh, yeah, and the book they’d rather your children read — The Bible — chock full of violence and sex. Go figure.

  • I think “protecting” children from reading is among the most absurd ideas in the world.

    Stuart, I could tell you stories…but not in writing on the Internet.;) Maybe if those margaritas appear at ConCarolinas!

    My parents, both educators, never told me I couldn’t read anything. They felt (and I have always agreed) that children will censor themselves if they read something that makes them uncomfortable. Then again, my parents were open to me asking questions about what I read, even if those questions weren’t what they really wanted to talk about. I was so lucky.

  • Okay, I have to admit that if I could force my daughters to limit their reading and television watching to scenes of frolicking kittens, I’d do it. I would also keep them from dating until they were in their mid-thirties. I was once a teenage boy; I know what they’re like, and I don’t want my kids anywhere near one of them….

    But the reality, as several of you have said, is that the content is already out there. If they want to find it they will. All of which brings me to Carrie’s point, which is an excellent one. And it goes way beyond YA. Our culture uses sex to sell and titillate, but it is and always has been deeply ambivalent about serious explorations of sexuality. Depicitons of violence on the other hand, are so prevalent as to be almost desensitizing. I would rather my kids weren’t exposed to misogynistic titillation. I really don’t want them exposed to violence. I think that mature, sensitive, realistic portrayals of sexual relationships are appropriate topics for books aimed at a teenage audience.

  • Cary,

    You bring up many valid points on something that has probably been a topic of discussion since Ms Blume put out FOREVER. Even though the sex wasn’t extremely explicit in that book either, it was just… well about losing virginity. I remember reading the scene expecting smut and finishing it thinking “what the fuss was about?” Especially since teens can get more sex on TV shows, the internet and in movies.

    Honestly, it’s hypocritical. Think of all of the FBI/COP shows on TV, those are phenomenally popular(though I find no appeal in them.) They are graphically violent, bloody and gory and many articles have been written on the same subject as to what you are referring. Why is it okay for society to watch a hooker get thrown out a window, show her carnage and insides, but not have the ladies on Sex in the City say the word “Dick” in reruns?

    Who knows?

    Maybe the parents would rather cast their eyes against the violence because at least their children aren’t picturing the nudity of some fictional character. Maybe they are afraid their children imaginations will run away with them and something horrible will happen (like they’ll go blind,) or maybe they are so consumed with sex that they don’t even check to see if violence is in the book.

    I really think that Judy Blume had it right, if we educate the children, show them that sex isn’t taboo or wrong or bad, then it won’t seem so appealing.

  • Yeah, I can see the “no sex” thing in YA, but kissing and cuddling? Teens have been doing those things without the influence of YA novels since forever. I gotta wonder if it’s more for the adults reading them that might suddenly imagine their own kids doing those things and feel icky or suddenly concerned. I think it’s far less an issue for the teens reading them than for the adults. I think you’d get a completely different response about it if you asked the teens reading them. However, in many cases it’s the adults saying whether the kids can read/buy them so I can see how the publishers could go with the adults on the issue purely for sales angle.

    And just hearing about that scene in Breaking Dawn put me off a bit. Then again, I’m not a fan. Zombie babies, however…that’s a different story. 😉

  • Thanks for all the comments — I’m glad I’m not the only one seeing this disparity between the treatment of sex and violence. I’m also against censoring (in fact, that’s one of the themes of my first book — by restricting information and knowledge we restrict people’s ability to make informed decisions). In an ideal situation, teens could read what interested them and adults could discuss those things with them — from sex to violence to frolicking kittens 🙂

    Of course I’m writing all of this today after having seen my Common Sense media review of my books last night after writing my post. So nice to see that my books have no educational value.

  • I’ll probably get excoriated for this, but I think there is some psychology behind this dichotomy. I’ll start with the example: if someone handed you a gun, pointed you at an unambiguous enemy, and told you to “do it!” if you’re like 90% of people, you would have a hell of a time pulling the trigger. If someone put you alone in a bed with a fully willing and highly desirable partner, and told you to “do it!” you probably would do it, even if you had never done it before. In fact, I’m sure I could sure we could dive down the scales of desirability and willingness a fair ways before you would have issues with doing that person.

    To put it bluntly, almost all people have to be trained to kill, and that’s the problem with killing (from a societal viewpoint). While sex requires some training and learning, the problem with sex is that people often choose partners who are inconvenient for the larger society around them. One of the traditional functions of stories is teaching, and I suspect that’s why so many enemies and villains are killed in them. Conversely, the sex education that goes on in stories is often about how to choose an appropriate partner as defined by your people or your value system.

    I’m uncomfortable with the dichotomy too, but I don’t think it’s going to go away soon.

    Just to throw a question at David: which do you think would be more beneficial to your daughters: a thorough course in love and sex that would allow them to have largely happy romantic relationships the rest of their lives, or a thorough course in self-defense so that they could protect themselves against any threat that they faced. I’m guessing that you’re more worried about their physical safety, but I could be wrong. Still, the idea of sending a teenage daughter off to a sex teacher might be more disturbing than sending her off to jiujitsu (just to pair up two classes where partners end up rolling around on mats).

  • Heteromeles,

    You make a really interesting point, though I’d be curious to see if men and women answer the question of “would you have sex with a random but desirable stranger” differently.

    My only follow up question to your comment — if one of the lessons these books should be teaching is how to choose an appropriate partner, then I’d imagine more of the books would have appropriate partners as the “hero.” As it is, many of these books have “heroes” who are dismissive, verbally abusive and who just downright don’t treat the woman well (when the best you can say of the hero in the book is “well, he didn’t end up killing the heroine” then I suspect he’s not the best catch).

    I have a friend who has to constantly defend the hero in her book because he’s sweet, caring, gentle and shows genuine affection toward the heroine. She gets scores of letters every day saying that such boys don’t exist.

    I’d imagine, if we were teaching teen girls the appropriateness of partners, it’s the gentle loving heroes the gatekeepers (teachers, librarians, booksellers) would be holding up and the others that wouldn’t make it into the collections.

  • Okay, I’ll buy your first premise… but! What has that got to do with sex in fiction? Most of the people your avergae YA reader comes in contact with are neither willing nor desirable in the objective frame of reference. That is, they do not look like Brad Pitt or George Clooney, and the chances of them saying yes if your teen walked up and asked them to have sex are actually pretty small.

    David: Way to support the stereotypes! 😉

  • QUOTE: I have a friend who has to constantly defend the hero in her book because he’s sweet, caring, gentle and shows genuine affection toward the heroine. She gets scores of letters every day saying that such boys don’t exist.

    Haha! Oh sure they do! They just don’t look and act like the bad boys that so many teens find attractive. I knew of at least one for sure back in the 80s that no gal wanted till the late 90s. Ah the price of being a geeky romantic. 😉

  • I would try to never excoriate any commenter, believing that freedom of speech fits here at MW. And I think Het has some valid points, like this one [>>Still, the idea of sending a teenage daughter off to a sex teacher might be more disturbing than sending her off to jiujitsu (just to pair up two classes where partners end up rolling around on mats).] But I’m with Atkiso. Maybe teenaged boys and a lot of males would have sex with the willing partner. None of the women I know would, and I’ve done the Q&A to back it up. Am I in a strange demographic? I don’t think so.

    The older women who have been part of this conversation might accidently damage themselves laughing at the thought. The middleaged ones might agree, if they wre going through a horrible divorce or midlife crisis, and if the guy *waws* Brad Pitt or their first, long lost love. The younger ones in this discussion have looked at me like I was crazy. They want relationships. Which is why romantic books (with or without sex) sell to the female population.

    And the violence … I think the reason it is so popular and ignored by parents, is that it’s cathartic. I think we read it to find personal justice in a world where we are injured, pummled emotionally, abused, molested, and *no one* has helped us. We have had to pull ourseoves up by our bootstraps and go on. And so the violence in our reading, where it is directed agaisnt a *bad guy* becomes the outlet and vengence.

    But that’s just my (very) humble and childless opinion. Thank you for this topic and this intriguing conversation, Carrie and all.

  • Sorry Carrie! Not Cary!!

  • I actually took out some wording that maybe I should have left in, but I need to call you people on something, very gently and very approvingly.

    The statement: “If someone put you alone in a bed with a fully willing and highly desirable partner,” was interpreted as having sex with a stranger. To me personally, there’s only one person who fits the bill of “fully willing and highly desirable”: MY WIFE.

    In my experience, true strangers aren’t willing to have sex with you. They have to get to know you first (in my experience. Then again, I’ve never been interested in one-night stands). Without derailing the discussion, I want to point out (very gently) that jumping to the conclusion that only sex with a stranger would fit that description for a male is somewhat problematic. Faith’s comment middle-aged women would laugh about having sex with a willing partner is, well, I don’t know what to say. All I can hope for is that everyone reading this has all the sex with willing partners that they want, whether they are told to do so or not.

    As an addendum, I think Faith brings up a good point about violence being catharsis. It also addresses our sense of fairness, because in many stories, the villain gets punished for his or her actions. That’s cathartic too.

  • Mikaela

    Let me tell you what I saw last time when I visited the bookstore.
    Månpocket is a major massmarket publisher, who distribute paperbacks from several publishers.
    They have launched a new imprint aimed at Young Adults. Nothing wrong with that, except one of the titles are Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Night Pleasure. O_o. I love Sherrilyn Kenyon, but I wouldn’t call her books young adult. I actually wonder if anyone at Månpocket have read her books.
    Still, I am happy since her books are the first Paranormal Romance that have been published in Sweden. 🙂

  • Sorry Het, but here is what you said — >>If someone put you alone in a bed with a fully willing and highly desirable partner, and told you to “do it!” you probably would do it, even if you had never done it before. In fact, I’m sure I could sure we could dive down the scales of desirability and willingness a fair ways before you would have issues with doing that person.>> Direct quote.

    Saying >>If someone put you alone in a bed >> implies a third party involvement.
    Adding >>even if you had never done it before>> implies the stranger concept.

    I’m happy you were talking about your wife. And it’s okay that you said one thing when you meant another. No one is fussing. I often need an editor too…

  • Thanks Faith. I’d also point out that, not too long ago, people were virgins on their wedding nights. That doesn’t apply to me, but it did apply to my parents. You are right, though, that it is problematic. The problem, though, is that we bring two very different sets of assumptions to one set of words.

    To rephrase: the point is that most people are far more willing to have sex than commit violence. Can we agree on that? Assuming that violence is sometimes necessary (which I happen to believe, in the case of self-defense), it follows that stories can help people understand when violence is necessary and help them do it appropriately. With love and sex, sure people need to be taught, but the biggest lessons seem to be one about self-control, including avoiding sexual violence, avoiding STDs, avoiding inappropriate partners, and finding good partners (in the societal sense of good). These things are generally okay in stories, because everyone needs to learn them. I’d suggest that YA stories work in this framework.

  • Yeah, Het, my problem with where your comments have gone is that no one is talking about “lessons” or “teaching” or anything of that sort. My comment, Carrie’s post, other comments — all have been aimed at cultural portrayals of violence versus sex. I hope my kids don’t take fiction or television or novels as “lessons” on any aspect of life. Thought-provoking protrayals? Sure. That’s great. But we learn from our parents, from our peers and from experience. I was starting my comment with a joke because Carrie’s post was about YA, which my kids read. But we’re talking about cultural expression here and what it says about society. Let’s keep the conversation there.

  • Very rarely did I see people saying “this womb-chewing is too violent”

    No offense, but most criticisms I’ve read of Breaking Dawn included that scene for exactly that reason. It is an incredibly gory scene.

    Growing up all the people I knew that had been involved in acts of violence were either ex-cops or ex-military. Most of them didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t something that happened where I grew up. Among the school age kids, there might be the occasional fistfight or school rivalry that went to far, but that was about it. And despite the high publicity of school shootings, school violence of that sort has actually been going down almost everywhere. So violence isn’t something I really would consider a problem for kids. I’m pretty sure my kids are never going to stake a vampire, shoot a werewolf, seraph-blade a demon, or behead a zombie anyway.

    But sex? When I was in high school, I knew four girls who got pregnant. I probably know more than that, but four had the babies. And that’s just pregnancies, statistically STDs are a far bigger problem because people often forget many forms of birth control don’t stop STDs. Teen sex is a serious problem, even out in the quiet suburbs where I grew up.

  • Emily

    Carrie> Sorry I’m late to jump in, but one of the things you mentioned just hit a button with me.

    >> I’ve had author friends asked to tone down passion (the heroine shouldn’t have such desire)<<

    This makes me so angry. I freely admit that it hits my feminist button, and I've seen it all over the place. Female desire is repeatedly figured as more dirty or more unnatural than male desire.

    I see this is in the "chastity" or "purity" movement. (Mind you, I don't inherently disagree with the idea of choosing to remain chaste for whatever reason).) One of the more famous and popular books (best seller list) explained to the audience (single men and women of unspecified age) that men have sex because of desire (lust), women because of emotional need. He (his last name is Harris, I'm blanking on book name and his first name) came near to explicitly stating that women don't have sexual desire.

    He apparently hasn't met many women.

    Now, I'm fine with different levels of sexual display. Some books may have graphic sex, some may have it occur "offscreen." Whatever, it's all good… but when the mere expression of feminine passion or desire is somehow "too much" for the very audience that undoubtably is waking to it, that just goes too far for me.

    I'm thrilled by heroines who actually DESIRE. Who want to be the hero (rather than just marry him), who want to slay the dragon (or whatever), and who sexually desire men (or women) in their lives. Sexual desire is real and natural. And I agree with one of the first posters who said it is far more life affirming than violence.

    And this isn't just YA, of course, women are told, often, to be sexy, but not necessarily sexually desiring. Sexually aggressive women are often seen as scary, or even monstrous (black widow killers, succubi, etc…)

    I fear this is a somewhat incoherent rant. Chalk it up to 1). passion and 2). a 4.5 hour drive in the rain from Fayetteville to Montreat NC. Long drive. But the displacement, deferral, etc. of feminine desire just irks me.

  • Hmmm… Don’t have much to add, but intriguing. *waves and goes back to writing*

  • Utterly delightful, folks. These are the same problems on which all of us YA authors chew. (Sorry, couldn’t resist after all the *yech* womb discussion.) Personally, I agonised over writing an implied rape but even moreso over a forceful kiss. Violence was implicitly less taboo.

    I just wanted to add that when I was a kid, I used to watch “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” every Saturday night. I was utterly terrified to start dating because I thought one had to have sex after every date. Sounds stupid now, but I really was freaked out. Maybe kids today are not so naïve or maybe we should be allowed to portray situations closer to reality to help prevent the scenarios that Jeff mentioned.

  • Hi, great topic. I don’t write YA but I’ve noticed this disparity in some of my friends with children. I haven’t been able to understand why violence is okay and sex isn’t but I’m guessing that violence can be explained away as being not real, just in the book, movie, or whatever. Most kids and teens know the world isn’t that violent. The thing with sex is that it’s hidden in real life – and YA audience can’t necessarily determine what is real for desire and sex.
    It opens up a lot of questions that no one wants to answer.

  • Carrie: the problem you highlighted is true of non-YA SF/F as well. Recently, many speculative fiction works — to say nothing of movies and TV — have embraced “torture chic”. This includes well-known authors who have run out of steam and up-and-coming ones who want to make a splash (splat?).

    As for female desire, cyberpunk is as sexist as Golden (Leaden) Age SF was. If these books had the same amount of sex (the vanilla kind, let alone heavier-duty varieties) as they do of violence, they would be classified as romance at best (which reeks of the dreaded girl cooties) or, most likely, porn. In part, this speaks to the very deep Puritan streak in American culture as well as to the glorification of violence, especially by people who haven’t experienced it firsthand.

    The business about fiction teaching us is true. But as several participants in the thread already pointed out, fiction is not a manual so it can’t teach us self-defense. On the other hand, how to create and maintain good relationships (not restricted to mates) is a vital function of fiction. So this excuse doesn’t stand for the preference of violence over sex, or even kissing.

    I, too, was one of the lucky ones whose reading was never censored. I didn’t get traumatized when I encountered sex. Scenes of graphic torture were far more scarring.