Everyone Clutch Your Pearls: There are Books About Young People Having Sex!

The latest bizarre and largely fictional ‘trend’ the media has identified in young adult literature is the ‘steamy,’ which seems to have sprung to life full-formed out of the heads of journos in the form of a handful of articles decrying this new and terrible subgenre. Steamies, you see, well:

Welcome to the world of ‘steamies’ – a new erotically-charged genre of fiction for teenagers that has been described as “Judy Blume for the Fifty Shades of Grey generation”. (The Independent)

So, basically, kids have sex in young adult books, and it’s sometimes graphically described, and this is a new genre? Have I somehow entered a strange time machine? Because I definitely remember sexytimes in young adult and middle grade novels of my youth; Tamora Pierce fans can surely recall some pretty sexalicious scenes, for example, and I can’t be the only one who read my copy of A House Like a Lotus to shreds for that tender scene between Polly and Renny. Hem hem.

It’s not like I went out of my way to find sex in the books I was reading, of course (well, except in a few cases), but I knew it was there, and I knew how those scenes made me feel as a reader, and I knew it was a pretty common thing. Certainly my friends did as well. We were reading books about characters our age or close to it, and they were having sex and talking about it, and we were absorbing what was happening to them and talking about it ourselves. There was nothing particularly remarkable in that.

Now, outsiders are claiming that there’s been a rise in erotic teen literature spurred by Fifty Shades and the like, and I have to wonder where these people have been all these years. Teen romance novels have long been a thing, and sex happens in them. Sometimes very, very hot and very, very graphic sex. Sexuality has also been a part of young adult novels for a very long time, with Judy Blume being a classic, beloved, and much-cited example. Forever is just one of many books she’s written that’s delved into teen sexuality.

A couple of things trouble me about this false identification of a new ‘trend’ in YA. One, of course, is the fact that there is nothing new about steamy sex scenes in YA, so people acting as though it’s novel are writing off the work of decades, and scores of authors, as though it never happened and isn’t important. This kind of systematic erasure is both dangerous and frustrating, as it once again makes YA seem like a genre that isn’t important, and further subdivides romantic YA into an especially unimportant category—so trivial, it’s not even worth researching before writing an article, and so meaningless, there’s no reason to interview established authors in this genre or to recognise that there are well-established literary imprints that actually focus on YA romance.

It’s also irritating that this is sensationalised as though it is some kind of problem. We’re supposed to be horrified by these articles talking about the corruption of our youth with dirty books that are virtually pornographic in nature. Why can’t they read nice, clean, appropriate books for young ladies and gentlemen? Particularly young ladies, of course: they’re the primary perceived target audience for romance novels, and they’re the primary perceived demographic for so-called steamies. The clear message here is that teen girls shouldn’t be exposed to this kind of thing.

Which suggests to me that many people think frank talk about sexuality among teens is a problem. Which is, to say the least, baffling. For one thing, teens should be talking about sex just in general, regardless as to their level of sexual activity. They should be thinking about power, consent, and relationships. They should be talking about safer sex, where they want to see their relationships going, personal limits, and how they plan to interact with people in romantic, intimate, and potentially sexual relationships. The time to do this isn’t in the midst of a relationship when you’re already flailing, but when you’re in a mindset to think about these things in a more measured, calm way.

Because all of us, at all ages, tend to lose our heads a bit when romance, intimacy, and sex are involved, and teens are no different. With their comparative lack of experience, talking about sexuality is especially important, and books with sex provide one way for initiating those conversations and thinking about what relationships look like. They aren’t a replacement for comprehensive sex education, but they can be a bridge, especially for young women who might feel shy or uncertain when it comes to reaching out for mentoring, help, and advice.

And I am also vehemently opposed to shaming teens for being sexual. There is nothing wrong with having sex as a teen. There is everything wrong with telling teens that sex is wrong and bad and dirty, because thereby lies a path that leads in many very bad directions. People who are ashamed and afraid are less likely to use precautions or to ask for help when they get into trouble. They are less likely to set and enforce boundaries in their relationships. They are less likely to feel comfortable as they navigate their relationships and major life transitions. And they are more likely to be reminded that adults think they are subhuman.

I love talking about trends in YA, but this is another one of those concerntrolling ‘trends’ largely created for the purpose of making everyone panic about the kids these days. By saying that sex in books aimed at teens is a bad thing, we’re saying that teens having and talking about sex is a bad thing, and that’s a very dangerous message to be sending.