Oh boy. This is a tricky topic for so many people. Should writers put sex in their books? How should it be portrayed? Are the relationships healthy? Is the sex safe? Is it consensual? Instead of just writing off the conversation as too difficult, let’s start talking about it. As writers, readers, adults, and young adults.
Realistic fiction writers haven’t been too afraid to approach these topics in the last couple decades, but what about fantasy?
Fantasy — you know, where both genders are usually hyper-sexualized and are helplessly pining over their supernatural significant other? Where werewolves and vampires toe the border of consent and stalking.
Maybe this hasn’t been your experience with reading Fantasy. I’ve read a couple great examples that break the mold of typical Fantasy Romance, but the question remains.
Why should writers put sex in their fantasy books?
This is going to be a several part exploration on Young Adult literature and how sex is portrayed and avoided in the texts AND by readers, librarians, and parents.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
For several decades YA Realistic Fiction writers have taken on the topic of sex in their writing. I mean, it’s one of the top things teens deal with in their lives. It’s uncommon (but definitely needed, writers!) to have a high school story without an intense relationship explored. But for the majority, Realistic Fiction has tackled this topic.
Several well-known YA writers who have taken on sex include:
There’s been a push in this genre particularly to show consensual, protected, “relationship-based” sex over just writing garbage that glorifies rape, sexual assault, and abusive relationships.
Because writers are beginning to realize that YA literature impacts young adults more than anything else they read (Cart). If we want to push movements like #metoo and #timesup, then the literature has to reflect what we want young adults to know.
Something people don’t think about very often, but needs to be mentioned, is that ADULTS are writing most of these YA books. Adults who are maybe starting to get disconnected from today’s youth, but must put themselves in the minds and settings of today’s young adults.
If we want young adults to learn what healthy relationships are, we have to give them examples through what they engage with.
Science fiction or fantasy, makes tomorrow’s ogres real and preset, within the threatening framework of an imaginative world. It is within this framework that the writer can challenge readers, through the persona of the protagonist, to find answers…as they identify with the main character, they begin to understand the possibilities, the greatness of being fully human. They are empowered.Eiss 81
Growing up as a huge reader — and knowing full well that I was getting most of my knowledge of the real world from books — I stayed far away from Realistic Fiction. I was already living in the real world. Why would I want to read about someone else’s realistic problems?
No, instead my reading list consisted of nothing but Fantasy: Magical Realism, Urban Fantasy, Fairy-tale retelling, and soft Sci-Fi. And I know for a fact that many people read nothing but the same.
Fantasy was able to reach me both emotionally and mentally, in a way that Realistic Fiction didn’t. But that meant that I had to suffer through the dozens of terrible relationships, verbal and emotional abuse, and down-right stalker behavior that permeates so much of YA Fantasy. I’m talking about Linger, Vampire Academy, Fallen, Dead Beautiful — the list goes on. Don’t get me wrong. I loved reading these books for many other reasons. But for examples of healthy relationships, not so much.
Librarian Donna Freitas states that she has frequently witnessed graduating seniors who openly express their lack of education in sexual topics. Her advice is simple, reading can help. Especially Speculative/Fantasy, where the writing usually opens the door to more engaging romance.
But if all YA Fantasy books are bad examples of sex and relationships, how will those who enjoy only reading this genre get to see positive examples? And don’t give me any of that bull that parents should be teaching kids. Many young adults aren’t going to be learning how teens interact in relationships from their parents. It’s awkward for one. And for another, outside sources are sometimes easier to receive advice from than parental figures.
The take-away from part one is just to start thinking about what we read as young adults. What books shaped the way we view relationships? And what can we as readers and writers do to encourage this generation of young adults so that they can both engage with a fantasy world AND learn about healthy romantic relationships?
What are some bad examples of YA Romance books, whether realistic or fantasy?
What are some good examples of YA Romance books, whether realistic or fantasy?
And how can Fantasy actually help young adults? We’ll tackle that in Part 2!
Cart, Michael. “The Value of Young Adult Literature.” YALSA, 2008. Accessed 18 October 2018.
Eiss, Harry Edwin. Young Adult Literature and Culture. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.
Freitas, Donna. “Be Still My Heart.” School Library Journal, vol. 55, no. 2, 2009. Accessed 15 September 2018.