Thursday 21 February 2013

Sex in Young Adult Fiction - Move along people nothing new to see here!

A bit of sex, drugs and rock and roll
Last week in the Telegraph there was a considered article by Alice Vincent entitled 'Sex in Young Adult Fiction - a rising trend?' For me it was a particularly interesting read as my PhD was all about the representation of sex in young adult fiction so I thought I would add my penny's worth. In particular, Vincent is talking about the rise of New Adult fiction - apparently young adult fiction with extra bits. In this case a bit of raunch or so called 'steamies.' The focus of the article does appear to be on books from the US. Perhaps this idea of New Adult Fiction is a way of getting contentious subjects through the strict regulations of some parts of the US - the home of Banned Book Week after all! It is worth noting that later in the article it is highlighted how several of these books were self published first, therefore, avoiding the publishing/editorial gatekeepers. Publishers are only picking them up once they see they are successful and it is fairly difficult for them to change to the content at that stage. I think there is probably a whole blog post just in those two sentences which I will leave for another day.

Sex is, as Dr Lucy Pearson, stated nothing new. She notes that there was a change following the publication of Judy Blume's Forever in 1975. Once again that is a US book. Sex has been portrayed in books for young adults for many years in the UK (you could potentially go back to Penelope Aubin and her books in the Eighteenth Century where her main characters are often young teenagers and sexually active). Another example is Aidan Chambers' book Breaktime (1978) where he split the page in two when he explored his main characters' first experience. On one side the sex was described from the perspective of Dr Spock's A Young Person's Guide to Life and Love while on the other it was how they actually felt. It was an honest and considered approached that pulled the reader in. In my own research, which focused on British young adult fiction from 1996, I noticed a distinct change in representation. It came out from under the metaphorical covers (literally in Melvin Burgess's Junk, where the sex is implied and happens in a sleeping bag) to being pretty full on in books like Burgess's Doing It, Malorie Blackman's Boys Don't Cry, Noel Clarke's Kidulthood, Judy Waite's Game Girls,  William Nicholson's Rich & Mad, Rachel Ward's Numbers and Tabitha Suzuma's Forbidden. This is just a brief sample and they provide a wide range of sexual experiences from the gentle and exploratory in Rich & Mad  to the offer of oral sex in exchange for drugs to sell so they can buy new dresses in Kidulthood.  This is just the tip of the iceberg. I explore it far more in my thesis. An important point that I noted in my research was that the more graphic sex did not represent an increase in sex among teenagers necessarily, instead it seemed to reflect a reaction by author's to the availability of information and influences of youth culture.

In my opinion, sex in young adult fiction does have its place if it fits in with the story. I have said this many times before, it is all about being in context. I have quoted both Pullman and Burgess ad nauseum about this so won't do it again. But it is all about the vicarious experience. (See this TED talk by Dan Gilbert which talks about this too)  Giving teenagers somewhere safe to go to and explore. However, I do have concerns when the publishers state they want to capture 'Fifty Shades of Grey effect for teenagers'. Do we really want girls (or boys even) to think that it is perfectly acceptable to be treated like this? Or maybe I am just an old fashioned feminist who is not overly keen on being in an abusive relationship.

And here is Jake Bugg with his song 'Two Fingers'


  1. This is so interesting - I do think sex in ya is unavoidable - it's such a huge part of growing up - every relationship will touch on it in some way - if you don't deal with it you aren't being honest but if you 'use' it you're in danger of being irresponsible - even abusive. Too harsh? I don't know - not if you're using 50 shades type scripts deliberately targeted for sales...

    1. Yes I agree Kathy, sex should be there if the story calls for it. It should never be put in for the sake of it or to sensationalise the story. I have taken the sex scene out of my rewrite purely because it just didn't fit the rest of the story.

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