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Representing sex in young adult fiction

Everyone remembers being finally allowed to move on to the young adult section of the library. You drink in the pages, fantasising about being like the sixteen-year-old heroes whose reckless lives are so different to yours. You tilt the book slightly closer to your chest as you read the inevitable kissing, or even sex, scene, trying to keep it from the view of intruding parents. Although relationships and sex are almost omnipresent on television and in films, the personal experience of reading makes these moments even more influential. Young adult novels have a duty to present these experiences in a certain way, to make them realistic, focusing on consent and trust.

The Noughts and Crosses series by Malorie Blackman sent waves through my generation of young teens. It challenged race issues in society in such a way that thousands of young adults now cannot look at ‘skin-coloured’ plasters without realising the privileges that are ongoing in our culture. The novel goes much further than being another easy-to-read, trashy teen book. It moulds and influences our perceptions of society. And this applies to everything that is published as young adult.

Double Cross, the fourth novel in this series, has a sex scene. The way Blackman uses it, however, dispels expectations set up by other young adult novels (think brooding, power-struggling vampires). The two protagonists have sex but the description is realistic and focuses on consent, without losing its romance—“It was awkward and fumbling but it did not matter.”

Blackman presents the first relations between these teenagers in a way that is believable and yet in no way vulgar. Pain and pleasure are depicted and yet this does not feel inappropriate for its target readership. Teenagers are active and engaged readers and presenting them with fallacy is not only dangerous but also unappealing. Clearly Blackman acknowledges her role as educator and influencer and it is this awareness that crafts a useful book. This is no Kamasutra sex guide, but rather a representation of what mutual respect and compassion can look like in a teenage relationship.

In 2015, John Green’s Looking for Alaska was the most disputed book in American school libraries and has since been banned from many. This is due to its ‘sexually explicit’ content. However, as Green himself has admitted, the scene in question is written in a dry, cold manner with a single adjective, “nervous”. Far from trying to incite sexual promiscuity in young teenagers, Green’s novel is a rebuttal of the way that sex and relationships in young adult fiction are often idealised or romanticised to the point of being destructive. Attempting to hide such matters from teenagers is ignorant and harmful—it is called young adult fiction for a reason. In a world irrevocably influenced by social media, by films, and by gossip, and in which sex education is undoubtedly lacking, young adult fiction plays an important role and so has a critical responsibility.

It is easy to turn our noses up at the awkward silences of Twilight or John Green’s novels that can seem like bound print outs of Tumblr quotes, but, like it or not, these books shape our lives and our expectations and at a particularly influential age. Writers should be aware of the way in which their work could influence a young person, and schools and parents have a responsibility to ensure that their children’s expectations are realistic, healthy, and safe.

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