What is “Adult” about “Young Adult” Fiction?

After the marvelous post on Profanity in YA Fiction by JD Savage, I got to thinking about other boundaries in the YA category. When it comes to writing sexiness my brain immediately goes to Nobilis Reed. He’s one of the most prolific erotica authors I’m aware of (not a long list, but still), and is a smart cookie besides. He said yes, so here’s his post!

First, let’s get some terminology out of the way: The Young Adult Library Services (YALSA) of the American Library Association (ALA) defines a young adult as someone between the ages of twelve and eighteen.(1) This means that legally speaking, they are not actual adults, except for the eighteen-year olds. Instead, they are teenagers and adolescents.

So why is it called “Young Adult”? In my opinion, this is the reason: teenagers are in the process of becoming adults. They’re starting to think about adult things, they’re starting to look at life differently than when they were children. In some ways, they can remain remarkably childlike, but in others they can be stunningly grown up.

One of the things adolescents go through is sexual transformation and discovery, and as a result it’s a theme you find in YA novels. What I’m going to address in this essay is how I feel sexuality ought to be handled. Yes, it’s a value judgement, and I’m owning it as such.

My perspective on this issue isn’t unique but I think it bears a prefatory mention: I am a father of teenagers (my twin children are seventeen), an erotica author, and a former young adult myself. I know how ignorant teenagers can be about sex, even when they have good sex education. I know how fascinating sex can be for them, and how deeply they can hold onto ideas that fascinate them. I know the kind of messages they’re getting about sex from mainstream media, from their peers, and from porn. (Yes, from porn; teenagers look at porn, despite everything we do to try to stop them.)

The message I see kids getting is a difficult one for them to navigate. On the one hand, they’re being told they can act like adults; they can dress like adults, talk like adults, act like adults. On the other hand, they are also told that they are not real adults, they can’t be given authority or responsibility or respect. It’s a terribly frustrating time.

There’s something really special about how books are uniquely positioned to address the needs and desires of a teenage audience; for one thing, reading a book is an intensely private experience. A movie, a television show, or a video game is often something that’s done out in the open, where a teenager’s friends, parents (or worse, siblings) can see and comment on it. There is pressure to conform (or rebel) that can slant their opinions. A book, however, can be enjoyed in relative peace. It puts the author in a unique position of trust and power.

So what should an author do with that power, when it comes to sex? I don’t like telling anyone what they must do but I know what I’d like to see them do: I’d like to see them speak honestly and straightforwardly about the realities of sex. I’d like them to inject a little reality into the phantasmagoria that teenagers are subjected to in this area. Sexual fantasy is great, but I don’t think it belongs in YA literature.

Here are a few elements of sexual reality (as opposed to sexual fantasy) that are usually on my mind:

1. Sex ought to feel good. It doesn’t always. If you’re having sex and it doesn’t feel good, then something is missing, and you should stop, or change what you’re doing. Speaking up about what works and what doesn’t leads to fun sex. Fun sex is good sex. Enduring something you don’t find any pleasure in is not fun. Not-fun sex is bad sex.

2. Actions have consequences. Even if you’re using protection and pregnancy and disease isn’t a big concern, sex provokes powerful feelings, and can create a sense of relationship intimacy where there isn’t one. That can lead to a lot of pain, sometimes more than the sex was worth in the first place. Also, even for the most enlightened folks, people can work really hard to shame people who are sexual in ways that aren’t socially acceptable, and teenagers often haven’t had much opportunity to get enlightened.

3. Sex is complicated. People use it for a lot of reasons other than how it feels; they use it to prove things to themselves or to other people, to explore, to relate, and to mess with peoples’ heads. Sometimes those extra things that come with sex are good, and sometimes they’re bad, but mostly they’re both. There’s always extra baggage, and often there’s more than there ought to be.

These are the ones that are most important to me, and the ones I try to include in my own writing–for not-young adults! They go doubly so for teenagers. In my own work, though, I find that these messages can be mixed with fantasy. They don’t need to be as starkly clear. I can trust my audience to know when they’re being offered a pleasant white lie, a situation that could never happen in real life, because I can trust that they have had a real life in the first place.

As for how to go about getting these messages across, I’ll let authors decide for themselves how to do it. There are as many methods as there are authors, and I wouldn’t presume to advise.

(1) Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young-adult_fiction

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