Love and Sex: Synonymous in YA Literature?

My previous post “Can Sex Be Just Sex? Pleasure and Trauma in YA” was a result of my frustration that when sex in Young Adult literature is discussed in academic texts, the focus always seems to be on the portrayal of traumatic sexual experiences. While texts will mention the way YA no longer shies away from frank discussions of teenagers having sex, they rarely explore the details of how this positive, healthy sex is depicted.

Blog posts by authors, editors, and readers abound on this topic, which points to the fact that positive portrayal of sex is a vital part of YA literature. What I aim to do in this post is not to fully discuss the topic but to lay out a few key points I have been thinking about and discussing in class (with Carrie Hintz). I’m going to make some pretty broad generalizations here because these are really just preliminary thoughts, and I hope to do a more in-depth study with specific reference to representational books later on.

My tentative conclusion about why positive sex in YA is not discussed in academic texts is that although the market no longer prohibits or censors sex, books tend to show only one type of good sex, and this doesn’t make for interesting conversation. But there are nuances in how sex is portrayed and could be portrayed in YA fiction, various functions it could (and sometimes does) serve.

One way into thinking about how and why “good sex” shows up in YA is through the characters’ minds. After all, most YA novels are focalized through the first person narrator/protagonist, usually (although with significant diversions) a female. When the sexual encounter is traumatic, as in Speak, the point of being “inside” the character’s mind is to gain understanding of the horror through a simulated experience. In portrayals of positive sex, the point is the same (as it is with any experience which the author uses first person to narrate).

But I’ve begun to see a divide between books which include traumatic sexual encounters – usually shelved as “issue books” – and those which include positive sexual encounters – usually shelved as “romance.” The point of a romance novel is, after all, to have a pleasant experience and to feel good. While all these novels include conflict of some sort, as all novels must, when the main focus is the relationship, any conflict revolving around sex must necessarily be different.

There appears to be only one version of acceptable sex in YA, then (again, with significant exceptions). Sex must be in fulfillment of a relationship – it functions either as an expression of an emotional attachment or as the impetus for an emotional attachment.

The option of meaningless sex, of the hookups which are a large part of the reality of contemporary teenagers’ lives, is restricted to specific functions in the text. A character may have meaningless sex, but in most cases the character (usually female) will feel guilty immediately afterwards.

This kind of hookup often serves as a wakeup call for adolescent characters who are troubled and trying to find comfort, so that they realize how empty sex without emotion is. The focalization of the novels means that it becomes uncomfortable for the reader to be in the head of someone who is having “meaningless sex,” not feeling any emotion toward her partner.

But does that have to be the case? Can meaningless sex, a hookup, a one-night stand, really never be narrated as a positive experience? In general, narration of the event leads to the character being emotionally hurt, so that the message is always that engaging in sexual activity without involving the heart will actually hurt the heart.

Whether the character remains with this sexual partner and develops a more meaningful relationship with him or moves on to a “more real” relationship with another individual, this kind of “meaningless sex” is usually only a step in the sexual and romantic maturation of the character. Many times this kind of sexual experience in YA novels is the first that a female character has as she wants to “get rid” of her virginity, and she feels terrible afterwards, realizing that virginity is not something to simply be gotten rid of and that she should have waited for “real love.”

Representation of sex in YA, then, is usually a sort of sentimental education,  about management of affectual bonds and about socially mandated relationships. The polarization of depictions of sex – it’s either a completely meaningless act with a random person and thus harmful, or it’s an emotionally fulfilling expression of love with the person she winds up with by the end of the book – serves as a guide for YA readers as to what “good sex” should be.

Not only that, but depictions of “good sex” between two teenagers who do love each other are most often of the sweet and tender nature. Rarely are YA sex scenes passionate or bordering on rough. A brief search for blogs on the topic turns up an interesting conversation about the rough sex Bella and Edward have in Twilight. It’s interesting, to me, largely because the conversation in the comments conflates the unhealthy “consuming” nature of Bella’s love for Edward and the rough nature of their sexual relationship, and the way at one point Fifty Shades of Grey is mentioned, as if the only way rough sex would appear is when the female character is submissive and/or in an unhealthy relationship.

Sarah Dessen does include some almost-rough sex in her books, and as far as I know they have not been criticized for that. Rightfully so. Because Dessen’s female protagonists might be damaged and vulnerable, but their sexual experiences are never idealized and romanticized, and at the same time these characters are never weak and exploited. Sure, they go through some terrible decisions and have negative or potentially damaging sexual encounters. But these encounters all serve different functions in plot and character development, just as desire and sexual gratification comes from and leads to many affective states.

This range is not very well represented in YA literature. So here I’m going to talk about a few books which do address this range.

One of the more obvious examples is Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Charlie and Sam don’t ever actually have sex, but Charlie’s desire for Sam culminates in an extremely important personal development. The scene where Sam and Charlie almost have sex could be read as traumatic, and it should be. But there is room for seeing it as not only traumatic but also part of the healing process for past trauma.

That Charlie cannot continue because he begins to have a reawakening of memories of the sexual abuse he endured in the past is indeed traumatic. But it also means that this – a “good sex” instance – is used in the novel not only to show love between characters but also to accomplish another purpose in character development. It complicates the sweet and innocent teenage “good sex” and makes it clear that for teens just as much as for adults, sex is a multi-valenced act.

More typical romantic novels also demonstrate, to varying degrees, the complexity of sexual desire. Just One Day by Gayle Forman uses sex as a major plot device. If Allyson and Willem had not had sex at the end of their one whirlwind day in Paris, if she had indeed gotten on the train that evening to head back home, would Allyson have been so obsessed with Willem the rest of the year? Or would she have been able to simply savor the thrilling memory of the day she threw caution to the wind and was reckless and impulsive with beautiful results?

Alyson is never explicitly or implicitly criticized in the text for having had sex with Willem. But what Forman does with it is to complicate the “love-sex-love” flowchart and instead show that there are many more aspects to be considered here.

Forman also shows the shades of desire and expression of desire cleverly in this book. Allyson is a shy, quiet, “good” girl. Expressing feminine passionate desire is not quite acceptable in her worldview. But she does feel that passionate desire. Rather than depicting her as completely submissive, however, Forman subtly portrays the nuances of a teenage girl feeling and policing passionate sexual desire at the very same time.

Allyson cannot verbalize her attraction to and desire for Willem for most of their time together, but she does at one significant point: when Willem asks her to say something in Chinese. She knows Willem won’t understand, and so she says, “Ni zhen shuai,” and then “Wo xiang wen ni.” She refuses to translate.

This comes directly after Allyson surreptitiously scrolls through pictures she and Willem had just taken of a Danish couple in order to look again at the picture of her and Willem, “halfway expecting it to emanate some kind of heat” as she touches his face on her phone screen. At the end of the chapter, when Willem says, “It’s nice, this. The canal…You,” Allyson responds with, “I’ll bet you say that to all the canals,” but here she “flush[es] in the musty, rich darkness.”

There is no indication of flushing when she says in Mandarin, “You’re very handsome,” and “I want to kiss you.” She can express her desire when it does not make her vulnerable or force her to acknowledge feeling desire, but when she gets close to indicating that she returns the attraction Willem obviously feels towards her, she flushes.

It’s this idea of admitting vulnerability and putting oneself in emotional danger in the pursuit of love that is perhaps at the crux of the limitations of depictions of teenage sex. If the characters engage in sex only after careful consideration of their feelings for each other, sex is an affirmation of love. But what if it were used as an exploration instead of an affirmation? What if characters were allowed to blunder via sexual experience and not only leading up to sexual experience?

So my next step is to comb through YA books with a more focused agenda of finding instances where “good sex” is used as a plot device in some way other than an expression and affirmation of love, where a sexual encounter is positive but complex and complicated in its emotional impetus and emotional results.

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