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.

My Evil Twin and Me: When the Doppelganger is the Better One

The evil twin as a trope in literature is fairly straightforward: A character is extremely virtuous and good, but a double appears, sometimes a twin separated at birth and forgotten about, sometimes a correlating person from another world or reality. This double causes all kinds of problems for the virtuous character, as the double is evil and churns things up, possibly by acting as the character so that others think her virtue is gone, possibly convincing the character to commit terrible acts herself, or any number of other possibilities.

The usual purpose of this evil double, especially a double so closely connected to the character biologically, is to cause the character to think about herself and get to know herself better through the ultimate rejection of the double, a rejection that more often than not ends in death of the evil twin.

What gets interesting is when the twin is portrayed as the more virtuous one.

In Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved, Louise thinks her twin, Caroline, is more loved. But she doesn’t exactly hate Caroline because of this. Instead, she hates herself. She “knows” that the reason Caroline is more loved is because Caroline deserves it – she is so much better than Louise is or could ever be.

There is a rare snapshot of the two of us sitting on the front stoop the summer we were a year and a half old. Caroline is tiny and exquisite, her blonde curls framing a face that is glowing with laughter, her arms outstretched to whoever is taking the picture. I am hunched there like a fat dark shadow, my eyes cut sideways toward Caroline, thumb in mouth, the pudgy hand covering most of my face. (20)

At first, Louise accepts this, the fact that Caroline’s life is more “dear” because she excels while Louise is “no better or worse than most” (23). But eventually, Louise could no longer accept that status quo, and “there were only two of us, my sister, Caroline, and me, and neither of us could stay” (4).

Although of course this line refers to the practicalities which prevent both Caroline and Louise from remaining on the island, it also suggests the tension between twins and doppelgangers. A similar line more familiar to contemporary readers reads “Neither can live while the other survives” (Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, of course), which is at times interpreted as meaning that both must die – which indeed they do, as in order to get rid of the piece of Voldemort’s soul lodged in him, Harry must die himself.

From the very first book, when Ollivander goes nuts over the fact that Harry’s wand contains a feather from the phoenix who gave only one other which went to Voldemort, the “twinness” of Harry and Voldemort is obvious. Fans have argued about whether Harry may have turned out to be a Dark Lord had his situation as orphan and half-blood resembled Voldemort’s only slightly more closely. The question underlying it is – how much of ourselves do we see in evil mirror images?

Jekyll and Hyde resulted from a desire to get rid of the evil contained within a single man. The doppelganger here was created by a split and projected outwards. But in novels such as Jacob Have I Loved and the Harry Potter series, the double is outside and needs to be absorbed to create a fuller person. When Louise is able to see Caroline and herself a little more clearly, she begins to move toward a fuller, non-binary perception of herself and her twin, of good and evil.

By the end of the novel, Caroline is not dead, as evil twins generally are in other books – because she has never really been the evil twin. A real-life twin-killing situation throws an interesting light on this.

June and Jennifer Gibbons were twins born in Wales in 1963. They never spoke to anyone else, instead creating a secret code to use between themselves, becoming known as the “Silent Twins.” They came to the conclusion that one of them had to die in order for the other one to be truly free and be able to speak. Jennifer had always believed that June was the better one:

Jennifer, born 10 minutes after June, imagined her older sister to be cleverer, prettier, more beloved. Jennifer feared she would be left behind. Later, June would write of Jennifer: “She wants us to be equal. There is a murderous gleam in her eye. Dear lord, I am scared of her. She is not normal … someone is driving her insane. It is me.”

Eventually, the twins decided to enact the inevitable and have one sacrifice herself so that the other could be free. Although the decision was not an easy one, Jennifer agreed to be the one to die – after all, June was the better one.

But it wasn’t simply a matter of who was better, of one living in the other’s shadow:

For them to look in the mirror was often to see their own image dissolve and distort into that of their identical twin. For moments, sometimes hours, they would feel possessed by the other, so profoundly that they felt their personalities switching and their souls merging. For June and Jennifer their shared identity became a silent war between good and evil, beauty and ugliness and ultimately life and death.

Something more was going on, a shared identity becoming a shared personhood. In order for June to go on living and to become a full self, Jennifer had to not exist.

The twins don’t say that Jennifer became a part of June when she died, and Louise does not absorb Caroline into herself in any way either, but the idea of a single self being split between two persons, and the story told from the perspective of the “evil one,” certainly puts an interesting spin on the trope of needing to get rid of the evil twin in order to become a fuller person.

What must happen to the good twin in order for the evil twin to live a full existence?


July 2007 article in The Guardian:

July 2003 article in The Guardian:

Paterson, Katherine. Jacob Have I Loved. New York: HarperTrophy, 1980.


Tree of Knowledge: Language, Voice, and Differance

Melinda’s focused and determined attempt to create a perfect tree in art class throughout Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak is obviously a metaphor for working through her trauma and finally being able to speak about her terrible experience. A closer look at how the tree metaphor is employed provides an interesting interpretation of language, agency, and the ability to speak.

Why is it so hard for Melinda to speak in the first place? She cannot guarantee that her words will convey what she intends them to, not because she has trouble finding the “right” words, but because she knows that others will interpret them in a manner that suits their own agendas better. No one wants to believe that Andy committed the act, because it would require a whole paradigm shift. That shift does indeed happen by the end of the book, but not because Melinda said anything. The students believe Melinda because they hear the scuffle between her and Andy and they see the blood – tangible and real and undeniable facts.

Words don’t have that quality.

Melinda could have chosen the most perfect words to describe what had happened. But even without the inevitable hesitant effect caused by the trauma in having to relate the story, those words could have been interpreted in any number of ways.

The tree is Melinda’s deferral of meaning. She works on it feverishly, wanting – needing – to get it just right. When the tree looks perfect, is perfect, her story will be heard as it should be. The absolute meaning of her story will not be obscured by the unmeanability of words.

That is not exactly what happens, though. In the last line of the book, Melinda says, “Let me tell you about it.” That one sentence implies both Melinda’s new ability to tell as well as the implicit relationship between speaker and listener, where the listener must “let” the speaker tell. Nothing has really changed.

Mr. Freeman, the art teacher, has given Melinda the ability to speak and have her words mean, when he tells her the tree is finished.

But he never does tell her the tree is finished. He tells Melinda, “Time’s up,” and asks if she’s ready. He of course means that the time she has in the room has come to an end and is asking merely if she is ready to leave the class. He then takes takes her sketch of the tree, but all he says about it is, “You get an A+. You worked hard at this.” This is followed by “You’ve been through a lot, haven’t you?” which allows Melinda to begin speaking, but it is not necessarily a comment on the tree having enlightened him to this fact. After all, Melinda’s arm is bandaged and news of her experience has spread throughout the school by then.

The words Melinda is searching for so desperately may never come to her. The tree represents that. She gets a perfect mark – but it will never be finished. Just before this exchange, Melinda looks at her sketch and thinks, “It isn’t perfect and that makes it just right.” She knows now that différance can never be eliminated, even in the representation of language that the tree is.

Just before this, Melinda does say one word that is heard for what it is, a word which in rape scenarios is most often misinterpreted or ignored, bent and reshaped to mean what best suits the listener. As Andy Evans attacks her again, “Maya Angelou looks at me. She tells me to make some noise.” But she can’t make a sound and “Beast” knows this. Finally, “A sound explodes from me. ‘NNNOOO!!!'” and Melinda can “follow the sound” and push her attacker off. This doesn’t stop him, but a shard of glass pressed to his neck does. Significantly, though, after Melinda observes that “He cannot speak. That’s good enough,” she says one more thing: “I said no.” She states what she has said, affirming her voice. And he nods. He has heard.

But what matters is not that Andy or the others or Mr. Freeman hears or invites speaking. What matters, what provides healing for Melinda, is not the perfection of the tree, the discovery of the exact right words to use in order to convey “The Truth.” It is her last frantic class, drawing birds with “feathers expanding promise” only to return to the tree she can now acknowledge and accept as imperfect – that is what provides healing.

That is when she can say, “Let me tell you about it.” When she has stopped attempting to circumvent the inevitable différance and instead is ready to engage in all its nuanced contradictions and impossibilities, that is when she steps into the performance that speech and language is.


The Twitter hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported:

Can Sex Be Just Sex? Pleasure and Trauma in YA

Sex in Young Adult literature – always a contentious topic. Any discussion of trends in the development of YA will discuss the representation of sex, but as I read “Sex and Other Shibboleths” in Michael Cart’s Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism, I was struck by the way the chapter briefly mentions the scandalous representation of the joys of sex and focuses mostly on “its perversion by the interjection of violence in the form of rape and sexual abuse” (145). While these are of course essential parts of the discussion, they are hardly the only aspect of sexual expression worth mentioning in any great detail.

Cart devotes a few pages to discussion of Puritan attitudes towards sex in adolescent literature and the prevalence of cautionary tales before Judy Blume’s Forever was published “as a celebration of the sexual act itself” (144). But instead of an exploration of this celebration, the chapter critiques Blume’s representation of sexual pleasure – does it read like “more tract than novel” (144)? – and then moves directly into an extended discussion of rape and sexual abuse in teen literature.

The puzzling part of this is the way Cart introduces the idea of the necessity of including more explicit sex in YA literature. “Not to include sex in books for contemporary young adults,” he says, “…is to…imply to young readers that sex is so awful, so traumatic, so dirty that we can’t even write about it” (144). Why then is the rest of the chapter about precisely those aspects of sex that are in fact awful, traumatic, dirty?

Even his discussion of “how teens themselves view the sex act” (150) is fraught with this kind of problem. Cart’s treatment of the topic of oral sex, brought to public attention by Oprah in 2002 and Paul Ruditis’s Rainbow Party in 2005, is nuanced in its exploration of how to disentangle what teens thought of it before it became a media focus from what effect this media focus had on the way teens thought of it. He ends by critiquing Ruditis for not fully accomplishing the goal of presenting oral sex as okay and normal, but instead turning the story into a tale “more cautionary than crass” (151).

But after listing some ways in which Ruditis could have avoided this predicament, Cart segues seamlessly from this critique to the exact opposite stance. Ruditis includes a health-issues teacher who is constrained from sharing helpful information about sexually transmitted diseases because the administration only allows her to teach abstinence. Had she been allowed to share statistics, the students would not have wound up contracting oral gonorrhea.

Rather than asking why the representation of oral sex must conclude with disaster, however, Cart says that “we really do need more unapologetically candid and well-crafted fiction about these issues. And it is a very positive thing, I think, that since the turn of the twenty-first century, young adult literature has truly come of age in its willingness to address some of the darker aspects of the human experience with honesty” (152). But why the “darker aspects”? Where is the discussion of the idea hinted at from the beginning of the chapter, that positive depictions of teens enjoying sex are essential as well?


I’d like to turn to another text and another idea about YA literature to think about why Cart may have addressed the issue of sex in this way. Eric Tribunella, in Melancholia and Maturation: The Use of Trauma in American Children’s Literature, argues that traumatic experiences in Young Adult literature serve to further the growth and development of the child into an adult. Experiencing a loss or traumatic event is the “velocity” which propels the youth into a more mature state.

Do books depicting sex without traumatic associations exist? Yes, of course. These books usually do contain trauma of some sort, but the trauma is not necessarily connected to the sexual activities, which are in fact presented as joyful and celebratory. But Cart does not address these. Perhaps Cart’s assessment of the transgression of taboos is colored by the underlying and unacknowledged attitude that trauma is essential to teen development in literature.

The other issues he discusses as becoming more open and accepted in YA literature include class warfare, heroin abuse, and evil’s ascendancy (141), among others throughout the book, such as prison experiences. The predominance of the realism of negative aspects of teen life is in line with what Tribunella writes about, and Cart also motions towards this when describing the YA awards process where “Controversy is not something to avoid.” Seeing a general trend toward permissiveness of disturbing topics when examining how Young Adult literature developed makes sense in this framework.

It does seem natural then to turn to the traumatic when addressing sex as well, but more exploration of sex as sex, not as abuse or power or danger, has its place as well in a chapter with an unmodified “sex” in the title.