Sex in YA Lit

3 12 2009

I found it interesting that last week, when the class (myself included) was asked to comment on Amy Pattee’s article on sexually explicit YA literature, no one spoke up.  I was lucky enough to be able to attend the ALA annual conference last June in Chicago and, during that time, I attended a panel about this very same topic.  The panel consisted of one author, Laura Ruby, author of Good Girls, one psychiatrist and one lawyer turned librarian.  While everyone had good points and statistics about teens and sex, librarians and recommending sexually explicit books, circ stats on these same books, etc., the point that I remember was raised by the psychiatrist.  He said that the reason adults are so uncomfortable providing teens with books about sex is because adults don’t want to talk about it.

I should say that one of the reasons I didn’t comment on our article is that I thought it raised some very clear points, points that I think most of my classmates agree with, and may be why they did not feel compelled to comment.  In fact, there are several spots where I have written “duh!” in the margins.  Research shows that “teens both need and want access to more information about sex”?  Duh!  There are problems with abstinence only programs?  I couldn’t agree more!  Most teens probably agree, too, driving the market for sexually explicit teen lit.  But seriously, the only new bit of information I have acquired that might have made me speak up is this article, entitled “New Research Suggests Porn is Overly Demonized.” Without going into detail, the article suggests that since pornography usage/viewing is so widespread, it is likely not correlated to “deviant” sexual behavior.  Of course, that depends on your view of deviant behavior and if you trust self-reporting about porn and sex by males in their 20s (the research did not investigate the relationship between women’s sexuality and porn).  Our article reports that teen books about sex are a way to contest “other (perhaps dangerous) discourses of sexuality found in pornography.”  Although the recent article says they may not be that dangerous.  All that being said,  pornography is still probably not the best place to learn about sex, and I would not recommend it to teens for that purpose.

Still, I think adults, especially parents, are loath to consider teens as sexual beings, exploring and discovering their sexual identities.  No matter that these same adults probably stole their parents’ copies of The Joy of Sex and hid out in the bathroom or under the covers, reading it to help discover/create their own sexual identity.  It’s one thing to find out about sex in an illicit manner, yet another to acknowledge and approve the sexual content in books that are recommended for teens.  And librarians?  Well, I think some are more prepared for these questions than others, and some are more comfortable.  Librarians probably do not get the questions that some of these authors get, about the mechanics of sex.  But sometimes, sex comes up in the library.

I can’t help but share my own experiences with teens in the library.  I used to run the Chicago Public Library’s Teen Volume Reader’s Theatre Troupe.  The Troupe is teens who perform excerpts of teen books that the teens and I adapted.  One of our teens loved Laura Ruby’s book Good Girls and adapted a scene in the book .  This scene takes place after a picture of Audrey (the main character) performing oral sex on a popular guy has been distributed around the school.  This particular scene is Audrey and her girlfriends discussing what it means to “hook up,” to be a slut and how love factors into it.  They talk frankly about “going all the way” and “giving head.”  Which means that teens, to perform this scene, are required to say these lines, know what they mean and sometimes, in rehearsal, we discuss what they are talking about.  As an adult running these rehearsals, I have had the pleasure of discussing sluts and blow jobs, in those terms, with a number of teenagers.  Even so, even using those terms, most often, the conversation turns to love.  Because behind this whole scene is the idea that love changes the rules about physical intimacy.  Or physical intimacy changes how you feel about someone.  Now, I’m no expert at any of this (who is?) but I feel comfortable enough to moderate these discussions, even encourage them. This is good for me and good for my teens.  But I can see that if you don’t want to have those conversations, as a parent, librarian or teacher, how you might not want teens exploring them in literature (nevermind the fact that teens may be exploring them in real life).  Good literature raises questions.

What’s the answer, then?  The psychiatrist at ALA had one solution: get over it.  Part of me wants to agree, as I know sometimes my ears go red when talking to teens about sex.  That reaction may never go away.  And the younger the teens get, the more uncomfortable it is. This reaction is probably not limited to me.   Since this is a tween class, this is important to note.  And yet, there are pregnant twelve-year-olds in some communities.  Even if librarians aren’t talking to these kids about sex–and for the most part, they probably aren’t–good fiction and non-fiction books about sex should be in libraries’ teen collections.  What’s good?  That’s up to librarians.




One response

6 12 2009
Jennifer Hubert


I think you’re right in that the article was very clear cut and probably most of the class agreed with what it said. But I do wish you had brought up some of your “duh” quotes in class, because that might have been all it would have taken to get people talking!

As someone who is usually tapped to talk to the 7th grade girls about sex in their adolescent issues class (they have all male faculty and I guess I’m the keeper of the “sex” books:) I have to admit I have never gotten truly comfortable doing it. I try to stick to just the facts, but someone always writes a question like, “What does an orgasm FEEL like?” or “What are the boys talking about right now?” that takes the conversation further afield into areas that are not so easy to discuss. It’s tricky, and I often turn to Lynda Madaras’s Body books and read aloud from them-she writes appropriately and at their level about everything from periods to oral sex and I trust her words more than my own embarrassed blathering. My point being the same as yours–stocking good fiction and nonfiction about sex in YA collections will get the information out there even if we adult professionals can’t bear to talk about it:)

And yes, let’s keep the channels of communication open through appropriate books about sex for teens and tweens so they don’t have to seek out porn as a source of information, which is hardly factually reliable or realistic.

Thanks for your post. I agree with Julius Lester–you are a thoughtful and articulate writer:) See you in class on Monday.

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