Sex in YA Literature: A Presentation

Sex in YA Literature: A Presentation


So Andrew Karre & I did a presentation at the Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conference at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis this past weekend. The name of the presentation was “Sex in YA Literature: Choices and Consequences.” We thought that name was dorky and serious both; also it is the title of my graduate thesis. So anyway. It was very fun and here are some things we discussed:


1. You can write YA that doesn’t have sexual content in it. What you cannot do is write imaginable young adult characters without thinking about them with respect to sex.

2. Writing sex in fiction is a political act. Make sure a plurality of sides (at least two) are represented in your writing (as they are in reality) so your story doesn’t swerve into realm of sermonizing or propaganda. See Robert Boswell’s essay “Politics and Art in the Novel” in his collection The Half-Known World for more on this.

3. Porn-on-demand is a reality for adolescents living in the internet era. Writing about internet-era adolescents means you must consider the role of porn in your characters’ lives.

4. Depiction of seemingly banal mechanical sexual details can be frightfully
interesting in fiction about sexually inexperienced people.
That adolescence is about first experiences – first sex being the jewel in the crown of first experiences – is what makes YA as a genre so delicious and vital.

5. Recalling your own adolescent sexual adventures will make you cringe. Thinking about what you did, or didn’t do, or how you did it wrong, or what you didn’t understand, though, is the path toward creating  something that readers will find fascinating. STAY in the cringe-y spot when you’re writing about sex. Many YA writers flee the cringe-y spot. This leads to a kind of wish fulfillment about adolescent sex – retconning a story with the adult writer’s context and wisdom about sex, if you will – and does nothing to further the genre or tell a fresh story.

6. Adolescence, the notion of childhood innocence, and the concept of privacy are all relatively modern inventions. Reluctance to speak about sex or even expose children or young adults to sex has not always been the norm throughout human history. Also, teenagers have very little privacy in general, less now in the social media age. YA stories that feature long expanses in which characters have uninterrupted romantical sex are in conflict with this reality.

7.  And finally, a quote from David Sedaris that Andrew shared:

“You kids think you invented sex,” my mother was fond of saying. But hadn’t we? With no instruction manual or federally enforced training period, didn’t we all come away feeling we’d discovered something unspeakably modern? 


  • Elizabeth Fama on May 20, 2013 Reply

    I don’t know Robert Boswell’s work, so I don’t understand #2! When you say we should represent more than one “side,” do you mean the two parties engaged in sex? Their families? The politic of intimacy between individuals? The sexual politics in society? Help!

    • Carrie Mesrobian on May 20, 2013 Reply

      Okay, the Boswell essay is awesome and has many layers, but one of his suggestions for writing fiction that has political tones is to write from the POV of side you disagree with. This makes it a more complex piece of work. But this quote is the one that gets at the heart of the matter:

      “…if you’re writing a novel that engages a specific political issue, your obligation is to embody the best argument for both sides of the issue, regardless of the personal stand on the matter. Otherwise, you’re lying. In a novel, you create a world and if you create a world that conveniently reinforces your political beliefs, you’re lying – even if you’re basing the book on real events. Because you have such incredible creative license, you cannot make a viable political statement if you do not acknowledge the full range of possibilities that reside within the issue as it pertains to your characters. This may lead you to the uncomfortable situation of discovering or inventing strong arguments for positions you do not hold.”

  • Evan Roskos on May 20, 2013 Reply

    was just discussing this on twitter last night. very timely and I always loved that Sedaris quote. thanks for sharing this!

  • Meagan Mac on May 20, 2013 Reply

    Very excellent.

  • Matthew MacNish on May 20, 2013 Reply

    Wish I could have come (pun intended). I think my friend Sarah was there.

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