Sexual Content In YA: Are We Missing A Golden Opportunity?
Author Simon James Green thinks it's time sex ed AND YA became LGBTQ+ inclusive...
There was this one book in the library that every boy at school wanted to borrow. It was almost impossible to get hold of because it was always out. Its edges were dog-eared, the pages were falling out, and its spine was broken and battered. Was it the fantastic plot that made it so popular? The Unforgettable characters? Nope. It had a little chart in it, that told you how big your willy was meant to be at different ages through puberty.
And so at some point, practically every lad would toddle off, the book in one hand, a ruler in the other, and either be delighted, comforted or mortified. I should add, this was slightly pre-internet, so the information wasn’t readily available anywhere else, but all these years later and I have to ask: aren’t books still a great place to explore these topics?
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Sex Ed. in schools can still be hit and miss. And if you’re LGBTQ+, it’s even more likely to be a ‘miss’. Don’t get me wrong, it is getting better, and some schools are doing a much better job of inclusive sex education, but in many cases there’s still a way to go. And anyway, learning about sex in front of a load of your peers can be excruciating – especially if you have questions.
More information is available online than ever before, but that assumes you’re able to sort the useful stuff from the lies, propaganda and… well, the porn. It also assumes that there’s no parental lock or ‘child filters’ set up. Plus, there’s the added pressure of having to remember to clear your browsing history – especially if you’re not ‘out’, or you don’t have the sort of parents who are supportive and understanding when it comes to either sex or being LGBTQ+.
TV has the potential to reach people, but can be problematic too. Within the confines of a fast-paced half-hour episode of your favourite show, there’s rarely time for anything that doesn’t contribute to the plot and, sad to say, anything that isn’t glamorous and sexy. Fumbling around for condoms, or working out what goes where, isn’t high on the list of scenes screenwriters create to keep audiences hooked.
However, in the world of Young Adult fiction, I think there’s a really good opportunity. Books have more space to explore a topic. Within the seventy to eighty thousand words of a typical YA novel, there’s the time to understand emotions and feelings; there’s the chance to discover everything and anything about sex, sexuality and relationships; and there’s the opportunity to learn about yourself and others. There’s no other form of media that’s able to do that level of nuance and complexity in a way that can connect so directly to the person consuming it. You can go at your own pace with a book. It’s private - you don’t have to worry about suddenly shutting down a load of browser tabs when someone walks in. And it’s safe.
Most authors I know, particularly those who write for children and teenagers, tend to feel a great sense of responsibility towards their readers. Add to that the in-depth editorial work that goes into most novels, and you find material that has been honed and shaped so it presents a valuable, often nurturing experience for a young reader. I know of so many teens who have read a book, especially an LGBTQ+ one, and finally felt ‘I’m not alone’.
Yet we’re frequently missing a great opportunity. For all those brilliant stories, time and again, YA novels will gloss over the actual sex. And, despite some US titles that buck the trend, that’s especially the case with a lot of the UK LGBTQ+ YA, where you might get a hint of it, but often only in a really sanitized way. I’m not suggesting we should all write sex education manuals thinly disguised as novels, or that YA books should have a public health remit, but I do think they could sometimes better contribute to the conversation, if for no other reason than realism - because newsflash: some teens do have sex! And even if they’re not, others are curious and have questions. So why aren’t we seeing that on the page?
With LGBTQ+ content in particular, we shouldn’t discount the legacy of a nasty little piece of legislation known as Section 28, enacted in 1988, which stated that a local authority “shall not … promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". It was repealed in 2003, but the effects live on, in plenty of damaging ways. First, in terms of the authors and publishers working today, who were at school when Section 28 was in force, subconsciously self-censoring what they write and publish because of what they feel will (or won’t) be acceptable in schools. Second, through some of the parents of today’s children, who came away from their own school days with a sense that homosexuality was wrong, and believe schools today shouldn’t tackle LGBTQ+ matters as a consequence. And third, that there’s still a hangover of nervousness from some educational and publishing professionals, partly as a result of that legislation.
Because you can picture it now, can’t you? The article in a certain tabloid newspaper, a picture of some furious mother, under the headline ‘My teenage son came home from school with a book about gay sex!’ Because, somehow, the fact the book was LGBTQ+ would be the most problematic part of this story. And that, my friends, is a direct consequence of the bigotry that Section 28 legitimised. It takes time for that sort of thing to die out. We’ve reached a point now where two boys falling in love and kissing is an acceptable story for most school libraries, and people are comfortable enough with it that it can be a major Hollywood movie. But if those boys did any more than that?
And remember, we’re not talking about all books needing to include this content, (my own books have very little because Noah is at the very beginning of working out who he is and what he wants - it should totally be driven by the demands of story and character), and it’s not about writing titillating porn for teens. We’re talking about material that helps them understand themselves and others, and reflects their lives. Material which has the potential to educate, but within the pages of a novel which, first and foremost, entertains. And the best thing? If the young person isn’t interested, or isn’t ready, they won’t read the book. Teenagers aren’t stupid and they don’t need to be patronized. They’re some of the wisest, most clued-up people I know. When I hear parents say they ‘don’t want their teen reading about sex’ the naivety frightens me. It isn’t books people need to worry about – it’s the toxic stuff some of these young people are encountering online that’s the real danger.
At a time when there is also so much hand wringing about how we can get more young people reading, I find it staggering that content that is pertinent to them, that is realistic, and that tackles subjects so many of them really want to know about, is excluded or toned down to the point there’s barely any of it on the page. There was a reason that little book with the funny chart in my school library was so popular – it tackled something we were all secretly worrying about, and no one was telling us about.
By including sexual content in YA fiction we have a golden opportunity to educate and help young people, of all sexualities, in a safe, informative and entertaining environment. So it’s time to be braver. I’ve no time for squeamishness, and I’ve no time for people who want to bury their heads in the sand and pretend young people don’t talk, and don’t need to talk, about this. It’s not talking about it that leads to the problems, and our young people deserve better.
Simon James Green is the author of YA novels Noah Can’t Even and Noah Could Never, published by Scholastic.