One thing I get asked a lot when I go to professional conventions to represent Harmony Ink is some variation of, “Do you put sex in your books?” Some people ask how much or why or if it causes problems, but the bottom line is everyone is curious about putting sex in books intended for teenagers to read.
I’ve learned at events like RT Book Lovers’ Convention and the Romance Writers of America national meeting that Harmony Ink is perhaps a bit unusual in this. I was sitting with our author Jamie Mayfield at a panel at RWA entitled “50 Shades of YA” where they talked about sex… and drugs, alcohol, swearing, and all sorts of “taboo” things in YA fiction–including gay characters. The big publisher represented by the editor and authors on this panel basically didn’t want any of it… though swearing could be okay if it really added to the character. At the end of the session there was time for a Q&A and Jamie stood up and very passionately stood up and shared our stance on sex in YA, and that’s this: it’s important.
Teenagers have sex. As adults, we don’t like to think about it, and some of us probably wish it didn’t happen, but it does. More importantly, pretending that it doesn’t isn’t going to make it go away. If we’re going to write and publish realistic teenage characters, some of them are going to have sex. And we need to let teenagers read about it.
Now, that doesn’t mean we’re just publishing sex without giving any thought to the fact that our target audience is teenagers. We don’t publish sex for titillation. Any sex we publish at Harmony Ink has to have a purpose for the plot or character growth… and showing the sex rather than just having it happen in a “fade to black” sort of way has to accomplish something as well. I’ll talk about Harmony Ink’s criteria in detail in a post next week, but for now I want to talk about why we put it in our books at all.
Beyond the fact that teenagers have sex and therefore it’s realistic to include it, what are we accomplishing by including it? First of all, we’re showing teenagers there are consequences to sex. Whether sex is good or bad, it changes things when you have it, particularly the first time you have it with someone. Sometimes, sex has consequences that completely change your life like pregnancy, being outed at the wrong moment, or contracting an STD. More often, though, it’s little things that teenagers might not think about, like that completely awkward moment when you see your partner in public for the first time after sleeping with them or the way you’re completely convinced everyone–especially your mother–knows what you did even if there is no possible way for anyone to tell.
In addition to showing potential consequences of sex, we want to show teenagers there are ways to move beyond the consequences. Again, this ranges from little to big. Those relationships made awkward by sex can be mended if both parties are interested. On a more serious note, sexual abuse is unfortunately part of our world, and sadly something some teenagers have to contend with. A character going through similar struggles can be inspiring. It can show people the consequences, and it can hopefully show that it doesn’t have to define someone’s entire life.
Finally, we want to show teenagers how to have sex. Not in an “insert tab A into slot B” instruction manual method, but to provide a little guidance. Again, this isn’t something that’s going to go away if we pretend it doesn’t happen, and since teenagers are going to have sex, we want them to have it safely. A lot of LGBTQ+ kids don’t feel they can talk to their parents about their sexuality, much less about having sex. They don’t have anyone to tell them they still need to use a condom even if they’re gay and run absolutely no risk of pregnancy. They may not be aware of the necessity of protecting against STDs during oral sex. They aren’t going to know a lot of little things that some teenagers learn when they talk to the adults in their lives about sex. If we publish books with characters who have sex, we can show them some of these things.
Yes, there will always be people who will be offended or scandalized by sex in YA books. Here at Harmony Ink, we believe we’re doing the young people we’re publishing these books for a disservice if we don’t include it when it’s appropriate for the story and the characters. Young Adult fiction has long been known for pushing boundaries and we think this is one that needs to be pushed and now is the time to push it.