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How To Do Romance for Young Adults

March 7, 2017

Written by Nicola Cayless

With the young adult literature scene blowing up around the world, it’s inevitable that the age old question will crop up in discussions around YA fiction: sex – should it be discussed in books?

Views of this issue are endlessly divided. Some think it’s a travesty, that young people are being exposed to endless messages of sex and sexuality in whatever medium they come across, be it literature, social media, or television and film. Others believe it’s an essential part of growing up; that being exposed to the realities of sex and the necessary precautions solidifies messages of safe sex and romantic practices, lessons that form a solid foundation for entering the teenage years, and ultimately adulthood.

Regardless of opinion, it cannot be denied that romantic plots (whether they be subplots, like in The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon, or main plots like in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green) are an ingrained part of young adult literature. In a post-Twilight age, romantic young adult fiction has been given a new breath and new voice, and it is something that many young adult authors are exploring in their writing currently.

First: romance. Romance is an essential precursor for some, but not all, young adult novels that deal with sex and sexuality. Ida, by Alison Evans, with whom we had a Q&A earlier this year, deals with a time-travelling young bisexual woman, in a relationship with a genderqueer person. Their romance is not the focus; instead, it is a constant, something that Ida is always coming back to and relying on as something to ground her to her real timeline. Their relationship (while acknowledged in a roundabout way) is undoubtedly sexual as well as romantic, but the themes here are about the loving constant, about having someone that one can always turn back to.

However, compare this to (and I hate to bring this up, again and again), Twilight, where the relationship between protagonist Bella and love interest Edward is fraught with miscommunications, emotional manipulation, and possessiveness. This, being the foundation that much romantic young adult literature has built up from, could potentially be why so many adults now have concerns about how healthy and appropriate romance and sexual practices are represented to young adults in books.

idaNow: sex. When a romance is established, it is natural for young adults to develop an interest in sex with their romantic partner. This is not to say that every single young adult novel with a romantic plot leads to sex; on the contrary, some authors do not include any sexual scenes, perhaps stopping at a kiss. However, when sex is depicted in a young adult novel, what divides the “good” representations of sex from the “bad” ones is how it is dealt with. Graphic? It’s not young adult. Feels like it should be in a Mills and Boon novel? Not young adult. Sex, when dealt with by young adult authors, tends to focus less so on the actual deed but rather the emotions around it.

Sex is scary. Romance is scary. For a young adult novel to discuss sex maturely and realistically, it is essential for the author to represent these insecurities, these doubts. This does not mean regret, but for many teenagers, sex is the unknown, an adventure they are freefalling into. It does not have to be euphoric, nor does it have to be horrible. Sex is a nuanced thing, an essential event in identity formation, whether it happens at a younger or older age. But when writing about sex and romance, it is important that it is done with all the nuances and intricacies that the emotions around it involves.

Whether a young adult novel has an actual sex scene (and this is usually done with a fade to black, or a before and after in YA fiction) is irrelevant. The act of sex and love does not matter; young people are not stupid, they are not naive. What does matter, and what is essential, is how the author presents the act: with love, with care, and promoting healthy practices for years to come.

What do you think? Should romance and sex be discussed in young adult novels? Let us know in the comments, or on our Facebook page.

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  1. Robyn Whitelaw

    Thanks for addressing this issue. It would be great to get a list of titles that you would recommend for different age groups.
    A big ask but it would be very much appreciated.

    1. Better Reading Post author

      We’ll get to this, Robyn, and post it on our Facebook page when it’s done!

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