“Edgy” YA Fiction: Is Sex a Selling point or Off limits?

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Sex is a part of teen life, even for those not engaging in sexual activity. They see, hear, and read about it everywhere. We all know this (even if we’re moms, dads, or librarians), but for some reason it still creeps some of us out a little, especially when it comes to books.

Lately I’ve seen a lot of questions floating around like: Is it okay to put sex in a YA novel? Is sex a selling point in YA fiction? Is sex off limits?

To answer these questions I’m going to break down the biggest myths about sex in YA novels and give you the truth.

Myth: Agents and Editors Automatically Reject YA Novels Featuring Sex.

Truth: Agents and editors are interested in books that sell. They are not moral Nazis hoping to shelter our teens from anything society might find distasteful.  Sure, there are some agents who will not consider books with sex in them. There are also agents who won’t consider fantasy novels. You can’t please everyone so don’t try.

That said, most agents will reject novels featuring explicit sex that is intended to titillate (also known as “smut”). So long as you are not attempting to arouse the reader, you should be good to go.

Myth: Sex is Only Okay if Contraceptives are Used.

Truth: Sex in YA novels should be realistic. If the kids would use contraceptives, great! If they wouldn’t, that’s okay too. So long as you aren’t advocating unprotected sex, nobody’s going to get their panties in a bunch about it.

Myth: Sex is Only Okay if it has Major Consequences.

Truth: So long as you don’t depict casual sex as the best choice your YA character ever made, you don’t need to worry about destroying their life over sexual activity. They don’t have to get pregnant, contract an STD, or get suicidally depressed.

However, if there are no consequences to the sex at all, this calls into question the purpose it serves in your novel. Why include something that doesn’t affect the story?

Myth: Titillating Sex is Acceptable Now in YA Books.

Truth: Sometimes writers’ questions about sex in YA novels swing too far the opposite direction. Even if you were able to get titillating or explicit sex published in a YA novel, you would not be able to get it into most libraries, high schools, and book stores (meaning it wouldn’t sell). Book buyers have the right to not carry books they find objectionable.

Myth: Sex is a Selling Point.

Truth: With internet access in nearly every home, teens have way easier places to find information about sex than by reading novels. A sex scene isn’t going to rally teen interest in your book, nor the interest of agents and editors. Only the story can do that.

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One thought on ““Edgy” YA Fiction: Is Sex a Selling point or Off limits?

  1. Silent_Dan says:

    Ah, sex. It sells! Well, it did, because in books, movies and games, it used to be the new, edgy, rebellious thing. Books have had a far longer (I won’t say richer, but certainly rich) history, filled with sex and violence and everything from as far back as stone tablets, hand-painted portraits, and cave paintings. Shakespeare was full of dick jokes and sword fights (among so many other things). He’s held up as the best writer of all time, past, present and future. And they teach him in school. Okay, his way of writing was WITTY sexual references, but the point remains (and Shakespearean insults are just majestic to read). The first films weren’t allowed to have sex at all… except, I believe the first moving picture device was a smut piece. Pretty sure I read that in my research on the Western genre of film for University (a film/tv genre elective in my creative writing degree, not a film degree as such). Kinda the same with games – the first games often had shameful depictions of sex to get stereotype-gamer off because, if they lived up to the stereotype, they were apparently pathetic virgin males. RPGs had the god-awful trope of elven ladies in chainmail bikinis. No, really.

    Books have always been seen as a grown-up form of leisure, while films and games have had to catch up to books’ level of maturity, or perception thereof. I would argue that there’s definitely a bigger market for “childish” books than there ever was before, what with the internet being a thing that exists (sloths and cats wielding rocket launchers on top of unicorns while rainbows shine above them, or something to that effect, is the official picture of the internet, after all. Have we evolved to the point where adults are now more likely to get in touch with their inner child? I think so! And cartoons, always the providence of “mindless children’s entertainment made by people who don’t try” now get more sophisticated, deeper, intelligent, and entertaining to adults too (see My Little Pony, Adventure Time etc).

    So is sex in fiction bad? No. Is sex as mere entertainment, smut, or written form pornography, bad? Depends who you ask, but I’d say so. But the romance, and smut, genres are the leading market in ebooks, for obvious reasons. I think this change has opened up the taboo of sex in fiction for discussion and made it, not necessarily pure, but less feared and cause for disgust than it used to be considered, back when it was always just in there for the fact that sex sells (or used to, so the marketing departments figured).

    Sex sells. Just not as much as it used to. That’s my understanding, anyway. Hope that contributes in some way. And hey, comment on a blog post! (I know the feeling of not getting any (comments) in a long while).

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