This is a guest post from Vee Naidoo. Vee is a freelance writer/editor based in Sydney. She’s also the author of YA novel Fall to Pieces and a law student at the ANU. Follow her on Twitter @VeeNaidoo.
YA featuring romance is and always has been very popular. This is, of course, with good reason: literature containing first love — or even second love pumped up on teen hormones — tends to be quite compelling. The adult readership of YA are nostalgic for their younger, less jaded days, and teens themselves find an appeal in either contextualizing their own experiences or dreaming about a tantalizing love life that looms just ahead, around the next bend in the road. It makes sense that most of the YA novels currently topping the NYT bestseller list — including most of John Green’s oeuvre and Rainbow Rowell’s breakout debut, Eleanor and Park – contain romance.
Well, at least, it makes sense until you realise that most teens today aren’t engaging in romantic relationships or having sex. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2015 revealed that a staggering 64% of teens had never been in a romantic relationship and a separate study released by the CDC in the same year concluded that only 41% of high schoolers have had sex. Of course, not all YA novels are designed to be realistic – escaping into glossier lives and worlds is a key motivating factor for many readers – but these stats beg the question: shouldn’t at least a significant, visible portion of YA novels reflect the lives of their target readership?
Over at Jezebel, staff writer Joanna Rothkopf writes that the research from the Pew Centre would have been really comforting for her to read as a teen and, reflecting on my own teenage experience, I can definitely empathize. While I went to an all girls’ high school and most of my peers were also fairly inexperienced when it came to sex and relationships, I believed that there was something wrong with me due to my lack of a love life. I measured myself against the teenagers in books and movies and found my life wanting. Why wasn’t growing up in Sydney anywhere near as interesting as growing up in The Orange County, or on The Upper East Side, where the characters of Cecily Von Ziesgar’s Gossip Girl seemed to constantly flit from partner to partner, romantic entanglement to romantic entanglement. Even in more literary or contemporary YA novels, like John Green’s Paper Towns, the sense that romance is the thing around which life revolves, a galvanizing force that leads to our betterment as people and cultivates a sense that, finally, at long last, we were not alone in the world, is palpable.
Beyond just normalizing the experience of singlehood for teen readers – who are more likely than ever to go on to become unmarried adults — I wonder whether YA books’ focus on a certain kind of monogamous, heterosexual romance featuring traditional courtship and lots of face-to-face time misses a lot of cultural shifts. After all, teens today are more likely to have their relationships begin online, to sext, to fail to place a premium on monogamy or exclusivity, to delay romance in order to fulfill ambition and ensure financially stable lives for themselves.
It would seem that authors and publishers are failing teen readers by failing to really speak to the current cultural milieu and instead speaking to a series of (perhaps outdated) cultural ideas about teenagers’ thoughts and experiences surrounding sex and love. That said, it does seem counterintuitive to advocate that there be less sex in YA and I worry that people will lump me in with the moralistic, puritanical voices of those who are likely to censor books containing sexual content due to their fear of sexuality. Of course I disagree with censorship and am all for sex positivity and the presence of sex and romance in YA novels – I just think that there’s room for multiplicity. That maybe, not every single narrative should contain sex and that maybe more YA characters should be able to get through a novel without having a single love interest or thinking that they’re freaks of nature for this reason.
We read to escape but we also read to find ourselves and contextualize our experiences in the world – to recognize ourselves, essentially. Readers deserve fiction that is reflective of their experiences. We don’t need to get rid of the glossy books – the Gossip Girls’ and yes, the Paper Towns’ of the YA world – but I for one think it would be refreshing to read more stories about teenagers who live full lives without having a significant other.