Sex in Young Adult Books Is Age Appropriate

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Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

It’s been a common scene recently: at a school board meeting, a parent will read out a passage from a book shelved in a high school library and exclaim some version of, “There is sex in this book!” This, we are led to believe, is a slam dunk. High school libraries should not carry sex books. Teenagers should not read sex in books. Sex is automatically inappropriate content for teenagers. But is it really age inappropriate?

I’m reminded of a book challenge I read recently for It’s Perfectly Normal, a book about puberty aimed at ages 10 and up. In the book challenge document, the person filing the complaint had painstakingly taken pictures of every instance of nudity. The anatomical text, they explained, was fine, but the illustrations were unnecessary.

But what could be more age appropriate for a kid going through puberty than a book that discusses puberty? How can illustrations that teach children the names of their body parts be inappropriate? And how is a book supposed to give any useful information about puberty without mentioning the mere existence of sex or nudity?

55% of American teenagers have had sex by the time they’re 18, and 29% are sexually active. Whether or not adults want that to be true, sex is part of many teenagers’ lives. And whether or not they’re having sex, it’s absurdly naive to think that they’re only encountering the topic in school library books.

While there are no concrete stats available for American teens, a study of European teens across six countries found 59% had watched porn, and 24% watch porn at least once a week. The information teens would get about sex education from the books in their libraries would be much more safe and realistic than learning from porn.

Reading about sex can serve different purposes for teens. It may be educational: to learn about consent and safer sex practices. It can model a healthy relationship to sexuality, including establishing boundaries and getting clear consent.

For teens who aren’t having sex, or who are unsure about their sexuality, books can be a safe way to “dress rehearse” sex with no stakes. Reading about sex can allow them to think about how they might feel in that situation, and gauge whether it’s something they want to pursue. This is a much safer strategy than just jumping into a scenario they’re not sure they’re mentally or emotionally prepared for.

It can also just serve the same purpose sex does in adult fiction: because it’s realistic for those characters and suits the story. It doesn’t have to be educational. Many teenagers have sex, and there’s nothing wrong with being able to see that reality in the books they’re reading. YA books don’t just exist to mold teens into perfect citizens. They’re for entertainment, to provoke thought, and to play all the other myriad parts books do in our lives.

(Side note: high school libraries are not carrying pornography. None of those books exist solely for sexual interest, and it’s ridiculous to think that an isolated comics panel or paragraph in a book is where teens will be looking if that was their main objective. Having sexual content is not the same as being pornographic.)

Having sex as a teenager isn’t ethically wrong. It’s not a crime. For every person, they’re going to have different boundaries about when it’s safe and comfortable to do so, if they want to at all, and they shouldn’t feel pressure to have sex. But acting like the very topic is scandalous and shameful does not make those choices easier. Giving teenagers the information to make their own informed decisions makes for better outcomes.

Many of the people protesting sex education books or sex in YA will say that it’s a discussion that should be between a parent and their child — an old abstinence-only education talking point. The truth is, many (most?) teenagers do not feel comfortable talking to their parents about sex. And with the over-the-top displays of outrage we’ve seen in these board meetings from parents on the topic, how would they? As nice as it is to imagine that every student will be able to walk up to a trusted adult in their life and ask any questions on their mind about sex, it’s not realistic.

Besides, even if that was true for most students — even if, somehow, 90% of teens felt perfectly comfortable asking their parents for birth control tips — that shouldn’t be how we build our public school systems. We should be watching out for the students who don’t have a safe support network. What about the teens who have difficult relationships with their caregivers? Why should they be left with no resources to educate themselves? Modeling an education system around the idea that every student has an ideal home environment is worthless.

Lev Rosen, author of Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts), has seen his book frequently challenged even before the most recent wave of censorship. His book addresses questions about sex that real teens across the U.S. have asked. He explains:

Teenagers want to know these things. Giving them answers and telling them not to be ashamed of their desires and how to pursue them safely and consensually isn’t hurting them, it’s helping them take control of their bodies and wants.

In addition to the fact that sex is an uncomfortable topic for most teens to broach with their parents or guardians, questioning your sexual orientation or gender can be even more confusing and isolating. Books allow for that exploration without having to talk to your family about labels that you’re not even sure fit you. For students with homophobic or transphobic families, these books can be a lifeline to let them know that they’re not alone, and that they will be able to find a community.

For queer kids in particular, Rosen worries about the effect that the homophobia and transphobia amplified in these school board meetings will have on them:

Imagine being a closeted student and watching some mom of your peer — or yourself — cry about how she’d be horrified if her teenager came home with a book about a queer person. That means if you went home and said you were queer, you’d be hated, probably more than the book.

In addition to sex education books, puberty books, and sex in YA novels, these book banners also object to the mention of rape or abusive relationships. They argue that students should be protected from this content. But 10% of American teens report having experienced sexual violence — 15% for girls — and 8% have experienced physical dating violence.

What message are we sending to kids and teens who have experienced sexual assault, that their experiences are too shameful and inappropriate to even acknowledge? How can their own life experience be age inappropriate? And how can we protect teens from unhealthy romantic relationships when we won’t even acknowledge they exist?

It’s a sign of how pervasive abstinence culture is that saying a book in a high school library has sexual content is supposed to be inherently scandalous. Teens deserve to access to these books, both for practical purposes and because they should be able to read stories that are relevant and interesting to them, not just the sanitized 50-year-old classics the adults in their life want them to read.

Of course, the topic of sex in teen books is in some ways a smoke screen. Book banners know that saying they want to ban a book because it has queer content or because it has a Black main character is likely not going to be received well, so instead they insist they’re just outraged about the sexual content or profanity, and that’s it’s a coincidence all the books they object to are queer and/or by authors of color.

Look, talking about teenagers having sex or reading about sex or thinking about sex is uncomfortable. But don’t let that discomfort rob students of valuable resources. Being a teenager is hard enough. We don’t need to make it worse.

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